Genre of the Epic Poem

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...

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The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The Greeks are camped outside the walls of Troy, in the tenth year of their siege on that city. Agamemnon, king of the Achaians, wants the maid, Briseis, for his own, but she is possessed by Achilles, a mortal son of Zeus, king of the gods. When Achilles is forced to give up the maid, he withdraws angrily from the battle and returns to his ship. He wins from Zeus the promise that the wrong that he suffered will be avenged.

That evening Zeus sends a messenger to the Greek king to convey to him in a dream an order to rise and marshal his Achaian forces against the walls of Troy. When the king awakens, he calls all his warriors to him and orders them to prepare for battle. All night long the men arm themselves in battle array, making ready their horses and their ships. The gods appear on earth in the disguise of warriors, some siding with the Greeks, some hastening to warn the Trojans. With the army mustered, Agamemnon begins the march from the camp to the walls of the city, while all the country around is set on fire. Only Achilles and his men remain behind, determined not to fight on the side of Agamemnon.

The Trojan army comes from the gates of the city ready to combat the Greeks. Then Paris, son of King Priam and Helen’s lover, stands out from the ranks and suggests that he and Menelaus settle the battle in a fight between them, the winner to take Helen and all her possessions and friendship to be declared between the warring nations. Menelaus agrees to these words of his rival, and before the warriors of both sides, and under the eyes of Helen, who is summoned to witness the scene from the walls of Troy, he and Paris begin to fight. Menelaus is the mightier warrior. As he is about to pierce his enemy, the goddess Aphrodite, who loves Paris, swoops down from the air and carries him off to his chamber. She summons Helen there to minister to her wounded lord. Then the victory is declared for Menelaus.

In the heavens the gods who favor the Trojans are much disturbed by this intervention. Athena appears on earth to Trojan Pandarus and tells him to seek out Menelaus and kill him. He shoots an arrow at the unsuspecting king, but the goddess watching over Menelaus deflects the arrow so that it only wounds him. When Agamemnon sees that treacherous deed (the armies are in agreement at that moment not to fight), he revokes his vows of peace and exhorts the Greeks once more to battle. Many Trojans and many Greeks lose their lives that day, because of the foolhardiness of Pandarus.

Meanwhile Hector, son of King Priam, returns to the city to bid farewell to Andromache, his wife, and to his child, for he fears he might not return from that day’s battle. He rebukes Paris for remaining in his chambers with Helen when his countrymen are dying because of his misdeeds. While Paris makes ready for battle, Hector says good-bye to Andromache, prophesying that Troy will be defeated, himself killed, and Andromache taken captive. Then Paris joins him and they go together into the battle.

When evening comes the Greeks and the Trojans retire to their camps. Agamemnon instructs his men to build a huge bulwark around the camp and in front of the ships, for fear the enemy will press their attack too close. Zeus then remembers his promise to Achilles to avenge the wrong done to him by Agamemnon. He summons all the gods and forbids them to take part in the war. The victory, Zeus says, is to go to the Trojans; thus would the insult to Zeus’s son be avenged.

The next day, Hector and the Trojans sweep through the fields, slaughtering the Greeks. Hera, the wife of Zeus, and many of the other goddesses are not content to watch the defeat of their mortal friends. When the goddesses attempt to intervene, Zeus sends down his messengers to warn them to desist. Fearing his armies will be destroyed before Achilles will relent, Agamemnon sends Odysseus to Achilles. Odysseus begs the hero to accept gifts and be pacified. Achilles, still wrathful, threatens to sail for home at the break of day. Agamemnon is troubled by the proud refusal of Achilles. That night he steals to the camp of the wise man, Nestor, to ask his help in a plan to defeat the Trojans. Nestor tells him to awaken all the great warriors and summon them to a council. It is decided that two warriors will steal into the Trojan camp to determine its strength and numbers. Diomedes and Odysseus volunteer. As they creep toward the camp, they capture and kill a Trojan spy. Then they steal into the camp of the enemy, spy upon it, and, as they leave, take with them the horses of one of the kings.

The next day the Trojans press hard upon the Greeks with great slaughter. Diomedes and Odysseus are wounded and many warriors are killed. Achilles watches the battle from his ship but makes no move to take part in it. He sends his friend Patroclus to Nestor to learn how many are wounded. The old man sends back a despairing answer, pleading that Achilles give up his anger and help his fellow Greeks. At last the Trojans break through the bulwark that the Greeks built, and Hector is foremost in an attack upon the ships.

Meanwhile, many of the gods plot to aid the Greeks. Hera lulls Zeus to sleep, and Poseidon urges Agamemnon to resist the onrush of the Trojans. In the battle that day Hector is wounded by Aias, but as the Greeks are about to seize him and bear his body away the bravest of the Trojans surround their hero and cover him with their shields until he can be carried to safety. When Zeus awakens and sees what has happened, his wrath is terrible, and he orders Apollo to restore Hector to health. Once again the walls are breached and the Trojans storm toward the ships, eager to set fire to them. Zeus inspires the Trojans with courage and weakens the Greeks with fear. He determines that after the ships are set afire he will no longer aid the Trojans but will allow the Greeks to have the final victory.

Patroclus goes to his friend Achilles and again pleads with him to return to the fight. Achilles, still angry, refuses. Then Patroclus begs that he be allowed to wear the armor of Achilles so that the Greeks will believe their hero fought with them, and Achilles consents. Patroclus charges into the battle and fights bravely at the gates of the city. Hector mortally wounds Patroclus and strips from his body the armor of Achilles.

All that day the battle rages over the body of Patroclus. Then a messenger carries to Achilles word of his friend’s death. His sorrow is terrible, but he cannot go unarmed into the fray to rescue the body of Patroclus.

The next morning his goddess mother, Thetis, brings him a new suit of armor from the forge of Hephaestus. Then Achilles decks himself in the glittering armor that the lame god of fire prepared for him and strides forth to the beach. There, he and Agamemnon are reconciled before the assembly of the Greeks, and he goes out to battle with them. The whole plain is filled with men and horses, battling one another. Achilles in his vengeance pushes back the enemy to the banks of the River Xanthus, and so many are the bodies of the Trojans choking the river that at length the god of the river speaks to Achilles, ordering him to cease throwing their bodies into his waters. Proud Achilles mocks him and springs into the river to fight with the god. Feeling himself overpowered, he struggles out upon the banks, but still the wrathful god pursues him. Achilles then calls on his mother to help him, and Thetis, with the aid of Hephaestus, quickly subdues the angry river god.

As Achilles draws near the walls of Troy, Hector girds on his armor. Amid the wailing of all the Trojan women he comes from the gates to meet the Greek warrior, who is understood to be completely invincible. Not standing to meet Achilles in combat, he flees three times around the city walls before he turns to face Achilles’ fatal spear. Then Achilles binds Hector’s body to his chariot and drags it to the ships, as prey for dogs and vultures.

In the Trojan city there is great grief for the dead hero and rage at the treatment of his body. The aged King Priam resolves to drive in a chariot to the camp of Achilles and beg that the body of his son Hector be returned to him. The gods, too, ask Achilles to curb his wrath and restore the Trojan warrior to his own people, and so Achilles receives King Priam with respect, grants his request, and agrees to a twelve-day truce that both sides might properly bury and mourn their dead. Achilles mourns for Patroclus as the body of his friend is laid upon the blazing funeral pyre. In the city the body of mighty Hector is also burned and his bones are buried beneath a great mound in the stricken city.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Troy (Ilios)

*Troy (Ilios). 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). 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

Ship station. 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

Greek camp. 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. 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. 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 quarrelling 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). 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 Patrocles 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

(Epics for Students)

The funeral of Hector Published by Gale Cengage

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...

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Literary Style

(Epics for Students)

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...

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Legend of the Trojan War

(Epics for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 519 words.)

History and Culture of Troy

(Epics for Students)

The epic theme Homer chose for the Iliad was the Trojan War. At the time the poem was composed, the Trojan...

(The entire section is 857 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Epics for Students)

  • Late Bronze Age (the time of the Trojan War): Burial is by inhumation. The bodies of the dead are laid to...

(The entire section is 555 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Epics for Students)

  • What role do the gods play in the Iliad? Compare and contrast this role with the role of the divine in a contemporary religious...

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Media Adaptations

(Epics for Students)

  • 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...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Epics for Students)

  • The Odyssey is the other epic poem credited to Homer and was probably written some time after the...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Epics for Students)

Some quotations from the Iliad are taken from the following translation:
Homer. The Iliad of Homer....

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(Great Characters in Literature)

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’ 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.