BMCR 2001.07.16

Die Schlachtszenen der Ilias

, Studies in Odyssey 11. Hermes. Einzelschriften ; Heft 82. Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 2000. 144 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3515074635. DM 86.00.

One of the popular topics studied by scholars in the last few decades has been ancient Greek warfare. One need mention only W.K. Pritchett’s series The Greek State at War, and the volume edited by V.D. Hanson, Hoplites: The Classical Greek Battle Experience, as two notable examples of this trend. A number of works have dealt with Homeric warfare in particular, ranging from B. Fenik’s Typical Battle Scenes in the Iliad to the series of articles published by H. van Wees, to name only a sample.1 The aim of many of these studies has been to determine what, if any, relationship the type of warfare depicted in the Homeric poems has to later Greek warfare, in particular the development of the hoplite phalanx. Oliver Hellmann’s Die Schlachtszenen der Ilias, based on his 1999 doctoral dissertation at Albert-Ludwigs-Universität in Freiburg, is a detailed examination of Homeric warfare and its ‘authenticity’.

In the introductory section of his work, Hellmann states that one of his main aims will be to analyze the battle scenes of the Iliad in the context of the work as a whole, and not just in terms of what light they might shed on the development of Greek military tactics. As a result, the first section proper of Hellmann’s book, ‘Battle and Warfare in the View of the Heroic Society of the Iliad’ (p. 21-89), examines the characteristics of the elite society depicted in the Iliad and its connection to events on the battlefield. For example, Hellmann stresses the importance of one’s martial prowess in determining overall status, as exemplified by Achilles, an individual relatively undistinguished in other respects (e.g. his number of followers or his personal wealth). The desire of prominent individuals in the Iliad to gain personal honour and status through their achievements on the battlefield often overrides more ‘group-oriented’ aims. For example, at the climactic point of the Iliad, Hector ultimately decides to fight Achilles and thereby gain glory rather than retreat behind the walls of Troy so that he can continue to lead the Trojan troops in defence of the city. According to Hellmann, the organization of the opposing armies is also largely based upon the interpersonal relationships lying at the root of the Iliad‘s elite society. Although larger bodies of troops (e.g. φάλαγγες) are occasionally mentioned in the text, the most frequent combat units are small bands made up of elite leaders and members of their οἶκος, such as relatives or attendants. In Hellmann’s view, therefore, societal values and relationships largely determine the nature of battle in the Iliad.

The next, and arguably the most important, section of Hellmann’s work is entitled ‘The Iliad’s Representations of Battle’ (p. 90-169). A number of scholars have recently attempted to reconstruct the composition and organization of early Greek armies based upon evidence in the Iliad, but many of the battle tactics used in the work are, practically speaking, irreconcilable. While scholars such as Pritchett and Lactacz, have argued that Homeric warriors were arranged in a type of phalanx, for example, the use of chariots in the Iliad argues against the use of such a closely-packed formation. The actions of large Greek and Trojan forces are periodically mentioned and/or described in the Iliad, which suggests that the poet was familiar with ‘phalanx-like’ formations, but the most common type of combat is between elite individuals or small groups of men, and these cannot be understood as microcosms of the battle as a whole. Individuals in battle, for example, often perform actions that are decisive for the course of the overall conflict, such as when Hector breaches the wall surrounding the Greek ships. Hellmann argues that the reason for the ‘tactical discrepancies’ in the Iliad is that the battle scenes are largely products of the poet’s imagination, and are not meant to accurately reflect contemporary military tactics at the time of the work’s composition.

In the final section of his work, ‘Battle Representations of the Iliad and the Poet’s Poetic Image of the Mycenaean Past’ (p. 171-97), Hellmann attempts to explain why the poet chose to depict society and warfare in the Iliad as he did, with emphasis on the ‘heroic ideal’ and the individual’s quest for glory and honour. The author first of all maintains that the society portrayed in the Iliad must be an idealized version of the poet’s own contemporary society since very little, if any, accurate historical information from the Mycenaean period could have survived the centuries between the dramatic date of the Iliad and the poet’s own lifetime. According to Hellmann, one of the most important features of contemporary Greek society at the time of the Iliad‘s composition was the challenge to the position of the traditional elite. In this period, the martial achievements that the elite had previously based their status upon were becoming a less important status symbol, as indicated, for example, by the gradual disappearance of weapons from grave inventories. In archaic Greece, personal wealth was instead the most important determinant of one’s status within the community, which meant that individuals becoming weathy through trade and other means could now challenge the position of the traditional aristocracy. The latter therefore began to defend their social position through conspicuous displays and consumption of their own wealth. Another important feature of archaic Greek society, in Hellmann’s view, was the gradual transfer of political and military power from elite individuals to the community as a whole, as symbolized, for example, by the introduction of phalanx tactics.

Hellmann draws a connection between this ‘transitional’ state of Greek society at the time of the Iliad‘s composition and the world depicted by the poet. The social structure of the Iliad can be viewed largely as a reaction to the social instability of the poet’s own lifetime. The elite in the Iliad base their status largely upon their achievements on the field of battle: although the desire for plunder and booty is not absent from the warriors of the Iliad, their primary motivation is to win prestige and undying fame through their martial prowess. The focus on the actions of individuals in the Iliad, as seen for example in its battle scenes, can also be understood, in Hellmann’s view, as a reaction to the growing power of the community in the poet’s own lifetime. The poet creates, in short, an idealized society ruled over by the unchallenged traditional aristocracy as a contrast to the society of his own day, a contrast his readers would be sure to notice. Hellmann is quick to point out, however, that the poet is not simply arguing for a return to ‘traditional values’: although elite individuals in the Iliad are generally depicted in a positive fashion, the work is not without its criticism of the aristocracy.

In the reviewer’s mind Hellmann is correct in stressing the creative licence of the poet in composing the battle-scenes of the Iliad. This point, it must be said, has not been ignored by previous scholars. Pritchett, for example, writes: “As a poet (or singer), not a military historian, Homer dwells on the prowess of individuals in single combat, or on the struggle of one hero against a group of assailants, rather than analyzing the long encounter of marshalled lines.”2 Hellmann, however, by closely examining numerous relevant passages from the Iliad, clearly shows just how difficult it is to fit all of the battle-scenes into any one type of military organization, be it phalanx or loose-order. It certainly helps to explain the inconsistencies of these passages if one assumes that the primary intent of these passages was not to accurately reflect or depict the organization of contemporary armies.

The last part of the book is perhaps less persuasive than the section dealing directly with Homeric warfare but nonetheless provides an interesting discussion. Hellmann’s reason for the characteristics of elite society and warfare in the Iliad, namely that the poet created them as a reaction against pressures faced by the aristocracy of his own day, is plausible, although the author does not really explain why the poet would have chosen to take such a stance against the problems of contemporary society. If one assumes, however, that the literate poet was himself a member of the upper class, it would perhaps make his idealization of the aristocracy in the Iliad understandable.

The reviewer found this work to be an interesting and persuasive study of the Iliad and its battle-scenes. The book is well-produced, apart from a few typographical errors which do not detract from the work as a whole. Throughout the book, Hellmann supports his arguments with numerous citations from the Iliad and, in addition, is not hesitant to note the work of other scholars in the field, both in the text itself and in the eight-page bibliography at the end of the work. Overall, Hellmann’s book provides a useful discussion, not only of Homeric warfare but of the society depicted in the Iliad as well, and would be useful to anyone interested in these topics.


1. H. van Wees, “Leaders of Men? Military Organisation in the Iliad”, Classical Quarterly 36 (1986), 285-303; “Kings in Combat: Battles and Heroes in the Iliad”, Classical Quarterly 38 (1988). 1-24; “The Homeric Way of War. The Iliad and the Hoplite Phalanx”, Greece and Rome 41 (1994) 1-18; 131-55.

2. W.K. Pritchett, The Greek State at War, Part IV (Berkeley 1985), p. 7.