When I teach the Iliad in a myth or literature class, one of the things I emphasise is how its narrative frame joins other coalition tales from ancient Greece like the Calydonian Boar Hunt, the Voyage of the Argo, and the wars around Thebes. In each of these cases, I think we see the revered heroes of ancient communities put together, like the Avengers or Superfriends, united to face a common enemy.
Of course, just as in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, these stories fail to unfold in a straightforward manner. The Iliad opens not with a struggle between the Greeks and their actual foes, the Trojans, but instead in a political conflict between the titular head of the Greek coalition, Agamemnon, and its warrior with the most impressive resume, Achilles. When they fall out in the epic’s first book, it is over a girl who represents their honour in the community. As Achilles says himself, he has no quarrel with the Trojans, they did him nothing wrong. He came to honour his pledge to fight for Menelaos and Agamemnon, to bring them honour, and to gain repute and glory on his own.
Anyone who follows Achilles’ tale in the epic, however, will note how quickly this system falls apart. As Achilles again says in Book 9, their expedition and system of honour does not actually make much sense. Everyone dies, no matter how much glory they gain and Achilles already has plenty of possessions and honour back home. Why should he fight for people who refuse to appreciate how great he is?
Sometimes, when historians look to these coalition narratives they position them as appealing to audiences who were experiencing the creation of new polities throughout early Greece. The archaic age (800-600 BC), often seen as the most important for the formation of the Homeric epics, was also when city-states were developing new political organisations, coming together into new communities, and trying to balance the interests of “big men” in new organisations. These themes were no less important to Greek cities as they faced conflicts with foreign powers like Persia. Indeed, I believe that one of the reasons the Trojan War narrative became so popular was under the influence of an emerging sense of shared “Greekness”; a narrative setting that sent the best of the Greeks against a foreign enemy was likely an attractive tale for audiences anticipating or experiencing the Persian Wars.
But the coalition narrative is also about ego and community. How do we balance the needs of the many against the talents of the few? How do we take leaders who are accustomed to being in charge of their own minor states and convince them they need to work together, even to the point of giving up some of their own personal glory for the greater good of their shared enterprise?
I find myself thinking a lot about this question when it comes to higher education. At R1 institutions in the United States, we bring together the best of the best from different disciplines. I can imagine a roll call of any major institution’s faculty as a kind of Iliadic catalog of ships: the captains as Chairs and Directors of graduate studies, with their grants, publications, and doctoral pedigrees listed for all to admire. But, just as with Homer’s catalog, each heroic leader comes from a different place, with credentials and accomplishments that might be undervalued or even unknown by their colleagues and their audiences.
Casting a University as a coalition of heroes likely sounds like mere hyperbole, but there is a tension between individual identity and shared mission similar to Homeric epic. We hear later in the Iliad that Achilles’ father, Peleus, father instructed him “always to be the best and to be better than the rest” (αἰὲν ἀριστεύειν καὶ ὑπείροχον ἔμμεναι ἄλλων, 11.784).
Such a zero-sum game approach to personal accomplishment works great for a footrace, but what happens when you are trained to see the world as one of individual competition and then suddenly are expected to act as if collective needs are equal to if not important to your own?
What happens in the Iliad is that Achilles withdraws from the shared endeavour and pouts, complaining that the rules of the world he learned no longer apply, churlish because he is not as honoured as others, and hurt to the point that he wishes suffering and death on his allies. It is only after the death of his friend/lover, Patroclus, that Achilles realises it was in his power to defend his people, that his trenchant need for glory resulted in the death of the man he loved most.
Yes, this language is perhaps a bit histrionic, but the comparison is important. The Iliad as a work of art and literature invites audiences to think critically about how we value individuals and what happens to a community when we train people to put themselves and their interests ahead of everything else. When we train people for the boardroom, the lab, and the classroom, we condition them to seek personal excellence above and beyond all else and our capitalist values lead us to expect surpassing compensation too.
However, the reality is that glory and money are limited resources. From billionaires running social media companies for their own good to research institutions weakened by in-fighting and a lack of perspective about the critical nature of shared endeavours, our ‘heroic’ individualism sets us up to be the authors of our own failures and the agents of each other’s pain.
Understanding this requires engaging in complex narratives, like the Iliad, and understanding them. Or, perhaps starting at least by understanding the shared missions that bring us together.
*Joel Christensen is Professor and Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs at Brandeis University. He has published extensively and some of his work include Homer’s Thebes (2019) and A Commentary on the Homeric Battle of Frogs and Mice (2018). In 2020, he published The Many-Minded Man: the Odyssey, Psychology, and the Therapy of Epic with Cornell University Press.