The main characters in the Iliad included women and men, mortal and immortal, victims, warriors, and gods. Their stories are intertwined and overlapping throughout the epic, weaving the tapestry threads known as the Trojan War. The Trojan war characters’ stories come together with their own stories to tell, and each story is a part of the larger tale.
Before her kidnapping by Paris, Helen of Troy was known as Helen of Sparta, wife to Menelaus, a prince of Sparta. A daughter of Zeus, she was known as the most beautiful woman in the world. From the time she was a child, Helen was coveted by men. Stolen as a child, she had to be retrieved by her brothers, the Dioscuri.
To protect her future marriage, Tyndareus, her stepfather, at the advice of Odysseus, came up with a plan. He made every suitor who wished to woo her promise to come to the defense of her future marriage. Known as the Oath of Tyndareus, the vow led the many warriors to join on the Greeks’ side in the Trojan War. She is one of the major characters in the Iliad, arguably one of the most important characters in the entire epic.
Helen may often be called the “face that launched 1,000 ships,” but if Paris had not stolen her, the war would never have begun. It was foretold before his birth that Paris would be the cause of the fall of Troy. His parents had him exposed on a mountain, where a she-bear suckled him. A shepherd, taking pity, raised him. He was later restored to the royal family. Given an opportunity to judge between Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite in a contest of beauty, Paris chose Aphrodite. Aphrodite bought her prize with a bribe- the love of Helen. Paris didn’t let a little matter like her marriage to another man keep him from his prize.
Priam and Hecuba
Priam and Hecuba were the parents of Paris and Hector and King and Queen of Troy. When Paris was an infant, they were told that he would bring about his City’s fall. They had a shepherd lay him out on a mountainside, hoping the baby would perish. Instead, Paris was suckled by a she-bear. Finding the child still alive after 9 days, the shepherd took pity on him and took him home to raise as his own.
When the Greeks attacked, Priam sent Paris’ brother Hector out as the Trojan army head. Later, he appeals to Achilles for the return of his son’s body. Priam’s primary failure was his inability to stand up to any of his children. Had he refused to shelter Paris for his crime, the war could have been avoided.
Andromache and Astyanax
Paris’ actions didn’t only impact Helen and her family and the City of Troy’s entirety. Hector’s beloved wife, Andromache, and his infant son, Astyanax, were affected as well. The last time Hector set out to face Achilles, Andromache begged him not to go. It would be the last time she saw him alive. Astyanax likely perished when the Greeks overran Troy.
In part, the love of Andromache and Astyanax caused Hector to be short-tempered with Paris and impatient with his cowardice. Hector fought valiantly for his home and his family.
Chryses, Chryseis and Briseis
Agamemnon and Achilles took Chryseis and Briseis as war prizes. Chryseis was the daughter of Chryses, who happened to be a priest of Apollo. When his appeals to Agamemnon for his daughter’s release failed, he prayed to Apollo, who intervened by sending a plague upon the Greek forces. When a seer revealed the source of the plague, Agamemnon was ordered to release Chryseis. Agamemnon demanded to be given Achilles’ prize, Briseis, as a consolation in a fit of pique. Achilles, furious, withdrew from the war for a time, leaving the Greeks without one of their greatest warriors.
The chief of the gods, Zeus, orchestrated much of the war, directing the gods’ interference as they took sides and interfered with nearly every encounter between the mortals. He determined that Troy would fall, long before the war began.
Throughout the war, Zeus chooses sides and dictates whether the gods may be involved with the Human interactions and how much they may interfere. The results vary. Sometimes the gods follow his dictates; other times, they ignore him and interfere despite his censure.
Wife to Zeus, Hera favored the Greeks and did all she could to forward their agenda. She worked closely with Athena to deliver a humiliating defeat to the Trojans, whom she hated. Hera and Athena’s disdain for the Trojans may be related to Paris choosing Aphrodite in the beauty contest between the three goddesses.
Athena also hated the Trojans, perhaps because of Paris’ judgement that favored Aphrodite over herself and Hera. She partnered with Hera to do all she could to defeat the Trojans. She assisted several Greek heroes as they fought and often acted despite Zeus’ admonishment to refrain from interfering.
A son of Zeus, Apollo favored the Trojans and often intervened on their behalf, even guiding the arrow that killed Achilles to its mark. It is possible that Apollo was influenced by his half-sister Aphrodite to help the Trojans. Or he went against Athena, his other half-sister, for the entertainment of interfering with Human affairs.
Aphrodite was also on the Trojans’ side, perhaps to support Paris, who judged her more beautiful than Hera and Athena. It was she who offered Helen to Paris as a bribe. She won his favor in the beauty contest between the three goddesses by bribing Paris. The others offered him power and prowess as a fighter, but Aphrodite offered him the love of the most beautiful woman on earth.
A sea-nymph, Thetis is the adoring mother of Achilles. To protect her son, she dipped him as an infant into the River Styx. The water imbued him with immortality. Fearing a prophecy that had foreseen that Achilles would either lead a long and uneventful life or die young, having gained for himself great glory in battle, she tried to hide him to prevent his entry into the war. Odysseus thwarted her effort.
Known as the lame god, Hephaestus was the blacksmith of the gods. He was neutral in the war but granted Thetis’ request for him to forge a new set of armor for Achilles. Later he rescues Achilles from a battle with a river god.
Hermes was a messenger of the gods. He appears several times to carry messages to mortals in the war and is Priam’s escort when he slips into the Greek camp to appeal to Achilles for the return of his son’s body.
Fighters, Warriors, and Leaders Oh My
While these are the Iliad’s main characters, it is also worth noting that the Iliad warriors were the focus of much of the story. No Iliad character analysis would be complete without a complete accounting of these characters in the Iliad.
Achilles was arguably the best the Greeks had to offer in terms of warriors. Considered a hero in the Iliad, He was known to be a flight of foot and fought with great ferocity. Achilles was responsible for the slaughter of much of the Trojan army. Though Achilles refused to rejoin the battle after Briseis was taken from him, the death of his friend Patroclus brought him back with a vengeance. When his wrath came down upon the Trojan armies, he killed so many he clogged a river, angering a local god. Before his rampage was over, he killed the prince of Troy, Hector, and desecrated his body for days. Hot-headed, impulsive, and proud, Achilles contributed to the Greek victory, both with his prowess in battle and in the morale he lent to the troops with his ferocity.
Patroclus, as a child, killed another child in a fight. His father sent him to the father of Achilles. A few years older than Achilles, Patroclus became his trainer, his confidant, his best friend. By some accounts, the two men were closer than brothers, and some writers speculate that they may have been lovers. Certainly, such a relationship is suggested by Achilles’ extreme response to Patroclus’ death. When the Greeks were suffering Achilles’ absence from the battling, Patroclus begged to borrow his friend’s armor. Wearing it, he went out into battle to demoralize the Trojans. In the resulting battle, he was killed by the Trojan prince, Hector. Ajax retrieved his body, but Achilles’ rage at his loss was a turning point in the fighting.
Brother in law to Helen, Agamemnon was the leader of the Greek armies. He and Achilles argued, resulting in Achilles’ withdrawal from the fighting. He led the Greek army, and his pride and impetuous behavior in taking Briseis from Achilles nearly cost them a victory. His refusal to return the woman was the direct cause of Achilles’ refusal to rejoin the battle. Agamemnon was the King of Mycenae and was bound by the Oath of Tyndeaus and familial loyalty to his brother Menelaus.
Husband of Helen, Menelaus is the king of Sparta. Although he is a strong warrior, he lacks the arrogance and strength of Agamenon. He is a jealous husband who wants nothing more than to get his revenge on Paris and bring Helen home. Homer never reveals whether Menelaus wants Helen back because he loves her or wants his beautiful wife returned. Some speculate that Paris was in love with Helen, so he abandoned his first wife and endangered his birthplace for her sake. There is speculation also that Helen returned the feeling, perhaps under the influence of Aphrodite, but Homer doesn’t reveal his interpretation of the ill-fated lovers in the text.
The son of an Argonaut, Laertes, Odysseus was king of Ithaca. As one of Helen’s failed suitors, he was bound by the Oath of Tyndareus to join the war. He went unwillingly, not wanting to leave his wife, Penelope and his infant son Telemachus. He tried to get out of the battle by feigning insanity. He hitched an ox and a donkey to the plow and began sowing his fields with salt. Palamedes, sent to bring Odysseus to the war, revealed the trick by laying his infant son in front of the plow. Odysseus was forced to swerve to avoid harming the child, and so revealed his sanity. Odysseus was right to fear his entry into the war. The prophecy that it would take him a very long time to return home came true. In fact, it was over 20 years before he would see his son again.
Diomedes is the youngest of the Greek commanders. Bold and impetuous, he is assisted by Athena. The goddess imbues him with such courage that he actually manages to wound two different gods, Aphrodite and Ares. As a favorite of Athena, he received the most direct help from the immortals invested in the two parties’ fight. Athena even drove his chariot at one point. Of all of the Iliad characters, only Diomedes and Menelaus, husband of Helen, were offered immortality in post-Homeric mythology and eventually became gods themselves.
Ajax the Greater
Ajax the Greater, also known as the Telamonian Ajax, is the Greeks’ second greatest warrior. With almost no divine intervention, he is the only of the Iliad warriors who were not wounded through the battling. He was known as the “Bulwark of the Achaeans” due to his size and strength. Twice, he nearly killed Hector, wounding him with thrown boulders. It was Ajax who defended the body of Patroclus and helped return it to the Greeks. He often fights with Ajax the Lesser, and the pair was sometimes known as the Aeantes. Ajax the Lesser was swift and small and able to dart in while Ajax the Greater’s size and strength provided bulk and force to continue moving the line forward.
Ajax the Lesser
The son of Oileus, Ajax the Lesser fought alongside the other Ajax and was known for his speed and cleverness. The two provided the Greeks with much of their advantage when Achilles refused to rejoin the fighting. With Ajax the Greater’s size and strength, and the diminutive size and speed of Ajax the Lesser, they were an intimidating pair in battle.
Nestor is the King of Pylos and is also the eldest of the Achaean commanders. While he has lost much of his physical strength and stamina to age, he is considered one of the wisest and most experienced Greek army leaders. Nestor is often the one who advises Agamemnon. He and Odysseus were considered the Greeks’ most clever and persuasive speakers, though Nestor tended to be a bit long-winded in his speeches. His advice often steadies the Greek commanders and leads them in the right direction to gain victory, though they don’t always listen to his speech.
Hector was the brother to Paris, son of King Priam and Queen Hecuba. Hector is the mightiest of the Trojan warriors and the leader of their armies. He stands to defend his younger brother Paris and even scolds him for leaving the field and avoiding the battle. He is as impulsive and arrogant as Achilles, but perhaps not as desiring of destruction. Hector, however, does not lose one of his best friends and possible lover in the battling. He fights to defend his city and his beloved wife and son. He resents his younger brother for bringing the war to his City. Hector manages to kill Patroclus but is killed in return by Achilles. Eventually, Paris avenges his brother by killing Achilles with a poisoned arrow. Apollo helps guide the shot to strike Achilles in the one place he is vulnerable, his heel. Still, Hector loses everything, including his wife and infant son, when Troy falls.