The story of the Iliad
The Iliad (Ancient Greek Ἰλιάς, Ilias) is, together with the Odyssey, one of two ancient Greek epic poems attributed to Homer, a supposedly blind Ionian poet. The epics are considered by most modern scholars to be the oldest literature in the Greek language (though some believe that the works of the poet Hesiod were composed earlier, a belief that was also held by some classical Greeks). For most of the twentieth century, the Iliad and the Odyssey were dated to the 8th century BC. Some still argue for an early dating, notably Barry B. Powell, who has proposed a link between the writing of the Iliad and the invention of the Greek alphabet. Many others (including Martin West and Richard Seaford) now prefer a date in the 7th or even the 6th century BC.
The poem concerns events during the tenth and final year in the siege of the city of Ilion, or Troy, by the Greeks (See Trojan War). The word "Iliad" means "pertaining to Ilion" (in Latin, Ilium), the city proper, as opposed to Troy (in Greek, Τροία, Troía; in Latin, Troia), the state centered around Ilium, over which Priam reigned. The names "Ilium" and "Troy" are often used interchangeably.
The Iliad begins with these lines:
μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί' Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε' ἔθηκεν,
Sing, goddess, the rage of Achilles the son of Peleus,
the destructive rage that sent countless pains on the Achaeans...
The first word of the Iliad is μῆνιν (mēnin), "rage" or "wrath". This word announces the major theme of the Iliad: the wrath of Achilles. When Agamemnon, the commander of the Greek forces at Troy, dishonors Achilles by taking Briseis, a slave woman given to him as a prize of war, Achilles becomes enraged, and withdraws from the fighting. Without Achilles' prowess in battle, the Greeks are nearly defeated by the Trojans. Achilles re-enters the fighting when his dearest friend Patroclus is killed by the Trojan prince Hector. Achilles slaughters many Trojans, and kills Hector. In his rage he then refuses to return Hector's body and instead defiles it. Priam, the father of Hector, ransoms his son's body, and the Iliad ends with the funeral of Hector.
Of the many themes in the Iliad, perhaps the most important is the idea of moral choice. Achilles believes he has two options: he can either live a long, unremarkable life at home or else he can die young and gloriously as a mercenary warrior. Military adventuring (that is, pillage and plunder) was a way of life in pre-Homeric times, and the many ruins of thick-walled cities and fortresses in the region give silent testimony to the fear that must have characterized life in the ancient world.
For some men, military adventuring is a more attractive choice than staying home on the farm. Death in battle leads to honor and glory—timae and kleos—which were important values of the day — more important than even right and wrong. One of the remarkable things about the Iliad is the way that Achilles, especially in Book 9, both embraces concepts of honor and glory and also rejects them. It should be noted that, despite the fact that he is the antagonist in the story, Hector probably best displays the qualities of an ancient Mediterranean hero.
Many Greek myths exist in multiple versions, so Homer had some freedom to choose among them to suit his story. See Greek mythology for more detail.
 Background to the Iliad: the Trojan War
The action of the Iliad covers only a few weeks of the tenth and final year of the Trojan War. Neither the background and early years of the war (Paris' abduction of Helen from King Menelaus), nor its end (the death of Achilles and the fall of Troy), are directly narrated in the Iliad. Many of these events were narrated in other epic poems collectively known as the Epic Cycle or Cyclic epics; these poems only survive in fragments. See Trojan War for a summary of the events of the war.
The story of the Iliad
As the poem begins, Apollo has sent a plague against the Greeks, who have captured Chryseis, the daughter of Apollo's priest Chryses, and given her as a prize to Agamemnon. Agamemnon is compelled to restore Chryseis to her father to stop the plague. In her place, Agamemnon takes Briseis, whom the Achaeans had given to Achilles as a spoil of war. Achilles, the greatest warrior of the age, follows the advice of his goddess mother, Thetis, and withdraws from battle in revenge so that 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, a husband and father who fights to defend his city and his family. The death of Patroclus 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 alone (but aided by Hermes) to ransom his son's body back, and Achilles is moved to pity; the funeral of Hector ends the poem.
• Book 1: Nine years into the war, Agamemnon seizes Briseis, the captive slave girl of Achilles, since he has had to give away his own; Achilles withdraws from the fighting in anger; in Olympus, the gods argue about the outcome of the war
• Book 2: Agamemnon pretends to order the Greeks home to test their resolve; Odysseus encourages the Greeks to keep fighting; Catalogue of Ships, Catalogue of Trojans and Allies
• Book 3: Paris challenges Menelaus to single combat; Paris is rescued from death by Aphrodite
• Book 4: The truce is broken and battle begins
• Book 5: Diomedes has an aristeia (a period of supremacy in battle) and wounds Aphrodite and Ares
• Book 6: Glaucus and Diomedes greet each other during a truce; Hector returns to Troy and speaks to his wife Andromache
• 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 spying mission
• Book 11: Paris wounds Diomedes; Achilles sends Patroclus on a mission
• Book 12: The Greeks retreat to their camp and are besieged by the Trojans
• Book 13: Poseidon encourages the Greeks
• Book 14: Hera helps Poseidon assist the Greeks; Deception of Zeus
• Book 15: Zeus stops Poseidon from interfering
• Book 16: Patroclus borrows Achilles' armour, enters battle, kills Sarpedon and then is killed by Hector
• Book 17: The armies fight over the body and armour of Patroclus
• Book 18: Achilles learns of the death of Patroclus and receives a new suit of armour. The Shield of Achilles is described at length
• Book 19: Achilles is reconciled with Agamemnon and enters battle
• Book 20: The gods join the battle; Achilles tries to kill Aeneas
• Book 21: Achilles does battle 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: Priam, the King of the Trojans, secretly enters the Greek camp. He begs Achilles for Hector's body. Achilles grants him it, and it is taken away and burned on a pyre
Homer's Iliad begins nine years after the Greek armies first arrived at Troy. A plague has overcome the Greek armies because Agamemnon has refused to return the daughter of a Priest of Apollo. Achilles, the epic's central character, exposes this fact and confronts the king. Agamemnon agrees to release this girl, if, and only if, Achilles gives him his 'war-prize', Briseis in return. Achilles finds this to be tremendously unjust and withdraws from battle taking with him all of his soldiers. He asks the gods to grant him revenge and make the Greeks require his assistance in order to win Achilles remains withdrawn for the greater portion of the epic.
Agamemnon is encouraged to attack by a dream and after some trouble with his troops, rallies them. The Trojan side rallies also. The two armies move towards each other but are stopped by a challenge from Hector: Paris and Menelaus are to fight one on one to decide the war. Paris flees the battle with the help of a divinity and Menelaus rages on with his brother demanding the release of Helen and her treasure.
Zeus, the king of the gods, calls an assembly of the gods and orders them to stop helping the battle because he has decided how it is going to turn out. Meanwhile the battle continues near Troy. The Greek Diomedes makes a heroic stand and kills many Trojans. The Trojan Aeneas fights Diomedes and is wounded but eventually rescued by his mother, Aphrodite. Ares reenters the battle on the Trojan side. With Ares at his side, Hector goes on a rampage. Ares is wounded by Diomedes as Hera and Athena enter to help the Greeks.
Telamonian Ajax joins Diomedes and the Greeks begin to repulse the Trojans. Hector returns to Troy to pray for Diomedes to be taken from battle. He chastises Paris for cowardice, speaks to Helen and spends some time with his wife Andromache. Paris and Hector return to war. The Trojans rally again and then Hector challenges a Greek captain to a duel. Ajax fights him but the duel is ended by nightfall and a truce. Both sides debate the follow day of the war expressing the need for a truce to care for their dead. The Trojans propose a settlement. The Greeks reject this, but agree to a truce day for burials.
Zeus again threatens the assembled gods and for a while they heed him. The battle begins and the Trojans, with the blessing of Zeus, push the Greeks back to their earthen walls. Zeus gives an omen to the Greeks and they rally. The Trojans rally again and continue to push onward. Night comes and the Trojan army camps outside the city. The Greeks send an embassy to Achilles requesting his return to battle in exchange for treasure and an unharmed Briseis. Achilles refuses. The Greeks go to sleep but the captains stay awake and Odysseus and Diomedes raid the Trojan camps. They kill the Trojan Dolon and steals horses from the Thracian camp.
The battle begins the next day with a Greek rally led by Agamemnon. Zeus instructs Hector not to fight until Agamemnon is wounded. With this omen fulfilled, Hector rallies the Trojans and pushes towards the ships. Odysseus and Diomedes are also wounded. Achilles watches the battle and sends Patroclus to see who has been wounded. The Trojans continue attacking and with extraordinary feats of strength and bravery by Hector and Sarpedon, they storm the Greek camp. The fighting remains fierce near the Greek ships. With Zeus turned away from the battle, Poseidon inspires Ajax and Idomeneus to fight more fiercely. Hector is driven back and wounded.
Nestor, wounded, goes back to the battle with other Greek captains in order to rally the troops. Hera plots to seduce Poseidon and put Zeus to sleep. With the king of the Gods sleeping, Poseidon enters the battle on the Greek side and the Trojans are routed.
Zeus wakes and reinvigorates the Trojan line. Apollo helps Hector back into battle and the Trojans again push to the Greek Ships. Ajax defends these valiantly and Nestor continues to spur on the Troops. Hector calls for torches to burn the boats as Patroclus observes the panic in his compatriots.
Patroclus returns to Achilles and requests to enter the battle. Achilles lets him go leading the myrmidons. Ajax and Hector continue to fight each other near the ships when the myrmidons enter battle led by Patroclus, easily mistaken for Achilles in the hero's armor. Patroclus kills the Trojan son of Zeus, Sarpedon and the battle centers around his body. Zeus has Apollo rescue the corpse of his son. The battle is pushed back to the walls of Troy Paris attempts to storm the walls of the city, ignoring the advice of Achilles. Patroclus is killed by a combination of the Trojan Euphorbus, Apollo and Hector.
With the death of Patroclus, the Trojans regain some ground as the two sides struggle for the body. Hector follows Achilles' chariot, desiring his horses. Hector is wounded and must retreat. The Greeks save the body of Patroclus. A runner brings the news of Patroclus' death to Achilles and the hero mourns requesting revenge from his mother. Thetis goes to Hephaestus and gets a new set of armor for her son which she bestows on him even though she finds him lying on the ground weeping.
Achilles goes to battle and Zeus releases the gods to fight as they desire. Aeneas stands up to Achilles but is wounded, saved again by a god. Achilles and Hector clash with their troops following and Achilles rampage continues.
Achilles splits the Trojan line and murders many in the near-by river Xanthus. The river god gets angry with him and Achilles eventually attacks the god himself. The god retaliates and chases Achilles only to be stopped by Hephaestus who repulses him at Hera's bidding. Achilles presses to the very walls of Troy. Hector exits to meet his adversary but then flees him, running around the city three times. Athena tricks him into facing Achilles who kills him after a short struggle. The Greeks dishonor Hector's body and Achilles drags him back to their camp behind his chariot.
The Greeks have a feast and build a pyre for Patroclus. They burn and then bury his body. After this, Achilles hosts a set of funeral games for his fallen friend. At night Zeus has Thetis tell her son that Hector ought to be ransomed and Iris tell Priam to ransom his son. With divine help, Priam comes to Achilles' camp and ransoms the body of his son. The two share a meal together and go to sleep. Priam leaves at the goading of Hermes before day break and the epic ends with the funeral of Hector.
The Iliad contains a sometimes confusingly great number of characters. The latter half of the 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
o Achilles (Αχιλλεύς) the leader of the Myrmidons (Μυρμιδόνες) and the principal Greek champion whose anger is one of the main elements of the story
o Agamemnon, (Αγαμέμνων), King of Mycenae, supreme commander of the Achaean armies whose actions provoke the feud with Achilles; brother of King Menelaus
o Calchas, (Κάλχας) a powerful Greek prophet and omen reader, who guided the Greeks through the war with his predictions.
o Menelaus, Helen's husband and younger brother of Agamemnon, King of Ancient Sparta
o Nestor, (Νέστωρ), Menelaus, (Μενέλαος), Diomedes, (Διομήδης), Idomeneus, (Ιδομενεύς), and Telamonian Ajax, (Αίας ο Τελαμώνιος), kings of the principal city-states of Greece who are leaders of their own armies, under the overall command of Agamemnon
o Odysseus,(Οδυσσεύς) another warrior-king, famed for his cunning, who is the main character of another (roughly equally ancient) epic, the Odyssey
o Patroclus, (Πάτροκλος), beloved companion to Achilles
• The Trojans and their allies
o Aeneas, (Αινείας) cousin of Hector, and his principal lieutenant
o Hector, (Έκτωρ) firstborn son of King Priam, leader of the Trojan and allied armies and heir apparent to the throne of Troy
o Glaucus and Sarpedon, leaders of the Lycian forces allied to the Trojan cause
o Paris, (Πάρις) Trojan prince and Hector's brother, also called Alexander; his abduction of Helen is the casus 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.
o Priam, (Πρίαμος) king of the Trojans, too old to take part in the fighting
• Female characters
o Andromache, (Ανδρομάχη) Hector's wife and mother of their infant son, Astyanax (Αστυάναξ)
o 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
o Hecuba, (Εκάβη) Queen of Troy, wife of Priam, mother of Hector, Cassandra, Paris etc
o Helen, (Ελένη) former Queen of Sparta and wife of Menelaus, now espoused to Paris
The Olympian deities, principally Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Aphrodite, Ares, Eris, Athena, Hermes and Poseidon, appear 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 poem is written in dactylic hexameter. The Iliad comprises 15,693 lines of verse. Later Greeks divided it into twenty-four books, or scrolls, and this convention has lasted to the present day with little change.
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 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 peculiar features of Homeric style: in particular 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 research he observed oral poets employing stock phrases and repetition to assist with the challenge of composing a poem orally and improvisationally.
The relationship of Achilles and Patroclus
The precise nature of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus has been the subject of some dispute in both the classical period and modern times. In the Iliad, it is clear that the two heroes have a deep and extremely meaningful friendship, but the evidence of a romantic or sexual element is equivocal. Commentators from the classical period to today have tended to interpret the relationship through the lens of their own cultures. Thus, in fifth-century Athens the relationship was commonly interpreted as pederastic, since pederasty was an accepted part of Athenian society. Contemporary readers are more likely to interpret the two heroes either as non-sexual "war buddies" or as a similarly-aged homosexual couple.