Anti War Message in Greek Literature

Most readers believe that Greek literature is in its entirety an exercise in the glory of war with a great deal of violent anguish and death.  But a close reading reveals that the ancient texts may for the most part be an anti war message disguised as action stories.


Let us look at the Iliad by Homer.  A Trojan prince steals the wife of a Spartan king and the Greek world is engulfed in war.  It seems such a silly cause for a war and perhaps that is Homer’s point.  Would this cause world war today?  One would think not likely but is there any good cause for war considering all the suffering that accompanies it.


Great heroes like Achilles of Greece and Hector of Troy make the ultimate sacrifice giving up prosperous futures for the acts of two very undeserving characters, Helen and Paris.  In the end great Achilles and the King of Troy bond together in tears as if it were a truce that would lead to peace but we learn from other sources that Achilles is killed, Troy destroyed and that the Greeks commit great atrocities that anger the gods into vengefulness. 


We turn next to Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus is lost at sea for ten years suffering a great deal due to the war and its aftermath.  This may be a modern reading into of this poem but perhaps this signifies post traumatic stress syndrome where anguish continues even after the war.  Is this farfetched?  Hardly considering that the Greeks are as human as we and war would have a bad effect on their heroes as it does on ours.


There is also Aeschylus’ Agamemnon where the king of Greece sacrifices his daughter to ensure victory angering his wife so much so that she kills him on his return from the Trojan War.  War destroys a great deal but it also destroys families sort of like we see in films like Coming Home and the Deer Hunter.


Finally there is the Lysistrata by Aristophanes which is explicitly anti war with the Greek women holding back sex until the war in that play is ended leading one to wonder if such a measure should have been undertaken over ten years ago by American women at the beginning of the Iraq War.


We could go on with much more in the way of Greek literature but the message is clear, war is bad and that both those who wage it and those that do not suffer immeasurably in the end.