Iliad Summary and Analysis of Books 17-20

Book 17:


Menelaus sees the death of Patroclus, and he goes to defend the body. He and Euphorbus trade insults, and Menelaus reminds him that he killed Euphorbus' brother Hyperenor. They fight, and Euphorbus dies. Hector, his attention focused on the fleeing horses of Achilles, is made to look at the scene by Apollo. He leads an attack to win Patroclus' body. Menelaus gives way and retreats, but he runs to get the help of Great Ajax. Ajax and Menelaus lead a charge to defend Patroclus' body, but they are too late to prevent his armor from being taken as a trophy. Glaucos insults Hector, calling him a coward for not battling Ajax, and the insult incites Hector to act. He puts on the armor taken from Patroclus, the armor of Achilles, and he leads an attack to regain Patroclus' corpse. Seeing the Trojan troops massing for a mighty attack, Menelaus calls for the aid of the Achaeans.

What follows is the largest battle in the Iliad over the remains of a fallen hero. The Achaeans fight desperately to protect Patroclus' body from desecration, while the Trojans fight with equal ferocity so that they might desecrate it. The fortunes of war shift again and again; at one point, the Trojans are driven into retreat, but Apollo, through Aeneas, manages to make the Trojans hold their ground. The fighting continues, while, some distance from the action, the immortal horse of Achilles weep tears of grief for Patroclus. Zeus gives them new strength, so that they may run again in spite of their grief. Alcimedon and Automedon then battle from Achilles' chariot. Hector and Aeneas decide to try to win Achilles' horses, and Automedon calls out to the Aeantes and Menelaus for help. Another battle develops over the prize of Achilles' horses. Athena, with Zeus's permission, descends from Olympus to help the Achaeans defend Patroclus' body. But Zeus still favors the Trojans, and Ajax and Menelaus send Antilochus back to tell Achilles what has happened. The Achaeans are beaten into a slow retreat, with Menelaus and Ajax carrying the body of Patroclus.


The treatment of a dead warrior is of central importance for Homeric heroes. To strip a body of its armor shames the dead man and brings glory to the conqueror; to desecrate the body brings even greater shame to the slain and greater glory to the slayer. Both sides fight here with distinction, and we see Menelaus fighting and leading better than he ever has before. He half-avenges Patroclus by killing Euphorbus, and his actions stop the Trojans from taking Patroclus' body and Achilles' horses. Menelaus and Great Ajax are now the main defense against the Trojan onslaught. They must hold the enemy back and protect Patroclus' body until Achilles arrives. For both sides, honor is at stake. The Achaeans fight to protect their friend's body from ignominious treatment while the Trojans fight to win greater glory.

Book 17 reveals that Patroclus was a man greatly beloved by his comrades. The Achaeans are willing to die in defense of his body, and no less than the great warriors Menelaus and Ajax are the ones who carry his body. Zeus calls him "strong and gentle," recognizing the two traits, harmoniously balanced, that distinguished Patroclus. In one of Homer's most eerie and beautiful images, the immortal horses of Achilles stand still and weep with grief. Patroclus' death, because of the love felt for him by Achilles, will turn the tide of the war for good.

We see more of Hector's pride; he is incited to battle, once again, when Glaucos accuses him of cowardice. Hector's pride and desire to win glory led him to kill Patroclus; now, he struggles to win Patroclus' body. He is setting himself up for a showdown with Achilles, although Homer makes it clear that Hector has no chance of winning.

Book 18:


It falls on Antilochus to give the horrible news to Achilles. Achilles, already anxious that Patroclus has not returned, is still not prepared when Antilochus tells him what has happened. Achilles heaps dirt on his face, tearing at his own hair. The women won in combat emerge from their dwellings to cry with him, and Antilochus holds his hand for fear that he will cut his own throat. He lets out a terrible cry, and his mother deep in the sea hears him; she and her fellow goddesses begin to weep. Finally, the bitterness Thetis predicted has come to pass. Thetis and her sisters emerge from the sea to comfort Achilles, while he bewails the price of his glory. Though he asked for glory and death for the Achaeans until he returned to fight, he did not know before that the price would be Patroclus' life. He tells her that he will set out to destroy Hector. Thetis warns him that if Hector dies, Achilles will die soon afterward, but Achilles is determined to kill Hector no matter what the price. Thetis sends her sisters back to their father Nereus, to tell him what has happened, and she goes to Olympus to get Hephaestus to forge new armor and shield for Achilles.

The battle continues to go badly for the Achaeans, and Hector nearly takes the body of Patroclus. He is stopped by the Aeantes, but it is clear that he will eventually triumph. Iris, sent by Hera, goes to Achilles and tells him to rise up and defend Patroclus. He has no armor, but if he goes to the ditch the mere sight of him will demoralize the Trojan forces. Achilles does as instructed, and Athena surrounds him with a nimbus of flame. He gives a war cry three times, rallying the Achaeans and terrifying the Trojans. The Trojans are routed anew with each war cry, until finally the body of Patroclus is brought back on a litter. Achilles goes to the body, weeping at the sight of his beloved companion dead. Hera commands the sun to set early, and the fighting ends for the day.

The Trojans try to decide what to do. Polydamas advises that they withdraw into the city; if they try to engage the enemy outside of Troy's great city walls, Achilles will destroy them. Hector rejects Polydamas' plan. Hector himself will face Achilles. The Trojans agree with Hector, sealing their fate.

Meanwhile, the Achaeans mourn over the body of Patroclus. Laying his hands on Patroclus' chest and weeping, he remembers with grief that he promised Menoetius, Patroclus' father, that he would bring Patroclus home safely. He promises Patroclus that there will be a great funeral, but not until Achilles has avenged his companion. He will kill Hector and sacrifice twelve Trojan youths to Patroclus' memory. The Achaeans clean and wrap the body.

Thetis reaches the fantastic dwelling of Hephaestus, smith of the gods. Hephaestus owes Thetis a favor, because she was the goddess who caught him when Hera threw him from heaven. Thetis and Eurynome caught Hephaestus and nursed him back to health, and the great smith of the gods is willing to do any favor Thetis asks of him. She tells him what has happened, and Hephaestus gets to work. First, he forges the shield of Achilles. On the shield he crafts the image of earth, sun, sky, and sea. He also makes the image of two cities. In one city, there are marriage celebrations and dancing. In the market, the people have assembled to watch the dispute over a killed man. Two men argue their cases against each other, with witnesses for both sides, while the elders listen and prepare to make a decision. The second city is at war, under seige, with neither side giving way. Ares and Athena are among the troops, taking part in the battle. Apart from the city, two herdsmen go about their work ignorant of the battle taking place. Soldiers of one of the armies kill the herdsmen and take their cattle and sheep, but then these soldiers are in turn overtaken by soldiers from the other army. Hephaestus makes a great field, where farmers work the soil and raise their crops. There is also a vineyard, where young men and women work to the music of a lyre. In another part of the shield, lions attack cattle while their herdsmen launch an ineffectual hunt for the predators. There is also a meadow with flocks of sheep, and in another scene young men and women dance on a great wide dancing floor. The Ocean River runs all around the shield's outer rim.

Then Hephaestus makes armor and a helmet for Achilles. Presented with the finished work, Thetis carries the panoply down to her son.


Finally, Achilles will return to battle. But until now, he has not understood his mother's prophecies. When he asked for glorious death, he did not realize that the price would be Patroclus' life. Although for the rest of the poem he usually blames Hector and the Trojans for Patroclus' death, when he mourns over the body his words reveal a proud man who is wracked by guilt. He recalls his promise to Menoetius, Patroclus' father, that he would bring home Patroclus safely. On some level, he knows that he is partially responsible for his beloved companion's death. Unlike Meleager in Phoenix's story, Achilles has acted too slowly to save the person he loves most. His guilt, however, is supplanted by a new and more terrifying rage. He regrets his previous rage, but he does not take Patroclus' death as reason to reevaluate the way he acts and lives. His former anger will only give way to a new rage and grief more terrifying and self-absorbed than anything he has felt before.

The description of the shield of Achilles is one of Homer's dazzling accomplishments. The shield is nothing less than a microcosm of the world, with earth, sun, sky, and sea, as well as mortal men and civilization. We see two cities, echoing the two peoples who in real life are locked in a terrible war. The symbolism of the shield works in another way: we are presented with a vision of peace and a vision of war. In one city, conflict between men is being decided peacefully in a court of law. A murder has taken place, and the murderer is trying to settle the affair by paying a fine. The friend of the dead will not accept the fine, which implies that he demands stiffer punishment for the culprit. The elders peacefully decide the dispute. In contrast, the other city is under siege. The scene is bloody, illustrative of the futility of war. There are no glorious heroes here; when soldiers of one army kill innocent herdsmen and take their flocks, the effort proves fruitless when they in turn are hunted down and attacked by soldiers of the other army. Homer does not bother to tell us who, if anyone, wins. He closes the description with images of the appalling loss of life. Elsewhere on the shield, Hephaestus places lyrical, peaceful scenes of everyday life. The most beautiful world is the world at peace; though the Iliad glorifies the courage of men in battle, the shield shows war only as the cause of waste and suffering, while peace and civilization are depicted as the better alternatives.

Book 19:


Thetis returns to her son, who still weeps in the arms of the dead Patroclus. She gives him his new armor, and promises, after hearing Achilles' concerns for the body, that she will keep the body as fresh and whole as it was when Patroclus was alive. Achilles goes to summon the Achaeans so he can announce his return to battle. Before the assembly, he curtly expresses sorrow over his rage, which has cost the Achaeans so much. Agamemnon responds with a long, over-elaborate speech, in which he blames god-induced delusion for his past mistakes. He offers Achilles all the gifts offered during the previous embassy. Achilles brushes the offer aside impatiently. He wants to return to battle. Odysseus tells him that first the men must eat and gear up, and he insists that Agamemnon should make assurances to Achilles that he has not lain with Briseis. He also insists that the two men reconcile themselves more fully, and that Achilles should feast with Agamemnon before returning to battle. Agamemnon agrees, and he tells Odysseus to send men to get all of the gifts promised to Achilles.

Achilles seems unimpressed, and he urges Agamemnon to put aside these tasks for a time when Achilles is less eager to fight. Achilles says that they should attack immediately; after a day's work they can return for a great dinner. He promises that he himself will not eat until he has fought. Odysseus tells Achilles that men do not mourn by going hungry, and full stomachs will mean greater strength. Agamemnon's gifts are brought forward, and Agamemnon swears that he has not lain with Briseis. Achilles formally, once again, condemns his previous anger before the assembly, and the assembly is dispersed.

Briseis wails and weeps when she sees the body of Patroclus. She recalls the time when her husband, father, and brothers were killed by the Achaeans, and Patroclus comforted her and promised that he would make her Achilles' wife. The women all weep, mourning for Patroclus, but also "for her own sorrows each" (19.302-3).

Despite the entreaty of friends, Achilles cannot bring himself to eat. He starves himself "by reason of longing" for Patroclus (19. 320-1). Zeus is moved to pity, and he sends Athena to put ambrosia into Achilles' chest so that the great warrior will not be weakened by his fast. Filled with unspeakable sorrow and rage, Achilles arms himself for battle. His armor, shield, and helmet are the gifts of the gods, and his weapon is the Pelian ash spear that was the gift of Chiron the centaur. Automedon will be his charioteer. He tells his horses to make sure that they take care of their charioteer. One of the horses, Xanthus, is given power of speech by Hera. He tells Achilles that they will keep him safe this time, but his death is near. He also says that it was destiny that brought Patroclus' death, and there was nothing the horses could do. Achilles responds that he knows his own death is fated, but nonetheless nothing could keep him from battle.


Achilles has suffered horribly, but he is still hotheaded and impatient. He is interested in revenge, and anything else is a waste of time. In contrast, Agamemnon spends a great deal of time making elaborate excuses. His speech opens with a nervous entreaty that a speaking man should be listened to, and he works hard to lay blame for his dishonorable treatment of Achilles on previous madness. He knows that his own troops in great part blame him for the disasters that have befallen their army. The gods, he says, blinded him. Achilles has no patience for the ceremonious giving of gifts; he is no longer interested in having Agamemnon restore his honor to him. Odysseus and Agamemnon both desire to have the rupture between the men formally healed, but Achilles' main interest is Hector's death. He shirks the social activity of eating with his companions, and he impatiently bears the ritualized apologies of Agamemnon.

Homer provides a glance at the plight of women during wartime. Briseis mourns for Patroclus, who treated her with kindness and promised her a safe position as Achilles' wife. But a Greek audience would not have been insensitive to the strangeness of a captive woman's positon: in wartime, this woman's only consolation is to have a safe place in the bed of her husband's killer. The women's position is one of vulnerability. Once their husbands are killed, they have no choice but to become consorts or wives of their husbands' killers. The change does not occur without pain. Homer tells us that though the women mourn for Patroclus, each also mourns for her own sorrows.

In his exchange with his horse, we see Achilles' bloody resolve. His words to Xanthus parallel his words to his mother in Book 18: even though his own life will be the price, Hector will die for what he has done to Patroclus. Achilles accepts this condition and prepares to ride to his fate.

Book 20:


Zeus calls all of the gods to assembly, from the Olympians to the nymphs of the forests and springs, and tells them that they can go down and fight in the Trojan War. The gods are free to aid either side as it pleases them. Zeus's reasoning is that Achilles, if left alone, will wipe out the Trojans too quickly and may storm the gates of Troy, which is against the decree of fate. Zeus will remain apart and watch the battle from Olympus. Poseidon, Hera, Athena, Hermes, and Hephaestus go down to help the Achaeans. Ares, Apollo, Aphrodite, Xanthus (the river god, not the horse), Artemis, and Leto go down to aid the Trojans. At the sight of Achilles, the Trojans are weak with terror, but Athena and Ares cry out and drive the armies on to battle. The gods prepare to fight each other: Apollo against Poseidon, Ares against Athena, Hera against Artemis, Leto against Hermes, Hephaestus against Xanthus.

Achilles makes a drive toward Hector, but Apollo urges Aeneas to go against Achilles first, filling Aeneas with divine strength. Aeneas replies that no man can meet Achille on equal terms, because he is a warrior aided by the gods. Apollo urges him on, reminding Aeneas that his mother is Aphrodite, a greater goddess than Achilles' mother, Thetis. He sends Aeneas forward. Hera sees what is happening, and she calls together Athena and Poseidon. She wants them to stand by Achilles, but Poseidon says that unless some god interferes more directly, they should remain apart from battle. On the battlefield, the two warriors approach each other, Achilles with his rage, Aeneas with the strength given to him by Apollo. The outcome is never in doubt. Achilles and Aeneas trade barbs, with Aeneas recounting his great genealogy, and the two men fight. Very quickly, it becomes clear that Achilles will kill Aeneas, and Poseidon rushes to intercede. Aeneas is destined to survive the Trojan War, so that the race of Dardanos shall not die. Hera and Athena have no interest in helping him, so great is their hatred for Troy, but Poseidon spirits Aeneas away and tells him not to face Achilles again. He also tells him that once Achilles is dead, no Achaean will be able to kill him.

Achilles and Hector call out to their own troops, promising victory. Apollo warns Hector not to face Achilles alone. Finally, we see Achilles in action, and the fighting is every bit as brutal as we could have expected. He is unstoppable, slaughtering Trojan warriors with ease. When Achilles kills Polydorus, brother of Hector, Hector ignores Apollo's warning and rushes to face him. After a moment of fighting, his death seems certain, but Apollo rescues him. Three times Achilles charges, and three times Apollo protects Hector. Achilles eagerly looks forward to meeting him again, and in the meantime he will satisfy himself by slaughtering any other Trojan who gets in his way.


Zeus's decree establishes that without divine help, Achilles is still the greatest warrior among mortals. Although Aeneas protests that divine interference has a great part in making Achilles the supreme warrior, Zeus's earlier statement establishes that Achilles needs no divine interference to make him unstoppable on the battlefield. When Zeus grants permission to the gods to interfere in the conflict, he makes an interesting statement that further develops the theme of fate in the Iliad. Zeus worries that unless the gods interfere, Achilles will storm the gates of Troy by himself, even though it is not his destiny to take the city. This line was so distressing to some ancient commentators that they replaced it with something less shocking. The poem is making a powerful statement about the interaction between gods, fate, and human agency. Here, divine interference is necessary to prevent a mortal man from overturning fate itself. Such is the might of Achilles, a mortal man: his fighting prowess and the force of his will are enough to wreck destiny.

Book 20 also has the line that forms the basis for the later Roman epic of Virgil, the Aeneid. Aeneas is to be the father and king of all Trojans afterward, the patriarch of a reborn nation. Later, Virgil took Homeric material and wrote his own epic glorifying the Roman Empire, claiming Aeneas as the ancestor of the Roman people. The claim was not new; for some time, the Romans had claimed to be the descendents of Aeneas, survivor of the Trojan War. The protection of Aeneas is one of the Iliad's more optimistic events. Although the gods are often disdainful of human life, trading cities as if the destruction of a nation is a light thing, the survival of Aeneas shows a decision by the gods that is full of compassion and grace. Remember that Agamemnon has vowed to exterminate the Trojans until not a trace of their city or people is left. Favored by the gods, Aeneas is protected (by Poseidon, of all gods, even though Poseidon hates the Trojans) so that the genocide of the Trojans will not be complete. Some trace of them will remain. With the later Roman extrapolation, this event becomes a founding narrative for a people. Aeneas becomes a man not unlike Abraham of the Old Testament, favored by God to become the father of a great nation. Amidst the ruin of Troy, Aeneas' survival provides a small moment of hope.