Brutal violence in Homer’s Iliad

Today sees the release of Mortal Kombat 1, the latest instalment in a fighting game series noteworthy for its violence and gore. But excessive violence is nothing new: after all, Homer’s battle-epic, the Iliad, is drenched in blood.

Josho Brouwers

Mortal Kombat 1 is a reboot of the fighting game franchise Mortal Kombat. It is the twelfth mainline entry in a series renowned for its excessive violence, and a key element that sets it apart from its peers in the fighting game genre, such as the venerable Street Fighter or the anime-inspired Guilty Gear.

I am a big fan of fighting games and have especially enjoyed Street Fighter 6, which was released only a few short months ago. (For those in the know, my main character is Cammy.) I have also played most of the Mortal Kombat games, and have been eagerly looking forward to playing this latest instalment. My current plan is to focus on Reptile, a green ninja who is also a literal lizard.

For those who bought the super-duper edition at a premium price, Mortal Kombat 1 was released a few days earlier, on the 14th, but for most people the game releases officially today, the 19th of September.

To celebrate this event, I decided to lean into the excessive violence that is Mortal Kombat’s halmark by exploring some of the more extreme examples of direct violence encountered in another creative work, namely Homer’s Iliad.

Direct violence in Homer’s Iliad

The fighting in the Iliad takes place between the city of Troy and the Greek camp, in a kind of no-man’s land between two bases of operation, a large plain through which Scamander River runs its course (Il. 2.465). Seldom do the Greeks try to storm the walls or gates: when they do, the gods usually prevent them from taking the city (Il. 21.514–517).

When the Greek and Trojan armies assemble for their battle, the poet emphasizes the numbers involved, describing, for example, the Myrmidons as streaming out of the camp like wasps from a roadside nest (Il. 16.259–261). The actual fighting in the Iliad, set during the tenth and final year of the war, is extremely violent: the fighting usually lasts all day (Il. 7.421–432), bodies litter the ground after only a few moments of fighting, and the ground runs red with the blood of the dead (Il. 8.65).

Indeed, some of the fiercest fighting in the epic occurs around the bodies of fallen warriors. During these Leichekämpfe, as German scholars refer to them, friends try to drag the body of their fallen comrade back behind their own lines, while the enemy attempts to strip the corpse of its armour, as well as to despoil the body. Removing the armour from the dead is often done while the fighting continues to rage on.

For example, when Hector finally kills Patroclus, he strips the body of its armour, which belonged to Achilles and had been forged by the gods. When he puts the armour on, it is not only the material manifestation of his increased timē (honour) thanks to the value of the armour, but also of the kleos (glory) he gained from killing a noteworthy foe. Furthermore, when Hector puts on the armour, the poet notes how the spirit of Ares, the god of bloody slaughter, enter his body, and enhances his might (Il. 17.210–212).

The divine messenger Iris later tells Achilles that Hector desires to cut off his comrade’s head and put it on a stake on one of Troy’s walls (Il. 18.175–177), but this never happens. Still, Achilles is so consumed with rage following the death of his comrade-in-arms that he says he wants to cut Hector’s body in pieces and devour his flesh raw (Il. 22.346–348).

When Achilles finally does defeat Hector, he ties the body to his chariot in a scene that astounds the Trojans for its brutality, then drags it back to the Greek camp. Once there, the Greeks flock around the dead Trojan hero and proceed to stab the corpse and mock the dead hero, saying how now he is much softer to handle (Il. 22.373–374): the way that this is phrased suggests a softness akin to a flacid penis.

As befits a battle-epic, there are multiple examples of brutal deaths in the Iliad, and some horrific slayings are done precisely because they will terrify the enemy. For example, Agamemnon, the commander of the Greek forces, kills the hapless Hippolochus, cuts off his arms, and then kicks the body to send it rolling into the throng of Trojan fighters, “like a log” (Il. 11.145–147). Another Greek warrior, Peneleus, hits a Trojan in the face. He then cuts off the head and lifts it into the air at the end of a spear, causing the other Trojans to tremble in fear (Il. 14.496–507).

Some deaths are described in such grizzly detail that they would not be out of place if rendered in 3d in Mortal Kombat. The greater Ajax kills the Trojan Simoeisios by striking him in the breast next to the right nipple so hard that the spearhead comes back out through the shoulder (Il. 4.4-478-481).

Later, Menelaus kills the Trojan archer Pandarus by striking him in the face with a spear: the weapon goes throw the cheek, close to nose and eye, cuts through the teeth and tongue, and then emerges “underneath the jaw bone” (Il. 5.293).

In his fury following the death of Patroclus, Achilles cuts a swath through various high-ranking Trojans. He strikes Polydorus in the back with such strength that the spearhead erupts from his navel. Polydorus drops to his knees, holding his bowels in his hands as he dies (Il. 20.416-418). He kills Moulios by shoving a spear into one ear and out the other (Il. 20.472-474). Echeklos he kills by cleaving his skull with his sword (Il. 20.474-477). Deukalion is stabbed through the arm with a spear, pinning him in position, before Achilles strikes him in the neck, causing his helmeted head to fly away as “marrow gushed from the neckbone” (Il. 20.282-283).

And Achilles continues to rage for quite a while longer…

One would think that warriors who surrender would have a good chance to survive, but this is not always the case. For example, during the night expedition in the tenth book of the Iliad, Diomedes and Odysseus run into a Trojan spy, Dolon, who asks to be taken captive and held for ransom. However, Odyseus smiles as Dolon pleads, and Diomedes ruthlessly beheads the Trojan (Il. 10.378–457).

While at Troy, the Greeks also frequently engage in raids to acquire plunder and prisoners. Achilles, at one point, recounts how he captured and sacked no less than 23 towns near Troy: twelve by sea and eleven by land (Il. 9.328–329). Most towns in the Homeric world appear to be fortified, yet these towns were apparently all easily taken by storm, no doubt thanks to the large forces that Achilles was able to command.

The epic language involved in taking fortified towns highlights their violent nature, and in particular the descriptions are couched in metaphores based on sexual violence. As Anthony Gottschall has pointed out in his book, The Rape of Troy (2008), the “symbolic relationship between the toppling of citadels and the violation of women within is expressed in the words kredemnon luesthai (‘to loosen a veil’), which can mean either to sack a city of to breach a woman’s chastity” (p. 75). The towns in question were usually put to the torch when the Greeks were done with them (Il. 21.522–523).

The booty taken on these raids include food, cattle, and other valuable goods, as well as prisoners of war. Female prisoners of war were often enslaved: within the Iliad, the best-known examples are Briseis and Chryseis. Other captives were either sold or ransomed (e.g. Il. 6.46–47), or, in very unfortunate and presumably rare situations, sacrificed to honour the dead (Il. 23.20–23).

Closing remarks

Of course, the ancient world was rife with violence. We don’t need to limit ourselves to Homer. Most Greek myths are violent in one way or another, whether it’s pitting humans against beasts, heroes against monsters, or gods against each other. Greek art, too, can be surprisingly violent, with some artists apparently relishing the chance, for example, to paint blood spurting out of wounds.

Violence, in its most direct form, continues to exert a powerful influence on the modern world. Violent movies and violent games are at the very core of the entertainment business. Most games enable the player to interact with the rest of a virtual world mostly through direct violence: whether its stomping goombas as Mario or shooting another player character in a round of Call of Duty.

Sadly, violence is not restricted to imaginery worlds, but that is a problem that we can only solve when every life is deemed of equal value, and every loss worthy of tears. It may be a while before we reach that enlightened stage.