The Iliad – Homer – Poem: Story, Summary & Analysis
(Epic Poem, Greek, c. 750 BCE, 15,693 lines)
Introduction – Who wrote the Iliad
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“The Iliad“ (Gr: “Iliás“) is an epic poem by the ancient Greek poet Homer, which recounts some of the significant events of the final weeks of the Trojan War and the Greek siege of the city of Troy (which was also known as Ilion, Ilios or Ilium in ancient times). Written in the mid-8th Century BCE, “The Iliad” is usually considered to be the earliest work in the whole Western literary tradition, and one of the best known and loved stories of all time.
Through its portayal of the epic subject matter of the Trojan War, the stirring scenes of bloody battle, the wrath of Achilles and the constant interventions of the gods, it explores themes of glory, wrath, homecoming and fate, and has provided subjects and stories for many other later Greek, Roman and Renaissance writings.
Synopsis – Iliad Summary
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The story covered by “The Iliad” begins nearly ten years into the seige of Troy by the Greek forces, led by Agamemnon, King of Mycenae. The Greeks are quarrelling about whether or not to return Chryseis, a Trojan captive of King Agamemnon, to her father, Chryses, a priest of Apollo. When Agamemnon refuses and threatens to ransom the girl to her father, the offended Apollo plagues them with a pestilence.
The Greeks, at the behest of the warrior-hero Achilles, force Agamemnon to return Chryseis in order to appease Apollo and end the pestilence. But, when Agamemnon eventually reluctantly agrees to give her back, he takes in her stead Briseis, Achilles‘s own war-prize concubine. Feeling dishonoured, Achilles wrathfully withdraws both himself and his Myrmidon warriors from the Trojan War.
Testing the resolve of the Greeks, Agamemnon feigns a homeward order, but Odysseus encourages the Greeks to pursue the fight. During a brief truce in the hostilities, Paris and Menelaus meet in single combat over Helen, while she and old King Priam of Troy watch from the city walls and, despite the goddess Aphrodite’s intervention on behalf of the over-matched Paris, Menelaus is the victor. The goddess Athena, however, who favours the Greeks, soon provokes a Trojan truce-breaking and battle begins anew.
The Greek hero Diomedes, strengthened by Athena, drives the Trojans before him but, in his arrogance and blood-lust, strikes and injures Aphrodite. Despite the misgivings of his wife, Andromache, the Trojan hero, Hector, son of King Priam, challenges the Greek warrior-hero Ajax to single combat, and is almost overcome in battle. Throughout all, in the background, the various gods and goddesses (particularly Hera, Athena, Apollo and Poseidon) continue to argue among themselves and to manipulate and intervene in the struggle, despite Zeus’ specific orders to the contrary.
Achilles steadfastly refuses to give in to pleas for help from Agamemnon, Odysseus, Ajax, Phoenix and Nestor, spurning the offered honours and riches and even Agamemnon‘s belated offer to return Briseis to him. Diomedes and Odysseus sneak into the Trojan camp and wreak havoc. But, with Achilles and his warriors out of battle, the tide appears to begin to turn in favour of the Trojans. Agamemnon is wounded in the battle and, despite the heroics of Ajax, Hector successfully breaches the fortified Greek camp, wounding Odysseus and Diomedes in the process, and threatens to set the Greek ships on fire.
Torn between his allegiances, Achilles orders his friend and lover, Patroclus, to dress in Achilles‘own armour and to lead the Myrmidons in repelling the Trojans. Intoxicated by his success, Patroclus forgets Achilles‘ warning, and pursues the fleeing Trojans to the walls of Troy and would have taken the city were it not for the actions of Apollo. In the heat of the battle, though, Hector finds the disguised Patroclus and, thinking him to be Achilles, fights and (again with Apollo’ help) kills him. Menelaus and the Greeks manage to recover Patroclus’s corpse before Hector can inflict more damage.
Distraught at the death of his companion, Achilles then reconciles with Agamemnon and rejoins the fray, despite knowing his deadly fate, and drives all the Trojans before him in his fury. As the ten year war reaches its climax, even the gods join in the battle and the earth shakes with the clamour of the combat.
Clad in new armour fashioned specially for him by Hephaestus, Achilles takes revenge for his friend Patroclus by slaying Hector in single combat, but then defiles and desecrates his corpse for several days. Now, at last, Patroclus’ funeral can be celebrated in what Achilles sees as a fitting manner. Hector‘s father, King Priam, emboldened by his grief and aided by Hermes, recovers Hector‘s corpse from Achilles, and “The Iliad” ends with Hector‘s funeral during a twelve day truce granted by Achilles.
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Although attributed to Homer, “The Iliad” is clearly dependent on an older oral tradition and may well have been the collective inheritance of many singer-poets over a long period of time (the historical Fall of Troy is usually dated to around the start of the 12th Century BCE). Homer was probably one of the first generation of authors who were also literate, as the Greek alphabet was introduced in the early 8th Century BCE, and the language used in his epic poems is an archaic version of Ionic Greek, with admixtures from certain other dialects such as Aeolic Greek. However, it is by no means certain that Homer himself (if in fact such a man ever really existed) actually wrote down the verses.
“The Iliad” was part of a group of ancient poems known as the “Epic Cycle”, most of which are now lost to us, which dealt with the history of the Trojan War and the events surrounding it. Whether or not they were written down, we do know that Homer‘s poems (along with others in the “Epic Cycle”) were recited in later days at festivals and ceremonial occasions by professional singers called “rhapsodes“, who beat out the measure with rhythm staffs.
“The Iliad” itself does not cover the early events of the Trojan War, which had been launched ten years before the events described in the poem in order to rescue Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, after her abduction by the Trojan prince, Paris. Likewise, the death of Achilles and the eventual fall of Troy are not covered in the poem, and these matters are the subjects of other (non-Homeric) “Epic Cycle” poems, which survive only in fragments. “The Odyssey”, a separate work also by Homer, narrates Odysseus‘ decade-long journey home to Ithaca after the end of the Trojan War.
The poem consists of twenty-four scrolls, containing 15,693 lines of dactylic hexameter verse. The entire poem has a formal rhythm that is consistent throughout (making it easier to memorize) and yet varied slightly from line to line (preventing it from being monotonous). Many phrases, sometimes whole passages, are repeated verbatim over and over again throughout “The Iliad”, partly to fulfill the demands of the metre and partly as part of the formulaic oral tradition. In the same way, many of the descriptive phrases that are linked with a certain character (such as “swift-footed Achilles“, “Diomedes of the great war cry“, “Hector of the shining helm”, and “Agamemnon the lord of men”) match the number of syllables in a hero’s name, and are repeated regularly to the extent that they almost seem to become part of the characters’ names themselves.
The immortal gods and goddesses are portrayed as characters in “The Iliad”, displaying individuality and will in their actions, but they are also stock religious figures, sometimes allegorical, sometimes psychological, and their relation to humans is extremely complex. They are often used as a way of explaining how or why an event took place, but they are also sometimes used as comic relief from the war, mimicking, parodying and mocking mortals. Indeed, it is often the gods, not the mortals, who seem casual, petty and small-minded.
The main theme of the poem is that of war and peace, and the whole poem is essentially a description of war and fighting. There is a sense of horror and futility built into Homer‘s chronicle, and yet, posed against the viciousness, there is a sense of heroism and glory that adds a glamour to the fighting: Homer appears both to abhor war and to glorify it. Frequent similes tell of the peacetime efforts back home in Greece, and serve as contrasts to the war, reminding us of the human values that are destroyed by fighting, as well as what is worth fighting for.
The concept of heroism, and the honour that results from it, is also one of the major currents running through the poem. Achilles in particular represents the heroic code and his struggle revolves around his belief in an honour system, as opposed to Agamemnon‘s reliance on royal privilege. But, as fighter after heroic fighter enters the fray in search of honour and is slain before our eyes, the question always remains as to whether their struggle, heroic or not, is really worth the sacrifice.
“Menin“or “menis“ (“anger“ or “wrath“) is the word that opens “The Iliad”, and one of the major themes of the poem is Achilles coming to terms with his anger and taking responsibility for his actions and emotions.
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- English translation by Samuel Butler with popup notes and commentary (eNotes): http://www.enotes.com/iliad-text
- Greek version with word-by-word translation (Perseus Project): http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text.jsp?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0133
- Detailed book-by-book summary (About.com): http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/iliad/a/Iliad.html