Anger be now your song, immortal one,
Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous...
– Opening lines of the Iliad, transl. Robert Fitzgerald.
The Iliad is an epic poem that tells the story of a Greek expedition led by Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, against the city of Troy. By examining internal evidence (such as technology) and references in Greek culture (vase paintings, inscriptions etc), it can be dated to roughly 730 BCE. It is the earliest surviving work of Greek literature, and the most influential, venerated by the Greeks themselves as the keystone of their culture. Its artistic descendants are diverse, ranging from Greek tragedy through Shakespeare and Tom Jones to Wolfgang Petersen’s movie Troy. Reinventing their past, the Romans took the Trojan character Aeneas and showed him journeying to Italy after the Trojan War to found Rome in their own great epic, Virgil’s Aeneid.
The Iliad was of course composed in ancient Greek, which means the vast majority of modern readers depend upon a translation. Poetry is notoriously difficult to translate as it depends upon particular words in particular combinations, which lose some of their effect when recreated in another language. Homer’s language is relatively simple and extremely concrete, but this does not mean that translating it is straightforward. The two translations best known to contemporary English readers are probably E.V. Rieu’s prose version (Penguin) and Fitzgerald’s prosey verse version (Everyman), but there are others. If a reader puts together two or three alternatives, he or she will get a very good idea of what Homer’s poetry is like. And it is fresh and direct poetry. There is no mystification here: humans and gods say what they mean and mean what they say.
The Iliad tells directly of only a tiny portion of an immense saga, focusing on just a few days in a war that lasts ten years. It does however find ways to encompass the wider tale: firstly by recollections of earlier events by key characters, and secondly by a kind of illusion of time whereby we see events acted out over those four days that seem as if they must have happened much earlier. Take the duel between Menelaos and Paris, for example – why have nine or so years passed before these two rivals finally confront one another? Why does Helen point out key Greek leaders to her father-in-law King Priam, who must surely know who’s who by now? What Homer achieves by these techniques is to give us an impression of the full span of the war.
The journey home of one of the Greek heroes, Odysseus, is the story of Homer’s other great epic, the Odyssey. But the broader saga includes not just those two poems but a majestic cast of Greek characters and events whose lives and actions are threaded through the entire corpus of ancient Greek art and literature. There is a body of epic poetry, almost entirely lost, known as the ‘Cycle’ or ‘Epic Cycle’, which explored the stories around the Iliad more fully.
The roots of the Trojan War lie in the wedding party of Peleus, king of Aegina, and the sea-nymph Thetis (who would become the parents of Akhilleus). The goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite were invited, but the goddess of strife and discord, Eris, was left out because she might cause trouble. Angry, Eris threw into the party a golden Apple of Discord inscribed with the phrase ‘For the Fairest’. With Hera, Athena and Aphrodite squabbling over who was most beautiful, Zeus appointed a judge: Paris, son of Priam, king of Troy. Each goddess strips naked before Paris and tries to bribe him. Hera offers him power, Athena offers him military prowess, and Aphrodite offers him the most beautiful woman in the world – Helen of Troy. Paris awards the apple to Aphrodite, and this act dooms his city, for unknown to him Helen is already married to King Menelaos of Sparta. Paris visits Menelaos and betrays his host’s hospitality by eloping with Helen (accounts differ about whether she is kidnapped or leaves willingly). Enraged, the Greeks launch a military expedition to take Helen back, and the Trojan War begins.
This context, which the Greek audience would have known well, is necessary to fully understand what is happening. For example, Hera is hostile to the Trojan side because her pride was hurt at the Judgement of Paris, but the episode is only briefly alluded to near the end of the poem .
Let’s catch up with the action of the Iliad itself. At the opening the Greeks are camping on the beach before the walls of Troy, about nine years into the war. Their leader, King Agamemnon, is refusing to ransom the captured daughter of a Trojan priest of Apollo. Angered, Apollo unleashes plague on the army. When Agamemnon learns its cause he gives in, but he compensates for the loss of his prize by confiscating Briseis, the concubine of his greatest warrior Akhilleus (Achilles). Insulted, Akhilleus responds by refusing to fight: for the next two-thirds of the poem its main hero plays little part. His mother Thetis seeks revenge for Agamemnon’s insult by persuading Zeus to support the Trojans, and Zeus agrees.
The Trojans, led by their greatest warrior Hektor, enjoy the upper hand and push the Greeks back to their beached ships. At one point Agamemnon pleads with Akhilleus to return to battle and offers him handsome gifts, including the return of Briseis – only to be refused by the proud warrior.
When one of their ships is set on fire, the Greeks’ position looks perilous, as without the ships they can never return home. Akhilleus is persuaded to lend his armour to his great friend Patroklos and let him fight in his stead. Patroklos helps drive the Trojans back, only to be killed by Hektor, son of Priam and Troy’s mightiest hero. When Akhilleus hears the news, he is so filled with rage that he vows to avenge his friend. Reconciling with Agamemnon, he returns to battle, bearing new arms forged for him by the smith god Hephaestus. After leading a furious Greek counter-attack, he confronts Hektor, chases him around the city walls and finally kills him, dragging the body behind his chariot in an outrageous act of disrespect. On the advice of Zeus, Priam enters the Greek camp to plead with Akhilleus in person for the return of his son’s body. Akhilleus is moved to relent, and the poem ends with the funeral rites of Hektor.
Shortly after the events described in the Iliad, Akhilleus spies the daughter of Priam, Polyxena, and falls in love with her. He persuades the Greek army to sue for peace so that he might marry her. But as he travels to the temple of Apollo to negotiate, Paris shoots him in his only vulnerable spot, his heel, with an arrow. Akhilleus is killed, and thus his premonitions about his own death come true.
It may surprise readers to find that the Iliad makes no mention at all of the famous Trojan horse  – the retelling of that episode falls to the bard Demodocus in Book 8 of the Odyssey, as well as other sources such as Virgil’s Aeneid. Troy’s mighty walls keep the Greeks from victory until cunning Odysseus has the idea of building a giant wooden horse and leaving it on the beach while the Greek army pretends to have surrendered and sailed home. A man named Sinon stays behind and tells the Trojans that the Greeks left the horse as an offering to Athena, assuming the Trojans would destroy it and invoke Athena’s wrath against them. Thinking they are out-manoeuvring their enemies, the Trojans wheel it into the city, unaware that the horse has Odysseus and other Greek warriors inside its hollow belly. At night the Greeks open the gates and their army sweeps out of hiding. The Trojans are massacred , and Troy is burned to the ground. At long last, the Greek fleet sails home, carrying Helen back to Sparta.
Decorated pithos or storage jar from the island of Mykonos (7th century BCE), depicting the Trojan horse. It is one of the earliest illustrations of the fall of Troy. Photo: Travelling Runes (Flickr).
Although the Iliad does not show Troy’s final destruction, we are offered foreshadowings of what fate has in store. “The day will come,” says Hektor to his wife Andromache, “when sacred Ilios will be destroyed, and Priam, and the people of Priam.” We are told several times that the death of Hektor will mean the defeat of Troy. Ending with the slain Hektor lying upon a funeral pyre, the poem has said all it needs to.
Homer and the composition of the Iliad
From antiquity onwards, Homer’s name has been associated both with the Iliad and with the Odyssey, composed a generation later. Homer lived in the early days of Greek literacy and so his biography is incredibly scanty. The name Hómēros is a real name from the Aeolic region, and the Greeks themselves mostly regarded him as a real person, not just a figurehead or legend. The poet’s most likely place of origin was Chios, an Ionian island where a school of ‘rhapsodes’ (poetry readers) called Homeridae seem to have existed from at least the 6th century BCE. There have always been theories that the two poems had different or multiple authors. The reality is that there is next to nothing that we can say for sure about Homer, who may never even have existed.
The question of authorship is really about the process of composition. Our text of the Iliad is not identical to the one produced by Homer in the 8th century BCE. The first printed edition was produced in Florence in 1488, and was based on medieval manuscripts, themselves copies of a standard text edited by Alexandrian scholars in the third and second centuries BCE. We know from surviving fragments that the text varied prior to this edition.
When precisely the poem was written down is hard to say. It was created at the beginning of Greece’s rediscovery of literacy, straddling the literate and pre-literate periods, and is likely to have been composed orally. Its opening call to sing of the anger of Akhilleus is a clear indicator of an oral tradition – there is a scene in Book I of the Odyssey in which we see a poet performing for an audience. Storytellers and singers would pass the stories down through the generations, until it finally achieved a written form.
Performing the Iliad would be no easy matter. At 15,000 verses long, it is a massive work whose recitation would have to be divided over several days. The poets would have chanted to a musical accompaniment, and each performance will inevitably have been unique, so the text was not a fixed entity. The process of performance is also one of composition, resulting in innumerable errors, improvements, and edits across the years. So the poem is at once a well-designed structure and riddled with little inconsistencies and errors, such as when Hektor strips armour from Patroklos when Apollo has already done so. Its language is also a mixture of different dialects and periods, of archaic and contemporary forms. These aren’t introduced to create particular effects in different contexts, so there probably two explanations: firstly, the variant forms help lines to scan; secondly, the lines have been composed by a wide variety of poets.
The American scholar Milman Parry argued in the 1930s that the Iliad was too big to have been the product of a single poet. Instead, it was an oral-improvisatory form that grew out of a long tradition, using a formulaic system to make performance easier. For example, certain lines and phrases are repeated, characters are referred to by stock epithets (e.g. ‘fleet-footed Akhilleus’). The classicist Michael Silk makes an interesting parallel with jazz, “the only developed improvisatory art that is native to the modern Western world”:
Any performer or student of jazz could have told Milman Parry something about oral composition, its products and its practitioners: the creative individuals who learn their craft from a living tradition of fellow-artists in a milieu of mutual respect, personal ambition and restless experiment... Jazz was improvisatory when it began and, in all its many varieties, has remained essentially improvisatory – and yet musical literacy has been absorbed into it for two full generations. The jazz soloist, in particular, may improvise his performance; he may have memorised it, in whole or part, from an earlier performance or from practice or even from a score, composed by himself or an arranger; he may read the solo from such a score: the same solo might result... We have here a clear equivalent to a more or less standardised – formulaic or thematic – mode of poetic composition.
All this evidence suggests that the creation of the Iliad and Odyssey was a process. If the poet called Homer ever existed, he was probably more an editor than a creator, pulling the poems into their written, canonical forms, perhaps altering or introducing verses along the way and refining their symmetry. His own contribution may have been extraordinary enough to earn him his fame, but we cannot know. What we can do is assess the text itself on its own merits.
The heroic age of Greece
Although composed in about the 8th century BCE, the poem is set in an earlier, heroic age, whose warriors were mightier than anybody alive in Homer’s time. This was almost certainly a folk memory of the so-called Mycenaean culture from approximately 1600-1100 BCE. As we have already seen, these Bronze Age Greeks (whom Homer refers to interchangeably as Akhaians, Argives or Danaans ) displaced the Minoans as the dominant force in the Aegean, building a warlike culture of great wealth governed from fortified palaces.
The late Bronze Age was the setting for most of the stories of Greek mythology. There seemed little reason to think there was any factual basis to the Iliad until the 1860s, when a citadel was excavated at Hissarlik in modern Turkey, situated at the entrance to the Dardanelles in Asia Minor. Its Greek name was Ilion, hence Homer’s title: Iliad, the song of Troy.
Map by Eugene Hirschfeld.
This site is much less magnificent than the mythological city, but its existence helps to bring the stories a little nearer to history, and it is generally accepted by scholars as the historical Troy. The archaeological layers reveal that the town was destroyed several times during the Bronze Age. One destruction layer dates to around 1220 BCE, but we cannot be sure if it corresponds to a historical Mycenaean war with Troy, and no such war could have come close to the mighty scale of the conflict described in the Iliad.
We still don’t know precisely who or what overthrew the Mycenaeans in around 1200-1100 BCE. Their downfall was part of the ‘Bronze Age collapse’ that we have discussed before: this general crisis plunged Greece into a relative ‘Dark Age’ lasting hundreds of years. When the Greek recovery began in the 8th century BCE, it was signposted by the inauguration of the Olympic games, the founding of the Delphic Oracle and the revival of literacy via the adoption of an alphabet, all of which contributed to a sense of common culture. The Iliad is a cornerstone of this development at a time when Greece was heavily fragmented into squabbling city states with their own religious customs, laws and dialects. As a celebration of united Greek action, it sits comfortably alongside the other signs of a new, pan-Hellenic identity – the beginning of a national literature.
Homer’s version of the Bronze Age is a mix of archaeologically demonstrable fact, historical hearsay and licence, and pure legend. Homer knows that weaponry and armour in that period were made of bronze, but wrongly thinks ordinary tools are made of iron like in his own day. In the Bronze Age, chariots were used for direct engagement, whereas Homer’s heroes follow 8th century practice by using them merely as transports to the battlefield. Mycenaeans were buried when they died, but the Iliad’s heroes are cremated, as in Homer’s time.
The Iliad, then, is an imaginative and symbolic reinvention of an era already a few hundred years in the past when Homer was composing. The Homeric world is a bringing together of Mycenaean and post-Mycenaean, Bronze Age and Iron Age. Whether it is historically accurate or not is, from a literary point of view, not very important. What it does is define the Greeks as a culture by offering them a vivid picture of their ancestors as they liked to imagine they were.
Ancient Greece was completely steeped in superstition. Religion in 8th century BCE Greece was not monolithic – beliefs and customs varied across the region, and the Iliad does not represent any one tradition of the time. Nonetheless it is consistent with the attested religious practices of later generations. It is possible that Homer, together with Hesiod, helped to bring consistency to Greek religion, as Herodotus believed:
And it is they [Homer and Hesiod] who have composed for the Greeks the generations of the gods, and have given to the gods their titles and distinguished their several provinces and special powers, and described their forms.
This is another illustration of the Iliad’s pan-Hellenic role: in so superstitious a society, to define the Greeks’ gods is to define their civilisation. Homer’s are not localised gods based in particular towns or places but gods residing on Mount Olympus for all of Greece.
Homer takes it for granted that the gods are real, and so do his characters. These gods are independent and active participants in the events of the Iliad, fascinated by human affairs and, for various reasons, siding with nations or individuals like fans of different football teams. For example, the powerful goddesses Hera and Athena hate the Trojans, whereas Ares, Apollo and Aphrodite protect them. We have observed elsewhere that supernatural beings, because they are inventions, always end up resembling ourselves, and these are some of the most anthropomorphic deities in literature. As Agamemnon is undisputed lord of the Greeks, so Zeus is undisputed lord of the pantheon. The gods closely resemble the aristocratic heroes and share their values: their sense of honour, their swaggering, their feuding. Several of the heroes are the children of immortals – Akhilleus was the son of the nymph Thetis – and those gods look out for their children.
The gods actually come out poorly in the Iliad. Unlike the human characters, they are immortal and therefore have nothing to lose. Their interventions into human affairs are motivated by intrigues, hurt feelings, paying back favours, domestic strife and the need to placate one’s spouse rather than the grandiose divine plans assumed in the Abrahamic religions. By contrast, the humans, struggling to be remembered in the face of death, are rather magnificent. The gods influence human affairs, but do not determine them entirely – there would be no glory for individual warriors if they were mere puppets. Rather, the gods’ interventions lend symbolic distinction to the feats of the aristocrats: firstly because the heroes are worthy of their help, secondly because divine involvement lends greater meaning to what is happening, and, by extension, to all of human life.
The Iliad is a poem of heroes, which is to say, it celebrates the military exploits of a semi-legendary aristocracy. Most of the heroes are ruling class males who by their very nature are more special than the rest of us. Even the gods think their affairs worthy of interest. Though endowed with superhuman gifts and descended from the gods, they are nonetheless mortal. Akhilleus was the son of a nymph, but he was also the son of a mortal father, making him mortal himself. It is possible for heroes to be immortalised, as Herakles (Hercules) was, but they must die first.
Greeks and Trojans alike adhere to a warrior code which is probably not an invention of Homer’s. This governs the highly ritualised form taken by combat – one warrior throws his spear while the other waits, then the opponent throws his. But this ideology is more than a set of rules for conducting war. Its philosophy is that death is inevitable, so the manner of one’s death is as important as one’s conduct in life. By earning honour and glory (kléos), we may be remembered or even celebrated in verse, and thereby achieve a kind of immortality. As Akhilleus puts it: “If I stay here, waging war on Troy, my hope of home is lost, but I win immortal glory.” He would rather have a short and glorious life than a long and safe one. (He is succeeding so far, as we are still reading about him nearly three thousand years later.) Of course, audiences change, and the modern reader may become bored by the bragging, the speeches about honour, and the relentless spear-chucking and goring.
It is customary to condense this struggle for glory into a metaphor for the human condition. But we should recognise that this heroic ideology belongs to the ruling class. With only two exceptions (Thersites and Dolon), the ordinary soldiers of the two armies are left unnamed by Homer, are ignored by the gods, and do not share the same code of honour. Although the unpleasantness of war is recognised by all participants, including the heroes, it is the rank and file who rue it most. When Agamemnon tests his troops’ morale by pretending to call off the war, they immediately stream for the ships in a grateful surge, much to the king’s dismay. And when Menelaos reports to the troops that he and Paris will duel to decide the conflict once and for all,
All hearts lifted at his words, for both sides
Hoped for an end of miserable war.
This response is perfectly rational, as there is no gain for the rank and file in risking death pursuing their masters’ wars. The boldest challenge comes from Thersites, a common soldier who challenges Agamemnon directly for wasting the soldiers’ lives in his pursuit of women and booty:
I say we pull away for home, and leave him
here on the beach to lay his captive girls!
As Thersites has been something of a hero to the left, we shall give him an article to himself. Suffice to say that he is given a good beating for daring to speak the obvious.
Another powerful departure from the heroics of war comes in a fleeting image when Akhilleus chases Hektor around the city walls and by the two springs of the river:
Near these fountains are wide washing pools
of smooth-laid stone, where Trojan wives and daughters
laundered their smooth linen in the days
of peace before the Akhaians came.
At these pools working women, in normal circumstances, would be out washing clothes. It is a poignant juxtaposition of (female) peace with (male) violence, but also of aristocratic arrogance with everyday working life. If Paris and Helen had been peasants instead of aristocrats, then thousands of men would not have been separated from their families or killed to avenge the pride of a Spartan king.
The Iliad and ideology
War in the Iliad is accepted as a fact of life that tests men’s characters. Characters like Paris who seem cowardly or keen to avoid battle are exposed to scorn. But Homer recognises that war causes suffering and destroys families, on both sides. No family illustrates this better than Priam’s. The king of Troy loses all his sons; when Hektor is killed, Andromache loses a husband and Astyanax a father. A dark image of the human condition is recounted by Akhilleus in his story of the urns of Zeus: Zeus hands out gifts from an urn of sorrows and an urn of blessings, and sometimes only sorrows, and all that unfortunate mortals can do is learn to endure. Homer doesn’t invite us to think the war is wrong or wasteful. It is a legitimate means to earn glory, and a true hero chooses battle over his family every time, even when he has been warned that it must end in his death.
This is a world of hierarchical order, even stasis. This is reflected in the action of the poem: huge sections could be cut without changing the story in the slightest. It’s also reflected in Homer’s stylised language. Characters are often described with epithets, i.e. stock phrases which evoke some aspect of their character. Akhilleus for example is ‘swift-footed’, Athena is ‘grey-eyed’, dawn is ‘rosy-fingered’, Menelaos is ‘red-haired’. These characters are of course plenty of other things – e.g. Akhilleus could fairly be labelled ‘proud’ – but only a few qualities are used, over and over again. This would have been a useful mnemonic to help minstrels remember their lines, and something more: the effect is to ritualise the action, to encourage a sense of permanence. This stylisation extends to the regular use of long similes, the poem’s most obvious use of figurative language. It is echoed in the deeds portrayed: the ritualised sequence of single combat, the ritual of giving and receiving gifts, the laments and prayers. The duel between Hektor and Aias is called off because of bad light, like a cricket match, and in fact is overseen by an umpire. The stylised language does not jar, because it complements perfectly the ritualised world it depicts. This is not to say that there are no debates or uncertainties amongst the characters. But the poem is the product of a fatalistic culture that changes very slowly. Even as we follow the ebb and flow of events, it is made clear to the audience that Greek victory is a foregone conclusion.
We see little of the characters’ interior life in the Iliad, and there is no equivalent of the social dilemmas that characterise modern fiction. There is no real character development. Each character knows their place and knows what they must do. Only Akhilleus offers us something resembling the complexity expected by a modern audience.
The essence of his character seems simple: formidable and uncompromising, his motivation is to win glory through a violent death rather than be forgotten. It can be hard to identify with this severe man – modern readers will probably feel more sympathy for Hektor, whose farewell to his family is unusually affecting. Yet Akhilleus is not a simplistic character. He refuses to fight despite longing to do so; he breaks the rules of war due to individualistic rage; and when he weeps for Priam he shows pity for his enemies and shifts from vengeful slayer to compassionate proxy son.
Achilles dragging the body of Hector behind his chariot. Athenian vase, 6th century BCE. Photo: Sebastià Giralt (Flickr).
The opening words of the poem refer directly to Akhilleus, and the very first word cites his character flaw:
Anger be now your song, immortal one,
Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous...
Akhilleus is the greatest warrior in the war, but his raging pride sometimes prevents him from acting with honour. It leads him to ask Zeus to help the Trojans slay his own army, because of Agamemnon’s insult; to abandon his comrades during the Trojan counter-attack; to abuse Hektor’s body contrary to the rules of war. Yet it is his moment of self-understanding, when he gives in to Priam, that raises him to the peak of humanity in the poem. Pleading with Akhilleus for the return of his son’s body, Priam appeals to the memory of Akhilleus’ own father, Peleus. Moved, the Greek agrees to return the corpse to the Trojans. For the first time he seems capable of real empathy, and allows his enemies time to give Hektor a proper funeral. It is a rare moment of psychological insight in a work in which the characters often hardly seem to think themselves responsible for their actions at all.
Akhilleus, though he is the poem’s greatest warrior, disturbs the generalised ideology of war. All the heroes live by this ideology, and are celebrated by the poem. But Akhilleus’ refusal to fight, to the point of risking his army’s defeat, is stubborn to excess, and his mistreatment of Hektor’s corpse is seen as dishonourable by Greeks, Trojans and gods alike. This has tempted some critics to read an implicit challenge to the aristocrats’ code. Here is Michael Silk again:
Let us suggest here that with the glorious, but extreme, hero Achilles at its centre, the poem is so structured as to reveal the negative implications of heroic values along with their obvious splendour. The Iliad does not read like a studied critique of accepted values – as if Homer was a Brecht, say, a Marxist before his time. The greatest literature, however, as neo-Marxist theorists like Eagleton have pointed out, is wont to subvert the dominant ideological categories that it purports to, and does indeed also, embody: and, thanks to Achilles, the Iliad surely does just this.
Whether Akhilleus’ character has ‘developed’ by the end of the poem in the way we expect of modern storytelling is unclear. But perhaps the funeral pyres mark the death not only of Hektor, but also of Akhilleus’ egotism.
Homer’s Iliad is above all a celebration of an aristocratic class seeking immortality in song through feats of arms. It represents a hierarchical world, dominated by rules, in which everyone knows his or her place and nobody thinks that things could be better than they are. In that sense, the poem is thoroughly conservative.
Yet it is also much more. It is a lament for the sufferings inflicted by war. It even allows a glimpse of the ancient class struggle, through Thersites and the war weariness of the rank and file. The Trojans are not quite presented as the equals of the Greeks, but they live by the same code and are accorded all due respect. Even if the Trojans ‘deserve’ their fate because of Paris’ betrayal of Menelaos’ hospitality, Hektor is as much as a hero as Akhilleus. There is no clash of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’ in the Iliad. Instead, we witness human beings struggling with fate, in the thrall of gods as flawed, emotional and bloody as themselves.
 Centuries later this episode, the ‘Judgement of Paris’, was a favourite topic in the (overwhelmingly male) oil painting tradition because it gave a titillating opportunity to portray three beautiful women stripping for the benefit of a male onlooker.
 At the beginning of Book 24. Homer assumes his Greek audience will know the story.
 There is also no reference to the famous ‘Achilles’ heel’, the vulnerable spot that eventually proves fatal to Akhilleus, though it features in later Greek and Roman literature.
 According to Virgil, the only Trojans to survive are a small group led by Aeneas, who ends up founding Rome.
 Michael Silk, Homer – The Iliad (1987).
 This approach gives Homer flexibility in his versification, as each variant is metrically different.
 Herodotus, Book II of The Histories.
 Michael Silk, op. cit.