Summary of Iliad
This Edition: 2019
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- Greek Antiquity
What It’s About
War Shatters Young Dreams
Homer’s Iliad tells a tale of war: war as the moment when men can become great, as the moment when men reveal their flaws, and as the tragedy of suffering and lives lost – individual, personal and pitiable. In Homer’s story, neither side is right or wrong, heroic or villainous. They’re both broadly of the same culture, share the same hopes and dreams, suffer the same fears and pains, and at another time could be sharing each other’s hospitality. The events that brought the Archaic Greeks to the walls of Troy aren’t entirely within the control of the human protagonists, and even when they attempt to halt the bloodshed, outside forces (the gods) conspire against them. And yet, this seemingly meaningless endeavor is what gives each warrior the chance to achieve immortality through his actions. Even today, when many see war as distant and far removed from their day-to-day lives, this central contradiction of human activity remains at the heart of life. Being human is about getting up and facing challenge. This tale of a strange war in a strange time continues to resonate across the centuries.
- The Iliad is one of the oldest works of Western literature.
- It is the midst of the Trojan War: The gods have taken the side of the Trojans and inflicted misfortunes on the Greeks. Their great hero, Achilles, refuses to fight because his leader, Agamemnon, offends him. When Achilles’s best friend dies, the warrior returns to battle and slays the Trojan hero, Hector.
- The epic poem covers a 52-day period in the 10-year-long Trojan War – a very important event in Greek mythology.
- With the gods’ meddling, the battle for Troy turns into unceasing strife.
- Humans shouldn’t fight fate: Their only hope is to acquire immortal fame.
- The poem most likely emerged in the second half of the 8th century BC in Ionic Greece, a narrow arc of settlements along the coast of Asia Minor.
- No one is sure if Homer was a real person. If so, many question whether the Iliad was entirely his work or the work of many authors.
- Troy, however, definitely existed. German archeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered its remains in 1870.
- After Brad Pitt portrayed Achilles in the 2004 blockbuster movie Troy, Homer became the top-selling poet in Britain.
- “My fates long since by Thetis were disclosed,/ And each alternate, life or fame, proposed;/ Here, if I stay, before the Trojan town,/ Short is my date, but deathless my renown.”
Agamemnon’s Heartlessness and Achilles’s Ire
The Trojan Chryses, priest of the god Apollo, shows up in the Grecian camp to demand the release of his captured daughter Chryseis from the Greek king, Agamemnon. But Agamemnon refuses, and Apollo punishes the Greeks with a plague. When Achilles, the bravest of the Greek heroes, vehemently advocates for the liberation of the prisoners, Agamemnon is furious. He sets Chryseis free, yet seizes Briseis, a young captive that Achilles has set his eyes on, as compensation. Fuming with anger, Achilles sits down by the ocean’s edge and complains to his mother Thetis. The sea goddess promises to intervene on his behalf with Zeus, the father of the gods: The Greek side shall remain without a victory until Agamemnon admits his mistake and atones for the humiliation he inflicted on Achilles. Thetis falls on her knees before Zeus and flatters him while asking him to help her son. Zeus complies: As long as Achilles doesn’t receive the satisfaction he demands, the Trojans shall remain victorious on the battlefield.
The Trojans’ Illusory Success
Flashback: The Greeks are laying siege to the city of Troy, because the Trojan Paris has kidnapped beautiful Helen, who is married to Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus. Since Paris stayed as a guest in Menelaus’s house before this act, Paris has gravely violated the laws of hospitality. At first, the warring parties try to solve the conflict by having the two men fight it out between themselves. When Menelaus gains the upper hand in the duel, the goddess Aphrodite intervenes: She envelops Paris in a thick haze and conjures him away from the battlefield right into Helen’s bed in the Trojan castle. Aphrodite feels attached to Paris, because he once flattered her by choosing her in a beauty contest alongside the goddesses Hera and Athena. Aphrodite promised Paris the most beautiful woman in the world as a reward, and that woman is Helen. After Paris inexplicably vanishes from the battleground, Menelaus is the winner. Yet the peace the humans find doesn’t correspond to what the gods had in mind: Zeus tells his daughter Athena to incite the Trojan Pandaros to shoot Menelaus with an arrow. It wounds the Greek, the gods frame the Trojans as the culprits and the war continues.
The Greeks Need Another Hero
The gods now enter the war on both sides. Athena, in particular, intervenes with the Greek Diomedes to strengthen his heart and give him special powers. He prevails against the Trojans, defeating all those he encounters. After Pandarus injures him, Athena gives him special sight to distinguish gods from men and tells him to injure Aphrodite but to stay away from all other gods. Diomedes continues his slaughter, and when Aphrodite comes to rescue her son Aeneus from Diomedes, he injures her. Then Apollo enters the fray, and Diomedes initially attacks him before Apollo warns him to leave. Diomedes withdraws.
“Achilles’s wrath, to Greece the direful spring/ Of woes unnumber’d, heavenly goddess, sing!/ That wrath which hurl’d to Pluto’s gloomy reign/ The souls of mighty chiefs untimely slain;/ Whose limbs unburied on the naked shore,/ Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore.” (Book I)
At this point, Ares comes to the aid of the Trojans. Diomedes, seeing the arrival of the god, calls the Greeks back toward their ships. When Aphrodite notices that Diomedes is retreating, she tells him to ignore her previous advice, as they can beat Ares together. She joins him on his chariot, and with her help, Diomedes spears Ares, who screams and flees the battlefield wounded. Diomedes now encounters the Trojan fighter Glaucus. On finding that a bond of hospitality through Diomedes’s grandfather links them together, they decide that they cannot fight each other. Exchanging some of their armor, they depart on friendly terms and go to fight others.
Gods of War and a War of Gods
The bravest and strongest fighter on the Trojan side is Paris’s brother Hector, whose death the gods have preordained. Before marching into battle, he bids farewell to his son and wife Andromache. The latter retires to her house and, anticipating an ominous future, grieves for her still living husband. Helen, however, deplores her fate of being torn between two men: her husband, Menelaus, and her kidnapper, Paris. At the same time, she is fully aware that it is Zeus who determines her fate and that she’ll become immortal as a mythical figure in the songs of generations to come.
“The wretched quarrels of the mortal state/ Are far unworthy, gods! of your debate:/ Let men their days in senseless strife employ,/ We, in eternal peace and constant joy.” (Book I)
At first, both armies are on a par, because a god supports each of them: Athena sides with the Greeks and Mars with the Trojans. At the end of battle, the parties agree on a truce in order to bury the many slain warriors with dignity. Zeus, meanwhile, prohibits the other gods from interfering. As long as there’s no atonement for the disgrace done to Achilles, the fortunes of war are to be with Troy. On the second day of battle, Hector advances toward the Grecian camp, planning to set the enemy’s ships on fire. Agamemnon now realizes his mistake. He sends three envoys, among them Odysseus, to offer Briseis and many other precious rewards to Achilles, if only he resumes fighting for his Greek countrymen. Yet Achilles angrily refuses and even threatens to leave the battleground for good.
“Shall beauteous Helen still remain unfreed,/ Still unrevenged, a thousand heroes bleed!/ Haste, generous Ithacus! prevent the shame,/ Recall your armies, and your chiefs reclaim./ Your own resistless eloquence employ,/ And to the immortals trust the fall of Troy.” (Book II)
The increasing pressure makes the Greeks resort to guile: Achilles wants to send his best friend Patroclus in Achilles’s own armor to make the enemy believe that Achilles has returned to battle. However, before they can execute the plan, Hector hurls a huge stone against the Greek camp’s fortifications and takes it by storm. The Greek soldiers panic and run for the ships. When Zeus, contemplating the turmoil, looks away for a split second, his brother Poseidon seizes the opportunity and rushes to aid the Greeks. Zeus’s wife Hera – the bitterest opponent of the Trojans among the gods – supports him in this: After seducing Zeus, she lures him to sleep. For a short moment, the tide begins to turn in favor of the Greeks, who, under Poseidon’s leadership, manage to push back the enemy and even wound Hector. When Zeus wakes up, he insists on his position as first among gods, reprimands his wife and forces his brother Poseidon to retreat from the battle. The gods begin to grumble and inwardly resist Zeus’s orders, with Poseidon reminding Zeus that Troy’s demise is inevitable. But an open rebellion against the authority of the father of gods doesn’t seem to be in the cards. Zeus allows Apollo to heal the wounded Hector, whereupon the Trojans prepare to take the ships by storm once again.
Patroclus Nearly Goes to the Dogs
When the first ship catches fire, Patroclus implores his friend Achilles for help. Achilles relents and allows him to fight in his armor, while cautioning him to push back the Trojans from the ships without pursuing them afterward. Yet Patroclus ignores Achilles’s warning. When he reaches the gates of Troy, he almost takes the city, but Apollo stops him: The god takes away Patroclus’s armor, so Hector can taunt him before piercing him on his spike. The dying Patroclus proclaims that Hector, too, will soon die, to which the Trojan responds by threatening to throw Patroclus’s dead body to the dogs.
“Like leaves on trees the race of man is found,/ Now green in youth, now withering on the ground;/ Another race the following spring supplies;/ They fall successive, and successive rise:/ So generations in their course decay;/ So flourish these, when those are pass’d away.” (Book VI)
When Achilles learns of his friend’s dark fate, he throws ashes on his head, rolls in the dust and tears his hair out. Upon hearing her son’s cries of pain, Thetis rises up out of the sea to find out what has happened. Achilles laments the loss of his friend and vows to avenge his death. This deeply saddens his mother, who knows that the gods have decided that Achilles must perish when Hector falls, but her words are in vain. Meanwhile, a big scuffle over Patroclus’s dead body has broken out between the Greeks and Trojans. Three times Hector manages to grab the corpse by its feet, and three times the Greeks manage to push him back. Yet the Trojan hero rampages like a mad bull, trying everything to seize the body of the dead man. Achilles hesitates to interfere, because he is without his armor. But then the goddess Hera sends Athena to advise him just to appear on the entrenchment walls as the sight of him alone will terrify the Trojans. She then crowns him in a golden cloud, and he screams his rage three times. The Trojans flee in panic. Finally, the Greeks manage to get Patroclus’s dead body to safety. Weeping, they lay him out. Achilles, too, sheds tears over his slain friend.
Hector’s killing of Patroclus makes Achilles change his mind. His constant anger remains, but it changes target: It is no more Agamemnon’s insult that makes Achilles tremble with wrath, but his fury at Hector, the murderer of his best friend. Before returning to battle, Achilles needs new weapons. Hephaestus – the ugly, deformed god of smiths – makes them for him. At the request of the inconsolable Thetis, he pours silver, gold and copper into the fire; takes hammer, anvil and tongs; and first makes a gigantic shield adorned with magnificent sculptures. After that, he manufactures new armor and weapons. In a conciliatory gesture, Agamemnon gives Achilles all the promised gifts and returns his beloved Briseis to him. But the hero remains largely indifferent.
“My fates long since by Thetis were disclosed,/ And each alternate, life or fame, proposed;/ Here, if I stay, before the Trojan town,/ Short is my date, but deathless my renown.” (Book IX)
The reconciliation in the Greek camp forces the Trojans back onto the defensive, thereby fulfilling the course of events that Zeus, the father of the gods, had predetermined, the father of the gods: Now, with Achilles’ return, victory is again with the Greeks. The armies go into battle and Achilles straps on his new armor. The immortal horse Xanthos, which Hera endows with the gift of speech, prophesies to the Greek hero his imminent fate: First he will kill Hector and then fall at the hand of a man and that of a god. Achilles proudly accepts this prophecy and, bursting with zeal and vigor, moves into battle – a battle that soon transforms into a cosmic struggle, as Zeus has lifted the ban on interference and allowed the gods to meddle again. This combination of human and divine actions even rocks Mount Olympus. Things begin to happen quite fast: The raging Achilles throws so many slaughtered Trojans into the river Skamandros that the river god Scamander swells up in anger at all the blood, threatening to drown the hero. Only a gigantic firestorm that Hephaestus creates manages to beat back the floods and save Achilles.
The Final Duel
The Trojans begin to retreat into the great walls of Troy. To no avail, Hector’s parents Priam and Hecuba entreat their son to rescue himself by entering the city. This is where Apollo intervenes, fooling Achilles and leading him away from the city disguised as a Trojan, in the hope of keeping him from finding Hector. But when Zeus lifts his golden balances of fate and the scale with Hector’s fate tips low, Apollo has no choice but to abandon his protégé. Now the great heroes Achilles and Hector face off in their final duel.
“Wide o’er the field with guideless fury rolls/ Breaking their ranks, and crushing out their souls;/ While his keen falchion drinks the warriors’ lives;/ More grateful, now, to vultures than their wives!” (Book XI)
Athena, hoping to support Achilles, approaches Hector in the shape of his brother Deiphobus and goads him into confronting his enemy. The Trojan, believing that he is talking to his brother, throws a spear at Achilles and misses. When he turns around to ask for another one, the apparition has vanished: The goddess of wisdom has deceived him. Now Hector is certain that the gods have forsaken him and that he must die. Still, knowing that future generations will remember him for his glorious death fills him with great pride. Finally, Achilles stabs Hector through the neck.
“So voluble a weapon is the tongue;/ Wounded, we wound; and neither side can fail,/ For every man has equal strength to rail:/ Women alone, when in the streets they jar,/ Perhaps excel us in this wordy war.” (Book XX)
Before his death, Hector asks that his dead body go to his parents. But Achilles responds that he would rather eat from his own flesh; he wouldn’t even bend to that request if the corpse were weighted in gold. And Achilles keeps his word. Thirsting for revenge, he attaches his enemy’s dead body to his chariot and drags it around the grave of his fallen friend Patroclus, desecrating Hector’s body before the eyes of his parents (the king and queen of Troy) and his wife, Andromache. The father rolls in the mud from sheer horror and outrage, and the inhabitants of Troy struggle to restrain him from rushing to fall on his knees before the champion and beg for the body of his son.
Achilles, in his boundless anger and impunity, goes a step too far for the gods. At Zeus’s request, Thetis asks her son to stop running amok and release Hector’s body for a dignified funeral. Hermes, the messenger of the gods, escorts Priam into the tent of the raging Achilles. Priam tearfully invokes the memory of the Greek hero’s own father Peleus, until Achilles’s seemingly insatiable fury suddenly turns into compassion. In the end, the angry warrior is capable of pity and forgiveness: He returns the body to Priam, allowing the Trojan king to carry his fallen son into the beleaguered city on a mule-drawn cart. Hector’s sister, the prophetic Cassandra, is the first to spot the funeral procession and to spread the news of her brother’s demise, who was a great hero and the former protector of Troy. Andromache also bewails her husband’s fate, foreshadowing Troy’s doom. After nine days of extensive funeral games and public grief while the Greeks mourn their Patroclus, the story ends with the burial of Hector.
About the Text
Structure and Style
The Iliad is composed in 15,000 verses, divided into 24 books or chapters. It is written in Homeric or Epic Greek, which was a literary language derived from the Ionic and Aeolic dialects of the time. The meter is an unrhymed dactylic or heroic hexameter with six feet, the same one also used in the Odyssey. Although the epic Iliad covers only a period of 52 days in the 10-year struggle for Troy, it provides a broad panoramic view of the Trojan War by flashing back and forth in time. The main theme of rage divides it into two: In Books 1 to 17, Achilles rampages against his ruler, while in Books 18 to 24, he turns against his enemy. Understanding the epic requires solid background knowledge of Greek legends as well as the myths around Troy, since it often alludes to them without elaborating on the details. The Iliad contains numerous fixed and recurring linguistic elements, such as set phrases for the beginning or end of a speech or a fight. The frequent use of simile and metaphors inspired many poets that followed in Homer's path, as did the stylistic device of starting in the middle of a story and filling in the missing parts later. The sheer mass of primary tales and secondary stories, as well as the multitude of heroic and divine figures, makes it one of the most extensive compendiums of Greek mythology while preserving the subtle allure of the ancient Homeric drama.
- The extended dramatic and epic arc of the work is strongly related to Achilles’s central position in it. The questions of whether, how and when the great hero will overcome his wrath successfully bind together the countless plot lines, though Achilles’s eventual death isn’t related in the Iliad. Legend tells that he died from an arrow that Paris shoots and which the god Apollo, a friend of Troy, directs to the only vulnerable spot on Achilles’s body – his infamous heel.
- At times, Achilles appears as an isolated figure who violates social rules and obligations. His fighting companions keep reminding him that he has to justify his acts as an individual before the community to which he belongs.
- Achilles’s unrestrained anger, his retreat from battle and his rage against Hector’s dead body put his compatriots into great difficulty, and those actions infuriate the gods – thus harming Achilles himself. Aside from courage and bravery in war, the Iliad also extols moderation and self-restraint as virtuous human behavior. It glorifies aristocratic values such as honor, fame, bravery and loyalty and builds on the idea that most men come close to those aristocratic and even divine ideals.
- Humans may delay fate but never halt or alter it, and this is true even for magnificent warriors such as Achilles. Not even the gods are capable of suspending the predetermined course of events and consequences.
- Rather than trying to evade their mortal fate, the human protagonists embrace it, knowing that they will become immortal in heroic songs. Literary creation thus has the responsibility to shape the historical awareness of future generations.
The Heyday of Greece
If Homer really existed, he most likely lived in the second half of the 8th century BC. Approximately 400 years earlier, during the Late Bronze Age collapse in the 12th century BC, northern tribes destroyed the advanced Mycenaean civilization. The ruling aristocratic elite was annihilated or escaped, followed by an economic and cultural decline also called the Greek Dark Ages. During Homer’s lifetime, the region was beginning to recover, because, among other factors, the Greeks managed to successfully colonize the coast of Asia Minor. However, by setting his heroic and divine myths in the time before 1200 BC, Homer reminds the new nobility of their own glorious past. Therefore, the Iliad came into existence during the first great period of Greek art. Eventually, the Greeks came to self-identify as “Hellenes,” generally referring to educated, refined persons as opposed to uncivilized barbarians.
The so-called Archaic Age (800 BC–500 BC) coincided with the advance of the polis, the Greek city-state, with first a king and later an oligarchy (rule of a small group) at its head. Greece succeeded the Phoenicians as a great seafaring nation, and with Greek colonization, the polis expanded across the Mediterranean. Much of southern Italy including Sicily was under Greek influence, turning into Magna Graecia. The colonies formed separate independent communities that linked to their original city only through a common religion and constitution. Each city-state had a highly idiosyncratic social system. In Sparta, for instance, an aggressive warrior caste ruled over the population, while in Athens, every male householder enjoyed full citizen rights.
The title, Iliad, is derived from Ilias poiesis, meaning “poem of Ilion’’ – Ilion being the ancient Greek term for the city of Troy in Asia Minor (today’s Turkey). Still, there is much contemporary debate among scholars on the epic’s genesis – whether it is of multiple or single authorship, and whether Homer was a real person. All of it falls under the concept of the so-called Homeric Question. Most experts agree, however, that the Iliad is rooted in an oral tradition of early Greek, probably Mycenaean epic poetry. Philological researchers of the 19th and early 20th century primarily argued that several authors must have strung together a number of smaller epics to form the single great epic poem, the Iliad. Supporters for that theory are called Analysts, as opposed to Unitarians, who believe that it is a unified work of art that one single person created. Modern research tends to lean toward the latter assumption.
In 1870, archeology pioneer Heinrich Schliemann (1822–1890) discovered the remains of the ancient city of Troy near the Dardanelles, then part of the Ottoman Empire, making the city transcend the realms of poetic imagination and literary legend to become the subject of serious historical research. Yet it remains unclear whether anything resembling the Trojan War took place at or near the archeological site around 1200 BC.
The Iliad already had a reputation as being something like a literary big bang in ancient Greece. The great Greek dramatist Aeschylus is said to have called his own tragedies “slices from the great banquets of Homer.” The Iliad so utterly outshone other epic works from that period that they were simply forgotten. Homer’s work had a decisive influence on the literary, cultural, mythological and historical awareness of the ancient world, and the Roman poet Virgil considered his epic Aeneid to be a synthesis of the Iliad and Odyssey.
Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, under the dominant influence of the Latin Roman legacy, critics thought much more highly of Virgil’s Aeneid than Homer’s epics, which they occasionally accused of suffering from an excessive display of passion and a lack of internal logic. The poets of the German Sturm und Drang period, on the other hand, praised the emotional outbursts of the Homeric heroes, particularly the primal figure of Achilles, who oscillated between rage and deep humanity. They celebrated Homer as an author of truly natural feeling. In his epic fragment Achilleis, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe explicitly refers to himself as following in the footsteps of the great epic poet. The tale of Achilles inspired J.R.R. Tolkien to write The Fall of Gondolin, and even Hollywood tried its hand with the material numerous times. Its most recent version, Wolfgang Petersen’s 2004 blockbuster movie Troy, starring Brad Pitt as Achilles, was criticized for straying too far from the original. Yet in hindsight, all that blood and gore had a considerable upside for Homer: Some 3,000 years after his death, he became the best-selling poet in Britain.
About the Author
Homer’s existence as a historical person continues to be the subject of debate. There is no reliable evidence of his existence – only the stuff of legends and tales. The creator of the Iliad and the Odyssey is supposed to have lived in the 8th century BC in Ionic Greece, a small arc of settlement along the coast of Asia Minor in what is modern-day Turkey. Most believe that he was blind, though it is also possible that this was just ascribed to him due to the character of the blind singer Democodos in the Odyssey. It is thought that Homer grew up in Smyrna (today’s Izmir) and died on the island of Ios. Legend has it that Homer performed his art mainly to entertain and edify common folks in port cities. Many of the modern philologists who believe that he existed as a real person are of the opinion that the poet-singer characters in his work can be understood as Homer’s self-portraits, and since all those characters were at the service of noblemen, it is likely that the poet, too, was practicing his art in the circles of the aristocratic classes. The more deeply researchers delved into his work, however, the more contradictions they encountered. Could it be that Homer as an historical person wasn’t even the author of those texts? It has long been considered likely that the author(s) harked back to a long narrative tradition, joining together individual episodes from other poets and singers. In any event, the Iliad is the first major literary work of the Western world that was handed down in written form. Homer’s two monumental epics of the Iliad and the Odyssey are the starting point of Greek and therefore European literature.
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