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Putting it bluntly: communication skills in the Iliad
  1. R J Marshall,
  2. A Bleakley
  1. Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry, Knowledge Spa, Royal Cornwall Hospital, Truro, Cornwall, UK
  1. Dr R J Marshall, Department of Pathology, Royal Cornwall Hospitals, Truro, Cornwall TR1 3LJ, UK; robert.marshall{at}


In current undergraduate medical curricula, much emphasis is placed on learning the skills of communication. This paper looks at Homer’s Iliad and argues that from it we may learn that our skills can be mechanistic, shallow and simplistic. Homer was regarded in the Greek and Roman world as the father of rhetoric. This reputation rested greatly on book 9 of the Iliad, the embassy from the Greek leaders to the bitter, wrathful Achilles. The mission of the three emissaries is to persuade him to return to the ranks of the Greeks, who are being routed since his refusal to fight. We learn how the outcome of a conversation may be predetermined by the previous relationship of the speakers, and how a man beyond reason responds to reason; we should reflect that Homer’s audience heard the piece knowing the outcome, giving it a tragic inevitability. We, the audience, cannot analyse the discourse rationally, because in this, as in all communication, reason is disturbed by emotion.

  • Homer
  • Iliad
  • communication skills
  • classical literature

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  • Competing interests: None declared.

  • i Translations are the attempts of RJM, and are literal rather than poetic. Line numbers in this paper refer to the Oxford University Press edition of 1959.2

  • ii We use the name Homer as a convention for the final “setter-down” of a story narrated orally for centuries. On the issue of authorship, see Kirk.3

  • iii A discussion of its meaning in this context is given by Hainsworth,6 and there is a wider discussion in the first chapter of Dodds.7