Most of us have at least heard of The Iliad, an incredibly long poem-song-thingie that is lauded as one of the earliest and finest pieces of literature. Now, Homer didn’t exactly write The Iliad, instead he composed the epic in Iron Age Greece, we think, which was way before the Greeks had developed the alphabet we know today. When that alphabet was composed, someone wrote down this long-ass song that they’d all just been memorizing for centuries.
I have friends who read The Iliad in high school, others who read it in college. However, my tiny school, which I do love dearly, deprived me of such an experience, forcing me instead to read Romeo and Juliet more times than was necessary. Though if you know me, you know that I believe one time is more than necessary. It is a bad play and a silly story. But I digress. Recently, I stumbled upon a copy of the Iliad at the small town library where I now live and felt that it was a sign. It was time for me to read the Iliad.
I was not at all prepared for the things I found in The Iliad. Sure, the gods are petty and it’s a touch sexist but there was more to it. I was aware of sexual and romantic relationships between men among the Greeks and Romans, but I didn’t expect to find one so openly represented in an almost three thousand-year-old story. Perhaps I should have.
Before I talk about what I want to talk about though, let me give a brief synopsis, for those of you who have not read the epic. The Iliad is about part of the Trojan War, which is the fight the rest of the Greeks had with Troy and its allies because King Priam of Troy’s punk kid Paris ganked Menelaus’s super rad (and hot) wife Helen with the help of Aphrodite. The story’s main Trojan characters are Priam, Paris, and Hector, who is Paris’ insanely badass older brother who is basically the Trojan Achilles except not quite (more on that later). On the side of the Greeks, there’s Menelaus (lost his wife) and his brother Agamemnon, Odysseus, Achilles, Nestor, Patroclus, and really a lot of people whose names I could not burn into my teeny tiny brain.
So, the Greeks are outside Troy like “Give us Helen,” but Paris is like “No, I stole her fair and square.” Meanwhile, Helen is like “I miss my old husband, let me go.” Even then, they didn’t listen to women. Sigh.
Anywho, they have a big war about it, which Achilles refuses to partake in because Agamemnon stole his girlfriend who I don’t believe was his girlfriend. This means that for most of the book, both the best warrior and his boyfriend, Patroclus, are j. chillin’ on a ship.
At the end of the story (ish), however, Patroclus ends up dressing up in Achilles’ armor, playing hero, kills a bunch of people and scares the Trojans, but then gets offed by Hector. This sends Achilles and the Greeks into deep, expressive mourning while they try to return the body of Patroclus to the camp.
After holding what I can only imagine was a totally rad funeral for our boy, Achilles throws a temper (grief?) tantrum, kills a bunch of dudes, and takes out Hector, who isn’t really a match for him. The book ends with Hector’s funeral and Helen still with Paris, but I haven’t read the Odyssey yet so maybe there will be a part two of this (stay tuned). Sidebar: the gods are, in fact, running all around and making a mess, but they’re not really important to what I want to talk about so I edited them out of my rendition.
Now, onto the good part: my unadulterated opinions, ramblings, and observations. Throughout the story, I was struck continually by a number of things. The first was the compassion shown to each and every character Homer discusses in the epic. Second was the deep love he depicts between Achilles and Patroclus. And third, all of the men, as well as the women, express themselves freely and openly. It’s fascinating to read something so old that contains so many of the things I long for in modern literature.
Do me a favor, think of the last book or movie you read or saw that was about war. Do you remember all the death scenes? Were they carefully and painstakingly depicted, so that you could remember them? Do you remember the names of all the characters that died? Did the creator even given you the names of all the characters that died?
In each and every scene of death, Homer not only gives you the character’s identity, but their name and often their families. Each man is defined not only by his own name, but his father’s, perhaps his grandfather’s, and in some cases, even his sons. Now I’m sure a scholar would tell me that such a naming custom was common in Ancient Greek writings or what-have-you but we don’t read those types of things every day, and what we do read certainly has not maintained the tradition. It was powerful to read the names of every character that died, made war feel present and immediate, honest even, rather than peripheral and ignored, as it is in today’s society, not just media.
I know there are people out there reading this and thinking; “Kate, not everything has to be gay.” I know that, but I really, truly believe that Achilles and Patroclus were in love. It’s in the way they speak to each other, the way Patroclus soothes Achilles. It’s in the unbridled pain and despair Achilles feels learning of his companion’s death, when just minutes before, he’d been imagining his man returning to him.
It is his love of Patroclus that truly snaps Achilles and turns the tides in the favor of the Greeks. Yes, the gods do have something to do with it, but also, they take part in getting Patroclus to don his lover’s armor and fight in the first place. Finding such pure, tragic love between men in an epic poem from before the time of writing feels like a little kernel of validation and of hope and of happiness, because even though Patroclus dies, they really really loved each other, which is just powerful.
The conversation about Achilles and Patroclus is also a segue into the way that Homer approaches emotion in The Iliad. I am ashamed to say that it didn’t really register until Achilles was wailing on the ground mourning his “true comrade” (mhm okay Homer), but The Iliad is full, and I mean chock-full, of male emotion.
Paris is petty, jealous, and selfish, in a way we often associate with villains who are women. Hector loves his wife and child, despite being a killer. Priam mourns his sons with tears. A dad, crying? That goes against our modern ideals of masculinity entirely, even if those ideals are silly and repressive. I’ve never seen my father cry and the two men in my most serious romantic relationships to date were ashamed of crying or flat-out refused to share their feelings of any kind with me. But the tale Homer spins is different. Soldiers cry out in their deaths, others taunt haughtily. Soldiers feel meaningful rage and sorrow, they can even tell you why their upset, all without shame.
Achilles losing Patroclus is this display of emotion at its height, at its most obvious. He wails so horribly that his mother, Thetis, deep in the sea comes to mourn with him.
Sidebar: he seems to have a loving, if unhealthy, relationship with his mother, which is surprising for a tale of war.
Where was I? Oh yes, Achilles. He throws himself into war to avenge his love, throws a spectacular funeral for him, and tries to fulfill his wishes. It’s moving and shocking to see a man with all these feelings, depicted with such care in a Greek tragedy.
I am loathed to admit that I loved The Iliad. It is old and storied and oft used to be elitist. But it’s beautiful. It honors its characters, makes them wholly human, even those who are not. They are flawed and feeling and expressive, gods are they expressive. I’ve never read anything like it, at least nothing considered ‘classic’ like it. I’ll admit, it makes me even more miffed that I had to read Romeo and Juliet at all, let alone more than once.