Circa eighth century b.c. Greek poem.
The following entry contains criticism on Homer's Iliad from 1983 to 2000. See also Homer Poetry Criticism.
A seminal epic widely accepted as one of the greatest literary artifacts of Western civilization, the Iliad has been admired for centuries for its artistry as well as for the profound influence it has exerted on European literature. Within its epic scope, set in the tenth year of a legendary war between Greeks and Trojans at Ilios (Troy), the Iliad depicts the heroic ethos of a mythic era personified in the figure of Achilles, a Greek hero of unrivaled martial excellence, who chooses undying fame won on the battlefield over the prospect of a long life. The epic's proper subject is the wrath of Achilles and its tragic consequences, but it also explores such themes as the workings of fate, honor, and the human urge toward immortality. Likewise, the Iliad delineates the heroic code—the thematic basis of all subsequent epic poetry. While theories regarding its author, the near-mythic Homer, continue to spur scholarly debate, the poem itself is renowned for its compelling narrative, vivid imagery, poetic technique, psychological scope, and stylistic clarity.
Almost nothing is known about Homer, but scholars hypothesize that he was an Ionian Greek (probably from the coast of Asia Minor or one of the adjacent islands), that he was born sometime before 700 b.c., and that he lived in approximately the latter half of the eighth century b.c. According to legend, he was a blind itinerant poet (the Greek word homēros means blind man); historians note that singing bards in ancient Greece were often blind and that the legend, therefore, may be based on fact, but that it is also possible that Homer may have lost his sight only late in life, or that his purported blindness was meant to mask his illiteracy. Internal evidence from the two major works attributed to Homer suggests that the Iliad preceded the Odyssey and that both were composed in the eighth century b.c. in a dialect that was a mixture of Ionic and Aeolic Greek.
Biographies of Homer exist in the form of six early “lives” and assorted commentaries by ancient and Byzantine scholars, but the information they contain is considered unreliable and mostly mythical. Some commentators have even gone so far as to assert that no such individual as Homer ever lived. Due to the paucity of information regarding Homer, the manner of the composition of the Iliad has been one of determined critical speculation that has brought together the efforts of experts in such fields as archaeology, linguistics, and comparative literature. In the 1920s the critic Milman Parry proposed that both the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed orally. Parry established that Homeric verse is formulaic by nature, relying on generic epithets (such as “wine-dark sea” and “rosy-fingered dawn”), repetition of stock lines and half-lines, and scenes and themes typical of traditional folk poetry. Comparing Homer's poetry with ancient oral epics from other cultures, Parry deduced that Homer was most likely a rhapsode, or itinerant professional reciter, who improvised stories to be sung at Greek festivals. As a public performer, Homer probably learned to weave together standard epic story threads and descriptions in order to sustain his narrative, relying on mnemonic devices and phrases to fill the natural metrical units of poetic lines. Parry's theory stressed the derivative, evolutionary character of Homer's poetry but affirmed his individual genius as a shaper of traditional elements whose creations far exceeded the sum of their borrowed parts. Many contemporary critics accept Parry's analysis of the authorship question, although critical speculation about the subject continues.
Scholarly consensus regarding the composition of the Iliad holds that the poem was most probably transmitted orally by local bards and first written down on papyri shortly after Homer's death. Although Homeric Greece did not yet have a system of writing appropriate for literary texts, records indicate that a Phoenician alphabet may have been adapted and used to record the poem in the eighth century b.c. Once set down in writing, the poem most likely became the exclusive property of the Homeridae, or sons of Homer, a bardic guild whose members performed and preserved the poem. Scholars conclude that in the second half of the sixth century b.c. the Athenian dictator Peisistratus, who ruled from 560 to 527 b.c., established a Commission of Editors of Homer to edit the text of the poems and remove any errors and interpolations that had accumulated in the process of transmission—thereby establishing a canon of Homer. The origin of the poem's current title, which means “the poem of Ilios” (the Homeric name for Troy), remains a matter of conjecture. Scholars are uncertain whether Homer ever used it, for the earliest mention of the title discovered was by Herodotus in the fifth century b.c. Fragments of papyri, a third-century codex, and two other partial manuscripts exist, but the oldest full surviving manuscript of the poem, probably transcribed by a Byzantine scholar, dates from the ninth century. The first printed edition of Homer's poetry appeared in Europe in 1488 and remained in use until the seventeenth century. Many translations, both prose and verse, of the Iliad have subsequently been published. Critics agree that the most influential of these have been by George Chapman, Alexander Pope, and the translation team consisting of Andrew Lang, Walter Leaf, and Ernest Myers; in the contemporary period the edition most highly regarded and frequently used is that of Richmond Lattimore.
Plot and Major Characters
Approximately 15,000 lines long and divided into twenty-four books (a structure that seems to date from the third century b.c. rather than from Homer's lifetime), the Iliad is composed in dactylic, or “heroic,” hexameter. The action of the poem occurs near the Hellespont, in northwest Asia Minor, during the Trojan War, which archaeologists estimate took place in the second half of the twelfth century b.c. The plot begins in medias res, recounting an episode near the end of the war between the besieged Trojans, under King Priam, and the attacking Greeks (or Achaeans as they are generally named in the poem), led by King Agamemnon of Mycenae and his brother Menelaus of Sparta. One of Priam's sons, the self-indulgent Paris, has abducted the fabled beauty, Helen, wife of Menelaus. After a massive naval assault, fighting has dragged on for nearly ten years. During that time the Greek armies, including the mighty Myrmidons commanded by Achilles, the bravest and most headstrong of Agamemnon's supporters, have managed to capture and loot a portion of Trojan territory, but have failed to breach the massive walls of Troy. Incidents in the first book of the epic draw Achilles and Agamemnon into a disastrous quarrel. Through his refusal to return Chryseis, a captured Trojan girl and the daughter of a priest of Apollo, Agamemnon invites a divine plague on the Greek army. In order to assuage Apollo's wrath and end the plague, Agamemnon later agrees to part with Chryseis, but demands Briseis, a Trojan concubine to Achilles, as compensation. In response to this dishonor, Achilles withdraws his troops in indignation, refusing to aid Agamemnon any further. Achilles prays that the Achaeans be defeated on the battlefield in his absence, a message his immortal mother, Thetis, conveys to Zeus, the ruler of the gods. Meanwhile, Agamemnon receives an enigmatic dream from the all-mighty Zeus, telling him he will soon defeat Troy. Armed with this knowledge, the Greek leader decides to test the resolve of his Achaean warriors. In a ruse to boost morale, Agamemnon proposes that his soldiers return to Greece, but his rhetorical trick backfires, leaving the quick-witted Ithacan king Odysseus to convince them to stay and fight. An unsuccessful truce between the Greeks and the Trojans follows, intended to provide the opportunity for Menelaus and Paris to settle their feud by single combat. The duel proves indecisive as Paris is whisked from the battlefield by the goddess Aphrodite before he can be defeated. When fighting resumes, the Greek hero Diomedes, under the divine protection of Athena, takes to the field. He attacks and wounds two immortals, Aphrodite and the war god Ares, both of whom fight for Troy. Thereafter, Zeus decides to set his plan for a reversal of Greek fortunes into motion. The Trojans swiftly gain the upper hand in combat, despite a successful night raid by Odysseus and Diomedes on their camp. The following morning the Trojans take the offensive. Led by Hector, another of Priam's sons and the finest of the Trojan warriors, they penetrate the Greek defenses. Only temporarily slowed by the formidable Achaean hero Ajax the Greater, Hector sets fire to one of the Greek ships. At this point, Achilles relents and sends the Myrmidons, commanded by his beloved friend Patroclus, to assist Agamemnon in defense of the ships. An outstanding warrior, Patroclus performs gloriously in battle while clad in Achilles's nearly-impenetrable armor. He slays a host of Trojans, including the hero Sarpedon, before being killed himself by Hector below the walls of Troy. In sorrow and rage, Achilles determines to rejoin the battle and obtain revenge on Hector. But first, his mother, Thetis, visits Hephaestus, blacksmith to the gods, and asks that he forge a new set of armor for Achilles. Hephaestus fulfills the request, creating an outstanding shield that symbolically depicts a city at peace and a city besieged in war. On the field of battle, Achilles's rage is unstoppable. He single-handedly repels the Trojan forces and kills Hector, dishonoring the noble warrior by mutilating his corpse by tying it to a chariot and dragging it around the city. King Priam, overtaken by grief for his son, visits Achilles in his camp and begs for the return of Hector's body so that the proper funeral rites can be performed. Moved by his passionate supplication, Achilles agrees and the work closes with a description of Hector's funeral.
As the principal focus of the Iliad, Achilles embodies many of the major themes in the work. Among these is his choice to intensely pursue timē (roughly meaning “honor” or “prestige”), kleos (“glory”), and aretē (“martial virtue”) in order to secure his immortality as a great warrior, even if it means his early death. Thus, Achilles personifies the dual Greek conception of the brevity of life and the eternity of fame. Through Achilles, Homer delineates the heroic code fundamental to Western literature: that the chief aim of a hero's life is to win renown for his aristeia (which denotes “excellence,” “courage,” and “prowess”) using all the resources given to him through his aristocratic birth, wealth, intelligence, and military and athletic abilities. Furthermore, he fiercely guards his honor and that of his companions, strives to fulfill his aidōs (“duty” or obligation to community), and accepts his moira (“fate”) despite his constant striving for success. That Achilles rejects his aidōs for the vast majority of the epic, instead showing himself to be vain, intemperate, and boastful while he stands aside from the battling Greeks, suggests Homer's balancing of noble, heroic behavior with human flaws and limitations. Only in the final book of the Iliad, with King Priam begging for his fallen son's corpse, does Achilles acknowledge his communal responsibilities, treating the defeated King with pity rather than wrath. To a degree, Homer also humanizes the divine figures in the epic, the pantheon of Olympian gods including Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Athena, and Apollo. Rather than depicting the immortals as paragons of virtue or restraint, Homer characterizes these figures, for all of their knowledge and power, as variously jealous, deceitful, manipulative, capricious, wrathful, or petty. Homer conveys an additional theme of great significance to the Iliad largely through the work's renowned similes, a number of which describe scenes of ordinary, peaceful life juxtaposed against the violent and bloody warfare that drives the narrative. Likewise, Homer highlights the stark contrast between peace and conflict in the scenes painted on Achilles's shield—a device singled out by many critics as the symbolic touchstone of the epic.
As one of the best known literary works of the Western world, the Iliad has inspired much critical commentary and has wielded an enormous influence on later authors and readers. Over the centuries, critics have been nearly unanimous in praising Homer's handling of the narrative, imagery, structure, and themes of the Iliad. They commend his ability to intersperse lengthy descriptions of battle scenes with highly dramatic dialogue, whimsical fantasy about the gods of Olympus, and, at certain key moments, moving lyrical poetry. Homer's genius, scholars have asserted, is most evident in his masterful yet self-effacing storytelling technique. In a perfectly plain and direct manner, the narrator carries the action forward, examining the events in great detail and occasionally digressing from the main narrative, but always in such a manner that the course of the tale seems natural and entirely inevitable. In addition to praising Homer's seamless narrative technique, with its flawless manipulation of tightly woven incident, simple design, and panoramic scope, scholars have acknowledged the immediacy and crystalline clarity of the Iliad's imagery. Special consideration has been reserved for Homer's extended similes, said to enhance the realism and enlarge the range of the poem by bringing into its military world parallel images from domestic life, agriculture, and nature. Critics have also marveled at the degree of accuracy demonstrated by Homer in his portrayal of battle scenes; his knowledge of weapons, battle strategy, and even the medical treatment of wounds has proved uncannily thorough.
Although most commentators praise the narrative impact and brilliant imagery of the Iliad, there remains a great deal of debate regarding the structural and thematic unity of the poem. A number of contemporary scholars have examined the underlying complexities of work's narrative structure and thematic framework, highlighting Homer's use of misdirection, parallelism, and reversal. Some interpreters have suggested that Homer's portrayal of the Trojans is not adequately balanced with that of the Greeks, citing evidence that the poem is biased toward Achaean heroes, and finally withholds the glory due to the Trojans. Overall, however, critics have tended to cite the comprehensive and cohesive vision of life depicted in the Iliad as the poem's central unifying principle. Although Homer presents an extremely harsh world in which human beings appear destined to suffer as the mere playthings of the gods and fate, he simultaneously conveys the value of human ideals and the joy of pursuing heroic excellence. Late twentieth-century critics have continued to focus on such specialized topics as Homer's narrative technique, use of irony and humor, and development of individual characters, considering the poet's treatment of the gods in relation to mortals, or probing such minor themes as the guilt of Helen or Paris.
Exploring Homer's philosophical beliefs, scholars still grapple with his presentation of death, divine and human justice, and the role of the citizen and the state in society. The concepts of aidōs, aristeia, and other elements of the heroic code have also inspired considerable commentary. Homer's rich use of simile continues to elicit interest, with scholars considering his descriptions of heroes as wild beasts, as well as his lyric evocation of human gentleness, care, and nurturing in the brutal context of war. With the ongoing proliferation of critical attention to the Iliad, the oldest and in some ways the most formidable work of Western literature has remained fresh and intriguing for generation after generation of scholars and readers. It impresses as much by its thematic complexity as by its stylistic simplicity, as much by its depiction of tragedy as by its celebration of life, and as much by its harsh descriptions of warfare as by its tender lyric poetry.