The Iliad

ImageLet’s be honest. You didn’t love your high school reading list. The Grapes of Wrath, Romeo and Juliet, and 1984 usually aren’t on people’s list of favorite books. In high school, John Steinbeck books are too long, Shakespeare writes in a foreign language, and what the hell is 1984 about anyway? But I promise you, if you go back and take a second look at some of the books on your high school reading list, you might find that they’re aren’t so bad. Maybe now you’re old enough to appreciate the characters in The Grapes of Wrath, the poetry in Romeo and Juliet, and the themes in 1984.

Homer’s Iliad is one of those books that garners few fans in high school. If we’re still being honest, you thought Achilles was a crybaby, you couldn’t keep track of all the gods and demigods, and you didn’t get why the book ended before anyone actually won the war. So let’s answer a few questions that should expand (or spark) your appreciation for the Iliad.

Is Achilles a crybaby? No, although he does cry in the Iliad. Today it is the opposite of masculine for a man to cry in public (and even private), but that was not the case thousands of years ago. It was acceptable and expected for men to show passionate emotions in public—including crying.

Why is Achilles crying? Agamemnon, leader of the Greek army, takes away one of the women that was awarded to Achilles after a victorious battle.

Why is this a big deal? Because in heroic culture, a man’s honor and respect is determined by physical prizes—gold, cows, women, etc. The equivalent today of Agamemnon taking Briseis away would be stealing the Medal of Honor from one of your fellow soldiers and wearing it yourself.

Why does Achilles cry over this? Achilles knows that he has two fates available to him. He can refuse to fight and live a long life, or he can fight and die a young death but achieve more glory than any other man. When Achilles chooses to fight, he’s basically trading his life for glory, and this glory is manifested by Briseis. So when Agamemnon takes away Briseis, he is taking away the very thing that Achilles traded his life for. That’s a big deal.

Are Achilles and Patroclus lovers? Yes. No. I don’t know. With ancient Greeks you can never tell.

Aren’t Paris and Helen romantic? No, they aren’t. Helen leaves her husband, daughter, family, and home for Paris and causes a war. By about year 9, they are both over their love affair. Paris has moved on to other women and Helen hates herself for causing so much death and leaving her daughter behind.

Aren’t Hector and Andromache romantic? Yes.

Why is Achilles dragging Hector’s body such a big deal? In ancient Greece, burial procedures were very important because of their belief in the afterlife. Bodies mutilated before they were buried affected how that person appeared in the Underworld. Mutilated leg when you were buried, mutilated leg when you wander around as a ghost in the Underworld. It is the highest insult and cruelty when Achilles drags Hector’s body behind his chariot for this reason.

Why does the book end before the war is over? The war is symbolically over when Achilles kills Hector. Hector is not only the heir to the Trojan crown and Troy’s best warrior, but he is symbolically Troy. His death is Troy’s death.

What is even the point of this book? The Trojan War was seen as the last part of the heroic age, the last time heroes like Hector and Achilles walked the earth. It was the Greek Harry Potter, everyone’s favorite bedtimes stories and the inspiration for their plays and poems. It also indirectly led to the founding of Rome (see Virgil’s Aeneid).

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2004 Movie Adaptation

Why is it called the Iliad? Ilium is the word for Troy. Iliad means the story of Troy.

What should I read next? Both the Odyssey and the Aeneid are epic poems that take place after the Iliad. The Odyssey is also by Homer (though some scholars dispute that) and follows the story of Odysseus’ journey home. The Aeneid is by Virgil, a Roman author, and follows the story of Aeneas and the Trojan survivors as they travel from Troy to Carthage to Italy where they found Rome. Aeschylus’ play Agamemnon recounts the homecoming of Agamemnon after the war. Euripides’ plays Andromache, Hecuba, and The Trojan Women relate the fates of the Trojan women who survive the war.

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