How to Read The Iliad

Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
The Iliad is one of the best-known and best-loved works of ancient literature. This lesson discusses its form and content, and ways to get to grips with what is strange and familiar about it.

The Iliad: What it Is and Isn't

What are the responsibilities of living in community? What makes a good leader? How much control do we have over our destinies? All of these questions are asked in The Iliad, an epic poem dating to some time between the 11th and 9th centuries B.C.E. At first transmitted orally by trained poets, it was eventually written down; the earliest manuscripts we have are from the 3rd century B.C.E. We don't know how much of the poem is attributable to a single author, but it's customary to refer to Homer as its author anyway. Study of The Iliad as a Homeric poem has been going on for thousands of years! Since The Iliad was meant to be recited (with improvisations), one great answer to the question of how to read The Iliad is: aloud!

The Iliad gets its name from the city of Troy, known in Greek as Ilion or Ilios. (For a long time, this city was believed to be mythical... until an archaeologist who was a big fan of The Iliad went and dug it up, having found it based on the information in the poem.) It takes place in the ninth year of a bitter siege of Troy by the assembled armies of the Greeks. So there's no judgment of Paris in The Iliad, and no Trojan horse. The Iliad - as the opening line famously proclaims - is about the wrath of Achilles: about one man's anger, and its destructive force.

Narrative Style

If you try to read The Iliad looking for the bare bones of what happens, you'll miss a lot. The Iliad is action-packed, but it's not all plot. There's a big difference between what happens in a text, and what a text's about, and that difference is clear in The Iliad. The narrative is divided into fairly self-contained books, an influential format.

The non-linear style of Homer's narrative is clearly illustrated by Book 2, known as the Catalogue of the Ships. On the most basic level, that's what it is: a list of all the ships brought to Troy to join Agamemnon, leader of the armies. But it also tells us a lot about social values. It tells us about the economy: vineyards, and pastures, and rich cities. It tells us about regional religious customs: about shrines, and sacred groves, and men and women rumored to be descended from gods. It also introduces us to The Iliad's cast of characters.

Famously (or infamously) The Iliad is full of battle scenes. Translating the amazingly detailed, poetic descriptions of war to the big screen has, alas, proved surprisingly boring. This is partly because Homer has time for precision that Hollywood doesn't. It's also, however, because The Iliad is a book about peace, as well as war. Homer is constantly making asides to tell us about warriors' families, or their histories. The Iliad also makes extensive use of epic simile (sometimes called Homeric simile!), extended comparisons that remind us of the world away from the battlefield.

Themes

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Unsurprisingly, war and the pity of war form a central theme of The Iliad. Homer gets that war is exhausting. It can be a source of glory: warriors on the Greek and Trojan sides alike strive to perform memorable deeds. But it can also be a source of heartache. Homer describes a slain warrior as falling like a tree that will later be warped to form a chariot wheel, a mere tool of war (Book 4). When Hector, greatest of Trojan warriors, goes briefly home from the battle, his toddler son is terrified by the sight of his helmet (Book 6).

The Iliad also engages in complex ways with the relationship between humans and supernatural forces. The gods are very active as protagonists in The Iliad, helping their favorite warriors, or hindering a cause they resent. Athena, for example, loves and protects Odysseus. In the opening lines of the poem, Apollo sends a terrible sickness on the Greek troops, as punishment for Agamemnon's shaming of Achilles. Looking out for ways belief systems are illustrated may be particularly helpful in the books dealing exclusively with divine affairs.

A tender moment: Achilles cares for his wounded friend Patroclus
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