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
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
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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).
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 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.
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
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
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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.
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 Odyssey Page 173 | Top of Articlewas 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.
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.