Iliad

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Editor: Anne Marie Hacht
Date: 2006
Literary Themes for Students: War and Peace
Publisher: Gale
Series: Literary Themes for Students
Document Type: Plot summary; Work overview
Pages: 12
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Iliad
HOMER
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 Page 301  |  Top of Articleheld 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.

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BIOGRAPHY
Homer

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.

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Homer

Homer Getty Images

PLOT SUMMARY

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.

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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.

Book VIII

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 Page 304  |  Top of Articlefather 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.

Book XIII

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 Page 305  |  Top of Articlethat 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.

Book XVII

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.

Book XVIII

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 Page 306  |  Top of Articletoward 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.

Book XXII

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.

Book XXIII

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.

Book XXIV

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."

THEMES

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 Page 307  |  Top of Articleprovide 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.

Vengeance

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 Page 308  |  Top of Article
Relief sculpture by Berthel Thorvaldsen showing the death of Patroclus, a scene from the Iliad

Relief sculpture by Berthel Thorvaldsen showing the death of Patroclus, a scene from the Iliad © Bettmann/Corbis
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.

Peace

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 Page 309  |  Top of Articlewill 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.

HISTORICAL OVERVIEW

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 Page 310  |  Top of Article
Illustration of the Trojan Horse from the Iliad

Illustration of the Trojan Horse from the Iliad © Bettmann/Corbis
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.

CRITICAL OVERVIEW

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 Page 311  |  Top of Articlearticulation 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.

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MEDIA ADAPTATIONS

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.

SOURCES

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.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3451000034