Caroline Alexander’s The War that Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War is more than an exploration of Homer’s Iliad. Alexander’s interpretation of characters and events in the epic arrive at conclusions about the experience of war in general—conclusions that are applicable to all wars at all times and in all places.
Alexander encourages the drawing of parallels. She cites examples from 20th Century wars that echo sentiments expressed in the Iliad. Achilles’ confrontation with Agamemnon, for example, leads her to ponder questions about the efficacy of challenging an inept, incompetent leader. Achilles’ withdrawal from the war leads to an exploration of whether a warrior should be willing to sacrifice his life for someone else’s cause. Achilles’ return to the war after the death of Patroklos illustrates the brutal and dehumanizing impact the death of a comrade can have on a fighter.
Alexander highlights the reluctance of both sides to participate in the war. The Greeks just want to go home; the Trojans are willing to surrender Helen and her possessions in order to have them leave. But circumstances, in the form of the meddling and scheming gods who have allied themselves with one side or the other, intervene to prevent an end to a war that no one believes in and no one wants to fight. And yet the war proceeds to its inexorable conclusion.
Included in the work are over 40 pages of notes and an extensive bibliography. The breadth and depth of Alexander’s scholarship is vigorous and impressive. Her ability to make connections within the poem, to interpret details, and to zero in on subtleties and nuances that a casual reader of the epic may miss is inspiring. But perhaps one of the most impressive qualities of her work lies in its character analysis.
Agamemnon emerges as an incompetent, self-absorbed leader with an inflated ego and abysmal leadership skills. Paris emerges as frivolous fop, resented by Trojans and Greeks alike for leading them into an unpopular war. Hektor is a family man with little taste for fighting. However, it is in her analysis of the character of Achilles that Alexander shines.
Achilles emerges as a complex character plagued with internal and external conflicts. A reluctant participant in the war, his skill in warfare is unsurpassed on the battlefield. Although he expresses a longing to return home to his father, he never leaves Troy. He initially demonstrates compassion for his enemies as when, for example, we read he spared the life of Lykaon, a son of Priam, during their first encounter. But he turns into a brutal killing machine after the death of Patroklos. He is the most heroic and bravest of warriors and, yet, he gives distinctly unheroic advice to the delegation of Greeks who have come to reconcile his feud with Agamemnon. He tells them to abandon the war and sail home since a peaceful life at home is more precious than glory on the battlefield. And, finally, he rejoins the war to avenge the death of Patroklos while knowing that his choice will lead to his own death on the battlefield.
In her reflections on and interpretation of Homer’s Iliad, Caroline Alexander encourages a meditation on war—its justifications; its mutually destructive nature on all sides of the conflict; its impact on family; its brutalizing influence on those fighting in the front lines; and its interruption of the peaceful, civilizing scenes of daily life. Her reading of Homer’s Iliad strips war of its glory and grandeur and exposes its reality with unflinching honesty.
A fascinating read that provides valuable commentary on the Iliad. Highly recommended.