Family in The Iliad

Instructor: Catherine Smith

Catherine has taught History, Literature, and Latin at the university level and holds a PhD in Education.

Although ''The Iliad'' is largely about warfare, there are hints of family life throughout the work. This lesson looks at passages where we see glimpses of domestic life and familial relationships.

General Overview of The Iliad

Homer's epic The Iliad focuses on the Trojan War, fought between the Greeks and the Trojans approximately 3000 years ago. The epic focuses on Achilles as its central character; we follow his journey from the beginning of the epic, where he feels insulted and withdraws from the fighting; to halfway through, when he rejoins the fighting to get revenge for the death of his friend; to the end, where he kills the main Trojan warrior, Hector.

War and Family

Within this story of warfare and warriors, however, we see some details about family. Often, this is through characters talking about the families they are separated from, rather than actual interaction between people in families. There are a few instances, however, where we see families interact.

Family on Olympus

We can see some familial scenes just among the gods themselves, with no mortals. You might be asking, 'But how do family scenes among the gods have anything to do with real families?' Great question! Remember that the Olympian gods are products of the imagination of the Greeks, so when we read about the way the gods do things, we can assume that these are reminiscent of the way the Greeks thought about family life.

Hephaestus and His Parents

Hephaestus is the son of Hera and Zeus, and one of the gods who lives on Olympus. In Book One of The Iliad, Hera and Zeus get into an argument about the gods' interventions in the Trojan War. Hephaestus watches this unfold, and decides to speak to his mother about making peace with his father:

''Cheer up, my dear mother,' said he, 'and make the best of it. I love you dearly, and should be very sorry to see you get a thrashing; however grieved I might be, I could not help for there is no standing against Jove.''

To be sure, Hephaestus's comment is somewhat depressing, since he's acknowledging that Zeus would likely become violent with his mother. However, we can see that Homer imagined that the families on Olympus would have, at least in some ways, similar dynamics to the mortal families: in this case, the mother and father get into a fight, and their child attempts to make peace between them. This scene is not so different from what we would expect to see in a mortal family.

Thetis and Achilles

We have another great example of familial relations in Achilles and his mother, Thetis, who is a goddess. (Thetis and the mortal Peleus produced Achilles, which is why he is a hero, a figure between mortal and god.) Throughout the epic, Thetis visits Achilles from time to time and seeks to intervene on his behalf when possible, by visiting Zeus and asking for his help with Achilles. In most of the scenes with Thetis and Achilles, we can see examples of a mother's love and concern over her son, and her willingness to do what is necessary to help him.

Mortal Families

The Iliad does not offer much in the way of domestic life in the mortal sphere, since it is largely concerned with fighting. However, we do get to know Hector's family a little, since he periodically leaves the battlefield to visit his home within the city walls of Troy.

Hector, Andromache, and Astyanax

One of the most moving scenes in The Iliad is when Hector visits his wife, Andromache, and his son, Astyanax. Hector is well-known for his massive helmet - Homer refers to it frequently throughout the epic - and it ends up scaring the baby Astyanax. In Book Six we read:

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