Reader's Encyclopedia


Greek epic poem (9th century bc?) attributed to Homer. In twenty - four books of dactylic hexameter verse, it details the events of the few days near the end of the Trojan War, focusing on the withdrawal of Achilles from the contest and the disastrous effects of this act on the Greek campaign. The plot is as follows:

Book I. Agamemnon, commander - in - chief of the Greek forces, refuses to return his captive Chryseis to her father, Chryses, a priest of Apollo. An ensuing pestilence is divined to be the result of this unseemly act, and the Greeks insist that Agamemnon relinquish Chryseis. He grudgingly does so, but takes Achilles ' captive Briseis in her place. Furious, Achilles refuses to fight with the Greeks. His mother, Thetis, persuades Zeus to turn the tide of battle so that the Greeks will see how much they need Achilles.

Book II. A false dream sent by Zeus leads Agamemnon to plan a battle. He tests his men by suggesting that they return home. To his dismay, they start to rush for the ships, and are only restrained when Odysseus beats their leader Thersites. The "Catalogue of Ships" lists the combatants and their forces.

Book III. Paris, whose abduction of Helen from Sparta was the cause of the war, now engages in single combat with her husband, Menelaus. About to be killed, Paris is spirited away by Aphrodite.

Book IV. Athene, who favors the Greeks, causes the Trojan Pandarus to break the truce by treacherously shooting Menelaus, and the battle is joined.

Book V. Diomedes is the hero of the day, killing Pandarus and many others and even wounding Aphrodite and (with Athene's help) Ares, who are helping the Trojans.

Book VI. Hector, the Trojan leader, returns to Troy, bids the women pray to Athene, and bids farewell to Andromache, his wife, and his infant son in a touching scene. On the battlefield, Diomedes and Glaucus, finding that their godfathers were friends, refrain from fighting and exchange armor, Glaucus accepting bronze for gold.

Book VII. After an indecisive battle between the Trojan leader Hector and Great Ajax, there is a pause. Under pressure from the Trojans, Paris, though refusing to give up Helen, promises to make handsome restitution. The Greeks refuse his offer and build a wall to protect their ships.

Book VIII. Zeus orders the other gods not to interfere in the war. Hera and Athene at first defy him, but are chastened. The war turns in the Trojans' favor.

Book IX. Desperate, Agamemnon offers to return Briseis to Achilles and make further restitution. Odysseus, Ajax, and Phoenix, Achilles' old tutor, bear the offer to Achilles, but he indignantly refuses it and vows to start for home the next day.

Book X. Odysseus and Diomedes spy on the Trojans, and kill Dolon and the Thracian king, Rhesus

Book XI. Agamemnon harries the Trojans, but he, Odysseus, Diomedes, and others are wounded. Achilles sends Patroclus to inquire about the course of the fighting. Nestor urges him to beg Achilles to fight or to send Patroclus with Achilles' Myrmidons.

Book XII. The Trojans under Hector break through a gate in the Greek walls.

Book XIII. In spite of Zeus ' commands Poseidon rallies the Greeks under Idomeneus and the Ajaxes.

Book XIV. Hera amorously deceives Zeus and puts him to sleep, while Poseidon helps the Greeks. The Trojans are driven back and Hector is wounded.

Book XV. When Zeus awakes, Poseidon is forced to cease aiding the Greeks and Apollo rouses Hector to lead the Trojans as far as the Greek ships, where he tries to burn them. Patroclus meanwhile begs Achilles to fight.

Book XVI. Achilles gives Patroclus his armor and tells him to repel the Trojan advance, but no more. Patroclus drives the Trojans to the walls of Troy, killing Sarpedon and Hector's charioteer; but there Hector kills him, with the aid of Apollo

Book XVII. Hector takes Achilles' armor, but, in a violent fight, Menelaus and the Greeks recover Patroclus' body.

Book XVIII. In spite of Thetis' warnings that he is fated to die, Achilles determines to avenge Patroclus in battle. Hephaestus makes him a new shield, richly engraved with many scenes.

Book XIX. Achilles announces that he will fight. Agamemnon makes amends. Achilles' immortal horses, Xanthus and Balius, warn him that this is the last time they will bear him safely from the field. Knowing that he is soon to die, Achilles goes into battle.

Book XX. Since Zeus' promise to Thetis now is fulfilled, the other gods are free to join in the war. Aligned with the Greeks are Athene, Hera, Poseidon, Hephaestus, and Hermes; with the Trojans, Apollo, Ares, Artemis, Aphrodite, and Leto. Aeneas fights with Achilles, but is rescued by Poseidon; similarly Hector is saved by Apollo.

Book XXI. Achilles routs the Trojans, killing many in the river Xanthus, which fights against him. Only Apollo saves the Trojans from destruction.

Book XXII. Hector waits alone outside the walls of Troy to meet Achilles. At first he flees from him three times about the city but then turns to fight. Abandoned by Apollo he is tricked by Athene and killed by Achilles, who drags his body behind his chariot to the ships, while his family and all Troy lament on the city walls.

Book XXIII. Achilles holds a great funeral for Patroclus, burning twelve Trojan youths with his body. Games are held in his honor.

Book XXIV. For days Achilles continues to heap indignities on the corpse of Hector, until Zeus warns him through Thetis that the gods will be angered. The Trojan king, Priam, begs the body from Achilles, who recognizes in him a fellow - sufferer, and consents. A funeral is held for Hector.

The Trojan war is now known, thanks to the discoveries of Schliemann and his successors, to have been a historical event of the 13th century bc, though hardly the glorious contest described in the Iliad. About that event there grew up a vast number of legends, which, during the succeeding centuries, were told and retold by the bards in accordance with the traditions of Greek epic poetry until a certain amount of order was imposed on the many variant strands. It was probably about four centuries after the war that a particular group of these myths were modeled into the dramatic and stylistic unit that became known as the Iliad. This work was attributed to an Ionian poet called Homer.

Controversy still rages on whether Homer was a single poet or many, but there is little question of the essential unity of concept that makes the Iliad a great poem. In spite of the monotonous similarity between one hand - to - hand combat and the next and in spite of the epithets and other bardic formulas that can apply as well to one hero as to another, the Iliad is far more than a vast, highly formalized panorama of battle. Many of the principal figures are considerably individualized: Achilles, Agamemnon, Nestor, Paris, Hector, Thersites, Dolon. There are amusing touches: the ignominious flight of the Greeks when Agamemnon tests their loyalty, Glaucus giving his gold armor in an access of hospitality; there are moving scenes: Hector's infant son frightened by the plume on his father's helmet, Achilles going into battle in spite of his horses ' warning, Priam and Achilles weeping together over their mutual loss. All these scenes give the story a human significance that deeply involves the reader in its events. One of the most impressive qualities of the poem is the dramatic impact that the poet achieved by concentrating his attention not on the siege of Troy, but on the tragic results of one man ' s anger. In spite of Achilles ' implacable and (to modern readers) childish resentment of a slight on his honor, he is a genuinely noble figure who knowingly embraces certain death rather than live a long life without glory.

The Iliad is written in the poetic line regularly associated with Greek epic, the dactylic hexameter. The dialect of the poem is primarily Ionic, with a strong subsoil of Aeolic, which had been the language of the earlier inhabitants of the part of Ionia from which Homer traditionally came. However, the language of the Iliad, or of epic in general, was more a traditional poetic diction than an actual speech.

The world of the Trojan War was very imperfectly remembered in the Homeric poem, written centuries later. Some of the traditional material, inherited and faithfully passed on by Homer, must have been incomprehensible to him: for example, the use of the Mycenaean full -length rectangular shield, which had long been obsolete. As a result, the soldiers in the Iliad are sometimes described as bearing the round bronze shield of the poet's day, whereas elsewhere they carry the ancient long shield. Such discrepancies as these have aided scholars in sorting out old and new material in the work. Other anachronisms are the result of deliberate tampering, in order to increase the role of Athens in the war and to diminish that of her enemies. This process may well have taken place in the days of Pisistratus, when the recitation of Homer became a regular part of the Panathenaic festival. The fact that certain barbarous customs, such as human sacrifice, torture, and mutilation, scarcely appear in the Iliad is probably also due to later expurgation.