In keeping with its focus on matters of life, death, fate, and the relationship between mortals and gods, the Iliad maintains an elevated or lofty tone. How lofty? So lofty:
(Achilleus:) […] afterwards when the sun sets
make ready a great dinner, when we have paid off our defilement.
But before this, for me at least, neither drink nor food shall
go down my very throat, since my companion has perished
and lies inside my shelter torn about with the cutting
bronze, and turned against the forecourt while my companions
mourn about him. (19.208-213)
Yikes. SAT words, grand phrases, proclamations a'plenty... the only way this could get more elevated is if it were literally on top of the Burj Khalifa.
This is not to say that the Iliad is entirely without humor. The chattering and petty rivalries of the gods are clearly played for comic effect, as are some of the speeches and actions of the mortal characters. All the same, a serious tone is definitely the baseline, and lighter moments play off that.
This ain't just any old epic: it's the epic that made epics epic.
The Homeric poems (the Iliad and the Odyssey) are epic, because our concept of epic comes from Homeric poems. If that sounds too circular, then just bear in mind that the Iliad is an extremely long narrative poem, which deals with the heroic actions of mortals, gods, and demi-gods. For the Ancient Greeks, it was also important that an epic be written in the poetic meter of dactylic hexameter—which the Iliad is.
At the same time, however, the Iliad is also a tragedy, because it focuses on the downfall of a great hero (our boy Achilleus) as a result of his own flawed character. In this case, the problem is a three'fer: his super-excessive anger, pride, and grief.
Because most of the Iliad depicts battles in the Trojan War, it also falls into the category of War Drama. As such, it provides many important insights into the nature of war and its place in human life (and human death—hey-o!).
The title comes from the word "Ilion," which is an alternate name for Troy and not an alternate name for a lion. (Technically, "Troy" is the surrounding state; Ilion is more like the state capital.) So the Iliad means "the thing about Ilion."
If that sounds pretty lame, just remember that this title, like the poem's division into 24 Books, probably comes from a later tradition than the original epic. For a better idea of what the poem's about, in its own words, look at its opening line: "Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus' son Achilleus."
The goddess here is the poet's muse. Homer is asking her for insight into his subject matter: the hero Achilleus, his anger, and its terrible fallout.
To first-time readers, the ending of the Iliad is probably one of the most mysterious aspects of the poem. Not only does it focus on the funeral of Hektor, the hero's enemy, but it doesn't tell us anything about famous and cool stuff like the wooden horse or the fall of Troy. What's the deal?
As you might expect, there's no single answer to this question (that's part of what makes the poem awesome), but there are a few that stand out. First of all, it's important to remember that the Iliad isn't the story of the whole Trojan War, but only of a few weeks toward the end of it. During those weeks, the focus is squarely on the figure of Achilleus, the greatest warrior of the Achaians. Even more specifically, the focus is on the anger of Achilleus... and its consequences.
When Achilleus gives Hektor's body back to the Trojans for proper burial, the cycle of his anger is complete. At the same time, we know through some pretty heavy foreshadowing that Achilleus is going to die soon, so we feel that the story of his life is complete too—even if we don't get to see every detail of how it plays out.
Of course, there are some deeper thematic reasons for ending with the funeral of Hektor too—stuff about our common humanity transcending our differences, man—but we don't want to spoil the fun of figuring these out for yourself.
Beautiful Troy. The salty Aegean air. The sweet smell of the olive trees. The pools of blood and human remains scattered everywhere. (Hmm. Maybe they should leave that last bit out of the tourism websites.)
The Iliad takes place in the tenth year of the Trojan War. The Trojan War, as you'll know from the Backstory section of our summary of Book 1, involved a massive army of Achaians (a.k.a. Greeks) who crossed the sea to lay siege to Troy, a city in modern Turkey. Their stated goal was to get back Helen, the wife of the Achaian king Menelaos, but most of the warriors were in it for plunder—which they would get when they captured Troy.
This situation leaves practically no way out for either the Trojans or the Achaians. The Trojans don't have anywhere else to go; they're fighting for their lives and the freedom of their families. The Achaians could go home... except that it would seem like a waste after spending so long at Troy. (When the Trojans counterattack and try to burn the Achaians' ships, this threatens to make the Achaians even more stranded, and locked into war.)
The other factor prolonging the war is the involvement of the gods, most of whom have a stake in the war, one way or the other. When you mix all these ingredients together, you get two sides that are incredibly tired of the war, yet also desperate for a way to bring it to an end—even if this means more daring attacks. At the same time, the high level of tension makes it easy for them to start fighting among themselves.
We're actually being serious, Shmoopers (and we're never serious). This text is actually not that mind-fryingly difficult. Unless you're reading it in the original Ancient Greek. In which case: psshhh. Good luck to you.
For the first-time reader, probably the hardest thing about Homer's Iliad is its language. Even the most up-to-date translation – those by Robert Fagles and Stanley Lombardo use probably the most contemporary phrasing (Lombardo especially)—is still going to have a lot of repetitions and lengthy who-killed-whom-and-how battle scenes that sound just plain weird to modern readers.
On Shmoop, we quote from the 1950's version by Richmond Lattimore, which is a bit harder than those, but which has some advantages that make it worth using. (Every line in Lattimore's version matches up exactly to its counterpart in the original Greek; its quirkiness actually gives a good sense of what the original feels like.)
And once you get past the weird cultural details (reading the introduction to your edition will help), the poem is extremely accessible. The characters are vivid, and every reader will find someone to identify with. By the time you start thinking deeply about the book's themes of life, death, and fate, it won't feel like a chore—you'll be hooked. We guarantee it.
Both these descriptions ("clear and poetic") of the Iliad's style might seem kind of a contradiction. For many readers, the language of the Iliad seems weird or formal—or, at any rate, far from clear.
And yet, you have to look at Homeric language as more like a foreign language, or learning a new dialect. Once you get the hang of his usual way of saying things, you'll realize that he's almost never being complicated for its own sake. Actually, he's almost never being complicated. He just says things in a very clear and direct way... but in his own distinctive language.
As for calling it poetic, this might just seem redundant: it is a poem after all. But because of that, it's important to be aware of the distinctive features of Homer's poetic style.
Probably the most famous of these is the so-called "Homeric simile." The first of these similes comes in Book 2:
They swarmed like bees that sally from some hollow cave and flit in countless throng among the spring flowers, bunched in knots and clusters; even so did the mighty multitude pour from ships and tents to the assembly, and range themselves upon the wide-watered shore, while among them ran Wildfire Rumour, messenger of Jove, urging them ever to the fore. (2.87-92)
These lines have the three ingredients of any Homeric simile: (1) saying what the thing you're talking about is like (in this case, the army is like bees); (2) describing the thing you're comparing it to (bees); and (3) reminding the audience of what you were originally talking about (the army). The third step is necessary because sometimes the description in part 2 can get extremely long.
Keep an eye out for these similes; some of them are very beautiful (and uber-famous).
When and how characters eat is extremely important to the symbolic texture of the Iliad. As you may have noticed, eating is a major social occasion for the Achaian warriors (this is maybe not so surprising). There are certain important rules of hospitality that govern eating. For example, when Odysseus, Phoinix, and Aias come to Achilleus's hut, as a sign of hospitality, he first cooks and serves them food and then asks them what their business is.
In light of this, it becomes extremely important when, after Patroklos's death, Achilleus refuses to eat breakfast with the other warriors, but instead wants to get to the battle as quickly as possible. On the one hand, this represents his alienation from the other warriors; on the other hand, some scholars have interpreted it as him symbolically acting in solidarity with his dead friend, who, naturally, cannot eat.
The symbolism of eating remains prominent during Achilleus's murderous rampage against the Trojans. When he tells Hektor that he wishes he were angry enough to "hack [his] meat away and eat it raw," this symbolizes his loss of humanity. (Cannibalism is generally considered anti-social.) Conversely, when Achilleus rejoins humanity through his connection with Priam, this moment is emphasized by the meal they share together – along with the speech Achilleus makes about the necessity of eating, even when one is in grief.
Often, in the Iliad, the poet will describe something – usually part of a battle – by a long, drawn-out simile. (For more details on the so-called "Homeric simile," see our section on "Writing Style.") In these similes, acts of warfare are typically compared either to peacetime human activities, such as handicrafts or tending sheep, or to elements of the natural world, such as waterfalls or lions.
Even though there is always some obvious connection between these two images, scholars have wondered if anything is going on at a deeper level. Are these scenes of peacetime and nature meant to contrast with the violence of war? Or are they to suggest that war is itself either a human activity like any other, or simply a part of nature? These questions are compounded by the famous Shield of Achilleus passage, which is usually interpreted as an image of the world as the Ancient Greeks understood it. This shield also depicts a mixture of human activities and nature, as well as peace and violence. In this way, what seem like poetic flourishes or a flight of descriptive fancy actually point to the philosophical heart of the poem.
Our narrator isn't an eyewitness to the events of the story—he's just some shlubby guy who likes to write poetry. Instead, he asks the Muse (the goddess of poetry) to inspire him with knowledge of what happened long before his time.
What the Muse tells him (i.e., what we see when we read the Iliad) is mostly the actions and words of men and women. We do get some limited insight into characters' minds—especially when they are deciding between several courses of action—but most of the time we learn about their thoughts from what they say, like in a play.
Within this framework, Homer's narration is extremely even-handed. Not only do we learn about what is going on among both the Achaians and the Trojans (though the focus is a bit more on the Achaians), we also get to see the conversations and actions of the gods—the whole pantheon of 'em.
This last feature (plus the poet's apparent knowledge of the ways of fate) must have struck his original audience as pretty amazing. At least we hope it did... because it strikes us as totally incredible.
Even though it might be strange to describe the plot of the Iliad as one of "Voyage and Return," if you bear with us, we think you'll agree that it makes a bit of sense. First of all, you have to bear in mind that Homer's poem is a story about the anger of Achilleus. Because this anger has the effect of alienating Achilleus from other people, it makes sense to think about that departure from ordinary society as a sort of voyage, from which he must ultimately return. Achilleus's decision not to fight anymore on behalf of his fellow Achaians is the first step of his voyage; he then seals the deal by getting Zeus to favor the Trojans in battle.
In treating this as the "Initial Fascination or Dream Stage," we're following the interpretation of Achilleus offered by Diomedes at the end of Book 9. He says that Agamemnon should never have offered Achilleus all those gifts, because nothing would inflate Achilleus's ego more than to send them back. So long as the Achaians keep coming begging and he keeps playing hard to get, Achilleus is getting exactly what he wants.
This is where Achilleus's plan goes seriously wrong. Instead of leading to a situation where everybody realizes how much they need, love, and respect him, Achilleus's actions have led to the death of the one person he valued most: his best friend Patroklos.
Achilleus completes his departure from ordinary human society by repeatedly abusing Hektor's corpse and performing human sacrifice over the pyre of his friend Patroklos. His voyage into a world of his own making isn't looking so fun anymore.
Okay, so it might not be your typical "thrilling escape," but Achilleus's action of sharing a meal with Priam—the father of his mortal enemy—definitely marks a return to ordinary human life after so long spent way out on the edge.
Ironically, this moment is overshadowed by the knowledge that Achilleus himself will die soon—meaning that he has rejoined humanity just before he is fated to leave it permanently.
Not counting the brief scene of Chryses's embassy, this is the opening situation of the first major scene in the Iliad, which sets the stage for all future conflict.
You can think about pretty much everything from the beginning of the book up to Book 16 as part of the conflict stage, because it all emerges directly out of (and is the fulfillment of) Achilleus's prayers in Book 1.
Up until now, everything has been going according to Achilleus's plan. At this point, though, things go majorly off the rails.
This moment marks the high point of the chain of actions initiated by Achilleus's refusal to fight for the Achaians. Everything that follows is due solely to Achilleus's own emotional state.
At this point, we are in a whole new ballgame, and we (and the gods) have no idea what Achilleus is going to do next—or when he will come back to sanity.
This scene marks the true end of Achilleus's inhuman wrath. By sharing a meal with Priam, he marks his re-entry into the world of ordinary human relations.
By showing us the reactions of Hektor's loved ones back in Troy, the poet lets us share in the emotional connection forged between Achilleus and Priam. This scene provides a vivid picture of the humanity of the Trojans, which we know will be violated when the city falls. At the same time, the image of the hero's funeral looks forward to the funeral of Achilleus, which we know will be coming from the constant foreshadowing of his death.
Achilleus and Agamemnon fight over Briseis. Achilleus gets in a huff and refuses to fight for the Achaians anymore. Instead, he gets Zeus to beat up on the Achaians so they'll know how much they miss him. After the Achaians do start getting beaten up, Agamemnon tries to put aside his differences with Achilleus, but Achilleus refuses.
Finally, when things are looking bad for the Achaians, Patroklos convinces Achilleus to let him lead the Myrmidons into battle, wearing Achilleus's armor. This succeeds in driving the Trojans away from the Achaians' ships, but then Patroklos is killed. Achilleus swears revenge, gets a new suit of armor from the gods, comes back into battle, and kills many Trojans, including Hektor.
Even after killing Hektor and burying Patroklos, however, Achilleus can't let things rest. He keeps moping around, weeping, and abusing Hektor's body until finally the gods decide to put a stop to it. They get Thetis, Achilleus's mom, to convince him to give up the body, and send King Priam to ask for it. When he arrives, he and Achilleus share a moment of common humanity. They negotiate a truce between the armies so that Hektor can be buried in peace.