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The Iliad


Homer's Iliad originated at the beginnings of Western civilization. Its power is so timeless that it has been read continuously for more than 2500 years. Yet its origin lies shrouded in mystery, tangled in mythology, religion, and ancient tribal history. Aside from these elements, the real excitement of the Iliad lies in its brilliant poetry, which is sustained for more than 15,000 lines, bringing an age of heroes and their exploits to life with clarity, complexity, and depth of feeling.

Homer has been known since classical Greek times as the author of the Odyssey and the Iliad- and that is about all that can be said for certain about him. The ancients regarded him as practically a god, equal to the muses (who were the divine inspiration for all arts). Facts about Homer the man have long been the subject of hot debate among scholars. Perhaps Homer also wrote a group of long poems, still called the Homeric Hymns. Perhaps Homer didn't actually write the two great epic poems but merely pieced together small sections written by many different poets over centuries. Perhaps there was no Homer at all, and the poems were a kind of oral history, written and recited by numerous poets and much later collected into the books we now know. Each of these theories has been offered as true, and each remains unproven.

What is certain is that the ancient Greek scholars and commentators were convinced that Homer was real and lived in the 9th or 8th century B.C. Modern scholars generally agree that the Iliad was composed around 725 B.C. (the earliest written versions we have are hundreds of years later than that, so there's plenty of room for conjecture). But though we don't have the earliest texts, the ancient Greeks did, and Homer was written about, discussed, and analyzed throughout the classical Greek period.

One of the key controversies among Homeric critics is whether Homer composed his poems orally or whether he actually wrote them down. We do know that Homer's poems were recited in later days, at festivals and ceremonial occasions, by professional singers called rhapsodes, who beat out the measure with rhythm staffs. (There is a similar poet/singer in the Odyssey who sings a poem about the Trojan War. He is an old man, and blind; that may be the source behind the legend that Homer himself was blind.) Whether or not Homer actually wrote down his poems, it now seems certain that the Iliad and the Odyssey are part of an ancient literary tradition of oral composition. The stories on which they are based had probably been sung aloud for hundreds of years, and recited and memorized by one generation of poets after another before Homer took them in hand. After all, in Homer's time, writing was used mostly for inventories and business transactions. Recitation was the accepted means of relating myth and history.

The Iliad was part of a group of ancient poems known as the Epic Cycle, which dealt with the history of the Trojan War and the events surrounding it. Homer probably had at his fingertips most of these stories and characters, ready-made. His genius lay in choosing to focus on the story of Achilleus and in bringing a tragic depth to the story of the battle for Troy. Homer was writing about events that took place four or five hundred years before his own time, events already enlarged by the glamor of the past. However tall Achilleus and Hektor actually were, by Homer's time their size was legendary, rather like that of comic book superheroes. For the Greeks, these heroes represented the ideals on which their civilization was based. At the same time, they symbolized elements of the human psyche, with its yearning for nobility and honor.

The world of the Iliad is based on history but grows into metaphor: we must look beneath the facts to its deeper meaning. Archaeologists have indeed discovered the remains of a supposed Troy on the coast of Turkey and the majestic ruins of palaces and tombs in Mykenai on the plains of Greece. Through the lines of the Iliad, however, the Greeks and Trojans still live for us, echoing in the human imagination.


ECC [The Iliad Contents] []
© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
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