The main characters in the Iliad are Achilles, Hector, Agamemnon, and Menelaus.
Achilles is the greatest of the Greek warriors. After Agamemnon offends him, he withdraws from the battle, but later rejoins and leads the Greeks to victory.
Hector is the greatest of the Trojan warriors. He defends Troy out of love for his family and his people. He dies with honor after battling Achilles.
Agamemnon is the king of Mycenae and brother to Menelaus. He leads the Greek forces in battle.
Menelaus is the king of Sparta. He recruits Agamemnon to help him attack Troy in order to retrieve his wife, Helen.
Last Updated on April 29, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2221
Achilles (uh-KIH-leez), the son of Peleus and the Nereid Thetis, is the prince of the Myrmidons and the mightiest of the Achaian warriors at the siege of Troy. At his birth, his mother had dipped him in the Styx, so that all parts of his body are invulnerable to...
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Achilles (uh-KIH-leez), the son of Peleus and the Nereid Thetis, is the prince of the Myrmidons and the mightiest of the Achaian warriors at the siege of Troy. At his birth, his mother had dipped him in the Styx, so that all parts of his body are invulnerable to hurt except the heel by which she held him. A young man of great beauty, strength, courage, and skill in battle, he nevertheless possesses two tragic flaws, an imperious will and a strong sense of vanity. Enraged because King Agamemnon orders him to surrender the maid Briseis, whom Achilles had taken as his own prize of war, he quarrels bitterly with the commander of the Greek forces and withdraws from the battlefield. When the Trojan host attacks, driving the Greeks back toward their ships, Achilles remains sulking in his tent. So great is his wrath that he refuses to heed all entreaties that he come to the aid of the hard-pressed Greeks. When the Trojans begin to burn the Greek ships, he allows his friend Patroclus, dressed in the armor of Achilles, to lead the warlike Myrmidons against the attackers. Patroclus is killed by Hector, the Trojan leader, under the walls of the city. Seeing in the death of his friend the enormity of his own inaction, Achilles puts on a new suit of armor made for him by Hephaestus and engages the Trojans in fierce combat. Merciless in his anger and grief, he kills Hector and on successive days drags the body of the vanquished hero behind his chariot while King Priam, Hector’s father, looks on from the walls of the city. When the sorrowing king visits the tent of Achilles at night and begs for the body of his son, Achilles relents and permits Priam to conduct funeral rites for Hector for a period of nine days. In a later battle before the walls of Troy, an arrow shot by Paris, King Priam’s son, strikes Achilles in the heel and causes his death.
Hector (HEHK-tur) is the son of King Priam and Queen Hecuba. As the commander of the Trojan forces, he is the greatest and most human of the heroes, an ideal figure in every respect: a skilled horseman, a brave soldier, an able leader, a man devoted to his family and his city, and the master of his emotions under every circumstance. His courage in battle, his courtesy in conference, his submission to the gods, and his sad fate at the hands of vengeful Achilles provide an admirable contrast to the actions of the blustering, cunning, cruel, and rapacious Greeks.
Andromache (an-DROM-uh-kee) is the devoted wife of Hector and the mother of Astyanax. After the fall of Troy, she was taken into captivity by Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles. Still later, according to the Aeneid, she married Helenus, the brother of Hector, and ruled with him in Pyrrhus.
Astyanax (as-TI-eh-naks) is the young son of Hector and Andromache. During the sack of Troy, Neoptolemus killed the child by hurling him over the city wall.
Agamemnon (ag-eh-MEHM-non) is the king of Mycenae and the older brother of King Menelaus, husband of the lovely Helen, whose infidelity brought about the Trojan War. Courageous and cunning but often rash and arrogant, as in his treatment of Achilles, he is the commander of the Greeks in the war. He stands as a symbol of the capable leader, without the heroic qualities of the more dramatic warriors who fight under his command. He is killed by his wife, Clytemnestra, after his return from Troy.
Menelaus (meh-nuh-LAY-uhs) is the king of Sparta and the husband of beautiful but faithless Helen, who is seduced and abducted by Paris, the prince of Troy, in fulfillment of a promise made by Aphrodite. He stands more as a symbol than as a man, a victim of the gods and an outraged husband who avenges with brave deeds the wrong done to his honor. At the end of the war, he takes Helen back to Sparta with him. In the Odyssey, she is shown presiding over his royal palace.
Helen is the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta and, for nineteen years after her abduction, the consort of Paris. Being confined within the walls of Troy, in the company of doting elders, she plays a minor part in the story. Because she is the victim of Aphrodite’s promise to Paris, she does not suffer greatly for her actions. Her attempts at reconciliation unwittingly aid the Greek cause in the capture of Troy.
Paris is the son of King Priam and Queen Hecuba. Called to judge a dispute among Aphrodite, Hera, and Athena, he awarded the prize, the golden apple of discord, to Aphrodite, who in turn promised him the most beautiful woman in the world as his wife. Although his love for Helen, the bride he stole from her husband, has become proud devotion to a principle, Paris nevertheless places himself in jeopardy as a champion of the Trojan cause and offers to meet King Menelaus, the injured husband, in single combat. Aphrodite, fearful for the safety of her favorite, watches over him and saves him from harm. An arrow from his bow strikes Achilles in the heel and kills the Achaian warrior. One story says that Paris was slain by a poisoned arrow from the bow of Philoctetes.
Priam (PRI-am) is the king of Troy and the beneficent father of a large family. Although he is not a ruler of Agamemnon’s stature, he is a man of shrewdness and quiet strength who suffers much at the hands of fate and the rivalry of the gods. Although he does not condone the abduction of Helen by Paris, he is fair in his judgment of both because he knows that they are victims of Aphrodite’s whims. His devotion to his son Hector and his pity for all who suffer in the war elevate him to noble stature.
Hecuba (HEH-kew-buh) is the wife of King Priam. Her fate is tragic. She witnesses the death of her sons, the enslavement of her daughter Cassandra, carried into captivity by Agamemnon, and the sacrifice of her daughter Polyxena to appease the shade of Achilles.
Calchas (KAL-kuhs) is the seer and prophet of the Greeks. After many animals and men have been slain by the arrows of Apollo, Calchas declares that the destruction is a divine visitation because of Agamemnon’s rape of Chryseis, the daughter of Chryses, a priest of Apollo. He counsels that the maid be returned to her father without ransom.
Chryseis (KRIH-see-uhs) is a maiden seized by the Greeks during the plundering of Chrysa and given to Agamemnon as a prize of war. Forced by the intervention of Apollo to send the girl back to Chryses, her father, Agamemnon announces that he will in turn take any other maid he desires. His choice is Briseis, the slave of Achilles. Agamemnon’s demand leads to a quarrel between the two Greeks.
Briseis (BRI-see-uhs) is a captive slave taken by Achilles as a prize of war. Agamemnon’s announcement that he intends to take the girl into his own tent leads to a quarrel between the two men. Forced to surrender Briseis, Achilles and his followers retire from the battlefield and refuse to engage in the fierce fighting that follows. Agamemnon returns the girl to Achilles shortly before the sulking warrior undergoes a change of mood and returns to the fighting to avenge the death of his friend Patroclus.
Patroclus (pa-TROH-kluhs) is the noble squire and loyal friend of Achilles. His death at the hands of Hector is mercilessly and horribly avenged when Achilles and Hector meet in hand-to-hand combat and the Greek warrior kills his Trojan rival. Reasonable in argument and courageous in the face of great odds, Patroclus distinguishes himself in battle and is sublime in his willingness to die for a cause and a friend.
Odysseus (oh-DIHS-ews) is the crafty middle-aged warrior who, with Diomedes, scouts the Trojan camp, captures a Trojan spy, Dolon, and kills Rhesus, a Thracian ally of the Trojans. Although he is a minor figure in the story, he serves as a foil to haughty Agamemnon and sulking Achilles. He and Nestor are the counselors who interpret rightly the will of the gods.
Diomedes (di-oh-MEE-deez) is a valiant Argive warrior who dashes so often and fearlessly between the Greek and Trojan lines that it is difficult to tell on which side he is fighting. He is the companion of Odysseus on a night-scouting expedition in the Trojan camp, and he is the slayer of Pandarus. In hand-to-hand fighting, he attacks Aeneas so fiercely that the gods wrap the Trojan in a veil of mist to protect him from Diomedes’s onslaught.
Dolon (DOH-luhn) is a Trojan spy captured and put to death by Odysseus and Diomedes.
Nestor (NEHS-tur) is the hoary-headed king of Pylos and a wise counselor of the Greeks. Although he is the oldest of the Greek leaders, he survives the ten years of war and returns to his own land, where Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, visits him.
Machaon (meh-KAY-uhn) is the son of Asclepius, the famous physician of the ancient world. He is the chief surgeon in the Greek forces. He heals Menelaus after the king of Sparta has been wounded by an arrow from the bow of Pandarus.
Ajax (AY-jaks) is the son of Telamon of Salamis and half brother of Teucer. A warrior of great physical size and strength, he uses his mighty spear to hold off the Trojans attempting to burn the Greek ships after breaching the rampart around the vessels. According to a later story, he goes mad when Agamemnon, acting on the advice of Athena, awards the armor of dead Achilles to Odysseus.
Teucer (TEW-sehr) is the half brother of Ajax and a mighty bowman. He helps Ajax defend the Greek ships. During one of the Trojan onslaughts, he kills the charioteer of Hector.
Glaucus (GLOH-kuhs) is a Lycian ally of the Trojans. Meeting him in battle, Diomedes recognizes the Lycian as a guest-friend by inheritance. To seal a covenant between them, they exchange armor, Glaucus giving up his gold armor, worth a hundred oxen, for the brass armor of Diomedes, worth only nine oxen.
Sarpedon (sahr-PEE-duhn) is the leader of the Lycian allies fighting with the Trojans. He is killed by Patroclus.
Aeneas (ee-NEE-uhs) is the son of Anchises and Aphrodite. A warrior descended from a younger branch of the royal house of Troy, he commands the Trojan forces after the death of Hector. Earlier, while trying to protect the fallen body of his friend Pandarus, Aeneas is struck down by Diomedes, who would have slain him if the gods had not hidden the Trojan in a misty cloud. Aeneas’s wounds are miraculously healed in the temple of Apollo, and he returns to the battle.
Pandarus (PAN-duh-ruhs) is a Lycian ally of the Trojans and a skilled archer. After Paris has been spirited away from his contest with Menelaus, Pandarus aims at the king of Sparta and would have pierced him with an arrow if Athena had not turned the shaft aside. Diomedes kills Pandarus.
Cassandra (ka-SAN-druh) is the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba. Gifted with second sight, she is never to have her prophecies believed because she has rejected the advances of Apollo. She becomes Agamemnon’s captive after the fall of Troy.
Helenus (HEH-leh-nuhs) is the son of King Priam and Queen Hecuba. Like his sister Cassandra, he possesses the gift of second sight. He eventually marries Andromache, the wife of his brother Hector.
Deïphobus (dee-IH-feh-buhs) is the son of King Priam and Queen Hecuba. He becomes the husband of Helen after the death of Paris and is killed during the sack of Troy.
Antenor (an-TEE-nor) is the Trojan elder who advises that Helen be returned to the Greeks to avoid bloodshed.
Polydamus (po-lih-DA-muhs) is a shrewd, clear-headed leader of the Trojans.
Aphrodite (a-froh-DI-tee) is the goddess of love. Because Paris had awarded her the fated golden apple and Aeneas is her son, she aids the Trojans during the war.
Apollo (uh-PO-loh) is the god of poetry, music, and prophecy, as well as the protector of flocks and the patron of bowmen. He fights on the side of the Trojans.
Athena (uh-THEE-nuh), also called Pallas Athena, is the goddess of wisdom. She aids the Achaians.
Poseidon (poh-SI-dehn) is the god of the sea and earthquakes. The enemy of the Trojans, he aids the Achaians.
Ares (AY-reez) is the god of war. Because of Aphrodite, he fights on the side of the Trojans.
Hera (HIHR-uh) is the consort of Zeus and the enemy of the Trojans.
Zeus (zews) is the supreme deity. He remains neutral, for the most part, during the war.
Thetis (THEE-tihs), a Nereid, is the mother of Achilles, whom she aids in his quarrel with Agamemnon.
Hephaestus (hee-FEHS-tuhs) is the artificer of the gods. At the request of Thetis, he makes the suit of armor that Achilles is wearing when he slays Hector.
Last Updated on April 29, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1095
Achilles is the son of Peleus, king of the Myrmidons, and Thetis the sea goddess; he and his fellow Myrmidons come to Troy as part of the Greek force led by King Agamemnon. Achilles embodies the characteristics of the Homeric hero, particularly in his apparent lack of character and control and his lust for fame. He is therefore a balance—superhumanly powerful thanks to a relationship with the gods and his mother’s precautions taken when he was a baby but morally and intellectually flawed. His attitude will be his death after the Iliad ends.
Achilles can’t control his pride or the rage that overtakes him when that pride is threatened; in short, he’s a big, incredibly strong spoiled brat. At one point he even abandons his men and prays that the Trojans will slaughter them because Agamemnon has insulted him. Because of that pride, like many other Homeric heroes, Achilles is driven primarily by an insatiable desire for glory. His spoiled, lazy nature might prefer to live a long, easy life, but he knows that his preordained fate (symbolized by his “Achilles heel”) will force him to choose between comfort and fame. His ego wins out, and he is willing to sacrifice everything so his name will become part of Greek history.
Achilles doesn’t develop significantly over the course of the epic. Although the death of Patroclus guilts him into reconciling with Agamemnon, his rage doesn’t die, but is redirected toward Hector, the Trojan hero. Such a lateral emotional move doesn’t mark any kind of change, just a transfer of the same anger, pride, and hatred that has driven Achilles all along. He doesn’t learn from Patroclus’s death. He brutalizes his opponents, takes on the river Xanthus in a bold, almost suicidal campaign, desecrates Hector’s body after death, and horrifically sacrifices twelve Trojan soldiers at the funeral of Patroclus. Achilles’s rage doesn’t subside until Troy’s King Priam, pleading for the return of Hector’s body, appeals to Achilles’s memory of his father, Peleus. However, even in this moment it remains uncertain whether Priam’s actions really transform Achilles or whether this scene merely testifies to Achilles’s capacity for grief and acquaintance with anguish, which were already proven in his intense mourning of Patroclus.
Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek army, is the son of Atreus and the brother of Menelaus, the king of Sparta, and commander-in-chief of the Greek army. He resembles Achilles in that he is prideful and prone to anger; even more so than Achilles, Agamemnon gives way to arrogance. He demands that Achilles relinquish his war prize, Briseis, causing Achilles to withdraw angrily from battle, leaving the Greek army open to attack. Both men are equally to blame for the carnage this situation causes.
While Achilles’s pride flares up after it is injured, Agamemnon inflicts his injured pride on those around him. He stays clear of the worst of a battle but expects the largest share of the prize, and he insists on leading the Greek army even though his younger brother Menelaus—whose wife, Helen, was the cause of the war—is the one with the truest need for revenge.
Also unlike Achilles, Agamemnon is capable of appreciating subtlety. Achilles is fiercely devoted to those who love him and equally brutal to those who hurt him—a fundamentally “black and white” view of the world. Agamemnon sees the gray and uses it to his advantage, manipulating people and situations for his own benefit. He continually tests the loyalty of his troops, as shown in book 2. Where Achilles lacks control, Agamemnon has it and takes advantage of it. This causes the king to be even less sympathetic than his greatest warrior.
Hector is King Priam of Troy’s son and his greatest warrior. Achilles kills him, but until then he causes major damage to the Greek army—Achilles’s childish abandonment of his own army is Hector’s opportunity. He leads the assault that finally penetrates the Achaian ramparts, he is the first and only Trojan to set fire to an Achaian ship, and he kills Patroclus. Hector, too, however, is a flawed, even a tragic, hero.
Hector shows cowardice when he flees Great Ajax twice in book 17; he returns to battle only after being insulted by his fellow soldiers. He is prone to the same rage as Achilles at times, as when he kills Patroclus with unthinking cruelty. Later, caught up in a burst of confidence, he orders the Trojans to camp outside Troy’s walls the night before Achilles returns to battle, allowing the Achaians to easily destroy his army when Achilles returns with a vengeance.
For all these faults, however, Hector doesn’t come across as arrogant or overbearing like Agamemnon does. Homer takes a sort of “home-field advantage” by showing Hector’s family and his love for them. For his brother Paris, who started the war in the first place but seems disinterested in fighting it, he only has words of frustration, not scorn. Most of all, Homer gives Hector an overwhelming sense of his responsibility to Troy. He entertains the idea of escaping Achilles early in their battle, but his duty wins out even though his gods have left him alone with a man whom could never defeat. Hector’s loyalty makes him not only a noble figure, but also the most tragic figure in the Iliad.
Aeneas—A brave warrior and the second in command, behind Hector, of the Trojan forces. The son of Aphrodite, he is often protected by her.
Alexandros/Paris—Hector’s brother; his abduction of Helen from Menelaus’s palace in Sparta started the Trojan war, yet he feels no remorse.
Athena—Greek goddess of wisdom and protector of the Greeks.
Diomedes—The son of Tydeus and Deipylos who succeeded Adrestos as king of Argos. He comes to Troy with eighty ships and is, next to Achilles, the bravest hero of the Greek army. A perfect gentleman, he is known for his wisdom and courteous ways.
Hades—Greek god of the underworld and brother of Zeus and Poseidon.
Helen—The daughter of Zeus and Leda and originally the wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta.
Hera—Greek goddess of marriage and birth; the wife of Zeus and also his sister. She fights vigorously for the Greeks, seeing the destruction of Troy.
Menelaus—King of Sparta, and Agamemnon’s brother, and former husband of Helen.
Poseidon—Greek god of the seas. Helps both sides.
Last Updated on April 29, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6130
Son of the mortal Peleus and the sea goddess Thetis, Achilles is the best warrior at Troy. He leads the Myrmidons (from the Greek word for “ant,” as their ancestors were created by Zeus from ants after a plague had depopulated part of the kingdom of Achilles’s grandfather, Aeacus).
His mother dipped the baby Achilles in the River Styx, which made him invulnerable. But she forgot to dip the heel by which she held him, which left one place where a weapon could injure him: hence an “Achilles’ heel” is a weak or vulnerable spot.
Thetis knew that her son was destined either to go to Troy, where he would die gloriously as a young man, or to live a long (but dull) life ruling over his people at home. To keep him out of the army, Thetis sent Achilles away to another king’s court dressed as a woman, but Odysseus tracked him down there and convinced him to join the army in spite of his mother’s pleas. Knowing that his time is short, Achilles wants to make the most of it and is very sensitive to any suggestion that he is not the best, most respected man of his age—which leads to the conflict with Agamemnon that starts the poem.
Later Greek tradition held that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers as well as friends, not an uncommon practice in classical times. Bernard Knox suggests, in his introduction to Robert Fagles’s translation of the Iliad (1990), that “the text gives no warrant” for this assertion, but other critics disagree. There are a number of instances in the poem where Achilles’s words or actions indicate, though they do not necessarily prove the existence of, a level of attachment that is beyond mere friendship (e.g., XVIII.22ff., XIX.4-5, XIX.319-21, and XXIII.144ff.).
Knox is correct, however, to note that Achilles is godlike in more than just appearance. For most of the poem, Achilles behaves more like one of the gods—petulant, self-absorbed, touchy, and well-nigh implacable when angry—than his fellow human beings. His words to Hector, just before he kills him, “to hack your flesh away and eat it raw” (XXII.347) recall Hera’s attitude toward the Trojans, as described by Zeus, at the beginning of the poem (IV.35-36). It is only after Hector’s death that Achilles becomes human again, a transformation that is completed when Priam comes to ransom Hector’s body.
After killing Hector, Achilles and the Achaians make headway against the Trojans once more. Achilles, however, does not live to see the city fall: he is killed by Paris (with the help of Apollo) shortly before the Achaians resort to the “Trojan Horse” to gain access to the city by night.
Son of Anchises and the goddess Aphrodite, Aeneas is a minor character in the Iliad, where he is portrayed as a fighter to be reckoned with (especially in books 5 and 20), and at least once is described (VI.75f.) as Hector’s equal in “both war and counsel,” though apparently not everyone agreed with that assessment (see XIII.460).
Legend had it that Aeneas was the only member of the Trojan royal family to survive the sack of the city (see XX.302) and that he and his companions sailed westward. The Romans eventually claimed him as the ancestor of their race and the founder of their nation, as described by Virgil in the Aeneid, an epic poem in Latin.
Son of Atreus, brother of Menelaus, and king of Mycenae, Agamemnon is in overall command of the Achaian forces at Troy. His position is emphasized in the original Greek by the fact that the epithet anax andrên (“lord of men”), which appears nearly sixty times in the Iliad, is for all intents and purposes used only in reference to Agamemnon (the five exceptions are all forced by the rules of the meter).
Homer portrays Agamemnon as a good fighter, a proud and passionate man, and a fair tactician but somewhat vacillating and relatively easily discouraged. He does seem to harbor at least a little resentment of the fact that, while he is in command, it is Achilles who gets most of the glory (just as Achilles seems to resent the fact that he does all the work, yet Agamemnon gets most of the material spoils of war).
In the Greek myths, Agamemnon seems a driven man: he sacrifices one of his own daughters to Artemis to ensure a favorable wind for the army on its way to Troy, he insults the best fighter in his army and refuses to be reconciled until his forces stand on the brink of disaster, and, at least in some traditions, on his return home from the war, he allows himself to be treated almost like one of the gods. These are all characteristics of what the Greeks called hubris (“arrogance,” “overweening pride”) or Até (what we might now call “temporary insanity”), and they are Agamemnon’s chief failings in life.
The Greeks explained these personality defects by appealing to the curse that was supposed to be on the house of Pelops (Agamemnon’s grandfather), in retribution for a sacrilegious murder he committed while wooing his wife. The curse came home to rest on Agamemnon when he was murdered (according to Homer in the Odyssey, by Aegisthus, his cousin and the lover of Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra; according to Aeschylus in his play Agamemnon, by Clytemnestra herself) upon his return home from Troy. Agamemnon’s young son Orestes, too young to go to Troy, eventually avenged his father’s death by killing his mother and her lover, which forms the subject of the remaining two plays in Aeschylus’s tragic cycle, the Oresteia.
Ajax (Oilean, the Lesser)
When this character is in company with Ajax the Greater (Telamonian Ajax), Homer will sometimes refer to the two of them as “Aiantes,” the plural form in Greek of the name “Ajax.” As this expression, though perhaps confusing, is more graceful than “the two Ajaxes,” it is often used by translators.
Son of Oileus and leader of the Locrians at Troy. Shipwrecked on his way home after the war, he boasts of having escaped the sea in spite of the gods and is drowned by the sea god Poseidon.
Ajax (Telamonian, the Greater)
When this character is in company with Ajax the Lesser, Homer will sometimes refer to the two of them as “Aiantes,” the plural form in Greek of the name “Ajax.” As this expression, though perhaps confusing, is more graceful than “the two Ajaxes,” it is often used by translators.
Son of Telamon and grandson of Aeacus (who was also grandfather of Achilles), Telemonian Ajax was king of Salamis, an island off the coast of Attica and not far from Athens that would later be the site of a major naval battle between the Greeks and Persians under Xerxes in 480 BCE. One of the bravest and strongest fighters at Troy, he is nevertheless portrayed by Homer as somewhat obstinate and rather plodding, as if all he knew was fighting and nothing else.
It should be noted, though, that he does all his own fighting without divine aid. Diomedes, Achilles, Odysseus, and the others are all helped by one or another of the gods at some time in the poem: it is only Telemonian Ajax who muddles along (and rather well at that) on his own merits.
At the funeral games after Achilles’s death, he and Odysseus compete for Achilles’s armor and weapons. When they are awarded to Odysseus, Telemonian Ajax sulks and, in a fit of madness, slaughters a flock of sheep in the belief that they are his enemies. When he discovers what he has done, he falls on his sword, unable to live with the shame. His death forms the subject of a tragedy by Sophocles.
Ajax the Lesser
See Ajax (Oilean)
Andromache is the daughter of Eetion, wife of Hector, and mother of Astyanax (also called “Scamandrius,” his real name; “Astyanax” is a Greek word that means “lord of the [lower] town,” and is more a princely title than a name). After Hector’s death, she marries the seer Helenus. When the city falls to the Achaians, her son is killed and she is given as a prize to Achilles’s son Neoptolemus.
Antenor is one of the elders of Troy and a counselor of King Priam. He is perhaps best known in the Iliad for having fathered many sons who turn up throughout the poem.
Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of love. According to Homer, she is the daughter of Zeus and Dione; the poet Hesiod (who likely lived and wrote not long after Homer’s time), however, claims that she sprang from the foam (aphros in Greek) of the sea, as seen in Sandro Botticelli’s painting The Birth of Venus (circa 1485). She is married, though not faithful, to Hephaestus, god of fire and smithcraft. Among her many lovers was the god of war, Ares; another was the Trojan prince Anchises, the father of Aeneas. For this reason she favors the Trojans over the Achaians in the Trojan War.
It could be said that Aphrodite is at least partially responsible for the war. Paris named her as the most beautiful of the goddesses, and the reward she promised him was the “right” to have the most beautiful woman in the world for his wife—Helen, who just happened to be married to another man. Menelaus was understandably upset when Paris ran off (or made off) with his wife, but such considerations did not apparently carry much weight with Aphrodite.
Nor should we expect them to. Aphrodite’s main concern is the physical attraction, and the actions that result from it, between lover and beloved: this is the source of her power, and it is, as with all the gods in their respective spheres of influence, the thing she cares about most of all. Other concerns are secondary, if indeed they are noticed at all. This is why, after rescuing Paris from the duel with Menelaus in book 3, she sends him off to bed with Helen, and also why she gives Helen a good scare when she questions the goddess’s orders to go to her lover.
The son of Zeus and Leto, and twin brother of Artemis, Apollo is the god of archery, prophecy, music (especially the lyre, the stringed instrument that Achilles plays in book 9), medicine, light (sometimes, though not in Homer, Apollo is identified with the sun), and youth. Plagues and other diseases, and sometimes a peaceful death in old age, were often explained as being the result of arrows shot by Apollo (for men) or by his sister Artemis (for women). Although he also worked with Poseidon at building the walls of Troy and was cheated out of his proper payment, he supports the Trojan side in the war.
The son of Zeus and Hera, Ares is the god of war (or, more precisely, of warlike frenzy). He is more of a name in the Iliad than an actual character (as, for example, in the epithet “beloved of Ares”). When he actually does appear, however, Homer’s characterization of him is quite negative. This attitude seems to have been fairly common in Greek mythology.
Ares is portrayed as a bully, someone who delights in causing trouble for the sheer enjoyment of watching what he stirs up, and more of a braggart than a man of deeds. He is not well-liked even among the gods, all of whom laugh at him when he is wounded by Diomedes in book 5. Even his own parents seem to think poorly of him.
Daughter of Zeus and Leto, twin sister of Apollo, Artemis is a virgin goddess of the hunt, the moon, and, in some traditions, of childbirth and young things. With her brother, she supports the Trojan side. Plagues and other diseases, and sometimes a peaceful death in old age, were often explained as being the result of arrows shot by Artemis (for women) or by her brother Apollo (for men).
Athena is the daughter of Zeus and Mêtis, whom Zeus (following in the tradition of his own father, Cronus) swallowed when it was revealed that she would someday bear a son who would be lord of heaven and thus usurp Zeus’s place. She was born, full-grown and in armor, from the head of Zeus after Hephaestus (or, in some traditions, Prometheus) split it open with an axe to relieve his headache.
Athena was revered as the patron goddess of Athens (where the temple known as the Parthenon was dedicated to her in her aspect as Athena Polias, protectress of the city), but also as a goddess of war, wisdom, and cleverness (her mother’s name means “Scheme” or “Trick”), and crafts, especially weaving and spinning. She exploits her position as Zeus’s favorite daughter and seems to be able to pacify him when no one else can. She favors the Achaian side in the war and is especially devoted to Odysseus.
The son of Thestor, Calchas is a highly respected seer or prophet accompanying the Achaian forces. In addition to being the one to provoke Agamemnon by telling him it is his fault that Apollo is angry with the army, Calchas is said to have been the prophet who foretold the necessity of sacrificing Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigeneia, to Artemis in return for a fair wind on the way to Troy.
Cassandra is the daughter of Priam and Hecuba; Apollo fell in love with her and gave her the gift of prophecy. When she rejected his advances, he gave her a companion “gift”: even though her prophecies are always true, no one ever believes her. After the fall of Troy, she is taken as a slave and concubine by Agamemnon and is killed with him on his return to Mycenae.
A priest of Apollo, he comes to Agamemnon seeking to ransom his daughter, taken in a raid on their city. When Agamemnon refuses to accept the offered ransom, Chryses prays to Apollo, who inflicts a plague on the army as a punishment. Once the girl is returned safely, he again prays to Apollo, who lifts the plague.
Clytemnestra is the daughter of Tyndareus (who was also Helen’s adoptive father) and unfaithful wife of Agamemnon. She takes a lover, Agamemnon’s cousin and foster brother Aegisthus, during her husband’s absence and with him plots to murder Agamemnon on his return from Troy. In some traditions she kills Agamemnon herself (by muffling him with a cloak or blanket in the bath and bludgeoning him with an axe), while in others she merely incites Aegisthus to do it for her (which is the tradition Homer follows in the Odyssey). She is eventually killed by her own son, Orestes, in vengeance for his father’s death.
Son of Tydeus and king of Tiryns and Argos, Diomedes is one of the principal fighters in Agamemnon’s army, ranking second only to Achilles. He and Ajax the Greater bear the brunt of the fighting after Achilles withdraws to sulk in his camp. The bulk of the action in books 5 and 6 centers on Diomedes.
Homer depicts Diomedes as an honorable man, though high-spirited and impetuous at times. Later tradition held that Aphrodite, in retribution for his having wounded her as she tried to shield her grandson Aeneas in battle, caused Diomedes’s wife to be unfaithful to him while he was away at Troy. When he returned home and found out about her infidelity, he left home in disgust and was believed to have gone to Italy, where he founded several cities, died, and was eventually buried near the Apulian coast, in the so-called “Islands of Diomedes.”
In Homer, the name refers almost exclusively to a place and not a person. The name itself appears to be composed of the Greek words for “not” and “seeing” and so could be translated as “The Unseen” (place or person).
The place was believed to be beneath the ground. It is not so much a place of punishment, the equivalent of hell, as it is a place of darkness in which the dead lead an existence that is quite literally a shadow of their former lives. Homer seems not to have been aware of the tradition that within Hades there was a brighter region of Hades (the Elysian Fields) for the souls of virtuous people, but he does mention Tartarus, the traditional place of punishment for particularly wicked persons.
The person Hades is mentioned only very rarely in Homer. Hades was the third son, with Zeus and Poseidon, of Cronus and Rhea. After Zeus had done away with their father, and the three brothers cast lots to divide up the world between them, Zeus got the sky, Poseidon got the sea, and Hades got the underworld.
Hector is the son of Priam and Hecuba, husband of Andromache, and father of Scamandrius (also called Astyanax), prince of Troy and leader of the Trojan forces. As Achilles is for the Achaeans, so is Hector the preeminent fighter on the Trojan side.
Hector is, if perhaps less dashing, a brighter and more human character than Achilles for many readers. He is staunchly devoted to his wife and son, his parents, and above all, to his city and his homeland. Unlike Achilles, Hector knows exactly what he is fighting for, and it is the very life of his city, his family, and his people. More importantly, he fights on for those things even though he knows, or at the very least suspects, that the cause is doomed.
Another difference between Hector and Achilles is that while Achilles is both described as, and acts like, the gods, Hector is very much a human being. Achilles is godlike in his rage and eventually in his fighting prowess, and he only seems to recover his humanity at the very end of the poem, after Patroclus’s death and especially after Priam comes to beg Hector’s body from his killer. Hector, on the other hand, never loses his human qualities. He does occasionally become angry, but his rage is never as all-encompassing or as blinding as that of Achilles. In defeat no less than in victory, Hector is a man of honor and dignity. Even his implicit intention (XVII.125-127) to defile Patroclus’s body, while perhaps offensive to our modern sensibilities, was no more than a standard practice (or at least a standard threat) in heroic warfare—quite unlike Achilles’s eventual treatment of Hector’s own body, which even the gods admit goes too far.
Hector may have the distinction of being the first great tragic figure in Western literature. He fights for a cause that he does not approve of and that he knows (though he rarely admits it) is doomed. All his successes are only temporary—the last great respite for the Trojans before their city is destroyed. Worse still, we know, as Hector does not, that he owes his success more to the will of Zeus in answer to the prayer of Achilles than to his own efforts.
Nevertheless, in the face of all that he must endure, both in the present and anticipated in the future, Hector retains a quiet dignity and nobility of character that represents humanity at its best.
Daughter of Dymas and wife of Priam, she is the mother of Hector, Paris, and Cassandra, among others. When Troy falls, she is given to Odysseus as a prize and has to watch as her daughter Polyxena is sacrificed at the tomb of Achilles. She is the central character in two surviving plays of Euripides (ca. 480–406 BCE), the Hecuba, which is undated, and The Trojan Women (415 BCE).
Helen is the daughter of Zeus and the human woman Leda, whom Zeus raped and impregnated while in the form of a swan. Every man in the Greek world (or so the myths suggest) wanted to marry Helen. Her foster father Tyndareus took the advice of Odysseus and had all her suitors swear a solemn oath to protect her even after her eventual marriage. And of course, after she married Menelaus, Paris abducts Helen. The Trojan War results when her husband and erstwhile suitors lay siege to Troy in order to recover her.
Helen is something of an enigma in Homer’s poetry and perhaps in Homer’s mind as well. She seems to have gone along with Paris of her own free will but perhaps under the compulsion of the goddess Aphrodite, who is known to fill mortals with uncontrollable lust in keeping with her nature. Yet she also seems both to regret her choice to accompany Paris back to Troy and the suffering that her choice to do so has visited on Troy and its people. Further, she seems happy to be reunited with Menelaus.
In keeping with her lineage as a daughter of Zeus, Helen has more in common with the goddesses Athena and Aphrodite than her human counterparts Andromache and Hecuba. It is difficult to imagine either of them standing up to a goddess, as Helen does to Aphrodite, for example. Nor does it seem likely that either woman would ever speak to a man in quite the biting words that Helen has for Paris after Aphrodite has rescued him from the duel with Menelaus.
Son of Zeus and Hera (or, according to Hesiod, of Hera alone, out of spite after Zeus had given birth to Athena by himself), Hephaestus is the god of fire and the arts related to it, such as smithcraft. He is disabled (in Homer, the result of being thrown off Olympus for taking Hera’s side in a quarrel with Zeus), and he is a source of amusement to the gods in addition to being their master craftsman. He makes thunderbolts for Zeus and houses and furniture for the other gods, and he forges a new suit of armor for Achilles after Hector strips the old one from Patroclus’s body.
Daughter of Cronus and Rhea, sister of Zeus and also his wife, Hera is goddess of marriage and childbirth. She is known for her jealousy of Zeus and her intrigues against him and his many human mistresses and illegitimate children. In the Iliad Hera is a partisan of the Achaians, both because their main cities are under her protection but also because she is angry at the Trojans because of Paris’s decision to give the golden apple marked “for the fairest” to Aphrodite.
Iris, the goddess of the rainbow and messenger of the gods, is the daughter of Thaumas and Electra, and married to Zephyrus, god of the west wind.
Son of Atreus and brother of Agamemnon, Menelaus is king of Sparta and the husband of Helen. Menelaus could be described, with some accuracy, as the “Mr. Average” of the Iliad. One might have expected him to be the leader of the Achaian forces, not his brother Agamemnon—Helen was his wife, after all, and Sparta was at least roughly on a par with Mycenae in terms of wealth and power.
Yet Agamemnon has what Menelaus seems to lack: the ability to inspire people to follow him. Menelaus’s fighting skills are only average, as Homer shows them to us. He is nowhere near the tactician his brother is and certainly not on a level with Odysseus in that regard or the ability to hold an audience spellbound with his rhetoric. He does not even seem to be terribly bitter about having his wife spirited away from under his nose. Of course he is angry about the wrongs he suffers at Paris’s hands, but even in his prayer to Zeus before he fights Paris, Menelaus seems more annoyed that Paris has broken the rules of etiquette than outraged that a guest in his house has abducted his wife and has been living with her as her lover. Unlike his brother and many of the other Achaean kings, Menelaus enjoys a quick and safe return home after the war, with Helen and all his rightful possessions restored, and more besides from the spoils of Troy.
The only son of Neleus to survive, Nestor is the elderly king of Pylos, where it is said (I.250–52) that he has reigned already over two generations and is now ruling over the third. Nestor’s role is that of the elder statesman and adviser. He does tend to be somewhat long-winded and given to telling stories about his remarkable feats in the old days, but his advice is almost always well-received, even though it sometimes has rather dire consequences (as, for example, when Patroclus takes his advice and borrows Achilles’s armor).
After the fall of Troy, Nestor returns safely home to Pylos. He plays an important role in the Odyssey as well, where he serves as an adviser and host to Odysseus’s son, Telemachus.
Son of Laertes and Anticleia, Odysseus is king of Ithaca in the western part of what is now Greece. Odysseus had been one of the suitors for Helen’s hand in marriage but decided his chances were not good and married Penelope instead. It was his advice that caused Helen’s stepfather, Tyndareus, to bind all her prospective suitors with an oath of mutual assistance if something should befall her eventual husband after the marriage.
Odysseus is renowned, in the Iliad and throughout literature and myth since, as a devious, clever man, better at dreaming up schemes and convincing people to go along with them than as a slogger in the infantry or a fighter to be feared in individual combat. He is no slouch at warfare; it is simply not what he is best at. Agamemnon seems to rely on Odysseus to do most of his planning for him and the trickier bits of negotiation on his behalf as well. Even the Trojans are somewhat in awe of his rhetorical skills: Antenor compares the words falling from Odysseus’s lips to the flakes of snow in a winter blizzard (III.222) and suggests that his words make up for the deficiencies of his manner and appearance.
Yet for all his scheming, Odysseus is portrayed as a man of honor, somewhat cool and calculating, and boundlessly energetic. The night raid in book 10, where Odysseus and Diomedes first promise to spare Dolon’s life and then kill him anyway, then slaughter a dozen men in their sleep, seems quite out of character with the Odysseus presented elsewhere in the poem. This discrepancy of character has led some scholars to suspect that this book (or at least parts of it) may have been added later by another writer.
Son of Priam and Hecuba and a prince of Troy, Paris was the subject of a prophecy which foretold that he would one day bring great troubles to the Trojans. In an attempt to avoid this prophecy (which, as usually happens in Greek mythology, only made certain that it came true), Priam sent Paris out of the city to tend some of his flocks on Mount Ida. There he was confronted by the goddesses Athena, Aphrodite, and Hera, who wanted him to judge which of them was most beautiful. Paris chose Aphrodite, who awarded him the right to take the most beautiful of all mortal women, Helen, for his wife.
There was, however, one small problem: she was already married to Menelaeus. In an age when women were thought of essentially as property, this was not an insurmountable obstacle. What made it worse was that Paris actually visited Menelaus’s home in Sparta, incurring certain quasi-sacred obligations under the laws of hospitality—one of which was that he could not rob his host. But that is just what Paris does. While Helen seems to have come along of her own free will, Paris also loots Menelaus’s storehouses, carrying off a number of unspecified “treasures” along with Helen.
Paris is not well-liked in the Iliad: his own father is ashamed of him, his eldest brother can hardly endure the sight of him (III.39ff.), and even Helen has some sharp words for him in the aftermath of his abortive duel with Menelaus. Paris is not known for his bravery in battle and in fact is most talented as an archer—something the Greeks felt was a job for weaklings and cowards.
Yet Paris eventually brings down the great Achilles (with some help from the gods). In an ironic twist of fate, Paris himself is wounded by a poisoned arrow not long before the end of the war.
Homer does not give much detail about Patroclus or his ancestry. His father was Menoetius, who had sailed with the hero Jason on the Argo during the quest for the Golden Fleece.
Homer’s poem places both Patroclus and his father in the house of Peleus, as Nestor recalls his arrival with Odysseus on a “recruiting” mission in book 11, to find “the hero Menoetius inside, and you [Patroclus], Achilles beside you, and Peleus the aged horseman,” all engaged in sacrificing an ox to Zeus. That same narrative suggests that Patroclus was sent to Troy at least in part as a check on Achilles’s impetuosity, someone with a cooler head who could talk sense to the hero when no one else could.
From what we see of him in Homer, Patroclus is compassionate, caring, strong, brave, and levelheaded: except when Zeus sends a “huge blind fury” (XVI.685–6) upon him, and he forgets Achilles’s command not to pursue Hector, once he has driven the Trojans away from the Achaian ships. As a result of this fury, Patroclus is first disarmed and stripped of his armor by Apollo, wounded by Euphorbus’s spear, and finally killed by Hector.
Son of Amyntor, he quarrels with his father (and, in some versions of the story, was blinded by him, then cured by the centaur Chiron) and was taken in by Peleus, who made him king of the Dolopians. Phoenix helps raise Peleus’s son Achilles and eventually accompanies him to Troy. Phoenix dies on the way home and is buried by Neoptolemus.
Son of Cronus and Rhea, and brother of Zeus and Hades, Poseidon is the god of the sea, earthquake, and horses. He is typically portrayed as a stately older figure, though one capable of great passion and bluster (not unlike the storms at sea that were said to be caused by his anger).
Generally placid, when provoked he can be ruthless. Along with Apollo, he built the walls of Troy for King Laomedon. When Laomedon refused to pay them for their labors, Poseidon sent a sea monster to threaten the city. Laomedon promised his famous horses to the hero Heracles if he would kill the monster for him but reneged on that promise as well, whereupon Heracles led an expedition against Troy and leveled it (an event that is referred to in passing in the Iliad). Still upset because of his treatment at the hands of an earlier Trojan king, Poseidon favors the Achaian side in the war.
The son of Laomedon and husband of Hecuba, Priam is king of Troy at the time of the Achaian expedition against the city. He is often referred to but appears rather infrequently in the poem.
When he does appear, however, Homer portrays him as a kindly older gentleman, courteous to everyone and trying to do his best despite his age and weakened condition. One might expect him to be bitter, but there is little indication of this in Homer’s characterization. Indeed, he treats Helen, whom he could rightly be expected to despise, considering what she has brought upon him and his city, like a favorite daughter and refuses to let others maltreat her, at least in his presence.
There is something tragic in Priam’s character as portrayed by Homer. He mourns for his dead children, and none more so than Hector, the greatest and apparently best-loved of all. Yet he never relinquishes his dignity, even when he finds himself in the unheard-of position of a guest in the home (however temporary) of the man who killed Hector and whom he has to beg in order to recover Hector’s body.
Priam knows, or at least suspects, that his city will eventually fall to the Achaians, with their superior force. He refuses to dwell on that unpleasant fate or allow it to cloud his judgment, however. One tradition held that he was killed by Achilles’s son Neoptolemus during the sack of Troy. In William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, a traveling actor recites a dramatic scene in which Phyrrus kills Priam.
Thetis is a sea nymph and daughter of Neleus (whom Homer calls the “Old Man” of the sea). She was married to a mortal, which is somewhat unusual in Greek mythology, though not unheard-of.
There are differing stories of how she came to be married to Peleus. The first (and more common) version is that both Zeus and Poseidon were in love with her but stopped courting her when they learned of a prophecy to the effect that any son she bore would be greater than his father. She was then married off to Peleus at a grand banquet to which all the gods were invited except Discord.
The other version is that Thetis was raised by Hera and, out of love for her foster mother, refused to give in to Zeus’s demands. Angered by her rejection, Zeus married her to a mortal as punishment.
The son of Cronus and Rhea, both brother and husband of Hera, brother of Poseidon and Hades, Zeus is the king of the gods and the god of sky, storm, and thunder. Homer says he is the eldest child of his parents, though his is a minority opinion: elsewhere Zeus is said to be the youngest child, who was hidden away by his mother before eventually overthrowing his father.
Scholars of ancient religion have long thought that Zeus represents a fusion of a multitude of local “head gods,” which may explain the numerous children he is said to have fathered and the equally numerous women (mortal and immortal alike) with whom he is said to have dallied. As with the other gods, Zeus is portrayed in the Iliad as, essentially, a larger-than-life human being, with augmented powers and knowledge but all of the passions, quirks, and shortcomings of any person. Zeus is, however, given a little more in the way of dignity and majesty than some of the other Homeric gods.
One characteristic of the other Homeric gods that Zeus does not share is caprice. While he grants some prayers and denies others, there is no sense that he is doing so merely on a whim. And while he will occasionally resort to threats of violence (as with Hera, for example), he seems generally to prefer to govern by rule of law and, to some degree, common consent among the other gods.
Richmond Lattimore, in the introduction to his translation of the Iliad, categorically states that Zeus can do as he pleases and is not subject to fate. On the other hand, Bernard Knox, in his introduction to the Fagles translation, says that the relationship between Zeus and fate “is a subtle one.” A mere five lines into the poem, we are told that “the will of Zeus was moving toward fulfilment,” suggesting that the whole course of the war was an act of Zeus’s will: yet the discussion of Sarpedon’s death in book 16 seems to imply that Zeus could act in opposition to fate but chooses not to in order to avoid the inevitable chaos that his action would cause. There is even some indication, as at XX.30 (where Zeus says of Achilles, “I fear that he may raze the walls contrary to destiny”), that humans can sometimes act contrary to destiny. It may be that the correct answer is not whether Zeus is or is not subject to fate, but that he is in fact both.