The Iliad tells the story of the Trojan War and is, along with the Odyssey, one of the two major Greek epic poems traditionally attributed to Homer, a blind Ionian poet. Scholars dispute whether Homer existed, and whether he was one person, but they usually date the poems to the 9th or 8th century BC. They are the oldest literary documents in the Greek language.

Missing image
Thetis rising from the sea to comfort Achilles (Book 18), by Thomas Banks, English, 1778 Victoria and Albert Museum

Major characters

As an epic, the Iliad contains a sometimes confusingly great number of characters. The latter half of the Iliad's second book (often called the Catalogue of Ships) is devoted entirely to listing the various commanders. Many of the battle scenes in the Iliad feature bit characters who are quickly slain. See Trojan War for a detailed list of participating armies and warriors.

  • The Achaeans - the word "Hellenes", which would today be translated as "Greeks", is not used by Homer
    • Achilles, leader of the Myrmidones, whose anger is the over-arching theme of the story and the one of only two characters in the story who is described as god-like
    • Agamemnon, the supreme commander of the Achaean armies whose actions provoke the feud with Achilles
    • Patroclus, friend or lover to Achilles
    • Nestor, Menelaus, Diomedes, Idomeneus, and Telamonian Aias, kings of the principal city-states of Greece who are leaders of their own armies, under the overall command of Agamemnon
    • Odysseus, another warrior-king, who is the subject of his own epic
    • Calchas, a powerfull greek prophet, who guided the greeks through the war with his predictons.
  • The Trojans and their allies
    • Hector, leader of the Trojan and allied armies and presumed heir to the throne of Troy
    • Priam, king of the Trojans, too old to take part in the fighting
    • Paris, Trojan prince and Hector's brother; his abduction of Helen is the casus belli
    • Aeneas, cousin of Hector, and his principal lieutenant
    • Helenus and Deiphobus, brothers of Hector who fight at his side
    • Poludamas, another Trojan warrior, apparently a commoner, or in any event not a member of the royal family
    • Glaucus and Sarpedon, leaders of the Lycian forces allied to the Trojan cause

The Olympian deities, principally Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Aphrodite, Ares, Athena and Poseidon, appear predominantly in the Iliad as advisers to and manipulators of the human characters. All except Zeus become personally involved in the fighting at one point or another.

The story of the Iliad

The Iliad narrates several weeks of action during the tenth and final year of the Trojan War, concentrating on the wrath of Achilles. It begins with the dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon, and ends with the funeral rites of Hector. Neither the background and early years of the war (Paris' abduction of Helen from King Menelaus), nor its end (the death of Achilles & the Trojan Horse), are directly narrated in the Iliad. The Iliad and the Odyssey are part of a larger cycle of epic poems of varying lengths and authors; only fragments survive of the other poems, however.

Many Greek myths exist in multiple versions, so Homer had some freedom to choose among them to suit his story. What follows are the most common background details to the Trojan War, including (parenthetically) whether or not Homer specifically mentions them. See Greek mythology for more detail.

Background to the Iliad: The Trojan War

Both the gods Zeus and Poseidon desired the sea-nymph Thetis, but a prophecy made by Prometheus revealed that Thetis's son would be greater than his father. Owing to this reason, both gods resisted Thetis and betrothed her to a mortal king, Peleus, so that her offspring would be no more than human. To Peleus and Thetis a son was born, named Achilles. Hoping to protect him, when he was an infant his mother dipped him in the river Styx, making him invincible everywhere except the heel (the legendary Achilles' heel) by which she held him. Achilles would grow up to be the greatest of all mortal warriors.

All of the gods were invited to Peleus' and Thetis' wedding, except Eris, or Discord. Insulted, she attended invisibly and cast down upon the table a golden apple on which were inscribed the words To the fairest. The apple was disputed over by Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. None of the gods would venture an opinion favouring any one contender for fear of earning the enmity of the other two. Eventually, Zeus ordered the matter to be settled by Paris, the youngest prince of Troy, who was being raised as a shepherd in the plains nearby. Athena tempted Paris with wisdom, Hera offered him power, and Aphrodite offered him the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris eventually awarded the apple to Aphrodite.

The most beautiful woman in the world was Helen, daughter of Leda by Zeus. Scores of men sought her hand. Her father was unwilling to choose any for fear the others would attack him; finally, at Odysseus' suggestion, he solved the problem by making all the suitors swear an oath to protect Helen and her future husband. These suitors included Agamemnon, Ajax the Greater, Ajax the Lesser, Diomedes, Odysseus, Nestor, Idomeneus, and Philoctetes. Helen married Menelaus of Sparta; her sister Clytemnestra married his brother Agamemnon of Thebes. (See House of Atreus).

On a diplomatic mission to Sparta, Paris became enamoured of Helen, and she either eloped with or was abducted back to Troy by Paris. In anger, Menelaus called upon Helen's past suitors to make good their oaths to attack Troy. Eventually an army of a thousand ships marshalled by Menelaus' brother Agamemnon was gathered at Aulis, including all the above-named men and their own forces. A seer told them that the winds would not take them to Troy unless Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia. He did so, and the fleet set off. They landed at Troy, eventually, where there ensued a siege of nine years, broken only intermittently by fighting until the tenth year.

Shortly prior to the Iliad, Greek forces had raided a nearby town allied to Troy. Agamemnon had taken prisoner a girl, Khryseis, daughter of a local priest of Apollo. The priest begged the god to punish the Greeks, and a plague ravaged their army.

Iliad's story


The Iliad focuses mainly on Achilles and his rage against king Agamemnon, the Greek commander-in-chief, who has taken an attractive slave and spoil of war Briseis from Achilles. Achilles, the greatest warrior of the age, follows the advice of his mother and withdraws from battle in revenge and the allied Achaean (Greek) armies nearly lose the war.

In counterpoint to Achilles' pride and arrogance stands the Trojan prince Hector, son of the King Priam, with a wife and child, who fights to defend his city and his family. The death of Patroclus, Achilles' dearest friend or lover, at the hands of Hector, brings Achilles back to the war for revenge, and he slays Hector. Later Hector's father, king Priam, comes to Achilles disguised as a beggar to ransom his son's body back, and Achilles is moved to pity; the funeral of Hector ends the poem.

The poem is a poignant depiction of the tragedy and poignancy of friendship and family destroyed by battle. The first word of the Greek poem is "Μηνιν" ("mēnin", meaning "wrath"); the main subject of the poem is the wrath of Achilles; the second word is "aeide", meaning "sing"; the poet is asking someone to sing; the third word is "thea", meaning "goddess"; the goddess here being the "Mousa" or "muse"; a literal translation of the first line would read "Wrath, sing goddess, of Peleus' son Achilles" or more intelligibly "Sing, goddess, the wrath of Peleus' son Achilles". (Template:Perseus)

Chapter summaries

  • Chapter 1: Ten years into the war, Achilles and Agamemnon quarrel over a slave girl
  • Chapter 2: Odysseus motivates the Greeks to keep fighting
  • Chapter 3: Paris challenges Menelaus to single combat
  • Chapter 4: The truce is broken and battle begins
  • Chapter 5: Diomedes wounds Aphrodite and Ares
  • Chapter 6: Glaucus and Hippolochus greet during a truce
  • Chapter 7: Hector battles Ajax
  • Chapter 8: The gods withdraw from the battle
  • Chapter 9: Agamemnon retreats: his overtures to Achilles are spurned
  • Chapter 10: Diomedes and Odysseus go on a spy mission
  • Chapter 11: Paris wounds Diomedes, and Achilles sends Patroclus on a mission
  • Chapter 12: The Greeks retreat
  • Chapter 13: Poseidon motivates the Greeks
  • Chapter 14: Hera helps Poseidon assists the Greeks
  • Chapter 15: Zeus stops Poseidon from interfering
  • Chapter 16: Patroclus borrows Achilles armor to fight, and is killed by Hector
  • Chapter 17: The armies fight over the body and armor of Patroclus
  • Chapter 18: Achilles learns of the death of Patroclus and receives a new suit of armor
  • Chapter 19: Achilles reconciles with Agamemnon and rides to the battle front
  • Chapter 20: The gods join the battle; Achilles tries to kill Aeneas
  • Chapter 21: Achilles rides to the gates of Troy
  • Chapter 22: Achilles kills Hector
  • Chapter 23: Patroclus is mourned by the Greeks
  • Chapter 24: Achilles lets Priam have Hector's body back, and he is burned on a pyre

Post Iliad: Conclusion of the war, and after

Although certain events subsequent to the funeral of Hector are foreshadowed in the Iliad, and there is a general sense that the Trojans are doomed, a detailed account of the fall of Troy is not set out by Homer. The following account comes from later Greek and Roman poetry and drama.

Achilles was killed on the battlefield by Paris, with a poisoned arrow to his vulnerable heel. (See Achilles' Heel.) Ajax the Greater and Odysseus feuded over who would keep his armour. They submitted the issue to an impromptu court and Odysseus won. Ajax went mad with grief and slaughtered his livestock, believing they were the Greek commanders. Overcome with grief, he then killed himself. The Amazons came to join the battle. Philoctetes, a crippled Greek who had been abandoned by the others along the journey, was recruited because the war could not, it was prophesied, be won without his bow.

Odysseus devised a plan to take the city. He had his men build a large, hollow wooden horse, then he and twenty others hid inside. The Greek ships withdrew out of sight of Troy, admitting defeat, and left behind them only the horse, purportedly as an offering to Poseidon for good winds on the return trip. The Trojans took this inside the city, and then feasted and celebrated in the belief the war was over. At night the soldiers crept out and opened the gates to the other Greeks who had sailed back under cover of night. The city was sacked, and in some accounts burned for seven years. Priam was killed. According to one tradition, Hector's wife Andromache threw his son Astyanax and herself from the ramparts to save them from slavery. According to another, Astyanax was killed by Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, to ensure that Hector's son could not seek vengeance for his father's death against Achilles' son. Andromache became Neoptolemus' concubine, later to marry Helenus, Hector's brother. A Roman tradition held that Aeneas escaped with his family and several hundred people, who after years of migration eventually founded Rome. (This was used by Virgil in his Aeneid.)

Odysseus' long journey home is narrated in Homer's Odyssey. Menelaus and Helen returned to Sparta to rule. Agamemnon took home as a slave the priestess Cassandra, who was gifted with prophecy but cursed never to be believed. When he returned home he was murdered by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus. They in turn were killed by Agamemnon's son, Orestes, and his daughter, Elektra.

Bisexuality in the Iliad

The main theme of the poem is the story of how Achilles moves from being filled with anger, because of being publicly humiliated by Agamemnon to becoming more human. The poem also deals with issues such as whether honor and glory or long life are higher goods, the simultaneous glorification and vilifaction of war, and whether love can help make a person more human.

The closest word the ancient Greeks had for homosexual was “paiderastia” meaning “boy love”. It was a relationship between an older male and a young man around fourteen to twenty. The older man was called “erastes”, he was to educate, protect, love, and provide a role model for his lover. His lover was called “eromenos” whose reward for his lover lay in his beauty, youth, and promise.

With the Iliad the ancient Greeks had trouble designating which role to assign to Patroclus and Achilles. Aeschylus in the tragedy Myrmidons made Achilles the protector since he had avenged his love’s death even though the gods told him it would cost his own life. However Phaedrus asserts that Homer emphasized the beauty of Achilles which would qualify him, not Patroclus, as “eromenos”.

Plato wrote the Symposium about 385 BC, and by then an established tradition viewed Achilles and Patroclus lovers. However there was still debate on whether this was Homer’s intentions or misguided. Aeschylus who wrote a century earlier in his popular tragedy Myrmidons regarded the relationship sexual and stated it in explicit detail. He tells of Achilles visiting Patroclus’ dead body and criticizing him for letting himself be killed. In it Achilles speaks of a “devout union of the thighs”. This reading was the common view at the climax of the Hellenistic era, though it was not shared by all.

Evidence of this debate is found in a speech by an Athenian politician Aeschines at his trial in 345 BC. Aeschines in placing an emphasis on the importance of pederasty to the Greeks argues that though Homer does not state it explicitly educated people should be able to read between the lines. “Although (Homer) speaks in many places of Patroclus and Achilles, he hides their love and avoids giving a name to their friendship, thinking that the exceeding greatness of their affection is manifest to such of his hearers as are educated men.” Most ancient writers followed the thinking laid out by Aeschines.

The inquiry is of significant importance. Homer’s Iliad is the most important sources for Greek history prior to 600 BC when Greek literary texts became numerous. In it he does not use the terms “erastes” and “eromenos”, it has been argued that their relationship was not pederastic but rather egalitarian. In his Ionian culture it appears homosexuality had not taken on the form it later would in pederasty. However some scholars such as Bernard Sergent have argued that it had though it was not reflected in Homer. He asserts that ritualized man-boy relations were widely diffused through Europe from prehistoric times.

It is impossible to designate the roles found in the Iliad between Achilles and Patroclus along pederastic lines. Achilles is the most dominant. Among the warriors in the Trojan War he has the most fame. Patroclus performs duties such as cooking, and nursing yet is older than Achilles. Both also sleep with women.

Nonetheless the emotion between the two is obviously intense love. Achilles is tender to Patroclus contrasted to his arrogance to others. Typically warriors fought for personal fame or their city-state. But Achilles emphasizes his relationship with Patroclus above all else. He dreams that all Greeks would die so that he and Patroclus might gain the fame of conquering Troy alone. After Patroclus dies he agonizes touching his dead body, smearing himself with ash, and fasting. It was not until his desire for revenge to kill Hector who had killed Patroclus that he would fight again; fully aware that the gods warned him it would cost his life.

Attempts to edit the text were undertaken by Aritarchus of Samothrace in Alexandria around 200 BC. He has been called “the founder of scientific scholarship”. In his belief he thought that Homer did not intend the two to be lovers. However he did agree that the “we-two alone” passage did imply a love relation and argued it was a later interpolation. But the majority of ancient and modern historians have accepted the lines to be an original part. Therefore even a Greek who argued against such a view had to admit that these lines expressed a relationship.

Technical features and translations

The poem is written in dactylic hexameter. The Iliad comprises roughly 16,000 lines of verse. Later Greeks divided it into twenty-four books, and this convention has lasted to the present day with little change.

The Iliad has been translated into English for centuries. George Chapman did a translation which John Keats praised in his sonnet, On First Looking into Chapman's Homer and Alexander Pope did another one in rhymed pentameters.

There are four widely read modern English translations. Richmond Lattimore provides a translation that reproduces, line for line, the rhythm of the original poem. Robert Fagles emphasizes contemporary English phrasing while maintaining faithfulness to the Greek. The translations of Stanley Lombardo and Robert Fitzgerald are known for their attention to Homer's imagery. Lombardo's translation is generally the one most often recommended by classics scholars because of its faithfulness to the Greek and its modern vernacular style. It has become the translation English language readers are most likely to finish.

The Iliad in antiquity

The Iliad and the Odyssey were considered by Greeks of the classical age and after as the most important works in Ancient Greek literature, and were the basis of Greek pedagogy in antiquity. As the center of the rhapsode's repertoire, their recitation was a central part of Greek religious festivals.

The Iliad in subsequent arts and literature

Subjects from the Trojan War were a favourite among ancient Greek dramatists. Aeschylus' trilogy Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides follow the story of Agamemnon following his return from the war.

A loose film adaptation of the Iliad, Troy, was released in 2004, starring Brad Pitt as Achilles and Eric Bana as Hector, and directed by German-born Wolfgang Petersen. Despite its popularity -- largely a result of a huge marketing campaign by the studio -- the film was a critical flop in the U.S., though not internationally. Several critics voted it the worst film of 2004. In addition, it only loosely resembles the Homeric version.

A epic science fiction adaptation / tribute by acclaimed author Dan Simmons titled Illium was released in 2003. 'The novel received a Locus Award for best science fiction novel of 2003.

External links

Text of the Illiad

Template:Wikisourcepar Template:Wikisourcepar


  • Milan Budimir On the lliyad and its Poet (1940),
  • Martin Mueller, The Iliad (1984, revised 2001) [10] (
  • SparkNotes (Илиада

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