Genre of the Epic Poem

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The Iliad is an epic poem and part of the ancient Greek oral tradition. Homer’s audience was an illiterate culture, and Homer himself was most likely illiterate. Many critics believe that the composition of the Iliad predated any form of writing in the Greek culture. There are some critics, however, who believe that the Iliad must have existed in writing, given its length and complexity. It would have been nearly impossible to maintain such a coherent form by oral transmission alone. This does not mean, however, that it existed in the form that we now know it or that it was accessible to the general public. If writing did exist, it is thought to have been practiced only by a few storytellers. These “Men of Words” would write down their best tales for their own use and to train their apprentices. They would not be seen by anyone else. Because of the enormous effort of writing, these books would become very valuable possessions and would be passed down from the storyteller to his successor (Murray, 95–96).

The poets themselves were highly regarded by their contemporaries and treated as fellow workers who attempted to bring beauty to life. The purpose of the tales was both to eloquently preserve the history of a people and to entertain. The stories consisted of a mix of common history borrowed from past poets and embellishments added by the poet. Because these poems were delivered orally, they were adapted and elaborated with each telling and were never the same twice. Whether written or not, the elaborate tales were recited by professional oral poets as entertainment at banquets, festivals, and fairs. It is known, for instance, that the Iliad was performed yearly at the Panathenaea in Athens, a great fair held every four years and lasting several days. At this festival, the Iliad was performed in relay fashion by many storytellers competing against each other. Each bard would attempt to make his portion of the poem more entertaining than the others. This resulted in some stretching and embellishment of facts. These were permitted as long as the teller did not deviate too far from known history.

A poet would rely on several routine devices to remember the core events of the narrative. These included the following:

1) Epic Hero—a virtuous and noble figure, proven in battle, who represents his nation, culture, or race.

2) Length—while each episode was designed to be recounted in a single evening, the entire work is quite long.

3) Lofty Style—the tone of the work is primarily serious, and the style is exalted—worthy of the subject.

4) Epic Similes—the poem contains extended comparisons between one element or character and something foreign to the poem. The simile helps the reader to see the object in a different way and says a great deal with fewer words than would otherwise be necessary.

5) Catalogs/Genealogies—the work usually contains long inventories or catalogs of characters, equipment, or other elements. Also included are elaborate genealogies of major characters, underlying their history and importance.

6) Supernatural Involvement—the main action of the work always includes involvement of the gods to either help or hinder the hero.

7) Invocation—most poems begin with an invocation to the Muses, or to some other higher power, requesting guidance. One Muse often invoked is Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry. The invocation serves as an introduction to the action that is about to be recounted.

8) In Medias Res—it is not uncommon for an epic poem to begin in the middle of the action and proceed to fill in details of events that occurred earlier.

9) Voyage Across the Sea—most epic poems include a sea voyage by the hero or other major character. This convention gives the poet an opportunity to test the hero in unfamiliar circumstances.

10) Trip to the Underworld—many epics also contain a dangerous visit to the underworld, where the hero gathers advice and information from the dead.

11) Epic Battles—another feature is accounts of fantastic battles between individuals or between vast armies.

The mark of a skilled poet was that he could fit his story into the rigid epic format and add his own style to keep the audience interested and entertained. The Iliad is nearly ten times longer than what would ordinarily be performed in one sitting. Other than the marathons in Athens, it was most likely performed in pieces, with the poet relating one episode of the whole at each performance. The stories of the best epic poets were passed down from generation to generation. The Iliad and the Odyssey were passed down as part of the oral tradition until finally a literate culture wrote them down—probably during the sixth century BCE. No other ancient Greek poet has been so completely preserved.

The Greek text of the Iliad is written in dactylic hexameter. The rhythm is therefore one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables, with six of these groups to a line. Many phrases, such as “darkness covered his eyes,” or “white armed” to describe a woman, are repeated over and over throughout the poem. This rhythm and formulaic phrasing helped the poet remember his tale. The repetition also helped to stress certain points to a listening audience. While they may not have heard something the first time it was said, they were likely to catch it the second or third time. There are many incidents that recur throughout the work as well, such as the sending of messengers, the assembly of forces, arming for battle, friends avenging the death of friends, and feasting. The effect of all of these techniques in the Iliad is a remarkable coherence and unity that far surpasses most epic poems of the same period.

Homer’s work differs from many epic poems in another significant way. The subject of the vast majority of these poems involves men possessing supernatural power, serving some higher purpose or fulfilling a mission. They are larger than life in their scope. The Iliad, however, is marked by the distinct absence of these devices. The action takes place in the span of days rather than months or years; the gods do interact with the mortals, yet they simply encourage existing possibilities rather than intervening in supernatural ways; the action is full of heroes, yet there is no exaggerated heroism. The result is a perception of the immediate rather than the eternal; a humanizing of the myth. We see the suffering and falling of real men and women rather than of superhuman heroes who are not at all like us. While nearly all of Homer’s characters are heroes, they have their moments of weakness and fear as well as moments of great confidence. It has been suggested that this strong focus on purely human experience represents the first instance of art for art’s sake, rather than art that served the larger purpose of myth or religion (Vivante, 134).

The Poem

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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, prince of the Myrmidions. 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.

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 Ajax, 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 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’s 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.

Places Discussed

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Troy (Ilios)

Troy (Ilios) was an ancient city on the plain of Troas, or Troad, on the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea in what is now Turkey. Homer knew the area so well it is assumed that he had visited it. However, the Troy about which he wrote was a city that existed perhaps four centuries before his own time.

Legend has it that Apollo and Poseidon constructed Troy, and the Greek divinities had much to do with destroying it, first providing the occasion for the war, then prolonging it by squabbling among themselves, and finally deciding the city’s fate. However, historians believe that the cause of the war may have been the Greeks’ wish to stop the Trojans from collecting tolls from land travelers and from ships moving in or out of the Dardanelles (Hellespont).


Pergamos (PUR-gah-muhs) is Troy’s walled citadel, or acropolis. The temple of Athena at its summit is the Trojans’ place of worship. King Priam’s palace, which is described in book 6, is also there. It serves not only as the residence of the royal family but also as the city’s center of government. Whenever Hector goes out to battle or returns home, as he does in book 6, he uses the Scaean Gate on the west side of the Pergamos. His wife, Andromache, often watches him from the wall above. The city cannot be destroyed as long as the Pergamos remains in the hands of the Trojans; when it falls, the city will be destroyed.

Ship Station

The ship station is an area west of the city of Troy where the Greeks beach their ships. In book 15, Hector leads the Trojans through the Greek defenses and sets fire to one of the ships, leading the Greeks to fear that they will be defeated.

Greek Camp

The Greek camp is the area between the ships and the battlefield where the Greeks gather to rest, feast, argue, and discuss strategy. In book 7, Nestor persuades the Greeks to fortify their camp by building a wall with watchtowers and strong gates and by digging a moat just beyond it.

Mount Ida

Mount Ida is a mountain southeast of Troy where the great god Zeus often stations himself so that he can watch the conflict below, periodically hurling thunderbolts to signal his disapproval. Zeus is often found near his altar on the peak Gargaron. In book 14, Zeus’s wife, Hera, visits Mount Ida to charm and distract him so he will not be aware of the Greeks’ victories below.

Mount Olympus

Mount Olympus is a mountain that is the highest point in Greece, located near the western shore of the Aegean Sea, that is in legend the home of the gods. Homer’s epic shows the gods meeting there, observing events below, and often quarreling bitterly. Sometimes they leave their Mount Olympus homes, disguise themselves as mortals, and take part in battles. When they are wounded—as Aphrodite and Ares are in book 5—they return to Olympus to be made whole.


Hades (hay-deez) is the legendary underworld, ruled by Hades, in which the spirits of the dead dwell forever and the guilty are punished. In book 23, the ghost of Patroclus appears to his friend Achilles, asking that his body be placed on a funeral pyre so that he can complete his journey into Hades, instead of wandering with the other unburied spirits outside the gates.

Historical Context

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The context in which the Homeric poems were created is clouded by the fact that their creation is a process that spans several centuries. In a very real sense, the poems’ historical and cultural background is rather like one of the archaeological sites from which we gather our information about the period: it is deep, it has many levels or layers, and over time things can get pushed up or down from their proper context. Consider, for example, the boars’ tusk helmet Odysseus wears in book 10: we find it depicted in art from the late Bronze Age, but it had long since disappeared from use or living memory by Homer’s day in the Iron Age. Moving in the other direction, the cremation burials described in the poem were common in Homer’s day but extremely rare in the Bronze Age, when the events he describes would have taken place.

The Bronze Age

The Trojan War and its aftermath took place in the late Bronze Age, which began around 1550 BCE. This is the date assigned to the wealthy burial sites found by Heinrich Schliemann in Grave Circle A at Mycenae in 1873. For this reason, the period is sometimes also called the Mycenaean era. This was a time of relative stability, though not, of course, without its conflicts, wars, and raids. The dominant powers in the eastern Mediterranean were the Hittites in the central part of what is now Turkey, the Egyptians in what we now call the Middle East, and, apparently, the Mycenaean kings in Greece and the surrounding islands.

These three “great kings” all ruled over literate (at least to the extent of being able to keep records and official documents, even if they left us no “literature” to speak of), apparently complex, societies (complete with bureaucrats, if the Linear B tablets found at Pylos and elsewhere are any indication). They engaged in diplomacy with each other and with numerous smaller kingdoms on the edges of their territory that served as buffer zones between them and could be compelled to provide both military and economic support under the terms of the treaties that bound them to the particular kingdom with which they were allied. These secondary kingdoms were also prime targets for raids by other “great kings” and foreign invaders, especially those that were relatively distant from their protectors’ centers of authority and military strong points.

Trade was flourishing, and, given the uncertainties of shipping and other means of transportation, together with a relatively low level of technological advancement (at least when considered by modern standards), quite surprisingly so. Distinctive Mycenaean pottery, whether as art pieces intended for display and ceremonial use, or purely for transporting trade goods like oil, grain, or perfume, is found all over the Mediterranean basin in staggering quantities throughout this period.

Military tactics were largely as we see them depicted in the Iliad: face-to-face combat between individuals or small groups of men, with little in the way of coordinated effort. It does seem, however, from wall paintings and other archaeological finds, that chariots were used for fighting ahead of the infantry and not just for transporting people around the battlefield, as Homer describes their use.

The Trojan War, if it took place at all, came very near the end of this flourishing civilization. The Greeks, using generational calculations, set the date of the war at around 1184 BCE; modern scholarship, based on archaeological evidence at Troy and other sites, puts it some seventy-five years earlier, around 1250 BCE. But the traditional victors at Troy did not have very long to enjoy their victory.

The Dark Age

For reasons that are not fully understood, this civilization begins to die out around 1220 BCE with the mysterious destruction and subsequent abandonment of Pylos. That event ushers in a period of decline that lasts until roughly 1050 BCE, when the Mycenaean civilization literally fades away into nothingness.

Whatever its causes, the disappearance of the Mycenaean civilization marked the start of about 250 years of very difficult times in Greece, aptly referred to as the Dark Age. This period has its end with the traditional date of the first Olympiad in 776 BCE, very close to the time when we think Homer lived. Of this Dark Age we know almost nothing except what we can deduce from the period immediately following and the scanty evidence in the archaeological record.

Writing was lost, and with it, most trade seems to have disappeared except on a purely local or regional basis at best. Archaeologists working in this period report finding very little in the way of “luxury” goods like fancy pottery—when they can find anything at all. There may have been as much as a seventy-five percent decrease in population from Bronze Age levels.

The Iron Age

Beginning around the eleventh century BCE, the Greeks began to use iron in place of bronze, to cremate their dead as opposed to burying them intact, and to establish colonies along the west coast of what is now Turkey. By Homer’s day, roughly the middle of the eighth century BCE, these trends were well-established, and things were beginning to look up again.

Writing was just beginning to be rediscovered using a new alphabet borrowed from the Phoenicians, and foreign trade was improving: helped in no small part by the colonies along the Ionian coast, which, while typically independent of their mother cities, nevertheless tended to remain on friendly terms with them. The population was again on the rise, which spurred another wave of colonization, this time chiefly toward the west (Sicily, parts of Italy, and the south of France).

At least on the Greek mainland, the era of kings was rapidly drawing to a close. By the beginning of the eighth century, the nobles had taken the reins of power from the kings almost everywhere and were ruling over family groups or tribes in what would come to be called the polis, or city-state.

Largely because of the decorations found on pottery from the period, this era has come to be known as the Geometric period, but increasing regularity was a feature of more than just the decorative arts. It was in this period that the beginnings of a Greek national identity come to the fore (prompting and/or prompted by the founding of the Olympic games and the dissemination of Homer’s works, among other things). More coordinated military tactics were beginning to be used, the “hoplite” formation—a line of men with shields overlapping—alluded to by Homer at XII.105, XVI.210f., XVII.352f., and XX.361-2, which is shown on a wine bowl found at Veii and dating to around 650 BCE.

Religious practices were also becoming more standardized at this juncture. While the Homeric heroes sometimes (as with the propitiatory sacrifice to Apollo in book 1) go to specific places for religious observances, the majority seem to be family- or group-centered rituals that take place wherever the family or group may happen to be at the moment of the ritual, and archaeological evidence from the Bronze Age tends to confirm this view. Actual temples, like the one vaguely described in book 6 when Hecuba goes to lay a robe on the knees of the statue of Athena, have not been identified in the archaeological record much before the ninth century BCE and become much more frequent thereafter.

After Homer’s day, while the population, wealth, commerce, and industry of Greece were generally on the rise, the political pendulum swung back and forth from more aristocratic and democratic models to varying forms of one-man rule until just before the dawn of the Golden Age in the fifth century BCE.

Literary Style

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Since it is the first work in its genre to have survived, the Iliad does not so much display the mechanics of epic poetry as define them. Epic poetry in the West was written in virtually the same form as the Iliad for at least 500 years, and the modifications that were later made tended to be minor.


English meter involves patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. Greek meter, on the other hand, involves patterns of long and short syllables in which, as a general rule, two short syllables equal one long syllable. Greek poetry does not rhyme, although it uses alliteration and assonance (repeated use of the same or similar consonant patterns and vowel patterns, respectively).

The Iliad is written in dactylic hexameters, which is the “standard” form for epic poetry: in fact, this particular meter is sometimes referred to as “epic meter” or “epic hexameter.” Hexameter means that there are six elements, or “feet,” in each line; dactylic refers to the particular metrical pattern of each foot: in this case, the basic pattern is one long syllable followed by two short ones, although variations on that basic pattern are allowed. The final foot in each line, for example, is almost always a spondee (two long syllables, instead of one long and two short ones). Homer will sometimes vary the meter to suit the action being described, using more dactyls when things are moving quickly (horses galloping, for example), and more spondees when things are slow or sad (as, for example, at I.3, where “strong souls by thousands” are “hurled down to Hades”).


One of the techniques for which the Iliad is justifiably famous is its use of similes, or comparisons. Hardly a scene goes by that does not include at least one simile. Moreover, for a poem where most of the action takes place on the battlefield, most of the similes are drawn from peacetime and its occupations: the ranks of the armies are compared to rows of grain in a field, for example.

Homer’s similes are drawn from commonplace, everyday objects and occurrences in the lives of his audience. Consider the following passage from book 11, when the Trojans are driving Ajax back toward his own lines:

As when country-dwelling men and their dogs have driven a tawny lion away from the cattle pen . . . as when boys are driving a sluggish donkey past a cornfield and many sticks have been broken across his back, but he gets in anyway and mows down the deep grain. . . . (XI.547-48; 557-59).

Two different similes are used to describe the same action, and both images would have been familiar and evocative to anyone with fields and flocks to tend.


Foreshadowing, the practice of “hinting” at future developments in the plot either explicitly (in the form of prophecies, etc.) or implicitly, through indirect hints, is fairly common in the Iliad. It is not uncommon (and this is in line with Greek religious beliefs current at the time of Homer) for the dying to make some kind of a prophecy—usually (as, for example, at XXII.355-60 when the dying Hector foretells the death of Achilles), though not always, involving the impending death of the person responsible.

One example of a more subtle form of foreshadowing can be seen in the name of Achilles’s home country, Phthia. This name is very similar to the Greek verb phthiô, which means “decay, wane, waste away, perish.” In fact, the technical term for tuberculosis (“consumption,” as it used to be known in English) was once phthisis, from this same verb. Achilles, who will die in the prime of his youth, comes from a place whose name might be translated “Deathville.”


This technique, where a character in the present moment recalls an earlier event, is in its infancy in the Iliad. It is thought that the events in book 3 represent an extended flashback, even though they are not explicitly labeled as such. It is otherwise difficult to imagine how, after nine years of war, King Priam would be unable to recognize the chief leaders of the Achaean forces and why no one had thought of having the two interested parties fight in single combat to decide the war’s outcome.

Ring Composition

Ring composition is a technique most often seen in poetry, where the writer “comes full circle,” or “comes around” again to a particular theme, statement, or event at the end of a work (or significant segment of a work) that was featured at the beginning of the same work (or part of the work). In the case of the Iliad, the poem starts with a ransom and a quarrel in book 1, continues with a figurative muster of the armed forces (book 2), followed by a duel (book 3). In book 22 we have another duel, this time between Achilles and Hector, which is followed by a literal mustering of the armies for Patroclus’s funeral games in book 23. The poem ends in Book 24 with the ransom of Hector’s body from Achilles by Priam, thus “coming back around” again to the place where the action started.

Legend of the Trojan War

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The events leading up to the Trojan War supposedly began with a wedding feast in Troy. The wedding celebrated the marriage of Thetis, who was a goddess, and Peleus, who was a mortal. Eris, the goddess of discord, showed up and left a golden apple inscribed “For the Fairest” with the wedding guests. This soon sets off a competition among three of the women—Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite—each of whom felt they deserved the golden apple. In order to avoid judging such a touchy contest, Zeus (king of the gods, and host of the party) chose Paris, the shepherd, to be the judge. Each of the women then presented Paris with a bribe. Hera’s bribe was power and a kingdom of his own; Athena’s bribe was wisdom and success in battle; Aphrodite’s bribe was love—the love of Helen of Sparta, known to be the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris chose love, forever alienating the other two goddesses.

Unfortunately, Helen was already married to King Menelaus. Undeterred, Paris revealed himself as a true prince who had been abandoned at birth by his mother, Hecuba. (Hecuba had been warned that he would eventually be the cause of the destruction of Troy.) Paris then headed for Sparta and wooed Helen, who ran off to Troy with him (or was carried off to Troy, depending on which version you read). Of course Menelaus was not pleased when he returned to find Helen missing. He gathered together a group of men and a thousand ships to attack Troy and bring Helen back to Sparta. Hence, Helen’s was “the face that launched a thousand ships.”

When the army reached Troy, it was faced with the enormous wall surrounding the city. The wall had been built with the help and protection of Poseidon (god of the sea). However, the Trojans neglected to pay Poseidon for his help, and he therefore withdrew his protection. Still, it was an impressive wall, and Menelaus’s army tried unsuccessfully to penetrate it for ten years. After losing two of their best fighters—Ajax and Achilles—the Achaians consulted the “oracles,” or fortune-tellers, for advice.

The plan that finally defeated Troy was the famous Trojan horse. The Achaians built a huge wooden horse with room inside for many soldiers. The rest of the army then retreated in their boats, making it look as if they had finally given up. They left one soldier with the task of telling the Trojans that they had left the horse as an offering to please the goddess Athena. According to the story, they were hoping that the Trojans would destroy it, bringing the anger of Athena down on their own heads. The Trojans, seeing that the army was gone, believed the story. They were frightened to anger Athena and so brought the horse inside the city walls. Once inside the walls, the Achaian soldiers waited for darkness. They then came out of the horse and opened the city gates for the rest of the army. Troy was then burned and looted, and only a handful survived the massacre.

History and Culture of Troy

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The epic theme Homer chose for the Iliad was the Trojan War. At the time the poem was composed, the Trojan War was most likely several centuries past. The poet was safe to assume that his audience was familiar with the major events and myths of the war. Homer could then pick up the action toward the end of the war and allude only briefly to crucial episodes that occurred earlier. In fact, while the Greek translation of the title is “the poetry about Troy,” the actual subject of the epic is the experience of Achilles, and the action takes place in a period measured in weeks or months. Homer tells us in the Iliad that the war has been raging for ten years as his story begins. Historically speaking, this is unlikely. The limited knowledge available through archaeological and cultural research supports a war at Troy lasting only a few years at most.

What we do know of the actual history of the Trojan War is less colorful and far less detailed than the myth. Scholars have argued that the setting of the Iliad should not be Asia Minor, but the Greek mainland, where there is evidence that a protracted siege took place in the early Mycenaean Age. It is widely believed that the events of the Iliad historically represent a large catalog of ruin throughout the geographical area rather than a single city’s destruction. This theory helps to explain Homer’s ten years of conflict. Sometime between 1400 BCE and 1180 BCE, mass destruction occurred on both sides of the Aegean Sea, ravaging much of the Mycenaean world. The period between 1100 and 900 BCE was a time of mass migration, as survivors of destroyed cities wandered as refugees to Athens, Asia Minor, and the islands of the Aegean. This ruination was one of the greatest disasters the world has known and would surely be remembered.

This theory also explains some of the unusual customs found in the Iliad. For example, burning the dead is contrary to the normal Greek practice of burying them. However, the worst insult imaginable at this time was defilement of a corpse. This is evident throughout the Iliad in the many examples of threatened mutilation and throwing bodies to the dogs. In an age when it might be necessary to flee from an invader at any time, one could never be sure that the buried bodies would be safe from defilement by barbaric warriors. It made more sense, therefore, to burn the bodies. When a body is burned, there is nothing left to be defiled. It simply ceases to exist. The elaborate funeral rituals accompanying the burning are an opportunity for the living to symbolically go with the deceased on the journey to the underworld. Mourners refuse food and water, cut their hair, and remain dirty to show their devotion and willingness to suffer. The funeral games accompanying the death of a hero are meant to allow the living to redefine the social order without the dead man. They compete for glory in the games just as the dead warrior competed for glory on the battlefield. The winners receive valuable possessions that the hero had won in battle and thus win glory for themselves.

The warriors of the Iliad are bound by the heroic code which dictates their behavior in all aspects of social interaction. Above all else, the hero valued his honor. Honor was judged to a great extent by strength in battle but also to a large degree by adherence to the heroic code. The code is evident many times in battle, as pacts of friendship several generations old are honored in the midst of great carnage. Also, we constantly see warriors avenging the deaths of their companions. The code is also evident in examples of the “guest-host” relationship, in which certain hospitality and behavior is expected. It has been suggested that the real reason Menelaus wages war on Troy is not so much because of the disappearance of his wife, Helen, but because Paris so flagrantly violated his responsibilities as a guest in the house of the Achaian. One of the effects of such a code is to encourage conformity and an ordered society. Such unity is essential during battle, as each man counts on his fellow warriors to cover him and to avenge him should he die. Paris represents a violation of the social order of Troy. Likewise, while Achilles is angry with Agamemnon, he is acting as an individual removed from society. A large part of his ultimate transformation will involve his renewed participation in the community and a restored sense of social order.

While the Iliad encompasses only a very short episode of a much longer war, the audience would have been familiar with a great deal more of the background than Homer provides. This background includes the cause of the war and the events preceding the action of the Iliad, as well as the final destruction of Troy and the death of Achilles. By ignoring the cause and details of this particular war, Homer turns the Iliad into a symbol of all wars.

Compare and Contrast

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  • Late Bronze Age (the time of the Trojan War): Burial is by inhumation. The bodies of the dead are laid to rest, often with grave goods and weapons, at least among the upper classes, in dug graves, stone-walled tombs (called “cist graves”), or tholos tombs built in the shape of a beehive, often under a hill.

    Iron Age (Homer’s own time): The bodies of the dead are cremated and the remains are collected in an urn (often richly decorated), which is then buried in a specially dug pit. In the case of very important burials, a hill (or “tumulus”) of earth or stone is raised above the grave, and the spot may further be marked with a column or other grave marker.

    Late twentieth century: The majority of burials are inhumation, though growing numbers of people choose cremation.

  • Late Bronze Age: Writing is known, although mainly in cumbersome, syllabic forms such as Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Mycenaean Linear A and B scripts, or the Hittite/Akkadian cuneiform. Literacy is probably restricted to the highest levels of the aristocracy and a professional class of scribes, bureaucrats, diplomats, etc.

    Iron Age: Literacy, at least in the Greek-speaking world, is only beginning to be rediscovered, using a different alphabet, where each letter represents a particular sound and not an entire syllable. Literacy is still most likely restricted to the upper classes and some professionals, like rhapsodes and some artists.

    Late twentieth century: The majority of people are able to read and write well enough to conduct their own business affairs.

  • Late Bronze Age: Trade, although extremely difficult and time-consuming, is fairly widespread. There is some evidence to suggest, for example, that the city of Mycenae was built where it stands because the location allowed its rulers to control several important trade routes and gain revenue from taxes they imposed on such trade.

    Iron Age: The scale of trade is reduced, now that the “great kings” are no longer around to secure the longer and more valuable trade routes, though goods are beginning to move more freely again.

    Late twentieth century: Trade is conducted on a worldwide scale, using mass transportation and instantaneous communications—means that were simply not possible in the ancient world.

  • Late Bronze Age: Chariots are used as an integral part of the fighting force, often as a spearhead to break through the enemy’s infantry or to shield one’s own troops from those of the opponent. Infantry tactics are almost non-existent, with combat being almost exclusively of the individual, hand-to-hand variety described in the Iliad.

    Iron Age: Chariots, which are very expensive to build and maintain, are rare. Coordinated infantry tactics (called hoplite tactics), where groups of men fight and defend themselves in a structured formation (which Homer alludes to a few times in the Iliad) are beginning to be developed.

    Late twentieth century: War is carried out almost exclusively by trained professionals of all genders, in an almost complete contrast to the ancient methods of warfare. Tactics are coordinated, usually well behind the lines, to a degree unimaginable to Homer or his contemporaries. Where warriors in the ancient world often got close enough to learn the lineage of the men they fought and killed (or were killed by), modern soldiers may go through an entire war without ever seeing an opponent face-to-face.

Media Adaptations

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  • There have been no films made that are directly based on the Iliad. There have been several films based wholly or in part on other aspects of the Troy legends, including Michael Cacoyannis’s The Trojan Women in 1971 and Iphigeneia in 1977.
  • In 1985, the British Broadcasting Corporation produced a television series, starring Michael Wood, entitled In Search of the Trojan War. The companion volume to this series was published by the BBC in 1986.
  • Penguin Highbridge Audio put out an audiocassette version of Robert Fagles’s translation of the Iliad in 1992 (six cassettes and a companion book). They also have a combined audio version of Fagles’s translations of both the Iliad and the Odyssey. Harper Audio brought out a cassette version of Richmond Lattimore’s translation, read by Anthony Quayle (1996). Norton offers a partial rendition of the Iliad in its Greek original, read by Stephen Daitz (1990).
  • A number of films have distinctly Homeric qualities or make some reference to Homer and/or themes from his works. In the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, for example, crusading knights plot to get inside a castle by concealing themselves within a gigantic wooden rabbit they construct and leave outside the castle walls (however, they forget to hide inside their “Trojan rabbit”). In 1993’s Sommersby, the Richard Gere character, an Odysseus-like figure who returns home from war after many years, actually reads the Iliad to his son. Gere’s character can also be seen as something of a Hector figure, who fights for his country (and eventually dies for it), even though he knows the cause is ultimately hopeless.
  • The Perseus Project on the World Wide Web, administered by the Classics Department at Tufts University, is an excellent online resource for studying the classics or classical texts. The URL for the project’s homepage is http:// Among the things you can find on this site are the original Greek (the Oxford Classical Texts version) and the Murray translation (from the Loeb Classical Library edition) of the Iliad, which you can find by selecting the “Texts Greek/English” button from the main site map and then choosing either the “Ancient Greek texts” or the “English translations of Greek texts” link and selecting Homer as the author and the Iliad as the text. Many of the names in the translation have hypertext links (just click on the name and it will take you to the relevant information) to further information and sources relevant to that person, place, or concept. The Perseus material is also available (Macintosh format only, but a Windows version is in the works) on CD-ROM from Yale University Press.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Some quotations from the Iliad are taken from the following translation:
Homer. The Iliad of Homer. Translated by Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951.


Bloom, Harold, ed. Homer’s The Iliad: Modern Critical Interpretations. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

Fables, Robert, and George Steiner, eds. Homer: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962.

Michalopoulos, Andre. Homer. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1966.

Murray, Gilbert. The Rise of the Greek Epic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1960.

Sheppard, J. T. The Pattern of the Iliad. New York: Haskell House, 1966.

Vivante, Paolo. The Iliad: Action as Poetry. Boston: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1991.

Sources for Further Study

Biers, William R. The Archaeology of Greece: An Introduction. Cornell University Press, 1980. A good basic introduction to Greek archaeology. Many illustrations.

Camps, William A. An Introduction to Homer. Oxford University Press, 1980. A solid introduction to Homer and his poetry, with ample citations from the texts of both poems.

Easterling, P. E., and B. M. W. Knox, eds. The Cambridge History of Classical Literature, Vol. 1, Part 1, “Early Greek Poetry.” Cambridge University Press, 1989. A brief, though somewhat technical, overview of the earliest Greek writers to have survived. This volume is the first in a series by Cambridge that covers the whole history of Greek literature through the Hellenistic period and into the empire.

Edwards, Mark W. Homer: Poet of the Iliad. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987. A fairly technical work but a good literary analysis.

Hammond, N. G. L. A History of Greece to 322 BC, 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, 1986. The standard history of Greece before the time of Alexander. The print is small and the text fairly dense, but it remains a worthwhile resource to consult.

Harvey, Paul, compiler. The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. Oxford University Press, 1984. A very useful ready-reference tool for basic facts, names, and dates.

Herodotus. The Persian Wars. Translated by George Rawlinson; introduction by Francis R. B. Godolphin. Modern Library, 1942. Although not very recent, among the best translations of Herodotus. Although he was technically writing about the war between the Greeks and the Persians, as he is discussing the origins of the war, Herodotus covers quite a lot of other ground and offers some fascinating (and often fanciful) historical details, including several references to Homer and his works.

Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Robert Fagles; introduction and notes by Bernard Knox. Viking, 1990. One of the most recent and critically acclaimed translations of the Iliad, Fagles offers a rendition in blank verse that is somewhat more free than Lattimore’s or Fitzgerald’s translations but without diluting the poetic character of the epic. Knox’s introduction is well-written and very informative.

———. Homeri Opera, 3d ed., Vols. 1 and 2. Edited by David B. Monro and Thomas W. Allen. Oxford University Press, 1920. The standard edition of the original Greek text.

———. The Iliad of Homer. Translated by Richmond Lattimore. University of Chicago Press, 1961. Lattimore’s translation reproduces Homer’s original line structure without sacrificing either the ease of reading or the flow of the translation.

———. The Iliad. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. Anchor, 1975. A rather loose verse translation of the poem. Some readers may find Fitzgerald’s direct transliteration of the Greek names confusing.

Knox, Bernard, ed. The Norton Book of Classical Literature. W. W. Norton, 1993. More a book of selected passages from famous works of classical literature, it nevertheless contains some basic information about the authors and works it discusses.

Levi, Peter. The Pelican History of Greek Literature. Penguin, 1985. A good basic reference for Greek literature generally, and one that does not require a knowledge of Greek.

Reynolds, L. D., and N. G. Wilson. Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 1974. A rather technical work dealing with books and the “book trade” in antiquity, and the process by which ancient texts have come down to us from the classical world.

Silk, Michael Homer. The Iliad (Landmarks of World Literature series). Cambridge University Press, 1987. A convenient, affordable, pocket-sized overview of the work and its author.

Solomon, Jon D. “In the Wake of Cleopatra: The Ancient World in the Cinema Since 1963.” Classical Journal, Vol. 91, no. 2, 1996, pp. 113-40. A chronology with basic information on film and television productions which are based on or which mention works from classical antiquity.

Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. Translated by Richard Crawley; revised with an introduction by T. E. Wick. Modern Library, 1982. One of the best translations of Thucydides into English, even given its age. Very readable.

Wood, Michael. In Search of the Trojan War. British Broadcasting Corporation, 1986. The companion volume to the BBC series of the same name. Easy to read, lavishly illustrated, and Wood is careful to note when he is engaging in speculation and what the consensus of scholarly opinion may be on any given point.


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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.

Dalby, Andrew. Rediscovering Homer: Inside the Origins of the Epic. New York: W. W. NOrton, 2006. Dalby explores the historical development of written poetry and examines the debate regarding the authorship of Homer’s epics.

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’s 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.

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