The Iliad (meaning a song about Ilium) and the Odyssey are Greek epic poems, conventionally attributed to a singularly talented poet named Homer, who lived in the east Greek region of Ionia in the 8th century B.C.E. Most scholars today, however, question the idea that one singer-poet composed either or both poems, at least not as we would imagine a poet composing today. Further, a growing number of scholars contest the 8th century date of composition. There were multiple Trojan War story traditions developing at that time; homeric epic is not the earliest nor did it emerge as especially influential or important until the 6th century B.C.E. That much said, in classical antiquity the songs that became our Iliad and Odyssey did eventually achieve a unique and honorific status, which lived on in western European culture and literature.
People today know the Iliad as a book, usually printed as lines of poetry and translated from the ancient Greek into English or another modern language. They experience it in the silence and solitude of reading. The first lines plunge most contemporary readers into the middle of an unfamiliar story populated by dozens of equally unfamiliar characters. The modern-day encounter with the Iliad however, is unlike that of most Greeks in the ancient world, especially before the time of Alexander the Great at the end of the 4th century B.C.E. Outside of a lettered elite in the historical period, most ancient Greeks would have read Homer rarely if at all. Instead, from childhood, they would have heard Trojan War poetry, including precursors to our Iliad, sung by poet-singers in feasting halls and during regional athletic festivals or musical competitions. The basic plot and the cast of characters were not only common knowledge, they were woven into the fabric of Greek social and cultural life.
In early Greek settlements and cities, largely isolated by their location on islands or in the mountainous terrain of the southern Balkan peninsula, a rich variety of local versions grew up around the basic plot of the Trojan War story. The names of Trojan War heroes were figured into the genealogies of local elites and memorialized on civic ritual occasions. The visual world was richly imbued with images of the Trojan War. In their cities and in regional sanctuaries, ancient Greeks could have looked up at Trojan War scenes sculpted into temple pediments. They poured wine from ceramic vessels depicting the war's events, sometimes even identifying characters by name. Further, those fortunate enough to boast a hero's grave in their locale believed they enjoyed his special beneficence and they responded with rituals of worship at his tomb.
In the 7th and 6th centuries B.C.E. the development of regional sanctuaries, such as Olympia and Delphi, occasioned a new direction in Trojan War epic song; the development is commonly referred to as panhellenism ('all Greek'). Regional festivals brought together Greek singers and audiences from different cities and districts who nonethless shared a language and many social, cultural, and mythic traditions. The need for singers to perform for audiences gathered from many regions gave rise to a Trojan War epic tradition marked less by local allusions and heroes than by those with wide recognition and appeal. The result was a broadly diffuse and increasingly invariable tradition, which became over time our Iliad and Odyssey. Although the panhellenic homeric epics eventually dominated in literature, local traditions lived on, as is evinced in both poetry and art.
In sum, for generations of ancient Greeks, the encounter with the Iliad was aural and iconographic, public, variant, resonant with vibrant local traditions and, in time, also panhellenic. How those living oral traditions evolved into the paperback you hold in your hand has been the subject of much debate; so much so that is is usually referred to as the Homeric Question. Before we take up that very important question, however, we turn to the Trojan War story told in the Iliad.
The Iliad day-by-day
The Iliad begins, famously, in medias res, announcing the theme of the song as the rage of Achilles resulting from a quarrel with Agamemnon, a quarrel that occurred in the 10th and final year of the Trojan War. It concludes not with the end of the war but the end of Achilles' rage and a return to normalcy, symbolized by the funeral rites for Hektor. Although the action takes place over a period of only 45 days, the poem uses allusion to earlier events and foreshadowing of later ones to encompass the entire duration of the war.
Book 1: The Iliad opens with the narrator's appeal to the Muse ('Goddess') to sing the wrath of Achilles and its dire consequences for thousands of Achaeans (one of the Homeric terms for the invading forces, which the poem never refers to as 'Greeks'). The Muse, now implicitly the narrator, begins the song with a quarrel that erupts between Agamemnon and Achilles after Chryses, a priest of Apollo, had come to the Greek camp to ransom his captive daughter Chryseis. When Agamemnon dismissed the priest out of hand, Chryses appealed to Apollo, who avenged the insult by sending a plague into the camp.
On the 10th day of the plague, day 1 of the poem's action, Achilles convenes an assembly to discern why Apollo is angry and what must be done to appease him. The seer Kalchas pronounces Agamemnon the cause of the plague and prescribes returning the girl as the only remedy. Angry over the loss of his war-prize and the prestige she represents, the commander agrees to give her up only if the Achaean kings replace her with one of their captive women. Achilles denounces Agamemnon's military leadership as a charade rooted in greed and his demand for a replacement prize as outrageous, considering that the armies had come to Troy to help him and to pile up booty for themselves. Moreover, all the plunder had already been distributed; it would not be right to take it back. Not one to brook a public challenge, Agamemnon tells Achilles that he can go home now, but without his war-prize Briseis, whom Agamemnon claims for his own. Achilles draws his sword with intent to take the other man's life, but is restrained by Athene, who promises that waiting will pay off in prizes worth three times what Agamemnon is taking away. When Achilles finally concedes, Chryseis is returned to her father, Briseis is taken from Achilles' shelter, and the offended hero goes to the seashore to call upon his mother Thetis for help. He persuades her to ask Zeus to help the Trojans drive the Achaeans back among their ships until they recognize the madness of dishonoring the best of the Achaeans.
True to her word, after Zeus's return to Olympos twelve days later, Thetis goes to him with Achilles' request and gains his consent. When Hera takes Zeus to task for plotting with the sea-nymph against the Trojans, a quarrel ensues. Distracted, however, by Hephaestos's antics, Hera, Zeus, and the rest of the gods end the day with laughter, feasting, music, and finally, sleep.
Book 2: That night, Zeus sends a deceitful dream to Agamemnon, projecting victory for the Greeks on the next day if he will marshal them for battle.
Day 15: First day of battle
Books 2-7: In the morning Agamemnon summons the kings who form his council and tells them about the dream. He declares his purpose to test the morale of the troops in a public assembly by reporting that the war is a lost cause instead of revealing the hopeful message of the dream. If the leader of the Greek forces was hoping to rally the troops to the war effort by using reverse psychology, he was sorely disappointed. Upon his announcement in the assembly the men make for the ships and must be forcibly reassembled by Odysseus. Urged by members of his council, who now share the blame in the event of failureâ to stay the course, Agamemnon relents and sends the Achaians to eat and prepare for battle. The poet invokes the Muse again and embarks on a lengthy catalog, first of the Greek leaders and contingents and then of the Trojan and allied leaders.
The two armies take the field, but instead of engaging they consent to a duel between Paris and Menelaos to determine the outcome of the war. The narrative shifts to Troy, where Helen, summoned to a vantage point on the wall, points out the Achaean leaders to Priam and the elders of the city. Back on the battlefield, Menelaos is decisively winning the single combat when Aphrodite sweeps Paris safely back to his bedroom, where he is joined by Helen. While they make love, Menelaos claims victory in the duel by default, and a truce is called.
The scene shifts again, this time to Olympos, where the gods conspire to restart the war, in which all now have a stake, by inciting the Trojan archer Pandaros to break the truce. His arrow grazes Menelaos and the two armies join battle. The narrative first follows the exploits (known as an aristeia) of Diomedes on the battlefield. When Aphrodite tries to sweep Aineias out of his path, Diomedes wounds her, sending her crying to her mother. Hektor, with Ares at his side, gains temporary advantage, but Athene takes charge of Diomedes' chariot and urges him to attack the war-god himself. Ares complains to Zeus and the gods retire from the battlefield. When the tide of battle again turns in favor of the Greeks, Hektor slips back into the city to instruct the women to appeal to Athene, their patron goddess, for help. While there he finds and seems to say his farewells to his wife Andromache and their young son Astyanax.
Hektor returns to the plain of Troy to find the battle still raging. On the prompting of Helenos, he calls for another duel to decide the war, this time between him and a champion of the Greeks' choosing. Telamonian Ajax, known as the bulwark of the Achaeans and famous for defensiive war craft, is chosen by lot and the duel commences. Nightfall brings it to an indeterminate end. Returning to their respective dwellings, the Achaeans are counseled to dig a trench and construct an associated palisade to protect the ships, while the Trojans debate returning Helen to her husband.
Day 16 (truce)
Early in the morning, the Trojans propose a truce, to which the Greeks agree, so that each side may bury their dead.
Day 17 (truce)
The Greeks take advantage of the ceasefire to dig a trench and build a palisade between their ships, drawn up on the shore, and the plain of Troy. Angered that they had built the wall without first offering sacrifice, Poseidon protested that its memory would outlast that of the wall he and Apollo had built around the city. Zeus assures his brother that when the Achaeans depart Troy he may wipe out every trace of the makeshift fortifications.
Day 18 Second Day of Battle
Books 8-10: Zeus orders the gods to stay out of the battle and himself watches the action from the vantage point of Mt. Ida. The scale he uses to weigh the fates of the two armies indicates that the Trojans will win the day. Following a Trojan advance the Greeks enjoy a brief resurgence, but Hektor is unstoppable and the Greeks are soon driven back behind the wall. Nightfall finds the Achaeans dispirited and the Trojans camped on the plain, eager to force their way among the Greek ships at morning's light.
Agamemnon summons the Greek generals to private council and, now with utter seriousness, advises abandoning Troy that night in order to escape with their lives. Diomedes rashly advocates staying the course. Nestor, however, gently urges Agamemnon to placate Achilles with gifts and conciliatory words, knowing that Diomedes' plan is doomed to fail apart from the fighting power of the offended king. In a thinly veiled effort to obligate and subordinate Achilles, Agamemnon sends Odysseus, Ajax, and Phoinix to his shelter with a rich offer of ransom. The embassy attempts to effect his return by recasting Agamemnon's ransom as a generous gift, by enticing Achilles with the possibility of killing Hektor and winning glory, and by exploiting their bonds of friendship and filial duty, but to no avail. Asserting that he must choose between a long but inglorious life in his native Phthia and death at Troy, which would bring him undying fame, Achilles declares his intent to set sail for home the next day. That his only choice, however, is to die at Troy is evinced when he concludes that he will not leave but will also not take up arms until the Trojans threaten to set his own vessels ablaze. The embassy reports disingenuously that Achilles will leave for home the next day and he advises others to do the same. Dismayed, the council nonetheless approves Diomedes' flawed plan to carry on the war without their best combatant. Odysseus and Diomedes, clad in animal skins, set out on a noctural spying mission in hopes of discovering the designs of the Trojans, whose campfires flicker ominously on the plain.
Day 19 Third day of battle
Books 11-18: Agamemnon leads the armies out and himself kills a number of Trojans, allowing the Greek forces to gain the upper hand temporarily. When he is wounded and carried in a chariot back to the ships, Hektor recognizes it as a sign that Zeus will now favor the Trojans. Diomedes and Odysseus also retreat from the battlefield wounded, while Ajax holds the Trojans at bay. The three injured leaders are shortly followed by Machaon the physician, who is struck by an arrow and carried back to the camp in Nestor's chariot. Achilles, watching the wounded come in, suggests to Patroklos that perhaps now the Achaeans' situation is dire enough that they will come to him on bended knee. He sends his friend off to Nestor's shelter to inquire about the injured man (and perhaps to give the old king opportunity to counsel the leaders to do what is right by Achilles).
With Hektor pressing ever nearer to the palisade, Patroklos chafes to ask his question of Nestor and hurry back to Achilles. But the old man indulges in a long speech, urging his young guest to persuade Achilles either to join battle or, failing that, to send Patroklos out in Achilles' armor at the head of the Myrmidons to frighten the Trojans and buy the Greeks some breathing space. Patroklos is further delayed in returning to Achilles' shclter when he comes across a wounded companion, Eurypylos, and stops to tend him. Meanwhile Ajax manages to defend the wall surrounding the ship until Hektor comes close enough to smash one of the gates with a stone, allowing the Trojans to pour through the breach. At this moment, Zeus is temporarily distracted, perhaps by Hera's seduction, as we will see, and Poseidon takes advantage of his inattention to join the battle and rally the Greeks. The three wounded leaders, Agamemnon, Diomedes, and Odysseus also make an appearance and urge on their troops fighting among the ships. With renewed vigor, the Achaeans turn the Trojans in flight back across the ditch. Ajax hurls a huge stone at Hektor and sends him reeling; his companions manage to haul him to safety where he lies on the ground in a daze. And all the while Zeus is oblivious, having fallen into a deep sleep after being seduced by his wife.
The king of the gods awakens to find that his plan to help the Trojans, and thus fulfil his promise to Thetis, has been derailed: Hektor is on the ground vomiting blood and the Greeks are streaming out through the walls in hot pursuit. Zeus quickly orders the gods helping the Achaeans to leave the battlefield and sends Apollo to revive Hektor and help the Trojans recover the ground lost while he was sleeping. With Apollo's help, the palisade is breached a second time so that the Trojans are able to cross it in waves. The Achaeans fall back and the fighting rages among the ships; Hektor reaches for one of the prows and prepares to torch it.
Patroklos, hearing the noise of battle coming nearer, leaves Eurypolos and carries Nestor's message to Achilles. Achilles consents to let his friend lead the Myrmidons out in his armor on the condition that Patroklos not pursue the Trojans all the way to the city wall. The ruse works for a time, and Patroklos slaughters Trojans until he is stopped by Apollo, who knocks off his helmet, and Hektor, who deals him a death blow. A tug-of-war ensues over the corpse, by now stripped of its marvelous armor. When Achilles hears of his friend's death, he steps to the wall and utters a terrifying war cry, a flame emerging from his head; this frightens the Trojans so that the Achaeans recover Patroklos' body. Achilles mourns, lying in the dust, but also steels himself to return to battle with one goal: to kill Hektor. Soon afterward, he will meet his own end. Hektor now wears Achilles' arms, so Thetis asks Hephaistos to make a new set for her son.
Day 20 Fourth Day of Battle
Books 19-22: Achilles receives his new armor and summons the Achaeans to assembly in preparation for combat. He announces the end of his anger, regretting the day he had captured the woman Briseis who became the object of such a ruinous quarrel, and urges the men to marshal for battle at once. He is delayed, however, first by Agamemnon who denies personal responsibility for the quarrel and extends the same offer of ransom as he had the night before, and by Odysseus, who insists on taking a common meal before going into combat. Achilles brushes aside both symbols of reconciliation with Agamemnon, vowing to neither eat nor drink until he avenges Patroklos' death. While the men eat, Athene fortifies him with nectar and ambrosia; he then arms himself for war.
Zeus assembles the gods on Olympos and gives them leave to rejoin the fighting, in part to keep Achilles from storming the city walls contrary to his destiny. Achilles nearly kills Aineias, who is fated to survive the war, but Poseidon sweeps him out of danger. He captures 12 Trojans and sends them to the camp to die on Patroklos' funeral pyre. Lykaon, whom he had sold into slavery before, he now hews down as the Trojan warrior begs for his life. Achilles' savage slaughter of enemy warriors intensifies until he literally chokes the River Skamandros with their corpses and the river rises up against him, enraged. Up to now the gods have left Achilles on his own, but when he calls out for help against this elemental force of nature, Hera sends Hephaistos to overcome the flooding river with fire. The gods return to comic skirmishes among themselves while the berserk mortal hero cuts down the Trojans, who are now retreating in panic. Apollo distracts Achilles momentarily, allowing the last of the Trojans to escape to safety behind the city walls, except Hektor who alone remains outside. Gripped by fear, Hektor takes flight and Achilles chases him in a grim life or death race around the circuit of the city. When Athene appears near Hektor in the form of his brother, he takes courage, thinking he is not alone, and turns to face his dread opponent. He asks for an agreement that whoever is victor will return the corpse of his victim to the family for burial, but Achilles disavows any such settlement. As Priam and Hekabe look on in horror, Achilles rushes upon Hektor and drives the spear though the soft part of his neck, the only spot left vulnerable by his own glorious armor. Refusing the offer of ransom gasped out by the dying man, the raging hero counters that if he could he would hack Hektor's flesh away and eat it raw; as it is, he will leave that messy work to dogs and birds. With that, Achilles lashes the dead man's feet to his chariot and drags him back to the Achaean camp.
Book 23: That night, after the Greeks share a funeral meal, the ghost of Patroklos visits Achilles in a dream and requests a swift burial.
The Greeks burn Patroklos on a funeral pyre, together with offerings and the 12 captured Trojans.