Adaptive Barbarism: Politics and Kinship in the Iliad, Part 1

The following article will appear as a chapter in an upcoming book on ethnopolitical thought in ancient Greece. Constructive criticisms and comments are therefore most welcome.

We know that every organism and every species is engaged in a ceaseless struggle for survival and reproduction. This is equally true of peoples: throughout history, those with the values and genes necessary to reproduce and triumph in war prospered, the rest have already perished. I believe this basic truth is reflected in what is perhaps the most ancient sacred text to come down to us in the Western tradition: Homer’s Iliad.

If Hesiod’s genealogy of the gods portrays the primordial sex and violence at the origin of the creation, the Iliad recounts the violence of love and war at the dawn of civilization. The poet tells of a terrible war involving sexual competition for the heart of beautiful Helen, and its inevitable tragedies. But the maudlin self-pity and effeminacy of our time is unknown to Homer: if tragedy is inevitable in the human experience, the poet’s role is to give meaning and beauty to the ordeal, and to inspire men to struggle for a glorious destiny.

Homer’s portrayal of “the great leveler, war” is by no means sugar-coated. The killings of over two hundred men are individually described, dying by having their brains splattered, bladders pierced, or innards slopping out. . . . By these and so many other ways, “the swirling dark” falls before the eyes of countless men. The Iliad immortalizes the Greek variant of a wider warrior ethos: that of the Indo-Europeans — traditionally known by the more poetic name, Aryans, which I shall use — who burst forth into Europe some four thousand years ago and conquered the indigenous hunter-gatherers and farmers. The Europeans have, ever since, been profoundly influenced by the genes, languages, and martial way of life of these peoples.

The heroic values of Homer are by our standards extremely harsh, even barbaric.[1] These values however, I will show, are supremely adaptive: values of conquest, community, competition, and kinship. These reflect the spirit of the Bronze Age with its countless forgotten wars between peoples. From an evolutionary point of view, these men embraced a high-risk, high-reward strategy, with winners in battle being rewarded with great wealth, honor, and women. Their boldness and prowess indeed remain imprinted on our very genes: scientists have found that half of Europeans descend from a single Bronze Age king.

The Iliad is also worth reading to understand the ancient Greeks and the values which they lived by to survive in the brutal world of the ancient Mediterranean. Indeed, Homer’s influence over Greek culture was enormous, akin to the Bible in medieval Europe. As Bernard Knox notes, the Greeks believed the Trojan War actually occurred and was central to their national identity:

But though we may have our doubts, the Greeks of historic times who knew and loved Homer’s poem had none. For them history began with a splendid Panhellenic expedition against an Eastern foe, led by kings and including contingents from all the more than one hundred and fifty places listed in the catalogue in Book 2. History began with a war.[2]

The Irresistible Power of Love

The Trojan War itself took place because of love. Paris the Trojan was asked to choose which of the three goddesses Aphrodite, Hera, or Athena was the fairest. He chose Aphrodite, goddess of love, who had promised him the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen. Thus, Paris incurred the wrath of these two goddesses as well as Helen’s husband, “red-haired” Menelaus, a Greek king.

“Fair-haired” Helen herself laments being overpowered by love, dragging her against her will away from “the life-giving earth of Lacedaemon, the dear land of her fathers” (3.240).[3] Upon seeing the massing Achaeans, her former husband, “her kinsmen and people,” she says: “if only death had pleased me then, grim death that day I followed your son to Troy, forsaking my marriage bed, my kinsmen, and my child” (3.165). Upon meeting Aphrodite again, Helen says: “Maddening one, my Goddess, oh what now? Lusting to lure me to my ruin yet again?” (3.400).

Even wise and all-powerful Zeus, king of the gods, is not immune to the power of love. Hera manages to distract Zeus, allowing her favored Achaeans to win the upper hand in battle, by seducing and making love with him, sending him into a deep slumber. Hera had called out to Aphrodite for help: “Give me Love, give me Longing now, the powers you use to overwhelm all gods and mortal men!” and thus gained “the heat of Love, the pulsing rush of Longing, the lover’s whisper, irresistible — magic to make the sanest man go mad” (14.189-220).

But while impetuous love and retaliatory honor brought the war about, Homer makes clear that love has no place on the battlefield. This is strikingly portrayed in Book 5 by Aphrodite’s appearance and severe wounding by a mortal, the Achaean fighter Diomedes. The goddess of love is then forced to flee from the carnage of men. There is a whiff of that typically Western Promethean excess in Diomedes: even before the gods, he refuses to give up the fight and dares to wound one. He suffers no revenge however, for he knows enough to back down eventually when facing Apollo, a god more capable in battle.

A Social World of Lineage and Kinship

The society which Homer portrays revolves around lineage and kinship. In a dangerous world of often hostile strangers, family and fatherland are what one can most count on. Exile is a dreaded fate, especially for women, who if on the losing side of a war risk being taken away “far from their fatherland.” Kinship entails reciprocal duties of rights and responsibilities. Children have a duty to respect their parents and bring honor to their family. One father sends off his son to fight at Troy saying: “Always be the best, my boy, the bravest. Never disgrace the generation of your fathers” (6.190–215). If a relative is killed, kin similarly have a duty to avenge them: “That’s why a fighter prays for kin in his halls, blood kin to survive and avenge his death in battle!” (14.467–99). On the other hand, if one should die “distant kin would carve apart their birthright” (5.138–67).

The heroes love to recount their ancestors, often numbering gods among them. Heredity is a common theme. The great warrior Ajax remarks on one of the Trojans: “No coward, to judge by his looks, no coward’s stock, no doubt some brother of stallion-breaking Antenor [a Trojan elder], that or his own son — the blood-likeness is striking!” (14.467–99). Virtue is said to run in aristocratic families, as when Diomedes in council debate recounts his ancestors’ achievements and concludes: “You cannot challenge my birth as low, cowardly, or spurn the advice I give” (14.100-–0). Those with recent divine ancestry are naturally uniquely gifted and honored as a result.

The Greeks more generally often equated a man’s happiness with the prosperity of his descendants, an obviously highly adaptive belief. Aristotle later wrote: “That the fortunes of descendants and of all a man’s friends should not affect his happiness at all seems a very unfriendly doctrine, and one opposed to the opinions men hold” (Nicomachaean Ethics, 1.11). This belief is sadly missing in so many Westerners today.

The Warlike Achaeans

Homer’s Achaeans are not a civilized bunch. Their way of life is one of “vital barbarism,” having the values of ruthless conquerors, prizing loot, honor, and glory above all. The Achaean warriors are soldiers by profession, living by piracy, cattle-wrangling, and plunder. Several of the Achaean heroes are named by Homer as murderers exiled from their native lands. Wise Odysseus says the Achaeans are “the men whom Zeus decrees, from youth to old age, must wind down our brutal wars to the bitter end until we drop and die, down to the last man” (14.105).

Even though kinship reverberates throughout the Iliad, reputation is paramount in this society, as Odysseus notes on the possibility of retreat: “what a humiliation it would be to hold out so long, then sail home empty-handed” (2.298). Achilles, the poem’s hero with “gold-red” hair, prefers a brief but glorious life to one of lengthy obscurity. When attacked by the Trojans, the powerful Ajax urges boldness: “Quick, better to live or die, once and for all, than die by inches, slowly crushed to death — helpless against the hulls in the bloody press, by far inferior men!” (15.510). Again, this is an ethos embracing high risks and high rewards. As Odysseus again makes clear, this entails both fortitude and a cavalier attitude towards loss of life:

We must steel our hearts. Bury our dead, with tears for the day they [our friends] die, not one day more. And all those left alive, after the hateful carnage, remember food and drink — so all the more fiercely we can fight our enemies, nonstop, no mercy, durable as the bronze that wraps our bodies. (19.227–33)

The Achaeans are drawn from one people, a people with a pervasive warrior culture. They are politically divided however and the Achaean forces have been formed by a coalition of kings, assembled by Menelaus and his brother King Agamemnon, who as the most powerful monarch is commander-in-chief. This is a fractious alliance governed by rules of honor between proud kings rather than the united government a single lawful state. The kings are almost equal between each other — an illustration of what Ricardo Duchesne terms “aristocratic egalitarianism” so central to the Western tradition. Indeed one king can, like Achilles, withdraw support for the war, while each has absolute sway over his own men and can even beat inferiors with a stick.

Given their lack of common government, the Achaeans’ warrior pride is both a strength in pushing them to conquer others and a weakness in leading to conflict among themselves. The enterprise falls apart if any sovereign should come into a dispute with any of the others. This problem is at the heart of the poem: Agamemnon, being forced by Apollo to give up the captured daughter of one of his priests, decides to take Achilles’ beautiful war-bride Briseis instead. Thus disrespected, Achilles is then possessed by his infamous Wrath and refuses to fight the Trojans, undermining the Achaeans at a critical moment in the war and almost causing their defeat.

Decadent Troy

Troy is a very different state from those of the Achaeans. The Trojans are older, more well-established, and have built for themselves something like a “super-polis,” with great walls, an enormous royal palace, temple, agora, and untold riches. The Trojans, however, are not fighters by profession, with the exception of prince Hector, their general and Paris’ brother. The Trojan soldiers and even aristocrats engage in various trades: they are shepherds, cowherds, shipbuilders, carpenters, masons, and merchants.

The Trojans often act as though money can solve their problems. They frequently retrieve their prisoners from the Achaeans by paying a ransom. The Trojans are not ruled by an absolute monarch, but by a divided Council of Elders, some of whose members Paris has bribed to not force him to return Helen to the Achaeans (11.123). In fact, Trojans from the city proper only make up about a tenth of the Trojan forces, the rest are made up of paid mercenary allies. This has taken a toll on the city, as Hector complains twice:

Hear me — numberless tribes of allies living round our borders — I neither sought nor needed enormous hordes of men that day I called you here, each from your own city. What I needed was men to shield our helpless children, fighting men to defend our Trojan women — all-out — against these savage Argives. That goal in mind, I bleed my own people for gifts and food so I can build your courage, each and every man. (17.225)

Time was when the world of Priam’s Troy was the city rich gold and rich in bronze — but now our houses are stripped of all their sumptuous treasures, troves sold off and shipped to Phrygia, lovely Maenia (18.290).

The Trojans and their allies do not, like the Achaeans, form a single people. Rather, “they speak a thousand different tongues” (2.803).

The difference between the Achaean professional soldiers and the Trojan amateurs is sometimes striking. While the Achaeans march in disciplined silence, twice Homer compares the disorderly Trojans to noisy animals: “the Trojans came with cries and the din of war like wildfowl . . . But Achaea’s armies come on strong in silence, breathing combat-fury” (3.1-9). And:

You’d never think so many troops [the Achaeans] could march holding their voices in their chests, silence, fearing their chiefs who called out clear command, and the burnished blazoned armor round their bodies flared, the formations trampling on.

But not the Trojans, no . . . like flocks of sheep in a wealthy rancher’s steadings, thousands crowding to have their white milk drained, bleating nonstop when they hear their crying lambs — so the shouts rose up from the long Trojan lines and not one cry, no common voice to bind them all together, their tongues mixed and clashed, their men hailed from so many far-flung countries. (4.422–39)

If the Achaeans are threatened by the discord between their proud kings, the Trojans are doomed by their failure to discipline Paris, who is shamed by his brother Hector for effeminacy, but whom the corrupt and divided Council Elders ultimately allows to keep Helen.

Go to Part 2.

[1] There is irony here in that “barbarian” is the Greek word initially meaning foreigner. The semantic slippage towards “uncivilized savage” is significant and likely reflects the Greeks’ own historical development through civilization and decadence.

[2] Bernard Knox, “Introduction,” in Homer (Robert Fagles trans.), The Iliad (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), 24.

[3]I quote in each case from the Robert Fagles translation.

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