Insights from the Study of Sword Combat in The Iliad



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The Iliad contains some of the most detailed descriptions of combat of any well known literary work. Analyzing these combat scenes, inconsistencies in the way swordfighting is portrayed begin to appear in different sections of the epic. Books 1-11 of the Iliad mostly reflect the Late Bronze Age development of “slashing” swords that decapitate and fell limbs from their enemies. However, Books 12-24 focus on the Early Bronze Age invention of primitive “stabbing” swords, in which the wielder would thrust into their opponent’s torso to kill them. These stylistic differences suggest at least two independent moments of composition, hinting at multiple authors with differing understandings of Bronze Age warfare. Another anomaly arises in Book 13 with the introduction of the repeated phrase “stabbing with swords and leaf-headed spears,” a motif which quickly vanishes after Book 17. This shift further complicates the Homeric question by hindering the unity of the poem overall. These sword-related discrepancies in the Iliad necessitate that the epic be approached with caution when placing it in an accurate historical context, or when making an argument about authorship.

This project won first place in the 2023 Signature Course Information Literacy Award (awarded for work completed in 2023). The award recognizes exemplary student work that achieves the learning outcomes of the Signature Course information literacy requirement, that students will be able to create and execute a research strategy, critically evaluate information, and navigate the scholarly conversation. Joshua Maxwell was nominated by Dr. Adam Rabinowitz for his paper “Insights from the Study of Sword Combat in the Iliad.” from UGS 302: Tales from the Trojan War. Dr. Rabinowitz said of his paper " Joshua's research combined close reading of a primary source (the Iliad) with exploration of a series of secondary sources related to Bronze Age arms and armor to make a sophisticated argument about chronological differences in the depiction of sword-fighting across the poem. I was impressed by his ability to muster both the primary and secondary sources coherently and thoughtfully.... What really stood out in Joshua's research process, however, was his ability to deal with conflicts and contradictions in the secondary scholarship -- both between scholars and, in some cases, in different works by the same scholar. … he attempted to find a way to reconcile the contradictions in his argument. This ability to hold multiple conflicting interpretations in one's head at once and then navigate between them in an argument, rather than simply ignoring the interpretations that don't match one's own conclusions, is a major hallmark of research skill and information literacy…."


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