Homer’s epic begins in the tenth year of the Trojan War, in which the Greek army besieges the walled city of Troy in Asia Minor. According to legend, the Greeks had sailed to Troy to win the release of Helen, wife of King Menelaus, who had been abducted by the Trojan prince Paris. The twenty-four books of the ILIAD incorporate a body of legend that may date back to the twelfth century B.C. Rather than recount the entire conflict, Homer concentrates on the events which follow the feud between Greek warriors Achilles and Agamemnon.
After Agamemnon takes away Achilles’ war prize, the maid Briseis, Achilles angrily withdraws from battle, and the demoralized Greek forces are pushed back almost to their ships. Achilles’ friend Patroclus attempts to rally the Greeks, but he is killed by the Trojan hero Hector. Achilles then returns to battle, routs the enemy, and slays Hector in single combat on the plains of Troy. After Hector’s death, King Priam is forced to plead for the body of his son, which has been mutilated by Achilles.
Homer’s narrative presents a vivid picture of Bronze Age Greek culture. His warrior society lives by a heroic code according to which men were expected to show strength, courage, loyalty, and valor. Humans are at the mercy of capricious gods and goddesses, who intervene in battle to save their favorites. Even the great Achilles cannot alter his fate. Homer’s genius lies in his ability to depict war in all of its brutal intensity and in his recognition that tragedy arises from flaws in human character. His depiction of the horror and fascination of war is as relevant today as it was to his own audience.
Brann, Eva. Homeric Moments: Clues to Delight in Reading the “Odyssey” and the “Iliad.” Philadelphia: Paul Dry, 2002. A close and witty exploration of the experience of reading Homer.
Kim, Jinyo. The Pity of Achilles: Oral Style and the Unity of the “Iliad.” Rowman and Littlefield, 2000. An argument for the unity of the Iliad that surveys recent scholarship. Bibliography.
Mueller, Martin. The Iliad. Winchester, Mass.: Allen & Unwin, 1984. A comprehensive introduction to critical study of the Iliad. The information is clearly presented and detailed. Contains particularly informative sections on principles of Homeric fighting, the Homeric simile, and the Greek gods.
Schein, Seth L. The Mortal Hero: An Introduction to Homer’s “Iliad.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. Addressed primarily to the general reader, this book provides background to the Iliad. Discusses the function of the gods in the poem, outlines the fall of Troy and the death of Hector, and examines the heroic characterization of Achilles.
Silk, Michael S. Homer, “The Iliad.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Presents information on the religious understanding of Homeric society and summarizes the main events narrated in the poem. Discusses Achilles’ place in the center of a balanced plot structure.
Vivante, Paolo. “The Iliad”: Action as Poetry. Boston: Twayne, 1990. An excellent source of background material, organized for quick reference. Includes chapters on the historical context of Homer and the Iliad, plot structure, family relationships within the poem, and characterization; and the poetic roles of fate, the gods, time, and nature. The final chapter compares the Iliad to other epics.
Wright, John, ed. Essays on “The Iliad”: Selected Modern Criticism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978. Eight essays on various aspects of the poem.