Death and human suffering are two of the central themes of the Iliad. What seems to matter
most to Homer is the tragedy which irremediably underlies all of human existence: whether
mortals are kings like Priam, supra-human heroes like Achilles, or ordinary people like those
depicted on the shield and in the similes, they are all going to die and share the miserable
fate of all those who have died before them, be they remembered or forgotten. The poem
also offers a universal vision of suffering as something which no human being can escape,
and which therefore must be borne and accepted. It is on this understanding of a universal
suffering, an understanding which leads to the reconciliation of two bitter enemies, Priam
and Achilles, that the poem closes.
It is also noticeable that the way those two subjects are dealt with in the poem show
a subtle subversion of the epic's role as an ideological tool used to support the martial values
of a warriors' ruling class, and highlight the tension between heroic ideals and the reality of
the life of the characters: death, which is everywhere in the poem, is hated by the characters
while life is highly valued and heroic death only partially compensates for it, as the warriors
are actually terrified when faced with their own death. There is also no happy afterlife to
look forward to. Furthermore, lamentation highlights suffering rather than glory as a
consequence of war, and brings a uniquely feminine perspective on war, which nevertheless
is in agreement with other aspects of the narrative. Interestingly, gender differences can be
seen in the manner suffering is portrayed in the poem, not only in the fact that though
suffering seems to be paradigmatically female, it is predominantly male, but also in ways
that reflect men and women's respective social roles and status. Female grief is formal and
limited to burial ritual as well as passive (nothing ever comes from it). It is also limited to the
family sphere, and women only mourn their male protectors: husbands and sons. On the
other hand, male grief is active, as it leads to revenge and protection. It is also more varied in
expression, and can be manifested in all sorts of contexts.
But the universality of suffering, which, like death and mortality, makes all men
equal, is also one of the things which bring about an important way for mankind to
overcome and compensate for death and suffering: pity and compassion for other human
Indeed, compensations to the grimness of the human condition can also be found in the Iliad.
Pity in particular is pervasive in the poem. It is a way to overcome death and suffering
through human solidarity and fellow-feeling, as well as through the actions that pity leads to
such as revenge or protection and the poem ends with a striking act of compassion for a
personal enemy: those gentler virtues ultimately transcend even nationalities and war, as can
be seen in the meeting between Priam and Achilles.
However, those are not the only compensations for the negative aspects of the
human condition: even though the Iliad is a poem full of suffering and brutality (and even
downright cruelty at times), gentleness is an important quality in the poem, and acts of
kindness and generosity are surprisingly frequent, not only among friends and family (for
example, the attitude of warriors towards women is significant of their attitude in general,
and towards those more vulnerable than themselves in particular, and affection is clearly
present between the warriors and their friends and family) but occasionally with enemies as
well. Hospitality and respect for supplication are two key values expressed in the poem.
Important characters such as Hector and Patroclus are described as being pmog and
peiAixog, and lack of mildness is often criticised, by the warriors or by the gods themselves.
Persuasion, rather than simply brute force, is another thing which is highly valued in the
Moreover, the characters of the Iliad constantly manage to find some degree of
personal happiness, and find pleasure in the joys of life. Unsurprisingly, family and friends
play a great part in this, but even the battlefield can be a source of joy, be it grim such as the
joy the warriors often find in killing and cruelty, or innocent, such as the pleasure found in
food or sleep. This capacity for joy and happiness is also noticeably present between
superiors and inferiors, and hierarchical relations are often tinted with the vocabulary of
pleasure: duties are understood as the desire to please one's superior, and in exchange, the
superiors appear bound to please their inferiors in return.
Furthermore, another way for human beings to mitigate the tragic human condition is found
through social organisation. Although the functioning and organisation of human groups,
through assemblies and decision-making are a very important source of conflicts in the
poem, they are also an occasion for the characters to show their capacity for understanding
and mutual respect. Unlike death and suffering, which can at best be compensated by things
such as human solidarity and care, the conflicts created by human organisation can actually
be fully resolved and avoided.
Political resolution and appeasement, essentially in Book XXIII, lead to the true and full
resolution and appeasement of the whole poem, which is not on the hierarchical and
political level, but on a personal and human one: the reconciliation between Priam and
Achilles in the last book of the Iliad. Because he became fully part of the Achaian community
again, and shown his capacity to function peacefully in a political, hierarchical setting such
as the funeral games, Achilles can reach his full human potential in the meeting with Priam
in Book XXIV, and transcend the boundaries of human organisation by sharing tears with an
It is not a perfect compensation for the sorrow human beings have to endure, but by
recognising the universality of suffering, the heroes, even the sons of gods and goddesses,
finally become fully human.