Why Read Homer’s Iliad?

The heart of a classical education is the cumulative study of Latin and the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome. In the Western tradition, education has always been synonymous with classical education. It began with the Greeks and Romans, was preserved and expanded by Christians during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and continued unabated until well into the twentieth century.

I have said many times that Latin is not dead: it is immortal. Latin is truly the most influential language in human history. It has been immortalized in modern romance languages, in modern scientific languages, and in its own great literature.

The most difficult part of classical education for parents to understand is not Latin, but rather our classical studies curriculum. Why study the Greeks and Romans? They are all dead, their civilization is dead and gone, and they were pagans, not Christians. What do they have to say to us?

Just as Latin is not dead, it is also true that Greece and Rome are not dead. They, too, are immortal in their architecture, art, law, government, languages, mythology, literature, and philosophy. The cultures of Greece and Rome live around and through us every day.

Students who study Latin soon see that Latin is everywhere, and that they have been speaking and reading Latin all of their lives. Likewise, students who study Greece and Rome soon see that those cultures are everywhere, and they have been living as Greeks and Romans all of their lives.

The story of Greek and Roman literature begins with the story of Troy. Our students at Highlands Latin School read the Iliad and the Odyssey in the seventh grade, and at first, the warrior culture of these early Greeks seems very alien. They were not sensitive and sentimental like us. They were not politically correct at all. Achilles was certainly not a nice Christian gentleman like Abraham Lincoln. We don’t know many real facts about the Trojan War, and all those silly gods fighting and taking sides—ridiculous! Why don’t we read something useful, like a book on the Civil War?

But the Iliad, we discover, is a book about the Civil War. It is a book about all wars, about the people and characters that you find in every war—and in every town—the wise, the foolish, the clever, the noble, the base, the ambitious, the old, and the young. It is about their pettiness, their heroism, their adventures, their sacrifices, and their sufferings. The Iliad is mostly about people, not war, and it gives us unforgettable and universal character types.

There is no passage in all of literature more moving than when Priam comes to beg for the body of Hector and kisses the bloody hands of Achilles, who has slaughtered so many of his sons. The two enemies, one old and one young, sit down and weep together over what they both have lost.

Hector is the real hero of the Iliad, and he dies at the hands of Achilles, who desecrates his body and drags it around the walls of Troy, Venus then restores his body to perfection before it is returned to Priam. And the Iliad ends, “Thus was the funeral of Hector, tamer of horses.” The Iliad is a strange poem when you think about it. It is not at all what we expect from a story about a great war hero. Hector, in fact, is just the opposite of the John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, make-my-day kind of hero that we so admire. I’m sure the Greeks were just like us and would have much preferred a poem that showed that they were number one, that they were right, and deserved to win over the Trojans. But that is not what Homer gave them—or us. Hector, in some sense, prefigures Christ, for he was not at all the Greek ideal of a hero, godlike in beauty and strength. Rather, he was a hero that was defiled and humiliated.

I don’t know any substitute for Latin for training the intellect and sharpening the mind. And I don’t know any substitute for the Iliad for humanizing and civilizing the young. There is no book on the Civil War—or any war—that compares with the Iliad. And your children will be a little wiser and a little more human for having read it. Each year, our students at Highlands Latin School read the Iliad, under the guidance of Mr. Wheatley, our head of school, and, knowing the death of Hector is imminent, they often express the fear that they are going to cry in class.

The Iliad and Odyssey are the beginnings of Western literature. The story of that war and its aftermath continues in the Aeneid, which our students read in the eighth grade. Written by the great Roman poet Virgil and modeled on the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Aeneid tells the story of Aeneas, who was destined to escape from the burning city of Troy and found a new city, Rome. And the destiny of Rome, Virgil tells us, was to civilize and rule the world. Rome brought an unprecedented two hundred years of peace and prosperity to the ancient world, preparing the way for the coming of Christ and the spread of the gospel to the ends of the known world.

And the story continues in the ninth grade, when students read Greek drama and follow other heroes who return home from the Trojan War. In the cycle of vengeance that is the curse of the House of Atreus and the unspeakable fate of Oedipus we see that the Greeks were certainly not afraid to ask the dark and hard questions. But in doing so they prepared the way for the even darker and harder answer—the Crucifixion.

And then our ninth graders read the Divine Comedy, written at the opening of the Renaissance, almost one thousand years after the fall of Rome. In this great Christian epic, Dante must travel through Hell in order to learn about the true nature of man and the reality of sin. And who is his guide in the afterlife but Virgil, Dante’s symbol of human wisdom and, of course, the author of the Aeneid. And who does Dante see on his journey through the afterlife but those ancient heroes of old, Achilles, Odysseus, Caesar, Brutus, and, of course, the saints and sinners of the Bible and of Dante’s own age.

I hope you can see that literature taught in this way is a continuous story. That is what literature should be, but rarely is. And I hope you can see that the Greek and Roman classics first told those stories that reverberate through all of literature. The classics of Greece and Rome are not optional: if we skip them, we have no hope at all of teaching literature with any real understanding or meaning.

The classics of Greece and Rome provide us with a set of connected stories and a cast of characters that teach us what it means to be human. They are also the basis of literature, teaching us about natural man (man at his best and worst, but natural man). They don’t give us the answers that we find in revelation, but they do give us the questions.

Chaucer, Shakespeare, and all of our great English writers take this basic canon for granted; references to it are everywhere. We can’t really read English literature with understanding and profit unless we know this classical heritage as they did.

At the turn of the millennium, there were many lists of the greatest works of the twentieth century. At the top of every list was James Joyce’s Ulysses. Ulysses, of course, is the Roman name for Odysseus. Twenty-eight hundred years after Homer wrote the Odyssey, it still echoes through the words of the poets of the twentieth century. As William Faulkner said, “The past is not dead, it’s not even past.”

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