Battle Cries: Heroism and Public Speaking in the Iliad

September 8th, 2011 by

Ask someone to describe the ideal soldier and you will probably get an answer like “brave,’ “strong,’ or “patriotic.’ What you would probably not expect to hear is “expert orator,’ and yet in ancient Greece rhetorical skills were every bit as admirable in a warrior as physical prowess. Nowhere is this more apparent than in that monument to martial glory known as the Iliad.

The commander who rallies his disheartened troops with a stirring speech is hardly unique to classical literature; more modern examples range from Henry V to The Lord of the Rings. The Iliad differs not so much in kind as it does in degree. Over and over again, we see that the most esteemed leaders”Odysseus, Hector, and Nestor among them”are also those who speak the most persuasively. Odysseus in particular is renowned for his cleverness, and it is he that Agamemnon sends to convince Achilles to join the fight once more.

To a modern reader, this emphasis on speech-making can be jarring; we are not used to characters pausing in the midst of battle to give lengthy and elaborate speeches. But the goal of a work like the Iliad is not verisimilitude, and when we read it instead as a commemoration of the heroic virtues, it becomes clear that the ability to engage an audience with one-s words was absolutely vital.

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