It is 10 years since the Greek coalition fought their way on to Troy’s wide beaches — longer than anyone expected — and still both sides persist. Just when one side seems close to victory, the other struggles back to its feet. The past few days have been disastrous for the Greeks because their most fearsome warrior, Achilles, has withdrawn from the fray after arguing bitterly with the coalition’s commander, Agamemnon of Mycenae. So serious is the rout caused by Achilles’ absence that twice in the past week, the Greek commander in chief has counseled abandoning the fight and returning home. The third time Agamemnon urges his coalition to give up and sail away, Odysseus confronts him bluntly: “You must have lost your mind. Your plan will ruin us.”
The directness with which leaders speak to one another in wartime has changed in the roughly three millennia since Homer, but the dependence of victory on good leadership has not. Agamemnon will now be tested as he has not been throughout the war. The wall and trench the Greeks had built to protect the ships they sailed to Troy had been breached. The Trojans would never allow Greek forces to board their ships unmolested, to retreat without paying dearly. A lop-sided action at the point of embarkation would unfold, and the slaughter would probably lead to the burning of the ships and the destruction of the entire force.
More important, defeat would signal the civilized world that the most fundamental international norm — that of the proper relations between guest and host — had been violated. The war began when a Trojan prince the guest of a Greek king had spirited away his host’s beautiful wife, Helen. Rescuing her would sustain the civilized world’s order. Abandoning her would help tear it down. Odysseus was right. Agamemnon’s retreat would have turned a tactical reverse into a strategic catastrophe.
Homer’s “Iliad,” the first great work of western civilization, is a rich and complex tale of anger, fate, war, humanity, and what we can, and cannot, hope to know, or control. It is also a commentary on wartime leadership, and on the virtues and vices of commanders. The subject of command is close to the poem’s core. However, before looking at what Homer thinks about command, modern readers must appreciate how thoroughly practical is his understanding of war. The fog of scholarship needs lifting to see this.
The place of the gods, and the connection of the great heroes to warfare conducted by mortals who cannot trace their lineage to Olympus have intrigued listeners and then readers for millennia. Contemporary scholarship is saturated with these topics as well as such others of less obvious interest as the “Iliad’s” internal mechanics — its organization, poetic allusions, similes, and metric structure. Other scholars critique one another’s translations, and seek to understand what Homer can tell us about his own times, about the development of the idea of Greek culture, and the effect of the “Iliad” and Odyssey on Greece at its heyday, at least four centuries after Homer lived.
With few exceptions, such as Barry Strauss’ recent “The Trojan War: A New History,” academic research on Homer nowadays often looks at his work as merely a key to the world from which it came. Less important in learned writing is the possibility that the “Iliad” survived over the centuries because its understanding of men and conflict is universal. This article starts from the premise that Homer deserves to be read because his insight into war as a human activity stands for all time.
Current events also make Homer especially interesting. The spiritedness that drives his characters and propels his story may no longer describe the network-centric western militaries that rely increasingly on the ability to process information. But the radical fanatics who would destroy our civilization are as spirited and passionate about their lives and deaths as many of the men Homer describes. Although there are important differences between those who fought the Trojan War and today’s enemy, the ancient poem offers us a glimpse into the minds of people whom we must understand if we are to defeat.
The path to the “Iliad’s” vision of human character and leadership begins with the work’s grasp of fundamentals. Homer knew about war and cared about describing it. His storytelling demonstrates a meticulous grasp of tactics, technology, alliances, logistics, and the art of marshalling these, leadership.
Homer on War
Much more numerous than such famous warriors as Achilles and Hector are the “Iliad’s” foot soldiers, minor characters who stand out for their deaths rather than for how they lived. In Book IV, for example, a Trojan ally, Peirus, who appears only once kills a minor Greek character, Diores:
Peirus, the Thracian leader, had caught him,
Just above the ankle with a jagged stone
That crushed both tendons and bones.
He fell backward into the dust, hands stretched
Toward his friends, gasping out his life.
Peirus ran up and finished him off
With a slicing spear thrust near his navel.
His guts fell out and everything went black. (IV l.570)
An instant later, a spear penetrates Peirus’ lung; its thrower unsheathes a sword and dispatches him with a flesh-opening thrust to the stomach. His death is additional evidence of the ferocity of combat with pointed and edged weapons, and the grimness of the front lines. There are hundreds of such encounters where foot soldiers whose only identification is their parentage or birthplace crush, stab, and hack each other to deaths that are dignified chiefly by the inclusion of the fallen’s name in the poem. Less fortunate are scores more of ordinary soldiers on both sides who perish in battle without being named. Gods and heroes with divine ancestors move the “Iliad’s” story forward, but the vast majority of combatants on the battlefield Homer created are men and need to be led.
Homer’s interest in tactics follows logically. Tactical details appear throughout the work. Early in Book VIII Homer describes the positioning of the Greek armada as it sits along the beach with prows pointed seaward — to allow a quick departure if necessary. Homer knows that the flanks of a military or naval force are critical. The great warrior Ajax protects one flank, Achilles, the greatest, the other, and the cleverest contingent commander, Odysseus is positioned directly at the center “so that a shout would reach either end of the camp.” (VIII l.223)
Similar tactical care shapes the Greek line as it moves to engage the Trojans — and it is not heroes who carry the burden when the opposing vanguards clash. The old commander, Nestor of Pylos:
Positioned the chariots in front
And massed the best foot soldiers at the rear.
Within this double wall he stationed the riffraff,
So that willing or not they would be forced to fight. (IV l.318)
Nor are such dispositions fixed. Another commander, one of the two Ajaxes, allows his armor-less archers to do their work by positioning them in the rear, behind “troops in full battle gear” (XIII l. 761) who are engaging the Trojans directly. It works. For the moment, the cloud of arrows deprives the Trojans of their will to fight.
Greek troops who await a Trojan probe aimed at breaching the hastily built defensive wall that protects their camp and ships are arrayed in compact formation,
Spear on spear, shield overlapping shield,
They stood helmet to helmet, the horsehair plumes
On the burnished crests brushing each other
When they nodded, and when they shook their spears,
The shafts tickered against each other (XIII l. 133)
Homer knows that discipline matters, and that it enables tactical maneuver which in turn saves one’s own troops’ lives as it chews up the enemy. He only puts sound tactical advice into the mouths of warriors like the two Ajaxes, or advisors like Nestor, men who are not subject to the anger that distorts Achilles’ or Agamemnon’s judgment. The greatness of the latter two warriors, Homer implies, has little to do with the experience and judgment needed to command troops and win battles.
Technology is also important in the “Iliad.” Achilles sallies forth into battle with weapons and armor crafted by the god of the forge, Hephaistos. But men who are not the sons of goddesses have to depend on mundane equipment. The “Iliad” is full of descriptions of human-made shields, corselets, greaves, swords, helmets, axes, grappling pikes, javelins, bows, arrows, and other weapons. Some of these descriptions are strikingly beautiful. Some show the poet’s familiarity with technical details: the fit of a helmet at its wearer’s temples, the balance of a heavy shield, the flexibility of armor that allows a combatant to move freely. Others show that Homer also appreciated the connection between personal gear and tactical requirements.
The “Iliad’s” 10th book takes place after an unsuccessful embassy to make peace with Achilles and coax him back into action. Troubled and bereft of a plan, Agamemnon summons the great warriors. Nestor suggests a night reconnaissance expedition to learn Trojan intentions. It will be a small operation. The men dress appropriately. No shining bronze helmets or polished shields that reflect light, and no greaves that clang each time one leg passes the other. Diomedes wears a simple leather helmet “without horn or crest.” Odysseus also chooses an animal skin helmet. Although decorated with boars’ teeth that could reflect light, it is lined with felt, a reminder of Homer’s appreciation that missions such as this require stillness and stealth.
At the same moment, and in the opposing camp, Hector asks for volunteers to undertake a similar attempt to secure intelligence about the Greeks. Dolon, a hapless, witless foot soldier dons a weasel skin helmet along with other non-reflective gear, a “grey wolf skin.” Dolon, however, does not grasp that a sprinter is noisier than a man who glides silently through the night. Odysseus hears Dolon running, sets a trap, interrogates him, and gains valuable intelligence about the enemy’s camp. When the unfortunate Dolon finishes blabbing, Diomedes kills him insisting that if released he will return to spy on the Greeks some other time. Homer appreciates operational security, and understands both the value and requirements of small unit, night operations.
He also knew a thing or two about alliances. Odysseus asks the unfortunate Dolon whether the Trojans are camped among, or separate from, their allies. They are bivouacked separately. The prisoner also discloses the location of each of the allies including the identity of the most recently arrived contingent, the Thracians. Odysseus and Diomedes head straight for the Thracian camp, and kill 13 of them including their king, Rhesus. Again, it is important to remember: the gods move in and out of human affairs in the Iliad, but Odysseus’ sensible idea of demoralizing the Thracians, and perhaps driving them out of the Trojan alliance is entirely his own. Trying to shatter alliances by inflicting casualties and driving off the lesser partners remains a standard tool to achieve military and diplomatic ends.
As do financial incentives. Homer says that a Corinthian, Euchenor, chose to fight alongside the Greeks rather than die at home of a painful disease — as had been prophesied — or pay the heavy fine (Bk. XIII l. 702) demanded of those who shrank from Agamemnon’s call to arms. Homer’s combatants fight for plunder, glory, honor, and preserving international norms, but the bottom line is the bottom line: failure to join the alliance carried a heavy fine.
Troy preferred the carrot to the stick. There are more specifics about Troy’s alliance-building strategy. Hector implies that neighbors run the same risk of attack from Greek aggression in his exhortation during the melee over Patroclus’ body.
I thought you would fight with willing hearts
To save the Trojan women and children
From these war-mongering Greeks. This is why
I have been feeding you at our expense
And giving you gifts to keep up your morale. (Bk. XVII, l. 225)
But, as he explains without apology, Troy is also covering the allies’ expenses and paying them for their service. There is nothing divine or heroic about this. Trojan alliance policy is based on the calculation of its neighbors’ self-interest, and conducted by payment.
The character of command
Details of warfare support the “Iliad’s” action. But Homer aims higher than excellence at tactical description. As the story’s first line explains, the subject is anger, its causes and consequences. The Iliad, however, would be a thin story, and one that does not reflect human experience if spiritedness were the characters’ sole trait. Homer’s mortals also demonstrate high intelligence, judgment, compassion, and courage. The heroes can be divided into two groups, those whose actions and words move the story forward; and those whose preeminent combat skills also earn them a place in the tale.
If the men whose greatness consists chiefly of skill at combat are considered as a group — for example the two Ajaxes and Diomedes on the Greek side, and Sarpedon and Aeneas on the Trojan — five principal mortals remain. Achilles and Agamemnon, a pair of spirited leaders; Odysseus and Nestor, also kings in their own right, and men who can be relied upon for clever, wise, objective advice; and Hector, leader of Trojan and allied forces in the field. One pair is spirited. The second is clever. The third, Hector, mixes the characteristics of the “Iliad’s” great men. In these three groups, Homer presents a spectrum that remains Western literature’s most discerning reflection on the human qualities best suited to command.
Everything that unfolds in the “Iliad” is launched by a double exercise in the Greek commanding officer, Agamemnon’s, angry and dubious judgment. A priest of Apollo approaches Agamemnon with a large ransom for his daughter who was carried off in a previous conquest. He asks Agamemnon to:
give me my daughter back and accept
This ransom out of respect for Zeus’ son,
Lord Apollo, who deals death from afar. (Bk. I, l. 27)
Agamemnon insults the priest, and sends him packing. Terrified, the holy man slinks away, and prays to Apollo. A plague descends on the Greek forces killing pack animals, hounds, and finally men, until the beaches burn hotter with funeral pyres than the sun’s rays.
Not content with offending the gods, Agamemnon insults the most powerful and feared warrior in the coalition, Achilles. Another divine tells the Greek commander that the only way to lift the plague is to return the girl to her father. Agamemnon scorns this man too, but agrees to surrender the girl. However, he angrily stipulates that Achilles must compensate the loss by surrendering a girl, Briseis, who had been awarded to him for valor in combat.
What is it like to have one’s rewards for courage and skill under fire taken because a commanding officer wants them? Achilles swears that he will withdraw from action until the Trojans’ slaughter makes the Greeks “appreciate Agamemnon for who he is.” (Bk. I, l. 427) Agamemnon rejects his aged subordinate commander, Nestor’s advice not to expropriate Achilles’ prize, and Briseis is transferred to Agamemnon’s household. Achilles appeals to his mother, Thetis, who implores Zeus to make the Greeks pay in blood until her son’s honor is restored. The chief Olympian nods his assent, and the “Iliad’s” action is launched.
Was Agamemnon’s behavior a lapse in his otherwise prudent command judgment? Hardly.
As an allied commander Agamemnon is a mess. Directed by a heavenly messenger in a dream to initiate an assault on the Trojans, Agamemnon decides first to test his troops’ mettle. After privately instructing his subordinate commanders to persuade the troops to stay, Agamemnon summons an assembly, declares his frustration with the long war, complains that no end of hostilities is in sight, despairs of victory, and urges the men to follow him back to home and family. The Greek assembly heads for the ships. Order is only restored when Odysseus persuades the multitude that a snake they had seen devour a family of nine nesting birds augurs eventual victory. Agamemnon’s test rocked the coalition, and might have destroyed it. Nestor admonishes him to “assert yourself and resume your command of the Greek forces.” (Bk. II, l.373) There may be something to be said for expressing misgivings (although for a very different fictional approach to the same situation consider Gregory Peck’s words to his men in “Twelve O’Clock High”: “Fear is normal. Forget about going home. Consider yourselves dead.”) But what sort of commander would tell his men to surrender to fear, and then shift responsibility to subordinates for persuading the troops not to do what the commander counseled?
What kind of commander doesn’t know his subordinates? Here too, Agamemnon’s spiritedness clouds his judgment. The order to engage the enemy travels as fast as one unit can transmit it to the next. Rather than lead from the center or front, Agamemnon goes along the line browbeating his troops. But why carp about Odysseus and Diomedes, two of the greatest Greek heroes? As they wait to receive the signal to advance, Agamemnon tells the former that when there’s a feast, Odysseus is always first in line for meat and wine, but that now, “you’d be glad to see ten Greek battalions carving up the enemy ahead of you with bronze.” (Bk. IV, l.369) There is no evidence in Homer — or anywhere else — of the Ithacan ruler’s malingering. The insult is undeserved: Odysseus scowls, and Agamemnon retracts it.
Agamemnon moves along the line and tells Diomedes that his father was a great warrior but that his son is better at talking. Again, there is no evidence that Diomedes ever needed prompting. In the next chapter he fights with a god. The Greek coalition leader continues to badger his greatest warriors, a practice that he began with Achilles. In combat, Agamemnon is equally mistaken about his subordinates. The hero Teucer has just downed eight Trojans: nothing suggests he has decided to rest. Nevertheless, Agamemnon approaches with an offer of gifts if Teucer will “keep shooting like this.” Teucer responds, “Most glorious son of Atreus, why urge me on when I’m at my top speed?” (Bk. VIII, l.296)
What does qualify Agamemnon for command? The poet explains, not once, but twice: his looks. As the “Iliad’s” first clash between Greeks and Trojans approaches, Agamemnon inspects the troops. Homer describes him:
The look in his eyes, the carriage of his head,
With a torso like Ares’, or like Poseidon’s.
Zeus on that day made the son of Atreus
A man who stood out from the crowd of heroes. (Bk.II, l.516)
In the next book, Helen joins the Trojans who gather on the city’s walls to witness the contest between her once husband, Menelaus, and the man who abducted her, Paris. Priam, king of Troy, and father of Paris and Hector, doesn’t recognize the enemy’s leaders. He asks Helen:
Now tell me, who is that enormous man
Towering over the Greek troops, handsome,
Well-built? I’ve never laid eyes on such
A fine figure of a man. He looks like a king. (Bk.III, l.174)
It is Agamemnon.
To put as fine a point upon it as possible, Homer next reminds the reader that outward appearances are not always matched by equally impressive qualities of mind. Priam continues to eye the Greek ranks. “Now tell me about this one, dear child,” he asks Helen.
Shorter than Agamemnon by a head
But broader in the shoulders and chest.
His armor is lying in the ground (Bk. III, l. 209)
This man is not statuesque. He is squat. And, he’s left his gear on the ground. Helen identifies him by describing his mind. He is, Helen answers:
The master strategist Odysseus, born and bred
In the rocky hills of Ithaca. He knows
Every trick there is, and his mind runs deep.
Odysseus is the indispensable man. Time and again he knows what to say and do. After Agamemnon’s near-disastrous test of the Greek force, Odysseus rights the situation. He puts down a speaker who correctly pointed out that Agamemnon had dishonored a better man, Achilles. He sympathizes with the Greek force’s discontent after nine years away from home, but reminds them of favorable prophesies and signs. Unassisted and by power of argument, he keeps the Greek force from going home.
Both the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” bristle with similar examples. When Agamemnon, pinched by repeated setbacks, decides to patch up differences with Achilles, he sends Odysseus to negotiate.
The Greek hero Diomedes will not undertake a night expedition to gather intelligence about the enemy without Odysseus, who provides the tactical brainpower for the mission’s success.
When Achilles rejoins the fight, crazed to avenge the death of his friend, Patroclus, it is Odysseus — not commander-in-chief Agamemnon — who counsels feeding the men before battle. As he is concerned about their physical well-being, Odysseus also keeps an eye on the coalition’s fighting spirit. He urges Agamemnon to give Achilles gifts and swear in front of the assembled Greek force that he has not slept with Briseis, the woman he took from Achilles. The quarrel between the commander and the greatest warrior, and the absence of the latter from combat has demoralized the Greeks. Alone among them, Odysseus knows that public reconciliation is required.
Odysseus’ intellect, quickness of mind, deceptions, and wariness follow him into the Odyssey, the story of his decade-long journey home to Ithaca after the fall of Troy. Like a villa in which the elegant imagination of the architect appears in each room, Odysseus’ calculating mind and stratagems unfold whenever he appears.
When asked his name by the one-eyed Cyclops, Odysseus thinking ahead says, “Nohbdy.” When the blinded monster screams to his fellow Cyclopes that “Nohbdy” is attacking him, they ignore his pleas for help pointing out that if nobody is molesting him, then it must be Zeus.
Even when the immortal nymph, Calypso, tells him that she will release him, and aid his journey home, Odysseus, ever wary, asks her to swear it.
When Athena herself — albeit in disguise — greets Odysseus after he has set foot on his own island for the first time in 20 years, the great tactician pretends that he is from another island, offers no clue to his true identity, and insists that he is on his way elsewhere. Athena reveals herself, and Odysseus is still suspicious. But Athena knows her man:
You! You chameleon!
Bottomless bag of tricks. Here in your own country
Would you not give your stratagems a rest
Or stop spellbinding for an instant? (“Odyssey,” Bk. XIII, l.374)
Odysseus protests that mortals cannot be sure of their eyes. Athena continues her chiding admiration:
Would not another wandering man, in joy,
Make haste home to his wife and children? Not
You, not yet. Before you hear their story
You will have proof about your wife. (“Odyssey,” Bk XIII, l.419)
This is, perhaps, the finest characterization of Odysseus in all of Homer. Even if he had not known that Agamemnon’s wife and lover greeted his return from Troy by murdering him in his bath Odysseus would have approached his own kingdom warily, assessed his people’s loyalty, tested his son’s judgment, and assured himself of his wife’s faithfulness. Homer’s description in the Odyssey’s opening lines is true. He is the “man skilled in all ways of contending” who:
saw the townlands
and learned the minds of many distant men,
and weathered many bitter nights and days
in his deep heart at sea, while he fought only
to save his life, to bring his shipmates home. (Bk.I, l.6)
But he did not bring his shipmates home. Not a single crewmember, save himself. And the Odyssey’s introductory assertion of its hero’s interest in learning the ways of distant men often seems more accurate than its exculpatory remark that the crew’s recklessness was to blame for their loss at sea.
Despite his ability to think ahead, escape from dangers, and despite the advantages of a curious, far-ranging mind, Odysseus has shortcomings as a commander that cost all his men their lives.
He and his crew land on an unnamed island inhabited by one-eyed giant shepherds. Taking 12 men with him and leaving the rest of the crew aboard, Odysseus, who felt in his “bones” the brutality of the Cyclops, climbs to one of their caverns and finds goats, kids, lambs, and drying cheeses. The men realize the danger that surrounds them, and plead with Odysseus to take the cheeses, release the livestock, and drive what animals they can to the ship. Odysseus refuses. He wants to see the caveman.
The huge Cyclops returns, and moves a multi-ton boulder to block the cave’s door. He snatches several of Odysseus’ party from the shadows, bashes their heads against rocks, and eats them whole. Odysseus figures out how to save the remainder of his party. But satisfying his curiosity cost the lives of four of his men. Inquiring and productive minds are valuable in commanders, but there are limits.
This is not the only instance where more focused leadership would have served all hands better. On a different island, Aiolos, the wind king gives Odysseus a great leather sack filled with storm winds, its neck laced shut by silver cords. With another lift from Aiolos, the Ithacans head westwards uneventfully, and approach their island home closely enough to see men building fires on the beach. Unfortunately Odysseus, who has had the helm for the past nine days, falls asleep without telling the crew what is in the bag, or even directing them not to touch it. They see the valuable metal around the sack’s neck and figure that silver and gold must be inside. Once the bag is opened, storm winds burst forth, and the ship is blown back into harm’s way.
There are more such incidents. Odysseus avoids disaster as his vessel passes within earshot of the Sirens, but still he insists on courting danger. The enchantress, Kirke, tells Odysseus that if his crew hears the Sirens’ song, they will row toward it and be killed. ‘Make sure their ears are stuffed with beeswax,’ she cautions. But if you “want” to listen, she adds, have the crew lash you to the mast, and direct them to “twist more line about you,” when you beg to be set free. As they approach the Sirens, Odysseus tells the men that Kirke “urged” him to listen. (Odyssey, Bk. XII, l.193) He has the crew block its ears, and orders them to disregard whatever he says while within hearing range of the Sirens. In the event, no one is lost, but it is an unmistakable irony that Odysseus succeeds better at getting his men to disregard his orders than obey them.
Odysseus’ inability to compel this obedience results in the deaths of his remaining shipmates. After threading their way between the monster, Scylla and the whirlpool, Charybdis, the Ithacans are exhausted. They plead to put in at the nearest island, one at which Kirke had forbid landing. This is Thrinakia, the island home of the sun god, Helios,’ cattle. Both Kirke and the prophet, Teiresias warned Odysseus that if the animals are touched, the ship and its crew will be destroyed. Odysseus yields to his men, and lands. He orders them not to touch the sun god’s cattle, and requires the crew to swear that they won’t.
Storms rage, the Ithacans are bottled up on Thrinakia, and as the ship’s supplies dwindle, the men grow hungry. Fish and birds fail fully to supply their needs. Odysseus chooses this moment to leave his famished men alone with the forbidden livestock, and venture into the island’s interior to pray to the gods for help. While he is away, the men slaughter some of the cattle, and are feasting on them when Odysseus returns. The storm that awaits the unfortunate men kills many and tosses those who do not perish back to the whirlpool, where they are swallowed. Odysseus alone survives.
High intelligence, endless calculation, extreme wariness, and shrewdness to match a goddess’ help Odysseus save himself. But these talents benefit his crew little. “The great tactician,” as Homer calls him, puts his own thirst for understanding ahead of all else, ignores his men’s advice, and repeatedly fails to command their obedience. His outstanding qualities prove useless in protecting the lives of the men under his command.
A Mixed Soul
The Trojan military leader, Hector, combines spiritedness with intelligence. His is not the craftiness of Odysseus, but an insightful, disciplined mind that requires little advice in grasping problems and crafting practical solutions. Approximately one-third of the way into the Iliad, the Trojans have the upper hand. They push the Greeks beyond the wall that protects their ships, and pause as the sun sets. Hector will now address the Trojans and their allies. Not only does the speech contain intelligent tactical direction. It encapsulates Troy’s strategic position and includes Hector’s war aims graced with rhetoric and respect for the gods. Only nightfall, says the Trojan commander, interrupted the progress of our arms. But let us be resourceful and turn the night into day. Let large fires be built on the beach: if the Greeks try to board their ships we will see them. They cannot be allowed to leave without a fight: others must learn the consequences of attacking Troy. In the meantime we beseech Zeus to drive this pestilence of invaders from our homes. Hector demonstrates the same acuity throughout the “Iliad” devising his own plans, and accepting or rejecting the advice of subordinates.
Troy’s senior commander is also highly spirited. But, unlike Agamemnon and Achilles, he can, and does, control his anger. More important, his anger is constructive. As the two sides close for their first clash, Hector’s brother, Paris, steps forward boldly from the Trojan line. He sees Menelaus, the man whose wife he carried off, and thinking better, fades back to a less prominent place. Hector is embarrassed and infuriated. “Paris,” he calls,
You desperate, womanizing pretty boy!
I wish you had never been born, or had died unmarried.
Better that than this disgrace before our troops. (Bk.III, l.45)
The public tongue-lashing gets sharper. “No,” calls Hector,
Don’t stand up to Menelaus: you might find out
What kind of a man it is whose wife you’re sleeping with (l.57)
Unlike the insults traded between Agamemnon and Achilles, Hector doesn’t get into name calling. Paris claims that his good looks are a gift of the gods, and agrees to go hand-to-hand with Menelaus. Unlike the dispute between the Greek heroes, Hector’s anger benefits Troy.
Other examples show that Hector’s anger points in the same purposeful direction. A Trojan warrior, Polydamas, appears occasionally to offer advice. While the Trojans are still on the offensive, an eagle swoops over the battlefield holding a writhing serpent. The reptile bites the predator in the neck, and the eagle drops his prey. Polydamas observes that the bird has crossed from left to right, and claims this is a sign that the Trojans must not break through the Greek defensive position. Hector doesn’t want to slow the Trojan advance. He tells Polydamas:
I don’t like the way you’re talking now.
You know how to speak better than this,
But if you really mean what you say,
The gods must have addled your wits (Bk. XII, l.239)
“Birds?” asks Hector incredulously.
You want me to obey birds,
Polydamas? I don’t care which way birds fly,
Right to the sunrise or left into the dusk.
All we have to do is obey the great Zeus (l.245)
The Trojan commander fumes, but won’t allow his irritation to get the better of him. Hector leads his men beyond the wall. When the tide of battle reverses favoring the Greeks whose backs are now at their ships, Hector accepts Polydamas’ advice to retreat and regroup. The Trojan commander is disciplined. He does not hold self-defeating grudges.
Unlike Agamemnon, Hector knows his men well enough to chastise when appropriate. Menelaus is stripping the armor from a Trojan he has just speared from behind. Hector spurs Melanippus, a successful farmer who returned to the safety of Troy when the Greek amphibious force threatened the surrounding countryside:
Melanippus, are we going to slack off like this?
Don’t you have any feeling for your dead kinsman? (Bk.XV, l.577)
Hector spoke well.
Melanippus went with him, moving like a god,
And Telamonian Ajax urged on the Greeks. (l.583)
Notice that while the Trojan commander rallies his men, it falls to Ajax to rouse the Greeks. This is Homer’s second reminder in 60 lines of the gulf between the Greek and Trojan commanding officers. Hector is in front marshalling his troops, calling on them for more effort, fighting in full view. For the most part, other Greeks perform these key command functions for Agamemnon.
Command is Human
Hector is the “Iliad’s” finest commander. Untroubled by the rage that clouds Agamemnon’s and Achilles’ judgment, his temper is bounded and productive. Similarly his intellect and powers of discernment are fixed on the problem of protecting his city — not merely saving his own hide. As is the case with Odysseus, men under his command die, but not because he fails the tests of leadership.
Nevertheless, Achilles defeats and kills Hector. Troy falls. Superior commanders are not always victorious, as great military leaders like Alcibiades, Napoleon, and Robert E. Lee demonstrate. Fate exists, and cannot be moved about like a fleet. Homer understood this at a high level. The role of the gods, fate, and men’s understanding of their own destiny is a major part of what Homer saw. The attempt here has been to exclude those larger issues in order to concentrate on the narrower question of command.
What then is Homer saying? To look at the “Iliad” from the profession of arms, nothing is larger than the naturalness of strife. The war at Troy embroils all the major, and many of the minor, Olympians as they seek the advantage of the men they love. Greeks and Trojans vie with one another — and among themselves. Bitter argument among the Greeks generates the “Iliad’s” action. Anger, insults, and threats persist in the Greek camp in the athletic games that honor Patroclus at his funeral. Strife even continues within a single man. When Achilles faces Hector near the end of the Iliad, Hector wears armor he has stripped from Patroclus, armor that Achilles had loaned to his friend. Achilles, Homer wants us to know, is battling himself.
Skillful command is one way to emerge victorious, or at least, scarred less than one’s enemy. Success at command, however, is far more elusive than great individual deeds on the battlefield with which the “Iliad” is full. Greater self-discipline would have prevented the disastrous quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon. A unified Greek coalition might have brought victory sooner. True, Odysseus possesses the self-control that his famous colleagues don’t. His ability to keep his armed brethren within the belly of the horse as Helen imitates their wives’ voices from outside is surely leadership. But the loss, later, of all his men is evidence of his failure as a leader of men. The skill of the heroes at individual combat is important in the poem, but Hector stands as evidence that excellence at command is very much a part of the “Iliad’s” tale.
The Trojan men admire their commander because he understands and, in fact, is one of them. Hector’s temperate human qualities also keep his alliance together. The lives of the other famous men are full with human qualities — but extreme ones. Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter in order to appease the gods and continue the fleet’s journey to Troy. He sacrifices hundreds of his own warriors to his anger at Achilles, and he dies at his wife’s and her lover’s hands. There is deep, moving affection between Odysseus and his wife, Penelope. And genuine warmth exists in Odysseus’ relationship with his son, Telemachus, but the connection is based on planning and the violence necessary to rid the palace of the suitors. The contrast of the Odysseus-Telemachus partnership to Hector’s meeting with his wife Andromache and their little son, Astyanax, couldn’t be greater. There they are on the Trojan ramparts for a moment before Hector returns to the fray below. Hector reaches to hold the toddler — who screams in terror at the plumed helmet that covers his father’s face. Father removes the helmet and, laughing, sweeps the little boy up in his arms.
If Astyanax doesn’t recognize what protects him, his father has no difficulty grasping the human qualities needed to lead. Hector uses all the tools of a commander. Throughout the Iliad, the words used to describe his speech reflect a resourceful commander’s speech: he shouts, taunts, shames, swears, prods, soars (in speech), exhorts. He also fights where he can be seen by those he leads. Hector’s speeches inspire his men, quite unlike those of the Greeks’ commander. Agamemnon raises his troops’ spirits when he tells them that it’s time to leave battle and return home. Later, the same proof of their leader’s dejection stuns the Greeks to silence. When Hector addresses his troops, the Trojans cheer and have their spirits lifted. Agamemnon speaks to the assembled Greeks six times, once to their cheers — when he announces the end of his feud with Achilles. If Hector’s Trojans don’t cheer on each of the twelve occasions he addresses them, his words never fail to encourage and inspire them.
Homer has another way of reminding that command is human. The closer a warrior is to having a god as an ancestor, the worse he is as a commander of men. Agamemnon’s father, Atreus, is the great grandson of Zeus, a tyrant if ever there was one. As a commander, Odysseus is less afflicted by divine ancestry. Hermes is his great grandfather, the messenger god who doesn’t have the opportunity to lord it over anyone, but whose swiftness of foot morphed into Odysseus’ swiftness of mind. Hector is separated from the Olympians by seven generations, enough time to have developed the human qualities command demands. But the best proof of the incompatibility of divinity with command is Achilles. His mother, Thetis, is an immortal. Achilles didn’t need to command. He calls for the Greeks to follow him when he returns to avenge the death of Patroclus, but he splits the Trojan force single-handedly and drives them back to the city gates without so much as a mention of another Greek combatant. Achilles was literally an army of one.
The gods are extreme. Humans are moderate. Agamemnon and Achilles are overfilled with anger that makes them unsuitable — in different ways — to command. Excess anger is more likely to be a cause of command failure than its polar opposite, too much intellect. Odysseus’ swiftness of mind has many benefits, but it did not bring his men home safely, a goal that Homer says the Ithacan king set for himself. Hector is both spirited and has a purposeful, capable mind, but he possesses both qualities in balanced, human proportions.
Homer’s insight into command applies today. Successful command depends on a balance between spiritedness and intellect. Both qualities are needed, but in controllable amounts. While the ancients saw spiritedness as a virtue, but its excess as a danger, we are more likely to see intellect as a necessity for victory, but less likely to see its excess as a problem. Our warfare grows increasingly complex and increasingly dependent upon the knowledge of how to move electrons. Officers who are skilled at amassing, analyzing, and distributing information have wide open futures. There is nothing wrong with exploiting our strength. But Homer would likely caution balance: too much brainpower is as undesirable as too much spiritedness. Overconfidence in technology can lead to a mistaken sense of invincibility, a failure to acknowledge the strength of an enemy who fights on spiritedness, and a high command that reflects these weaknesses.
Our soldiers’ individual weapons surpass anything the greatest ancient warriors imagined. Our intellect has given us instruments that equal the Greek gods’ ability to make war: lightning bolts that kill from afar. But the moral character of warfare remains. Commanders need to mix spiritedness with cleverness. The need for balance — as we face an enemy who depends more on spiritedness than the products of intellect — is as insistent today as it was at any moment from Achilles’ quarrel with Agamemnon to the funeral games of Hector, breaker of horses.