Homer’s “Iliad” is usually thought of as the first work of European literature, and many would say, the greatest. It tells part of the saga of the city of Troy and the war that took place there. In fact, the “Iliad” takes its name from “Ilios,” an ancient Greek word for “Troy,” situated in what is Turkey today. This story had a central place in Greek mythology.
The poem deals with a very short period in the 10th year of the Trojan War. This sometimes surprises modern readers, who expect the whole story of Troy (as, for instance, in Wolfgang Petersen’s 2004 film “Troy”). But Homer and other early epic poets confined their narratives to particular periods in the war, such as its origins, key martial encounters, the fall of the city, or the returns of the soldiers to Greece. There is no doubt that Homer and other early poets could rely on a very extensive knowledge of the Trojan War among their audiences.
The central figure in the “Iliad” is Achilles, the son of Peleus (a mortal aristocrat) and Thetis (a sea-goddess). He comes from the north of Greece, and is therefore something of an outsider, because most of the main Greek princes in the poem come from the south. Achilles is young and brash, a brilliant fighter, but not a great diplomat. When he gets into a dispute with Agamemnon, the leading Greek prince in the war, and loses his captive princess Briseis to him, he refuses to fight and remains in his camp.
He stays there for most of the poem, until his friend Patroclus is killed. He then explodes back onto the battlefield, kills the Trojan hero Hector, who had killed Patroclus, and mutilates his body.
The “Iliad” ends with the ransom of Hector’s body by his old father Priam, who embarks on a mission to Achilles’s camp in the gloom of night to get his son’s body back. It is worth noting that the actual fall of Troy, via the renowned stratagem of Greeks hidden within a wooden horse, is not described in the “Iliad,” although it was certainly dealt with in other poems.
All of this takes place under the watchful gaze of the Olympian gods, who are both actors and audience in the “Iliad.” The Olympians are divided over the fate of Troy, just as the mortals are: In the “Iliad,” the Trojan War is a cosmic conflict, not just one played out at the human level between Greeks and non-Greeks. Ominously for Troy, the gods on the Greek side, notably Hera (queen of the gods), Athena (goddess of wisdom and war), and Poseidon (god of the land and sea), represent a much more powerful force than the divine supporters of Troy, of whom Apollo (the archer god and god of afar) is the main figure.
The Many Faces of Homer
The “Iliad” is only one poetic work focused on the war for Troy; many others have not survived. But such is its quality and depth that it had a special place in antiquity, and probably survived for that reason.
We know virtually nothing about Homer and whether he also created the other poem in his name, the “Odyssey,” which recounts the return journey of Odysseus from the Trojan War, to the island of Ithaca. The “Iliad” was probably put together around 700 B.C., or a bit later, presumably by a brilliant poet immersed in traditional skills of oral composition (that is, “Homer”). This tradition of oral composition probably reaches back hundreds of years before the “Iliad.”
Early epic poetry can be a way of maintaining the cultural memory of major conflicts. History and archaeology also teach us that there may have been a historical “Trojan War” at the end of the second millennium B.C. (at Hissarlik in western Turkey), although it was very unlike the one that Homer describes.
The “Iliad” was composed as one continuous poem. In its current arrangement (most likely after the establishment of the Alexandrian library in the early third century B.C.), it is divided into 24 books corresponding to the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet.
It has a metrical form known as “dactylic hexameter”—a meter also associated with many other epic poems in antiquity (such as the “Odyssey” and the “Aeneid,” the Roman epic by Virgil). In the “Odyssey,” a bard called Demodocus sings on request in an aristocratic context about the wooden horse at Troy, giving a sense of the kind of existence “Homer” might have led.
The language of the “Iliad” is a conflation of different regional dialects, which means that it doesn’t belong to a particular ancient city as most other ancient Greek texts do. It therefore had a strong resonance throughout the Greek world, and is often thought of as a “pan-Hellenic” poem, a possession of all the Greeks. Likewise the Greek attack on Troy was a collective quest drawing on forces from across the Greek world. Pan-Hellenism, therefore, is central to the “Iliad.”
Death and War
A central idea in the “Iliad” is the inevitability of death (as also with the earlier “Epic of Gilgamesh”). The poignancy of life and death is enhanced by the fact that the victims of war are usually young. Achilles is youthful and headstrong, and has a goddess for a mother, but even he has to die. We learn that he had been given a choice: a long life without heroic glory, or a short and glorious life in war. His choice of the latter marks him out as heroic, and gives him a kind of immortality. But the other warriors too, including the Trojan hero Hector, are prepared to die young.
The gods, by contrast, don’t have to worry about dying. But they can be affected by death. Zeus’s son Sarpedon dies in the “Iliad,” and Thetis has to deal with the imminent death of her son Achilles. After his death, she will lead an existence of perpetual mourning for him. Immortality in Greek mythology can be a mixed blessing.
The “Iliad” also has much to say about war. The atrocities in the war at Troy are committed by Greeks on Trojans. Achilles commits human sacrifice in the “Iliad” itself and mutilates the body of Hector, and there are other atrocities told in other poems.
The Trojan saga in the early Greek sources tells of the genocide of the Trojans, and the Greek poets explored some of the darkest impulses of human conduct in war. In the final book of the “Iliad,” Achilles and Priam, in the most poignant of settings, reflect upon the fate of human beings and the things they do to one another.
Postscripts and Plagiarists
It was often said that the “Iliad” was a kind of “bible of the Greeks” in so far as its reception within the Greek world, and beyond, was nothing short of extraordinary. A knowledge of Homer became a standard part of Greek education, be it formal or informal.
Ancient writers after Homer, even the rather austere Greek historian Thucydides in the fifth century B.C., assume the historicity of much of the subject matter of the “Iliad.” Likewise, Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.) seems to have been driven by a quest to be the “new Achilles.” Plutarch tells a delightful story that Alexander slept with a dagger under his pillow at night, together with a copy of Homer’s “Iliad.” This particular copy had been annotated by Alexander’s former tutor, the philosopher Aristotle. One can only imagine its value today had it survived.
In the Roman world, the poet Virgil (70–19 B.C.) set out to write an epic poem about the origins of Rome from the ashes of Troy. His poem, called the “Aeneid” (after Aeneas, a traditional Trojan founder of Rome), is written in Latin, but is heavily reliant on Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey.”
My own view is that Virgil knew Homer off by heart, and he was probably criticized in his own life for the extent of his reliance on Homer. But tradition records his response that “it is easier to steal Heracles’s club than steal one line from Homer.” This response, be it factual or not, records the spell that Homer’s “Iliad” cast over antiquity, and most of the period since.