views updated Jun 27 2018

750 b.c.

The cover of a recent translation of the Iliad (published by Hackett in 1997) features a black-and-white photograph of the 1944 D-Day landing at Normandy, as seen from the point of view of a soldier about to jump from the open door of the troop transport into the freezing surf. This image draws a parallel between the allies of World War II and the Greek armies of the Iliad. The relevance of Homer's ancient war epic to the world wars of the twentieth century was not lost on those participants who had read it. In 1915, the young British soldier Patrick Shaw-Stewart, during a three-day leave from the Battle of Gallipoli in the Dardanelles, not far from ancient Troy, wrote the following lines in an untitled poem:

    Was it so hard, Achilles,
    So very hard to die?
    Thou knewest and I know not—
    So much the happier I.

Shaw-Stewart, contemplating his own role as soldier, identified with the warrior-hero Achilles' struggles to subordinate his personal anger to the larger demands of his role as a warrior. Shaw-Stewart was not fated to survive the war, but unlike Achilles, he did not possess foreknowledge of his fate. Achilles is more than merely human: he is the son of a mortal, Peleus, and Thetis, a sea nymph. Thetis dipped her infant son into the river Styx, hoping to make him immortal. This made Achilles largely invulnerable, but he could still be struck down in the heel, where Thetis had held him while dipping him in the river. Achilles is thus the ideal character with which to explore the Iliad's central theme of mortality. Achilles' divine aspects make him all the more poignantly aware of his human condition.

The immediate cause of the Trojan War is Helen, the world's most beautiful woman. Christopher Marlowe describes her in his play Dr. Faustus as having the "face that launched a thousand ships." She leaves her husband Menelaus for the Trojan prince Paris after he visits their palace in Argos on the Peloponnese, a peninsula south of the Greek mainland. Menelaus's brother Agamemnon subsequently leads the chieftains of Greece on a rescue and pillage mission across the Aegean Sea to Troy, a city on the western coast of Asia Minor (in modern-day Turkey). What follows is the decade-long Trojan War, featuring men who will become heroes and leaders not only for the Greeks and Trojans, but for readers throughout the ages.

The Iliad is a landmark in Western culture: it is the earliest literary masterpiece of the Classical tradition, an era in Greco-Roman culture lasting from approximately 1500 b.c. to 400 a.d.. Homer's nearly sixteen-hundred-line poem, along with his other great work, the Odyssey, constitute what is called the Homeric epic. Its grand, imaginative scope set the standard for generations of future epic poets and artists. Later epics, such as Virgil's Aeneid, Dante's Divine Comedy, and Milton's Paradise Lost, all reflect Homer's influence.


Scholars estimate that the Iliad was first written down between 750 and 700 b.c., shortly after the Greeks first adapted their alphabet from the Phoenicians. Homer lived during the Archaic Period (800–480 a.d.), a period of rejuvenated commerce, colonization, and culture following the Iron Age (approximately 1100–800 b.c.).

For centuries, people believed that Homer was the single author behind the Iliad, but most scholars now believe that Homer's role was more akin to that of a scribe-compiler, assembling earlier oral tales into a single large epic. These tales were developed throughout the Iron Age by bards—in Greek, aoidoi—who chanted the words while accompanying themselves with a primitive stringed instrument called a kithara. With no physical evidence to go on, scholars inquire into the poem's authorship in a centuries-old set of mysteries called the Homeric Question: Was Homer a composite legend or a real person? Was he an oral poet or a recording scribe? Did the same person write the Iliad and the Odyssey? When were the poems written? Where? Was Homer a soldier? Could Homer have possibly been a woman?

Formal aspects of Homer's poetry, such as its meter and the formulaic repetition of phrases, as well as entire sequences and scenes, have led scholars to conclude that the poetry was composed without the use of written language and before the acquisition of a Greek alphabet. Out of the illiterate centuries of the Iron Age, this poetry apparently emerged from generations of traditional singers who performed and developed the different stories that would become the Iliad. This does not diminish Homer's accomplishment. At the very least, Homer is responsible for collecting these various stories and uniting them in a single written style for the first time. In addition, Homer fills the epic with a perspective unique to his time and culture.


Book I

The Iliad begins in medias res, in the middle of the action, in the ninth year of the Trojan War. The Greek army suffers under a plague sent by the god Apollo to punish them for having abducted one of his priestesses, Chryseis. Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces, took her as a war prize. Her father, a priest named Chryses, insists she be returned. When Agamemnon is forced to relinquish her, he takes Briseis—a slave-girl who belongs to the Greek's greatest warrior, Achilles—as recompense. Angered by the Agamemnon's unfair actions, Achilles withdraws himself and his men, the Myrmidons, from the war. He asks his mother Thetis to convince Zeus, the divine ruler of the earth, to let the Trojans temporarily gain the upper hand in the war, so the Greeks will regret his absence. On Mount Olympus, Zeus grants Thetis's request, angering his wife, the goddess Hera, who supports the Greeks.

Book II

Prompted by a deceptive dream sent by Zeus, Agamemnon meets with his council of chieftains and announces that they should attack the Trojans. He then assembles the full army and, to test their resolve, tells them they should abandon the war and return home. Instead of contradicting him as he had hoped, Agamemnon's men assent and immediately begin preparations to sail home. The hero, Odysseus, stops the retreat by moving through the ranks, appealing to leaders with moral arguments and to commoners with force. The army reassembles, and a commoner, Thersites, addresses the men, arguing that Agamemnon is wrong to have dishonored Achilles. Odysseus tells Thersites not to defy his superiors, and the soldiers laugh and cheer as Agamemnon humiliates and thrashes Thersites. The book concludes with a catalogue of ships; the heroes of both sides are listed, along with their obscure lineages and kingdoms.

Book III

To end the war, Paris and Menelaus agree to fight one another for Helen. In preparation, both armies stand down and offer sacrifices. Inside Troy, Helen weaves a shroud portraying scenes from the war. Atop the city walls, she confides her homesickness and self-loathing to Priam, king of Troy. Looking over the plain of Scamander at the warrior hordes below, Helen points out familiar Greeks to the king. Menelaus quickly gains the upper hand against Paris as they duel, and he closes in with his sword drawn. Divine intervention saves Paris when Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual desire, whisks him from the battlefield to his bedroom. Aphrodite then forces Helen to make love with Paris.

Book IV

The gods drink nectar on a golden terrace and debate how the war should end. Zeus and Aphrodite support the Trojans, while Hera and Athena support the Greeks. Zeus concedes to his wife, agreeing to let her continue to assault Troy, his favorite city, and claims the future right to sack one of her favorite Greek cities in return. Athena is dispatched to restart the war, which she does by impersonating a Trojan soldier and convincing another to shoot an arrow at Menelaus. The war resumes, and Agamemnon moves through the ranks, alternately berating his soldiers and encouraging them to fight well. The Trojans attack and both sides suffer losses.

Book V

Athena notices that Ares, the god of war, is helping the Trojans and suggests they both stop interfering. Instead of intervening, they sit on the bank of the Scamander River to watch the intense fighting. Athena breaks the truce with Ares when Diomedes, a Greek hero, prays to her for help. She triples his fury and he begins his aristeia, or scene of greatest battlefield accomplishment. He kills many men and nearly kills Aeneas, brother of Hector and member of the Trojan royal family. However, he is thwarted by Aphrodite. Athena has given Diomedes permission to wound Aphrodite, and he nicks her wrist. Apollo intervenes to defend Aeneas by impersonating him and misleading Diomedes, who turns his attention to Hector, the Trojan's foremost warrior. The Trojans gain ground against the Greeks. Athena berates Diomedes for not fighting more arrogantly against the gods. She grants him permission to fight Ares, whom he wounds in the gut. Ares whines to Zeus, but Zeus has no pity for the god of war.

Book VI

A Trojan, Glaucus, and the Greek Diomedes meet to fight but realize that their families have a history of shared hospitality (xenia); therefore, they vow to win glory by killing other warriors rather than one another. They then decide to trade armor, and Homer tells readers that Diomedes got the best of Glaucus, "For he exchanged his golden armor for bronze, / The worth of one hundred oxen for nine." In Troy, there is tension in the royal family. Hector despises his playboy brother Paris, and chastises him for waiting the battle out in his room. Paris vows to rejoin the fight soon. Hector visits his wife, Andromache, and son, Astyanax, in one of the poem's most memorable scenes. As they stand atop the walls of Troy, Hector tells his wife that he knows Troy will perish and fears what will be said of him if she is sold into slavery. Hector frightens his infant son when he reaches out for him while wearing his horsehair-plumed helmet. After removing his helmet, Hector says that he hopes his son's achievements as a warrior will outshine his own.

Book VII

Hector challenges any Greek to fight him in single combat. Menelaus wants to accept the challenge, but Nestor, a wise old advisor, warns him not to, and Agamemnon forbids it. Ajax, a giant Greek warrior, fights instead, but the battle ends in a truce when the sun begins to set. Peace negotiations are blocked because Paris refuses to let Helen's to go back to Menelaus. The Trojans offer to return the rest of their plunder, but the Greeks decline. Both sides agree to a temporary burial truce. During the lull in fighting, Nestor suggests they build a defensive wall and a trench to protect the ships.


The Trojans continue to beat the Greeks across the plain of Scamander. Diomedes realizes that Zeus is favoring the Trojans and avoids confronting Hector. Hera is enraged to see her side suffering; she tries to recruit Poseidon, god of the sea, to help her, but he refuses. Hera and Athena attempt to intervene but Zeus stops them, threatening to hit their chariot with a thunderbolt. Night falls, and Hector decides that the Trojans should sleep outside the walls of Troy on the plain, so they will be in better position to take the Greek's ships in the morning.

Book IX

Agamemnon once again proposes that the Greeks abandon the war and return home. Agamemnon regrets having dishonored Achilles and sends Odysseus, Phoenix, and Ajax to offer him an impressive list of gifts, including the slave-girl Briseis and one of Agamemnon's own daughters as a wife, if only Achilles agrees to return to the war. The ambassadors find Achilles by the shore, playing the lyre with his closest companion, Patroclus. Achilles welcomes his friends. After eating and drinking, each man makes his appeal. Odysseus speaks first, repeating Agamemnon's extensive list and emphasizing all the honor that Achilles might yet win. Achilles makes an astounding reply. He no longer values honor or glory: "You die whether you slack off or work. / And what do I have for all my suffering, / Constantly putting my life on the line?" Achilles' mother, Thetis, has told him that he faces two possible fates: to live a long, uneventful domestic life, or to die a glorious, violent death in war. He has chosen the former. He is no longer willing to sacrifice his life for the plunder of war, because such gifts can be given and revoked according to the capricious whim of reckless leadership. Phoenix's appeal emphasizes his past relationship with Achilles, when he was like a father to him, and Phoenix reminds Achilles of his father Peleus. Achilles is unmoved, although he proposes that Phoenix forsake Agamemnon and sail home with them. The third appeal, from Ajax, comes closest to influencing Achilles. The great warrior appeals to Achilles' compassion for his fellow soldiers. Achilles sympathizes, yet vows not to return until the Trojans have set fire to the Myrmidon's ships. The envoies leave, their mission a failure.

Book X

Unable to sleep, Agamemnon assembles a night council in which Nestor solicits volunteers for a night raid on the Trojans. Diomedes steps up, and chooses Odysseus to accompany him. Meanwhile, Hector sends a soldier, Dolon, to spy on the Greeks. Odysseus and Diomedes ambush Dolon; they interrogate him, and when he begs for his life, they kill him. They attack the camp of the Thracians, Trojan allies, killing twelve of their men and escaping with a valuable chariot and team of horses.

Book XI

Agamemnon fights ferociously during his aristeia, killing many Trojans in scenes of graphic violence. Zeus sends Iris, the rainbow messenger goddess, to tell Hector to hold back until Agamemnon is wounded, at which point he will be able to take the Greek ships. Hector waits and, after Agamemnon is taken wounded from the field, kills many Greeks. Paris also succeeds in battle, wounding Diomedes and later Machaon, the Greek's surgeon. Back at his ships, Achilles sees Machaon returning wounded from battle and sends Patroclus to Nestor's tent to find out what happened. Nestor makes a longwinded speech about the military prowess of his younger days, and then advises Patroclus to lead the Myrmidons into battle wearing Achilles' armor. On his way back to Achilles, Patroclus sympathetically helps a fallen Greek warrior.

Book XII

The fighting continues at the Greek wall. The Trojan's horses refuse to cross the trench, so the soldiers attack on foot. The Trojans witness an omen from the gods: an eagle drops a snake over the army. Although Poulydamas interprets this as a bad sign for the Trojans, Hector continues to assault the wall. The Trojan ally Sarpedon, Zeus's half-human son, leads part of the attack and makes a speech to his fellow warrior, Glaucus, about the privilege and peril of being a member of the aristocratic warrior class. Because death is unavoidable, Sarpedon reasons, they should bravely enter battle to receive glory or give it to another. Despite Ajax's valiant defensive fighting, Hector throws a boulder through the wall and the Trojans enter the Greek camp.


In a scene depicted by many later artists, Poseidon, Zeus's brother, descends in a chariot drawn by a team of gold and bronze horses. He visits the Greeks, taking advantage of the fact that Zeus is momentarily distracted, and encourages them to keep fighting. Idomeneus, a Kretan fighting on the Greek side, has his aristeia. After much intense fighting, Hector heeds the warning that Poulydamas made in Book XII and orders the Trojans to prepare to withdraw.

Book XIV

With the best Greek warriors wounded, Agamemnon suggests, for the third time, that the Greeks return home. Odysseus points out the implausibility of successfully retreating in the middle of battle. Diomedes proposes that they continue to fight, which they do. Meanwhile, Hera schemes to divert her husband from the battle by seducing him atop Mount Ida. She anoints and clothes her body in scenes that contain meticulous description. She travels to meet Sleep, whom she bribes into helping her by offering a footstool and marriage to her daughter Grace. As she makes love with Zeus, thick grass and foliage sprout beneath them and a glimmering cloud of gold enfolds them. Afterwards, Zeus immediately falls into a deep sleep, allowing Poseidon to advance the cause of the Greeks. Ajax wounds Hector with a rock.

Book XV

Zeus awakens and realizes he has been tricked. He confronts Hera, who points out that Poseidon continues to help the Greeks, although she is not influencing him. Zeus dispatches Iris to tell Poseidon to stop, and dispatches Apollo to empower Hector. Zeus wants the Trojans to set fire to the Greek ships. This will trigger the events leading to the predestined fall of Troy. Hera convenes a meeting of all the gods on Mount Olympus, and tells them that it is pointless to resist Zeus's will. When Ares is told that his son Ascalaphus has been killed, he wants revenge; Athena chastises him, pointing out that defying Zeus will only lead to more suffering. The Trojans cross the trench again and attack the Greek ships. Hector holds fast to the prow of a Greek ship and shouts for his men to bring fire.

Book XVI

Patroclus, grieving for the dead, criticizes Achilles for his anger. Achilles loans Patroclus his armor so he can impersonate him and frighten the Trojans, with the important warning that he should only drive them from the ships, not all the way back to Troy. Achilles encourages his twenty-five hundred Myrmidons to battle, offering a libation to Zeus as they depart and asking that Patroclus be given bravery and a safe return. Homer foreshadows Patroclus's fate, writing that Zeus "granted half of it."

Meanwhile, Ajax cannot hold the Trojans off, and the ships are set on fire. The Myrmidons drive the Trojans back. Patroclus kills Sarpedon during his aristeia. A fight for Sarpedon's body ensues, with the Trojan Glaucus unable to keep the Greeks from stripping the corpse, which Apollo then whisks from the battlefield. Patroclus does not follow Achilles' instructions and attacks Troy's walls three times, only to be killed by Hector, who is helped by both Apollo and the Trojan warrior Euphorbos.


Menelaus and Ajax fight against Hector, Euphorbos, and other Trojans for the body of Patroclus. Hector strips Achilles' armor from the corpse and wears it. Zeus watches this and gives Hector extra strength as compensation for his imminent death. In a memorable scene, Achilles' immortal horses weep for the dead Patroclus. Hector and Aeneas try unsuccessfully to capture them. Menelaus sends a messenger to tell Achilles of Patroclus's death. The Trojans, still empowered by Zeus, nearly capture Patroclus's body, but Menelaus and Meriones are able to convey it back to the ships.


When Achilles receives word of his close friend's death, he enters a period of deep mourning. He cries and pours soot and filth over his head. Thetis grieves with him, and her many Nereid (water nymph) sisters join in. Mourning Patroclus, Thetis also seems to mourn her son's impending death. When she reminds him of his two possible fates, Achilles now realizes he has chosen to die gloriously and young, as he knows he will after he fights and kills Hector. In a famous scene, Achilles stands in the trench and shouts a battle cry; Athena shouts with him and wraps a crown of fire around his head. The terrified Trojans retreat. Achilles vows to avenge Patroclus, promising not only to kill Hector but also to sacrifice twelve Trojan youths. Meanwhile, Thetis visits Hephaistos, the gods' metalsmith, and convinces him to make a replacement set of armor for Achilles. Homer describes in great detail the shield that Hephaistos forges, which features images of warring and peaceful cities, agricultural practices, a wedding, and a trial.

Book XIX

The extent of Achilles' alienation from his warrior society is apparent in his refusal to bury Patroclus, his refusal to eat or drink until Hector is dead, and the fire imagery that pervades his descriptions in Books XVIII-XXII. Achilles and Agamemnon reconcile, but Achilles refuses the gifts promised in Book IX, further evidence that his wrath—which is now focused on Hector rather than Agamemnon—has taken him beyond the pale of normal Greek behavior. The slave-girl Briseis speaks her only lines in the poem, mourning Patroclus as though she is mourning her lover Achilles in advance. Achilles' aristeia begins as he arms himself for battle. He tells his horses to protect him, and one, Xanthus, replies that they will, but that his day of death approaches.

Book XX

Zeus allows the gods to intervene as they wish. Hera, Athena, Poseidon, Hermes, and Hephaistos help the Greeks. Apollo, Artemis, their mother Leto, Aphrodite, and the river god Xanthos help the Trojans. Achilles meets Aeneas on the battlefield, and they compare their divine lineages. Both men have divine mothers, although Aeneas's mother, Aphrodite, has more influence and power than Thetis. It appears that Achilles will kill Aeneas, but Poseidon blocks Achilles' view with a mist and slings Aeneas across the battlefield, claiming that Aeneas must survive to perpetuate the Trojan race after the city falls (according to the Roman poet Virgil's later work, the Aeneid, Aeneas does so in Rome, founding the ancient empire). Achilles and Hector encourage their respective troops and appear to be heading toward a confrontation. However, Apollo tells Hector to hold back, wrapping him in a thick mist, and transporting him to safety. Achilles' aristeia continues as he kills every enemy he encounters.

Book XXI

Achilles captures the twelve Trojan youths that he vowed to sacrifice, and sends them back to camp. In his enraged state, he kills Lycaon, a young warrior whom he had earlier spared, and throws his body in the river Scamander. But Xanthos is angered by the accumulated corpses of Achilles' victims that choke the river, which rises from its banks to fight Achilles. Athena sends Hephaistos to help Achilles. Hephaistos does so by burning the plain dry and forcing the river back to its banks. The gods continue to intervene in a free-for-all that leads them to fight one another. Athena strikes Ares down after he criticizes her for meddling. Then Athena strikes Aphrodite down when she tries to help Ares off the field. Poseidon berates Apollo for supporting the Trojans, especially since the two of them were cheated by Trojans years ago. Priam is worried; he opens the city gates for the Trojans to reenter, while Apollo uses a human decoy to lead Achilles away from Troy.


Achilles, realizing he has been tricked, heads back to Troy filled with murderous rage. Hector's parents implore their son not to fight, but Hector fears being remembered as a coward. He therefore faces Achilles, only to turn and run immediately. Achilles chases Hector around Troy three times. Zeus considers saving Hector, but Athena tells him the other gods will not support this. He weighs the fates of the two heroes on a scale and finds Hector's heavier, meaning that he will die. Athena appears to Hector disguised as his brother, Deiphobus, and convinces him to confront Achilles; she then disappears, leaving Hector alone. Hector proposes a non-mutilation treaty regardless of who wins, but Achilles dismisses it, saying he will eat Hector raw. Achilles' spear misses on his first throw, but Athena returns it to him. After Hector's throw bounces off Achilles' shield, Achilles' next spear mortally wounds Hector in the throat. The Greeks close in and begin mutilating the corpse. Achilles ties it to his chariot and drags it around the city walls, as the Trojans inside watch in horror.


Achilles refuses to wash the battle gore from his body until he has buried his friend Patroclus. Patroclus's ghost visits Achilles and requests a quick burial. After placing the body on a massive funeral pyre and beheading the twelve Trojan youths he promised to kill, Achilles burns Patroclus's body. Elaborate funeral games ensue, and the cast of Greek fighters all make a final appearance.


Killing Hector and burying Patroclus have not sated Achilles' anger. He still refuses to wash the battle gore from his body, and he continues abusing Hector's corpse, dragging it from his chariot each day. Apollo protects the body so it does not decay, even after twelve days. After some debate, Zeus decides that something must be done, so he sends Thetis to tell Achilles to ransom the body, which he agrees to do. Iris is sent to tell Priam to go to Achilles and request his son's body. Despite the protestations of his wife Hekabe, Priam makes the journey. Priam and Achilles meet and weep over their respective lost loved ones. After some speech-making, Achilles returns Hector's body and offers comfort to the old man. Through this sympathetic act, Achilles is able to confront his own grief. Finally Achilles returns to normalcy: eating, drinking, bathing, and once again sleeping beside his slave-girl Briseis. The poem ends as it began, in medias res: "That was the funeral of Hector, breaker of horses."


The Mythology of War

It seems obvious that the Iliad mythologizes war in a way that emphasizes glory and downplays the undeniable horror of such events. Indeed, any tale that features gods freely interacting with mortals is bound to be classified as myth. However, Homer detaches his glorified version of warfare from reality in many other ways as well.

Evoking an event that took place five centuries earlier, with no written records, Homer relies on imagination and oral tradition to provide what history cannot. It is no surprise, then, that his conception of Mycenaean warfare is a far cry from reality. For instance, chariots in the Iliad transport warriors to the battlefield, where they dismount and fight on foot. In reality, chariots were used to break through enemy ranks and launch arrow attacks. Their usage "more closely resembled a game of chicken or a gang rumble than the massing of two trained armies on a field," writes Thomas Cahill in Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter. Homer had to creatively imagine this aspect of warfare, because chariots disappeared from use in Greece during the Iron Age. Spears, too, are used in the Iliad as they were during the eighth century—typically carried, one in each hand, to be thrown, javelin-like, at the enemy. Bronze Age depictions, on the other hand, show warriors carrying a single, long spear more suited for thrusting than throwing. In addition, the Greeks' overall military strategy in the Iliad—laying siege to a city while setting up camp miles away by their ships—is illogical and does not resemble actual siege practice.

Honor and Greatness

A simplified view of battle pervades the Iliad. It is apparent in the focus on a small number of heroes, facing off in single combat. These spear-throwing duels are punctuated by long-winded speeches about honor, past greatness, and sometimes, ironically, the meaninglessness of words compared to action. These speeches allow warriors to determine how much honor they will gain by killing one another. Another important aspect of the Iliadic warrior ethic is timē, or the honor that a warrior receives as shown by his material plunders. We see how timē functions in Book I when Agamemnon feels his respect diminished by the loss of his captive girl Chryseis, and so takes Achille'ss Briseis in return. It also explains why warriors fight so viciously over the corpse and gear of the enemy dead; material trappings prove their worth as warriors.

The Homeric warriors' were committed to fighting valiantly and risking everything; in return, they expected to receive the best their society had to offer. The aristocratic warrior's identity was directly based on the timē received from bold action. Sarpedon, a Trojan ally, expresses it eloquently to his fellow countryman Glaucus:

    Glaucus, you know how you and I
    have the best of everything in Lycia—
    Seats, cuts of meat, full cups, everybody
    Looking at us as if we were gods? …
    Well, now we have to take our stand at the front,
    Where all the best fight, and face the heat of battle,
    So that many an armored Lycian will say
    "So they're not inglorious after all,
    Our Lycian lords who eat fat sheep
    And drink the sweetest wine. No,
    They're strong, and fight with our best."

These heroes are exceptional men; Homer views them with awe, from centuries of historical distance. Their greatness is manifest in the wealth and privilege they command. Achilles radically questions their ethic when he withdraws from the war. The story of Achilles both glorifies and challenges the war-mongering ideology of ancient Greece's warrior aristocracy. Homer does not shy away from the brutality of war, but he makes a point of including the other side of the story. The Trojans are not depicted as purely evil, but instead are vital, loving characters. Insofar as they fight to defend their families and city, they can even strike readers as more recognizably human than their Greek counterparts.


Though the Iliad presents an epic view of the Trojan War, its main focus is clearly Achilles. His need for vengeance drives the story from beginning to end.

Achilles engages in his first act of vengeance in Book I, after Agamemnon, who has lost a slave of his own, takes Achilles' slave-girl Briseis. Achilles stops fighting with the other Greeks, and asks the gods to cause the Greeks to fight badly. The Greeks lose ground, and Achilles, refuses to return to battle despite being offered numerous gifts—including the return of Briseis. Achilles does this for no other reason than to punish Agamemnon for his unfair behavior.

The tide turns in the Greek's favor, however, when Patroclus, Achilles' closest friend, is killed by the Trojan warrior Hector. Suddenly Achilles has found a new target for his vengeance, and he reenters the war with the goal of killing Hector to avenge Patroclus. In addition, Achilles vows to slay even more Trojan soldiers as revenge. He keeps his word on both counts. Even so, this is not enough to satisfy Achilles, and he avenges Patroclus further by dragging Hector's body behind his chariot for days.

In the end, it is not Hector's death that eliminates Achilles' thirst for vengeance; instead, it is the human act of offering comfort to Hector's grieving father. Achilles then finally realizes that his reckless rage will not bring Patroclus back. At the cost of hundreds of lives, Achilles finally breaks free of his need for vengeance.


Throughout the poem, Homer includes much more than the world of war. He evokes snowy mountain passes, pastures of goats, crashing waves of the Aegean Sea, and other peacetime scenes through similes and digressions. In Book XVIII, Thetis procures armor from the fire god, Hephaistos, for her son Achilles to wear into battle. Etched onto the shield are images of two cities: one at war, the other at peace. This fascinating shield, full of detail and motion, neatly symbolizes the Iliad, representing a total worldview that includes divine and human life, war and peace, all built on the durable metal of battle. Even the peaceful city etched on the shield contains figures in conflict, arguing their cases before judges.

Although the Iliad seldom deviates from its solemn, antiquated tone, the poem imaginatively encompasses the struggle that defines life both on the battlefield and within the city walls. As Achilles finally chases the panic-stricken Hector around Troy, the two warriors run past a natural spring: "There were broad basins there, lined with stone / Where the Trojan women used to wash their silky clothes / In the days of peace, before the Greeks came."

This brief passage, easily overlooked, exemplifies Homer at his best, using their absence to highlight the details of a larger world. Although the passage is set at the site of a deadly race, it was once a scene of domestic peace, and this reminds the reader of all that Hector has fought for, and all that will soon be annihilated. Even as Hector defends himself in a struggle that he knows he will lose, he continues to hope, against the odds, that he might somehow survive. It is not Hector's death that ultimately dispels Achilles' wrath, but rather the human act of offering comfort to another grieving person. Achilles' realization that all his reckless rage will not revive Patroclus brings him peace, but this comes only after he has killed hundreds of men. The Iliad conveys a sense of war's horror, but more than anything it overwhelmingly conveys war's glory.


Literary Precursors

Despite its status as the wellspring of Western literature, the Iliad owes a debt to earlier cultural traditions. Folk tales such as the episode in Book XXI, in which the river Scamander rises up to do battle with Achilles, and the Odysseus and Diomedes' night raid in Book X, reflect earlier myths. The Achilles-Patroclus plot resembles that of the Mesopotamian epic Gilgamesh, a poem from the third millennium b.c.. The meter of the Iliad resembles that of ancient Vedic verse, linking the Homeric epic to the culture of the Indo-Europeans who migrated into the area from the Russian steppes around 2000 b.c.. In "Some Possible Indo-European Themes in the Iliad," C. Scott Littleton argues that the poem reflects the tripartite ideology of the Indo-Europeans, which values the maintenance of juridical sovereignty, the exercise of military prowess, and the provision of nourishment.

The Rise and Fall of the Mycenaeans

The Mycenaean civilization of the Peloponnesus developed in the centuries leading up to the late Bronze Age (1600–1100 b.c.), the poem's setting. During this period, the palaces of Mycenae, Tyrins, Pylos, and Knossos were militaristic bureaucracies that functioned as distribution centers for goods and the products of agriculture. In 1952, scientists deciphered the syllable-based language found on clay tablets at sites of Mycenaean ruins (called Linear B). This work confirmed a rudimentary literacy during the Bronze Age. This early written form of Greek, however, was only used for utilitarian purposes, such as palace bookkeeping and keeping inventory.

The mysterious dissolution of these kingdoms sent the region into a period of cultural and technological regression. The Ionian Greeks moved eastward—either because the Dorian Greeks invaded, or, more likely, a natural disaster of some sort—and some of them resettled along the west coast of Asia Minor. Literacy and many technical capabilities, such as the ability to combine copper and tin to produce bronze, were lost in the process. This era is called the Iron Age because without bronze, people made their tools and weapons from iron. There is evidence that the Iliad, in some form, was passed down orally through the centuries between the end of Mycenaean splendor and the rebirth of Greek civilization, and that Homer compiled various songs to form the foundation of his epic.

The Trojan War: Myth or Reality?

Although the ancient Greeks believed that the Trojan War described in the poem was a real event, later readers thought the Iliad to be a legend based entirely in myth and imagination. This changed during the nineteenth century, when a wealthy German businessman named Heinrich Schliemann found the site of ancient Troy during an archeological dig on the western coast of Turkey. He discovered Bronze Age relics there, as well as at other sites at Mycenae and Pylos. According to Cahill in Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, upon unearthing a gold burial mask at Mycenae, he famously (though mistakenly) declared: "I have looked upon the face of Agamemnon."

Unfortunately, there is evidence that Schliemann was capable of exaggeration, deception, and perhaps even forgery. Nonetheless, his early excavations supported the idea that the Iliad was based on an actual conflict that took place around 1184 b.c. at Hisarlik. There is archeological evidence of a huge fire there around this time, which may well have been started by the Greek armies that Homer calls the Achaeans, Danaans, and Argives. However, the specific details of character and plot found in the Iliad are most certainly the product of poetic imagination.

Sociopolitical Structures in the Iron Age

Many of the details in the poem reflect the society of eighth-century b.c. Greece, rather than that of the earlier Bronze Age. Sociopolitical structures were in transition during Homer's day. The basic social unit during the Iron Age had been the oikos, or household, which was run by a basileus—patriarchal chieftain—and included his immediate family as well as servants who worked the fields. As a basileus's reputation and power spread, he would attract followers—hetairoi—to join his household. Oikoi would combine into larger groups, which produced a new social form called the polis, or city-state, the democratic potential of which would be realized during the Archaic (800–480 a.d.) and Classical (479–323 a.d.) periods. Free adult males would meet at the agora—a sort of town square—and hold open debate on important issues. There is an example of this social structure in Book II of the Iliad, in which a common soldier, Thersites, speaks against Agamemnon, a basileus-like king. In this example, the common man is ridiculed and beaten down by Odysseus, another king.

The Iliad combines the emerging social structures and fighting specifics of the Archaic period with the political household arrangements of the Iron Age, and casts them back in time to an imagined Bronze Age.


As Christianity spread through Europe during the Middle Ages, Homer was considered to be pagan and went largely unread. Nonetheless, he had a powerful indirect effect via the many Roman authors he influenced, such as Virgil and Ovid. English translations of the Iliad first emerged in the 1560s and have been steadily produced ever since, along with dramatic, musical, fictional, and prose adaptations. The most famous of the classic English translations are those of George Chapman and Alexander Pope. Chapman's 1611 translation, written in iambic pentameter (an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, repeating five times per line), made a strong impression on the Romantic poets of the nineteenth century. Pat Rogers, in An Outline of English Literature, says modern readers are sometimes less taken with that translation, "a strange hybrid of Renaissance philological scholarship with a totally unhistorical attitude to classical culture" that turns Achilles into a virtuous knight. The heroic couplets (rhyming lines of iambic pentameter) of Pope's 1725 translation bring a grandeur to the poem that some feel is lacking in more recent colloquial (conversational) translations.

Unlike earlier readers who found their own values and perspectives reflected in the poem, Romantic readers (1780–1830) saw Homer as a remote Other, a wandering blind bard from the mists of prehistory. James Porter quotes the Romantic poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge in "Homer: The History of an Idea,": "There is no subjectivity whatever in the Homeric poetry." Still, the poetry often left the Romantics awestruck. William Godwin praised Homer as:

the Father of poetry, the eldest of historians, the collector & recorder of all that was then known, the parent of continuous narration, of imagery, of dramatic character, of dramatic dialogue, of a whole having beginning, middle, & end(quoted in Porter).

The English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, reading Chapman's translation, admired its "sustained grandeur" and "satisfying completeness" (quoted in Porter). John Keats praised it as "loud and bold" in his poem "On first looking into Chapman's Homer." Lord Byron was the quintessential Romantic figure; his death in 1824 death while fighting against the Ottoman Turks in the Greek War of Independence (1821–29) attests to the enduring allure of the Homeric hero.

A longstanding debate about the details of Homer's life, referred to as the Homeric Question, began in a 1795 essay by Friedrich August Wolf entitled "Prolegomena to Homer." He argued that a series of short songs were composed starting around 950 b.c., and then bards memorized them for performance, Wolf claimed these songs were not put down in writing until much later, during the sixth century b.c.. Wolf thought most of these poems were by Homer, but that some reflected later additions made by his followers. Wolf's view here was the first articulation of the argument of the Analysts, scholars who believe that the Iliad and the Odyssey are assemblages of various stories and legends which, when closely analyzed, reveal the work of multiple authors. On the other side of this ongoing debate are the Unitarian scholars, who see the poems as the work of a single genius, a position that is increasingly difficult to maintain, but nonetheless difficult for admirers of the poems' apparent cohesion and unity to abandon.

Homer remains fascinating to scholars, who continue to generate new theories and interpretations. The second half of the twentieth century has seen many impressive translations, including those by noted critics and academics E. V. Rieu, Robert Fagles, Richmond Lattimore, Robert Fitzgerald, Allen Mandelbaum, and Stanley Lombardo. Recent topics of interest in this field include the role of women: James L. Porter, for example, has examined the role of Helen. Warrior ethics continues to be an area of interest, and Gregory Nagy has written on the warrior virtue of kleos (glory). Jonathan Shay has compared the Iliad to narratives by Vietnam War veterans in Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character. Calling attention to the fact that the poem provides one of the first descriptions of large-scale war, Cahill connects the representations of massive military might in the Iliad with the doctrine of overwhelming force employed during modern U.S. interventions in the Persian Gulf.


Troy (2004), directed by Wolfgang Petersen and starring Brad Pitt, is a swords-and-sandals Hollywood blockbuster. Because it favors spectacular battle scenes over more formalized one-on-one confrontations, and eliminates the gods and goddesses entirely, this film version strays far from Homer. It is available on DVD from Warner Home Video.

Directed by Robert Wise, Helen of Troy (1956), attempts to improve on the original text by making the ending less bleak and including the Greek's Trojan Horse stratagem, which never appears in Homer's poem. The film does, however, maintain Homer's sympathetic treatment of the Trojans. Available on DVD from Warner Home Video.

A television version of Wise's movie about "the face that launched a thousand ships," Helen of Troy (2003), stars Sienna Guillory as Helen and Matthew Marsden as the Trojan prince Paris. Available on DVD from Universal Studios.

The Iliad (1992), by Classics on Cassette, is an award-winning nine-hour series of six cassettes, read by Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi. Though abridged, the recording includes many of the poem's most important passages. Unabridged audio recordings are also available from Naxos, Commuter's Library, and Blackstone Audio.


Cahill, Thomas, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter, Random House, 2003, pp. 14, 42.

Homer, Iliad, translated by Stanley Lombardo, Hackett Publishing Company, 1997.

Keats, John, "On first looking into Chapman's Homer," in English Romantic Poetry: An Anthology, edited by Stanley Appelbaum, Dover Publications, 1996, p. 189.

Littleton, C. Scott, "Some Possible Indo-European Themes in the Iliad," in Critical Essays on Homer, edited by Kenneth Atchity, G. K. Hall, 1987, pp. 132-45, 291.

Marlowe, Christopher, Dr. Faustus: The A-Text, edited by David Orderod and Christopher Wortham, University of Western Australia Press, 1985, p. 143.

Porter, James, "Homer: The History of an Idea," in The Cambridge Companion to Homer, edited by Robert Fowler, Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 324-43, 290, 335.

Rogers, Pat, An Outline of English Literature, Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 151.

Wolf, Friedrich August, "Prolegomena to Homer," translated by Grafton, Most, and Zetzel, Princeton University Press, 1985.


views updated Jun 11 2018


by Homer


A Greek epic poem, set in the ancient city of Troy (Ilios) around 1200 bce; composed around 750–700 bce.


A quarrel between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles disrupts the tenth year of the Trojan War, resulting in devastating losses for both the Greek and Trojan armies.

Events in History at the Time of the Epic

The Epic in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Epic Was Composed

For More Information

Little is known about the poet to whom the Iliad and the Odyssey are ascribed. Present scholarship believes that the two epics developed into their present form over many centuries, originating as songs. Although there has been debate over whether more than one person wrote down the two epics, most scholars also believe each poem to have had one final author who added passages that connected episodes and otherwise refined the overall story that each epic tells. The personal background of the Iliad’s author, who may have been called Homer, re-mains uncertain. The best evidence places his birth around the eighth century bce and his home ground in the city of Smyrna or Chios by the Aegean Sea. According to ancient tradition, Homer was blind, though this attribute, like other details of his life, remains debatable. It can be said with greater certainty that legends of a Trojan war that took place in Mycenaean times, some five centuries before Homer’s own day, circulated in his era and may have been frequently told in his birthplace. His epics probably preserve memories of events during the Mycenaean war more than the events themselves. Also they likely include elements that have been grafted onto the epics from post-Mycenaean times. Homer’s Iliad is in any case based upon legends that developed about the war, while the sequel, the Odyssey, relates subsequent events. Famous for its graphic depictions of battle, the Iliad contains vivid scenes of human suffering while capturing the heroic values and traditions of a bygone age.

Events in History at the Time of the Epic

The legend of the Trojan War

Although Homer’s epic covers only a brief but pivotal span of weeks during the last year of the war, he pre-supposes the reader’s knowledge of the various myths making up the saga. Throughout the Iliad, there are glancing references to those other myths.

The seeds for the Trojan War were first sown at the marriage of Peleus, king of Phthia, and Thetis, a goddess of the sea. All the gods were invited to the celebration, except Eris, the goddess of Discord. Angered, Eris intruded on the guests and flung a golden apple inscribed “for the fairest” among them. The goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite all laid claim to the apple, but none of the other gods could decide whom the winner should be. Zeus, the king of the gods, appointed a young shepherd, Paris, a son of the Trojan king Priam, to decide among the three. Vying for his favor, each of the goddesses promised Paris a reward if he picked her. Hera, Zeus’ wife and the goddess of marriage, promised wealth and lands; Athena, goddess of war and wisdom, promised fame and military glory; Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, promised Paris the most beautiful woman in the world as his bride. Paris chose Aphrodite, incurring the lasting enmity of Hera and Athena.

Paris soon traveled to Sparta, where he be-came a guest of King Menelaus and Queen Helen, the beautiful woman that Aphrodite had promised to him. Aided by the goddess, Paris ran off with Helen to Troy.

Accounts vary as to whether Helen was complicit in her flight from Sparta. In any case, when Menelaus discovered Paris’ treachery, he called upon his elder brother, King Agamemnon of Mycenae, for aid in recovering his wife and punishing his enemy. Agamemnon, in turn, summoned the many princes and chieftains who had wooed Helen before her marriage to accompany them. After Homer’s day (beginning in the sixth century bce), versions of the epic tale claim that prior to her marriage, Helen’s many suitors took an oath to fight on her husband’s side if anyone ever tried to abduct her. No doubt there were mixed motivations for joining the fight, including the winning of booty and fame. A huge expedition of Greek warriors, including the princes or chiefs and their ships full of followers, was launched to reclaim Helen and to wreak vengeance against the Trojans; its members included Odysseus, the king of Ithaca; Achilles, the son of Peleus and Thetis; and Diomedes, a ruler in the northern Peloponnesus (the peninsula that forms the southern part of mainland Greece).

Despite the might of the Greek army, the city of Troy (in northwest Asia Minor, a few miles or kilometers from the Aegean Sea) held out against the invading forces for ten years. Its strong walls and the prowess of its military leaders, especially Priam’s eldest son, Hector, enabled it to endure for a decade. Many warriors perished over the course of the war, including Hector, Achilles, and even Paris. Ultimately, the Greek army conquered Troy by trickery, building a huge wooden horse, which they left outside the city walls, and then sailing their ships out of sight. Believing their enemies had departed and left the horse behind as a gift, the Trojans dragged it inside the city. At night, the Greek warriors hidden within the horse’s hollow interior swarmed out and opened the city gates to the rest of their army. It proceeded to sack and burn Troy, and slaughter the city’s inhabitants, only a handful of whom escaped. Menelaus reclaimed Helen as his wife, while other Greeks took the surviving Trojan women as prizes, and the expedition finally sailed homeward.

Gods and heroes

While some religious practices varied from region to region, the Greek world appeared to worship the same group of major deities, or pantheon. Situated on Mount Olympus, a high mountain in central Greece, the pantheon consisted of a dozen gods, headed by Zeus, father of gods and men. The remaining eleven deities were all siblings, spouses, or off-spring of Zeus: Hera (goddess of marriage), Poseidon (god of the sea), Demeter (goddess of the harvest), Hestia (goddess of the hearth), Aphrodite (goddess of love and beauty), Athena (goddess of wisdom and war), Ares (god of war), Phoebus Apollo (god of healing and prophecy), Artemis (goddess of the hunt), Hermes (god of trade, commerce, and thieves), and Hephaestus (god of the forge). Later, Dionysus (god of wine) joined the Olympians. Zeus’ brother Hades, who ruled the underworld as god of the dead, figured among the mix of important deities too. There were also lesser deities, who inhabited forests, mountains, and bodies of water.

Although the Olympian gods could take other forms, they were usually envisioned as resembling humans in deeds as well as looks. Neither wholly good nor evil, they could be brave, cowardly, wise, foolish, merciful, cruel, loyal, or fickle, as the whim took them. At times, they quarreled among themselves like the members of any large, contentious family. Unlike humans, however, the gods were immortal, possessing eternal life and youth. Conscious of their own powers, they tended to treat human lives and struggles lightly, as a source of divine entertainment.

Nonetheless, mortals who won the gods’ favor could achieve wealth, power, and status with their help. It was apparently furthermore thought, in Homer’s day and earlier, that once a special class of mortals had existed, the heroes, men who were themselves born of or favored by the gods, such as Achilles, Aeneas, and Sarpedon, and there-fore enjoyed certain privileges. In the Iliad, Homer distinguishes between these heroes, descended from or favored by the gods and so regarded as semi-divine, and the common men who follow them into battle. The heroes’ continual displays of great physical strength and feats of valor set them apart from ordinary soldiers, whose roles are merely to fight and die. Significantly, though, even the heroes cannot avoid their destinies: Achilles, for example, is fated to die at Troy; Aeneas, to escape the fallen city and lead the surviving Trojans to another land.

To win the gods’ favor, humans prayed to their deity of choice, then offered a sacrifice (usually an animal that they slaughtered and roasted on the god’s altar), libation (drink), or gift in ex-change for the god’s aid. In reaction to the offering, the god either granted or denied the supplicant’s prayer. Apollo answers the prayers of a priest whose daughter has been taken prisoner by the Greeks; Agamemnon refuses to give her up for a ransom, so, in response to the priest’s prayer, Apollo visits a plague on the Greeks until they return her and sacrifice 100 oxen to him. Later in the epic, through prayers and votive offerings, the Trojan women beseech Athena to spare their city, but she ignores them because she favors the Greeks and resents Paris for not deeming her the fairest goddess.

Despite a tendency to treat mortal life lightly, the gods could become deeply involved in human troubles. In the Iliad, several of them take sides in the Trojan War. A few gods have offspring in the war and side with the army for which their children fight. From brief love affairs with humans, Aphrodite, Zeus, and Ares have mortal offspring whose army they favor. Other gods have a hand in the fray to avenge an insult—thus, Hera and Athena ally themselves with the Greeks because the Trojan prince Paris gave the golden apple not to them but to Aphrodite. Finally, a few mortals win divine aid simply because of their virtues. Apollo aids the Trojan warrior Hector on account of his valor, while Athena rewards the martial prowess of Diomedes and the cunning of Odysseus. In the end, an equal number of deities support either side:


*He favors the Trojans only briefly, and then it is because of an internal squabble among the Greeks, to help Achilles avenge an affront to his honor.

Greek warfare a la Homer

Homer’s writing conveys certain details about the way wars were fought, or perhaps more exactly, the way they were ideally fought. Communities at war tended to rely on friends and kinfolk to either volunteer manpower or comply with requests to join an invasion in return for a share of the expected war booty. An assortment of bands assembled, each congregating behind a head warrior. Some but not all conflicts also included a supreme commander. To mount an invasion, spearmen with shields would move together as a tight front line while archers shot their arrows over and around them. But mostly the fighting seems to have consisted of informal bouts of one-on-one combat. The focus of Homer’s battle description is on such combat between the leading heroes. High-status warriors would recognize each other by the chariot, a horse-drawn lightly wooded vehicle driven to the front by the warrior’s charioteer. The warrior would dismount, fight, then climb back up to stow his booty, doctor a wound, or ride elsewhere. The hit-and-run tactic was common; warriors saw no shame in fleeing before finishing off a wounded foe unless he was clearly weaker. Another common tactic was the surprise attack. Archers would leap from behind to shoot a victim unawares, warriors would stab a retreating foe in the back, and anyone recovering the corpse of a dead friend from the battlefield could easily be killed in the process.

The following scenario plays out repeatedly in Homer’s work, with slight variations to suit the individuals: the warriors leave their chariots to fight on foot, exchange ritual boasts and insults in an attempt to intimidate their opponent, and then engage each other in combat. Most heroes favor spears as their weapons—lighter ones for throwing, heavier ones for thrusting—but also use the broadsword for fighting in close quarters. The bow and arrow are usually reserved for the common soldiery or for a very few heroes. Significantly, Paris, one of the least skilled Trojan warriors, uses the bow and arrow.

The Troy of history

Interest in the city of Troy persisted for centuries. Despite the lack of written sources before Homer, his audience tended to believe that Troy was a real place on the western coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Ancient Greek historians such as Thucydides (c. 460–400 bce) believed at least partly in Homer’s story; Thucydides even composed a plausible account of how war might have broken out between Mycenae and Troy. Also ancient travelers claimed to have journeyed to Troy and seen the tombs of Hector and Achilles and other such sights. According to an account of the first century ce, Alexander the Great even laid a wreath on Achilles’ tomb, “calling him a lucky man, in that he had Homer to proclaim his deeds and pre-serve his memory” (Arrian in Wood, p. 30).

The first scholarly attempts to pinpoint Troy’s exact location occurred in the eighteenth century. In the mid-1800s Hissarlik, a mound on the northwest coast of Turkey, was identified with the lost city of Troy. The German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who had long been fascinated with the legends of ancient Greece, received most of the credit for this discovery.

Schliemann’s excavations, and later those of Carl Blegen, uncovered evidence of numerous civilizations having existed upon the site. The most likely models for Homer’s Troy were the civilizations designated as Troy VI (c. 1700–1270 bce) and Troy Vila (early 1100s bce). Both showed signs of having been destroyed by violence, whether natural or man-made, in the form of fallen masonry and traces of fire (at least one of these instances was probably an earthquake). Blegen asserted that the presence of a bronze arrowhead of Greek design was enough to make Troy Vlla the leading contender:

We believe that Troy Vlla has yielded actual evidence showing that the town was subject to siege, capture, and destruction by hostile forces at some time in the general period assigned by Greek tradition to the Trojan War, and that it may be safely identified as the Troy of Priam and of Homer.

(Blegen in Wood, p. 114)

While historians still question the degree of truth of Homer’s story, along with the findings of Schliemann and Blegen, many agree that there is sufficient evidence to suggest hostilities between Troy and Mycenae, which contributed to the decline of both civilizations.

The Mycenaean age

Heinrich Schliemann also uncovered the Mycenaean civilization, which dominated the classical world from 1600 to shortly after 1200 bce. The Greek-speaking Mycenaean peoples came from western Asia perhaps, settling in southern mainland Greece around 1900 bce. Mycenaean fortifications were established at Tiryns (south of the hilltop fortress of Mycenae), Pylos (on the southwest coast of the Peloponnese), Thebes (in central Greece), lolkos in Thessaly, and the Acropolis at Athens. Also Mycenaeans gained control over several Aegean islands, including Crete.

While many details of Mycenaean society had disappeared by the time the Homeric epics were composed, it appears that the Mycenaeans were city dwellers, governed by kings with the help of well-organized bureaucracies and a militaristic ruling class. Agamemnon in the Iliad may faintly recall Mycenaean rulers. Evidence of Mycenaean literacy has been found in the form of the script known as “Linear B,” used mainly to keep inventories and for other bureaucratic purposes. Archaeologists also uncovered pottery, weapons, and elaborate tombs, further evidence of the civilization’s wealth and craftsmanship. Unlike the Greeks in Homer’s poetry, the ancient Mycenaeans buried rather than cremated their dead (likewise, in the eighth century bce, when the Iliad was written, Greek society normally buried its dead). Besides their military abilities, Mycenaeans apparently flourished as traders in the Mediterranean region, exchanging goods with Egypt, Syria, Sicily, and southern Italy. Archaeological evidence—the discovery of Mycenaean weapons at the site designated as Troy—suggests that Mycenae and Troy were trading partners as well.

In 1939 an American named Carl Blegen dis-covered the “palace of Nestor,” named after the wise old Greek counselor from Pylos in the Iliad. Blegen’s discovery revealed the actual existence of a rich center of the Mycenaean world in the southwest corner of the Peloponnesus. Far from the great palaces of eastern and central Greece, the ruins suggest that in fact there existed wide-spread pockets of splendor in the Mycenaean world. From such sites comes evidence of this world’s downfall. The Mycenaean Empire collapsed around 1200 bce, after several of its great palaces were burned; it is not known whether foreign invasions or internal disputes were the cause. Then came the period from 1150 to 750 bce—the so-called Dark Age—which was marked by the loss of written communication, an increase of poverty, and the decline of the arts. While Homer’s Iliad is, in many respects, a product of its times and has perhaps even integrated material from a later era, it may also be read as an idealized recollection of the last years of Mycenae’s might, before its civilization was destroyed and the Dark Age ensued. In fact, the epic may draw on all three periods—the Mycenaean era (1600–1200 bce), the Dark Age (1150 to 750 bce), and Homer’s own eighth century bce.

The Epic in Focus

Plot summary

The epic begins with an invocation to the muse, describing the rage of Achilles “that cost the Greeks / Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls / Of heroes into Hades’ dark, / And left their bodies to rot as feasts / for dogs and birds as Zeus’ will was done” (Homer, Iliad, book 1, lines 2–6). The Trojan War is entering its tenth year, and the Greeks (alternately referred to as Achaeans, Argives, and Danaans), unable to take Troy itself, have instead been sacking and plundering the surrounding cities.

During their last campaign, the Greeks took the surviving women as spoils of war; one woman, Chryseis, the daughter of a priest of Apollo, became the prize of King Agamemnon, leader of the Greek expedition to Troy. Although Chryseis’ father tries to ransom his daughter, Agamemnon rejects his terms. The priest calls upon Apollo to punish the Greeks until they re-lease his daughter; Apollo strikes the army with a deadly plague. After ten days, the foremost Greeks meet to discuss the crisis. At Achilles’ urging, Agamemnon resentfully consents to return Chryseis, but only if Achilles yields to him another captive woman, Briseis. A violent quarrel erupts, and Achilles ultimately agrees to Agamemnon’s terms, but he is furious and feels that his honor has been compromised.

Swearing an oath that he will no longer fight for the Greeks until Agamemnon makes recompense, Achilles retires to his own encampment and calls upon his mother, the goddess Thetis, to help avenge the slight against him. At her son’s behest, Thetis appeals to Zeus, king of the gods, to make the Trojans victorious until the Greeks, especially Agamemnon, acknowledge Achilles’ superiority on the battlefield. Zeus grants her request, despite noting that his actions will cause further dissension on Mount Olympus, where even the gods have taken sides in the struggle.

Zeus sends a deceptive dream to Agamemnon that urges the king to muster the troops and at-tack Troy, promising that he will take the city at last. Heartened, Agamemnon assembles all the soldiers and tests their morale by suggesting that they abandon the war and sail for home. To his chagrin, the common soldiers rush to board the ships. With the help of the goddess Athena, Odysseus, king of Ithaca, manages to restore order and discipline, reminding the men of a prophecy that the Greeks will win the war in the tenth year. The soldiers agree to continue the fight, and heralds are dispatched to summon all the Greeks to battle. Achilles and his troops, the Myrmidons, are conspicuous by their absence.

Meanwhile, the Trojans, led by Priam’s eldest son, Hector, have also mustered for battle. When the two armies meet on the field, Hector and Paris propose that the issue of war be settled by single combat between Paris and Menelaus. The Greeks agree, and both sides swear to abide by the out-come of the match. While not the mightiest of the Greek warriors, Menelaus easily defeats the cowardly Paris, but Aphrodite rescues the Trojan prince from certain death and carries him safely back to his chamber in the royal palace. The goddess also reunites Paris with Helen, who has long since become disillusioned with her lover and now regrets her flight from Sparta.

Back on the battlefield, Hera and Athena manipulate the Trojans into breaking the truce. Fighting erupts on the plain in front of Troy, with significant losses on both sides. One Greek warrior, Diomedes, performs amazing feats of valor with the help of Athena, even wounding two of the gods—Aphrodite and Ares—who are trying to aid the Trojans. The Greeks succeed in pushing the Trojan forces back toward the city. Reentering his father’s palace, Hector urges his mother, Hecuba, to offer gifts and prayers to Athena to take pity on the Trojans. She obeys, but Athena, who favors the Greeks, ignores her supplications. Hector reunites briefly with his beloved wife, Andromache, and their infant son, Astyanax; the couple confesses their fears about Troy’s fate should Hector fall in battle, but he re-mains determined to defend his city. After retrieving Paris, who is still dallying with Helen, Hector returns to the war, where he has an inconclusive combat against the Greek champion



Achilles Son of Peleus, King of Phthia, and the sea goddess Thetis; leader of the Myrmidons; the mightiest Greek warrior

Briseis A woman from Lyrnessus, given as a war prize to Achilles but later seized by Agamemnon

Agamemnon King of Mycenae and commander-in-chief of the Greek forces in Troy

Chryseis Daughter of Chryses, a priest of Apollo, given as a war prize to Agamemnon who must return her to appease Apollo’s wrath

Ajax Son of Telamon, leader of the band from Salamis; the mightiest in battle after Achilles

Diomedes Leader of the bands from Argos and Tiryns; a skilled warrior favored by Athena

Menelaus King of Sparta and Agamemnon’s brother; the husband of Helen; a prominent warrior

Nestor Elderly king of Pylos, who serves as a wise counselor to the Greeks and participates, ineffectually, in the fight

Odysseus King of Ithaca, skilled fighter, orator, and problem-sol ver, favored by the goddess Athena

Patroclus A warrior in the Myrmidon contingent; Achilles’ closest friend and companion


Aeneas Son of Anchises and the goddess Aphrodite; renowned Trojan warrior who ultimately survives the war and escapes Troy

Hector Eldest son of Troy’s King Priam and Queen Hecuba; military leader of the Trojan forces; Troy’s foremost defender

Andromache Beloved wife of Hector and mother of their infant son, Astyanax

Paris (also called Alexandros) Hector’s younger brother and Helen’s lover; skilled archer but less esteemed than Hector

Helen Daughter of Zeus and Leda of Sparta, accounted the most beautiful woman in the world, married to Menelaus of Sparta until seduced and carried off by Paris, considered the cause of the Trojan War

Priam Wealthy, aged king of Troy

Hecuba Priam’s wife and queen of Troy

Sarpedon Son of Laodamia and the god Zeus, co-leader with his cousin Glaucus of the Lycians, who are Trojan allies

Ajax, son of Telamon. The two warriors exchange gifts at the end, and both armies agree to a brief truce to cremate their dead. The Greeks also spend the day building a wall and ditch to protect their shore-beached ships.

On Mount Olympus, Zeus forbids the other gods to intervene in the war on either side. When the battle resumes, he fulfills his promise to Thetis on behalf of her slighted son, Achilles, by favoring the Trojans over the Greeks. The tide of battle turns and the Greeks are forced back towards their ships, with the Trojans in pursuit. At a council of war, a demoralized Agamemnon admits to his fellow chieftains that he was wrong to offend Achilles and offers immediate restitution, including the return of Briseis, whom the king has not touched. Odysseus, Ajax, and Phoenix are dispatched to convey this message to Achilles, who remains hostile toward Agamemnon and refuses to return to the war, despite harrowing accounts of the Greeks’ misfortunes.

Although the appeal to Achilles failed, the Greeks are encouraged when Odysseus and Diomedes capture a Trojan spy who reveals military secrets about a Trojan ally, the king of Thrace. The two Greeks enter the Thracian encampment by night, kill several men, and steal the king’s horses.

Heartened, the Greeks meet the Trojans in battle the following day, but again Zeus favors the Trojans. Despite many deeds of valor, several important Greek commanders are wounded, including Agamemnon, Diomedes, and Odysseus. At this juncture, Achilles begins to take an interest in the fighting again, dispatching Patroclus to inquire about the Greek casualties. Nestor, an elderly Greek king, informs Patroclus of their wounded commanders, laments Achilles’ hard-heartedness and pride, and proposes that Patroclus assume Achilles’ armor and lead the Myrmi-dons into battle. Meanwhile, the Trojans, under Hector’s command, have breached the wall built by the Greeks to protect the ships.

Fighting to defend their ships, the Greeks are given a brief respite when Hera distracts Zeus with a love charm borrowed from Aphrodite. While Zeus sleeps, Poseidon, god of the sea, aids the Greeks. The wounded commanders return to battle to boost the troops’ morale, Ajax stuns Hector with a stone, and the Trojans are driven into retreat. On awakening, Zeus rebukes Hera for her duplicity, forces Poseidon to abandon the Greeks, and revives Hector, who helps his troops regain their lost ground. Reaching the ships at last, the Trojan army starts setting fire to the Greek vessels.

Patroclus persuades Achilles to lend him his armor so he can frighten the Trojans into believing he is the mighty Achilles as he leads the Myrmidons into battle. Achilles reluctantly agrees but commands his friend to return once he has driven the Trojans away from the ships. Armed like Achilles, Patroclus performs many deeds of valor, slaying several prominent Trojans and driving the army back toward the walls of Troy. With the help of Apollo, Hector slays Patroclus and claims Achilles’ armor for himself. The Greeks fight fiercely to defend Patroclus’ body, ultimately bearing it back to their encampment.

Grief-stricken over Patroclus’ death, Achilles renounces his anger against Agamemnon and vows to return to the war so he can avenge his fallen comrade. Thetis has Hephaestus, the god of the forge, fashion splendid new armor for her son. Achilles formally makes peace with Agamemnon, accepts the king’s gifts, including Briseis’ re-turn, and prepares for the upcoming battle.

Zeus grants the gods permission to engage in battle again if they choose; several descend to earth and openly oppose each other, including Hera, Athena, Apollo, Ares, and Aphrodite. The newly armed Achilles charges into battle and slaughters many Trojans on the bank of the river Xanthus, which becomes choked with corpses. The river god sends the waters rising up against Achilles in protest, but Hephaestus checks the water with fire. A disguised Apollo tricks Achilles into pursuing him long enough for the Trojan army to escape back into the city. On discovering the ruse, Achilles returns to the walls of Troy and finds Hector waiting alone for him outside the gates. They engage in single combat, which Achilles, aided by Athena, wins. The dying Hector pleads with Achilles to allow his body to be ransomed by his parents but Achilles refuses. Once dead, Hector is stripped of his armor and the other Greeks gather around to inflict more wounds on his corpse. In full view of the Trojans, Achilles ties Hector’s feet to his chariot and drags the body back in the dust to the Greek encampment. Priam, Hecuba, and Andromache lament Hector’s death.

Back among the Greeks, Achilles makes preparations for Patroclus’ funeral: his remains are cremated and Achilles kills 12 Trojan prisoners of war, who are also laid on the pyre as a sacrifice. Funeral games are held the following day, with Achilles offering prizes in such events as chariot racing, wrestling, and javelin throwing.

Achilles’ grief for Patroclus remains overwhelming, and he continues to drag Hector’s corpse—miraculously preserved from decomposition by the gods—behind his chariot. After nine days, Thetis, acting on Zeus’ commands, persuades her son to allow Hector’s body to be ransomed. Zeus also sends a heavenly messenger to Priam, bidding him go to Achilles’ tent that night with the ransom. Despite Hecuba’s fears, Priam loads a wagon with a rich ransom and sets out for the Greek camp. Guided by Hermes, Priam reaches his destination safely, kneels before Achilles, kisses his hand, and pleads for the re-turn of his dead son. Achilles receives him kindly and they weep together for their respective dead. Accepting the ransom, Achilles orders Hector’s body bathed and dressed for transport. The two men then eat together and a bed is provided for Priam. Achilles also agrees to a truce of 11 days for Hector’s funeral.

Before daybreak, Priam conducts Hector’s body back to Troy, again guided by Hermes. The Trojans mourn their champion’s loss, with Hecuba, Andromache, and Helen leading the laments. The epic concludes with a brief account of Hector’s cremation, and interment: “That was the funeral of Hector, breaker of horses” (Iliad, 24.860).

A warrior’s honor

In the Iliad, Homer’s warriors take to the battlefield for various reasons. The Trojan army fights for the defense of their homeland from hostile invaders. Other warriors may fight to avenge insults or slain comrades, as Achilles does for Patroclus. However, the Homeric warrior was also deeply concerned with his honor and reputation. Fighting valiantly, slaying many enemies, and acquiring a hefty share of the spoils were all ways to increase his status in the eyes of his society.

The pursuit of glory and honor led Homer’s heroes to behave in ways that modern readers might consider savage, even barbaric. In several instances, the victor not only kills his opponent but strips him of his armor and weapons, even at risk to personal safety. Warriors considered the acquisition of such trophies necessary to demonstrate their martial prowess. It was, in fact, common practice to plunder the enemy dead, even to the extent of going onto the battlefield at night to strip the corpses. Several warriors even boast about what they have taken; Idomenus, the Cretan commander, offers to lend his comrade Meriones a weapon, saying “spears I take off Trojans, / I kill in close combat. I have plenty, / Shields too, and helmets, and breastplates” (Iliad, 13.275–277). Not to be outdone, Meriones counters, “The hut by my tarred ships is also filled / With Trojan spoils, but it’s not close by. / I know what it means to fight up front / And win my share of glory in war. There might be one or two Greeks around / Who haven’t noticed, but not you” (Iliad, 13.279–284).

Even in death, honor remains a primary con-cern for Homeric warriors, who hope—often in vain—for proper funeral rites, cremation, and burial. Wartime savagery can prevent or delay such rites. The victors not only strip but also of ten mutilate the vanquished, mocking the latter in his last moments. The Greeks fight fiercely to prevent Patroclus’ corpse from suffering indignities like the ones they themselves inflict on Hector’s corpse. Gathering round, the Greeks stab


In the world of the lliad, a warrior won honor not only by defeating his opponent or outstripping his comrades in feats of arms but by receiving a sizable quantity of the prizes taken by the army. These spoils were distributed among the ranking warriors, each receiving a share commensurate with his position and achievements. Money, jewels, valuable weapons and artifacts, livestock, and even women all qualified as spoils of war.

The initial quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon erupts because Agamemnon, forced to yield up his female captive to her father, lays claim to a woman whom Achilles won in a previous campaign. Each man feels that his honor has been insulted and his status diminished by having to give up a prize. Achilles literally sulks in his tent, refusing to fight until his worth as a warrior is publicly recognized with greater gifts and the return of his prize. Significantly, the victors never take the feelings of the women themselves into consideration. As spoils of war, they were expected to accept their fate, whether it involved slavery or concubinage. Hector sadly predicts such a future for his beloved wife, Andromache, once Troy falls to the Greeks:

Deep in my heart I know too well
There will come a day when holy Ilion will perish…
All that pain is nothing to what I will feel
For you, when some bronze-armored Greek
Leads you away in tears, on your first day of slavery.
And you will work some other woman’s loom
In Argos or carry water from a Spartan spring.
All against your will, under great duress.
And someone, seeing you crying, will say,
“That is the wife of Hector, the best of all
The Trojans when they fought around IIion”

(Iliad, 6.470–471,477–485)

the Trojan prince’s body, jesting that “Hector’s a lot softer to the touch now/Than he was when he was burning our ships” (Iliad, 22.413–414).

Achilles makes sure his friend Patroclus receives the funeral he requests, followed by the posthumous honors due him. Proper disposal of the dead was believed to ease the soul’s passage from one world to the next. Instructed by the spirit of his dead friend, Achilles performs the rites exactly as the ghost asks, to the point of using an urn large enough to hold not only Patroclus’ ashes but his own when he too must die. After Patroclus’ cremation, his comrades honor the fallen soldier’s memory with feasting and contests of skill. Similar rituals mark Hector’s passing after Achilles relents and permits Priam to ransom his son’s body. The king of Troy negotiates a lengthy truce while Troy buries its greatest defender, explaining to Achilles, “We would mourn him for nine days in our halls, / And bury him on the tenth, and feast the people. / On the eleventh day we would heap a barrow over him, / And on the twelfth day fight, if fight we must” (Iliad, 24.714–717).

Greek attitudes to war

The attitude toward war in the Iliad seems deeply ambivalent. The Greek warrior fights for everlasting fame; Achilles, destined for either a long but obscure life or a brief but glorious one, chooses the latter almost without hesitation. However, death remains the common lot of mortals, as Achilles himself points out: “It doesn’t matter if you stay in camp or fight— / In the end, everybody comes out the same. / Coward and hero get the same reward: / You die whether you slack off or work” (Iliad, 9.324–327). The Trojans, fighting a defensive war, have even greater cause to be weary of the ongoing strife and to long for peace. At one point, Sarpedon of Lycia, a Trojan ally, remarks to his comrade Glaucus, “Ah, my friend, if you and I / Could get out of this war alive and then / Be immortal and ageless all of our days, / I would never again fight among the foremost / Or send you into battle where men win glory, / But, as it is, death is every-where” (Iliad, 12.333–338).

The ambivalence toward war expressed in Homer’s poems reflected that of many Greeks. War, in fact, was a recurring phenomenon, figuring largely in Greece’s history. Over the years, the Greek world had participated in such major conflicts as the Persian Wars, the Peloponnesian War and its sequels, the rise of Macedonia, and the conquests of Alexander the Great, as well as numerous local wars. War shaped Greek institutions, society, and economy; the Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed, “War is the father of all things” (Heraclitus in Hornblower and Spaw-forth, p. 774). However, the negative aspects of war were continually emphasized in Greek literature, not only in Homer’s epics but also in the tragic plays of the Greek dramatists. Moreover, the Greek historian Herodotus summed up the human cost of war in the following statement: “No one is so foolish as to prefer war to peace; in peace, children bury their fathers, while in war, fathers bury their children” (Herodotus in Hornblower and Spawforth, p. 774).

Sources and literary context

No single source appears to have inspired the Iliad. When composing his poem, Homer most likely drew upon the various legends concerning the Trojan War. The Iliad is concerned only with one slice of this war, that is, one episode in the string of these legends. Allusions to incidents not depicted in the Iliad —such as Helen’s flight to Troy or Achilles’ revelation that he is destined for an early death—suggest that the poet expected his audience to be familiar with these legends.

The Iliad and its sequel, the Odyssey, are “epics,” a term generally applied to narrative poems that illustrate the past deeds of gods, heroes, and men, frequently engaged in a grand and often perilous quest. The simplicity, directness, and frequent repetitiveness of Homer’s language—formulaic phrases such as “He fell / With a thud, and his armor clanged on his body” occur repeatedly throughout the Iliad (Iliad, 5.49–50)—seem to indicate that his works were initially meant to be recited before an audience rather than read. The formulaic language suggests that the works were conceived in the tradition of orally composed poetry (whether or not they were originally written).

Taken together, the Iliad and the Odyssey form part of what would later become the Epic Cycle that purports to tell the entire legend of the Trojan War. Besides Homer’s two epics, there were six shorter works, written by different authors, which fit in around the Iliad and Odyssey to relate a complete sequence of events from the marriage of Thetis and Peleus to the death of Odysseus many years after the fall of Troy. Chronologically, the Epic Cycle consists of Cypria, Iliad, Aithiopis, Little Iliad, Sack of Troy, Returns, Odyssey, and Telegony. Only the Iliad and the Odyssey survive in their entirety; the others exist only as summaries, attributed to an obscure writer called “Proclus” (c. second century ce). While the Iliad concerns one brief phase of the ten-year war, other works in the cycle focus on different aspects. The Cypria, for example, treats the causes and early events of the Trojan War; the Little Iliad, the death of Paris among many other events; The Sack of Troy, the wooden horse and the final capture of Troy. In general the six other poems in the cycle are regarded as more recent efforts than Homer’s epics, which were famous even in antiquity for their scope, length, and complex themes.

Events in History at the Time the Epic Was Composed

The Greek Renaissance

Around 800 bce the Greek world experienced a resurgence of cultural and social activity that some scholars have described as a renaissance. The Euboean cities of Chalcis and Eretria became the dominant settlements in Greece; they were largely responsible for establishing overseas trade—especially with the East—and colonial expansion. Euboeans also founded a trading post at Al Mina on the mouth of the Orontes (in north Syria), which became a mixed community of Greeks and Phoenicians, a Near Eastern people inhabiting the coast of the Levant.

Contact between Greeks and Phoenicians led to several important developments, the most significant being the Greeks’ adoption of the consonantal Phoenician alphabet. Writing was re-discovered, becoming widespread throughout the Greek world between 750 and 650 bce. Written records noted the first Olympic games, held in 776 bce; from 683 bce onward, Athenians inscribed lists of their magistrates on stone tablets. Even more significantly, poems and legends acquired a definite form. While songs of gods and heroes had long been part of Greece’s oral tradition and thus handed down to successive generations by word of mouth, they achieved a more lasting status through writing. Set down around 750 bce, the Iliad and the Odyssey may have been among the earliest works of literature to be thus preserved.


As one of the oldest surviving examples of Greek literature, Homer’s Iliad enjoyed lasting fame and popularity for over a thousand years. Homer himself was often hailed as an incomparable poet. Later classical writers—such as those whose works made up the Epic Cycle—drew upon Homer’s version of events to complete the saga of the Trojan War. That these works were lost while the Iliad and the Odyssey survived in-tact is perhaps a further testament to Homer’s supremacy among Greek poets.

Homer’s treatment of the Trojan War influenced not only writers but warriors as well. According to historians, the Persian king Xerxes and the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great both made pilgrimages to the site where Troy supposedly had stood. In addition, the Romans—who conquered Greece around 146 bce—also fell under Homer’s spell. Several prominent Romans, including Julius Caesar, claimed descent from Trojan heroes, and the Roman poet Virgil composed his own Homeric epic, the Aeneid (c. 30–19 bce), detailing the founding of Rome by the Trojan hero Aeneas, one of the few to escape from the fallen city.

Even after the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century ce, Homer’s epic continued to fascinate readers and historians. Medieval and Renaissance authors integrated elements of the Trojan legend into their own works. Benoît de Sainte-Maure, an Anglo-Norman trouvère (narrative poet) at the court of Henry II of England, composed Roman de Troie (c. 1160; Story of Troy) an influential vernacular poetic version. William Caxton subsequently translated Benoit’s work into English prose as Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye (c. 1475). Caxton’s version later influenced Shakespeare’s play Troilus and Cressida (c. 1603), about the doomed romance between a Trojan prince and a Trojan priest’s daughter, who proves faithless to her lover when given to the Greek warrior Diomedes as a war prize.

Despite the success of some of these later versions, the appeal of the original Iliad has endured. Numerous translations appeared in sixteenth-century England, including that of George Chapman in 1611. Noted for its vigor and energy, Chapman’s Homer was later praised in a sonnet written by the Romantic poet John Keats (1795–1821). During the eighteenth century, the English poet Alexander Pope composed another translation in heroic couplets, which won high praise. The translations into English continued, with one at the turn of the twenty-first century sizing up the poem’s achievement: “The violence of the Iliad can be overpowering… yet… Homer makes that violence coexist with humanity and compassion, as close together as the city of war and the city of peace emblazoned in Achilles’ shield (Fagles in Homer, The Iliad / Homer, p. xiv).

—Pamela S. Loy

For More Information

Bloom, Harold, ed. Homer’s The Iliad. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

Cantarella, Eva. Pandora’s Daughters. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Edwards, Mark. Homer, Poet of the Iliad. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Homer. Iliad. Trans. Stanley Lombardo. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997.

_____The Iliad of Homer. Trans. Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.

_____The Iliad / Homer. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1998.

Hornblower, Simon, and Antony Spawforth, eds. The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Powell, Barry B. Homer. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.

Van Wees, Hans. Greek Warfare. London: Gerald Duckworth, 2004.

_____. Status Warriors. Amsterdam: J. C. Gieben, 1992.

Vivante, Paolo. The Iliad. Boston: Twayne, 1991.

Wood, Michael. In Search of the Trojan War. New York: Facts on File, 1985.


views updated Jun 27 2018


by Homer


An epic poem set in ancient Greece, around 1200 b.c.: written around 750 b.c.


A Greek army has been at war for nine years when an internal quarrel breaks out between Achilles, the greatest warrior and Agamemnon, the most powerful king. The wrath of Achilles—its genesis, its effects, and its resolution—underlies an exploration of what it means to be a war hero.

Events in History at the Time the Poem Takes Place

The Poem in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Poem Was Composed

For More Information

The Greek poet Homer is credited with composing the Iliad, although the authorship of the epic remains uncertain. It is believed that Homer probably lived in the eighth century b.c. While scholars have made educated guesses about aspects of his life, nothing is known for certain. His birthplace may have been an island on the eastern edge of the Aegean Sea, or perhaps a city on the nearby coast. The population of both areas probably spoke of legends of the Trojan War—the subject of the Iliad. It is believed that the author of the Iliad composed the work before writing the Odyssey (also covered in Literature and Its Times), another narrative attributed to Homer, that describes events following the war.

Events in History at the Time the Poem Takes Place

The legend of the Trojan War

The Iliad is set during the Trojan War, in the ninth year of the legendary ten-year conflict, which ended in either 1184 or 1250 b.c., depending on the source consulted. The epic itself offers no explanations for why the war began or how it ends; Homer assumes that this information is familiar to his audience.

The legend of the Trojan War appears in many different Greek stories. All of these tales agree that the war started over a woman named Helen, who was reputed to be the most beautiful woman in the world. Helen was the wife of Menelaus of Sparta. Her married status, however, did not stop a Trojan prince named Paris from seducing her.

Paris traveled to Menelaus’s palace to collect Helen, who was given to him as a prize from Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Paris had gained Aphrodite’s favor because of his judgment that Aphrodite was more beautiful than either Athena, the goddess of wisdom, or Hera, the goddess of marriage. Aphrodite rewarded his judgment of the contest by granting him possession of the most beautiful mortal woman in the world. Paris carried Helen off to Troy and married her; whether or not this turn of events was to her liking is a matter of conjecture, but many versions of the story insist that she aided and abetted Paris in his abduction of her. In any event, Helen’s husband Menelaus was enraged. He took prompt action, beseeching his brother, King Agamemnon, for help in winning Helen back. Agamemnon assembled a huge fleet from all over Greece and sailed to attack Troy.

Although the Greek army was vast, the Trojans managed to hold out for ten years behind the city’s strong walls. Finally, realizing that Troy


Greek SpellingLatin Spelling

could not be taken by force, the Greeks devised an ingenious plan to infiltrate the city. They built a massive wooden horse and left it just outside the city walls. The Greek ships then sailed away, bearing their army. The Trojans believed that this signaled the end of the war, so they opened their gates and dragged the horse inside their city, taking it as a gift from their vanquished foes. Hidden in the horse’s wooden belly, however, were the Greeks’ finest warriors, who spilled out of their hiding place late at night and opened the city gates for the rest of their returned army. They sacked and burned Troy, slaughtering its inhabitants. Helen was then returned to her husband.

The existence of Troy

Ancient people claimed to have visited Troy and seen the graves of the heroes that died during the war. Although they recorded their findings in some detail, it was not until the late 1800s that archaeological digs in Turkey finally discovered the fabled city. A German businessman by the name of Heinrich Schlie-mann, who had been fascinated by ancient Greece since boyhood, was determined to find the legendary city of Troy. He reportedly used Homer’s own description of the city’s location to pinpoint a hill at the Turkish site of Hissarlik. Between 1871 and 1890, he and his Greek wife Sophie oversaw excavations there that unearthed a whole series of ancient towns built one on top of the other over the course of thousands of years. The earliest town, which was named Troy I, dates back to the fourth millennium b.c., and so was much too old to be Homer’s Troy. But evidence found in the ruins of Troy VII (the remnants of the seventh civilization to live on that site) indicate that it was destroyed violently around 1220 b.c., a discovery that makes it the most likely model for the legendary Troy. No other archaeological evidence supporting the tale of the Trojan War has been found, however. Scholars speculate that the legend was based loosely on facts that were embellished as they were told and retold.

History vs. legend

Although the Iliad concerns ancient Greek heroes, the poem’s major characters are referred to not as Greeks but as groups of “Achaeans,” “Argives,” and “Danaans.” Originally from western Asia, these Greek-speaking peoples invaded the Mediterranean area around 1900 b.c. Within 400 years of their arrival in Greece, these peoples had founded the highly developed civilization that provides the background for Homer’s tale.

This culture is known as “Mycenaean,” named after the city of Mycenae that has been excavated by modern archaeologists. Mycenae is thought to be the model for the cities in which Homer’s Greek heroes lived. The Mycenaeans were city-dwellers who were ruled by kings and governed by well-organized bureaucracies; the ruling classes were clearly militaristic.

Discrepancies can be found between discoveries about Mycenaean culture and details in Homer’s epic. For example, characters in the Iliad cremate their dead, but the Mycenaean civilization practiced burial of their dead. It was not until later in history, closer to Homer’s time, that cremation became widespread. These discrepancies may simply be errors. While a great deal of information about the Mycenaeans was passed on to Homer’s society through tales and legends, Mycenaean culture had disappeared long before the creation of the Iliad. Homer could not have known about every aspect of their civilization.

Around the year 1200 b.c., many of the great Mycenaean palaces were violently destroyed, and the entire Mycenaean culture dwindled. It is not clear who the attackers were, or why the palaces were assailed, but historians speculate that a series of local disputes may have been responsible. For the next 400 years, the Greeks sank into an obscure era that is sometimes referred to as the “Dark Ages” (1150-800 b.c.).

Who were the Trojans?

While archaeologists were unable to find the kind of evidence that

would help them understand the lives of the Trojans in Troy VII (the seventh civilization to live on that historical site), Troy VI (the sixth civilization) contained ancient remains that helped them draw conclusions about the inhabitants of Troy VII. The discovery of a wide variety of Mycenaean artifacts, including arrowheads, daggers, and sword pommels, within the ruins of Troy VI indicate that the two civilizations were trading partners. The ruins of Troy VI also contained a large number of horse bones, which suggests that the Trojans were horse breeders. Supporting this theory are passages in Homer’s poem that describe the Trojans as “breakers of horses” and praise the quality of Trojan horses (Homer, The Iliad, 3.127).

The gods

Pinning down the religious beliefs of Homer’s Greeks is difficult because archaeology and the literary record offer conflicting evidence, and views varied from region to region and from one time period to another. The Iliad deals extensively with the interactions between the gods and men. As the oldest Greek poem known, it has been studied by scholars searching for clues to the spiritual beliefs of the people represented by its characters. Some evidence indicates that the ancient Greeks conceived their gods’ appearances to be much different than those of the deities who populate the Iliad, indicating that the ancient Greek deities could be human-shaped, half-human and half-animal, or even take the form of a rock. In the Iliad, however, all of the gods appear as human beings. While they have the power to change shape—appearing, for example, as animals if it suits their purposes—their normal appearance is human.

In the Iliad, many events are influenced by the involvement of gods, an idea that seems to have been popular in ancient Greece. This belief was based on the idea that all events, ranging from earthquakes to plagues to unsuccessful efforts to throw a spear, were the result of divine intervention in human lives rather than luck or other factors. If any misfortune befell a person, it was probably because that person had not performed the proper rituals to the appropriate gods.

But it was also possible that the misfortune was predestined. There was a belief among the ancient Greeks that, on the day of every person’s birth, his or her fate was decided. Some sources speak of a Greek belief that even the gods themselves could not control fate. According to Greek tradition, one’s destiny was determined by three daughters of Zeus known as the three Fates. These Fates were thought of as old women; one spun the thread of life that carried the person’s lifelong destiny, a second measured its length, and the third cut the thread and ended the life. In the Iliad, however, Zeus himself is portrayed as the supreme deity who ensures that the course of each person’s fate is completed.

The Poem in Focus

The plot

The Iliad is the story of the Greek hero Achilles. Although he is a mortal man, his mother is the sea-goddess Thetis. Achilles’s impressive skill as a warrior makes him one of the most important Achaeans in the army, and his skills on the battlefield are a source of pride to him. But despite his prowess as a warrior, he must remain subordinate to King Agamemnon, who is leading the expedition against Troy.


The Iliad was so influential in ancient Greece that the noble families of Athens used to pay specialists to create family trees in which their ancestors were listed as the heroes of the Iliad. Alexander the Great, who conquered the known world in the fourth century b.c., declared that he was the direct descendant of Achilles. It is recorded that Alexander visited the tomb of Achilles at Troy before beginning one of his military campaigns. The Iliad’s influence also extended to the Romans. Julius Caesar and his son, the emperor Augustus Caesar, claimed that they were descended from the Trojan hero Aeneas.

As the poem begins, the Achaeans have just sacked a small city in the area around Troy. They have taken all of the women captive, including the daughter of a priest of Apollo, the god associated with healing. This priest comes to Agamemnon and begs him to release his daughter in return for a ransom, but Agamemnon refuses. The priest then calls on Apollo to punish the Achaeans until they return his daughter. The god fulfills his wishes, spreading a deadly disease throughout the army. The Greek soldiers continue to die in large numbers until Achilles convinces Agamemnon to release the priest’s daughter. But Agamemnon will return the girl to her father only if Achilles, in turn, gives Agamemnon a captive woman named Briseis. Achilles agrees to give his beloved Briseis to the king, but he is infuriated. The warrior views Briseis as his


Numerous gods and goddesses participate in the Trojan War. They support their respective sides for many different reasons. Since Aphrodite’s son, Aeneas, is a Trojan warrior, Aphrodite assists the Trojans. Hera and Athena, on the other hand, help the Achaeans; they are angry because the Trojan prince, Paris, had judged that Aphrodite’s beauty was greater than theirs. Following is a list of the principal gods and goddesses that support each side in the epic battle taking place on earth:

Hera—goddess of marriageApollo—god of healing
Athena—goddess of wisdomAphrodite—goddess of love
Poseidon—god of the seaAres—god of war
Hermes—messenger godArtemis—goddess of the hunt
Hephaestus—god of fire 

rightful war prize and evidence of his prowess. He feels dishonored, a very serious offense to a man whose entire life revolves around competing successfully against other men.

Achilles and his troops withdraw from the Achaean army and return to his ships. Humiliated by Agamemnon’s treatment of him, Achilles calls on his divine mother, Thetis, for help in securing revenge. She appeals to Zeus, the father of the gods, to punish the Achaeans until they have recognized the superior qualities of Achilles in proper fashion. Zeus agrees, in part because he wants to make certain that Achilles fulfills his destiny.

A prophecy surrounds the life of Achilles: he can either live a long, happy life and die without recognition, or he can fight at Troy and gain everlasting fame. The prophecy promises that he will be doomed to a short, painful life if he chooses fame over happiness. Because Achilles chooses to go to war, Zeus must ensure that the hero gains the most acclaim of all the warriors at Troy. The god’s plan is to bring the Achaeans to the brink of defeat so that Achilles can save them and win honor in the eyes of others.

To carry out his plans, Zeus inspires the Achaeans to go into battle against the Trojans. He also allows the gods and goddesses of Olympus to choose sides between the Achaeans and Greeks and to support them in battle if they desire.

The battle seesaws as the gods take turns helping their favorite mortals. The Achaeans first take the upper hand, killing every Trojan who faces them. But the Trojans recover and turn the Achaeans back with the help of the gods who are sympathetic to their cause. The Trojans are led by a number of heroes, particularly the magnificent warrior Hector.

The Achaean heroes almost kill Hector several times, but he always recovers. Eventually, Hector manages to overrun the Achaean camp and threatens to set fire to the Achaean fleet. The only person who can save the Achaeans is Achilles, who has refused to join the battle because of his anger at Agamemnon. The king, desperate to convince his best warrior to return to the field of battle, offers to return Briseis and pay him a vast amount of treasure. Agamemnon’s efforts fail, however.

The best friend of Achilles, Patroclus, who had been wearing Achilles’s armor in order to fool the Trojans into thinking that Achilles had rejoined the fighting, is then killed by Hector. Only at this point does Achilles reenter the war. He meets Hector in combat and slays him. Achilles afterward ties Hector’s body to his chariot and drags it around the walls of Troy to dishonor his enemy. The Iliad ends when Hector’s father, the king of Troy, goes to the camp of Achilles in secret and asks for the return of his son’s body for burial. Advised by the gods to be merciful, Achilles agrees and calls for a truce so that the Trojans can properly bury Hector.

Women as spoils of war

Although the Iliad is primarily about the heroic exploits of male warriors, women are actually central to the action of the poem. In most instances, they serve as prizes that the men battle one another to win. The entire Trojan War is triggered by Helen’s great beauty, which causes the goddess Aphrodite to give her away to a man who is not her husband; if, as in some versions of the tale, she grows to like her fate, it does not change the fact that her fate is largely controlled by men. The treatment of the captive woman Briseis is further evidence of the subservient status of women in the poem. Taken from her home when the Achaeans sack her city, Briseis is given to Achilles, traded to Agamemnon in compensation for his loss of another woman, and then traded back to Achilles in the hope of winning his agreement to fight. Helen and Briseis are both loved by the men who have taken them, but the women’s value as a social asset or political prize is more important than the personal bonds that tie them to their men.

Whether the poem reflects the actual status of women in archaic Greece is a matter of debate. The more plentiful documents of later Greek culture indicate that women had very little control over their lives. Such evidence suggests that Homer’s depiction of the standing of women during that period may be fairly accurate.

War in the Iliad

Although the Iliad emphasizes Achilles’s prowess as a warrior, there are several points in the poem at which the heroes are critical of war and acknowledge it to be evil. At one point, a truce is called so that Menelaus and Paris can fight a duel. Rather than continue with the war, the winner gets to keep Helen. Menelaus agrees to the duel, saying to the Trojans:

You have suffered much evil
for the sake of this my quarrel since
Alexandros [Paris] began it.
As for that one of us two to whom death and doom are given,
Let him die: the rest of you be made friends with each other….
So he spoke, and the Trojans and Achaians [Achaeans] were joyful.
                    (The Iliad, 3.99-111)

The prospect of a duel to settle the dispute fills both the Trojans and Achaeans with joy, an indication that both sides would much prefer to avoid a battle. Achilles himself discovers that winning glory is of little value next to the loss of his best friend. Throughout the epic there is an insoluable tension between the human ties that bind and the martial prowess that kills.


The Mycenaeans had developed a form of writing, now known as Linear B, but it disappeared completely during the Greek Dark Ages. Without a written language to record events, the people who lived during that period left archaeologists with very little reliable information about events that took place during the Dark Ages. The situation did not change until the ninth century b.c., when Phoenician traders from what is today Syria brought with them the prototype of what developed into the Greek alphabet.


Since the Iliad is the earliest piece of Greek literature that has survived to the present, it has no single identifiable source. The poem emerged out of a predominately oral culture in which stories and information were passed from generation to generation by word of mouth. In fact, it may be that the Iliad was originally composed to be sung and was written down because of its great length (at festivals in ancient Greece, the Iliad took three full days to recite).

In creating his poem, Homer probably drew on a whole tradition of stories about the Trojan War. The Iliad tells only a tiny fraction of the entire legend, but contains references in the narrative to episodes that would have occurred both before and after the time frame of the Iliad. For instance, at one point Helen stands on the walls of Troy and sees her former husband, Menelaus, far below. She recalls that it was her decision to leave that caused the war: “I wish bitter death had been what I wanted, when I came hither/Following your son [Paris], forsaking my chamber, my kinsmen,/My grown child…” (The Iliad, 3.173-75). In another scene, Achilles admits that he has been told that he will die. Neither of these episodes takes place in the Iliad, but Homer’s references indicate his expectation that his audience knows the entire story of Troy. He is thus free to focus on just one section of it.

The entire legend of the Trojan War was told by many different authors in a series of eight poems known as the Epic Cycle. Cypria, Iliad, Aithiopis, Little Iliad, Sack of Troy, Returns, Odyssey, and Telegony make up the cycle. Of the eight, only the Iliad and the Odyssey remain in existence. The rest are known only through summaries written by ancient Greeks. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Epic Cycle begins with an account of the causes of the war and ends by explaining the fates of the Achaean heroes after they return home from Troy.

Events in History at the Time the Poem Was Composed

The Dark Ages

At the height of the Mycenaean civilization, most of the region around the Aegean Sea was unified, and peace was maintained. The period that followed the fall of the great Mycenaean cities offered a stark contrast to those stable and sophisticated times. Greece fragmented into many individual kingdoms that were constantly at war with one another. This period has been called the Greek Dark Ages because its people left behind little in the way of art and architecture by which later peoples could know them.

Somehow, in the midst of the chaos, progress took place. The Greeks learned how to shape iron and use it for weapons. Previously, the soft metal bronze had been the only metal that could be effectively molded into useful shapes. The invention of stronger and more durable iron weapons and other tools was one of the first and most important steps in the renaissance of Greek civilization that pulled Greece out of the Dark Ages. It was then, at the birth of this renaissance, that epic literature began to flourish, and the works of Homer made their appearance.

Who was Homer?

While most scholars believe Homer was an individual poet, some theories suggest that “Homer” was really a pseudonym for a group of poets who collaborated in creating the Iliad and the Odyssey. Others contend that Homer composed only the lliad, and that the Odysseywas composed by someone else. The ancient Greeks, however, never doubted that Homer was the creator of both epics. They fleshed out his sketchy character by claiming that he was the blind son of Orpheus, a mythical poet.

The Greeks were uncertain about Homer’s birthplace. Several different islands in the Aegean Sea claimed him as one of their own. Some scholars suggest that he may have been born on the island of Chios. They point out that a group of epic singers named the “Homeridae” (the sons of Homer) lived on Chios during the sixth century b.c., but it is not known whether they were members of Homer’s family or just a group that adopted his name. Strong evidence has also been offered that suggests that the poet lived on the mainland of Asia Minor, possibly in the town of Smyrna, to the south of Troy.

How the Iliad was communicated

The Iliad probably originated as a poem that was sung aloud. Reciting the long and complex Iliad required enormous work, and certain skills were necessary to sing it correctly. A specialized group of artists known as rhapsodes developed over time. These artists concentrated on the singing of poetry. Working within a strict poetic meter, the rhapsodes actually created the poem anew with each retelling. The rhapsodes earned a living by traveling around and reciting their poems at such public events as religious festivals. Scholars speculate that Homer may have been a rhapsode himself.

Influence of the Iliad

The Iliad is the oldest surviving example of Greek literature. Others in Homer’s time (such as the authors of the other Epic Cycle poems) probably wrote down their poetry as well. Their works, however, have been lost through the ages, perhaps because they were not so highly regarded as Homer. Homer was considered the supreme poet by the Greeks of subsequent centuries, and his Iliad was considered the first piece of Greek national literature. In the fourth century b.c., the philosopher Plato wrote that some members of Greek society thought that they should direct their lives by following the writings of Homer.

At the time the Iliad was written, Greece was divided into many different regions, with peoples who spoke different versions of the Greek language, worshipped different gods, and maintained different cultures. The Iliad, however, told the story of how many different groups within Greece united to fight a foreign enemy. The Greeks who read or heard the Iliad began to see the common traits and practices of the groups rather than the differences.

Another aspect of the Iliad that helped shape a Greek identity was Homer’s depiction of gods common to all the people of Greece. It is believed that before Homer’s time, each of the gods in the Iliad was originally the god of a very specific area. Different deities were worshipped in each geographic region. In the Iliad, though, all of the gods live together on top of Mount Olympus. By placing the gods in a place removed from any one specific region, Homer treated them as common to all of Greece.


The development of a Greek national identity contributed to feelings of discrimination. The Greeks began to make strong distinctions between those who spoke Greek and those who did not. All peoples who did not speak Greek were called “barbarians.” The first pan-Greek Olympic Games, established in 776 b.c., reflected this prejudice; no man who was not Greek was allowed to participate.

For More Information

Edwards, Mark W. Homer: Poet of the Iliad. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Forsdyke, John. Greece before Homer: Ancient Chronology and Mythology. New York: W. W. Norton, 1957.

Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.

Luce, J. V. Homer and the Heroic Age. London: Thames and Hudson, 1975.

Morford, Mark P. O., and Robert J. Lenardon. Classical Mythology. 2nd ed. New York: Longman, 1977.

Stubbings, Frank H. Prehistoric Greece. New York: John Day, 1973.

Iliad, The

views updated May 18 2018

Iliad, The





Alternate Names


Appears In

The Iliad

Myth Overview

One of the greatest epics of ancient Greece, the Iliad tells of events during the final year of the Trojan War. Iliad means “poem of Ilios,” one of the names given to the city of Troy in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). The Greek poet Homer is credited with creating the Iliad. Some scholars, however, doubt that Homer ever existed and suggest that the poem was woven together by generations of storytellers. In any case, the Iliad had a tremendous impact on Greek culture and holds an important place in world literature.

Contrary to popular belief, the Iliad does not tell the story of the entire Trojan War. Long before the events described in the Iliad, the Greeks had been drawn into a war with Troy because of the beautiful Helen of Troy. Helen was actually Greek, the wife of King Menelaus (pronounced men-uh-LAY-uhs) of Sparta. She lived happily with Menelaus until Prince Paris (pronounced PAIR-iss) of Troy—promised the most beautiful woman in the world by the goddess Aphrodite (pronounced af-ro-DYE-tee)—came to Greece in search of the famous beauty. Paris took Helen back to Troy. Honoring a pledge to Menelaus, the kings and princes of Greece joined together to rescue Helen and set sail for Troy with their armies to wage war.

The Wrath of Achilles As the Iliad opens, a dispute between two Greek leaders—the hero Achilles (pronounced uh-KILL-eez) and King Agamemnon (pronounced ag-uh-MEM-non) of Mycenae, commander of the Greek armies—sets in motion events that shape the course of the war. The trouble begins when Agamemnon receives a young woman, the daughter of a priest of Apollo (pronounced uh-POL-oh), as a prize of war. The priest appeals to Apollo, who sends a plague to the Greek camp. When the Greeks learn the cause of the sickness, they force Agamemnon to give up his prize.

To make up for his loss, Agamemnon demands the woman who was awarded to Achilles. Furious, Achilles puts down his weapons and refuses to fight any longer, thus depriving the Greeks of their most powerful warrior. Meanwhile, the sea goddess Thetis (pronounced THEE-tis), Achilles' mother, persuades the king of the gods, Zeus (pronounced ZOOS), to let the Greeks suffer losses in combat to show how crucial her son is to their victory.

Without Achilles, the Greeks begin to lose ground to the Trojans. During the course of battle, Paris and Menelaus fight each other, but neither can claim victory. At one point, Hector , leader of the Trojan forces, leaves the battlefield and enters Troy. Telling the Trojan women to pray for help from the gods, he bids farewell to his wife, Andromache (pronounced an-DROM-uh-kee), and his young son. He knows that he will die soon and that the Greeks will destroy the city and its people.

After suffering significant losses, several Greek leaders, including Odysseus (pronounced oh-DIS-ee-uhs), go to Achilles and ask him to rejoin them. Even Agamemnon sends a number of gifts and promises to reward Achilles when the war is over. But Achilles refuses to reconsider his decision.

The Death of Patroclus Soon after, Achilles' beloved friend Patroclus (pronounced pa-TROH-kluhs) convinces the hero to let him wear his armor so that the Trojans will think that Achilles is fighting again. The sight of the warrior in Achilles' armor worries the Trojans, and the Greeks are able to push them back. But the god Apollo lets Hector see that another warrior is wearing Achilles' armor, and Hector kills Patroclus and takes the armor.

When Achilles learns that his beloved friend has been killed, he is overwhelmed with grief and determined to avenge his friend's death. Wearing new armor from his mother, Achilles reenters the batde and slaughters many Trojans while searching for Hector. When the two warriors finally meet, Hector flees and Achilles chases him around the walls of Troy.

The goddess Athena (pronounced uh-THEE-nuh) tricks Hector by appearing as his younger brother and telling him to stand and fight. When Hector does so, Achilles kills him. Achilles removes his old armor from Hector's body and then drags the corpse behind his chariot.

The Ransoming of Hector Meanwhile the Trojans, angry because Achilles will not return Hector's corpse for proper funeral ceremonies, mourn the death of their hero. Again the gods intervene, forcing Achilles to accept a ransom of gifts from Hector's father, King Priam, and return the body of his son.

The story in the Iliad ends as the Trojans hold a funeral for their fallen hero. But the Trojan War continues. Tales of the deaths of Paris and Achilles, the Greeks' cunning use of the Trojan horse to get inside the city walls, and the defeat and destruction of Troy are told in other works.

The Iliad in Context

The Iliad is more than just a story about ancient heroes , gods, and goddesses. For the Greeks of later centuries, the poem was a history of their ancestors that also revealed moral lessons about heroism, pride, revenge, and honor. As such, it also had great value as a bedrock of Greek culture and, by extension, Western culture in general.

Modern scholars believe that certain elements of the story in the Iliad may be based on historical events from more than three thousand years ago. Indeed, there is archaeological evidence of the destruction of a city believed to be Troy in about 1180 bce. Almost certainly, the poem reflects the values and ideals of Greek society at that time. Perhaps more importantly, as a work of literature, the Iliad illustrates various universal themes and provides a realistic view of the human condition. Its major characters, though part of a distant past, exhibit personality flaws and strengths that are as real for people today as when the work first appeared.

Key Themes and Symbols

The Iliad lays tremendous stress on the power of the gods to determine the course of events. The benefits of divine favor and the perils of divine displeasure are the major themes of the work. Honor and duty are also prominent themes. The Greeks come to Troy out of a sense of duty to Menelaus and to protect the honor of Greece. The Trojans refuse to surrender Helen because of their own sense of honor. Many of the heroes of Iliad—Ajax and Hector, for example—embody the ideals of military skill and honorable conduct.

Perhaps the most interesting character in the epic is Achilles, the great warrior whose sulky absence from combat nearly costs Greece the war. Achilles symbolizes the ideal of the Greek warrior, but he is flawed by pride, a quick temper, and hunger for revenge after the death of Patroclus. He serves as a warning that even the mightiest can be undone by wrath.

The Iliad in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

The Iliad is one of the best-known works of literature in the world. It has been retold in many forms, including plays, films, and comic books. William Shakespeare used the Iliad as inspiration for his comedy Troilus and Cressida, which offers a different take on the Trojan War through the eyes of two relatively minor characters. The Broadway musical The Golden Apple (1954) was an updated retelling of both the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of the Iliad by Rosemary Sutcliff is a retelling of Homer's epic poem in modern and accessible language. The book, first published in 1993, offers a focused and powerful version of the most important elements of the Iliad, while also expanding the story to include the events leading up to the epic as well as the events that took place afterward.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

Archaeologists continue to excavate and study the site of what is believed to be Troy in northwestern Turkey. Using your library and the Internet, find out more about the discovery of this archaeological site and the recent progress made there. Write a short summary of what you learn in which you answer the question: “Was there a real Troy as described in the Iliad?”

SEE ALSO Achilles; Agamemnon; Greek Mythology; Hector; Helen of Troy; Odysseus; Odyssey, The

Iliad, The

views updated May 17 2018

Iliad, The

One of the greatest epics of ancient Greece, the Iliad tells of events during the final year of the Trojan War*. Iliad means "poem of Ilios," one of the names of the city of Troy in Asia Minor*.

The Greek poet Homer is credited with creating the Iliad. Some scholars, however, doubt that Homer ever existed and suggest that the poem was woven together by generations of storytellers. In any case, the Iliad had a tremendous impact on Greek culture and holds an important place in world literature.

Background of the Trojan War. Long before the events described in the Iliad, the Greeks had been drawn into a war with Troy because of the beautiful Helen of Troy Helen was actually Greek, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta*. She lived happily with Menelaus until Prince Paris of Troypromised the most beautiful woman in the world by the goddess Aphrodite*came to Greece in search of the famous beauty. Paris took Helen back to Troy. Honoring a pledge to Menelaus, the kings and princes of Greece joined together to rescue Helen and set sail for Troy with their armies to wage war.

The war between the Greeks and the Trojans dragged on for nine years, with neither side gaining a decisive advantage. Involved in the background were the major Greek gods and goddesses, who supported or opposed certain of the humans in the struggle. In the tenth year of the war, events came to a head, leading ultimately to victory for the Greeks and the destruction of Troy, outcomes predetermined by the gods.

The Story of the Iliad. As the Iliad opens, a dispute between two Greek leadersthe hero Achilles* and King Agamemnon* of Mycenae, commander of the Greek armiessets in motion events that shape the course of the war. The trouble begins when Agamemnon receives a young woman, the daughter of a priest of Apollo*, as a prize of war. The priest appeals to Apollo, who sends a plague to the Greek camp. When the Greeks learn the cause of the sickness, they force Agamemnon to give up his prize.

To make up for his loss, Agamemnon demands the woman who was awarded to Achilles. Furious, Achilles puts down his weapons and refuses to fight any longer, thus depriving the Greeks of their most formidable warrior. Meanwhile, the sea goddess Thetis, Achilles' mother, persuades Zeus* to let the Greeks suffer losses in combat to show how crucial her son is to their victory.

Without Achilles, the Greeks begin to lose ground to the Trojans. During the course of battle, Paris and Menelaus fight each other, but neither can claim victory At one point, Hector, leader of the Trojan forces, leaves the battlefield and enters Troy. Telling the Trojan women to pray for help from the gods, he bids farewell to his wife, Andromache, and his young son. He knows that he will die soon and that the Greeks will destroy the city and its people.

After suffering significant losses, several Greek leaders, including Odysseus*, go to Achilles and ask him to rejoin them. Even Agamemnon sends a number of gifts and promises to reward

epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style

predetermined decided in advance

Achilles when the war is over. But Achilles refuses to reconsider his decision.

Soon after, Achilles' beloved friend Patroclus convinces the hero to let him wear his armor so that the Trojans will think that Achilles is fighting again. The sight of the warrior in Achilles' armor worries the Trojans, and the Greeks are able to push them back. But the god Apollo lets Hector see that another warrior is wearing Achilles' armor, and Hector kills Patroclus and takes the armor.

When Achilles learns that his beloved friend has been killed, he is overwhelmed with grief and determined to avenge his friend's death. Wearing new armor from his mother, Achilles reenters the battle and slaughters many Trojans while searching for Hector. When the two warriors finally meet, Hector flees and Achilles chases him around the walls of Troy.

The goddess Athena* tricks Hector by appearing as his younger brother and telling him to stand and fight. When Hector does so, Achilles kills him. Achilles removes his old armor from Hector's body and then drags the corpse behind his chariot.

Meanwhile the Trojans, angry because Achilles will not return Hector's corpse for proper funeral ceremonies, mourn the death of their hero. Again the gods intervene, forcing Achilles to accept a ransom of gifts from Hector's father, King Priam, and return the body of his son.

* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.

The story in the Iliad ends as the Trojans hold a funeral for their fallen hero. But the Trojan War continues. Tales of the deaths of Paris and Achilles, the Greek's cunning use of the Trojan horse to get inside the city walls, and the defeat and destruction of Troy are told in other works.

Significance of the Iliad. The Iliad is more than just a story about ancient heroes, gods, and goddesses. For the Greeks of later centuries, the poem was a history of their ancestors that also revealed moral lessons about heroism, pride, revenge, and honor. As such, it also had great value as a symbol of Greek unity and culture.

Modern scholars believe that certain elements of the story in the Iliad may be based on historical events from more than 3,000 years ago. Almost certainly, the poem reflects the values and ideals of Greek society at that time. Perhaps more importantly, as a work of literature, the Iliad illustrates various universal themes and provides a realistic view of the human condition. Its major characters, though shrouded in the distant past, exhibit personality flaws and strengths that are as real for people today as when the work first appeared.

See also Achilles; Agamemnon; Ajax; Andromache; Greek Mythology; Hector; Helen of Troy; Homer; Menelaus; Odysseus; Odyssey, the; Paris; Priam; Thetis; Trojan War.


views updated May 11 2018

Iliad a Greek hexameter epic poem in twenty-four books, traditionally ascribed to Homer.

The poem tells of the climax of the Trojan War between Greeks and Trojans. The greatest of the Greek heroes, Achilles, retires to his tent enraged by a perceived insult. In his absence his close friend Patroclus is killed by the Trojan hero Hector; at this the grief-stricken Achilles takes the field and kills Hector.
Iliad in a nutshell an allusion to a copy of Homer's Iliad which was supposedly small enough to be enclosed in the shell of a nut; it is used to suggest great condensation, brevity, or limitation.