Homer is hailed as the father of all poetry, and the Iliad survives as a masterpiece for all time. The Iliad, taking place within a three-day period of the Trojan War, tells the story of the wrath of Achilles against King Agamemnon. The battle episodes reveal the characters of the warriors, their strength and their weaknesses. These figures step out of unrecorded history as human beings, not of one era but of all eras and for all time. The earliest extant work of European literature, the Iliad is also one of the most enduring creations of Western culture. Of the author, or possibly authors, nothing is known for certain. Tradition says that Homer was a Greek of Asia Minor. Herodotus surmised that Homer lived in the eighth century b.c.e., which seems reasonable in the light of modern scholarship and archaeology. The poet drew on a large body of legend about the siege of Troy, material with which his audience was familiar and that was part of an oral tradition. Homer himself may not have transcribed the two epics attributed to him, but it is probable that he gave the poems their present shape.
The Iliad was originally intended to be recited or chanted rather than read. Its poetic style is vivid, taut, simple, direct, full of repeated epithets and elaborate visual similes. The treatment is serious and dignified throughout, and the total effect is one of grandeur. The poem has a classical structure, with a beginning, middle, and end.
Homer’s greatness also reveals itself in the action of the Iliad, in which, within the scope of a few weeks in the tenth year of the siege of Troy, Homer gives the impression of covering the whole war by a few deft incidents. The appearance of Helen on the walls of Troy reminds the reader that she is the cause of the war. The catalog of ships and warriors calls to mind the first arrival of the Greek army at Troy. The duel between Paris and Menelaus would properly have come in the first years of the war, but its placement in the poem suggests the breakdown of diplomacy that leads to the bloodbath of fighting. Hector’s forebodings of his own death and of the fall of Troy as he talks to his wife, not to mention his dying prediction of the supposedly invincible Achilles’ death, all point to the future of the war and its conclusion. Homer thus gives the rather narrow scope of the poem’s events much greater breadth.
The Iliad is not a mere chronicle of events in the Trojan War. It deals with a specific and crucial sequence of the war: the quarrel of Achilles with his commander, Agamemnon; Achilles’ withdrawal from the war; the fighting in his absence; Agamemnon’s futile attempt to conciliate Achilles; the Trojan victories; Patroclus’s intervention and death at Hector’s hands; Achilles’ reentry to the war to avenge his friend’s murder; the death of Hector; and Priam’s ransom of Hector’s body from Achilles.
This sequence is important in its effect on the war as a whole for two reasons. Without Achilles, the ablest fighter, the Greeks are demoralized, even though they have many powerful warriors. It is foretold that Achilles will die before Troy is taken, so the Greeks will have to capture Troy by means other than force. The second reason is that the climax of the poem, the killing of Hector, prefigures the fall of Troy, for as long as Hector remains alive the Greeks are unable to make much headway against the Trojans.
Achilles is the precursor of the tragic hero according to Aristotle’s definition. Young, handsome, noble, courageous, eloquent, generous, and of unsurpassed prowess, his tragic flaw lies in the savage intensity of his emotions. He knows he will die young. In fact, he has chosen to die at Troy and thereby win a lasting reputation rather than to grow old peacefully. It is precisely his pride, his supreme skill in warfare, and his lust for future glory that make him so ferocious when he is crossed. He has a hard time restraining himself from killing Agamemnon and a harder time bearing Agamemnon’s insult. He puts pride before loyalty when his Greek comrades are being overrun. Only when the war touches him personally, after his friend Patroclus enters the combat and is slain, does he come to terms with Agamemnon. Then his rage against the Trojans and Hector consumes him, and he is merciless in his vengeance, slaughtering Trojans by scores, gloating over Hector’s corpse and abusing it, and sacrificing twelve Trojan nobles on Patroclus’s funeral pyre. His humanity is restored in the end when, at Zeus’s command, he allows old King Priam to ransom Hector’s body. Trembling with emotion, he feels pity for the old man and reaches out his hand to him. It is the most moving moment in the epic.
Achilles lives by a rigid code of personal honor and fights to win a lasting reputation, so he has nothing to lose by dying. Life is worthless to him except insofar as it allows him to prove his own value. Yet, paradoxically, this very ethic makes his life more intense and tragic than it might have been. Hector, by contrast, is fighting on the defensive for a city he knows is doomed, and his responsibilities as a leader tend to burden him. He has others to think about, even though he foresees their fate, and all of this hinders his becoming a truly effective warrior such as Achilles. Whereas Achilles’ life seems tragic, Hector’s life is one of pathos, but the pathos of a man fighting heroically against overwhelming odds.
The gods play a prominent part in the Iliad, and they are thoroughly humanized, having human shapes, sexes, and passions. Although they have superhuman powers, they behave in an all-too-human fashion—feasting, battling, fornicating, lying, cheating, changing their minds, protecting their favorites from harm. Just as the Greek army is a loose confederation under Agamemnon, so the gods are subject to Zeus. As the gods behave like humans, so the link between god and human is surprisingly direct; superhuman and human forces interact constantly. Divinity penetrates human action through oracles, dreams, visions, inspiration; it shows itself in inspired warfare, in which a hero seems invincible, and in miraculous interventions, in which a wounded hero is spirited away and healed. Moreover, the gods are not omnipotent. Zeus can merely delay the death of a person but in the end must bow to Fate. Further, men have free will; they are not mere puppets. Achilles has deliberately chosen his destiny. Humans, finally, have more dignity than the gods because they choose their actions in the face of death, while the gods have no such necessity, being immortal. It is death that gives human decisions their meaning, for death is final and irrevocable. The Iliad is a powerful statement of what it means to be human in the middle of vast and senseless bloodshed.