Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Glory of War
One can make a strong argument that The Iliad seems to celebrate war. Characters emerge as worthy or
despicable based on their degree of competence and bravery in battle. Paris, for example, doesn’t like to fight,
and correspondingly receives the scorn of both his family and his lover. Achilles, on the other hand, wins
eternal glory by explicitly rejecting the option of a long, comfortable, uneventful life at home. The text itself
seems to support this means of judging character and extends it even to the gods. The epic holds up warlike
deities such as Athena for the reader’s admiration while it makes fun of gods who run from aggression, using
the timidity of Aphrodite and Artemis to create a scene of comic relief. To fight is to prove one’s honor and
integrity, while to avoid warfare is to demonstrate laziness, ignoble fear, or misaligned priorities.
To be sure, The Iliad doesn’t ignore the realities of war. Men die gruesome deaths; women become slaves and
concubines, estranged from their tearful fathers and mothers; a plague breaks out in the Achaean camp and
decimates the army. In the face of these horrors, even the mightiest warriors occasionally experience fear, and
the poet tells us that both armies regret that the war ever began. Though Achilles points out that all men,
whether brave or cowardly, meet the same death in the end, the poem never asks the reader to question the
legitimacy of the ongoing struggle. Homer never implies that the fight constitutes a waste of time or human life.
Rather, he portrays each side as having a justifiable reason to fight and depicts warfare as a respectable and
even glorious manner of settling the dispute.
Military Glory over Family Life
A theme in The Iliad closely related to the glory of war is the predominance of military glory over family. The
text clearly admires the reciprocal bonds of deference and obligation that bind Homeric families together, but it
respects much more highly the pursuit of kleos, the “glory” or “renown” that one wins in the eyes of others by
performing great deeds. Homer constantly forces his characters to choose between their loved ones and the
quest for kleos, and the most heroic characters invariably choose the latter. Andromache pleads with Hector not
to risk orphaning his son, but Hector knows that fighting among the front ranks represents the only means of
“winning my father great glory.” Paris, on the other hand, chooses to spend time with Helen rather than fight in
the war; accordingly, both the text and the other characters treat him with derision. Achilles debates returning
home to live in ease with his aging father, but he remains at Troy to win glory by killing Hector and avenging
Patroclus. The gravity of the decisions that Hector and Achilles make is emphasized by the fact that each knows
his fate ahead of time. The characters prize so highly the martial values of honor, noble bravery, and glory that
they willingly sacrifice the chance to live a long life with those they love.
The Impermanence of Human Life and Its Creations
Although The Iliad chronicles a very brief period in a very long war, it remains acutely conscious of the specific
ends awaiting each of the people involved. Troy is destined to fall, as Hector explains to his wife in Book 6. The
text announces that Priam and all of his children will die—Hector dies even before the close of the poem.
Achilles will meet an early end as well, although not within the pages of The Iliad. Homer constantly alludes to
this event, especially toward the end of the epic, making clear that even the greatest of men cannot escape death.
Indeed, he suggests that the very greatest—the noblest and bravest—may yield to death sooner than others. Similarly, The Iliad recognizes, and repeatedly reminds its readers, that the creations of mortals have a mortality
of their own. The glory of men does not live on in their constructions, institutions, or cities. The prophecy of
Calchas, as well as Hector’s tender words with Andromache and the debates of the gods, constantly remind the
reader that Troy’s lofty ramparts will fall. But the Greek fortifications will not last much longer. Though the
Greeks erect their bulwarks only partway into the epic, Apollo and Poseidon plan their destruction as early as
Book 12. The poem thus emphasizes the ephemeral nature of human beings and their world, suggesting that
mortals should try to live their lives as honorably as possible, so that they will be remembered well. For if
mortals’ physical bodies and material creations cannot survive them, perhaps their words and deeds can.
Certainly the existence of Homer’s poem would attest to this notion.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s
One would naturally expect a martial epic to depict men in arms, but armor in The Ili