Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are the first known Greek literary works; they are mature, not primitive, in narrative style and themes. The writing was adopted in Greece by 750 B.C.; the Iliad appears somewhat later.
A timeless poem dating back to the ninth century B.C., Homer’s timeless poem eloquently conveys the horror and heroism of men and gods battling amidst devastation and destruction, as it moves inexorably towards the bittersweet end to the Trojan War.
According to renowned classicist Bernard Knox, the Iliad’s violence is grim and relentless, but it coexists with images of civilized life and a longing for peace.
You may still be wondering if you should read the book. This book summary will tell you everything about this book so you can decide if it is worth your time.
Without further ado, let’s get started.
Table of Contents
The Greek hero Achilles avenges his friend’s death in the Trojan War and learns to accept the limitations of his society.
The Trojan War began when the gods asked Paris, son of the King of Troy (also known as Ilium, as reflected in the poem’s title), to judge a beauty contest, in which he chose Aphrodite, the love goddess, as winner after she had bribed him with an offer that she would provide him with the most beautiful woman in the world as his wife.
Soon afterward, with Aphrodite’s help, Paris went to Sparta and persuaded Helen, the world’s most beautiful woman and the wife of King Menelaus, to elope with him to Troy. Enraged, Menelaus assembled an army of Greeks (also called Achaeans, Argives, and Danaans) that included his brother, Agamemnon (King of Mycenae and commander-in-chief of the Greek army), and the powerful warrior Achilles, who would be essential to the Greeks’ victory and who is the central character of the Iliad.
They made their way to Troy, and thus began the Trojan War. During a raid on a Trojan town, they seized two beautiful maidens, Briseis and Chryseis, who were awarded (respectively) to Achilles and Agamemnon out of gratitude for their prowess. Chryseis was the daughter of Chryses, the priest who served Apollo, god of poetry, music, and prophecies (predictions of the future).
Chryses pleaded with Agamemnon to release Chryseis, but the king refused. So Chryses prayed to Apollo for help. (The Iliad begins at this point.)
In the Greek camp on the plains of Troy, Apollo sends a plague that destroys Greek morale. Calchus, a prophet, explains that the plague will stop when Agamemnon returns Chryseis to her father.
Agamemnon reluctantly agrees, but takes Achilles’ woman, Briseis, as compensation. Enraged at this affront to his honor, Achilles withdraws his troops from battle. That night, he prays to his mother, the sea goddess Thetis, to request that Zeus, king of the gods, make the Greeks lose battles so they will be forced to ask Achilles back, thereby restoring his honor. Zeus agrees, despite the disapproval of his wife, Hera, who hates the Trojans.
Zeus sends Agamemnon a falsely encouraging dream that makes him believe victory is certain. Exuberant, Agamemnon tests his men’s spirits the next day by announcing their return to Greece.
Instead of showing their support for the Greek cause by rushing out to battle (as Agamemnon had hoped), they run in droves for the ships. Odysseus, a brave warrior, stops the riot and successfully prepares the soldiers for battle.
The battle has scarcely begun when Paris, criticized for cowardice by his brother Hector (Troy’s greatest warrior), agrees to a single combat with Menelaus. Paris is nearly defeated by the Spartan king, but Aphrodite saves him.
Agamemnon claims a Greek victory, but Athena, goddess of war, causes a Trojan archer to wound Menelaus, and the war breaks out again.
Even the gods participate in the battle. The brave Greek chief, Diomedes, with help from Athena, leads the Greeks to some victories, nearly killing the Trojan hero Aeneas and wounding Aphrodite.
When Diomedes attacks Apollo and wounds the war god Ares, the gods withdraw from the battle. Diomedes, on the point of attacking his Trojan enemy, Glaucus, finds that their ancestors had been friends.
The two exchange armor and agree not to fight each other. Hector briefly returns home and finds his wife, Andromache, and baby son, Astyanax, watching the battle from the Trojan wall. He exchanges loving but disheartened words with Andromache, then returns to battle, where he volunteers to fight a Greek in single combat.
Ajax, a brave Greek warrior, is chosen to fight him. Hector is almost killed but the gods send an early nightfall to stop the battle. Both the Greeks and the Trojans accept this omen (i.e., a sign from the gods) and make a truce so they can bury their dead.
The Greeks build a defense wall around their camp, and when the truce ends, Zeus and Fate (not a god, but a “mysterious force”) bring defeat to the Greeks, despite objections from Hera and Athena. Led by Hector, the Trojans drive the Greeks into a panicky retreat, then camp for the night on the plains near the Greek fortification.
Worried about the Trojan success, Agamemnon admits his error. He sends Odysseus, Ajax, and Achilles’ old tutor, Phoenix, to offer great gifts to Achilles, who has remained in the Greek camp without participating in battle.
But Achilles claims that fighting will gain him nothing. He agrees to stay at the battlefront, but will fight only if his own ships and tents are in danger.
Agamemnon, who has become even more worried, wakes before dawn and sends Odysseus and Diomedes on a spying mission; they return after killing a Trojan spy and many sleeping Trojan allies.
The next day, Agamemnon leads the Greeks to battle; at first they seem successful, but Fate determines that the Trojans will win. Back at camp, Patroclus (Achilles’ closest friend) sees wounded soldiers returning and sympathetically assists in treating them.
The Greeks, momentarily assisted by Poseidon (god of the seas), manage to rally against the Trojan advances. On Mt. Olympus, Hera is happy to see Zeus’s brother Poseidon helping the Greeks, despite Zeus’s desire for a Trojan victory.
To protect him and to help the Greeks, she seduces Zeus and sends him to sleep. At this point, the Greeks begin to win. But Zeus suddenly wakens and angrily orders Poseidon home. There is frenzy among the gods, but they agree to obey Zeus’s decision that only Apollo may join the conflict by urging Hector on. Hector leads the Trojans into a rush on the Greek ships, which he hopes to burn.
Patroclus, moved by the suffering of his army, asks Achilles to lend him his armor so that the Trojans will mistake him for Achilles and retreat. Achilles reluctantly agrees, but warns him only to rescue the ships and not to endanger his life by attacking Troy itself.
Patroclus, at the head of Achilles’ army, the Myrmidons, turns the tide of the battle and sweeps the Trojans back across the plains to Troy. He kills many, including Zeus’s beloved son Sarpedon, but forgets Achilles’ warning and attacks the Trojan wall. Hector, aided by Apollo, kills Patroclus. As he dies, Patroclus prophesies (predicts) Hector’s own death.
Led first by Menelaus, then Ajax, the Greeks struggle to prevent the Trojans from mutilating Patroclus’s body, but are unable to prevent Hector from seizing Achilles’ armor. Menelaus sends word to Achilles that Patroclus is dead and that Patroclus’s body is in danger of being mutilated.
Achilles reacts to his friend’s death with deep sorrow. He swears revenge on Hector, though he knows from a prophecy that he, too, will die soon. He appears before the Trojans and strikes them with fear, since he is, in effect, an omen of their downfall.
As night falls, the Trojans retreat and the Greeks save Patroclus’s body. Despite the Trojan losses, Hector refuses to retreat inside the walls of Troy. On Mt. Olympus, the metalsmith god Hephaestus makes Achilles some armor to replace what he has lost.
His new shield is gloriously carved with scenes of nature and human life. The next morning, Thetis brings the armor to Achilles. Agamemnon apologizes to him, but Achilles dismisses the importance of their quarrel. Focused on revenge, he arms himself for battle. When his chariot horse miraculously speaks and prophesies his death, Achilles remains unmoved.
As the Trojans sense the coming doom, the gods stand by watchfully, prepared to join battle. In the first rush, Achilles nearly kills Aeneas and Hector, but Apollo saves them. Then Achilles drives the Trojans across the plains to the banks of the river Xanthus, where he pitilessly refuses a young Trojan’s plea for mercy.
He chokes the river with bodies, and an indignant river god nearly succeeds in drowning him. Achilles despairs, but Poseidon, Athena, and Hephaestus save him, which prompts the other gods to rush into the battle.
The Trojans, totally vanquished, stream back into their city—with the exception of Hector, who remains outside the wall. He is afraid to face Achilles, but has no choice. When Achilles appears, however, Hector breaks and runs.
Achilles chases him three times around Troy’s walls. On Mt. Olympus, Zeus decides that Hector must die. Hector faces Achilles and dies in the combat. Achilles, ignoring Hector’s dying plea to spare his body, drags the body behind his chariot. When Hector’s parents, Hecuba and King Priam of Troy, see how their son is being degraded, they wail and weep. Andromache, expecting Hector’s return, instead sees his dead body and faints in anguish.
Achilles’ revenge makes him no happier. Each day he drags Hector’s body, though Patroclus lies unburied. One night, Patroclus’s ghost appears to Achilles and pleads for burial.
So Achilles burns Patroclus’s body and sacrifices 12 Trojans on the funeral pyre. At the lavish funeral games that he gives, Achilles appears almost happy. But still he mourns all night in a sleepless fit.
On Mt. Olympus, the gods see the wrongness of Achilles’ behavior and decide to resolve it. Zeus sends the messenger goddess Iris to Priam with instructions to go to the Greek camp and ransom Hector’s body.
When Priam meets Achilles, he asks for Hector’s body, and the men mourn together, sharing their sorrows. Achilles comforts Priam and eats with him, then surrenders the body and sleeps. Priam returns home before dawn, and during a 10-day truce, the Trojans mourn and bury Hector.
The Iliad ends here, before the final Greek victory wherein the Greeks pretend to abandon the attack but actually penetrate the Trojan wall inside a hollowed-out, soldier-filled Trojan Horse.
Zeus: King of the gods; masterful, powerful, just, but subject to intense, often violent emotions; pro-Trojan.
Poseidon: God of the seas; brother of Zeus; pro-Greek.
Athena: Favorite daughter of Zeus; goddess of warfare; fond of Achilles; pro-Greek.
Hera: Queen of gods; quarrelsome, can be seductive; pro-Greek.
Apollo: God of prophecy, poetry, music, and archery; inspires a quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon by sending a plague; proud of Hector; pro-Trojan.
Aphrodite: Goddess of love; beautiful, sexy, weak; fond of Helen and Paris; pro-Trojan.
Achilles: Leader of Myrmidon troops, greatest Greek hero; young (in his 20s); son of the goddess Thetis and the mortal Peleus. Brave, intelligent, straightforward, proud, quick-tempered, moody, and sensitive. The story that he is invulnerable except for his “Achilles’ heel” is not true in the Iliad.
Patroclus: Friend of Achilles; fierce warrior; kind, compassionate, likable.
Agamemnon: King of Mycenae, head of Greek expedition to Troy; middle-aged; great warrior and leader. Conscious of his position and power; often indecisive under the burden of responsibility.
Menelaus: King of Sparta; younger brother of Agamemnon, husband of Helen of Troy; agreeable, brave. Follows Agamemnon’s lead.
Odysseus: King of Ithaca; crafty, resourceful, courageous.
Diomedes: King of Argos; young (in his 20s). Leads Greek fighting in Books 5-7; advises against giving in to Achilles.
Hector: Greatest Trojan warrior; probably in his 30s. A caring husband, father, and son. Brave, humane, and sensitive; devoted to defending his homeland, though he knows Troy will lose the war.
Andromache: Sensitive, loving wife of Hector, mother of baby Astyanax. The rest of her family was killed earlier in the war.
Paris: Trojan prince, Hector’s younger brother. Stole Helen from Sparta, which started the Trojan War; prefers a peaceful life to warfare.
Priam: Ancient King of Troy; great-hearted, brave; saddened, worn down by war, deaths of children, subjects.
Helen: Former wife of Menelaus, now wife of Paris. The most beautiful woman in the world; fond of Priam and Hector. Unhappy about being the cause of the Trojan War.
Themes & Ideas
The ancient Greeks believed in many gods: there were 12 main gods (Olympians) plus many minor gods and spirits. For the Greeks, these gods had human personalities and were subject to greed, lust, hatred, and sorrow; but they were also immortal and powerful. In the Iliad, the gods can be comic (Hera seduces Zeus, Book 14) because they are distant from human tragedy and death.
But the Greeks respected the gods’ power and fame. The gods demanded worship and sacrifice, and were merciless when their will was crossed (Apollo sends a plague to the Greeks, Book 1).
Zeus, king of the gods, was more powerful than all the others combined. His will was the same as that of “Fate” (a mysterious force that controlled what happened to humans and gods—who won and lost battles, who lived and died, etc.), though sometimes his emotions were in conflict (he must allow the death of his beloved son Sarpedon, Book 16).
The gods did not care about sexual morals, but insisted on respect for the gods, superiors, and subjects. The gods often had affection for mortals (e.g., Apollo for Hector). Their divine influence explained their sudden emotions, the good or bad luck they brought about for mortals (e.g., Athena prevents arrow from wounding Menelaus badly, Book 4; Aphrodite influences Helen to leave Sparta with Paris).
Humans must nevertheless take responsibility for their behavior (Agamemnon accepts the blame for his god-influenced insult to Achilles, Book 19).
2. Prophecy and Omens
Prophecy means “foretelling the future” (e.g., Achilles learns he will either live a long, dull life or die young and heroically); omens are signs of the gods’ will and/or predictions of future events (e.g., the plague in the Greek camp is a sign of Apollo’s displeasure, Book 1).
Omens and prophecies identify crucial themes (e.g., Achilles’ heroic death, Troy’s fall) and they foreshadow events (thunderclaps tell the Trojans they will win battle, Book 8).
3. Heroic Code
The military, male-oriented society of the Iliad is dominated by a heroic code in which honor means everything. Men can excel in three ways: by making intelligent plans, by giving advice (best for older men), or by demonstrating skill, strength, and courage in warfare (young men).
Many men see war as terrible, but necessary for honor and manhood. Heroes are straightforward—no deception of others, no self-deception, just firm values. A noble birth calls for heroic conduct. The heroic code emphasizes one’s individual achievement (e.g., battles show little “teamwork”); but honor involves one’s reputation and social standing among peers; a lack of respect means a lack of honor.
Possessions and the spoils of war are visible signs of honor: that’s why warriors take dead victims’ armor and why Agamemnon’s taking of Briseis is a great insult to Achilles. The Greek attitude toward life is “do good to your friends, do harm to your enemies”; even humane, sympathetic characters (e.g., Hector, Patroclus) seem bloodthirsty to the modern reader. The Iliad, despite Achilles’ questioning of the social order, glorifies war and heroism.
4. Anger of Achilles
Achilles is the ideal Greek hero: he is brave, intelligent, handsome, proud, and respected. Unlike other Greek heroes, he is certain he will die at Troy: the prophecy said he could live a long, quiet life or die heroically in battle; he chooses an early death, honor, and fame.
The heroic code dictates that after Agamemnon’s insult he withdraw from battle; but he has nothing to live for without warfare. Achilles begins to doubt the heroic code and his own values and choices; he sees the richness of life that he chose to abandon, but cannot find an alternative to his choice.
Puzzled and confused, he rejects compensation but remains in the camp and allows Patroclus to fight. With Patroclus’s death, his rage drives him to revenge; it culminates in the mistreatment of Hector’s body.
But revenge does not resolve Achilles’ dilemma; he is still sleepless, confused, and depressed. Finally, ordered by the gods, he returns Hector’s body; he sees himself in light of other people’s experiences and suffering when he witnesses Priam’s sorrow. Finally, he begins to understand the true meaning of life; he accepts himself, his sorrows, and his coming death as a member of his culture—as a hero and a human being.
5. Fate of Troy
The fate of Troy and of its hero, Hector, hangs over the action of the Iliad, and shows the full effect of warfare in human terms. The life in Troy is richer than the life in the Greek camp; Homer emphasizes the idea that Hector is beloved and loving toward his family (e.g., scenes with Hector and Andromache in Book 6).
Despite his distaste for warfare, he is a great warrior; several Greeks are better individuals, but Hector inspires his fellow warriors. He has the “teamwork” and civic-duty mentality of the 8th- to 7th-century B.C. warriors, as opposed to the heroic isolation of Achilles.
The Iliad Review
The Iliad is a book that blends myth and history, making it a unique read. The Greeks of the time considered it factual and used it as a model for heroic behavior in battle and life in general.
Homer’s setting for the book was in a heroic age that existed 400 to 500 years before him, with elements such as bronze weapons and prominent Greek cities reflecting this time period. While the city of Troy was a real place, it was likely destroyed by someone other than the Greeks.
It’s important to note that the society portrayed in the Iliad is a poetic creation that includes elements from other times in Greek history.
The book focuses solely on warfare and heroes, with little attention given to the common people and women of the time. Despite this, the Iliad remains an enduring piece of literature that has captivated readers for centuries.
Homer, who lived around the 9th to 8th century BC, is the author of the epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey. According to legend, he was a blind bard from Ionia (on the Turkish coast) who traveled throughout Greece, singing his poems.
There is some debate as to whether “Homer” was a real person or simply a name used to describe a group of Greek poets who collectively created these poems over many years. However, it is still common to refer to Homer as a real poet who wrote both The Iliad and The Odyssey.
Buy The Book: The Iliad
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