Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles • Iliad, attributed to Homer
Heroes and legends • 3000BCE–1300CE
The Greek epic
From 2100 BCE Versions of the first known written literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh, appear in the Sumerian language.
9th century BCE The epic Mahabharata emerges in India.
c.8th century BCE Attributed to Homer, the epic Odyssey continues the story of a leading figure in the Iliad, Odysseus.
c.700 BCE At roughly the same time as the final versions of the Homeric epics take shape, Hesiod writes the Theogony (“Birth of the Gods”), a poem that describes the creation of the world and the mythology of the ancient Greek gods.
1st century BCE The Greek epic poems provide a model for Roman poets such as Horace, Virgil, and Ovid.
Epics are narrative poems that recount the story of a hero who represents a particular culture. They chronicle his quests and ordeals, and account for the hero’s choices and motives, so helping to establish and codify the moral principles of a society.
Epics were among the earliest forms of literature in many cultures around the world. These popular stories were initially told orally, and over time were embellished, reinterpreted, formalized, and finally written down, often laying the foundation’s of a culture’s literary history. Epics usually contained many characters and genealogies, and were long and complex in structure. They were probably learned by rote in a repetitive poetic metre, or recited to a musical accompaniment, as it is far easier to memorize verse than prose. Indeed, the word “epic” itself is derived from the ancient Greek word epos, meaning both “story” and “poem”.
The Homeric question
Homer lived in a time before realistic portraiture. This bust is based on images of the writer that appeared only in the 2nd century BCE.
The two great ancient Greek epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are traditionally ascribed to the poet Homer — yet little is known about him. Since the time of the Greek historian Herodotus in the 5th century BCE, widely differing suggestions have been made for Homer’s dates of birth and death, place of origin, and other details of his life. Classical scholars refer to “the Homeric question”, which includes a number of related issues. Who is Homer — did he ever exist, and if so when? Was Homer the sole author of the epics, or one of a number of authors? Did the author or authors of the work originate them, or simply make a written record of poems that had been passed down orally through the generations?
Many scholars argue that the epics evolved from an oral tradition and were refined and embroidered upon by multiple poets in several versions. Solid evidence is lacking and the Homeric question is yet to be answered definitively.
The Trojan War
In ancient Greece many epic tales were told about the Trojan War — a conflict between the Achaeans (an alliance of the Greek states) and the city of Troy. The first and most famous of these accounts were the Iliad and Odyssey, both attributed to a single author, known as Homer. Historians concede that these epics were inspired by actual events — sporadic wars between Greece and Troy did occur some five centuries before the works were written — but their characters and plots are works of the imagination. However, the Greeks of Homer’s era would have believed these stories to be true accounts of the heroism of their ancestors.
The Greeks began to write down their epics around the 8th century BCE. Like the spoken tales on which they were based, they took the form of narrative poems. These Greek epics have a regular metre — each line is comprised of six basic rhythmic units, and each of these units contains one long and two short syllables. This metre is known as dactylic hexameter, or more commonly, “epic metre”. Variations on this basic rhythmic pattern give the flexibility needed for poetic composition.
The Greeks and Trojans were helped or hindered by the gods, who used the conflict to fight their own battles. Hera, Athena, and Poseidon were aligned with the Greeks, while Apollo, Aphrodite, and Artemis supported the Trojans. Zeus remained largely neutral.
"Drink deep of battle."
A tale of gods and men
The Iliad is a sophisticated piece of storytelling. It relates the tale of the war in Ilium (Troy) from the perspective of one character in particular — Achilles. Parts of the story of the war are told in flashback, or in prophecies of the future. Woven into this storyline are subplots and insights into the lives of the protagonists.
How much of this complexity can be credited to Homer, and how much is a result of refinement and embroidering over previous generations, is impossible to tell. The result is a work that combines history, legend, and mythology, while offering the essential ingredients of good storytelling — adventure and human drama — that make it a compelling read.
The Iliad is massive, both in its length and its narrative scope (it is, after all, where we get the idea of things being on an “epic” scale), consisting of over 15,000 lines of verse, divided into 24 books. Rather than simply telling the tale chronologically, Homer grabs the reader’s attention by using a device common to many epics. This is to drop the reader straight into the thick of the action, or in media res (“the middle of the thing”) as described by the Roman poet, Horace. Homer’s account starts in the final year of the conflict, which has already been raging for nine years. Homer digresses to explain some of the background to the events he is describing, but he assumes much prior knowledge about the causes of the conflict, which contemporary readers would have known well.
Troy was believed for many years to be a mythical city. However, archaeologists now agree that excavations in Anatolia, Turkey, have revealed the Troy of Homer’s Iliad.
Origins of the war
The roots of the Trojan War can be found in events that occurred at the wedding of the sea-nymph Thetis to the Greek hero Peleus, who was a companion to the hero Hercules. The celebrations were attended by many gods and goddesses, including Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. An argument broke out between the three goddesses, each of whom claimed to be the most beautiful. To resolve the dispute, Zeus asked Paris, the son of King Priam of Troy, to judge a beauty contest between them. Aphrodite offered Paris a bribe — the hand of Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world. Unfortunately, Helen was already married to Menelaus, brother of King Agamemnon of Mycenae, a Greek state. The subsequent abduction of Helen by Paris triggered the conflict.
Readers join the narrative when Agamemnon’s Achaean forces are fighting to recapture Helen. The book’s opening, “Sing, O Goddess, the anger of Achilles” sets the scene, preparing the reader for a story of war, but also implies that this is a tale of personal vengeance — and alludes to the involvement of the gods. The history of the war runs in parallel with Achilles’ story, and his sense of honour and valour mirrors that of the Greek nation itself.
"Victory passes back and forth between men."
The power of anger
Anger is a predominant theme in the Iliad, manifested in the war itself and as a motivation for the actions of the individual characters. There is the righteous anger of Agamemnon and Menelaus over the kidnapping of Helen, but also the wrath that drives Achilles and makes him such a fearsome warrior, provoked again and again by events in the story. His anger is not directed solely at the Trojans, nor even restricted to human foes; at one point he is so enraged he fights the river god Xanthus.
Underlying the wrath of Achilles is a sense of honour and nobility which, like that of the Greek people, is offended by disrespect and injustice, but is sometimes directed inwards as he struggles with the conflicts that arise between duty, destiny, ambition, and loyalty.
At the beginning of the Iliad, Achilles becomes enraged by King Agamemnon, the Greek commander, who has taken for himself Briseis — a woman who had been given to Achilles as a prize of war. Unable to vent his anger towards the king directly, Achilles withdraws to his tent, refusing to fight any more. Only the death in action of his close friend, Patroclus, at the hands of Hector, the eldest son of King Priam and the hero of the Trojans, brings him back into battle, more violently than ever, by giving him a focus for his anger.
When Paris is asked who is the “fairest” goddess, Hera tries to bribe him with empire, Athena with glory, and Aphrodite promises him Helen, the world’s most beautiful woman.
A tale of two heroes
Hector is, like Achilles, a military leader. He is considered the noblest and mightiest of the Trojan warriors. But his character and motivation stand in contrast to those of Achilles, highlighting two very different attitudes to war.
Achilles is driven by an inner rage, but also the nobler motives of defending the honour of his king and country, and ultimately avenging the killing of Patroclus, his comrade-in-arms. Hector fights out of loyalty — to Troy, of course, but also to his family. As well as being protective of his younger brother, Paris, whose abduction of Helen has caused the war, he is loyal to his father, Priam, who is portrayed as a wise and benevolent king. Achilles is the professional soldier, with few family ties, and Hector the reluctant but fierce fighter, defending home and family rather than honour.
Homer portrays both men as noble, but not without their flaws. Their characteristics and situations are metaphors for the contrasting values of society and those of the individual, and those of duty and responsibility compared with loyalty and love. Neither side is wholly right or wrong, but in this war one must emerge victorious. Even though both heroes ultimately die in the conflict — Achilles slays Hector, and is himself killed by a fatal arrow in his heel — it is the heroism personified by Achilles that wins out over Hector’s bonds of kinship. Ultimately, the Iliad affirms that there is glory in warfare, and that honourable reasons exist for fighting.
The warriors Hector and Achilles have contrasting personalities and motivations, which provide recurrent themes in Homer’s examination of the heroic ideal.
Destiny and the gods
Homer knew that his readers — the Greeks — were aware of the outcome of the story because if Troy had won the war, there would have been no Greek civilization. The Greeks were destined to win, and to reinforce this inevitability, Homer makes reference to many prophecies throughout the Iliad, and to the role of fate and the gods in deciding the war’s outcome.
To the ancient Greeks, the gods were immortals who had dominion over certain realms or possessed certain powers; they were not the omnipotent deities of later beliefs. Occasionally they interacted with humans, but generally left them to their own devices. In the Iliad, however, several of the gods had vested interests that led them to become involved in the Trojan War from time to time. The war had, after all, been triggered by the abduction of Helen, the daughter of Zeus and Leda. Paris had seized Helen in collusion with Aphrodite, so sides had already been taken on Mount Olympus, the home of the gods. There were also other connections between the gods and the mortals: Thetis, for example, was not only a sea nymph but also the mother of Achilles.
Such allegiances prompted the gods to intervene in human affairs, protecting their favourites from harm, and making life difficult for their enemies. Apollo in particular is fiercely anti-Greek, and causes them trouble on several occasions. For example, when Patroclus goes into battle disguised as Achilles, by wearing Achilles’ famously protective armour, Apollo contrives to dislodge it, allowing Hector to kill him. Incensed by the death of his best friend, Achilles vows vengeance. And again the gods intervene: his immortal mother Thetis presents him with a new suit of divine armour, specially forged by the god Hephaestus.
The need humans have for such protection underlines the difference between them and the gods — their mortality. Heroes go to war knowing they face death, but reconcile themselves with the knowledge that all humans must eventually die. The characters are not only mortal, but their creations are impermanent. They know that the war will have more than human casualties, because one nation must be destroyed — and even the victorious civilization will come to an end one day. Homer sometimes overtly states this fact by citing prophecies of the future for both the Iliad’s main characters and for Troy, but it is implicit that this is the common fate of mankind — the destiny of every society. What lives on, however, is the glory of the heroes and their great deeds, recounted in the stories passed down through the ages.
"Among all creatures that breathe on earth and crawl on it there is not anywhere a thing more dismal than man is."
Beyond the conflict
After war, bloodshed, and fury, Homer’s epic ends with peace and reconciliation. In perhaps the most memorably moving scene of the poem, the elderly King Priam visits Achilles and pleads for the return of the body of Hector, his son. Achilles is moved by the old man’s plea, and a temporary truce is called to give the Trojans time for an appropriate funeral, and this also lays Achilles’ rage to rest. But despite this apparently peaceful ending, we know that this calm will be short-lived. The battle will resume, Troy will fall, and at some point Achilles will die. The story is not over yet.
Indeed, Homer’s second epic poem, the Odyssey, ties up some of the loose ends by following the fortunes of another of the Greek heroes, Odysseus (known to the Romans as Ulysses), as he makes his way home to Ithaca from Troy after the war. In the Odyssey, the hero recounts the eventual destruction of Troy, and the death of Achilles, but this is very much background to the story of his own arduous journey.
Priam kisses Achilles’ hand, and asks him to take pity and surrender the body of his son Hector, whom Achilles has killed in battle. Achilles displays empathy with Priam’s grief.
"I have gone through what no other mortal on earth has gone through; I put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my children."
It is almost impossible to overstate the impact of the Iliad and the Odyssey on the literature of ancient Greece and Rome, and therefore the whole of Western literature. They were not simply the first literary works in Europe, but monumental examples that firmly laid the foundations of the epic genre.
Homer’s expert use of complex and highly visual similes gave his poetry unprecedented depth, and his mastery of dactylic hexameter provided an inspirational musicality to his verse. The metre used by Homer was adopted for subsequent epic poetry in Greek as well as in Latin, and the hybrid dialect he used became the recognized Greek of literature.
Perhaps most significantly of all, Homer turned an oral tradition of stories about folk heroes into a literary form — the epic. He also set out the characteristics of that form; for example, that the main narrative should follow the hero’s quest or journey, and that this should be set against a historical backdrop, with multiple interweaving or episodic plots. Homer also set the standard for the subtext of the epic, where personal and social values often stand in opposition.
The Iliad and the Odyssey inspired a number of Greek poets to write epics on similar themes, but they also influenced the new form of drama that developed in the classical period. While Homer was popular reading in ancient Greece, the Iliad and Odyssey were standard texts in ancient Rome, inspiring poets to develop a distinctive Latin epic poetry. This reached its height in Virgil’s Aeneid, which as well as being a homage to Homer took as its starting point the fall of Troy.
The Odyssey details the death of the hero Achilles. He is killed by an arrow fired by Paris, which is guided to the one vulnerable spot of Achilles’ body — his heel — by the god Apollo.
"Zeus knows, no doubt, and every immortal too which fighter is doomed to end all this in death."
Reverence for the Homeric epics did not end in classical times. Homer’s works were widely read and studied in the Middle Ages and their stories have been retold countless times over the centuries in different forms.
Homer’s ancient poems can be considered the antecedents of medieval sagas, as well as the novel. Since the beginning of the 20th century, other forms of mass-audience storytelling — from movies to television series — have followed the epic model, and are deeply indebted to Homer for their structure and cultural relevance.
See also: The Epic of Gilgamesh • Oedipus the King • Aeneid • Beowulf • Odyssey • Theogony • Metamorphoses • Digenis Akritas • The Tale of Igor’s Campaign • Ulysses