Iliad Additional Summary

Homer

Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Though the myths describe the Trojan War as a thirty-year cycle of preparations, conflict, and homecomings, the chronological period that the Iliad covers is actually quite restricted, not more than ninety days in the final year of fighting. Despite its focus on the quarrel of only two of its warriors, both of them Greek, Homer nevertheless conveys the full range of human emotions that prevails in war, even as he provides a vivid portrait of Mycenaean culture. The result is that his Iliad, bold and all-encompassing though it is, remains essentially quite limited; that is undoubtedly one of the most distinctive features of Homer’s epic. Homer makes the limits of his intentions clear from the outset. His invocation to Caliope, the Muse of epic, specifies that he will sing of Achilles’ anger.

Obviously, the anger of Achilles operates on several levels and has far-reaching consequences. On the personal level, it refers to the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon for possession of Briseis, a young woman originally given to Achilles by the Achaeans as his prize of honor. Agamemnon, too, had a captive mistress, Chryseis; yet, she was the daughter of a priest of Apollo named Chryses. When Agamemnon haughtily refuses to return Chryseis to her father, Chryses invokes Apollo himself, who sends a plague upon the Achaeans. Once he realizes that the army will be decimated by disease if he takes no action, Agamemnon returns Chryseis to her father, though he simultaneously demands that Achilles surrender Briseis to him as her replacement. Agamemnon fears that the Achaeans will consider him weak if he does not enforce his will upon Achilles in this way, yet the reader perceives only Agamemnon’s pettiness and insecurity.

Achilles reviles Agamemnon in the agora (assembly) of leaders, yet he surrenders Briseis to him without active resistance. More significantly, Achilles announces his intentions to withdraw his Myrmidons from battle and return with them to Phthia, their home in southern Thessaly. These dramatic announcements made, Achilles throws down the skeptron (staff), which gives him the uncontested right to speak, and dashes from the agora. This extraordinary behavior at the least implies weakness and apparently cowardice. It seems to complement the pettiness of Agamemnon, but there are clearly other reasons for Achilles’ actions.

Thetis, the goddess-mother of Achilles, subsequently appears to comfort her son, who is all too aware of how the Achaeans could interpret his sudden withdrawal and threat to return home. She reviews the alternatives that moira (fate) has assigned to him: either to slay Hector, the first of the Trojan warriors, and to be killed at Troy soon thereafter or to live a long and undistinguished life in Phthia, dying there of old age. Achilles well knows these alternatives. His withdrawal, which extends from Iliad 1 to Iliad 22, represents an essential pause to consider these alternatives at a crucial juncture of his life. Worth noting is the fact that Achilles undertakes no preparations to return home; also, although the war initially goes badly for the Achaeans, to the extent that Agamemnon offers Achilles an impressive series of gifts (including restoration of Briseis) for his return, Achilles’ prolonged absence makes relatively little difference overall.

Agamemnon’s embassy to secure Achilles’ return contains elements of magnanimity and self-interest. Significantly, Agamemnon does not personally entreat Achilles. Instead, he enlists the cunning Odysseus and Diomedes (who would together devise the stratagem of the wooden horse), as well as Achilles’ old tutor Phoenix. The appeal thus emerges through a combination of clever argument and sage advice, and the collection of gifts (listed in catalog form) is calculated both to impress the Achaeans with Agamemnon’s megalapsyché (great-heartedness, generosity), as much as it is to force Achilles to make his decision. That is one of several places in which the humanity of...

(The entire section is 1662 words.)

Summary

(Epics for Students)

The Background of the Story
The goddess Eris (Discord) was not invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis (Achilles’ parents), so in revenge she threw a golden apple inscribed “for the fairest” into the banquet hall, knowing it would cause trouble. All the goddesses present claimed it for themselves, but the choice came down to three—Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera. They asked Zeus to make the final decision, but he wisely refused.

Instead, Zeus sent them to Mount Ida, where the handsome youth Paris was tending his father’s flocks. Priam had sent the prince away from Troy because of a prophecy that Paris would one day bring doom to the city. Each of the three goddesses offers Paris a bribe if he will name her the fairest: Hera promises to make him lord of Europe and Asia; Athena promises to make him a great military leader and let him rampage all over Greece; and Aphrodite promises that he will have the most beautiful woman in the world for his wife. Paris picks Aphrodite. From then on both Hera and Athena are dead-set against him, and against the Trojans in general.

The most beautiful woman in the world at the time is Helen, a daughter of Zeus and Leda. Helen is already married—to Menelaus, the king of Sparta. Helen’s adoptive father Tyndareus had required all the men who wanted to marry her swear a solemn oath that they would all come to the assistance of Helen’s eventual husband should he ever need their help.

Paris visits Menelaus in Sparta and abducts Helen, taking her back to Troy with him, seemingly with her active cooperation. Paris also takes a large part of Menelaus’ fortune. This was a serious breach of the laws of hospitality, which held that guests and hosts owed very specific obligations to each other. In particular, the male guest was obligated to respect the property and wife of his host as he would his own.

Menelaus, his brother Agamemnon, and all the rest of Helen’s original suitors, invite others to join them on an expedition to Troy to recover Helen. An armada of some 1,200 ships eventually sails to Troy, where the Achaeans fight for years to take the city, and engage in skirmishes and plundering raids on nearby regions. The story opens in the tenth year of the war.

Book 1: The Wrath of Achilles
Agamemnon offends Chryses, the priest of Apollo, by refusing to ransom back his daughter. Apollo sends a plague on the Achaeans in retribution. At a gathering of the whole army, Agamemnon agrees to give the girl back but demands another woman as compensation, and takes Briseis, Achilles’ concubine.

Achilles is enraged, and pulls his whole army out of the war. In addition, he prays to his mother, the goddess Thetis, to beg Zeus to avenge his dishonor by supporting the Trojans against the Achaean forces. Zeus agrees, though not without angering his wife, Hera.

Book 2: Agamemnon’s Dream and the Catalogue of Ships
Zeus sends a false prophetic dream to Agamemnon, indicating that if he will rouse the army and march on Troy, he can capture the city that very night. As a test, Agamemnon calls another assembly and suggests instead that the whole army pull up its tents and sail back home.

This turns out to be a very bad idea. The troops rush away to get ready for the voyage home and their leaders have a very hard time restoring them to order. The army is eventually mobilized for war, and a catalogue of the Achaean and Trojan forces involved in the fight follows.

Book 3: The Duel between Paris and Menelaus
In what is most likely a flashback episode, a truce is called so that Menelaus and Paris can meet in single combat, the winner to take Helen and all her treasures home with him. Solemn oaths are sworn by both sides to abide by the outcome of the duel. Helen watches the fight with King Priam from the walls of Troy, and points out the chief leaders of the opposing forces. Just as Menelaus is on the point of killing Paris, his protector, the goddess Aphrodite takes him safely out of the battle and back to his bedroom in Troy.

Book 4: The Truce is Broken
Hera schemes with some of the other gods and goddesses to break the truce. Athena tricks Pandarus, an ally of the Trojans, into shooting an arrow at Menelaus, wounding him slightly. General fighting breaks out again.

Book 5: The Aristeia
Helped by Athena, Diomedes sweeps across the battlefield, killing and wounding Trojans by the dozen. He even wounds the goddess Aphrodite when she tries to rescue her son Aeneas, and the war god Ares, when he tries to rally the Trojan forces. (Note: “aristeia” is a Greek word which means “excellence” and here refers to an episode in which a particular character demonstrates exceptional valor or merit.)

Book 6: Hector Returns to Troy
While hacking his way through the Trojans, Diomedes meets Glaucus, the grandson of a man his own grandfather had hosted—which makes them “guest-friends” who cannot harm or fight against each other. Meanwhile, Hector has gone back to Troy to urge his mother to offer a sacrifice to Athena in an attempt to win back...

(The entire section is 2150 words.)