Homer Study Guide - Introduction to the Iliad

Course Developer: Dr. Diane Thompson, NVCC, NOVA Online

  Introduction to the Iliad

The Iliad is about an episode of destructive violent rage that occurred in the Greek camp in the ninth year of the ten year Trojan War. This rage stems from a heedless quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon over possession of war-prize women. Agamemnon is outraged and his behavior outrages Achilles. Once the rage is fully started, only many deaths can bring the cycle of violence to a close.

Homer is the reason we still know about the war at Troy. He composed two magnificent epic poems about the Trojan War, the Iliad and the Odyssey, around the eighth century BCE. This was about five hundred years after the war itself. One reason that the Trojan War became so important to later Greeks such as Homer was that they considered the Greek victors their ancestors. Another reason was that the Trojan War, if indeed it occurred, came at the collapse of the Mycenaean Bronze Age.

Thus, its fall represented, at least in story, the last great victory of the Mycenaean Greeks before the collapse of their civilization. Homer lived in a less glorious age. Although Greeks had colonized Asia Minor after the Trojan War, they were no longer as prosperous (or as piratical) as during the Bronze Age. However, there still was a town of Troy in Homer’s day, and Homer may have lived in the vicinity, earning his living by telling stories about the glorious past of the Greek conquerors, yet sympathetic to the vanquished Trojans.

Homer was said to be blind, but his vivid images and stories of Troy have survived and thrived for nearly three millennia. Homer’s Troy is a mixture of some fairly accurate details of the Bronze Age, mixed with details from his own time, bound together by poetic imagination and elegant, swift-moving language. The Iliad and Odyssey have been so frequently praised, analyzed, translated, borrowed from, adapted and imitated that a study of Homer and his literary descendants can easily become a study of the history of Western literary culture, from Troy to the twenty-first century. People have continued to read and imitate Homer because he was a wonderful poet who told wonderful stories.

The Iliad is the poem of Troy; it takes place in the Greek camp, below the walls of Troy, and within the city itself. It is the ninth year of a ten-year siege. Achilles, the greatest Greek warrior, quarrels with Agamemnon, the greedy, arrogant high king of the Greek army. They fight over women war-prizes, Chryseis and Briseis. Achilles pushes Agamemnon to return his war-prize woman Chryseis to her father, a priest of Apollo, in order to stop plague in the Greek camp. Agamemnon, furious, takes Achilles’ war-prize woman Briseis as his compensation. Achilles, even more furious, vows to stop fighting until the Trojan warriors push through the Greek camp up to their ships at the shore. Achilles also gets his goddess mother, Thetis, to petition Zeus to keep the Trojans killing the Greeks until this happens. Zeus agrees and the terrible “plan of Zeus” is set.

Many Greeks are killed, Achilles sulks in his tent, eventually, Achilles’ best friend Patroclus is killed, and then at last Achilles rampages, slaughtering Trojans. Even the gods get into the battle, fighting one another until Zeus declares a stop to the chaos. The poem ends rather peacefully with two funerals, one for Achilles’ dear friend Patroclus and one for Hector, who killed Patroclus. Soon Achilles will die; next year Troy will fall.

Clearly, furious, short-tempered Achilles and arrogant, greedy Agamemnon are not suitable role models for later, more civilized societies, and this became a problem for future generations. Even worse, stories of the gods quarreling with one another and even engaging in wild battles became unacceptable to later generations with different, more restrained ideas of deity.

Homer’s vision of the relationship of mortals to gods is chilling. To Zeus, human beings are like the poppies of the field, they bloom briefly and die. The gods are rather like spectators betting on a violent football game that gets out of hand until Zeus finally calls an end to it. But Homer’s language, the power of the narrative, and Achilles’ heroic character are unforgettable and have not only survived, but flourished, carrying memories of Troy into the twenty-first century.

Homer’s Greeks and Trojans

Homer's Greeks are winners, his Trojans, losers; yet the Trojans and Greeks share many traits, such as the love of warfare, excellence, gold, adventure, trade, women, and horses. In the Iliad, the Trojans often seem more civilized than the Greeks. Priam is a better king and father than Agamemnon; Hector a kinder man than Achilles; Andromache a far better wife than Helen. Nonetheless, Homer's Troy is not Greek. Priam is an oriental ruler, with an oriental harem, who has fifty sons and twelve daughters, some by his wife, Hecuba, and others by his concubines.

There is something exotic and decadent about Troy. The Trojans are not as politically astute, nor as aggressive, as the Greeks. Paris is a no-brain fop, but the Trojans allow him to act in ways that are disastrous for their city. Helen is pure trouble, yet the Trojans let her stay, even though her presence dooms them.  Hector is the finest Trojan warrior, yet in his final test of will against Achilles, Hector breaks and tries to run away. Homer’s Troy is rich, ancient, past its prime, somewhat effete, an oriental kingdom to admire and plunder.

Even the gods have decided that Troy is ripe to fall. Zeus is ultimately on the side of the Greeks. Elsewhere in the Troy Cycle, there are stories of Priam's father, King Laomedon, who was mean spirited and politically foolish. He tried to avoid paying his debt to the gods and refused hospitality to Jason and Hercules. Troy, for all its power and elegance, has smudges on its reputation. Excellence, and therefore victory, is clearly on the side of the Greeks.

However, the Trojans must display sufficient excellence to provide glory to their conquerors. And so they do. Indeed, they are good enough to inspire later civilizations to make them into their ancestral heroes. This is a wonderful irony of the Troy stories--the winners become transmuted into losers, and the losers into winners, in the great culture wars of later civilizations.

The Iliad

The Iliad can be difficult for modern readers, because it tells of an archaic, heroic, violent world whose values are strange to us and whose heroes behave badly by our standards. The Iliad is a violent poem about brutal men, none more brutal than Achilles. Their excellence is in their pursuit of fame and honor, in their intelligence, leadership and friendships, and in their killing skills. Their anger is passionate, brutal, at times whipped into mad frenzy by the gods. Homer describes battles in carefully anatomical, formulaic detail; the spear goes in the liver and out the nostrils, the body drops to the dust, the corpses pile up, men die over one priceless, worthless, woman, Helen, who ran off with the worthless Trojan Prince Paris. 

The Iliad is about escalating anger and its final bitter resolution. It starts with the pointless, impious anger of Agamemnon at the priest Chryses, who tries to ransom his daughter with appropriate treasure. Next is the righteous anger of Chryses at Agamemnon for refusing to accept the ransom and return his daughter. Chryses invokes Apollo, who starts the plague, which kills the Greeks. Then there is the mutual anger of Agamemnon and Achilles as they quarrel over redistributing war-prize women, the petulant anger of Achilles as he withdraws his men from the fighting, and Achilles' murderous fury when Hector kills Patroclus. The anger eventually spreads to the elements (fire and water) and the gods, who enter the battle as eagerly violent as the human beings. Only when Zeus declares “enough,” do gods and humans let go of their anger and resume an orderly, civil life.

Jinyo Kim, in The Pity of Achilles, argues convincingly that a major theme of the Iliad is how Achilles’ wrath gradually and painfully becomes transformed into pity, first for his fellow-Greeks, and finally for all human beings. She explains that a central issue in the Iliad is the concept of philotes, or the connected group of warriors, the friends. It is only this band of friends who are able to confer honor and glory on a warrior, while the group strives to take away honor and glory from their enemies. Thus, when Agamemnon takes away Achilles’ honor (by taking Briseis), Agamemnon estranges himself from Achilles; they are no longer bound as friends. Since the Greeks (except for Achilles’ Myrmidons) are bound to follow Agamemnon, Achilles feels little or no further allegiance towards them. This precipitates Achilles’ wrath at his no-longer fellow Greeks. Jinyo explains that Achilles’ wrath is finally resolved in two places: first when he sends Patroclus out to help the Greeks in Book 16, and finally when Achilles reconciles with Priam as a fellow-mortal in Book 24. 1  Her book is especially helpful for those of us who have real trouble appreciating Achilles as a hero, because we tend to focus on his incredibly violent behavior.

Although the Iliad is about uncontrolled anger and its terrible consequences, the poem itself is remarkably controlled and patterned, both by its elaborate formulaic language and by the organization of its parts in relation to the whole. For example, the Iliad starts with refusal of ransom, plague, seizure of a war-prize woman, a quarrel and funerals in Book 1, and ends with accepting ransom, returning Hector's body, (momentary) reconciliation between Achilles and Priam, and Hector's funeral in Book 24.2

1. Jinyo Kim. The Pity of Achilles: Oral Style and the Unity of the Iliad. Rowman and Littlefield, 2000. 181-182.

2. Cedric H. Whitman. Homer and the Heroic Tradition. 1958. Rpt. New York: W. W. Norton. 1965.255, 260.

Homer Study Guide

© Diane Thompson: 8/13/1998; last updated: February 12, 2019