First making its appearance in scroll-format around the 8th century B.C., the Iliad is the earliest known work of European literature. From this perspective, you could say that European literature peaked pretty early; since then, you'd be hard-pressed to find a work that comes close to the Iliad for depth of insight into human life, as well as sheer beauty. (OK, a strong contender would be Homer's Odyssey, though it might be better to think of these two works as complementing, rather than competing with, each other.) How did this happen? The fact is that, even though the Iliad stands at the beginning of one tradition – the written tradition – it also comes at the end of an entirely different tradition. One way of thinking about the Iliad is as a survivor of a form of purely oral poetry passed down from generation to generation without ever being written down.
We say "one way" because, as with any topic where nobody has any firm proof, the so-called "Homeric Question" has spun out more theories and disagreements than the local coffee shop on a weekday afternoon. Let's begin with some cold hard facts. For starters, most of the Ancient Greek authors we read today (that is, guys writing at least 100 years after the Iliad first came out on papyrus), thought that both the Iliad and the Odyssey were written by a single poet named Homer. That's right, written. Nobody knew anything about who Homer was – though, of course, there were plenty of theories. Now flash forward to the late eighteenth century, when people started thinking that Homer was an illiterate composer of songs that eventually got stitched into the epics as we know them. This kicked off another furious round of arguments – about what the original "parts" of the Iliad were, and how they fit together. The fact that the poem is remarkably tight in the way it hangs together didn't seem to bother anybody.
The next major shift came in the early twentieth century. That's when the young American scholar Milman Parry noticed that the way the Iliad tended to repeat certain phrases reminded him of the oral poetry coming out of what was then called Yugoslavia. Like most poetry, the Homeric poems follow a fixed rhythm – something called "dactylic hexameter." (You can read about it here.) Parry found that some of these repeated phrases – things like "brilliant Achilleus" or "dawn with her rosy fingers" – always turned up in the same position in the hexameter line. Based on this, Parry thought that the poet must have used these phrases as building blocks that could be recombined on the spot – just like jazz improvisation or freestyling in rap.
Fair enough. The only problem is, even if the Iliad was composed completely orally, nobody knows how that oral poem then ended up being written down. On the other hand, if the poem was originally written down, wouldn't it make sense for a poet growing up in an oral culture to follow the style he (or she) was used to? At the end of the day, though, the great thing about the "Homeric Question" is that it doesn't matter. No matter what your theory about the author, one fact that everyone agrees on is the true genius and artistry of the Homeric poems. These are what keep readers of every stripe coming back to them again and again.
Why Should I Care?
Why should you care? Oh, you mean, besides because the Iliad is pretty much the most famous work of fiction ever written? And besides because it is one of the two or three foundational texts for all of western culture (right up there with the Bible and, um… yeah, let’s go with one of the two foundational texts)?
If that doesn't satisfy you, Shmoopers, maybe this will" The Iliad is the basis of and the model for every kind of war narrative, action movie, superhero comic, and adventure saga that has come after it. That’s right, people, we’re looking at the zero point right here.
You want large scale clashing armies? You’ve come to the right place. Even matched duels or obviously unmatched duels? Check out the long one-on-one combat descriptions, or that crazy nonsense between Paris and Menelaus. Spy thriller? Odysseus’s nighttime raid totally fits the bill. Nail-biting special ops missions? The Trojan Horse ruse has your name written all over it. Swords-and-sorcerers magic adventure? Try anything with the gods busting in on the action, like, say, that whole Laocoon fiasco. Snakes—yikes. In short, anything exciting you’ve ever seen or heard or read started right here.
But that’s not all. Not only does the Iliad put the act into action, but it puts the philosophy in there, too. This isn’t just a reductive Good Guys versus Bad Guys bit of disposable nothing. Instead, what’s behind all that fighting is a whole lot of thinking about what the fighting means.
For instance, why fight at all? Why not just sit around and wait for the war to end or for death or whatever else is coming down the pike? Or for another example, just how much is one man’s honor worth? Worth upsetting a king’s plans? Yeah, probably. Leading to the deaths of a lot of others? Um… maybe not. See what we mean?
Through question after question, through fight after fight, the Iliad is slowly working out the ethics of war, the morals of individuals, and how our individual humanity fits into the greater social fabric. But, you know, with a lot of awesome gore and people totally getting stabbed through the eyeballs and stuff.