Iliad Study Guide

Consisting of 15,693 lines of verse, the Iliad has been hailed as the greatest epic of Western civilization. Although we know little about the time period when it was composed and still less about the epic's composer, the Iliad's influence on subsequent generations of poets and writers is incalculable. The great Aeschylus claimed that his plays consisted only of the scraps left over from Homer; centuries later, Virgil, writing a founding myth centuries later for the great Roman Empire, took Homer as his inspiration and model. The influence of Homer is felt down through the centuries, in Dante and Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton; such is his power that men who read no word of Greek and who had no access to translations spoke of Homer and his epics with deep reverence. After 2,700 years, it remains unsurpassed as the West's greatest war story.

The Iliad has its basis in the rich mythology of Greece. Knowledge of mythology can be a hindrance as well as an aid for the modern reader approaching the Iliad, because the myths underwent changes and variations throughout the centuries before and after Homer. Readers must take care to pay attention to the specifics of Homer's story, without superimposing myths gathered from elsewhere. Popularly known is the story of Achilles' invulnerability, with the fatal exception of his heel. This myth has no place in the Iliad: Achilles is as mortal as everyone else, and Homer explicitly tells us that this is the case. He does not owe his strength to rituals by the River Styx performed by his mother during his infancy, and there is no mention of a vulnerable heel. The poem does not deal with the sack of Troy, or with the famous episode of the Trojan horse, although the horse is alluded to in the Odyssey. Another myth holds that Helen's father, Tyndareus, feared that Helen's beauty would bring her suitors to war. To prevent war all across Greece, he made the suitors all swear to stand by the man chosen to be Helen's husband in the event that she should be abducted. There is no mention of this story anywhere in the Iliad. And another well-known story tells us that the Achaean war fleet gathered at Aulis and could not sail because of the wrath of the goddess Artemis. To appease the goddess, Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter, Iphigenia. Again, the myth is not part of Homer's story. He either lived before these myths evolved or he did not find them suitable for his purposes.

Archeological evidence suggests that there was a great city near the Hellespont, on the site traditionally ascribed to Troy. It was destroyed by war sometime around the thirteenth century BCE. The Iliad probably has some basis in fact; there may have been a massive campaign by Greek-speaking peoples against a great city on the coast of Asia Minor. Homer himself was a Greek living in one of the colonies of Asia Minor, but his epics deal with a time when no Greek lived in Asia. Given the evidence, it seems safe to say that his work attempts to reconstruct stories from a past that was already distant. In the time before written history, the passage of a few centuries made accurate recall of historical events all but impossible. Homer's Iliad is therefore more myth than history, although many ancient Greeks understood his epics as being in some way factual. The heroes of the Iliad were very real to the Greeks, holding a place in their history as well as their literature and religion. During the time of Alexander the Great, Greeks recognized a structure in Asia Minor as the burial mound of Achilles and Patroclus, and families often traced their ancestry back to heroes in the Iliad.

This study guide uses the Richard Lattimore translation when referring to specific passages. However, the names used are from the Robert Fagles translation, since the Fagles version uses the name forms that are most familiar to the modern English-speaking reader.