The Iliad was originally intended to be recited or chanted, rather than read. Its poetic style is vivid, taut, simple, direct, and full of repeated epithets and elaborate visual similes. The treatment is serious and dignified throughout, and the total effect is one of grandeur. Homer’s greatness also reveals itself in the action of the Iliad, in which, within the scope of a few weeks in the tenth year of the siege of Troy, Homer gives the impression of covering the whole war by a few deft incidents.
The appearance of Helen on the walls of Troy reminds the reader that she was the cause of the war.
The catalog of ships and warriors calls to mind the first arrival of the Greek army at Troy. The duel between Paris and Menelaus would properly have come in the first years of the war, but its placement in the poem suggests the breakdown of diplomacy that lead to the bloodbath of fighting.
(Brann, 126) Hector’s forebodings of his own death and of the fall of Troy as he talks to his wife, not to mention his dying prediction of the supposedly invincible Achilles’ death, all point to the future of the war and its conclusion. Homer thus gives the rather narrow scope of the poem’s events much greater breadth.
Critical Analysis and Theme
In this reading of the poem, fathers are the lowest common denominators of the human. With increasing insistence, the theme recurs in the Iliad: Book 6 contains two examples.
First, Glaucus and Diomedes, despite opposite affiliations, can find in their fathers and grandfathers common friends. This inherited bond becomes their reason for avoiding the slaying of each other. Next, in the same book, the completely mortal Trojan counterpart of Achilles, Hector, meets his wife Andromache on the city wall.
Hector’s doomed infant son, Astyanax, is also present, and the poet arranges the scene so that the fate of Troy finds its symbol in the baby. He will not grow up to be “lord of the town” as his name signifies (and as his father is) but will be taken when the town falls, and both Hector and his wife know this. (Lawall, Thalman, Patterson, James, 359)
In this, their final conversation, the relationship of Hector with his son is placed in the wider context of paternal relations, as each partner recalls a father: Andromache mentions Eetion, killed in a raid by Achilles early in the war; Hector says that he is fighting not only for his own but also for Priam’s glory, although he knows that the effort is in vain. This consciousness of genealogy and relation gives the Iliad much of its impression of depth, revealing as it does inherited motivations.
The heroic imperative, always to excel, is partly motivated by competition with fathers—filial piety is only part of the reason why heroes fight—and this side of the theme is not neglected. A father’s example or instructions shame several heroes to join battle. Agamemnon goading Diomedes in book 4 and Odysseus goading Achilles in book 9 make use of the theme;
Nestor, in book 11, unwittingly uses it to send Patroclus off to his death. In the final book of the poem, Priam also uses the common experience of fathers: On a night mission to the Greek camp to retrieve his son’s corpse, the old man prompts Achilles to remember Peleus, his father. This time the purpose of the reminder is peaceful, and it succeeds; the poem ends in reconciliation, at least on the level of the individual. Achilles’ new realization of his own mortality enables him humbly to accept a father’s wish—in pointed contrast, no doubt intentional, to Agamemnon in book 1. (Silk, 59)
If the father-son theme emphasizes Achilles’ mortal side, the theme of anger, from the poem’s beginning, emphasizes the divine. The interaction of human and divine is one of the most important Homeric themes; Achilles is a paradigm for the way in which such interaction occurs. A Greek audience would have been attuned to the word which Homer uses to describe Achilles’ state. Mēnis (the first word of the poem) is not ordinary anger; it connotes divine wrath. In fact, Achilles is the only mortal of whom it is used. There is, then, inherent antagonism between Achilles and the divine.
Achilles, like any man, will inevitably lose in this contest because he must die. Gregory Nagy has shown that the theme of god-hero antagonism underlies the Greek concept of the hero in both poetic narratives and actual cult practices. (Lawall, Thalman, Patterson, James, 363) Achilles’ death, therefore, can be seen not only as the result of his human commitment but also as the logical result of his near-divine status, his encroachment upon divine prerogatives when he indulges his ruinous wrath. (Vivante, 167) This explains why Apollo joins Paris in the killing of Achilles (as Hector predicts in book 22).
For many readers, the role of the gods in both the Iliad and the Odyssey is problematic. If events are predetermined, as the poet seems at times to say, how can a hero such as Achilles choose his destiny? Again, there appear to be levels of divine necessity. The will of Zeus is carried out in the poem, according to the prologue in book 1; yet Zeus himself must bow to restraint in accepting the predetermined death of his son Sarpedon later in the poem.
The great span of time which led to the crystallization of Homeric poetry could account for the variant notions in the poems, from meteorological gods to moral forces: Zeus can thus without contradiction be both the “cloud gatherer” and the god who punishes the violators of guest-host relations. Then again, Homer is free to choose to emphasize whatever aspect of divinity best suits his poetic needs at a given point: He is not bound by a theology. In fact, the mention of “fate” can often be taken as the poet’s way of saying “This is the way in which the plot goes”; the epic poet has Zeus’s omniscience, thanks to the Muses. (Vivante, 169)
Actually, the Homeric picture is remarkably consistent in one aspect: Gods act as mortals. They drink, deceive, laugh, love, hold grudges, have favorites; they merely do not die. Homer repeatedly develops the dramatic possibilities of this basic contrast, especially in “interlude” portions which do not significantly advance the plot. (The key plot-forwarding books are 1, 9, 11, 16, 19, 22, 23, 24.) Thus, book 5 contains episodes of deadly serious fighting as Diomedes has his heroic hour at the Trojans’ expense, but the book ends with the comic assaults on Ares and Aphrodite.
The effect is only to underscore how much mortals stand to lose in war. At times the parallelism of divine and human worlds means that many actions appear to be caused by both human desires and divine will. For Homer, this is not a contradiction; the gods play a part in the world of men, but human beings are still free to make up their own minds—these are self-evident facts to the poet. This “double-motivation,” the dual point of view which perceives events from both divine and human perspectives, creates in the epic a sense of heightened pathos balanced by impersonal tragic resignation. (Kim, 201) In a way, the duality reproduces that of the divinely inspired and objective poet as he sings, again and again, the one-time, life-or-death crisis of his hero.
The special beauty, then, of traditional poetry like the Iliad emerges in even such a brief analysis as this, where it has been shown that even the first line of the poem plunges one into thematic depths. Because of the nature of the medium, the same could be said of almost any line in the epic. The Iliad is not a mere chronicle of events in the Trojan War. It deals with one specific, and crucial, set of sequences of the war: the quarrel of Achilles with his commander, Agamemnon; Achilles’ withdrawal from the war; the fighting in his absence; Agamemnon’s futile attempt to conciliate Achilles; the Trojan victories;
Patroclus’ intervention and death at Hector’s hands; Achilles’ reentry to the war to avenge his friend’s murder; the death of Hector; and Priam’s ransom of Hector’s body from Achilles. The poem has a classical structure, with a beginning, middle, and end. This sequence is important in its effect on the war as a whole for two reasons. Without Achilles, the ablest fighter, the Greeks are demoralized, even though they have many powerful warriors. (Lord, 13) It is foretold that Achilles will die before Troy is taken, so the Greeks will have to capture Troy by other means than force. The second reason is that the climax of the poem, the killing of Hector, prefigures the fall of Troy, for as long as Hector remained alive the Greeks were unable to make much headway against the Trojans.
The gods play a prominent part in the Iliad, and they are thoroughly humanized, having human shapes, sexes, and passions. Although they have superhuman powers, they behave in an all-too-human fashion—feasting, battling, fornicating, lying, cheating, changing their minds, protecting their favorites from harm. Just as the Greek army is a loose confederation under Agamemnon, so the gods are subject to Zeus. As the gods behave like humans, so the link between god and human is surprisingly direct; superhuman and human forces interact constantly.
Divinity penetrates human action through oracles, dreams, visions, inspiration; it shows itself in inspired warfare where a hero seems invincible, and in miraculous interventions where a wounded hero is spirited away and healed. Moreover, the gods are not omnipotent. Even Zeus can merely delay the death of a person, but in the end must bow to Fate. Further, men have free will; they are not mere puppets. Achilles has deliberately chosen his destiny. Humans, finally, have more dignity than the gods because they choose their actions in the face of death, while the gods have no such necessity, being immortal. (Lord, 19) It is death that gives human decisions their meaning, for death is final and irrevocable.
The Iliad begins with the wrath of Achilles at the injustice done to him by Agamemnon and ends with the clemency of Achilles, who returns to Priam the body of Trojan Hector slain and dishonored by Achillean wrath. In between, the reader is shown the effects of Achilles’ withdrawal from the fight before the walls of Troy.
The Iliad is a powerful statement of what it means to be human in the middle of vast and senseless bloodshed. The Iliad is the first of Western books, and its characters, themes, and structure have provided more than two millennia of subsequent narrative artists with materials for their own poetry and prose. None of them, however, with good reason, has matched the Iliad‘s presentation of the glory and limitations of perfected martial honor.
Brann, Eva. Homeric Moments: Clues to Delight in Reading the “Odyssey” and the “Iliad.” Philadelphia: Paul Dry, 2002. pg 126-129.
Kim, Jinyo. The Pity of Achilles: Oral Style and the Unity of the “Iliad.” Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000. pg 201-221
Lawall, Sarah; Thalman, William G; Patterson, Lee; James, Heather. The Norton Anthology of Western Literature, Volume 2, Publisher: W. W. Norton; 8 edition (2005), ISBN-10: 0393926168. pg 359-401.
Lord, Albert B. The Singer of Tales. 2d ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. pg 13-27.
Silk, Michael S. Homer, “The Iliad.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987. pg 56-91.
Vivante, Paolo. “The Iliad”: Action as Poetry. Boston: Twayne, 1990. pg 167-169.