Iliad Questions and Answers

Homer

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting Iliad questions.

How does the Iliad exemplify the ancient definition of tragedy?

One of the most poignant aspects of Homer's Iliad is his development of the ancient definition of tragedy.  Homer is able to display characters who are poised between equally desirable, but ultimately incompatible courses of action.  Placed in such brutally agonizing conditions, human beings find little salvation.  There is no external reality that can alleviate the agonizing condition of choice, a condition that Homer seems to suggest is intrinsic to being human.  Homer develops a notion of tragedy that challenges our initial understanding.  We would normally see tragedy as a reality where something "good" is met with something "bad."  However, the characterizations offered in the Iliad suggest that a truly tragic condition exist when there is a collision between two goods.

Hector embodies this state of being.  His entire existence is poised between mutually exclusive realities.  The loyalty he holds to Paris, while disagreeing with his brother's immature choice, the collision between having to fight for Troy and remain with his family, the love he has for the honor of Troy and the regard he has for the soldiers who must lay down their lives for it, and the crash between desire and duty are all integral aspects of his characterization. His final confrontation with Achilles is one where the desire to flee and the need to stay and accept the inevitable reflects this tortured condition. Hector lives a life that is constantly posited between two good, the location of tragedy.  At the same time, Achilles faces a similar predicament in his involvement in the war.  He understands the desire for immortality is mutually exclusive with living a life of contentment and happiness.  The reconciliation with Priam is an instant where sanctuary can be taken from the inevitable condition of his own death as a result of his participation in the Trojan War.

Homer depicts the life dedicated to honor as one that is rooted in a tragic collision between two notions of the good.  This is the ultimate legacy of the Classical tradition, a reality that Homer describes in a beautiful acknowledgement of what it means to be a human being.

What words characterized the literary themes of the ancient Greeks?

The ancient Greeks used important and specific words to encompass huge, overarching, and vital themes in their literary and moral worlds. These are the most important themes of the Iliad:

Kleos: "glory." The type of fame and renown that a hero strives for through impressive feats and deeds. Your accomplishments told by other people, even after your death, mean more than anything. Achilles chooses kleos over a long, happy, and normal life. 

Hubris: "pride." Specifically, the type of excessive ego that makes a human think they can best a god. Humans will always be punished for hubris

Menis: "rage." So important that it is the first word of the Iliad in the original Greek. The first word of an epic poem signifies its greatest recurring theme. The rage of Achilles (for the loss of Briseis, and then the loss of Patrocles) is what drives the entire narrative. It determines the fate of all those fighting in the Trojan War. Most significantly, the word menis is traditionally ascribed to gods only. It does not describe normal human anger, but the wrath of a godlike figure. 

Why is Aeneas's inclusion in the Iliad politically significant?

In Book XX of the Iliad, Aeneas, a prince of Troy but from a minor branch of the royal family, plays a major role in a confrontation with Achilles, as Achilles, after staying out of the war because of his dispute with Agamemnon, rejoins the Greek forces after the death of his companion, Patroclus.  The Aeneas-Achilles episode seems unduly long and not central to the action but occupies much of Book XX.   Aeneas, as his story is depicted in Virgil's Aeniad, survives the Trojan War to become the founder of the Italian nation and the ancestor of the family of Julius Caesar.  As Malcolm Willcock has pointed out in his A Companion to the Iliad, this episode may have roots in Homer's desire to acknowledge a branch of the Trojan royal family in Homer's time  that claimed to be descended from Aeneas.  Willcock notes that the Greek-Roman geographer and historian Strabo may have corroborated this story in his now lost work Historical Sketches, a work dated much later than Homer's period.  More important from a literary perspective, Willcock speculates that Homer's desire to honor the descendants of Aeneas may indicate that Homer is a court poet and therefore reliant on the good wishes of the court to which he is attached.

Why is the inclusion of Aeneas in the Iliad historically significant?

In Book XX, there is an unduly long episode recounting a confrontation between Achilles, who has rejoined the fight after the death of his companion Patroclus, and Aeneas, a prince of Troy but from a minor branch of the Trojan royal family.  Poseidon has prophesied that Aeneas will survive the Trojan War, and Virgil, in the Aeniad, has Aeneas not only surviving the war but founding the Italian (Roman) nation and the family of Julius Caesar.  As Malcolm Willcock has pointed out in his Companion to the Iliad, Homer may have included this episode to honor a family, in Homer's time, who claimed descent from Aeneas.  External evidence of the Aeneas story may have been supplied by the Greek-Roman historian and geographer Strabo in his now-lost Historical Sketches.  More important from a literary perspective, however, is that this episode may indicate that Homer was a court poet, dependent on the support of the court to which he was attached.