A Very Quick Introduction to The Iliad
My book-by-book summary of The Iliad is below, after a short introduction.
The Iliad is the oldest text in Western literature. Along with its sequel, The Odyssey, The Iliad is one of the two epic masterpieces that come at the very start of the Ancient Greek literary tradition. All other classical literature developed from this starting point; and almost every part of the literary culture that preceded The Iliad is lost.
The composition of The Iliad – probably close to 700 BC – turned out to mark the very beginning of the second golden age of Ancient Greece: the one we all know and recognise, the time of Athens, Sparta, Socrates, and countless inventions including theatre and democracy. But the poem’s story is set five hundred years earlier, around 1200 BC, in Greece’s first golden age. For archaeologists, this is the era of Mycenaean Greece, a flourishing Bronze Age civilisation named after the mighty city of Mycenae, home of King Agamemnon. Later Greeks knew this time as the Age of Heroes, when gods and monsters mingled with a remarkable generation of men who were capable of extraordinary deeds. Some of the Ancient Greeks’ memories of this splendid earlier time were startlingly accurate, but by the time of The Iliad, these were inextricably entangled with myth.
The Iliad alludes to many of these myths. From the evidence of The Iliad itself, two mythic sagas dominated the tales of the Age of Heroes: the deeds of Heracles, and the tales of the Trojan War. The audience is assumed to be familiar with both, though the Heracles stories are only referred to in passing.
Troy really existed, and has been archaeologically excavated in what is now north-west Turkey. It’s likely that it came into conflict with the Mycenaean Greeks during the Bronze Age, and the city was sacked more than once in the decades either side of 1200 BC; though we don’t know for sure whether the legends of the Trojan War were based on real events. The Iliad is not “the story of the Trojan War” – it’s a snapshot of a few days near the end of the ten-year conflict. A good way to think of this is the way that films about the Second World War never try to tell the war’s entire story – they assume the viewer knows roughly what happened, and then they focus on a single story within the war.
The Three Casts of Characters
The Iliad is set in and around the embattled city of Troy. It features three groups of characters, whose actions throughout the poem are inextricably interwoven: the Achaeans (known to us as the Greeks), the Trojans, and the gods. Each group is infected by significant tensions, which cause the conflicts that dominate the poem.
The Trojans show the most unity, but they are not totally harmonious. There is widespread hatred for Prince Alexandros, nowadays more often known as Paris. Alexandros is very casual about the consequences of his actions – above all, causing the Trojan War by eloping with Helen, who now bitterly regrets her choice. His carelessness rubs his countrymen up the wrong way, especially his brother Hector, the only man capable of protecting Troy indefinitely from the Achaean horde. Their father, King Priam, should have turned Alexandros and Helen over to the Achaeans long ago, but he couldn’t bear to do it. As a result, Troy’s fate hangs in the balance.
Outside the walls of Troy, on the seashore, is the besieging army of Achaeans. Their tensions largely stem from the fact that their leader, King Agamemnon, isn’t really the best man for the job. He is in charge of the uneasy coalition of Achaean kings because he rules the most powerful kingdom, Mycenae – but several of the other kings are stronger and have better judgement. Agamemnon seems to know this, and his insecurities make him small-minded. In particular, he hates the effortless leadership shown by the prince Achilles, the greatest hero in the Achaean army. Achilles is proud and hot-tempered, less inclined than the other leaders to defer to Agamemnon’s authority.
The gods, meanwhile, are bitterly divided. Troy is fated to fall, but it is loved by many of the gods, so several are trying to resist the course of fate. Some (Hera, Athena, Poseidon, and Achilles’s mother Thetis) support the Achaeans, while others (Apollo, Aphrodite, Ares) are on the Trojans’ side. Zeus, king of the gods, is torn; and as he hesitates, listening to different gods at different times, the immortals’ interference causes the tide of battle to swing back and forth down on earth.
The Iliad Summary Part I: Stalemate
Several Days Earlier: The Fatal Argument
Agamemnon refuses to accept a ransom for the captured daughter of a priest of Apollo, who has been awarded to him as the spoils of a successful raid. In response, Apollo sends plague to the Achaean camp. Achilles takes charge, leading a meeting to discuss the plague, and it becomes plain than Agamemnon has to free the priest’s daughter. Furious at being shown up by Achilles, Agamemnon argues with him. As tempers flare, Agamemnon asserts his authority to take Achilles’s prize – a woman called Briseis – to replace the priest’s daughter. Achilles is outraged. Both men are touchy and proud, and as they argue we see their worst traits: Achilles is hot-tempered and insolent, while Agamemnon is insecure and spiteful. Both men feel keenly the humiliation of being the only Achaean leader left without a prize. Achilles withdraws to his tents in a rage, refusing to fight for the Achaeans any longer.
Agamemnon sends back the priest’s daughter and has Briseis escorted from Achilles’s quarters to his own. Achilles cries out to his mother, Thetis, a sea nymph. When she comes to see what the matter is, Achilles demands that she persuade Zeus to bring about the day when Agamemnon and the Achaeans will bitterly regret having alienated Achilles. Thetis does so, and Zeus reluctantly agrees. There is tension among the gods because of their differences over the Trojan War, but they set them aside for a feast.
Day One: Duels and Pitched Battle
To make Achilles’s curse a reality, Zeus sends a false dream to Agamemnon, urging him to prematurely march on Troy. Engaging the Trojans in battle would be a mistake, as without mighty Achilles the Achaeans are at a disadvantage, but Agamemnon is fooled by the dream. Agamemnon calls a council – but proves what a poor leader he is by suggesting that the Achaean army should give up the war and go home. He’s trying to spur them on, but the tactic backfires: the delighted men stampede to the ships to abandon the war. Only the cunning Odysseus, urged on by Athena, is able to regain control of the host, cleverly persuading the leaders while threatening and even beating common men into submission.
When order is restored, the army advances from the camp towards Troy. There follows a lengthy catalogue of all the Achaean levies who sailed to the war, and how many ships each of them brought. News of the advance reaches Troy, and Hector sallies out with the army of the Trojans and their allies; these, too, are listed.
The armies face each other on the plain. Alexandros steps forward to show off, but shrinks back when Agamemnon’s younger brother Menelaus steps forward to accept his challenge. Menelaus, Helen’s former husband, is the man whose grievance against Troy triggered the war. Hector harshly criticises Alexandros for backing down, and Alexandros is shamed into accepting the duel. Agamemnon and Hector agree that the war can be settled here and now between Helen’s two husbands, and nobody else need die.
Back in Troy, Helen joins King Priam and his elderly advisors on the wall, overlooking the two armies. Helen feels guilt and misery for the suffering in her name, but Priam is kindly, blaming the gods instead of her. He asks questions about the Achaeans they can see, and she points out Agamemnon, Odysseus, Ajax and Idomeneus. Priam is summoned to the battlefield to oversee the sacrifice sanctifying the duel; he and Agamemnon do the honours, then he returns to Troy because he cannot bear to watch his son fight Menelaus.
The two men step forward, watched by the armies, and fight. Menelaus is winning the duel, but Aphrodite is watching over Alexandros. She is the goddess who gave him Helen by inspiring her to leave Menelaus and elope with Alexandros. Fearing for Alexandros’s life, Aphrodite spirits him back to his bedchamber. She tells Helen to go to him; Helen is bitter at Aphrodite’s treatment of her and ashamed of her marriage to Alexandros, but she is powerless and submits to them both. Alexandros is complacent, keener to sleep with Helen than defend his honour. Meanwhile his disappearance has caused consternation among both armies – including among the Trojans, who widely hate him for causing the war. Agamemnon, reasonably enough, asserts that Menelaus has won the duel by default and the Trojans should therefore hand Helen over.
Peace and war hang in the balance. To restart the fighting, and simultaneously to put the Trojans in the wrong, Athena tricks the archer Pandarus into shooting at Menelaus. Agamemnon is horrified when he sees Menelaus struck by the arrow, and even after he realises it’s not a serious wound he is re-committed to the fight. The Trojans, spurred on by the sight of Menelaus’s wound, are gearing up to attack in any case. Agamemnon rallies the kings, praising, rebuking and getting ready for combat. He criticises Odysseus and Diomedes more harshly than they deserve, spurring both to anger. Diomedes, along with Ajax, is one of the best warriors left in the Achaean army, now that Achilles is absent, and this day is his chance to prove himself. The two armies clash and the fighting begins.
Athena triggers Diomedes’s aristeia (his moment of peak excellence in battle). He runs amok on the battlefield, tearing through Trojans until Pandarus wounds him with an arrow. Athena neutralises the wound, redoubles Diomedes’s energies and gives him the gift of recognising immortals on the battlefield. She warns him not to attack any immortal except Aphrodite. Pandarus, seeing that Diomedes is still running rampant, is determined to stop him. He teams up with Aphrodite’s son, the Dardanian prince Aeneas. Pandarus and Aeneas ride Aeneas’s chariot, pulled by his divinely reared horses, to Diomedes – but Diomedes kills Pandarus, and then shatters Aeneas’s hip with a rock, causing him to pass out. As Diomedes’s companion leads off the horses as plunder, Diomedes tries to finish Aeneas off – but Aphrodite attempts to spirit him away, as she did with Alexandros. Seeing her, Diomedes wounds her in the hand. She retreats to Olympus, deeply upset; Apollo starts carrying off Aeneas, and Diomedes attacks him until Apollo threatens him and he remembers Athena’s warning.
As Apollo oversees the healing of Aeneas, Ares joins the combat and leads the Trojan counterattack. Diomedes falls back before Ares, and Hector presses the advantage along with Sarpedon, leader of Troy’s Lycian allies. Sarpedon kills a son of Heracles, but is lightly wounded in the process. Hera and Athena demand that Zeus let them turn the tide back in the Achaeans’ favour. Zeus complains that Hera is badgering him to allow the destruction of a city he loves; Hera retorts that in exchange, she’s happy for Zeus to destroy any of her favourite cities anytime he chooses. Zeus reluctantly gives his permission for the goddesses to interfere. Athena returns to Diomedes, who says he’s hanging back because of her command to him not to fight any gods except Aphrodite. Athena tells him to disregard what she said. Acting as his charioteer, she rides straight to Ares, and Diomedes wounds him in the stomach. Weakened and in agony, Ares retreats from the fray.
The Achaeans, led by Diomedes, drive back the Trojans with great slaughter until Hector and the freshly-healed Aeneas rally them. Sarpedon’s cousin, Glaucus, rides forward to challenge Diomedes – but when Diomedes hears he’s the grandson of Bellerophon, he delightedly declares that they are family friends and should exchange marks of friendship rather than fighting. So the pair swap armour and agree to stay out of each other’s way.
Hector, meanwhile, has returned to the city to urge his mother and the other palace women to pray at the temples and avert disaster at the hands of Diomedes. He stops at Alexandros’s house and is furious to see him relaxing with Helen and her women. Paris, unruffled as ever, agrees to return to the fight. Before leaving Troy, Hector goes looking for his wife Andromache. Achilles has already killed her father and seven brothers, and she is desperately worried for Hector. He is fatalistic but touchingly devoted to his family. They have a poignant family moment with their baby son, who is scared of Hector’s helmet. Then he and Alexandros head back to battle.
Apollo and Athena agree there has been enough fighting for one day. They get Hector to break off the fighting and challenge the Achaeans to send a champion against him. Menelaus is eager but Agamemnon talks him out of it. The Achaeans are all fearful, but eventually nine champions put themselves forward. They draw lots and Ajax wins. Hector and Ajax do battle, but neither can overcome the other. Eventually they accept that it’s a draw and exchange tokens of honour. It’s now evening. Maintaining the truce, both sides retrieve their dead and burn them. On the suggestion of Nestor, the oldest Achaean chieftain, the Achaeans use the earth from the burial mounds to construct a wall around their camp.
Day Two: Advantage to the Trojans
With threats Zeus forbids the gods from intervening directly in any more of the combat. The fighting resumes; it’s evenly matched, until Zeus sends omens to frighten the Achaeans. They are routed; Nestor, whose chariot has been disabled, is left behind. Diomedes rescues him with the horses of Tros, and the pair of them ride at Hector; Zeus sends more omens to threaten them, and Nestor persuades a reluctant Diomedes to retreat. The Achaeans are driven back to their ships, but then they counterattack from behind their new wall. Ajax’s half-brother, Teucer, kills ten Trojans with his bow – but Hector injures him with a stone and the Trojans drive them behind the walls again. Hera and Athena try to leave Mt Olympus to help the embattled Achaeans, ignoring Zeus’s command – but Zeus finds out and furiously calls them back. At nightfall, Hector’s Trojans do not withdraw to Troy: they light a thousand campfires and camp out around the Achaean wall. The besiegers have become the besieged.
The Achaean chieftains gather. A depressed Agamemnon suggests they should give up as they cannot beat the Trojans, but Diomedes rejects this. Nestor proposes sending an embassy to Achilles to apologise. Agamemnon accepts that he was in the wrong, and makes an extraordinarily lavish set of promises if Achilles will return to the fight – adding with characteristic arrogance/insecurity that Achilles has to obey his orders.
Odysseus, Ajax and Phoenix – an old man who helped to raise Achilles – go to Achilles’s tent. Achilles and his companion Patroclus host them warmly. Odysseus tries to reason with Achilles, listing Agamemnon’s offers (though tactfully leaving out Agamemnon’s insistence that Achilles has no right to disobey him). Achilles responds with a long and emotionally-charged list of grievances against Agamemnon, countering Odysseus’s reason with eloquent and furious reason. Phoenix then appeals to Achilles’s emotions, talking of Achilles’s father and his childhood as well as telling an old story as a parallel. Achilles’s answer is also from a place of emotion, and he talks of his choice between a long life and fame. Ajax loses patience and bluntly demands that Achilles see sense; Achilles, appreciating his friend’s honesty, replies equally bluntly. Rebuffed, Odysseus and Ajax report to the chieftains that they have failed. The gathering breaks up for sleep.
Day Three: The Longest Day
Agamemnon is too troubled to sleep. He leaves his tent and bumps into Menelaus, who also can’t sleep. Between them they wake several of the leading Achaeans for a midnight conference. It’s proposed that they should send two spies to the Trojan camps; Diomedes volunteers and picks Odysseus as his companion. As the two of them slip out of the Achaean camp, Hector is likewise choosing a spy to slip in among the Achaean ships. He sends a rather grasping man called Dolon – who runs straight into Diomedes and Odysseus. They chase him down in the dark until he capitulates, telling them valuable information about the layout of the Trojan detachments. Rejecting Dolon’s suggestion of a rich ransom, Diomedes kills him. Diomedes and Odysseus, following Dolon’s information, creep in among the Thracian detachment which has just arrived to reinforce the Trojans. Diomedes kills thirteen of them, including their king, and then he and Odysseus gallop back to the Achaean camp in the chariot pulled by the Thracian king’s magnificent horses. The two heroes have carried out a fine exploit.
The fighting the next day reaches a new pitch of intensity. Agamemnon goes on a rampage, driving the Trojans right back to the city walls – but when he is wounded, Hector launches a devastating counterattack. Only Diomedes and Odysseus stand firm; but when Alexandros shoots Diomedes in the foot, he is forced to retreat, leaving Odysseus alone and surrounded by enemies. Menelaus and Ajax come to Odysseus’s rescue – he too is wounded, but they are in time to save his life. Menelaus helps Odysseus to safety, while Ajax is beaten back by the weight of the Trojans. With his bow, Alexandros wounds two more prominent Trojan chieftains: Machaon and Eurypylus. Old Nestor carries Machaon to safety in his chariot, leaving Idomeneus as one of the only major Greek leaders left in the fighting.
Sitting by his tent, Achilles sees Nestor’s chariot returning to the camp. He sends Patroclus to find out who Nestor’s wounded passenger is. Patroclus finds Nestor, who questions why Achilles wants to know about one particular wounded man, when so many Achaeans are wounded or dead thanks to Achilles’s refusal to get involved on the battlefield. Nestor tells Patroclus a long story about the deeds of his youth. Then he urges Patroclus to ask Achilles to let the Myrmidons fight, even if Achilles himself will not – and he even suggests that Patroclus can wear Achilles’s armour to intimidate the Trojans. Patroclus is interested in the idea, and heads back to Achilles. On the way he finds Eurypylus, wounded and alone, and stops to help him.
The Trojans have reached the new Achaean wall, and there is ferocious fighting for possession of the battlements. The Trojans dismount from their chariots and Hector launches a five-pronged attack. Sarpedon, Glaucus and the Lycians nearly break through, but Ajax and Teucer come up in time to beat them back; Teucer wounds Glaucus with an arrow. Hector, ignoring an omen that his success will only be temporary, batters open one of the doors in the wall: the Achaean defences are breached.