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The Iliad (Greek Ιλιάς, Ilias) tells part of the story of the siege of the city of Ilium, i.e. the Trojan War, and is, along with the Odyssey, one of the two major Greek epic poems traditionally attributed to Homer, a blind Ionian poet. Scholars dispute whether Homer existed, and whether he was one person, but it is clear that the poems spring from a long tradition of oral poetry. The Iliad and the Odyssey are traditionally dated to the 8th century BC, but many scholars now prefer a date of the 7th century BC or even the 6th century BC. The epics are considered to be the oldest literary documents in the Greek language, though the classical Greeks thought that the works of the poet Hesiod were composed earlier. The word Iliad means "pertaining to Ilion" (Latin Ilium), the name of the city proper, as opposed to Troy (Greek Τροία, Troia, Latin Troja) the state centered around Ilium, over which Priam reigned. The names are often used interchangeably. The Iliad documents just 50 days of the tenth year of the Trojan War. Books 11-18 document events that took place over only a single day.

Major characters

As an epic, the Iliad contains a sometimes confusingly great number of characters. The latter half of the Iliad's 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 Achaeans (Αχαιοί) - the word "Hellenes", which would today be translated as "Greeks", is not used by Homer
    • Achilles, (Αχιλλεύς), leader of the Myrmidones, (Μυρμιδόνες) whose anger is the over-arching theme of the story
    • Agamemnon, (Αγαμέμνων), King of Mycenae, supreme commander of the Achaean armies whose actions provoke the feud with Achilles
    • Patroclus,(Πάτροκλος) friend or lover to Achilles
    • Nestor, (Νέστωρ), Menelaus, (Μενέλαος), Diomedes, (Διομήδης), Idomeneus, (Ιδομενεύς), and Telamonian Aias, (Αίας ο Τελαμώνιος), kings of the principal city-states of Greece who are leaders of their own armies, under the overall command of Agamemnon
    • Odysseus,(Οδυσσεύς) another warrior-king, famed for his cunning, who is the subject of his own epic
    • Calchas, (Κάλχας) a powerful Greek prophet and omen reader, who guided the Greeks through the war with his predictions.
  • The Trojans and their allies
    • Hector, (Έκτωρ) firstborn son of King Priam, leader of the Trojan and allied armies and heir apparent to the throne of Troy
    • Priam, (Πρίαμος) king of the Trojans, too old to take part in the fighting
    • Paris, (Πάρις) Trojan prince and Hector's brother, also called Alexander; his abduction of Helen is the causus belli. He was supposed to be killed as a baby because his sister Cassandra saw the destruction of Troy because of him. Raised by a shepherd.
    • Aeneas, (Αινείας) cousin of Hector, and his principal lieutenant
    • Helenus and Deiphobus, brothers of Hector who fight at his side
    • Poludamas, another Trojan warrior, apparently a commoner, or in any event not a member of the royal family
    • Glaucus and Sarpedon, leaders of the Lycian forces allied to the Trojan cause
  • Female characters
    • Helen, (Ελένη) former Queen of Sparta and wife of Menelaus, now espoused to Paris
    • Cassandra, (Κασσάνδρα) daughter of Priam, a prophetess cursed by Apollo to prophesy correctly but never be believed
    • Andromache, (Ανδρομάχη) Hector's wife and mother of their infant son, Astyanax (Αστυάναξ)
    • Hecuba, (Εκάβη) Queen of Troy, wife of Priam, mother of Hector, Cassandra, Paris etc
    • Briseis, a woman captured in the sack of Lyrnessos, a small town in the territory of Troy, and awarded to Achilles as a prize; Agamemnon takes her from Achilles in Book 1 and Achilles withdraws from battle as a result

The Olympian deities, principally Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Aphrodite, Ares, Athena, and Poseidon, appear predominantly in the Iliad as advisers to and manipulators of the human characters. All except Zeus become personally involved in the fighting at one point or another. (See Theomachy)

The story of the Iliad

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), 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.

Many Greek myths exist in multiple versions, so Homer had some freedom to 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.

Background to the Iliad: The Trojan War

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. For 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 (kallisti). 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 power in battle and 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 Mycenae. (See House of Atreus)

On a diplomatic mission to Sparta, Paris became enamoured of Helen, and she either eloped with or was abducted by Paris and went with him to Troy. In anger, Menelaus called upon Helen's past suitors to make good their oaths to attack Troy. Eventually a force 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, Chryseis, daughter of a local priest of Apollo. The priest begged the god to punish the Greeks, and a plague ravaged their army.

The Iliad's story


The Iliad focuses mainly on Achilles and his rage against king Agamemnon, the Greek commander-in-chief.

Apollo has sent a plague against the Greeks, who captured the daughter of the priest Chryses and gave her as a prize to Agamemnon. He is compelled to restore her to her father. Out of pride, he takes Briseis, whom the Athenians had given Achilles as a prize. Achilles, the greatest warrior of the age, follows the advice of his mother, Thetis, 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 King Priam, with a wife and child, who fights to defend his city and his family. The death of Patroclus, Achilles' dearest friend or lover, at the hands of 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 agony 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".

Book summaries

  • Book 1: Ten years into the war, Achilles and Agamemnon quarrel over a slave girl, Achilles withdraws from the war in anger
  • Book 2: Odysseus motivates the Greeks to keep fighting; Catalogue of Ships, Catalogue of Trojans and Allies
  • Book 3: Paris challenges Menelaus to single combat
  • Book 4: The truce is broken and battle begins
  • Book 5: Diomedes has an aristea and wounds Aphrodite and Ares
  • Book 7: Hector battles Ajax
  • Book 8: The gods withdraw from the battle
  • Book 9: Agamemnon retreats: his overtures to Achilles are spurned
  • Book 10: Diomedes and Odysseus go on a spy mission
  • Book 11: Paris wounds Diomedes, and Achilles sends Patroclus on a mission
  • Book 12: The Greeks retreat to their camp and are besieged by the Trojans
  • Book 13: Poseidon motivates the Greeks
  • Book 14: Hera helps Poseidon assist the Greeks
  • Book 15: Zeus stops Poseidon from interfering
  • Book 16: Patroclus borrows Achilles' armor, enters battle, kills Sarpedon and then is killed by Hector
  • Book 17: The armies fight over the body and armor of Patroclus
  • Book 18: Achilles learns of the death of Patroclus and receives a new suit of armor
  • Book 19: Achilles reconciles with Agamemnon and enters battle
  • Book 20: The gods join the battle; Achilles tries to kill Aeneas
  • Book 21: Achilles fights with the river Scamander and encounters Hector in front of the Trojan gates
  • Book 22: Achilles kills Hector and drags his body back to the Greek camp
  • Book 23: Funeral games for Patroclus
  • Book 24: Achilles lets Priam have Hector's body back, and he is burned on a pyre

After the Iliad: Conclusion of the war, and after

Although certain events subsequent to the funeral of Hector are foreshadowed in the Iliad, and there is a general sense that the Trojans are doomed, a detailed account of the fall of Troy is not set out by Homer. The following account comes from later Greek and Roman poetry and drama.

Achilles fights and kills the Amazon queen Penthesilea and the Aethiopean king Memnon. Very soon he gets killed on the battlefield by Paris, with a poisoned arrow to his vulnerable heel. Ajax the Greater and Odysseus feuded over who would keep his armor. They submitted the issue to an impromptu court 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, Electra.

Technical features and translations

The poem is written in dactylic hexameter. The Iliad comprises roughly 16,000 lines of verse. Later Greeks divided it into twenty-four books, and this convention has lasted to the present day with little change.

The Iliad has been translated into English for centuries. George Chapman did a translation in the 16th century which John Keats praised in his sonnet, On First Looking into Chapman's Homer and Alexander Pope did another one in rhymed pentameter.

There are five widely read modern English translations. Richmond Lattimore provides a translation that attempts to reproduce, line for line, the rhythm of the original poem. Robert Fagles emphasizes contemporary English phrasing while maintaining faithfulness to the Greek. The translations of Stanley Lombardo and Robert Fitzgerald are known for their attention to Homer's imagery. Lombardo's translation is generally the one most often recommended by classics scholars because of its faithfulness to the Greek and its modern vernacular style. A translation by Martin Hammond uses many influences, including Professor WB Stanford, Monro and Allen. Published by Penguin Books, this is more of an educational translation, including as it does a full introduction, summary and index of names.

The Iliad as oral tradition

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 the basis of Greek pedagogy in antiquity. As the center of the rhapsode's repertoire, their recitation was a central part of Greek religious festivals. The book would be spoken or sung all night (modern readings last around 20 hours), with audiences coming and going for parts they particularly enjoyed.

Throughout much of their reception, the Iliad and Odyssey were assumed considered to be literary poems. However in the late 19th century and the early 20th century, scholars began to question this assumption. Milman Parry, a classical scholar, was intrigued by perculiar features of Homeric style: inparticular the stock epithets and the often extensive repetition of words, phrase and even whole chunks of text. He argued that these features were artifacts of oral composition. The poet employs stock phrases because of the ease with which they could be applied to a hexameter line. Taking this theory, Parry travelled in Yugoslavia, studying the local oral poetry. In his reasearch he observed oral poets employing stock phrases and repetition to assist with the challenge of composing a poem orally and improvisationally.

The written Iliad and the Odyssey are based on older, orally transmitted works and, consequently, are full of metaphors and similes which were used to communicate the stories to a mostly illiterate population in a manner they would understand. Specifically, the similes used in The Iliad can be divided into several categories: the descriptions of battles, people, and gods. Each type of simile aided understanding in Greek oral tradition and allowed the first listeners of the story to adequately picture what was being sung to them.

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. Despite its popularity — largely a result of a huge marketing campaign by the studio — the film was a critical flop in the U.S., though not internationally. Several critics voted it the worst film of 2004. In addition, it only loosely resembles the Homeric version.

An epic science fiction adaptation/tribute by acclaimed author Dan Simmons titled Ilium was released in 2003. The novel received a Locus Award for best science fiction novel of 2003.

English translations

  • George Chapman, 1598
  • John Ogilby, 1660
  • Thomas Hobbes, 1676 [1]
  • John Ozell, William Broome and William Oldisworth, 1712
  • Alexander Pope, 1713 [2]
  • James Macpherson, 1773
  • William Cowper, 1791
  • Edward Earl of Derby, 1864 [3]
  • William Cullen Bryant, 1870
  • Walter Leaf, Andrew Lang and Ernest Myers][4]
  • Samuel Butler, 1898 [5] [6] [7]
  • Alexander Falconer, 1933
  • Sir William Marris], 1934
  • E V Rieu, 1950
  • Richmond Lattimore, 1951
  • Ennis Rees, 1963
  • W.H.D. Rouse, 1966
  • Martin Hammond, 1987
  • Robert Fagles, 1990
  • Stanley Lombardo, 1997
  • Ian Johnston, 2002 [8]


  • Milan Budimir (1940). "On the Iliad and Its Poet."
  • Mueller, Martin (1984). The Iliad, London: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 0048000272.
  • Nagy, Gregory (1979). The Best of the Achaeans, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0801823889.
  • Seaford, Richard (1994). Reciprocity and Ritual, Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198150369.
  • West, Martin (1997). The East Face of Helicon, Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198152213.

External links