The Iliad and the Odyssey, composed by the Greek poet Homer, are the two earliest examples of Greek epic* poetry and the standard against which all later epics were judged. The Iliad is the earlier poem, dating to about 750 B.C. It is an immense work that consists of 24 books. The Iliad is a tale of gods and goddesses and of heroes*, of the glory and horrors of war, and of strong passions and their consequences.
The action of the Iliad takes place during the Trojan War, believed to have been fought during the 1200s B.C. between the Greeks and Troy, a city on the west coast of Asia Minor. The cause of the war was the capture of Helen, the beautiful wife of Menelaus of Achaea, by Paris, the prince of Troy. The poem’s action covers the events of only a few weeks, but the whole span of the war is suggested by references to earlier events. Some of the events may have a historical basis.
The opening lines of the Iliad introduce one of the themes of the poem—the destructive force of anger: “Sing, Goddess, of the wrath of Achilles, son of Peleus. . . .” The story begins as Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae and Menelaus’s brother, has captured the daughter of a Trojan priest as a prize of war. Agamemnon refuses to return her, even though his people do not support his action. The girl’s father—one of Apollo’s priests—prays to Apollo for help, and the god causes a plague* to strike the camp of the Achaean army. After nine days, the goddess Hera steps in to help the Achaeans. She tells Achilles, the Achaeans’ greatest warrior, to call a council, where a prophet reveals that it is Agamemnon’s action that has angered Apollo. Agamemnon is furious, saying he will release the girl only if he is properly compensated for losing her. He threatens to take Achilles’ favorite captive woman, Briseis, to replace his own. Achilles, infuriated, draws his sword to attack Agamemnon but is stopped by the goddess Athena. Achilles sheathes his sword but swears he will no longer fight for Agamemnon. Agamemnon orders Odysseus (the hero of Homer’s other epic, the Odyssey) to accompany the priest’s daughter back to Troy. Odysseus, although a less-prominent figure in the Iliad, is greatly respected and is described as one “of many wise plans.”
* epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability, often descended from a god
* plague highly contagious, widespread, and often fatal disease
Homer’s Iliad spins a glorious tale of the events of the Trojan War and the heroes who fought in it. While not necessarily an accurate historical account, the Iliad remains appealing because of its insightful commentary on human nature. This vase painting shows two Greek warriors at the feet of Athena, drawing lots to see who will be given the armor of the slain Achilles.
The fierce fighting continues with Athena supporting the Achaeans and Ares championing the Trojans. Homer gave long, detailed accounts of the battle scenes, including vivid descriptions of strategic maneuvers and equipment as well as bloodshed and gore. However, he humanized the war with the heartfelt speeches of grieving parents, widows, and orphans. One of the most moving scenes of the epic occurs when Hector, Troy’s hero, leaves the battlefield and returns home to see his wife and infant son. Taking leave of them, knowing that he probably will not return, he tenderly tells his wife: “Don’t be too sorrowful: no one will hurl me into Hades* until destiny decrees: no man can escape his destiny.”
With the Achaeans on the brink of defeat, Patroclus, Achilles’ closest companion, begs him to rejoin the fight. Achilles refuses but lends Patroclus his armor so that his friend might fight. This event in Book 16 marks the turning point in the epic. Patroclus is killed by Hector in battle. Hearing of Patroclus’s death, Achilles vows to avenge his friend and returns to battle, wearing a suit of armor “brighter than glowing fire,” made for him by the god Hephaestus. The climax of the poem occurs in Book 22, when Achilles kills Hector in combat and the Trojan army is routed. Achilles ties Hector’s corpse to a chariot and drags him in front of the Trojans. Returning to the Achaean camp, Achilles orders a pyre* built and plans a funeral procession for Patroclus.
* Hades the underworld
The poem ends as Priam, Hector’s grief-stricken father, journeys to the camp of Achilles to recover his son’s body for burial. Zeus orders the messenger god Hermes to aid Priam. In a dignified plea, Priam appeals to Achilles: “I have dared what no man on earth has dared before, to kiss the hand that slew my son.” With admiration for the older man’s dignity, Achilles grants his wish and releases the corpse.
The Iliad is a tragic poem. While battle may be the supreme test of manhood and of the heroic ideal, it also brings pain and suffering. Homer’s ability to show the many sides of human nature—the capacity for anger and affection, cruelty and kindness, sorrow and joy—as well as his beautifully descriptive language and mastery of story-telling technique have given the Iliad a universal and lasting appeal. (See also Epic, Greek; Heroes, Greek; Odyssey; Poetry, Greek and Hellenistic.)
* pyre pile of wood used to burn a dead body