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'The Iliad' by Homer

Part 1: Summarising the Epic

The book's name is translated directly into "the song of Ilium" and written entirely in dactylic hexameter; The Iliad and The Odyssey are two of the most well-known and widely read epic poems ever written. It documents the siege of Troy throughout ten years and one man's gruelling journey back over the course of another ten years, having it been 20 since he had seen his family. Written around the 8th century BCE, the Iliad has stood the test of time and continues to be adapted, revisited and re-analysed to this day. This is the text we will focus on. 

Even though we may love and enjoy these two books, they are two of eight that are mostly lost. The books are as follows:

  • Cypria: Documents the events leading up to the Trojan war and the first nine years of conflict.
  • Iliad: One of the books we have that documents the final year of the war.
  • Aethiopis: Trojan allies travel and die at the hands of Achilles; Achilles then suffers his own death
  • Little Iliad: The building of the Trojan horse and the award to Odysseus.
  • Iliou Persis: The sack of Troy, a lost book that is better told as a story in The Aeneid.
  • Nostoi: The return home for the Greeks and the final returns of Agamemnon and Menelaus.
  • Odyssey: One of the books we have that documents the return of Odysseus to Ithaca in order to see his wife, Penelope.
  • Telegony: Odysseus' voyage to Thesprotia and death at the hands of an illegitimate son he fathered with Circe.

We have very little, if no knowledge of these lost books and yet, the stories are still known. We have seen depictions of the Trojan Horse and know of its literary existence and yet, it does not appear in the books we have documented in what is called "The Epic Cycle."

What we will do first is go through a summary of each book in The Iliad and then look at the historicity for the two and whether evidence is supportive or unsupportive of this.

'The Iliad' Book 1:

As we don't have the book Cypria, we are forced in media res into a battle regarding the Trojans and the Greeks. Of course, as this is about the last year of the physical battle, we know it should be ending fairly soon and —the Gods will most definitely be involved as that is always a major theme in Ancient Greek and Roman Literature. Apollo is namely the one involved at the beginning; when a Trojan priest of Apollo offers money and gold for the return of Chrysies, Agamemnon refuses. Even though the rest of the Greeks agree that this is a good offer, Agamemnon doesn't take their opinions into account. As with the epics, when the God, Apollo, hears about this decline—he isn't happy and sends a plague to afflict the Greeks for their wrongs.

As the plague rages on, Achilles tries to solve the problem. Achilles is normally known as the angriest warrior in the entire book. Agamemnon returns Chrysies to her father and yet, takes Briseis, Achilles captive, as compensation instead. As we know, taking Achilles' captive is not a good idea because now Achilles is very, very angry. Achilles takes his men and threatens Agamemnon that they will leave. This is where we also see Odysseus return Chrysies to her father and Apollo end the great plague on the Greeks.

Achilles prays to Thetis, his mother, whilst Agamemnon takes Briseis away. Achilles wants the Greeks to know how much he is needed and asks his mother to tell Zeus to bring the Greeks to their weakest under the Trojan Army. Zeus agrees.

This is the end of Book 1. As we can see, it is the beginning of our known book and Achilles, the great warrior, is already very angry at his own men for not including him in decision-making. The angry Achilles feels like he should be included since he is the greatest warrior that the Greeks have. Let's have a look what happens to the Greeks in Book 2 and how Agamemnon resolves this strange problem he has.

'The Iliad' Book 2:

Agamemnon has a dream, given to him by Zeus, that he should attack Troy. He heeds this. Deciding to test his army first, he tells them to go home. This backfires spectacularly and only Odysseus inspired by Athena could stop them from leaving. Odysseus then confronts and beats a common soldier who is angry at Agamemnon's war. After a feast, the Greeks go unto the Trojan plains—the plans have already reached the Trojan King, Priam.

Book 2 is a simple book; it mainly speaks of the plans that Achilles told Thetis to ask of Zeus that leads to the battle.

'The Iliad' Book 3:

As the armies approach each other, Paris offers to end the war by fighting Menelaus—this was urged on by his brother the head of the Trojan Army, Hector. Paris fights Menelaus and is beaten by him, only rescued by Aphrodite and Helen of Troy.

'The Iliad' Book 4:

Zeus then arranges for Pandaros, the Trojan, to wound Menelaus based on Hera's hatred for Troy. The armies fight.

Of course, book four is fairly short. It is only there to lead us into book five, which looks more closely at the battle between the Greeks and the Trojans.

'The Iliad' Book 5:

Aphrodite rescues Aeneas from the hands of Diomedes whilst Diomedes is on his rampage, killing many Trojans. Diomedes even kills Pandaros. Apollo appears after Diomedes strikes and wounds Aphrodite, warning him against hurting the Gods. Diomedes then wounds Ares in battle.

'The Iliad' Book 6:

Hector prevents a fight after rounding up his army whilst Diomedes and Glaukos find a common ground. Hector urges people to pray and takes Paris into battle. Hector then waves his wife and child goodbye and returns to the battlefield.

'The Iliad' Book 7:

Duelling with Ajax, Hector notices nightfall and retreats, like Ajax does as well, from the fights. Trojans debate about returning Helen whilst the Greeks burn their dead. Truce is agreed between the Greeks and Trojans for one day in which the Greeks will spend sending their dead to the afterlife, Paris tries to compensate for the capture of Helen by giving back treasure he stole alongside compensation—but he will not part with Helen. The Greeks spend their truce day building a wall and a trench.

'The Iliad' Book 8:

Zeus does not allow the Gods to interfere and the fight begins again. The Trojans win this battle and the Greeks are forced back to the wall. Hera and Athena do nothing as they are not allowed to help and as night falls, the Trojans assail the Greek wall. They camp in a field waiting for the first light in which they will attack the Greeks.

'The Iliad' Book 9:

Agamemnon admits he was wrong and sends Odysseus, Ajax, Phoenix and others to give Briseis and gifts to Achilles. Achilles has been camped next to the ships the whole time and Agamemnon obviously wants him to return to fight. Achilles and Patroclus receive the gifts and yet, Achilles refuses to go back stating that he only would if the Trojans were there to threaten him with fire. The group returns to Agamemnon empty handed, Achilles and Patroclus have stayed behind.

'The Iliad' Book 10:

Odysseus and Diomedes go towards the Trojan lines and kill Dolon (a soldier); they start a fight in the camps of the Thracian allies of the Trojan army.

'The Iliad' Book 11:

The following morning, Agamemnon, Odysseus and Diomedes are all wounded in a battle and Achilles sends Patroclus to ask about Greek casualties. Patroclus is touched by a speech that Nestor gives.

'The Iliad' Book 12:

The Trojans attack the Greeks and Hector leads the fight. The Greek wall breaks, the Greeks are overwhelmed and surprised—Hector then charges in for battle.

'The Iliad' Book 13:

The Trojan Polydamas asks Hector to stop the fighting, warning him greatly about the possible return of the warrior Achilles. Hector completely ignores him.

'The Iliad' Book 14:

Hera lures Zeus to sleep and allows Poseidon to help the Greeks—the Trojans are driven backwards.

'The Iliad' Book 15:

Zeus awakens and is angry at Poseidon for intervening. The Gods are supporting the Greeks and Zeus therefore sends Apollo to aid the Trojans, against them all. Apollo helps the Trojans breach the wall and the battle reaches the ships.

'The Iliad' Book 16:

Patroclus begs Achilles to defend the ships and Achilles, relenting, lends Patroclus his armour. Achilles sends him off with a stern warning of not to pursue the Trojans. Patroclus leads an army into battle and comes back as soon as the Trojans begin to set the ships on fire. The Trojans are sent off by a sudden attack and Patroclus begins his fight against Zeus's son, Sarpedon. Patroclus ignores Achilles' warning and goes for the gates of Troy where Apollo stops him from entering. Patroclus is fought by Apollo and a soldier—he is finally killed by Hector.

'The Iliad' Book 17:

Hector steals Achilles' armour from Patroclus' dead body and fighting develops around the corpse.

'The Iliad' Book 18:

Achilles is vengeful when hearing about the death of Patroclus and swears revenge on Hector. Thetis knows that Achilles is doomed to die if he defeats Hector. Achilles is urged to retrieve the body of Patroclus, but it has no armour; this is because of Athena. He stands upon the Greek wall and roars out in rage. The Greeks manage to carry away Patroclus' body and Polydamas tells Hector to stop fighting or Achilles will kill him. Patroclus is mourned that night whilst Hector and his army camp out. At the request of Thetis, Hephaestus makes Achilles new armour including a shield.

'The Iliad' Book 19:

Agamemnon gives Achilles the gifts including Briseis, as now he has returned to the fight. Achilles starves himself and straps on his new armour. Xanthos, his horse, gives Achilles a prophecy of death and Achilles, indifferent, rides his horse into battle.

'The Iliad' Book 20:

Zeus lifts the ban on Gods not helping in the Trojan War. Achilles is enraged and kills many, many people.

'The Iliad' Book 21:

Achilles dumps half of the bodies into the River Scamander and fills the river with the dead. The river becomes enraged and confronts Achilles; but is beaten. The Gods then fight amongst themselves and the gates of the city are opened to fleeing Trojans; Apollo leads Achilles away from the city pretending to be a Trojan.

'The Iliad' Book 22:

Apollo reveals himself to Achilles and the Trojans have all retreated into their city, except Hector. Hector goes on to face Achilles despite the pleas of his parents, Priam and Hecuba. Achilles approaches and chases Hector around the city; Athena tricks him into stopping and he turns to face his opponent. Achilles stabs Hector in the neck and Hector, in his last breath, reminds Achilles that he will inevitably die in the war—it is fate. Achilles drags Hector's dead body around behind his chariot.

'The Iliad' Book 23:

Achilles dreams of Patroclus and sees Patroclus urging Achilles to carry out his burial rites. Achilles holds a day of funeral games and awards prizes.

'The Iliad' Book 24:

Zeus decides Hector's body should be returned to Priam. Led by Hermes, Priam goes out of Troy, taking a wagon into the Greek camp. Clasping Achilles by the knees, Priam begs for the body of his dead son—Achilles is moved to tears and both sides lament the loses in the war. Priam is given Hector's body and he carries it back to Troy. The Iliad ends with the all famous line of what happens when Priam got back to Troy: "And thus, they buried Hector, breaker of horses."

It is in the books we do not have that we see the Trojan Horse, the Death of Achilles and the Sack of Troy. The Iliad is a book that contains 24 books that are solely based on the last year of the war; apart from that, nothing more actually happens. What we're going to look at now is the historical accuracy and accounts of the war on Troy, looking especially at what the dates of the war are since some of the artifacts found to be about the war either predate or post-date the time at which it happened. We will have a closer look at these in the next article in the series.  

Annie Kapur
Annie Kapur

English and Writing (B.A), Film and Writing (M.A).

Musical Interests: Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Buddy Holly 

Favourite Films: I'm Not There & The Conjuring Series

Instagram: @3ftmonster 

Twitter: @3ftmonster

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