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The Iliad
Homer


THE STORY

BOOK I

Homer opens the Iliad by calling on the goddess or muse for divine inspiration. Then he tells us the theme of his poem- the anger of Achilleus and the resulting troubles it brought to the Achaian warriors. He sets forth another important theme, too: "the will of Zeus."

NOTE: The Trojan War is not mentioned by name. Homer assumed that the readers (or listeners) would be familiar with the legend and characters. What's really important to Homer is the dramatic and psychological dimension to this legend. That's why he centers his poem on a human story- the tragedy of Achilleus.

Homer quickly fills us in on the details of an argument in the Achaian camp. During their siege of Troy, the Achaians have been raiding neighboring towns. In one such raid they take as prizes two women: Chryseis, the daughter of the priest Chryses, and the fair Briseis. As the poem begins, Chryses has come to the Achaian camp to ransom his daughter. Although the Argive army agrees to the ransom, Agamemnon, the commander-in-chief, who had taken her as his prize, refuses. Chryses then turns to a higher authority; he prays to his god, Apollo, who favors him by sending a plague on the Achaians, which rages for nine days.

On the tenth day Achilleus, the greatest warrior among the Achaians, calls a general assembly of the army and suggests they ask their soothsayer Kalchas why Apollo is angry with them and what can be done to appease him. The seer reluctantly tells them the truth: unless Agamemnon gives the girl back, the plague will continue.

Kalchas was right to be nervous; Agamemnon is outraged. He insists that the girl is his prize, and if he's forced to give her up he will demand someone else's. At this point Agamemnon is the one who appears hot-tempered and unreasonable; Achilleus is calm. He responds that all the prizes have already been distributed, but Agamemnon will be awarded riches from a later expedition. Achilleus and Agamemnon here begin to stake out their opposition, which will underlie the plot of the entire poem.

NOTE: Keep in mind that the Achaian army was made up of many kings and their followers, each with its own tribal pride. Prizes determined in part the honor of each group. As the quarrel develops, this sense of social honor and rank will support Agamemnon's position. Achilleus' reaction is more emotional: Why should he or another be forced to give up something he's rightfully won? Two definitions of honor clash, one based on rank, the other on a person's actual ability.

The quarrel increases. Agamemnon threatens to take Briseis, Achilleus' prize. Achilleus, furious at this provocative insult, reminds Agamemnon that he has been fighting- and fighting valiantly- for ten years, not only for his own sake but for Agamemnon and his brother Menelaos. Formerly, Achilleus was content to accept small gifts while Agamemnon always got the best. He has respected the social organization that far. But now Achilleus threatens to leave the war with his men and sail for home. You can imagine how the warriors would gasp at that threat.

Agamemnon is adamant: if he must return Chryseis he will take Briseis. Achilleus' anger mounts. He considers killing Agamemnon then and there, but as he begins to draw his sword, Athene comes and stays his hand. The old counselor Nestor also tries to calm the quarrel, but without success. After freeing Chryseis, Agamemnon claims Briseis, and Achilleus, in turn, vows to fight no more on behalf of the Argive cause.

Weeping in desolation, Achilleus calls to his mother, the sea goddess Thetis, and asks her to intercede with Zeus on his behalf so that the Trojans will be temporarily victorious, dramatic proof that the Achaians can't win without Achilleus. As the gods assemble on Olympos, Thetis pleads her case to Zeus who agrees reluctantly, for he knows that his wife Hera favors the Achaians.

NOTE: Two motifs announced at the beginning will work through the entire poem: "the anger of Peleus' son Achilleus" and "the will of Zeus." Achilleus leaves the poem in Book I, not to return until Book IX, and not actually to rejoin the battle until Book XVIII. Yet all the time his presence is hovering over the poem, since we know that at any moment his arrival could turn the tide of battle in favor of the Achaians. During this time Achilleus, the great man of action, is inactive, and this forces us to probe his mind instead of his deeds, to figure out why he is behaving the way he does. You will probably find that your feelings toward Achilleus change over the course of the poem. When the Argives are being slaughtered you may feel his holding back is self-indulgent in the worst way. On the other hand, you may also be aware of the enormity of his idealism, his willingness to sacrifice everything for what he believes to be right and just. His own feelings and their context are extremely complex; all his actions- sulking, raging, and fighting- are written large for the Achaians.

The will of Zeus is demonstrated in his plan, which becomes a kind of scaffolding on which the Iliad rests. As readers you are privy to the devices of this plan, while the Trojans and the Achaians are at its mercy. Zeus' plan is another way of describing the consequences of Achilleus' anger. To the Greeks, the world was acted out in harmony with the gods: whatever took place was part of a divine plan. In the Iliad only you and the immortals are clued in beforehand as to what will take place.

BOOK II

Zeus sends Agamemnon a false message in a dream, saying that now is the time to marshal the Argives for victory. Agamemnon calls the army into assembly but instead tells them it's time to return home; they are getting nowhere in the war. Perhaps he is testing their valor or assuming that the force of their honor will give them a greater enthusiasm to fight than if they were merely obeying his command. Much to his surprise, the men leap to their feet and run to their ships, eager to sail. Athene, alerted by Hera, appears to Odysseus and urges him to stop the soldiers from fleeing.

Obediently, Odysseus reassembles the forces. When they are gathered, Thersites, an ugly man of no rank, abuses Agamemnon. His speech is a kind of parody of Achilleus' former scolding. For the Greeks, physical beauty was a sign of moral beauty, so we might see in Thersites' misshapenness a lack of heroic character as well; after all, he's urging them to give up. Odysseus and Nestor, on the other hand, rouse the Achaians to stay and fight. Agamemnon agrees, and retires with the highest commanders to make offerings to Zeus. We, however, know this won't have any effect. "He spoke," Homer tells us, "but none of this would the son of Kronos accomplish,/who accepted the victims, but piled up the unwished-for hardship."

Much of the rest of Book II urges us to feel the scope of this drama. The first long simile of the poem compares the assembling army to "swarms of clustering bees that issue forever/in fresh bursts from the hollow in the stone... fluttering in swarms together this way and that way." We are told the earth groaned under the weight of the multitude. Agamemnon reminds the army that there are ten Achians to every Trojan. Most important, a series of similes emphasizes the size of the Achaian army: their bronze shields light up the scene with the force of a forest fire; their numbers are compared to flocks of wild marsh birds; the sound of their horses' feet makes the plain of Skamandros thunder. And as they take their position in the fields, they are themselves compared to the innumerable wildflowers that appear in spring. Finally,

Like the multitudinous nations of swarming insects
who drive hither and thither about the stalls of the sheepfold
in the season of spring when the milk splashes in the milk pails:
in such numbers the flowing-haired Achaians stood up
through the plain against the Trojans, hearts burning to break
them.

The entire Achaian host is then marshaled for the so-called "Catalog of Ships." This section of almost 300 lines describes all the ships, commanders, and contingents assembled for the Trojan War.

NOTE: It isn't important to read and remember every name on this long list. Many of the figures described here have little part in the rest of the poem. Many scholars have even suggested that the Catalog of Ships wasn't written by Homer. It seems, nevertheless, to be a fairly accurate account of the geography and politics of Mykenaian Greece. Whether or not it was written by Homer, he places it here to great effect. Its sweeping power gives the poem a sense of epic dimensions. In reading it, you are actually forced to experience the grand scale of the poem. It's like a long, slow sweep of a movie camera over a huge crowd scene. The longer it goes on, the more actors it reveals, until we feel awed by such a monumental event.

After the Achaian army is inventoried, Zeus sends a messenger to the Trojans, and there follows a somewhat shorter catalog of the Trojan army and its allies. Though the battles in the rest of the poem are almost always described man to man, the size of the army has now been set up as a dramatic background. Many human lives will be involved in every turn of the armies' fortunes.

BOOK III

The Trojans and Achaians meet for combat. Menelaos and Paris (Alexandros) single each other out, but then Paris shrinks from the encounter. His brother Hektor chides him for his good looks and his running after women, and especially for refusing to fight the man he wronged. Paris explains that his beauty is the gift of Aphrodite, not of his own doing.

Paris suggests that he and Menelaos meet in single man-to-man combat. The victor will win Helen, and the lives of the warriors will be spared. Everyone agrees to the terms, and the Trojan king, Priam, is sent for to seal the pledge. This duel sets up the symbolic nature of the war: it's being fought over Helen, and for the sake of Menelaos and Paris. These two fighters also stand for the two armies that face each other throughout the poem.

Meanwhile Helen is in her chamber at Troy, weaving a robe on which is depicted the battle of the Trojans and Achaians. Note that she is embroidering a pattern of events that she herself has brought about. Later, in Book VI, she'll say that the war is being fought for the sake of the poem that will sing about it. We are kept conscious that the events here will echo through time.

Helen is summoned by Zeus' messenger Iris to appear on the Trojan fortification wall. While there, she describes to Priam the different commanders of the Argive army.

NOTE: This is one of the most famous passages in the Iliad, known as the "teichoscopia" ("view from the wall"). Some readers have suggested that this episode, as well as the single combat, would have been more likely to occur in the beginning of the war, not in its tenth year. But though Homer is not at the beginning of the war, he is at the beginning of his poem, and he must set up certain poetic structures. On the wall, Helen is a vision of beauty, and her divinelike presence will drift through the entire poem, as its cause and inspiration.

On the battlefield, Menelaos and Paris prepare to do battle. This is the first of many one-on-one fights that Homer uses to personalize his battle scenes. Paris carefully puts on his armor, one of several similar descriptions in the Iliad. It's as if, like an athlete warming up or an actor putting on his makeup, the soldier heightens his nerve for battle with each separate piece of equipment he puts on.

Paris throws his spear at Menelaos but misses. Menelaos hits Paris but doesn't wound him; as he moves in on the Trojan, Aphrodite snatches Paris away, spiriting him back to Troy. Aphrodite then appears to Helen and urges her to go to Paris. Helen argues with the goddess, suggesting that Aphrodite go herself if she thinks he's so beautiful. But in the end, under the goddess's threats, Helen goes to Paris and lies with him in bed. Why does Helen argue here? Perhaps she's acting out her own conflict: should she be with her lover, Paris, or her husband, Menelaos? When she gives in to the will of the goddess, it's as if she's giving in to her own desires for Paris. The two of them meet in love while the battle is set to clash about them; Homer shows us his understanding of the "blind" nature of love and sexual attraction, which set this whole tragic situation in motion.

Meanwhile, Menelaos is left raging on the battlefield, looking for his vanished opponent.

BOOK IV

Now we move to Mount Olympos, where the gods sit in council. Zeus suggests that since Menelaos seems to have won the battle (by default), perhaps it's time to stop the fighting. But Hera and Athene are intent on bringing further destruction to the Trojans, and at their urging Zeus gives the command to let the war continue. This scene has a mixture of friviolity and bloodthirstiness. The gods' councils are almost parodies of human ones- yet their power is so much greater, it seems foolish for them to be quibbling like mortals. Their morals sometimes even seem lower than those of the warrior heroes. Since gods and goddesses are already immortal, they aren't concerned with heroic action as mortals are. Homer shows us how capricious and indifferent the destiny that rules us can be. But it is also clear that Homer uses his deities simply for comic relief.

Athene convinces a Trojan, Pandaros, to break the truce by shooting an arrow at Menelaos. The arrow draws blood although it doesn't seriously wound Menelaos. Agamemnon is tenderly concerned about his brother. As a physician comes to attend Menelaos' wound, the Achaians and Trojans again prepare themselves for battle.

Agamemnon, as commander-in-chief of the forces, rouses his men to fight, passing among the ranks and stopping to encourage his greatest commanders. The scene shows Homer's understanding of psychology; each of these great warriors reveals his personality in the way that he replies. First Agamemnon speaks glowingly to Idomeneus, leader of the Kretans, then to the two Aiantes (Telemonian Aias and Aias, son of Oileus). Next he rouses the old commander Nestor, who, mentally vigorous in spite of his age, urges his troops and charioteers to hold their ranks in battle. Agamemnon then encounters Odysseus, whom he chides for not getting ready more quickly. Odysseus responds angrily, defending his past valor. Agamemnon is quick to apologize, laughing. Either he was playing with Odysseus, or he has already learned enough from his quarrel with Achilleus to keep his fighters' tempers in check. Agamemnon visits Diomedes and rebukes him too for holding back. In contrast to Odysseus, however, Diomedes accepts the king's words, respecting his rank and understanding his motivation: he's not rousing the men to anger; he's rousing them to fight.

The Trojans and Achaians meet in a furious battle, attended by the war god Ares and three allegorical figures: Terror, Fear, and Hate. (Put yourself in a soldier's boots. Aren't these the most likely emotions you'd feel?) The fighting is severe and many men are killed. Apollo urges on the Trojans, reminding them that the Argives are without their greatest warrior, Achilleus, who "beside the ships mulls his heartsore anger." Athene, for her part, prods the Achaians, guiding their hands to destruction.

NOTE: The battles in the Iliad are methodical and progress logically from step to step, keeping our interest with very sharp detail. As the poem goes on, you'll notice that opponents in battle seek not merely to kill each other but to dishonor each other's corpses by removing their armor. Homer uses this to further the fighting: a warrior who steps forward to remove his victim's armor becomes a likely target for another's spear. But the act is a matter of honor, not to be taken lightly; a warrior's armor is an important sign of his dignity. Both will be of immense importance later in the battle between Achilleus and Hektor.

BOOK V

The furious battle continues. On the Achaian side Diomedes distinguishes himself most of all. This book has been known since ancient times as the Diomedeia, because it is here that Diomedes achieves his aristeia, his highest moment of glory in the war. He is fighting so fiercely and thoroughly that Homer tells us we might not be able to tell which side he is on. When he's shot by Pandaros' arrow, he has it pulled out without flinching.

The gods are now flinging themselves into the battle. Athene comes to Diomedes and promises to guide and protect him. Note that the goddess visits Diomedes when he is exhibiting true heroic grit: we could see this as not a physical visit, but another way of describing his heroism and prowess. Athene tells him not to fight the gods if he recognizes them- except Aphrodite.

Diomedes rages against the Trojans, killing many and wounding Aineias, Aphrodite's son. When she comes to carry her son off the battlefield, Diomedes strikes her with his spear, piercing her skin so that the ichor, which immortals have instead of blood, flows from it. This is a shocking moment and must have been especially so for Homer's audience. Aphrodite's beautiful form should be above the ravages of war, and Diomedes might be going too far. The goddess departs in pain to Olympos, where she's comforted by her mother Dione, but Zeus simply warns her to keep away from war.

Ares, the bloodthirsty god of war- sometimes he's referred to as war itself- now enters the battle on the side of the Trojans, inspiring Hektor to rally his forces. The Danaans fight bravely, but they're steadily pushed back by Hektor and his Ares-inspired men. Hera and Athene- who hate Trojans, remember- are furious with Ares for interfering, and they plead with Zeus to let them interfere on behalf of the Achaians. He agrees, and Athene dresses herself for battle, arming herself with the terrifying shield called the aegis, hung with the figures of Terror, Hatred, Battle Strength, Onslaught, and the grim Gorgon.

NOTE: The aegis, belonging to Zeus but frequently wielded by Athene, is the ultimate offensive and defensive weapon. Homer, whose descriptions are usually so specific, seems almost to back away from anything so powerful. The aegis is essentially a goatskin shield, but its name in Greek also suggests "stormcloud" or "hurricane wind." When it is shaken in the face of the enemy, the effect is one of total terror. In the middle of the shield sits the literal head of Medusa, the snake-haired creature whose face had the ability to turn men to stone. Perseus killed Medusa, cut off its head, and gave it to Athene to use on the aegis. The aegis will be used later in the Iliad by both Apollo and Achilleus, and in the end it will cover the corpse of Hektor.

Thus armed, Athene together with Hera rouses the courage of the Argives. Athene appears to Diomedes, who has been keeping back from the fray, both because of his wound but also because Athene had earlier warned him not to fight any god but Aphrodite- and Ares was clearly present in the murderous Trojan attack. Athene not only lifts her ban but also pushes aside Diomedes' charioteer and rides with him into battle herself. They meet Ares, and Diomedes spears him in the belly. Howling "with a sound as great as nine thousand men make, or ten thousand,/when they cry as they carry into the fighting the fury of the war god," Ares flees to Olympos. Thus Diomedes wounds a second god during his aristeia. Again, Zeus shows little sympathy; he simply finds Ares' bloodthirstiness offensive.

Diomedes' success seems stunning. He has killed many Trojans and wounded two gods. We wonder: Will the Argives have to pay for his boldness? Athene and Hera return to Olympos, leaving the mortals to fight it out for themselves- for the time being.

BOOK VI

Diomedes continues his aristeia, and the Achaians fight strongly. Menelaos captures Adrestos alive, and he's just about to spare his life for ransom when Agamemnon hotly urges him to kill Adrestos and all the rest of the Trojans, even "the young man child that the mother carries/still in her body." Agamemnon stabs the captive. This scene seems particularly cold-blooded. Maybe Homer is offering us a contrasting character study in the different attitudes of the two brother-kings. Or he may be contrasting two views of war; perhaps Agamemnon is right- since they are at war they should ruthlessly kill all the Trojans, and then we may feel differently about the casualties of war. Homer is certainly shading his story, but there is no easy answer to the problem of what is moral in a time of war.

Meanwhile, Glaukos and Diomedes face each other for combat, but when they discover their ancestors had been friends, they put down their spears and exchange armor in a gesture of friendship. This is in stunning opposition to the scene with Menelaos and Agamemnon, and shows a nobler side to the Achaians. It also lets us ease into the gentle, domestic scenes within the walls of Troy.

At the same time, this scene sets a note of sorrow, of mortal loss, that pervades Book VI. Glaukos' lines to Diomedes are some of the most beautiful and saddest in the poem. "Why ask of my generation?" he says;

As is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity.
The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the live timber
burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning.
So one generation of men will grow while another dies.

There is simple wisdom in the statement, but also the sense that it's vain for mortals to strive after immortality. This is a key to the heroic concept, where it's important to die well.

Hektor arrives at the city, planning to make offerings to Athene to calm her rage against the Trojans. First he meets his mother, Queen Hekabe, and urges her to gather the women to offer prayer to Athene. Then Hektor goes to Paris' house and criticizes him for hanging back from the fighting. Helen adds her own, surprisingly not very flattering description of Paris and bemoans her fate that will be sung by the poets to come. Paris and Helen seem antagonistic here, after their lovemaking. In dramatic contrast, we next see the loving relationship between Hektor and his wife Andromache.

Hektor goes to find his wife, who has been watching the battle in distress from the city towers. Andromache, crying, runs to greet her husband and pours out her heart to him, begging him to stay home. Throughout this scene Homer's descriptions are extremely emotional, and the feeling he shows between husband and wife (and child) seems absolutely modern, especially compared to the formal, heroic tone of the rest of the poem. Based on these passages, many modern readers have decided they felt more sympathy for the Trojans than for the Achaians, and they assume that Homer had similar feelings. But any compassion we may feel for the Trojans should heighten our sense of the tragedy of Achilleus, as well. Homer's intimate portrait of life in Troy highlights the terrible conflict between war and peace. Even though Hektor would rather stay with Andromache, he offers instead what is practically a credo for the heroic age:

All these things are in my mind also, lady; yet I would feel deep shame
before the Trojans, and the Trojan women with trailing garments,
if like a coward I were to shrink aside from the fighting;
and the spirit will not let me, since I have learned to be valiant
and to fight always among the foremost ranks of the Trojans,
winning for my own self great glory, and for my father.

Hektor reaches out to hold his son, but the boy is at first frightened by his father's helmet. Hektor then leaves to join Paris.

Up until now we've understood what Menelaos and His Argives are fighting for, now we know what Hektor is fighting for- Troy, his home. Yet we know Troy is doomed: Hektor himself tells us "there will come a day when sacred Ilion shall perish." The book is full of tragic foreshadowing. Hektor carefully describes how he has imagined his wife being taken captive after the fall of Troy; it is a heartrending account. Andromache has already told us she is an orphan, and now she tells Hektor that "you are father to me, and my honoured mother,/you are my brother, and you it is who are my young husband." Yet we know that Hektor too is doomed to die, and we ache for Andromache's loss. Andromache departs from Hektor, "turning to look back on the way, letting the live tears fall."

BOOK VII

Hektor and Paris return to battle. Athene and Apollo meet and decide it's time for a break in the fighting. Under their guidance Hektor's brother Helenos proposes that Hektor challenge the Argives to man-to-man combat. Athene and Apollo watch the scene disguised as vultures- rather disturbing forms for gods to take.

Hektor issues his challenge, and though the Achaians at first cower at the suggestion, they eventually draw lots and Aias is chosen. Hektor and Telemonian Aias battle, with Aias getting the upper hand. Before anything conclusive happens, the heralds break up the fight on the grounds that night is coming. Hektor and Aias exchange gifts in a display of formal tribal etiquette. Interestingly, anthropologists have discovered that certain peoples today still follow similar customs.

Nestor, the wise old strategist, proposes that the Achaians take time out to burn their dead, and then build a ditch and fortifications to protect their ships. Meanwhile at Troy, Antenor rises and suggests that the Trojans return Helen and all her possessions to the Argives. Paris refuses to give Helen back, but he does agree to return her possessions. Priam urges Idaios to go to the Achaians with Paris' offer and adds the suggestion that a truce be made so that the dead may be gathered and burned. Both sides need to take a rest from war.

The Achaians resist any ransom but agree to the temporary truce. The Trojans gather their dead. In a solemn scene they wash the corpses and lift them onto wagons. They're bursting with sorrow, yet Priam commands them to stay silent. The Achaians also gather and burn their dead, and then build fortifications around a ditch. These battlements will figure heavily in the fighting to come.

On Olympos, Poseidon (who with Apollo had built the giant walls of Troy) says he's annoyed with the Achaians for not making a sacrifice before building their walls, but really he is afraid their Mykenaian workmanship will outlast his. Zeus promises Poseidon that after the Achaians return home he can swallow their walls in his waves. (Some commentators have suggested that in this scene Homer was offering a reason why these marvelous Achaian walls were no longer standing.) Zeus thunders disagreeably all night long. The solemn image of the two burning funeral pyres remains.

BOOK VIII

This book really belongs to Zeus. We feel his ability to be present everywhere, watching every little action. At no other point in the Iliad does he influence the action so directly. The Greeks understood that thunder and lightning were the language of Zeus, the means by which he spoke directly to mortals; watch how he uses them, to warn mortals and to threaten the other gods.

Dawn rises. At an assembly of immortals Zeus warns the gods and goddesses not to interfere in the Trojan War. In a muscle-flexing speech, he warns them that in a tug of war against all of them he would still be the victor.

The battle continues at Troy. Zeus, having come down to Mount Ida, raises his golden scales, placing in each end the fates of the Trojans and the Achaians. The Achaian fate lowers as the Trojan fate rises, so we know beforehand that the Trojans will triumph today. Zeus shoots a flash of lightning over the terrified Greeks. Many readers have wondered whether Zeus controls fate or is controlled by it: the answer isn't entirely clear from this passage. Zeus has already announced to us the plan of his will, so in a sense the scales are merely demonstrating poetically what he has already decided. On the other hand, the scales of fate may really be the means by which Zeus reaches his decisions. Zeus uses the scales again in Book XXII to decide the fates of Hektor and Achilleus.

Now Nestor and Diomedes charge at the Trojans. Zeus lets loose a bolt of lightning that lands in front of their chariot, scaring the horses. Nestor, recognizing Zeus' work, advises Diomedes to turn back. Diomedes is loath to flee from his heroic duty (remember, after yesterday he has quite a reputation to keep). He's afraid that Hektor will taunt him as a coward- and, indeed, Hektor does just that. Diomedes ponders whether to turn his horses around and fight Hektor. Three times he starts to turn, and each time Zeus thunders a warning not to. Diomedes and Nestor finally leave, and Hektor boasts to the Trojans that the tide is turning in their favor. Here the intervention of the gods seems more solemn and definite than the free-for-all of the day before.

Hera inspires Agamemnon to rouse the Argives, and their spirits revive. Teukros, brother to Telemonian Aias, kills several Trojans with his bow and arrow, darting out and then running back to find cover beneath his brother's shield. But Hektor stops Teukros with a stone that breaks his collarbone. Again the Trojans push the Achaians back toward their ditch.

Hera and Athene can't bear to sit back and do nothing; they prepare to go down to aid the Achaians. Watching all, Zeus sends them a warning via his messenger Iris: if they interfere, he will lame their horses and give Athene and Hera lightning wounds that won't heal for ten years. The goddesses think better of their plans.

Zeus returns to Olympos to speak to the sulking Hera and Athene, explaining his intentions:

For Hektor the huge will not sooner be stayed from his fighting
until there stirs by the ships the swift-footed son of Peleus
on that day when they shall fight by the sterns of the beached ships
in the narrow place of necessity over fallen Patroklos.

Thus Zeus clearly announces his plan, which is actually the plot of the poem. We are reminded that the events taking place are leading up to the return of Achilleus. From here on the immortals generally interfere less in the doings of the war; Zeus' plan simply works itself out, inexorably.

Hektor assembles his forces for the night, and they camp on the plains of Troy, their fifty thousand campfires burning like the stars in heaven. Again, imagine this as a vast panorama in a movie, the night sky reflecting the army camps.

BOOK IX

Agamemnon once again summons the Achaians together. He notes that victory seems to be with the Trojans and suggests they turn their ships toward home. Diomedes, still high on his recent success, furiously rebukes him and vows to stay. The other Achaians shout their agreement. These are the same men who fled to their ships in Book II; they seem nobler now. Again, Nestor adds the voice of wisdom, saying that Diomedes' argument is incomplete. It's time, he says, for a feast, and then Agamemnon should follow the advice of his best counselors.

At the council of the lords of the Achaians, Nestor speaks the rest of his mind. He urges Agamemnon to apologize to Achilleus so they can get him back fighting for their side.

Maybe Agamemnon's had time to cool down; maybe he realizes that the battle's getting serious and he has to put his people's interest before his pride; or maybe it's just easier to give in during a privy council than in front of his army. At any rate, Agamemnon now admits he's been blind and rash. He reels off the numerous treasures he will offer to Achilleus- gold, horses, the girl Briseis, land, even his own daughters, and more. He can't resist adding at the end, however, that Achilleus should yield to him because he is "kinglier" and the elder. Odysseus, Telemonian Aias, and Phoinix (an old family friend of Achilleus) are sent as ambassadors to Achilleus.

NOTE: At his hut Achilleus is singing with a lyre a poem about heroes. This poem within a poem is a special self-conscious touch by Homer. (In the Odyssey a poet sings to Odysseus a poem about the Trojan War.) No one but Achilleus sings poetry in the Iliad; it's like the highest honor Homer, a poet himself, could give to a character.

Most of the rest of this book is six long speeches, in which the ambassadors try to persuade Achilleus to accept Agamemnon's apology, and he refuses. Homer shows his knowledge of the classical art of rhetoric- polished formal argument- but more than that, he subtly reveals these characters' personalities in the way they talk and what they say. Odysseus explains the situation to Achilleus. He recounts the gifts Agamemnon is offering (cleverly leaving out the last part of Agamemnon's speech). Achilleus answers Odysseus brilliantly, and his argument is worth studying; it's the deepest insight we get into his thinking. He uses a complex series of rhetorical strategies, and readers have had many differing opinions about them.

Why, asks Achilleus, should anyone fight, so long as the weak and the strong are honored alike? In other words, if a warrior's gifts of honor (such as Briseis was) may be taken away at a whim, he's left with no honor gained. Achilleus claims he feels especially dishonored since he was the only one whose prize was taken away.

Also, he cleverly points out, isn't the war being fought for the sake of a woman- Helen- who was taken from one man by another? His case is pretty similar; why shouldn't he be allowed to be as outraged as Menelaos was? Agamemnon can keep his gifts, Achilleus says. They're worthless without honor. He tells Odysseus that Thetis had told him he had two fates: either to win glory at Troy and die young, or to go home safely but live unknown and unhonored. What would be the point of dying for glory, if it can be so easily taken away? Thus Achilleus reveals that he's not just hurt beneath his anger; he also feels the heroic code is being questioned. We can see how profoundly he's shaken by that.

Some readers have felt, however, that Achilleus' arguments here are the beginning of his downfall. Agamemnon has admitted his fault and offered a generous recompense, yet Achilleus holds onto his anger. This seems mean-spirited, and it seriously imperils the lives of his fellow fighters.

Phoinix tries to convince Achilleus to return to battle by telling him the story of Meleagros who, in a similar situation, waited too long and regretted it. This is clearly the speech of an old man; like Nestor's speeches, it's full of digressions and parables, and he adds a tug on the heartstrings, reminding Achilleus that he practically reared him.

NOTE: Included in Phoinix's argument is the allegory of the prayers. This describes the relationship between prayers, or asking forgiveness, and the ruin, or blindness, that follows one who does not have the sense of courage (or humility) to admit wrong. These figures are startlingly personified by Homer, and their purpose is right to the point of the argument. Agamemnon has already admitted to his blindness; shouldn't Achilleus be next? The root word for blindness is ate, conceived as something that takes over a person, clouding his judgment. Along with anger, it is one of the major moral themes of the Iliad.

Aias also tries to convince Achilleus, but he won't be moved. The messengers return glumly to Agamemnon. Diomedes recognizes that Achilleus will fight only when he's ready in his heart. They all retire for the night.

BOOK X

In contrast to the formal, noble councils of Book IX, we plunge now into an episode of night, confusion, secrecy. Some scholars believe this book was at one point a story on its own and was only later worked into the Iliad, either by later editors or by Homer himself. It is, in any event, a gripping interlude. It isn't easy to get a moral handle on it: it has a ruthlessness that may be meant to counteract the heroics of war.

Neither Agamemnon nor Menelaos can sleep, they're both so distraught with the way the battle's going. They decide to send a spy to the Trojan camp to discover the enemy plans. Diomedes volunteers and chooses Odysseus as his companion. Under cover of night, the two stealthily make their way toward the Trojans, guided by the cries of a heron sent by Athene.

Hektor and his commanders can't sleep either. Hektor too sees the need for espionage; he offers a reward to the scout who will steal toward the Achaian ships. A man named Dolon rises to the bait. This book is, in fact, often called the Doloneia, after this unfortunate Trojan scout. He's a kind of Trojan counterpart to Thersites in Book II. Dolon is described as evil-looking, exhibiting greed rather than intelligence. He wears a wolf pelt and martin's cap, which may leave you with a weasily impression of him.

Dolon is sighted by Diomedes and Odysseus before he can get very far, and he's clearly no match for them. Homer describes the two Achaians as "rip-fanged hounds" after some wild prey, and Dolon is literally trapped by them. You may even feel that Diomedes and Odysseus toy with Dolon as a cat toys with a mouse before it gobbles it up. Such behavior doesn't reflect much glory on the Achaians-or on the Trojans, if Dolon is their representative. Dolon gibbers with his teeth chattering. Odysseus tells him not to fear or worry about being killed, but his smooth talk is just a way to get information from Dolon on the setup of the Trojan camp. Dolon tells all, particularly mentioning the recently arrived contingent of Thracians, led by King Rhesos, who has in his possession some extraordinary white horses. Having gotten all the information they need, Diomedes abruptly beheads Dolon; his "head still speaking dropped in the dust."

NOTE: Some readers have seen these actions of Odysseus and Diomedes as barbarous and deceitful. Others defend them legalistically, saying that although Odysseus promises Dolon no fear of death, Diomedes is the one who kills him.

Notice that the Achaians never get a chance to use any of this information. This episode does nothing to further the plot. It does, however, show a seamier side of war. The Greek audience, too, probably enjoyed Dolon's stupidity, and Diomedes and Odysseus' easy victory over him.

Odysseus and Diomedes surprise the Thracians while they are sleeping. Diomedes kills thirteen men, including the king, and Odysseus drags their bodies out of the way to clear a path for the horses. Again, the action is so calculated it makes you feel these two heroes are very bloodthirsty. The Achaians escape with Rhesos' fabulous horses and return to camp. Diomedes and Odysseus cleanse themselves in the sea, as if to wash away the gore.

BOOK XI

At sunrise the allegorical figure of Hate mounts the ship of Odysseus and gives a terrible cry to rouse the Achaians.

Agamemnon elaborately dons his armor. The arming of Agamemnon is very carefully detailed: his rich armor with its heraldic symbols emphasizes the power of his rank rather than his personal qualities. Athene and Hera cap off his arming with a crash of thunder, "doing honour to the lord of deep- golden Mykenai." Later we'll see Achilleus' divinely crafted armor, especially in Book XVIII. The elaborately wrought panorama of Greek life shown on his shield will give Achilleus human and moral stature, as well as supernatural strength, in contrast to Agamemnon's kingly status. This is the longest of Homer's ritualistic arming scenes. It prepares us for the coming aristeia, this time Agamemnon's. With enormous power, Agamemnon kills Trojan after Trojan. He's compared to a lion- as befits his royal station- and to an obliterating fire that "comes down on the timbered forest/and the roll of the mind carries it everywhere, and bushes/leaning under the force of the fire's rush tumble uprooted." Under Agamemnon's leadership the Achaians push the Trojans back toward their city wall, as far as the Skaian Gates. But it's only a temporary triumph; Zeus gives word to Hektor that after Agamemnon is wounded victory will be with him. Agamemnon is soon stabbed through the elbow with a spear and is forced to leave the battlefield.

One by one the great Argive heroes are wounded. It's as if Homer is creating a vacuum, which will cry for someone (Achilleus we hope) to fill it. Diomedes is pierced through the foot by an arrow from Paris (Alexandros). Homer, who's always careful to add characterization to his war scenes, shows Paris laughing at his own work (archers never look as dignified in Homer's poems as spear-throwers or sword- fighters do). Diomedes, not at all frightened, scoffs at Paris, and with characteristic unflinching bravado, has Odysseus pull out the arrow.

Odysseus' short speech to himself is interesting. This is the closest Homer comes to actually presenting a character's thoughts in the Iliad, Odysseus is literally thinking out loud. Odysseus feels the pressure of the heroic code of honor: "[I]f one is to win honour in battle, he must by all means/stand his ground strongly, whether he be struck or strike down another."

But Odysseus is wounded next. Telemonian Aias steps forward to cover the flanks as the Argives retreat. When Machaon, a physician, is hit, Nestor drives him in his chariot back to the encampment. Hektor spurs the Trojans on. Eurypylos is the fifth Achaian commander to be wounded.

Achilleus has been watching the rout while perched on the stern of his ship. We can tell from this that Achilleus is by no means unconcerned for the Achaians. He is double-minded, wanting to fight for glory and yet wanting to hang back for honor. He asks his best friend Patroklos to find out if the man he sees being led from battle is Machaon- though perhaps he is also hoping Patroklos will find out more about the battle in general. This is the beginning of Patroklos' involvement, acting as a surrogate for Achilleus. It's also the beginning of his downfall.

Patroklos meets Nestor, the garrulous old man, who regales him with some long anecdotes. Nestor has an ulterior motive: he wants Patroklos to urge Achilleus to join the fight or, if that fails, to put on Achilleus' armor himself to fool the Trojans. Nestor is one of the most elaborately conceived characters in the Iliad, and his long-winded speeches are consistently of the same order. They bring in history- often Nestor's own- and legend to serve as moral examples to whomever he is addressing. Nestor tends to wander, and he loves to dwell on a past glory that he can no longer achieve in battle, but he is clearly the elder statesman of the Iliad, and his councils are often the deciding factors that turn the plot.

Patroklos is persuaded by Nestor's speech. Before returning to Achilleus he stops to help the wounded Eurypylos.

THE STORY, continued

THE POEM


ECC [The Iliad Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]

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© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
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