The Iliad , an epic poem that describes events during the last year of the legendary Trojan War, has been called a great Greek epic, a war story, and the ﬁrst historical novel. Composed in the eighth century B.C.E., it is one of the oldest complete Greek works to have survived to modern times. Authorship of the Iliad has been attributed to the blind poet Homer.
The Trojan War was a ten-year conﬂict between the Achaean Greeks and the Trojans ofAsia Minor. In the four centuries between the historical struggle in which Troy was attacked, possibly by Mycenean Greek forces, and Homer’s time, many different stories appeared. Homer is thought to have taken these various oral traditions and fused them to make the work his own.
The poem is divided into twenty-four books, but these divisions are not original to the piece. It is thought that a later transcriber divided the work into twenty-four sections, one for each letter in the Greek alphabet.
The Greek gods, including Zeus, chief of the Greek pantheon, and his wife, Hera, are active participants in the war. Many of the main characters are sons of a god or goddess, including the great warrior Achilles, whose mother was the sea goddess, Thetis.
The epic may be based on a real Trojan War, a trade war that may have taken place in the thirteenth century B.C.E. The Trojan War of the Iliad was fought because Helen, the beautiful wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, was abducted by Prince Paris, one of the sons of King Priam of Troy. Menelaus’s brother, Agamemnon, led an army of Greek heroes to bring Helen back to Sparta. The Trojan War ended with the destruction of Troy.
The ﬁrst word of the Iliad, which takes place during the last ﬁfty days of the war, is wrath, and the wrath of Achilles is the main focus of the poem. During the course of the war, Agamemnon, the leader of the Achaeans, took a woman who belonged to Achilles. Achilles was enraged enough at this insult to kill Agamemnon, his leader, but he did not. Instead, Achilles retired from the ﬁeld, along with his soldiers, the Myrmidons. An embassy from Agamemnon later appealed to Achilles to return, but he refused.
Sometime thereafter, Achilles’s cousin and dearest friend Patrocles entered battle wearing Achilles’s armour. Patrocles was mistaken for Achilles and killed by Hector, prince of Troy. Grieving and furious, Achilles returned to the war, his strength and rage evident on the battleﬁeld. He faced Hector, his strongest foe and the second-greatest warrior in the battle, and killed him. The poem ends with the return of Hector’s body to his parents and his funeral. Achilles’s own death, which is foreshadowed in the work, and the end of the war are not described in the Iliad.
Central to Homer’s work is the spirit of agon,or contest, as each warrior strives to be the best. The characters of the Iliad are trapped in a battle, not only with the enemy, but also by their own expectations about heroic behavior.
Achilles could not kill Agamemnon, or go home, and retain his honor. So he chose the only other option, which was to withdraw from the war until the situation changed, waiting to be drawn back into battle. His wait ended with the death of Patrocles. Achilles had no choice but to return to war to avenge his cousin’s death.
Homer states that the highest attainmentin life is to excel and to be superior to others. The structure of the poem focuses on Achilles’s personal journey toward such superiority.