Social Conformity In The Iliad By Homer

A discussion of the only meaningful theme in the Iliad by Homer, that of social primacy and individual subordination.

The Iliad is generally known as the great epic detailing the ferocious battle between the Greeks and the Trojans over possession of Helen, a woman of immense beauty. Indeed, much of the poem sets out lists of people fighting, battle armor, feats of mortal glory, and the one-dimensional aspects of war. There is, however, a pattern, an underlying motif that highlights the organization of society and the necessity of adherence to a social code which perpetuates the existence of society. It is in view of this theme that much of the story can be placed in context and the strange and allegorical episodes within the poem made relevant.

Before an analysis of the poem itself, one must appreciate the society in which The Iliad was written. Pre-600 BC society was much less advanced and much more vulnerable than twentieth century society. Nature was still a common threat to human existence. One could not prosper, none-the-less survive in nature without cooperation with others. This was reflected greatly in the system of Greek city-states. Democracy was the standard system of social government in Athens. All the citizens of Athens took part in making decisions affecting the society, its rules, and its general well being. The group oriented military of Sparta presents another example of the tight-knit relationship of individuals in the body politic. This formed the basis of a long lasting emphasis on group, clan, or tribe importance over the individual. Individual sacrifices and collective action were necessary and accepted as a means of maintaining the body politic. This emphasis had much more tribal and less "civil" roots, however, which can be observed world wide in literature such as Beowulf and even in recent history in the society of the Native Americans.

Society in The Iliad is typified predominantly by the battling Greeks. The men fight together in a common cause and with common beliefs and ancestry. Agamemnon is the "lord of many islands and all over Argos (II.108)" and the leader of all the Greeks. Beneath Agamemnon, however, is a system of "lords of men" who in obedience to Agamemnon have gathered their armies and gone to war and have been fighting in obedience and cooperation for nine years. Here is evidenced the tight network of society. Although the system seems feudal, there are two main differences. There is no serf or peasant class, only warriors, in The Iliad, and, although Agamemnon is lord of the Achians, he is also portrayed as a fallible and limited member of the society. For example, Agamemnon always consults the "lords of men" in any real decision making. Rather than giving edicts, implying control over the society, Agamemnon discusses and counsels with others to determine the decisions which will benefit the Achians. This is seen on the several occasions of councils determining whether to flee or fight.

Further evidence of a collective society lies in the very concept of battle. Many of the Achians contemplate peace and escape from the war. Achilleus does so on several occasions as does Sarpedon in his speech to Glaukos (XII.310-28). The very idea of the temptation of peace during battle is embodied in Achilleus' shield. All of the order and normalcy of peace is pictured in one city while the other city portrays battle and chaos. Achilleus and Sarpedon, however, have no real choice. The battle is inevitable because it is currently part of society, and a man, even a god-descended man like Achilleus, cannot survive separated from society. This is why Achilleus never takes his ships and sails home, because he cannot, even though he may wish it, leave his society. Similarly, Achilleus cannot strike Agamemnon during his cowardly acquisition of Briseus. To strike Agamemnon would mean rejection of society, and even the gods recognize the irrationality of such a decision as Hera and Athena prevent Achilleus from carrying out such a rash action. The concept of glory, in accordance with the inevitability of battle, forms a construct which embodies the essence of group precedence over the individual. Many men run into battle for "glory" even though they wish only for peace and return to family and friends. This "glory" is the external manifestation of a common link between the battling Achians.

The motif of social patterns in The Iliad recurs in antipodal tendencies which are identified as group versus individual. The primary example occurs in Book I, which initializes the underlying pattern of group society dominance. Chryses, in supplication for his daughter, offers Agamemnon great riches in return for her. Even though all the Achians (the group will) cheer for her return, Agamemnon refuses to return her (the individualistic impulse). Because of this incident, the infraction of the group will by an individual, Apollo sends a plague among the Achians which causes death and chaos. When Agamemnon finally returns the girl, the destruction ceases, reinforcing the priority of society. Agamemnon, however, ignores the group will again when he takes Achilleus' woman, Briseus. This deviation from the social will again is the cause of irreparable damage and death as Zeus takes arms against the Achians. Similarly, Achilleus refusal to fight and defend his countrymen is a willful and socially detrimental decision. Even after an apology and at the pleas of his countrymen, Achilleus remains aloof when the dire need of his society should take precedence over his anger with Agamemnon. Again a decision is made which supports an individual will over the will and necessity of the group. This action leads directly to the death of Patroklos which Achilleus pronounces as the most terrible of possible tortures. Throughout the poem, each decision prioritizing the individual will causes great harm either to the society or to the individual who made such a decision.

The epitome of the irresposible individual will is manifested in the character of Achilleus. Achilleus becomes the antagonist of The Iliad and the antagonist of society. In addition to his break from society previously discussed, Achilleus again embodies selfish society-neglect when he returns to battle. His return to battle itself is not the result of his realization or acceptance of society's importance over his petty squabble with Agamemnon, but a lust to revenge Patroklos which is purely personally motivated. Achilleus' return to battle brings instead of "glory" (the social construct for battle) a horror shared by the Achians, the Trojans, the reader, and the gods alike. Achilleus is merciless and predatory in battle, killing indiscriminately and thoroughly. He not only slays opponents, but fleeing enemies and even Lykaon, a supplicant at his knees, who has been taken by Achilleus for ransom once, but now is slain while begging for his life (XXI.70-119). Even the immortal river Skamandros is horrified by the actions of Achilleus. Skamandros says, "O Achilleus, your strength is greater, your acts more violent than all men's . . . the loveliness of my waters is crammed with corpses . . . since I am congested with the men you kill so brutally (XXI.214-21)." The river later threatens Achilleus with the dishonorable (again the social construct of glory) death of drowning and being lost forever under the mud and gravel of the river, thus implying the lack of honor and, concurrently, separatism from the group of Achilleus. This threat, so terrifying to Achilleus is precipitated by his merciless slaughter of the Trojans. Achilleus finally encounters and kills Hector, the model of social priority. The protagonist for all practical purposes, Hector fights out of a genuine sense of duty for his fellow Trojans as well as for the social construct of "glory." He not only refuses to stay with his wife or recline with Helen, but he states over and over how concerned he is for the Trojans on the battlefield. In essence, Hector and Achilleus are antipodal manifestations, one of the group and the other of the individual. Achilleus' pitiless treatment of Hector's body emphasizes his separation from the group and ensures his status as the antagonist of society.

The Iliad, although it addresses several themes of war, peace, glory, mortality, and immortality among others, has a continuous thread of the implications of rebellion versus society. In accordance with the time, society is portrayed as ultimate and the individual as subordinate. This motif in no way implies the abolishment of the individual, as the decisions, motives, and suffering of individuals are related in detail, but only the necessity of sacrificing individually for the exigency of the group. This epic seems to have no other more substantial and coherent connectivity than the series of arguments which perpetuate society and suppress individual rebellion and socially detrimental deviations of the personal

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