“The wrath sing, goddess, of Peleus’ son, Achilles, that destructive wrath which brought countless woes upon the Achaeans, and sent forth to Hades many valiant souls of heroes, and made them themselves spoil for dogs and every bird; thus the plan of Zeus came to fulfillment, from the time when1 first they parted in strife Atreus’ son, king of men, and brilliant Achilles.”
Nine years after the start of the Trojan War, the Greek (“Achaean”) army sacks Chryse, a town allied with Troy. During the battle, the Achaeans capture a pair of beautiful maidens, Chryseis and Briseis. Agamennon, the leader of the Achaean forces, takes Chryseis as his prize, and Achilles, the Achaeans’ greatest warrior, claims Briseis. Chryseis’s father, Chryses, who serves as a priest of the god Apollo, offers an enormous ransom in return for his daughter, but Agamemnon refuses to give Chryseis back. Chryses then prays to Apollo, who sends a plague upon the Achaean camp.After many Achaeans die, Agamemnon consults the prophet Calchas to determine the cause of the plague. When he learns that Chryseis is the cause, he reluctantly gives her up but then demands Briseis from Achilles as compensation. Furious at this insult, Achilles returns to his tent in the army camp and refuses to fight in the war any longer. He vengefully yearns to see the Achaeans destroyed and asks his mother, the sea-nymph Thetis, to enlist the services of Zeus, king of the gods, toward this end. The Trojan and Achaean sides have declared a cease-fire with each other, but now the Trojans breach the treaty and Zeus comes to their aid.With Zeus supporting the Trojans and Achilles refusing to fight, the Achaeans suffer great losses. Several days of fierce conflict ensue, including duels between Paris and Menelaus and between Hector and Ajax. The Achaeans make no progress; even the heroism of the great Achaean warrior Diomedes proves fruitless. The Trojans push the Achaeans back, forcing them to take refuge behind the ramparts that protect their ships. The Achaeans begin to nurture some hope for the future when a nighttime reconnaissance mission by Diomedes and Odysseus yields information about the Trojans’ plans, but the next day brings disaster. Several Achaean commanders become wounded, and the Trojans break through the Achaean ramparts. They advance all the way up to the boundary of the Achaean camp and set fire to one of the ships. Defeat seems imminent, because without the ships, the army will be stranded at Troy and almost certainly destroyed.Concerned for his comrades but still too proud to help them himself, Achilles agrees to a plan proposed by Nestor that will allow his beloved friend Patroclus to take his place in battle, wearing his armor. Patroclus is a fine warrior, and his presence on the battlefield helps the Achaeans push the Trojans away from the ships and back to the city walls. But the counterattack soon falters. Apollo knocks Patroclus’s armor to the ground, and Hector slays him. Fighting then breaks out as both sides try to lay claim to the body and armor. Hector ends up with the armor, but the Achaeans, thanks to a courageous effort by Menelaus and others, manage to bring the body back to their camp. When Achilles discovers that Hector has killed Patroclus, he fills with such grief and rage that he agrees to reconcile with Agamemnon and rejoin the battle. Thetis goes to Mount Olympus and persuades the god Hephaestus to forge Achilles a new suit of armor, which she presents to him the next morning. Achilles then rides out to battle at the head of the Achaean army.Meanwhile, Hector, not expecting Achilles to rejoin the battle, has ordered his men to camp outside the walls of Troy. But when the Trojan army glimpses Achilles, it flees in terror back behind the city walls. Achilles cuts down every Trojan he sees. Strengthened by his rage, he even fights the god of the river Xanthus, who is angered that Achilles has caused so many corpses to fall into his streams. Finally, Achilles confronts Hector outside the walls of Troy. Ashamed at the poor advice that he gave his comrades, Hector refuses to flee inside the city with them. Achilles chases him around the city’s periphery three times, but the goddess Athena finally tricks Hector into turning around and fighting Achilles. In a dramatic duel, Achilles kills Hector. He then lashes the body to the back of his chariot and drags it across the battlefield to the Achaean camp. Upon Achilles’ arrival, the triumphant Achaeans celebrate Patroclus’s funeral with a long series of athletic games in his honor. Each day for the next nine days, Achilles drags Hector’s body in circles around Patroclus’s funeral bier.At last, the gods agree that Hector deserves a proper burial. Zeus sends the god Hermes to escort King Priam, Hector’s father and the ruler of Troy, into the Achaean camp. Priam tearfully pleads with Achilles to take pity on a father bereft of his son and return Hector’s body. He invokes the memory of Achilles’ own father, Peleus. Deeply moved, Achilles finally relents and returns Hector’s corpse to the Trojans. Both sides agree to a temporary truce, and Hector receives a hero’s funeral.
Achilles – The son of the military man Peleus and the sea-nymph Thetis. The most powerful warrior in The Iliad, Achilles commands the Myrmidons, soldiers from his homeland of Phthia in Greece. Proud and headstrong, he takes offense easily and reacts with blistering indignation when he perceives that his honor has been slighted. Achilles’ wrath at Agamemnon for taking his war prize, the maiden Briseis, forms the main subject of The Iliad.
Agamemnon (also called “Atrides”) – King of Mycenae and leader of the Achaean army; brother of King Menelaus of Sparta. Arrogant and often selfish, Agamemnon provides the Achaeans with strong but sometimes reckless and self-serving leadership. Like Achilles, he lacks consideration and forethought. Most saliently, his tactless appropriation of Achilles’ war prize, the maiden Briseis, creates a crisis for the Achaeans, when Achilles, insulted, withdraws from the war.
Patroclus – Achilles’ beloved friend, companion, and advisor, Patroclus grew up alongside the great warrior in Phthia, under the guardianship of Peleus. Devoted to both Achilles and the Achaean cause, Patroclus stands by the enraged Achilles but also dons Achilles’ terrifying armor in an attempt to hold the Trojans back.
Calchas – An important soothsayer. Calchas’s identification of the cause of the plague ravaging the Achaean army in Book 1 leads inadvertently to the rift between Agamemnon and Achilles that occupies the first nineteen books of The Iliad.
Peleus – Achilles’ father and the grandson of Zeus. Although his name often appears in the epic, Peleus never appears in person. Priam powerfully invokes the memory of Peleus when he convinces Achilles to return Hector’s corpse to the Trojans in Book 24.
Hector – A son of King Priam and Queen Hecuba, Hector is the mightiest warrior in the Trojan army. He mirrors Achilles in some of his flaws, but his bloodlust is not so great as that of Achilles. He is devoted to his wife, Andromache, and son, Astyanax, but resents his brother Paris for bringing war upon their family,
Priam – King of Troy and husband of Hecuba, Priam is the father of fifty Trojan warriors, including Hector and Paris. Though too old to fight, he has earned the respect of both the Trojans and the Achaeans by virtue of his level-headed, wise, and benevolent rule. He treats Helen kindly, though he laments the war that her beauty has sparked.
Hecuba – Queen of Troy, wife of Priam, and mother of Hector and Paris.
Paris (also known as “Alexander”) – A son of Priam and Hecuba and brother of Hector. Paris’s abduction of the beautiful Helen, wife of Menelaus, sparked the Trojan War. Paris is self-centered and often unmanly. He fights effectively with a bow and arrow (never with the more manly sword or spear) but often lacks the spirit for battle and prefers to sit in his room making love to Helen while others fight for him, thus earning both Hector’s and Helen’s scorn.
Chryseis – Chryses’ daughter, a priest of Apollo in a Trojan-allied town.
Briseis – A war prize of Achilles. When Agamemnon is forced to return Chryseis to her father, he appropriates Briseis as compensation, sparking Achilles’ great rage.
Chryses – A priest of Apollo in a Trojan-allied town.
The Gods and Immortals
Zeus– King of the gods and husband of Hera, Zeus claims neutrality in the mortals’ conflict and often tries to keep the other gods from participating in it. However, he throws his weight behind the Trojan side for much of the battle after the sulking Achilles has his mother, Thetis, ask the god to do so.
Hera – Queen of the gods and Zeus’ wife, Hera is a headstrong woman. She often goes behind Zeus’ back in matters on which they disagree, working with Athena to crush the Trojans, whom she passionately hates.
Athena – The goddess of wisdom, purposeful battle, and the womanly arts; Zeus’s daughter. Like Hera, Athena passionately hates the Trojans and often gives the Achaeans valuable aid.
Thetis – A sea-nymph and the devoted mother of Achilles, Thetis gets Zeus to help the Trojans and punish the Achaeans at the request of her angry son. When Achilles finally rejoins the battle, she commissions Hephaestus to design him a new suit of armor.
Apollo – A son of Zeus and twin brother of the goddess Artemis, Apollo is god of the sun and the arts, particularly music. He supports the Trojans and often intervenes in the war on their behalf.
Faith and free will: Greek literature and mythology rely heavily on the theme of fate and free will. Homer’s The Iliad is no exception. The fates of Achilles and Hector are brought up throughout the poem. More importantly, the poem seems to rest on the notion that man does not have a choice in how his life will turn out because it has already been chosen for him. For example, in Book 1, Thetis, Achilles’ mother, laments the birth of her son, alluding to his coming death during the Trojan War. Thetis behaves as if there is no escaping what has been decided by fate. Furthermore, in the following quote in Book 9, Hector treats fate and free will in the same manner:
‘Why so much grief for me?
No man will hurl me down to Death, against my fate.
And fate? No one alive has ever escaped it,
neither brave man nor coward, I tell you –
it’s born with us the day that we are born.’
Hector makes it clear to his wife, Andromache, that there is nothing anybody can do to prevent his death should it be slated to happen. According to this perspective, men have no say in the direction of their lives because fate has already decided the outcome.
Love and Friendship: the power of love and friendship is explored throughout The Iliad and is a main source of many conflicts. Romantic love, parental love, and friendship between warriors are the most common forms of love and friendship shown in the poem. The affinity between warriors is incredibly powerful, as witnessed between Achilles and Patroclus. The brotherly love between Achilles and Patroclus is more intense than any other warrior relationship exhibited in the poem, as demonstrated by the following quote spoken by Patroclus to Achilles:
‘But one thing more. A last request – grant it, please.
Never bury my bones apart from yours, Achilles,
let them lie together …
just as we grew up together in your house.’
The two men are so close that Patroclus wants to be buried along with Achilles in the same way as family would be buried together. Friendship between warriors is necessary to maintain morale during wartime, but it also extends beyond the battlefield. This brotherly friendship is what sparks Achilles’ decision to avenge Patroclus’s death by killing Hector. After killing Hector, Priam comes to claim his son’s body, and it is the understanding of love and friendship that convinces Achilles to let Priam have his son’s body.
This is also called φιλία.
The glory of war: throughout the Iliad the theme of glory in war is developed. Agamemnon displays his power that he thinks he has through disrespecting the gods. He has felt so much glory and fame from won wars that he seems to think that he is untouchable. There are other warriors such as Achilles that do no feel the same because they realize from past mistakes and trials that you cannot always win. For example, Achilles gave up many comforts that he could have had from staying home. He gave up a long and boring life that could have been spent with other people enjoying spoils. Instead the idea of going to war and proving his honor and integrity is a path that he follows sometimes willingly and other times it seems not.
Υβρις (hybris): describes a personality quality of extreme or foolish pride or dangerous overconfidence, often in combination with (or synonymous with) arrogance.
Burial while martial epics naturally touch upon the subject of burial, The Iliad lingers over it. The burial of Hector is given particular attention, as it marks the melting of Achilles’ crucial rage. The mighty Trojan receives a spectacular funeral that comes only after an equally spectacular fight over his corpse. Patroclus’s burial also receives much attention in the text, as Homer devotes an entire book to the funeral and games in the warrior’s honor. The poem also describes burials unconnected to particular characters, such as in Book 7, when both armies undertake a large-scale burial of their largely unnamed dead. The Iliad’s interest in burial partly reflects the interests of ancient Greek culture as a whole, which stressed proper burial as a requirement for the soul’s peaceful rest. However, it also reflects the grim outlook of The Iliad, its interest in the relentlessness of fate and the impermanence of human life.
In the next article, I will write about the Odyssey.