|Synopsis||The rage of Greece's greatest warrior Achilles is unleashed! Following a decade-long siege of the city of Ilium, Trojan forces have gained the upper hand against their enemy by the will of the gods. Only one Achaean warrior is capable of laying siege to the Trojan City and rescuing the "kidnapped" damsel Helen from her captors.|
|Release Date||Estimated Transcription Between 725-675 BC|
The Iliad is one of the oldest and most surprisingly intact pieces of literature in human history. In the 2,800 years since it was transcribed, the massive poem has survived time and elements that the majority of literature simply hasn’t. Most of its contemporaries, including several of its prequels and sequels, were lost to the flow of time.
The Iliad and its famous sequel, The Odyssey, were actually brief (long-winded) chapters in a massive storytelling tradition in Ancient Greece known as The Epic Cycle. The multiple-part narrative spread over nearly a dozen poems and covered the entire history of the Trojan War: its preceding events, the capturing of the Achaean woman Helen, the ten-year siege of Troy, and its aftermath on the characters.
As OverlySarcastic points out in his lovely video on Homer, we do have some idea what these lost segments of the story contained. How? Later playwrights like Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus loved using The Epic Cycle as a jumping-off point for their plays. Between these three bards alone, at least fifteen plays were written covering minor characters like Agamemnon, Ajax, Helen, and Hecuba.
Homer and the Trojan War
Before we begin to describe the plot of The Iliad, it’s important to briefly describe the history and context behind its conception. Any scholar approaching The Iliad on its own terms as a piece of epic literature is going to have two immediate questions:
1. Who was Homer?
2. What was the Trojan War?
To answer the first question, we actually don’t know anything about Homer. For all we know, Homer might not even be an individual person. The legends surrounding the figure suggest he may have been a blind Greek bard living on the Ios, but there’s no evidence to this claim beyond oral history.
Further complicating the matter, Homer could not have conceived the story or events of The Iliad in a vacuum. The Trojan War supposedly happened circa 850 BC during the Bronze Age. This is so far back in human history that there aren’t many written records surviving. Homer lived four hundred years after these events on an island hundreds of miles away from the ruins of Troy. He would’ve had some familiarity with the geography.
That familiarity is one of the few reasons we can take Homer seriously. The only proof of the Trojan War is from 19th-century archeologists. Using details from the book, they backtracked the information and discovered Troy’s ruins in modern-day Turkey.
So how did a blind bard living on an island know esoteric details about Bronze Age warfare and geography? The likely answer was that the stories were orally passed down for centuries before being transcribed. If “Homer” was a singular person, his great contribution was his ability to capture history on parchment and preserve it for future generations. Homer either composed the work or had his particularly well-regarded retelling of the Epic Cycle transcribed on his behalf.
We shouldn’t glance past that point either. The Iliad is one of the greatest works of literature in any language!
The Tragedies of Achilles and Hector
Before we get started with the actual breakdown, a discerning reader might notice something immediately important about The Iliad that might surprise most people. The two most famous moments in the Trojan War are totally absent in this story.
When most people think of the Trojan War and its nominal protagonist Achilles, they think of two events: the Trojan Horse and Achille’s infamous death via heel injury. Neither takes place during the poem. Even the infamous siege and destruction of Troy is still forthcoming by the time most of the Trojan leaders are dealt with. These events are alluded to and foreshadowed in the epic, but they aren’t the focus of this particular story.
That leaves the first-time reader with another interesting question. What the heck is this story even about?
Like most things, the answer is simple and not simple at all. You don’t write a 600-page poem and fill it with nothing but fluff. Thematically, a lot is happening. The story has a discernible core, though, that forms the backbone of the poem’s narrative. The Iliad can be summarized as a conflict between two great heroes of Greek legend – Achilles and Hector.
Achilles is the great hero of the Achean (Greek) forces laying siege to Ilium (Troy). The title of the play actually comes from the name of the city and translates roughly to “The Story of Illium”. Achilles is a physically strong character whose lineage can be traced back to the Greek Gods, part demi-god but fully mortal. He’s also a fairly self-centered individual. While he has been prophesied to die in battle, he was promised the glory of history for his efforts. In the name of ceasing his destiny, Achilles has forsaken a peaceful life in Greece to serve Prince Agamemnon’s siege of Troy in his vein effort to save his brother’s wife Helen.
Hector is a notable antithesis to Achilles in that he’s the opposite of his rival. Despite being the poem’s nominal “villain”, he’s given a prominent biography and a great deal of respect. Hector is one of the sons of the city’s King Priam and an embodiment of virtue. He’s a family man, primarily fighting to protect his home against (what he perceives as) an invading army of hostile barbarians. By himself, Hector is strong enough to lead the entire Trojan army and keep the Achaeans at bay.
Both men are complicated and tragic characters who end up getting the raw end of the deal due to the nature of their conflict. Achilles is a raging Barbarian, a cruel and cold-hearted soldier. He descends into the depths of inhumanity and scorn when contempt is leveled against his opponents. As a cruel bit of irony, Hector is totally defensible in his actions. He knows full well just what Achilles’ victory would mean for his people. This dichotomy makes the fated events of the Trojan War all the more tragic. We know the city is doomed. The Achaeans will rampage through it, reap its treasures, rape its women, and steal the survivors as slaves and war-wives.
At the same time, the book goes out of its way to justify the Achaean’s decade-long siege. Their princess Helen was, by all accounts, swooped away by the Trojan prince Paris and kidnapped. This turns out not to be true. She was swept to Troy by one of the Goddesses and seems to have fallen in love with Prince Paris on her own terms. That doesn’t matter to the Greeks, though. Every city-state was offended and sent warriors to contribute to the siege.
What matters is that the Achaeans and Trojans are at an impasse. Dramatically, all of the characters we meet have reason to be on the battlefield. Agamemnon and Priam have political reasons to defend their military choices. Both sides have desperate circumstances, and both are willing to die gloriously and virtuously in the name of their people.
This is slightly less true for the book’s titular character. Despite being the poem’s driving force, Achilles barely factors into the plot. The entire narrative revolves around his involvement. However, he checks out of the story in Book One because of an ongoing feud with Agamemnon over the right to keep his war-wives to himself. There’s a complicated reason why Achilles loses one of his war-wives to the king, but the point itself is trivial. The “hero” is so offended, he falls into an impudent rage and declares his desire to sail home and forgo his destiny. Because of this, the king is left to maintain his ongoing siege for two-thirds of the poem without the help of his Champion.
The Will of the Gods
As it would turn out, defying the will of a demi-god and a nearly unstoppable campaign would prove disastrous for the Achaeans. While the flow of battle ebbs and flows with each death, the Trojans have an advantage that the Achaeans can’t combat – Zeus wants the Trojans to win.
The Greek gods play a major role in The Epic Cycle and directly factor into the motivations of two opposing sides. Naturally, things aren’t so clean cut. The gods don’t agree on anything collectively, and all have different interests in the war. Some of them have children fighting among the warriors. Some of them consider Troy and the city-states their patron cities.
The only thing the gods share is a collective deferment to Zeus. Though immortal, Zeus is powerful enough to crush and maim any of the other gods on a whim. He makes the decision early in the battle to defer to Hector and the Trojans. From that point onward, the flow of battle begins turning to the Trojan’s favor. Achaean arrows miss their marks, but Trojan arrows always hit their targets. The flow of battle turns so deeply that the Greeks nearly have their ships destroyed in retaliation by the Trojans.
The gods play more than just a literal role in the story. Their interference raises interesting questions about the nature of free will and the choices of the characters involved. As the English classicist/critic Bernard Knox writes in the introduction of the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition:
Is there, in fact, in Homer any fully formed concept of free and responsible human action? It would seem the answer were No… Usually, however, important human decisions involve the participation of a god; divine intervention and human responsibility coexist (39-40).
Granted, the Greek gods aren’t infallible. In fact, they’re egotistical and sneaky. They’re quite capable of undermining one another or themselves. Zeus’s power doesn’t make him omniscient. His will is capable of being subverted just like anyone else.
The Horror and Glory of War
As the book’s introduction suggests, the intrusion of the gods was a metaphor for the chaotic ebb and flow of warfare itself. More than just attesting to the nature of free will, the intrusion of the gods doubles as an interesting commentary on the chaotic and impulsive nature of war itself. To quote Knox again:
…it is a striking way of expressing one of the mysteries of combat – the unpredictable currents of aggressive courage or faltering panic which sweep through armies, the mysterious factor known as morale. It is not a factor that can be fed into a computer… and everyone who has been in battle knows how intangible and unpredictable it is, how hard-pressed, outgunned men can suddenly take the offensive and turn the tables, how victorious advancing units can develop an uneasiness about their flanks that can turn into panic (42).
War is the primary subject and theme of The Iliad, and the book comprehends the topic at all levels. It is a wise and somber understanding of the subject that dramatizes and contrasts the nature of armed human conflict in so many ways. We see war as glorious, and we see war as horrific. We see bravery and cowardice. We see mercy and cruelty. We see the way these ideas mix together in the fog of war and affect the flow of combat.
More than anything, we see war as brutal. The Iliad comes with some of the most brutal and gory descriptions of death in any novel in history. There are something like 255 instances in the poem where a soldier’s death is described in detail. Each is given a distinct narrative flow. Most of them are preceded by a paragraph description of their lineage and surviving family before the poem describes their demise. We’re meant to reflect on their lost humanity in their final moments.
Here is one particularly gruesome example:
Idomeneus [the Greek] gored Erymas [the Trojan] in the mouth with a bronze spear. And the copper shaft punched out the other side from underneath his brains, and cracked the white bones in two. And his teeth rattled, and his eyes welled up with blood, which bubbled up out of his mouth and down out of his nostrils.
There is a painful finality to death in The Iliad that makes it uncomfortable. The Greeks had some notion of an underworld, but the concept of “afterlife” was not a commonly held belief in the Pagan world prior to the rise of Christianity. These characters are dying in horrific ways, and their only consolation is that their fellow soldiers will give them proper burial rites and remember their names. All they’ll earn from their bloody, painful end is an idea of glory and historical recognition.
The poem seamlessly weaves moments of brutality like this into its descriptions of glory and honor. The end result is a statement about warfighting that is complex and honest. It doesn’t pretend that wars don’t happen for reasons, but it also doesn’t downplay the fact that battles have consequences. It makes you live with both of these realities equally.
War most profoundly affects Achilles himself. His entire life is driven by his desire for a glorious death. He’s dedicated his remaining lifespan to war, and he’s ultimately consumed by it. The poem famously starts by introducing Achilles’ rage as the driving force of the narrative:
Rage – Goddess, sing of the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls, great fighter’s souls, but made their bodies carrion, feasts for the dogs and birds, and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
The Iliad reveals itself to be a story about the depths of war. Achilles’ rage is the fuel of the story – a symbolic representation of the mindset a human must don in order to gore and slay his fellow man. Achilles’ hatred sets him on the path of desertion, but the death of his friend sends him towards vengeance. So much so that the gods themselves are powerless to stop him. Even then, his rage is unquenched. Achilles murders his way through the Trojan lines. He eventually drags his enemies behind a chariot around the walls of Ilium to purposely desecrate them before the people of Troy.
Knox sums it up beautifully:
The tragic course of Achilles’ rage, his final recognition of human values – this is the guiding theme of the poem, and it is developed against the background of violence and death. But the grim progress of the war is interrupted by scenes which remind us that the brutality of war, though an integral part of human life, is not the whole of it. Except for Achilles, whose worship of violence falters only in the final moments of pity for Priam, the yearning for peace and its creative possibilities is never far below the surface of the warrior’s minds (61).
Achilles’ story is tragic because he is the only character who does not want to end the war, getting dragged out by his final strands of humanity. Ironically, Achilles gets exactly what he wants. He’s remembered as the glorious hero of the greatest poem in Greek history. Sadly, his glory is undermined by the unceasing rage that destroys almost everything in the process.
One of the reasons I love great works of classical literature is because of the way it is able to capture the depths of the human experience in a way that remains true to people today. As modern war stories like The Killer Angels, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Saving Private Ryan can attest, war hasn’t changed much in the last 3,000 years. Humanity hasn’t changed much in the last 3,000 years either. Great works of literature speak to our humanity just as well tomorrow as they did centuries ago. Reading The Iliad through the months of November and December gave me an intimate look at one of the most profound scenes of human nature in any piece of literature available today.
Indulging in challenging material like Homer on your own time is vital to understanding the intellectual roots of modern literature and how deep man’s tragic fallen nature is rooted in human story and memory. More to the point, it will teach you something even if you don’t understand the book. The first time you read it, you’ll still be exercising the muscles in your brain that help you understand complicated literature.
If this review has sparked your interest in reading The Iliad, I recommend checking out the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition mentioned above. It does an excellent job translating the poem’s original Homeric Greek into contemporary English verse, and it offers an extensive introduction setting up the themes and motifs. Robert Fagles’s 1990 translation is one of the best available! Plenty of other excellent translations exist, as well as people online who can offer recommendations for a translation you’d like.
I’d also recommend the works of other lit reviews like Overly Sarcastic Productions and The Young Heretics, who made my job harder by offering tons of insight and background into the works of Homer. It’s hard to be original when brilliant minds like theirs have already said everything you want to!
I can only hope my review spurs your interest to read it for yourself!
+ One of the Greatest Poems in World History
+ Complex Themes About the Nature of War and Death
+ Tragic Character Studies of Its Lead Characters
- Offputtingly Massive Length
- Challenging Language for First Time Reader
The Bottom Line
The Iliad is one of the greatest works of literature of all time and is well worth reading!