Homer's Iliad Has Valuable Leadership
Lessons for Modern Warriors

Part two of two
Click here to read part one

By Seth Cropsey


To put as fine a point upon it as possible, Homer next reminds the reader that outward appearances are not always matched by equally impressive qualities of mind. Priam continues to eye the Greek ranks. "Now tell me about this one, dear child," he asks Helen.

Shorter than Agamemnon by a head /But broader in the shoulders and chest./ His armor is lying in the ground (III, l.209)

This man is not statuesque. He is squat. And, he's left his gear on the ground. Helen identifies him by describing his mind. He is, Helen answers...

The master strategist Odysseus, born and bred /In the rocky hills of Ithaca. He knows Every trick there is, and his mind runs deep. (III, 1.210)

Achilles, the greatest warrior, versus the greatest Trojan warrior. Achilles personified
strength and the power of unhindered rage; Hector the power of nobility, courage, skill
and grace. Achilles killed Hector in battle, effectively assuring the Greek victory
in the Trojan War.

Odysseus is the indispensable man. Time and again he knows what to say and do. After Agamemnon's near-disastrous test of the Greek force, Odysseus rights the situation. He puts down a speaker who correctly pointed out that Agamemnon had dishonored a better man, Achilles. He sympathizes with the Greek force's discontent after nine years away from home, but reminds them of favorable prophesies and signs. Unassisted and by power of argument, he keeps the Greek force from going home.

Both the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" bristle with similar examples. When Agamemnon, pinched by repeated setbacks, decides to patch up differences with Achilles, he sends Odysseus to negotiate.

The Greek hero Diomedes will not undertake a night expedition to gather intelligence about the enemy without Odysseus, who provides the tactical brainpower for the mission's success.

When Achilles rejoins the fight, crazed to avenge the death of his friend, Patroclus, it is Odysseus — not commander-in-chief Agamemnon — who counsels feeding the men before battle. As he is concerned about their physical well-being, Odysseus also keeps an eye on the coalition's fighting spirit. He urges Agamemnon to give Achilles gifts and swear in front of the assembled Greek force that he has not slept with Briseis, the woman he took from Achilles. The quarrel between the commander and the greatest warrior, and the absence of the latter from combat has demoralized the Greeks. Alone among them, Odysseus knows that public reconciliation is required.

Odysseus' intellect, quickness of mind, deceptions, and wariness follow him into the Odyssey, the story of his decade-long journey home to Ithaca after the fall of Troy. Like a villa in which the elegant imagination of the architect appears in each room, Odysseus' calculating mind and stratagems unfold whenever he appears.

When asked his name by the one-eyed Cyclops, Odysseus thinking ahead says, "Nohbdy." When the blinded monster screams to his fellow Cyclopes that "Nohbdy" is attacking him, they ignore his pleas for help pointing out that if nobody is molesting him, then it must be Zeus.

Even when the immortal nymph, Calypso, tells him that she will release him, and aid his journey home, Odysseus, ever wary, asks her to swear it.

Odysseus, renowned for his itelligence and resourcefulness, gives undiluted wine to
Polyphemus, intoxicating the one-eyed giant and blinding him in order to escape the
Cyclop's cave.

When Athena herself — albeit in disguise — greets Odysseus after he has set foot on his own island for the first time in 20 years, the great tactician pretends that he is from another island, offers no clue to his true identity, and insists that he is on his way elsewhere. Athena reveals herself, and Odysseus is still suspicious. But Athena knows her man:

You! You chameleon! /Bottomless bag of tricks. Here in your own country /Would you not give your stratagems a rest /Or stop spellbinding for an instant? ("Odyssey, XIII, l.374)

Odysseus protests that mortals cannot be sure of their eyes. Athena continues her chiding admiration:

Would not another wandering man, in joy, /Make haste home to his wife and children? Not /You, not yet. Before you hear their story/You will have proof about your wife. ("Odyssey, XIII, l.419)

This is, perhaps, the finest characterization of Odysseus in all of Homer. Even if he had not known that Agamemnon's wife and lover greeted his return from Troy by murdering him in his bath Odysseus would have approached his own kingdom warily, assessed his people's loyalty, tested his son's judgment, and assured himself of his wife's faithfulness. Homer's description in the Odyssey's opening lines is true. He is the...

...man skilled in all ways of contending" who:
…saw the town lands /and learned the minds of many distant men, and weathered many bitter nights and days /in his deep heart at sea, while he fought only/to save his life, to bring his shipmates home. (Odyssey, I, l.6)

But he did not bring his shipmates home. Not a single crewmember, save himself. And the Odyssey's introductory assertion of its hero's interest in learning the ways of distant men often seems more accurate than its exculpatory remark that the crew's recklessness was to blame for their loss at sea.

Despite his ability to think ahead, escape from dangers, and despite the advantages of a curious, far-ranging mind, Odysseus has shortcomings as a commander that cost all his men their lives.

He and his crew land on an unnamed island inhabited by one-eyed giant shepherds. Taking 12 men with him and leaving the rest of the crew aboard, Odysseus, who felt in his "bones" the brutality of the Cyclops, climbs to one of their caverns and finds goats, kids, lambs, and drying cheeses. The men realize the danger that surrounds them, and plead with Odysseus to take the cheeses, release the livestock, and drive what animals they can to the ship. Odysseus refuses. He wants to see the caveman.

The huge Cyclops returns, and moves a multi-ton boulder to block the cave's door. He snatches several of Odysseus' party from the shadows, bashes their heads against rocks, and eats them whole. Odysseus figures out how to save the remainder of his party. But satisfying his curiosity cost the lives of four of his men. Inquiring and productive minds are valuable in commanders, but there are limits.

This is not the only instance where more focused leadership would have served all hands better. On a different island, Aiolos, the wind king gives Odysseus a great leather sack filled with storm winds, its neck laced shut by silver cords. With another lift from Aiolos, the Ithacans head westwards uneventfully, and approach their island home closely enough to see men building fires on the beach. Unfortunately Odysseus, who has had the helm for the past nine days, falls asleep without telling the crew what is in the bag, or even directing them not to touch it. They see the valuable metal around the sack's neck and figure that silver and gold must be inside. Once the bag is opened, storm winds burst forth, and the ship is blown back into harm's way.

There are more such incidents. Odysseus avoids disaster as his vessel passes within earshot of the Sirens, but still he insists on courting danger. The enchantress, Kirke, tells Odysseus that if his crew hears the Sirens' song, they will row toward it and be killed. 'Make sure their ears are stuffed with beeswax,' she cautions. But if you "want" to listen, she adds, have the crew lash you to the mast, and direct them to "twist more line about you," when you beg to be set free. As they approach the Sirens, Odysseus tells the men that Kirke "urged" him to listen. (Odyssey, Bk. XII, l.193) He has the crew block its ears, and orders them to disregard whatever he says while within hearing range of the Sirens. In the event, no one is lost, but it is an unmistakable irony that Odysseus succeeds better at getting his men to disregard his orders than obey them.

Odysseus' inability to compel this obedience results in the deaths of his remaining shipmates. After threading their way between the monster, Scylla and the whirlpool, Charybdis, the Ithacans are exhausted. They plead to put in at the nearest island, one at which Kirke had forbid landing. This is Thrinakia, the island home of the sun god, Helios,' cattle. Both Kirke and the prophet, Teiresias warned Odysseus that if the animals are touched, the ship and its crew will be destroyed. Odysseus yields to his men, and lands. He orders them not to touch the sun god's cattle, and requires the crew to swear that they won't.

Storms rage, the Ithacans are bottled up on Thrinakia, and as the ship's supplies dwindle, the men grow hungry. Fish and birds fail fully to supply their needs. Odysseus chooses this moment to leave his famished men alone with the forbidden livestock, and venture into the island's interior to pray to the gods for help. While he is away, the men slaughter some of the cattle, and are feasting on them when Odysseus returns. The storm that awaits the unfortunate men kills many and tosses those who do not perish back to the whirlpool, where they are swallowed. Odysseus alone survives.

High intelligence, endless calculation, extreme wariness, and shrewdness to match a goddess' help Odysseus save himself. But these talents benefit his crew little. "The great tactician," as Homer calls him, puts his own thirst for understanding ahead of all else, ignores his men's advice, and repeatedly fails to command their obedience. His outstanding qualities prove useless in protecting the lives of the men under his command.

A Mixed Soul

The Trojan military leader, Hector, combines spiritedness with intelligence. His is not the craftiness of Odysseus, but an insightful, disciplined mind that requires little advice in grasping problems and crafting practical solutions. Approximately one-third of the way into the Iliad, the Trojans have the upper hand. They push the Greeks beyond the wall that protects their ships, and pause as the sun sets. Hector will now address the Trojans and their allies. Not only does the speech contain intelligent tactical direction. It encapsulates Troy's strategic position and includes Hector's war aims graced with rhetoric and respect for the gods. Only nightfall, says the Trojan commander, interrupted the progress of our arms. But let us be resourceful and turn the night into day. Let large fires be built on the beach: if the Greeks try to board their ships we will see them. They cannot be allowed to leave without a fight: others must learn the consequences of attacking Troy. In the meantime we beseech Zeus to drive this pestilence of invaders from our homes. Hector demonstrates the same acuity throughout the "Iliad" devising his own plans, and accepting or rejecting the advice of subordinates.

Troy's senior commander is also highly spirited. But, unlike Agamemnon and Achilles, he can, and does, control his anger. More important, his anger is constructive. As the two sides close for their first clash, Hector's brother, Paris, steps forward boldly from the Trojan line. He sees Menelaus, the man whose wife he carried off, and thinking better, fades back to a less prominent place. Hector is embarrassed and infuriated. "Paris," he calls,

ou desperate, womanizing pretty boy! /I wish you had never been born, or had died unmarried. /Better that than this disgrace before our troops. (Iliad, III, l.45)

The public tongue-lashing gets sharper. "No," calls Hector...

Don't stand up to Menelaus: you might find out /What kind of a man it is whose wife you're sleeping with (l.57)...

Unlike the insults traded between Agamemnon and Achilles, Hector doesn't get into name calling. Paris claims that his good looks are a gift of the gods, and agrees to go hand-to-hand with Menelaus. Unlike the dispute between the Greek heroes, Hector's anger benefits Troy.

Other examples show that Hector's anger points in the same purposeful direction. A Trojan warrior, Polydamas, appears occasionally to offer advice. While the Trojans are still on the offensive, an eagle swoops over the battlefield holding a writhing serpent. The reptile bites the predator in the neck, and the eagle drops his prey. Polydamas observes that the bird has crossed from left to right, and claims this is a sign that the Trojans must not break through the Greek defensive position. Hector doesn't want to slow the Trojan advance. He tells Polydamas:

I don't like the way you're talking now. /You know how to speak better than this /But if you really mean what you say /The gods must have addled your wits (Iliad, XII, l.239)..."Birds?" asks Hector incredulously. You want me to obey birds/Polydamas? I don't care which way birds fly/Right to the sunrise or left into the dusk./All we have to do is obey the great Zeus (l.245)...

The Trojan commander fumes, but won't allow his irritation to get the better of him. Hector leads his men beyond the wall. When the tide of battle reverses favoring the Greeks whose backs are now at their ships, Hector accepts Polydamas' advice to retreat and regroup. The Trojan commander is disciplined. He does not hold self-defeating grudges.

Unlike Agamemnon, Hector knows his men well enough to chastise when appropriate. Menelaus is stripping the armor from a Trojan he has just speared from behind. Hector spurs Melanippus, a successful farmer who returned to the safety of Troy when the Greek amphibious force threatened the surrounding countryside:

Melanippus, are we going to slack off like this?/Don't you have any feeling for your dead kinsman? (.XV, l.577)?

Hector spoke well:

Melanippus went with him, moving like a god/And Telamonian Ajax urged on the Greeks. (l.583)

Notice that while the Trojan commander rallies his men, it falls to Ajax to rouse the Greeks. This is Homer's second reminder in 60 lines of the gulf between the Greek and Trojan commanding officers. Hector is in front marshalling his troops, calling on them for more effort, fighting in full view. For the most part, other Greeks perform these key command functions for Agamemnon.

Command is Human

Hector is the "Iliad's" finest commander. Untroubled by the rage that clouds Agamemnon's and Achilles' judgment, his temper is bounded and productive. Similarly his intellect and powers of discernment are fixed on the problem of protecting his city — not merely saving his own hide. As is the case with Odysseus, men under his command die, but not because he fails the tests of leadership.

Nevertheless, Achilles defeats and kills Hector. Troy falls. Superior commanders are not always victorious, as great military leaders like Alcibiades, Napoleon, and Robert E. Lee demonstrate. Fate exists, and cannot be moved about like a fleet. Homer understood this at a high level. The role of the gods, fate, and men's understanding of their own destiny is a major part of what Homer saw. The attempt here has been to exclude those larger issues in order to concentrate on the narrower question of command.

What then is Homer saying? To look at the "Iliad" from the profession of arms, nothing is larger than the naturalness of strife. The war at Troy embroils all the major, and many of the minor, Olympians as they seek the advantage of the men they love. Greeks and Trojans vie with one another — and among themselves. Bitter argument among the Greeks generates the "Iliad's" action. Anger, insults, and threats persist in the Greek camp in the athletic games that honor Patroclus at his funeral. Strife even continues within a single man. When Achilles faces Hector near the end of the Iliad, Hector wears armor he has stripped from Patroclus, armor that Achilles had loaned to his friend. Achilles, Homer wants us to know, is battling himself.

Skillful command is one way to emerge victorious, or at least, scarred less than one's enemy. Success at command, however, is far more elusive than great individual deeds on the battlefield with which the "Iliad" is full. Greater self-discipline would have prevented the disastrous quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon. A unified Greek coalition might have brought victory sooner. True, Odysseus possesses the self-control that his famous colleagues don't. His ability to keep his armed brethren within the belly of the horse as Helen imitates their wives' voices from outside is surely leadership. But the loss, later, of all his men is evidence of his failure as a leader of men. The skill of the heroes at individual combat is important in the poem, but Hector stands as evidence that excellence at command is very much a part of the "Iliad's" tale.

The Trojan men admire their commander because he understands and, in fact, is one of them. Hector's temperate human qualities also keep his alliance together. The lives of the other famous men are full with human qualities — but extreme ones. Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter in order to appease the gods and continue the fleet's journey to Troy. He sacrifices hundreds of his own warriors to his anger at Achilles, and he dies at his wife's and her lover's hands. There is deep, moving affection between Odysseus and his wife, Penelope. And genuine warmth exists in Odysseus' relationship with his son, Telemachus, but the connection is based on planning and the violence necessary to rid the palace of the suitors. The contrast of the Odysseus-Telemachus partnership to Hector's meeting with his wife Andromache and their little son, Astyanax, couldn't be greater. There they are on the Trojan ramparts for a moment before Hector returns to the fray below. Hector reaches to hold the toddler — who screams in terror at the plumed helmet that covers his father's face. Father removes the helmet and, laughing, sweeps the little boy up in his arms.

If Astyanax doesn't recognize what protects him, his father has no difficulty grasping the human qualities needed to lead. Hector uses all the tools of a commander. Throughout the Iliad, the words used to describe his speech reflect a resourceful commander's speech: he shouts, taunts, shames, swears, prods, soars (in speech), exhorts. He also fights where he can be seen by those he leads. Hector's speeches inspire his men, quite unlike those of the Greeks' commander. Agamemnon raises his troops' spirits when he tells them that it's time to leave battle and return home. Later, the same proof of their leader's dejection stuns the Greeks to silence. When Hector addresses his troops, the Trojans cheer and have their spirits lifted. Agamemnon speaks to the assembled Greeks six times, once to their cheers — when he announces the end of his feud with Achilles. If Hector's Trojans don't cheer on each of the twelve occasions he addresses them, his words never fail to encourage and inspire them.

Homer has another way of reminding that command is human. The closer a warrior is to having a god as an ancestor, the worse he is as a commander of men. Agamemnon's father, Atreus, is the great grandson of Zeus, a tyrant if ever there was one. As a commander, Odysseus is less afflicted by divine ancestry. Hermes is his great grandfather, the messenger god who doesn't have the opportunity to lord it over anyone, but whose swiftness of foot morphed into Odysseus' swiftness of mind. Hector is separated from the Olympians by seven generations, enough time to have developed the human qualities command demands. But the best proof of the incompatibility of divinity with command is Achilles. His mother, Thetis, is an immortal. Achilles didn't need to command. He calls for the Greeks to follow him when he returns to avenge the death of Patroclus, but he splits the Trojan force single-handedly and drives them back to the city gates without so much as a mention of another Greek combatant. Achilles was literally an army of one.

The gods are extreme. Humans are moderate. Agamemnon and Achilles are overfilled with anger that makes them unsuitable — in different ways — to command. Excess anger is more likely to be a cause of command failure than its polar opposite, too much intellect. Odysseus' swiftness of mind has many benefits, but it did not bring his men home safely, a goal that Homer says the Ithacan king set for himself. Hector is both spirited and has a purposeful, capable mind, but he possesses both qualities in balanced, human proportions.

Homer's insight into command applies today. Successful command depends on a balance between spiritedness and intellect. Both qualities are needed, but in controllable amounts. While the ancients saw spiritedness as a virtue, but its excess as a danger, we are more likely to see intellect as a necessity for victory, but less likely to see its excess as a problem. Our warfare grows increasingly complex and increasingly dependent upon the knowledge of how to move electrons. Officers who are skilled at amassing, analyzing, and distributing information have wide open futures. There is nothing wrong with exploiting our strength. But Homer would likely caution balance: too much brainpower is as undesirable as too much spiritedness. Overconfidence in technology can lead to a mistaken sense of invincibility, a failure to acknowledge the strength of an enemy who fights on spiritedness, and a high command that reflects these weaknesses.

Our soldiers' individual weapons surpass anything the greatest ancient warriors imagined. Our intellect has given us instruments that equal the Greek gods' ability to make war: lightning bolts that kill from afar. But the moral character of warfare remains. Commanders need to mix spiritedness with cleverness. The need for balance — as we face an enemy who depends more on spiritedness than the products of intellect — is as insistent today as it was at any moment from Achilles' quarrel with Agamemnon to the funeral games of Hector, breaker of horses.

The Above, presented as the second of two parts, was published in the January 2007 issue of the Armed Forces Journal. The original title is, "Homer's Greek Epic Offers Leadership Lessons for Modern Warrior."

(Posting date 31 January 2007)

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