Homer, Iliad, Plot Summary and Discussion Issues

N.B.: Page counts and numbers refer to the Robert Fagles translation (N.Y.: Penguin, 1990).

        The Iliad begins perhaps nine years after the Greek armies first laid seige to Troy, seeking revenge for the theft of Menelaos' wife, Helen, by the Trojan prince, Paris.  Paris had "won" Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, as a reward for settling a dispute among three goddesses about which was fairest.  Hera, Zeus's wife, had promised him rule of Asia, Athena, promised success in war, and Aphrodite, the most beautiful woman, not bothering to tell him the woman was married.  Thus, the Trojan War could stand as a parable for Greek men tempted to choose female beauty, thereby risking loss of rule and defeat in battle.  Homer gives Aphrodite considerable powers, however, and the Greeks do not escape unharmed. 

        Hector, Paris' eldest brother, is the protector of Troy, its greatest warrior.  On the Greek side, the greatest warrior is Achilles, whose divine mother, Thetis, has warned him that the Fates have determined he will live only as long as Hector does not die.   Typically for a Greek hero, Achilles embraces his fate and seeks Hector mercilessly on the battlefield.  Paradoxically, his fate means that, until Hector is killed, Achilles is effectively immortal (no mention of the "dipping in the Styx" myth yet).  However, the epic begins at a point where Achilles' pride and Agamemnon's arrogant assertion of his greater authority collide, causing the hero to retreat from the battlefield and allowing the Trojans nearly to win.

Book I (21 pp.): Agamemnon refuses Chryses' (priest of Apollo) appeal for return of his daughter Chryseis (female captives in household, as "currency" in war). Chryses prays to Apollo for a plague upon the Greeks. Agamemnon and Achilles quarrel re: who is greater, who has more honor, whose temper is more to blame (aristo values esp. kingship and warrior status). Agamemnon offers to return Chryseis in exchange for Achilles' captive, Bryseis (captured at Eetion on Thebes, Andromache's home). Achilles, ready to kill Ag., yields to Athena's advice (gods vs. mortals).

While Odysseus returns Chryseis and her father sacrifices to Apollo, Achilles prays to immortal mother, Thetis, for revenge-- she repeats the prayer to Zeus (religious rite links aristo behaviors to divine processes). Achilles' prayer (91), that Z will cause the Trojans to attack the Greek ships before A reenters battle, is the dramatic underpinning of the narrative to Bk. 17. It's counterbalanced by the rule of fate that A. must die after killing Hector and before Troy falls. Quarrel spreads to the gods, as Zeus threatens Hera--her son, Hephaestus, urges her to submit to Zeus's will because they cannot face his wrath (family structure, mythic thinking).

Book II (28 pp.): Zeus sends a dream of Nestor to Agamemnon, urging him to attack Troy; Agamemnon tests Greeks by urging them to cut their losses by sailing home; Odysseus, warned by Athena, rallies troops by reasoning with kings and by beating foot- soldiers (gods vs. mortals; military orders; class). In council, Odysseus beats Thersites for railing at Agamemnon and recalls Zeus's oracle of a snake devouring nine sparrows at the altar on the day they arrived in Troy (class structure; gods vs. mortals). Nestor urges Agamemnon to order the army so that members of each phratry (clan) fight beside their relatives (class; family). Catalogue of the ships identifies and describes Greek warriors by homeland, ancestry, and ancestors' previous famous deeds.

Book III (16 pp.): Menelaus sees Paris in the Trojan ranks, but P. flees and is mocked by brother Hector; M. offers single combat for Helen and the armies array in lines below the city walls (heroism vs. "gifts of Aphrodite"). Asked by Priam, Helen identifies important members of the Greek army with annecdotes (very useful for character ID). Agamemnon performs ritual sacrifice to seal the truce and duel (religion). Menalaus' sword shatters, and when he's on the verge of killing Paris, Aphrodite spirits P. to Helen's bedroom and both lures and threatens Helen so she will join P. there (mythic thinking, hero and passions). Agamemnon demands Helen as the duel demanded.

Book IV (18 pp.): Zeus and Hera quarrel over Troy's fate--he defends them and she hates them [Judgment of Paris + Ganymede]; in compromise he ordains that the Trojans will dishonor the truce when Athena urges Pandarus to shoot an arrow at Menalaus; Athena deflects the arrow to hit him in the groin (religion, gods vs. humans, mythic thinking).

Agamemnon and Nestor taunt the Greek captains, urging them to fight; the first extended combat sequences reported (160-3).

Book V (30 pp.): Diomedes' aristeia or "the deeds of D. at his best" (see note p. 625)--D. inspired by Athena kills a long series of Trojans in graphic serial combat alternating with a few others. D. kills Pandarus and wounds Aeneas, who is saved by Aphrodite; D. wounds Aphrodite though she is a goddess. D. even attacks Apollo who is defending Aeneas. Ares joins the battle helping the Trojans; Athena and Hera join the battle helping the Greeks, and eventually A. helps Diomedes wound Ares in the groin (mythic thinking; gods vs. humans; dramatically D. replaces Achilles as a semi-divine relentless killer).

Book VI (18 pp.): A seer rallies the Trojans against the Greeks who are on the verge of winning; Hector is sent to Troy with instructions for Hecuba (mother) to pray to Athena for help.

While Hector goes to Troy, a Trojan ally, Glaucus, meets Diomedes--the two exchange names and Glaucus tells D. his lineage from Bellerophon. D's grandfather had been host to Bellerophon, and D. claims Glaucus as a guest-friend; they exchange armor and agree to seek other enemies in battle (household org.).

In Troy, Hector meets and berates Paris, listens to Helen judge herself doomed by Zeus, and meets wife Andromache and son Astyanax on the walls. She laments loss of her family to war and urges him to fight defensively from the walls. He says he'd be ashamed to adopt such a stragegy, life would be unthinkable, even though the city will be lost and she will be a slave in a foreign land. He reaches for his son, who is frightened by his helmet's plume; he takes off the helmet and prays A. will be a better warrior than his father (family org.; mythic thinking; heroic code).

Book VII (16 pp.): Hector, inspired by Apollo and Athena, demands a duel with the Greeks (reverse of Book IV); Ajax (Telemon's son) wins the draw; they fight to a draw at nightfall and exchange gifts in honor of the combat (class and family structure; heroic code behavior).

Both sides pause to bury dead (religion) and Paris is driven to offer return of treasures he stole from Menalaus when making off with Helen; in return, Greeks are to leave (market; family; class). Greeks refuse, but allow burial truce (religion).

Book VIII (19 pp.): Zeus challenges the gods to rebellion and Athena acknowledges the difference between Z. and the rest as between gods and humans (class; religion); Z. weighs the fates of both sides and the Achaeans/Greeks nearly lose the day in panic at Z's sign, the thunderclap. After Diomedes almost kills Hector and is driven off by Z's thunder, Agamemnon reminds Z of A's piety; new omens lead the Greeks to victory until Z. stirs the Trojans to repulse them. Hera and Athena lament the Greek deaths and Athena conceives it as a battle between herself and Thetis (Achilles' mother) for Z's affections (243: family/household; myth); H and A try to take arms to support the Greeks, but Z sees them and threatens them; they relent and leave Z to doom men. Answering their complaint, Z restates the pledge to Thetis, no help for the Greeks until the Trojans fight at the Greek ships and Achilles takes up his arms to avenge Patroclus. Trojans camp on the plain surrounding the Greeks (fires/stars simile).

Book IX (24 pp.): Agamemnon counsels retreat; Diomedes, attack; Nestor, a strategy meeting; N wins. A admits he was mad to take Achilles' captive, Briseis and offers trophies, horses, seven captive women of Lesbos, Briseis, herself, an oath he never had sex with her, and an offer to marry him to one of Ag's three daughters as a son equal to Orestes (market; family/houseold; class). Phoenix, Ajax, and Odysseus are the ambassadors; Odysseus makes the first speech, recasting Ag's offer to appeal to Achilles' desires for honor and fame that outdo any other warrior's (heroic code; market; class; family). Achilles refuses listing his service vs. Agamemnon's behavior (class; heroic code). Achilles' speech dramatizes his aristo sense of values and his "heroic choice" re: short/honorable or long/honorless life (heroic code; class). Phoenix, one of Achilles' household, refuses the offer of a safe return and urges A to remember his past (blood feud with unfaithful father re: mistress) and his role as A's teacher; Ph reminds A about the effect of excessive anger at the Hunt of the Calydonian Boar (269-71) that left Meleager desolated (religion; family; myth). Ajax appeals bluntly to the custom of the blood-price paid for wrongful death which prevents feuds like this one. Achilles rejects that, too, reminding them of the pledge never to fight until Trojans burn the Greek ships (family; class; market).

Book X (19 pp.): Agamemnon and Menalaus urge Odysseus and Diomedes to go behind Trojan lines for plunder and strategic information; Hector sends Dolon on a similar mission to the Greeks; O and Di pray to Athena but Do brags (religion); O and Di capture Do, trick him into describing the Trojan encampment, then kill him. Di kills Rhesus and 12 men in their sleep while O steals R's stallions (market; heroic code)

Book XI (28 pp.): In Agamemnon's aristeia, he kills younger men, usually known as sons of more famous warriors (e.g., Antenor's sons), one of whom wounds him (simile wound's pain=labor pain). When Hector sees Ag. withdraw, he leads a counterattack. Diomedes is wounded by Paris; Odysseus aids D's escape and is himself wounded; Menalaus and Ajax rescue O. Achilles sees the wounded coming from the field and sends Patroclus to ask of Nestor what has happened. Nestor recounts his deeds in earlier wars and warns Ag will be a hero alone if Ach waits too long. The "Cup of Nestor" described (p. 317, see p. 23 re: archeological find) or click on the hyperlink above to see it.

Book XII (15 pp.): After forecast of Troy's eventual destruction, Greek losses are explained as consequence of their failure to sacrifice (religion). Hector leads the chariots to the Greek camp's wall and heeds Polydamus advice to dismount before the wall's ditch (theme, see P. in XIII, p. 364-5). Simple shield description for Sarpedon (335)--compare with Shield of Achilles for extended thematic expansion of familiar poetic topic (483-7). The Trojans cross the wall around the Greek ships behind Hector at exactly half-way through the epic (XXII/XXIV).

Book XIII (27 pp.): In the fighting at the ships, Poseidon inspires the greater and lesser Ajaxes (343-4)--good example of god going into one, perceived as strength. They urge resistance and predict the end of the Ag./Ach. feud (345). Idomeneus to Meriones on the signs of cowardice vs. signs of heroism (350-1: important semiotics of heroic code; compare with poetic "lovers' symptoms." Why Zeus allows the Trojans to triumph?: more glory for Thetis' son, Ach. when he returns to battle (352). Idomeneus' shield like Sarpedon's (vs. Achilles) (354). Menelaus taunts Trojans with violation of host/guest rights, and blames them for excess battle lust (ambiguous heroic code: see Ido. 350- 1). Paris appears and Hector mocks him (366). Argives said to fine those who refuse to join the army against Troy (363: politics, social org.). Polydamas to Hector on limits (364-5: compare Menelaus) and ref. to Achilles' eventual return.

Book XIV (17 pp.): Because her beloved Greeks are in danger, Hera borrows Aphrodite's magically seductive girdle to lure Zeus. After their lovemaking he falls asleep and Hera goes to help the Greeks (with Poseidon's aid).

Book XV (24 pp.): Zeus wakes up, discovers the deception, sends Hermes to get Poseidon out of the battle and sends Apollo to rouse Hector to attack the ships again.

Book XVI (29 pp.): Patroclus sees the Trojan threat and offers to wear Achilles' armor into battle against them. He nearly drives the Trojans into Troy, but is stunned by a blow from Apollo's hand and killed by Hector. Hector takes Achilles' armor from P's body and continues to wear it until Book XXII when the sight of it further inflames Achilles just before he kills Hector.

Book XVII (24 pp.): The fight for Patroclus' body allows Menalaus to demonstrate his aristeia, and when M. is forced by wounds to withdraw, Telemonian Ajax takes his place.

Book XVIII (20 pp.): Achilles learns of P's death, and prays to his mother for fresh armor. Thetis persuades Hephaestus to forge a set of divine armor for him, including a shield whose decorations are a sort of second Creation which illustrates all aspects of mortal life on Earth (as the poet and audience understood it-- omissions may be readily used for discussion).

Book XIX (14 pp.): Achilles joins the Greeks and is so eager for battle he will not eat. In his blood-fury he hears his own horses prophesy his death. The captured slave Briseis laments Patroclus' death (!), even though Achilles killed her husband and three brothers, because he swore he's make her Achilles' bride.

Book XX (16 pp.): After a council meeting, Zeus orders the gods to take the field on both sides to make sure Achilles' nearly superhuman strength and energy do not undo fate itself. Specifically, they must insure that he does not take the city after killing Hector.

Book XXI (20 pp.): Achilles' victims have less and less chance against him. One, Lycaon, requests mercy and ransom, and Achilles urges him to accept death as a just end since Patroclus, and even Achilles himself, will die. Achilles' violent slaughter of fleeing Trojans drives them into the rivers Scmander and Xanthus. When the rivers themselves, insulted by his violence, rise up and try to kill Achilles, Hephaestus comes to save him with fire.

Book XXII (17 pp.): The surviving Trojans retreat to the city, but Hector remains outside the Scaean Gate because he anticipates only shame and no escape if he does not stand his ground against Achilles. H's loses nerve and flees three times around Troy before Athena tricks him into turning to face Achilles. H, dying, begs A. not to defile his body, but A refuses. As A drags H's body around Troy at the back of his chariot, Andromache comes to the walls and laments his death.

Book XXIII (28 pp.): Overcome with grief and rage, A. occupies his time defiling H's body and leaves P unburied until P appears in a dream, reminds him of how he came to live in A's household as a therapon (accidental killing of playmate), and urges him to hold proper rites. On P's funeral pyre A offers (in order) sheep, honey and oil, 4 stallions, 2 of P's 9 pet dogs, and 12 Trojan captives (Book 21.521). In the funeral games for Patroclus, Achilles offers prizes for competitions in chariot racing, boxing, wrestling, running, dueling with lances, the shotput, archery, and the spear throw. Prizes often involve slave women measured with other objects in relative value, and contests turn on competitors' strategies which reveal the poet's idea of wise, prudent, acceptable, and noble behavior (and their opposites).

Book XXIV (26 pp.): Apollo and Hera debate the characters of Hector and Achilles, H arguing that Achilles was the greater man. Zeus sends Iris to tell Thetis she must require A to release Hector's body to Priam for ransom, and send Iris to Priam to urge him to seek Achilles in the Greek camp. In Troy, Hecuba and Priam angrily lament H's death. Hermes comes to guide Priam safely through the Greek lines. Priam appeals to A as a father to release his son, and A accepts the appeal. A seems to have regained wisdom and self-control, taking precautions not to tempt others to violence. When Priam brings H's body to Troy, first Cassandra (the seer), then Andromache, Hecuba, and Helen lament his death and their own futures after Troy inevitably falls. They burn Hector's body, and bury his bones in a barrow outside the walls of Troy.