The Iliad is, alongside The Odyssey, one of the two major Greek epic poems traditionally attributed to Homer, a blind Ionian poet. The Iliad and the Odyssey were considered by Greeks of the classical age and after as the most important works in Ancient Greek literature, and were used in antiquity as the basis of Greek pedagogy. Scholars dispute whether Homer existed, and whether he was one person, but they usually date the poems' composition to the 9th or 8th century BC. They are the oldest literary documents in the Greek language.
Both are written in dactylic hexameter. The Iliad comprises roughly 16,000 lines of verse. Later Greeks partitioned it into twenty-four books, and this convention has been maintained to the present day with little change.
The Iliad narrates several weeks of action during the tenth and final year of the Trojan War, concentrating on the wrath of Achilles. It begins with the dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon, and ends with the funeral rites of Hector. Neither the background and early years of the war (Paris' abduction of Helen from King Menelaus), nor its end (the death of Achilles & the Trojan Horse), are directly narrated in the Iliad. The Iliad and the Odyssey are part of a larger cycle of epic poems of varying lengths and authors; only fragments survive of the other poems, however.
Thetis rising from the sea to comfort Achilles (Book 18), by Thomas Banks, English, 1778 Victoria and Albert Museum
As an epic, the Iliad contains a sometimes confusingly great number of characters. The latter half of the Iliads second book (often called the Catalogue of Ships) is devoted entirely to listing the various commanders. Many of the battle scenes in the Iliad feature bit characters who are quickly slain. See Trojan War for a detailed list of participating armies and warriors.
- The main antagonists are the Greek hero Achilles, leader of the Myrmidones and Hector, prince of Troy.
- Patroclus, friend to Achilles whose death unleashes Achilles' wrath on Hector.
- Agamemnon, the supreme commander of the Greek armies.
- Paris, Trojan prince and brother to Hector.
- Diomedes and Odysseus, Greek heroes
- Greek deities, such as Zeus, Aphrodite and Athene appear predominantly in the Iliad as manipulators of the humans.
Background to the Iliad: The Trojan War
Many Greek myths exist in multiple versions, so Homer had some freedom to pick and choose among them to suit his story. What follows are the most common background details to the Trojan War, including (parenthetically) whether or not Homer specifically mentions them. See Greek mythology for more detail.
Both the gods Zeus and Poseidon desired the sea-nymph Thetis, but a prophecy made by Prometheus revealed that Thetis's son would be greater than his father. Owing to this reason, both gods resisted Thetis and betrothed her to a mortal king, Peleus, so that her offspring would be no more than human. To Peleus and Thetis a son was born, named Achilles. Hoping to protect him, when he was an infant his mother dipped him in the river Styx, making him invincible everywhere except the heel (the legendary Achilles' heel) by which she held him. Achilles would grow up to be the greatest of all mortal warriors.
All of the gods were invited to Peleus' and Thetis' wedding, except Eris, or Discord. Insulted, she attended invisibly and cast down upon the table a golden apple on which were inscribed the words To the fairest. The apple was disputed over by Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. None of the gods would venture an opinion favouring any one contender for fear of earning the enmity of the other two. Eventually, Zeus ordered the matter to be settled by Paris, the youngest prince of Troy, who was being raised as a shepherd in the plains nearby. Athena tempted Paris with wisdom, Hera offered him power, and Aphrodite offered him the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris eventually awarded the apple to Aphrodite.
The most beautiful woman in the world was Helen, daughter of Leda by Zeus. Scores of men sought her hand. Her father was unwilling to choose any for fear the others would attack him; finally, at Odysseus' suggestion, he solved the problem by making all the suitors swear an oath to protect Helen and her future husband. These suitors included Agamemnon, Ajax the Greater, Ajax the Lesser, Diomedes, Odysseus, Nestor, Idomeneus, and Philoctetes. Helen married Menelaus of Sparta; her sister Clytemnestra married his brother Agamemnon of Thebes. (See House of Atreus).
On a diplomatic mission to Sparta, Paris became enamoured of Helen, and she either eloped with or was abducted back to Troy by Paris. In anger, Menelaus called upon Helen's past suitors to make good their oaths to attack Troy. Eventually an army of a thousand ships marshalled by Menelaus' brother Agamemnon was gathered at Aulis, including all the above-named men and their own forces. A seer told them that the winds would not take them to Troy unless Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia. He did so, and the fleet set off. They landed at Troy, eventually, where there ensued a siege of nine years, broken only intermittently by fighting until the tenth year.
Shortly prior to the Iliad, Greek forces had raided a nearby town allied to Troy. Agamemnon had taken prisoner a girl, Khryseis, daughter of a local priest of Apollo. The priest begged the god to punish the Greeks, and a plague ravaged their army.
The Iliad focuses mainly on Achilles and his rage against king Agamemnon, the Greek commander-in-chief, who has taken an attractive slave and spoil of war Briseis from Achilles. Achilles, the greatest warrior of the age, follows the advice of his mother and withdraws from battle in revenge and the allied Achaean (Greek) armies nearly lose the war.
In counterpoint to Achilles' pride and arrogance stands the Trojan prince Hector, son of the King Priam, with a wife and child who fight to defend his city. The death of Patroclus, Achilles' dearest friend, at the hands of the Trojan hero Hector, brings Achilles back to the war for revenge, and he slays Hector. Later Hector's father, king Priam, comes to Achilles disguised as a beggar to ransom his son's body back, and Achilles is moved to pity; the funeral of Hector ends the poem.
The poem is a poignant depiction of the tragedy and poignancy of friendship and family destroyed by battle. The first word of the Greek poem is "Μηνιν" ("mēnin", meaning "wrath"); the main subject of the poem is the wrath of Achilles; the second word is "aeide", meaning "sing"; the poet is asking someone to sing; the third word is "thea", meaning "goddess"; the goddess here being the "Mousa" or "muse"; a literal translation of the first line would read "Wrath, sing goddess, of Peleus' son Achilles" or more intelligibly "Sing, goddess, the wrath of Peleus' son Achilles".
The Iliad has been translated into English for centuries. George Chapman did a translation which John Keats praised in his sonnet, On First Hearing Chapman's Homer and Alexander Pope did another one in rhymed hexameters.
There are four widely read modern English translations. Richmond Lattimore provides a translation that reproduces, line for line, the rhythm of the original poem. Robert Fagles emphasizes contemporary English phrasing and idiom over faithfulness to the Greek. The translations of Stanley Lombardo and Robert Fitzgerald are known for their attention to Homer's imagery.
Post Iliad, Conclusion of the war, and after
Achilles was killed on the battlefield by Paris, with a poisoned arrow to his vulnerable heel. (See Achilles' Heel.) Ajax the Greater and Odysseus feuded over who would keep his armour. They drew lots and Odysseus won. Ajax went mad with grief and slaughtered his livestock, believing they were the Greek commanders. Overcome with grief, he then killed himself. The Amazons came to join the battle. Philoctetes, a crippled Greek who had been abandoned by the others along the journey, was recruited because the war could not, it was prophesied, be won without his bow.
Odysseus devised a plan to take the city. He had his men build a large, hollow wooden horse, then he and twenty others hid inside. The Greek ships withdrew out of sight of Troy, admitting defeat, and left behind them only the horse, purportedly as an offering to Poseidon for good winds on the return trip. The Trojans took this inside the city, and then feasted and celebrated in the belief the war was over. At night the soldiers crept out and opened the gates to the other Greeks who had sailed back under cover of night. The city was sacked, and in some accounts burned for seven years. Priam was killed. According to one tradition, Hector's wife Andromache threw his son Astyanax and herself from the ramparts to save them from slavery. According to another, Astyanax was killed by Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, to ensure that Hector's son could not seek vengeance for his father's death against Achilles' son. Andromache became Neoptolemus concubine, later to marry Helenus, Hector's brother. A Roman tradition held that Aeneas escaped with his family and several hundred people, who after years of migration eventually founded Rome. (This was used by Virgil in his Aeneid.)
Odysseus' long journey home is narrated in Homer's Odyssey. Menelaus and Helen returned to Sparta to rule. Agamemnon took home as a slave the priestess Cassandra, who was gifted with prophecy but cursed never to be believed. When he returned home he was murdered by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus. They in turn were killed by Agamemnon's son, Orestes, and his daughter, Elektra.
The Iliad in subsequent arts and literature
Subjects from the Trojan War were a favourite among ancient Greek dramatists. Aeschylus' trilogy Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides follow the story of Agamemnon following his return from the war.
A loose film adaptation of the Iliad, Troy, was released in 2004, starring Brad Pitt as Achilles and Eric Bana as Hector, and directed by German-born Wolfgang Petersen.
A epic science fiction adaptation / tribute by acclaimed author Dan_Simmons titled Illium released in 2003. 'The novel received a Locus_Award for best science fiction novel of 2003.
- Bilingual E-Book Edition:
- English translations:
- George Chapman, from 1598 (verse) (Chapman's Homer, as mentioned by John Keats)
- Thomas Hobbes, 1675 (verse) ed. Sir William Molesworth 1839-45 http://oll.libertyfund.org/ToC/0256.php
- Alexander Pope, 1713 (verse), edited by Theodore Alois Buckley, 1899; Project Gutenberg edition http://www.gutenberg.net/etext/6130
- William Cowper, 1791 (blank verse)
- Edward Earl of Derby, 1864, revised 1885 (blank verse); Project Gutenberg edition http://www.gutenberg.net/etext/6150
- Wiliam Cullen Bryant, 1870 (blank verse)
- Walter Leaf, Andrew Lang, and Ernest Myers, revised 1891 (prose); Project Gutenberg edition http://www.gutenberg.net/etext/3059
- Samuel Butler, 1898 (prose); Project Gutenberg edition http://www.gutenberg.net/etext/2199; Internet Classics Archive http://classics.mit.edu/Homer/iliad.html; http://www.orplex.com/gkcp/readbook.aspx?style=basic.xslt&book=The%20Iliad%20of%20Homer.xml HTML/XML
- E V Rieu, 1969 (prose)
- Robert Fitzgerald, (free verse)
- Robert Fagles, 1990 (free verse)
- Ian Johnston, revised 2002 (free verse); http://www.mala.bc.ca/~johnstoi/homer/iliad_title.htm
- Richmond Lattimore (free verse)
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