In arguing that the Iliad is a protest poem, I was thinking of all those moments, small and great, throughout this text where Homer seems to be calling attention to the horror of war and questioning the honor system which, in part, makes war possible—the increasing brutality of the battle scenes, those necrologies mourning the loss of warriors, statements by the women of the poem that reveal the devastation caused by war on non-combatants, the similes in which even images of home and of the natural world seem defiled by war. And at the center of this text we have the greatest warrior, Achilles, questioning the worth of fighting, weighing whether his life is worth those spoils of war that will be his if he returns to battle. It’s going too far to say that the Iliad is an anti-war poem in the way that “Blowin’ in the Wind” is an anti-war poem, and yet this epic does recognize that war is a source of devastation and suffering.
But I also wanted to suggest that in the Iliad, Homer is protesting something more universal than the devastation and suffering wrought by war. He’s protesting this bleak vision of human existence, embodied in Glaucus’ recognition that
Human generations are like leaves in their seasons.The wind blows them to the ground, but the treeSprouts new ones when spring comes again.…Their generations come and go. (Iliad 6.149-151)
And he’s protesting this related vision of the inevitable obliteration of all human endeavor by the gods, embodied in the wall built by the Greeks that Poseidon washes away. Homer protests this vision of the “human situation” by making poetry. The kleos aphthiton, the undying glory, of these warriors is remembered and recorded. And so it cannot blow away, like “leaves in their seasons;” it is not washed away, like the wall which “could not endure for long.”