One of the greatest epics of ancient Greece, the Iliad tells of events during the final year of the Trojan War*. Iliad means "poem of Ilios," one of the names of the city of Troy in Asia Minor*.
The Greek poet Homer is credited with creating the Iliad. Some scholars, however, doubt that Homer ever existed and suggest that the poem was woven together by generations of storytellers. In any case, the Iliad had a tremendous impact on Greek culture and holds an important place in world literature.
Background of the Trojan War. Long before the events described in the Iliad, the Greeks had been drawn into a war with Troy because of the beautiful Helen of Troy Helen was actually Greek, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta*. She lived happily with Menelaus until Prince Paris of Troy—promised the most beautiful woman in the world by the goddess Aphrodite*—came to Greece in search of the famous beauty. Paris took Helen back to Troy. Honoring a pledge to Menelaus, the kings and princes of Greece joined together to rescue Helen and set sail for Troy with their armies to wage war.
The war between the Greeks and the Trojans dragged on for nine years, with neither side gaining a decisive advantage. Involved in the background were the major Greek gods and goddesses, who supported or opposed certain of the humans in the struggle. In the tenth year of the war, events came to a head, leading ultimately to victory for the Greeks and the destruction of Troy, outcomes predetermined by the gods.
The Story of the Iliad. As the Iliad opens, a dispute between two Greek leaders—the hero Achilles* and King Agamemnon* of Mycenae, commander of the Greek armies—sets in motion events that shape the course of the war. The trouble begins when Agamemnon receives a young woman, the daughter of a priest of Apollo*, as a prize of war. The priest appeals to Apollo, who sends a plague to the Greek camp. When the Greeks learn the cause of the sickness, they force Agamemnon to give up his prize.
To make up for his loss, Agamemnon demands the woman who was awarded to Achilles. Furious, Achilles puts down his weapons and refuses to fight any longer, thus depriving the Greeks of their most formidable warrior. Meanwhile, the sea goddess Thetis, Achilles' mother, persuades Zeus* to let the Greeks suffer losses in combat to show how crucial her son is to their victory.
Without Achilles, the Greeks begin to lose ground to the Trojans. During the course of battle, Paris and Menelaus fight each other, but neither can claim victory At one point, Hector, leader of the Trojan forces, leaves the battlefield and enters Troy. Telling the Trojan women to pray for help from the gods, he bids farewell to his wife, Andromache, and his young son. He knows that he will die soon and that the Greeks will destroy the city and its people.
After suffering significant losses, several Greek leaders, including Odysseus*, go to Achilles and ask him to rejoin them. Even Agamemnon sends a number of gifts and promises to reward
epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
predetermined decided in advance
Achilles when the war is over. But Achilles refuses to reconsider his decision.
Soon after, Achilles' beloved friend Patroclus convinces the hero to let him wear his armor so that the Trojans will think that Achilles is fighting again. The sight of the warrior in Achilles' armor worries the Trojans, and the Greeks are able to push them back. But the god Apollo lets Hector see that another warrior is wearing Achilles' armor, and Hector kills Patroclus and takes the armor.
When Achilles learns that his beloved friend has been killed, he is overwhelmed with grief and determined to avenge his friend's death. Wearing new armor from his mother, Achilles reenters the battle and slaughters many Trojans while searching for Hector. When the two warriors finally meet, Hector flees and Achilles chases him around the walls of Troy.
The goddess Athena* tricks Hector by appearing as his younger brother and telling him to stand and fight. When Hector does so, Achilles kills him. Achilles removes his old armor from Hector's body and then drags the corpse behind his chariot.
Meanwhile the Trojans, angry because Achilles will not return Hector's corpse for proper funeral ceremonies, mourn the death of their hero. Again the gods intervene, forcing Achilles to accept a ransom of gifts from Hector's father, King Priam, and return the body of his son.
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
The story in the Iliad ends as the Trojans hold a funeral for their fallen hero. But the Trojan War continues. Tales of the deaths of Paris and Achilles, the Greek's cunning use of the Trojan horse to get inside the city walls, and the defeat and destruction of Troy are told in other works.
Significance of the Iliad. The Iliad is more than just a story about ancient heroes, gods, and goddesses. For the Greeks of later centuries, the poem was a history of their ancestors that also revealed moral lessons about heroism, pride, revenge, and honor. As such, it also had great value as a symbol of Greek unity and culture.
Modern scholars believe that certain elements of the story in the Iliad may be based on historical events from more than 3,000 years ago. Almost certainly, the poem reflects the values and ideals of Greek society at that time. Perhaps more importantly, as a work of literature, the Iliad illustrates various universal themes and provides a realistic view of the human condition. Its major characters, though shrouded in the distant past, exhibit personality flaws and strengths that are as real for people today as when the work first appeared.