On Broken Ceasefires, in Homer & in Syria

Bombed trucks that were carrying aid to Syrian civilians

Bombed trucks that were carrying aid to Syrian civilians


We had a few hopeful days as Russia and the United States appeared to have brokered a successful ceasefire in Syria. But that hope was shattered last Monday with the deliberate bombing of a 31-truck aid convoy taking food and supplies to civilians in Urum al-Kubra, currently controlled by the rebels. Once again the Syrian government and its Russian ally behaved like Hera and Athena in Book IV of The Iliad.

Zeus, who loves order, approves when the Greeks and the Trojans agree to a ceasefire. It appears that the Trojan War may finally come to an end, which is more than the recent ceasefire in Syria hoped to accomplish. Here’s Zeus proposing a cessation to the hostilities in the Robert Fitzgerald translation:

                        Let us then consider
how this affair may end; shall we again
bring on the misery and din of war,
or make a pact of amity between them?
If only all of you were pleased to see it,
life might go on in Priam’s town,
when Menelaos took Helen of Argos home.

As in Syria, however, there are forces resisting any accommodation:

At this proposal, Hera and Athena
murmured rebelliously. These two together
sat making mischief for the men of Troy
and though she held her tongue, a sullen anger
filled Athena against her father. Hera
could not contain her own vexation, saying:

“Your majesty, what is the drift of this?
How could you bring to nothing all my toil,
the sweat I sweated, and my winded horses,
when I called out that army to bear hard
on Priam and his sons?”

In response, Zeus tries to shame Hera. As in the case of the Syrian government, it is to no avail:

Coldly annoyed
the Lord Zeus, who drives the clouds of heaven,
                                                            “Strange one, how can Priam
and Priam’s sons have hurt you so
that you are possessed to see the trim stronghold
of Ilion plundered?
                                                            Could you breach the gates
and the great walls yourself and feed on Priam
with all his sons, and all the other Trojans,
dished up raw, you might appease this rage!”

To restore peace to his household, however, Zeus agrees to let Hera and Athena have their way. Athena’s version of the Syrian bombing is to disguise herself as a Trojan and convince the archer Pandaros to take a shot at Menelaos:

                                                         Son of Lykaon,
I have in mind an exploit that may tempt you,
tempt a fighting heart. Have you the gall
to send an arrow like a fork of lightning
home against Menelaos? Every Trojan
heart would rise, and every man would praise you,
especially Alexandros [Paris], the prince–
you would be sure to come by glittering gifts
if he could see the warrior, Menelaos,
the son of Atreus, brought down by your bow,
then bedded on a dolorous pyre!

That’s how ceasefires get broken: someone, seeing an advantage to be gained, takes a shot and we’re back to blood and slaughter. That there are malevolent gods playing upon our worse impulses makes as much sense as any other explanation.

While The Iliad glorifies heroism, it has also been described as one of history’s great anti-war texts. In Book IV, Homer gets us to long for peace and then shows us the perversity that puts it out of reach.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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