Because Homer’s subject is a siege five centuries old, his battlefield is full of military incongruities. He and his audience remembered, for instance, that the chieftains fought in chariots; but because men of the late eighth century [B.C.E.] had no idea how such warfare might have been conducted, Homer has his charioteers drop the heroes off on the battlefield where they dismount and then fight, often in close formation. The chariots, dimly recalled as essential equipage for aristocratic warfare, have little use in Homer beyond the aura of antiquity they lend to the proceedings. Once the heroes have dismounted, they appear to be much closer in technique and dress to the hoplite infantrymen of Homer’s own day, who wore heavy armor—helmet, shield, breastplate, greaves, sword, spear, and other bodily defenses that may have come to seventy pounds—fought in tight formation, and engaged the enemy at close quarters. They did not fling javelins from chariots as their ancestors had once done in a less populous world where warfare more closely resembled a game of chicken or a gang rumble than the massing of two trained armies on a field.
I thought about D&D a lot while I was reading it, because I think the case can quite easily be made that The Iliad is the most D&D thing ever written other than D&D itself (or, vice versa, that D&D is the most Iliad thing ever written other than The Iliad itself, except obviously Mazes & Minotaurs?). What is Achilleus, other than a 20th-level fighter in comparison to the 1st-4th level Trojans he dispatches with ruthless ease? What are the Achaean invaders, if not murderhobos in search of booty, glory and XP at the expense of all else? How else can the behaviour of the protagonists be explained, other than that they are being controlled by the kind of wild uber-machismo that often overtakes groups of teenage D&D nerds?
In folklore and saga, gifts from fairies or higher powers to a mortal prince are usually magical. A magic spear would return to its master when hurled; magic horses would convey him safely out of battle; and magic armor would make the hero invulnerable. Typically, Homer has suppressed all such outlandish protection; no hero fighting at Troy has any charm or power to escape death. Nonetheless, as will shortly be revealed, remnants of the original attributes of each of Peleus’ divine gifts are discernible in the Iliad, although transformed and turned by Homer to tragic effect….
Of the many deaths the Iliad records, no other resembles that of Patroklos. Nowhere is the pitiful vulnerability of a mortal so exploited as it is by the savage malevolence of Apollo’s blow and the hounding of the wounded man as he tries to shun death among his companions. The horror of this extraordinary scene is reinforced by the resonance of two disparate, submerged traditions. One of these concerns that magic armor, worn by the folktale predecessors of Achilles, whose fairy-tale function had undoubtedly been to render its wearer invulnerable. As has been said, Homer severely repressed any hint that the armor given by the gods to Peleus had supernatural properties, yet he allows one aspect of this ancient motif to surface here, turning it to electrifying effect—Patroklos must be stripped of the armor before he can be killed. Thus Apollo’s savage blow strikes off his helmet and breaks the corselet upon him. Patroklos is killed—slaughtered—naked.
— The War That Killed Achilles, pp. 132, 140-41
The Iliad is not just a glorious poem—it is a textbook, and was taken as such throughout the history of the ancient world. How should you defend a gate? Like Telamonian Ajax. How should you follow up an attack? Like Hector, “flame-like,” when he drove the Danaans back on their ships. How should you handle your most powerful weapon? Not, presumably, as Agamemnon handled Achilles.
The subject of heroic poetry is the hero, and the hero is a man who behaves in certain ways, pursuing specified goals by his personal courage and bravery. However, the hero lives in, and is moulded by, a social system and a culture, and his actions are intelligible only by reference to them. That is true even when the poet’s narrative appears to ignore everything and everyone but the heroes.
No one who reads the Iliad can fail to be struck by the peculiar character of the fighting. There are tens of thousands of soldiers on hand, yet the poet has eyes only for Ajax or Achilles or Hector or Aeneas. In itself, such a literary device is commonplace; it is a very rare artist who has both reason and genius enough to re-create masses of men in battle. Nor is there historical objection to the individual combat between champions, as between Achilles and Hector, or, even more interesting in some ways, between Ajax and Hector, ending in a draw and an exchange of gifts. The false note comes in the full-scale fighting. There the confusion is indescribable. No one commands or gives orders. Men enter the battle and leave at their own pleasure; they select their individual opponents; they group and regroup for purely personal reasons. And the disorganization, unlike the chaotic movements in a war novel like Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, does not stem from the breakdown of an original plan of action but from the poet’s concentration on his heroes as individuals. He must bring in the army as a whole to maintain the necessary realism of the war story, but he returns to the central figures as quickly as possible.