When I decided to read The Iliad, I knew essentially nothing about it.
All I knew was that it was Greek, it was written by Homer, and that it was somehow a precursor to The Odyssey (which I read in high school). Having read The Iliad, I can say now that while it certainly is Greek, the author is officially unknown, and the characters, setting, and plot are completely different from those in the The Odyssey. The Iliad is its own story. It also has a different feel than I expected, focusing on anger, war, and revenge, as well as virtue and honor.
These thoughts are only from my one read of the poem; I don’t promise that they are accurate. Now I see why studying the classics is a life-long endeavor!
(I don’t believe it’s possible to write about The Iliad without revealing some “spoilers”: in the beginning of the poem, we learn what will inevitably happen at the end of the poem and at the end of the war.)
Who What When Where Why
Who are the main characters in The Iliad? Achaeans, Trojans, and the gods
What is the backdrop of The Iliad? The Trojan War
When does The Iliad take place? A long time ago, at the dawn of the tenth year of the Trojan War
Where does The Iliad take place? Outside of the city of Troy, also called Ilus, and in the realms of the gods
Why is there a story in The Iliad? Because Achilles has a bad temper
While the main characters of The Iliad seem to fit in one of three categories (the Achaeans, the Trojans, and the gods) and the Achaeans and the Trojans are at war, the battle is rather complicated.
First, the battle seems to be a game for the gods, although the gods do realize that the humans have destinies that should not be changed. The pull and tug of the gods on the tide of the battle adds an imperative element to the poem, for the gods seem fickle as to whom they intend to support.
Also, it’s interesting that the internal jealousies of humans and the gods cause much of the conflict. To begin with, before the poem begins, the Trojan War is started because of jealousy. This background was left out, I suppose because we are expected to know it. Here’s Bernard Knox’s explanation in the Notes to the translation by Robert Fagles:
When the gods came to celebrate the marriage of Peleus and Thetis, the goddess Strife threw a golden apple among the guests, announcing that it should be awarded as a prize to the most beautiful of the three goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. But no god was willing to take the responsibility of judging among them. Zeus finally appointed Paris, then minding his flocks on Mount Ida. All three of the goddesses offered him bribes. Hera promised to make him ruler of all Asia; Athena offered him wisdom and victory in all his battles; Aphrodite offered him the love of Helen, wife of Menelaus, the most beautiful woman in the world. He gave the apple to Aphrodite: the result was the Trojan War, and the undying hatred of Hera and Athena for Troy and the Trojans. (note 24.35-36; page 633)
As The Iliad opens, then, Achilles (an Achaean) refuses to fight because he’s been offended (Agamemnon has taken one of his war prizes, a woman, away from him). Through his mother, Achilles convinces Zeus to fight against the Achaeans. The gods and goddess on the Achaeans’ side, then, are trying to get Achilles to cool his rage because they don’t like the Trojans to get any victory. Achilles’ anger ultimately drives the events of the tenth year of battle, as described in the poem.
So What Is The Iliad About?
The Iliad is about Achilles: he thinks and fights for himself. He is the best human warrior on earth, and he knows it. And yet, he lacks the human qualities of empathy: he is angry and proud and watches while the other Achaeans die. When he finally does fight, he fights in his anger. He is selfish. The first line of the book (Fagles translation) is “Rage – Goddess, sing of the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles.”
Or maybe The Iliad is about Hector: he is fighting for his city, his family, and his way of life. He is the mightiest Trojan warrior, and yet he still wants each man killed in battle to be respected and honored as much as possible. He only fights because he has to. The last line of the book (Fagles translation) is (highlight if you want to read this “spoiler”) “And so the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses.”
I don’t think I can accurately answer what The Iliad is about without rereading the poem a few times. These are some very preliminary thoughts. But I know some of you have read multiple translations.
What do you think The Iliad is “about”?
Please, correct me where I’m wrong (or at least where you think I’m wrong): I want to hear what you think! I’m just an every-day person trying to make sense of a classic.
Because there is so much I want to share about The Iliad, this is part one (The Story) of a three-part series about reading The Iliad. Also in the series (to come):
- Love and Hate But Mostly Love
- Reading the Iliad (Fagles translation)