Predicted and Spontaneous Tragedy in the Iliad

The Iliad is a timeless work of art from Greece. Originating from a Mycenean oral tradition the work was written in the 8th century and attributed to the blind bard Homer. The Iliad is one of the foundational pieces of the story of The Trojan War and for many other pieces of Greek Mythology. Despite its age The Iliad has remained relevant and applicable in culture over the millennia. This work depicts the human condition, is an avenue for the exploration of society, and is a continued source of entertainment and storytelling. The Iliad on one level glorifies war, violence, and conquest, but within the tale of war and glory are examples of true tragedy. The trojan war can be shown to be so much more than a conflict over a woman and the struggle between two armies. Throughout the story points of tragedy are placed that sobers a reader’s heart no matter what era of history they claim. Tragedy is a fundamental part of the Iliad; however, two forms of tragedy: predicted and spontaneous; exist within the narrative. In this exploration of Tragedy within the Iliad several examples of the futility of war will be examined during the heat of battle between the Trojans and Greeks and compared to interactions between Hector of Troy and his family in the face of his ultimate fate. For a story with war as its subject matter the Iliad shows the impact of death and the emotional toll war brings.

The Death of Hector at the hands of Achilles is well known within the Story of the Trojan war. Amongst the Trojan Horse, Achilles’ death by arrow to his heel by the bow of Paris, and the destruction of Troy, Hector’s death is one of the key plot points in the Iliad. The Trojan war was made famous through an oral tradition; many pieces of the story of the Trojan war are left out of the written Iliad, but the existence of these events were still known to ancient peoples as well as to the modern audience. During a class focusing on the Trojan war I encountered a number of classmates who read the Illiad who were astonished that upon finishing the book there was no mention of the Trojan Horse. The Iliad seemingly ends before the story is finished. Coupled with that astonishment is the Iliad’s rather abrupt beginning ten years into the war during a war counsel after years of fighting has transpired. While many modern readers are acquainted with the story of the Trojan War, the Iliad provides detail on only a small part of a massive conflict. Ancient peoples though their oral traditions would have been extremely familiar with the entirety of the story similar to how modern audiences know of the story of the Trojan war through books, television and other media. Hector’s death is one such example. In Book 6 of the Iliad: Hector Returns to troy, Hector, the greatest hero of Troy, has come from fighting the Achaeans. And once he has accomplished what a seer has told him to do in order to bring Trojan Victory, Hector sees his family before he returns to the fight.  He picks up his son, and he kisses him. He just exists with his family and exists in a world of love for just a brief minute.

“And his loving father laughed, his mother laughed as well, and Glorious Hector, quickly lifting the helmet from his head set it down on the ground, fiery in the sunlight, and raising his son he kissed him, tossed him in his arms, lifting a prayer to Zeus and the other deathless gods.”

Hector seldom laughs in The Iliad. He fights, he scorns the cowardice of Paris, fights more, runs across Troy, does the bidding of the gods, and fights more. But in this one passage Hector slows his pace. He takes his mind away from his role as “Protector of Troy” as “Greatest Hero on the Trojan side.” He takes off his war helmet, and for a brief moment, he laughs. He laughs and he loves. This, is why hector fights. Hector is not fighting to gain glory and wealth like Diomedes or Agamemnon. He doesn’t fight over an insult like Menelaus. He fights for Troy because he is protecting his family. His love for his family is why Hector fights.

The people listening to The Iliad hundreds, thousands of years ago knew the story of the Trojan War. They knew that Hector was going to die. Hector knows he is going to die. Hector will die before the 51 days The Iliad covers is up. He will die at Achilles’ hands. There is love in the passage above, a love Hector would give to his son, love he will never give to that son.  Hector will die before his son is a year old. The love will be lost. Everything Hector fought for will be lost.  In Erika Valdivieso’s Hector: Characterization through Conversations with Women. She discusses the impact that hector’s familial interactions on his viewing as a character.

Hector, as we see him in Book VI, has a mother, a sister, and a wife who care deeply for him and whom he cares for in return. He does not act in a void, but in the midst of a community that extends beyond his comrades on the field to the walls of Troy. This added dimension makes Hector the character who represents the thematic tension between public and private life; he stands for the mortal hero who fights for himself as well as for his family and his city. Valdivieso 61

Passage after passage in The Iliad depicts brutal slaughter. Demigods, gods, kings, all fighting for glory, wealth, and acclaim.  They kill men to take their armor. They attack gods for acclaim. It is much rarer to find a man fighting for love. They are there, but few and far between. Other passages in the illiad reinforce this tragedy within Hector’s story.

During the years of the war Hector fights and when he returns to Troy he likes to bathe. The last day that hector leaves Troy, the audience knows he will never take that bath.

“Her voice rang out in tears, but the wife of Hector had not heard a thing. No messenger brought the truth of how her husband made his stand outside the gates. She was weaving at her loom, deep in the high halls, working flowered braiding into a dark red folding robe. And she called her well-kempt women through the house to set a large three-legged cauldron over the fire so Hector could have his steaming hot bath when he came home from battle-poor woman, she never dreamed how far he was from bathing, struck down at Achilles’ hands by blazing-eyed Athena. But she heard the groans and wails of grief from the rampan now and her body shook, her shuttle dropped to the ground, she called out to her lovely waiting women,”

This crushing blow is one that every person experiencing the Illiad. They know before the characters what their fates were to be.

Hector’s Tragedy is one that was ordained. Every listener, ancient and modern had been forewarned that hector was to meet his death by Achilles. Those verses serve to make the sadness felt at the death of hector more sympathetic and give his death greater weight. But another type of tragedy, a spontaneous tragedy is sewn within the fighting books of the illiad. Books 4 11 and 12 contain much of the skirmishing conflict within the Iliad. These books follow the ebb and flow of the front lines of the battles, they recount the glory of the heroes such as Ajax, Menelaus, and Agamemnon showing how the fighting swayed bitterly in the hands of both armies. From the walls of troy to the beaked ships of the Greeks men fight, cut each other down, and die. Honor filled speeches are cut with gory descriptions of slaughter. These reinforce that the illiad is a story of war and glory. That these men fighting are heroes. They are here for war, for plunder, for glory, they are here to part of this conflict that is so important that the Gods are invested and taking sides. However, within this ode to death and war are scenes that appear and disappearing bring a small tragedy into view until the scene shifts back to more blood, gore, and glory.

“But next Agamemnon killed Pisander and combat hard Hippolochus, two sons of Antimachus, that cunning, politic man whom Paris bribed with gold and sumptuous gifts, so he was the first to fight the return of Helen to red-haired Menelaus. Now powerful Agamemnon caught his two sons riding the same chariot, both struggling to curb their high-strung team the reins slipped their grasp, both horses panicked 159 as Agamemnon ramped up in their faces like a lion both fighters shouting from their chariot, pleading, “Take us alive, Atrides, take a ransom worth our lives! Vast treasures are piled up in Antimachus’ house, bronze and gold and plenty of well-wrought iron father would give you anything, gladly, priceless ransom if only he learns we’re still alive in Argive ships!”  –        Book 11: Agamemnon’s Day of Glory Page 301 Verses 141-155

These verses show the death of two sons who beg for their lives of Agamemnon. These men who are killers, warriors, fighters. Beg for their lives and receive no reply for Agamemnon. They are killed while seeking mercy. Another similar scene follows:

And spinning in terror off he ran but as he spun Odysseus plunged a spear in his back between the shoulders straight through his chest the shaft came jutting out and down Socus crashed, Odysseus vaunting over him: “Socus, son of Hlppasus, skilled breaker of horses, 530 so, Death in its rampage outraced you-no escape. No, poor soldier. Now your father and noble mother will never close your eyes in death-screaming vultures will claw them out of you, wings beating your corpse! But I, if 1 should die, my comrades-in-arms will bury me in style!”

Odysseus the wise, the sacker of cities, kills Socus. His oath after killing him reeks of tragedy. Whereas Odysseus boasts that when he dies, he will be buried and honored, no honor, not even the most basic funeral right will be given to Socus; showing the cruelty that the Trojan war has brought men to. Not even the funeral rights ordained to be given by every man would be given Socus by Odysseus.

“At once I took two lords of the realm and seized their car, the two good sons of Merops out of Percote harbor, Merops adept beyond all men in the mantic arts. He refused to let his two boys march to war, this man-killing war, but the young ones fought him all the way-the forces of black death drove them on and Diomedes a marvel with a spear destroyed them both, stripped them of life breath and tore their gear away.

The death of Merops’ sons shows the generational tragedy in the Iliad. Facing against the Hero Diomedes, Merops’ sons are killed, stripped, and left naked on the battlefield. Sons were killed. Merops’ line, destroyed. A father who begged his sons not to go to war is left with nothing by an empty house for his old age at the hands of Diomedes who continued to fight and sow death and destruction.

Above all the Tragedy of Iphidamas is among the most impactful of the spontaneous tragedies.

Sing to me now, you Muses who hold the halls of Olympus, who was the first to go up against King Agamemnon, who of the Trojans or famous Trojan allies? Iphidamas, the rough and rangy son of Antenor bred in the fertile land of Thrace, mother of flocks. Cisseus reared him at home when he was littlehis mother’s father who sired the fine beauty Theanobut once he hit the stride of his youth and ached for fame, 260 Cisseus tried to hold him back, gave him a daughter’s hand but warm from the bridal chamber marched the groom, fired up by word that Achaea’s troops had landed. Twelve beaked ships sailed out in his command, trim vessels he left behind him in Percote. making his way to Tray to fight on foot and here he came now, up against Agamemnon, 304 HOMER: THE ILIAD /232-‘8J closer, closing … Atrides hurled and missed, his spear shaft just slanting aside the man’s flank as Iphidamas went for the waist beneath the breastplate- 270 he stabbed home. leaning into the blow full weight. trusting his heavy hand but failed to pierce the glittering belt. failed flat-out-the point. smashing against the silver. bent back like lead. And seizing the spear shaft powerful Agamemnon dragged it toward him. tussling like some lion and wrenching it free from Iphidamas’ slack grasp he hacked his neck with a sword and loosed his limbs. And there he dropped and slept the sleep of bronze, poor soldier. striving to help his fellow Trojans. 280 far from his wedded wife. his new bride … No joy had he known from her for all his gifts. the full hundred oxen he gave her on the spot then promised a thousand head of goats and sheep from the boundless herds he’d rounded up himself. Now the son of Atreus stripped him, robbed his corpse and strode back to his waiting

Iphadamus’ story is one of a man who was called to defend troy before he could enjoy the pleasure of marriage with his new wife. Having given much for her he leaves his new wife with nothing, no husband, no child, and an empty house. And his fate is the same as all the other dead men in the Iliad. TO be killed without glory, to be stripped naked, and to be left dead on the battlefield.

In Casey Due’s The Captive Woman’s Lament in Greek Tragedy she analyzes the poet Sappho’s view of death scenes such as Iphidamas’.

“The Metaphor of the dead warrior as a plant cut down before maturity is combined with erotic image of the warrior as a bridegroom. Heroes like Iphidamas, Protesilas, Hektor and Achilles are all prototypes for the warrior as bridegroom. Sappho then compares the beautiful potential of the young bridegroom to the Anthos and hebe of a young warrior, an image that as we have seen is full of pothos (as befits a wedding song) but also penthos (as befits a lament).

These spontaneous points of cruelty, death, and tragedy underline the utter futility of war. Many were called to the Trojan war for the plunder, the glory, and for the chance to serve in the greatest conflict the world had seen. But many were taken by a sense of duty, they went against the wishes of their family. And hundreds were left dead, with nothing to show for their deaths except for their names being immortalized in the world of the story. While the importance of one’s name in history, and the immortalization Iphidamus, Pisander, and Socus receive in their deaths cement their remembrance in history. It would be small comfort to the wives, children, mothers, and fathers, they left behind. For every tragic death shown in the Iliad thousand more likely occurred. Those thousands of dead men do not even have the comfort of a mention within this thousand’s year-old piece. They have nothing but the endless expanse of time that has forgotten their names and the glory they sought in the Trojan war.

            The Iliad portrays tragedy both predicated and spontaneous. Hector’s death is ordained throughout the story and although expected, simple intimate details that familiarize him with the audience such as his wife drawing him a bath that he will never take or his interaction with his serve to add tragedy to his death. Deaths such as those of Iphadamus and Pisander who are in no way main characters are made tragic in the depictions of their deaths. The briefness in which they grace the Iliad accentuates the tragedy of their deaths and symbolically serves as a representation to show the large-scale futility and harshness of the trojan war that is so prominently portrayed in the main characters. Modern and Ancient audiences would have known the story of the trojan war and the predicted tragedies, by intensifying the predicted tragedies and lacing spontaneous tragedies throughout the Iliad the emotional impact of the story is never lost, remaining fresh in the minds of all readers across all centuries.


Homer, , E V. Rieu, P V. Jones, and D C. H. Rieu. The Iliad. London: Penguin Books, 2003. Print.

Valdivieso, Erika. Hector and Iliad VI: Characterization through Conversations with Women. Department of Classical Studies. University of Michigan. 2011.

Due, Casey. The Captive Woman’s Lament in Greek Tragedy. University of Texas. 2010. Print.