Trojan War Trojan War. Photo: Public Domain

Homer’s Iliad contains powerful denunciations of militarism and the arrogance of vainglorious leaders that still resonate, argues Sean Ledwith

We are currently witnessing the playing out of an imperialist proxy war in the Black Sea region between Russian and the Nato powers. Soldiers and civilians alike have become meat for the grinding machinery of war while politicians on both sides engage in hypocritical rhetoric about freedom, and arms manufacturers rub their hands in glee.

The conflict is into its second year with no sign of a decisive breakthrough by either side. One of the causes of the war is the rivalry between Nato and Russia over control of the Black Sea and the strategically crucial Bosporus Straits that provide access to the Mediterranean. Three thousand years ago the Greek poet Homer wrote a classic poem about another intractable conflict in the same region.

Trade war

The Iliad describes the last year of a campaign by the Ancient Greeks against the city of Troy situated in what we call western Turkey. Historians and literary scholars cannot be sure whether the Trojan war as described in the poem was an actual historical event or even if Homer was the author of the poem and its equally famous sequel, The Odyssey. Both the event and the poet are shrouded in mystery and are the subjects of ongoing academic debate. It is highly likely, however, that around 1200 BCE some form of conflict linked to economic competition between Bronze Age city-states on either side of the Aegean erupted into violence. Modern archaeological excavations in the vicinity have clearly revealed evidence of sieges and sackings similar to those described in Homer’s account. Iconic characters such as Achilles, Agamemnon, Hector and Helen may not have existed in flesh and blood but militarised rivalry over trade between the ruling classes of the era would undoubtedly have occurred. Homer is similarly a shadowy figure, but the two great epics can be reliably dated to a few centuries after the events they purport to relate, sometime in the 700s BCE.

From Troy to Iraq

Whatever the questions over its inception and authorship, one of the most striking aspects of The Iliad is the poem’s relevance to the seemingly vastly different world of the twenty-first century. The scale and technology of warfare may have been transformed out of all recognition over the millennia, but the willingness of elites to deploy duplicity and to sacrifice innocent lives in the pursuit of power has emphatically not gone away. One of Homer’s modern translators, Caroline Alexander, has commented on the parallels between the story and more recent conflicts:  

‘…at the time of the invasion of Iraq I was reading Book 2, where Zeus mulls over the many ways in which he could turn the tide of battle against the Greeks. And the best option is to send a false dream of victory to their commander and chief. Agamemnon then wakes up raving about how he knows they will take Troy that very day. That’s just one small incident. More powerful is the Iliad’s overarching vision of war, or evocation of war – it’s both true to the warrior ethic, and to the tragic reality of all war’s aftermath.

Likewise, director Wolfgang Petersen noted echoes of the ancient war with contemporary headlines when making his film Troy in 2004, a loose adaptation of the Homeric epic:

‘I thought, it’s as if nothing has changed in 3,000 years. People are still using deceit to engage in wars of vengeance. Just as King Agamemnon waged what was essentially a war of conquest on the ruse of trying to rescue the beautiful Helen from the hands of the Trojans, President George W. Bush concealed his true motives for the invasion of Iraq.


The poem does not begin with the fateful story of Paris, prince of Troy, being asked by Aphrodite, Athena and Hera to choose which of them is the most beautiful. That episode -and the equally famous conclusion of the war in the form of the Trojan horse – are contained in earlier versions of the conflict to which Homer probably had access. The Iliad characteristically begins with a scene of dissent in the camp of the besieging Greeks outside Troy. One of the features of the poem is a non-partisan perspective from the author in which both sides are portrayed in a humanistic manner, with neither having a monopoly of just cause or sympathy.

The two leading commanders on the Greek side, Agamemnon and Achilles, row over the ownership of a slave girl called Briseis, provoking the latter into a denunciation of the futility of the whole campaign, which by that point has dragged on for almost a decade. Achilles, like countless soldiers over the generations, realises he actually has no quarrel with the people he is fighting, and that the war has been cynically initiated by his own commander with a hidden agenda of conquest and greed:

‘You insatiable creature, quite shameless.
How can any Achaean obey you willingly 
join a raiding party or keep fighting
with full force against an enemy?
I did not come to battle over here
because of Trojans. I have no fight with them.
They never stole my bulls or horses
or destroyed my crops in fertile Phthia,
where heroes grow. Many shady mountains
and the roaring sea stand there between us.

Enter Thersites

Achilles is the most formidable warrior on the Greek side but he noticeably spends the bulk of The Iliad sitting out the war in furious indignation at the avarice of his own side. A eulogistic celebration of gung-ho patriotism the poem definitely is not. Deprived of his most fearsome asset, Agamemnon seeks to test the commitment of his troops by falsely telling them the campaign will have to be abandoned. Expected them to be crestfallen, he is stunned to see they start celebrating the possibility of going home! They are encouraged by the remarkable figure of Thersites, an ordinary soldier who has the distinction of being the first anti-war agitator in world literature. He launches a ferocious verbal broadside at Agamemnon:

‘It’s just not fair that you, our leader,
have botched things up so badly for us,
Achaea’s sons. But you men, you soldiers,
cowardly comrades, disgraceful people,
you’re Achaean women, not warriors.
Let’s sail home in our ships, leave this man,
our king, in Troy here to enjoy his loot.
That way he might come to recognise
whether or not we’re of some use to him.’

A standing figure for all times

Radical figures in the modern era have noted the defiant stand by Thersites. Hegel and Marx both refer to him approvingly in their writings, with the former observing:

‘The Thersites of Homer who abuses the kings is a standing figure for all times. He does not get in every age …  the blows that he gets in Homer. But his envy, his egotism, is the thorn which he has to carry in his flesh. And the undying worm that gnaws him is the tormenting consideration that his excellent views and vituperations remain absolutely without result in the world.

In an article published in the left-wing American journal The Masses on the eve of World War I, Floyd Dell referred to Thersites to exemplify the dilemma facing socialists as that catastrophe loomed on the horizon. Dell characterises him as ‘the first antimilitarist agitator whose name has come down to us.’ The US left again turned to Thersites as the next global conflagration loomed, using him to highlight the crimes of imperialism. The radical Federal Theatre Project produced a new version of the story in 1938 in which this Greek foot soldier’s outburst at Agamemnon is even more potent:

‘You hear my men out there – ten thousand strong. Well, soon you will hear a sound that has not been heard here for nine years – the rumble of ships going down the skids. And when you hear that you will know that we mean what we say. All we are to you is so many bodies to heap up to the glory of Greece. We have pulled down cities at your orders. We have murdered and plundered, we have died and rotted for you. But your men will not always be blind.

From Troy to Vietnam

Achilles is eventually persuaded to re-enter the fray following the death of his lover, Patroclus, at the hands of Hector, Troy’s most illustrious warrior. The ensuing clash between the two most charismatic figures on either side ends in a shocking manner. Having defeated and killed his rival in single combat, Achilles ties Hector’s corpse to the back of his chariot and rides around the city in gloating triumph, much to the horror of the watching Trojans. In 1994, American psychiatrist Jonathon Shay published Achilles in Vietnam, a study of how the volatile behaviour of the eponymous Greek, with mood swings from silent introversion to egregious violence, would now be categorised as PTSD, and shows striking similarities with the mental state of many US soldiers forced to endure the horrors of that war:  

‘After Patroclus’ death, Achilles — to use the words of our veterans – ‘lost it’. When a veteran says he ‘lost it’, what did he lose? What did Achilles lose? I believe that the veterans and Homer shared similar views on this subject. I believe that the veterans’ own words, they lost their humanity. Beast-god and god-beast replace human identity.

Humanity restored

In one of the most moving scenes in the poem, Hector’s grieving father, Priam, then secretly enters the Greek camp at night to plead with Achilles for the return of his dead son’s body. Only hours before, the two men could not have been further apart emotionally, as one destroyed the flesh and blood of the other and then gratuitously revelled in the slaughter. The sight of the distraught Priam, however, is enough to restore Achilles’ humanity and a bond is formed between the two men that seemed impossible before that moment. Rarely in world literature has the shared suffering, regardless of supposed enmity, of all human beings in times of conflict been more powerfully evoked:

‘Priam finished. His words roused in Achilles
a desire to weep for his own father. Taking Priam’s hand,
he gently moved him back. So the two men there
both remembered warriors who’d been slaughtered.
Priam, lying at Achilles’ feet, wept aloud for man-killing Hector, and Achilles also wept for his own father and once more for Patroclus. The sound of their lamenting filled the house.’

Gods of capitalism

The Iliad does not end with one side triumphing over the other. There is no vindication of Greek or Trojan propaganda and at that point both are united in mourning. The war goes on, however, because the gods have ordained that it must, for the sake of their entertainment. Agamemnon expresses the frustration felt by mortals that their fate is ruled by the whims of the Olympians:

‘It’s Zeus’s fault and Fate—those Furies, too,
who walk in darkness. In our assembly,
they cast a savage blindness on my heart,
that day when on my own I took away
Achilles’ prize. But what was I to do?
It is a god who brought all this about.
Zeus’s eldest daughter, Ate, blinds all men
with her destructive power.

Since the age of the Trojan war, we have learned that it is the competitive drive of the globalised capitalist system, operated by flesh and blood members of the ruling class, that lies at the root of war, not the caprices of Zeus and other divinities. The renewed prospect of nuclear war means it is even more imperative that we mobilise to stop the modern Agamemnons and Hectors before they drag the entire human race down into Hades.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters