The Iliad

Author:  Homer (fl. c. ninth century B.C.E.Ė )

Type of Work:  Poetry

Type of Plot:  Epic

Time of Plot:  Antiquity

Locale:  Troy

First Transcribed c. 800 B.C.E. (English translation, 1611)

Principal characters:

PRIAM, the king of Troy

HECTOR, a Trojan warrior, Priamís son


PARIS, Hectorís brother and Helenís lover

MENELAUS, Helenís husband

AGAMEMNON, Menelausí brother

ACHILLES, a Greek warrior

PATROCLUS, Achillesí friend

The Story:

The Greeks were camped outside the walls of Troy, in the tenth year of their siege on that city. Agamemnon, king of the Achaians, wanted the maid, Briseis, for his own, but she was possessed by Achilles, a mortal son of Zeus, king of the gods. When Achilles was forced to give up the maid, he withdrew angrily from the battle and returned to his ship. He won from Zeus the promise that the wrong that he had suffered would be revenged on Agamemnon.

That evening Zeus sent a messenger to the Greek king to convey to him in a dream an order to rise and marshal his Achaian forces against the walls of Troy. When the king awoke, he called all his warriors to him and ordered them to prepare for battle. All night long the men armed themselves in battle array, making ready their horses and their ships. The gods appeared on earth in the disguise of warriors, some siding with the Greeks, some hastening to warn the Trojans. With the army mustered, Agamemnon began the march from the camp to the walls of the city, while all the country around was set on fire. Only Achilles and his men remained behind, determined not to fight on the side of Agamemnon.

The Trojan army came from the gates of the city ready to combat the Greeks. Then Paris, son of King Priam and Helenís lover, stood out from the ranks and suggested that he and Menelaus settle the battle in a fight between them, the winner to take Helen and all her possessions, and friendship to be declared between the warring nations. Menelaus agreed to these words of his rival, and before the warriors of both sides, and under the eyes of Helen, who had been summoned to witness the scene from the walls of Troy, he and Paris began to fight. Menelaus was the mightier warrior. As he was about to pierce his enemy, the goddess Aphrodite, who loved Paris, swooped down from the air and carried him off to his chamber. She summoned Helen there to minister to her wounded lord. Then the victory was declared for Menelaus.

In the heavens the gods who favored the Trojans were much disturbed by this intervention. Athena appeared on earth to Trojan Pandarus and told him to seek out Menelaus and kill him. He shot an arrow at the unsuspecting king, but the goddess watching over Menelaus deflected the arrow so that it only wounded him. When Agamemnon saw that treacherous deed (the armies were in agreement at that moment not to fight), he revoked his vows of peace and exhorted the Greeks once more to battle. Many Trojans and many Greeks lost their lives that day, because of the foolhardiness of Pandarus.

Meanwhile Hector, son of King Priam, had returned to the city to bid farewell to Andromache, his wife, and to his child, for he feared he might not return from that dayís battle. He rebuked Paris for remaining in his chambers with Helen when his countrymen were dying because of his misdeeds. While Paris made ready for battle, Hector said good-bye to Andromache, prophesying that Troy would be defeated, himself killed, and Andromache taken captive. Then Paris joined him and they went together into the battle.

When evening came the Greeks and the Trojans retired to their camps. Agamemnon instructed his men to build a huge bulwark around the camp and in front of the ships, for fear the enemy would press their attack too close. Zeus then remembered his promise to Achilles to avenge the wrong done to him by Agamemnon. He summoned all the gods and forbade them to take part in the war. The victory, Zeus said, was to go to the Trojans; thus would the insult to Zeusís son be avenged.

The next day, Hector and the Trojans swept through the fields slaughtering the Greeks. Hera, the wife of Zeus, and many of the other goddesses could not be content to watch the defeat of their mortal friends. When the goddesses attempted to intervene, Zeus sent down his messengers to warn them to desist. Fearing his armies would be destroyed before Achilles would relent, Agamemnon sent Odysseus to Achilles. Odysseus begged the hero to accept gifts and be pacified. Achilles, still wrathful, threatened to sail for home at the break of day. Agamemnon was troubled by the proud refusal of Achilles. That night he stole to the camp of the wise man, Nestor, to ask his help in a plan to defeat the Trojans. Nestor told him to awaken all the great warriors and summon them to a council. It was decided that two warriors should steal into the Trojan camp to determine its strength and numbers. Diomedes and Odysseus volunteered. As they crept toward the camp, they captured and killed a Trojan spy. Then they themselves stole into the camp of the enemy, spied upon it, and as they left, took with them the horses of one of the kings.

The next day the Trojans pressed hard upon the Greeks with great slaughter. Diomedes and Odysseus were wounded and many warriors killed. Achilles watched the battle from his ship but made no move to take part in it. He sent his friend Patroclus to Nestor to learn how many had been wounded. The old man sent back a despairing answer, pleading that Achilles give up his anger and help his fellow Greeks. At last the Trojans broke through the bulwark that the Greeks had built, and Hector was foremost in an attack upon the ships.

Meanwhile, many of the gods plotted to aid the Greeks. Hera lulled Zeus to sleep, and Poseidon urged Agamemnon to resist the onrush of the Trojans. In the battle that day Hector was wounded by Aias, but as the Greeks were about to seize him and bear his body away the bravest of the Trojans surrounded their hero and covered him with their shields until he could be carried to safety. When Zeus awakened and saw what had happened, his wrath was terrible, and he ordered Apollo to restore Hector to health. Once again the walls were breached and the Trojans stormed toward the ships, eager to set fire to them. Zeus inspired the Trojans with courage and weakened the Greeks with fear. He determined that after the ships were set afire he would no longer aid the Trojans but would allow the Greeks to have the final victory.

Patroclus went to his friend Achilles and again pleaded with him to return to the fight. Achilles, still angry, refused. Then Patroclus begged that he be allowed to wear the armor of Achilles so that the Greeks would believe their hero fought with them, and Achilles consented. Patroclus charged into the fight and fought bravely at the gates of the city. Hector mortally wounded Patroclus and stripped from his body the armor of Achilles.

All that day the battle raged over the body of Patroclus. Then a messenger carried to Achilles word of his friendís death. His sorrow was terrible, but he could not go unarmed into the fray to rescue the body of Patroclus.

The next morning his goddess mother, Thetis, brought him a new suit of armor from the forge of Hephaestus. Then Achilles decked himself in the glittering armor that the lame god of fire had prepared for him and strode forth to the beach. There he and Agamemnon were reconciled before the assembly of the Greeks, and he went out to battle with them. The whole plain was filled with men and horses, battling one another. Achilles in his vengeance pushed back the enemy to the banks of the River Xanthus, and so many were the bodies of the Trojans choking the river that at length the god of the river spoke to Achilles, ordering him to cease throwing their bodies into his waters. Proud Achilles mocked him and sprang into the river to fight with the god. Feeling himself overpowered, he struggled out upon the banks, but still the wrathful god pursued him. Achilles then called on his mother to help him, and Thetis, with the aid of Hephaestus, quickly subdued the angry river god.

As Achilles drew near the walls of Troy, Hector girded on his armor. Amid the wailing of all the Trojan women he came from the gates to meet the Greek warrior, who was understood to be completely invincible. Not standing to meet Achilles in combat, he fled three times around the city walls before he turned to face Achillesí fatal spear. Then Achilles bound Hectorís body to his chariot and dragged it to the ships, a prey for dogs and vultures.

In the Trojan city there was great grief for the dead hero and rage at the treatment of his body. The aged King Priam resolved to drive in a chariot to the camp of Achilles and beg that the body of his son Hector be returned to him. The gods, too, asked Achilles to curb his wrath and restore the Trojan warrior to his own people, and so Achilles received King Priam with respect, granted his request, and agreed to a twelve-day truce that both sides might properly bury and mourn their dead. Achilles mourned for Patroclus as the body of his friend was laid upon the blazing funeral pyre. In the city the body of mighty Hector was also burned and his bones were buried beneath a great mound in the stricken city.

Critical Evaluation:

Homer has been hailed as the father of all poetry, and the Iliad has survived as a masterpiece for all time. The Iliad, within a three-day period of the Trojan War, tells the story of the wrath of Achilles against King Agamemnon. The battle episodes reveal the characters of the warriors, their strength and their weaknesses. These figures step out of unrecorded history as human beings, not of one era, but of all eras and for all time. The earliest extant work of European literature, the Iliad is also one of the most enduring creations of Western culture. Of the author, or possibly authors, nothing is known for certain. Tradition says that Homer was a Greek of Asia Minor. Herodotus surmised that Homer lived in the ninth century B.C.E., which seems reasonable in the light of modern scholarship and archaeology. The poet drew on a large body of legend about the siege of Troy, material with which his audience was familiar, and which was part of an oral tradition. Homer himself may not have transcribed the two epics attributed to him, but it is probable that he gave the poems their present shape.

The Iliad was originally intended to be recited or chanted, rather than read. Its poetic style is vivid, taut, simple, direct, full of repeated epithets and elaborate visual similes. The treatment is serious and dignified throughout, and the total effect is one of grandeur. Homerís greatness also reveals itself in the action of the Iliad, in which, within the scope of a few weeks in the tenth year of the siege of Troy, Homer gives the impression of covering the whole war by a few deft incidents. The appearance of Helen on the walls of Troy reminds the reader that she was the cause of the war. The catalog of ships and warriors calls to mind the first arrival of the Greek army at Troy. The duel between Paris and Menelaus would properly have come in the first years of the war, but its placement in the poem suggests the breakdown of diplomacy that lead to the bloodbath of fighting. Hectorís forebodings of his own death and of the fall of Troy as he talks to his wife, not to mention his dying prediction of the supposedly invincible Achillesí death, all point to the future of the war and its conclusion. Homer thus gives the rather narrow scope of the poemís events much greater breadth.

The Iliad is not a mere chronicle of events in the Trojan War. It deals with one specific, and crucial, set of sequences of the war: the quarrel of Achilles with his commander, Agamemnon; Achillesí withdrawal from the war; the fighting in his absence; Agamemnonís futile attempt to conciliate Achilles; the Trojan victories; Patroclusí intervention and death at Hectorís hands; Achillesí reentry to the war to avenge his friendís murder; the death of Hector; and Priamís ransom of Hectorís body from Achilles. The poem has a classical structure, with a beginning, middle, and end.

This sequence is important in its effect on the war as a whole for two reasons. Without Achilles, the ablest fighter, the Greeks are demoralized, even though they have many powerful warriors. It is foretold that Achilles will die before Troy is taken, so the Greeks will have to capture Troy by other means than force. The second reason is that the climax of the poem, the killing of Hector, prefigures the fall of Troy, for as long as Hector remained alive the Greeks were unable to make much headway against the Trojans.

Achilles is the precursor of the tragic hero according to Aristotleís definition. Young, handsome, noble, courageous, eloquent, generous, and of unsurpassed prowess, his tragic flaw lies in the savage intensity of his emotions. He knows he will die young. In fact, he has chosen to die at Troy, and thereby win a lasting reputation, rather than to grow old peacefully. It is precisely his pride, his supreme skill in warfare, and his lust for future glory that makes him so ferocious when he is crossed. He has a hard time restraining himself from killing Agamemnon, and a harder time bearing Agamemnonís insult. He puts pride before loyalty when his Greek comrades are being overrun. Only when the war touches him personally, after his friend Patroclus enters the combat and is slain, does he come to terms with Agamemnon. Then his rage against the Trojans and Hector consumes him, and he is merciless in his vengeance, slaughtering Trojans by scores, gloating over Hectorís corpse and abusing it, and sacrificing twelve Trojan nobles on Patroclusí funeral pyre. His humanity is restored in the end when, at Zeusís command, he allows old King Priam to ransom Hectorís body. Trembling with emotion, he feels pity for the old man and reaches out his hand to him. It is the most moving moment in the epic.

Achilles lives by a rigid code of personal honor and fights to win a lasting reputation, so he has nothing to lose by dying. Life is worthless to him except insofar as it allows him to prove his own value. Yet, paradoxically, this very ethic makes his life more intense and tragic than it might have been. Hector, by contrast, is fighting on the defensive for a city he knows is doomed, and his responsibilities as a leader tend to burden him. He has others to think about, even though he foresees their fate, and all of this hinders his becoming a truly effective warrior like Achilles. Whereas Achillesí life seems tragic, Hectorís life is one of pathos, but the pathos of a man fighting heroically against overwhelming odds.

The gods play a prominent part in the Iliad, and they are thoroughly humanized, having human shapes, sexes, and passions. Although they have superhuman powers, they behave in an all-too-human fashionófeasting, battling, fornicating, lying, cheating, changing their minds, protecting their favorites from harm. Just as the Greek army is a loose confederation under Agamemnon, so the gods are subject to Zeus. As the gods behave like humans, so the link between god and human is surprisingly direct; superhuman and human forces interact constantly. Divinity penetrates human action through oracles, dreams, visions, inspiration; it shows itself in inspired warfare where a hero seems invincible, and in miraculous interventions where a wounded hero is spirited away and healed. Moreover, the gods are not omnipotent. Even Zeus can merely delay the death of a person, but in the end must bow to Fate. Further, men have free will; they are not mere puppets. Achilles has deliberately chosen his destiny. Humans, finally, have more dignity than the gods because they choose their actions in the face of death, while the gods have no such necessity, being immortal. It is death that gives human decisions their meaning, for death is final and irrevocable. The Iliad is a powerful statement of what it means to be human in the middle of vast and senseless bloodshed.