The Greeks are camped outside the walls of Troy, in the tenth year of their siege on that city. Agamemnon, king of the Achaians, wants the maid, Briseis, for his own, but she is possessed by Achilles, a mortal son of Zeus, king of the gods. When Achilles is forced to give up the maid, he withdraws angrily from the battle and returns to his ship. He wins from Zeus the promise that the wrong that he suffered will be avenged.
That evening Zeus sends a messenger to the Greek king to convey to him in a dream an order to rise and marshal his Achaian forces against the walls of Troy. When the king awakens, he calls all his warriors to him and orders them to prepare for battle. All night long the men arm themselves in battle array, making ready their horses and their ships. The gods appear on earth in the disguise of warriors, some siding with the Greeks, some hastening to warn the Trojans. With the army mustered, Agamemnon begins the march from the camp to the walls of the city, while all the country around is set on fire. Only Achilles and his men remain behind, determined not to fight on the side of Agamemnon.
The Trojan army comes from the gates of the city ready to combat the Greeks. Then Paris, son of King Priam and Helen’s lover, stands out from the ranks and suggests that he and Menelaus settle the battle in a fight between them, the winner to take Helen and all her possessions and friendship to be declared between the warring nations. Menelaus agrees to these words of his rival, and before the warriors of both sides, and under the eyes of Helen, who is summoned to witness the scene from the walls of Troy, he and Paris begin to fight. Menelaus is the mightier warrior. As he is about to pierce his enemy, the goddess Aphrodite, who loves Paris, swoops down from the air and carries him off to his chamber. She summons Helen there to minister to her wounded lord. Then the victory is declared for Menelaus.
In the heavens the gods who favor the Trojans are much disturbed by this intervention. Athena appears on earth to Trojan Pandarus and tells him to seek out Menelaus and kill him. He shoots an arrow at the unsuspecting king, but the goddess watching over Menelaus deflects the arrow so that it only wounds him. When Agamemnon sees that treacherous deed (the armies are in agreement at that moment not to fight), he revokes his vows of peace and exhorts the Greeks once more to battle. Many Trojans and many Greeks lose their lives that day, because of the foolhardiness of Pandarus.
Meanwhile Hector, son of King Priam, returns to the city to bid farewell to Andromache, his wife, and to his child, for he fears he might not return from that day’s battle. He rebukes Paris for remaining in his chambers with Helen when his countrymen are dying because of his misdeeds. While Paris makes ready for battle, Hector says good-bye to Andromache, prophesying that Troy will be defeated, himself killed, and Andromache taken captive. Then Paris joins him and they go together into the battle.
When evening comes the Greeks and the Trojans retire to their camps. Agamemnon instructs his men to build a huge bulwark around the camp and in front of the ships, for fear the enemy will press their attack too close. Zeus then remembers his promise to Achilles to avenge the wrong done to him by Agamemnon. He summons all the gods and forbids them to take part in the war. The victory, Zeus says, is to go to the Trojans; thus would the insult to Zeus’s son be avenged.
The next day, Hector and the Trojans sweep through the fields, slaughtering the Greeks. Hera, the wife of Zeus, and many of the other goddesses are not content to watch the defeat of their mortal friends. When the goddesses attempt to intervene, Zeus sends down his messengers to warn them to desist. Fearing his armies will be destroyed before Achilles will relent, Agamemnon sends Odysseus to Achilles. Odysseus begs the hero to accept gifts and be pacified. Achilles, still wrathful, threatens to sail for home at the break of day. Agamemnon is troubled by the proud refusal of Achilles. That night he steals to the camp of the wise man, Nestor, to ask his help in a plan to defeat the Trojans. Nestor tells him to awaken all the great warriors and summon them to a council. It is decided that two warriors will steal into the Trojan camp to determine its strength and numbers. Diomedes and Odysseus volunteer. As they creep toward the camp, they capture and kill a Trojan spy. Then they steal into the camp of the enemy, spy upon it, and, as they leave, take with them the horses of one of the kings.
The next day the Trojans press hard upon the Greeks with great slaughter. Diomedes and Odysseus are wounded and many warriors are killed. Achilles watches the battle from his ship but makes no move to take part in it. He sends his friend Patroclus to Nestor to learn how many are wounded. The old man sends back a despairing answer, pleading that Achilles give up his anger and help his fellow Greeks. At last the Trojans break through the bulwark that the Greeks built, and Hector is foremost in an attack upon the ships.
Meanwhile, many of the gods plot to aid the Greeks. Hera lulls Zeus to sleep, and Poseidon urges Agamemnon to resist the onrush of the Trojans. In the battle that day Hector is wounded by Aias, but as the Greeks are about to seize him and bear his body away the bravest of the Trojans surround their hero and cover him with their shields until he can be carried to safety. When Zeus awakens and sees what has happened, his wrath is terrible, and he orders Apollo to restore Hector to health. Once again the walls are breached and the Trojans storm toward the ships, eager to set fire to them. Zeus inspires the Trojans with courage and weakens the Greeks with fear. He determines that after the ships are set afire he will no longer aid the Trojans but will allow the Greeks to have the final victory.
Patroclus goes to his friend Achilles and again pleads with him to return to the fight. Achilles, still angry, refuses. Then Patroclus begs that he be allowed to wear the armor of Achilles so that the Greeks will believe their hero fought with them, and Achilles consents. Patroclus charges into the battle and fights bravely at the gates of the city. Hector mortally wounds Patroclus and strips from his body the armor of Achilles.
All that day the battle rages over the body of Patroclus. Then a messenger carries to Achilles word of his friend’s death. His sorrow is terrible, but he cannot go unarmed into the fray to rescue the body of Patroclus.
The next morning his goddess mother, Thetis, brings him a new suit of armor from the forge of Hephaestus. Then Achilles decks himself in the glittering armor that the lame god of fire prepared for him and strides forth to the beach. There, he and Agamemnon are reconciled before the assembly of the Greeks, and he goes out to battle with them. The whole plain is filled with men and horses, battling one another. Achilles in his vengeance pushes back the enemy to the banks of the River Xanthus, and so many are the bodies of the Trojans choking the river that at length the god of the river speaks to Achilles, ordering him to cease throwing their bodies into his waters. Proud Achilles mocks him and springs into the river to fight with the god. Feeling himself overpowered, he struggles out upon the banks, but still the wrathful god pursues him. Achilles then calls on his mother to help him, and Thetis, with the aid of Hephaestus, quickly subdues the angry river god.
As Achilles draws near the walls of Troy, Hector girds on his armor. Amid the wailing of all the Trojan women he comes from the gates to meet the Greek warrior, who is understood to be completely invincible. Not standing to meet Achilles in combat, he flees three times around the city walls before he turns to face Achilles’ fatal spear. Then Achilles binds Hector’s body to his chariot and drags it to the ships, as prey for dogs and vultures.
In the Trojan city there is great grief for the dead hero and rage at the treatment of his body. The aged King Priam resolves to drive in a chariot to the camp of Achilles and beg that the body of his son Hector be returned to him. The gods, too, ask Achilles to curb his wrath and restore the Trojan warrior to his own people, and so Achilles receives King Priam with respect, grants his request, and agrees to a twelve-day truce that both sides might properly bury and mourn their dead. Achilles mourns for Patroclus as the body of his friend is laid upon the blazing funeral pyre. In the city the body of mighty Hector is also burned and his bones are buried beneath a great mound in the stricken city.