The Iliad

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The Iliad Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of The Iliad by Homer.

The Iliad is a classic ancient Greek poem usually attributed to Homer. It is set during the ten-year siege of Troy (Ilium) by a coalition of Greek states during the great Trojan War. It takes place during the last few weeks of the battle—an argument between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles. It is one of the oldest extant works of Western literature and is thought to have been written sometime in the eighth century BC.

The poem begins with an invocation to the muses, and then we are transported “in medias res” (in the middle of a conversation) towards the end of the Trojan war. Chryses, a Trojan priest of Apollo, offers the Greek states wealth in return for his daughter Chryseis, who is currently King Agamemnon’s captive. The king rejects the priest’s offer despite the opinion of most of the Greeks in his army, and Chryses beseeches Apollo to lend his help. Apollo strikes the Greek Army with a plague.

The plague lasts nine days, and Achilles calls a meeting to deal with the problem. Agamemnon finally agrees to return Chryseis, but in her place takes one of the captives of Achilles. Achilles is angered, and asks his mother, Thetis, to ask Zeus to bring the Greeks to a breaking point so they will remember how much they need him. She agrees, and in a dream, Zeus instructs Agamemnon to attack. But first, he tests the soldiers’ morale by telling them to go home. When the army riots instead, Odysseus  and Athena are able to quell the rout. The poet then takes the time to explain the history and allies of both the Greeks and the Trojans.

King Priam receives word of the attack, but before the armies meet, two men from opposing sides, Paris (King Priam’s son) and Menelaus (Helen’s husband) agree to duel. Paris is beaten, but Athena takes him away before Menelaus can kill him and puts him back inside the walls of Troy with Helen. Menelaus is wounded with an arrow through the workings of Zeus, and the war continues.

At this point, all the gods and goddesses are involved in the battles. Hector, the firstborn son of King Priam, rallies the Trojans and at nightfall, the sides once again retire. Paris offers to give the Greeks all manner of wealth as compensation, but he will not return Helen, and the Greeks refuse his offer. A day’s truce is called so that each side can burn its dead, and the Greeks build a wall to protect their ships.

The next day, the Greeks are routed by the Trojans after Zeus forbids any god or goddess to interfere, and they retreat behind their wall. The Greeks finally admit their error with Achilles and shower him with gifts including his captive Briseis. He rejects them all, and swears to return to battle only if his ships are in danger. The fighting is fierce.

Hera seduces Zeus and causes him to fall asleep. Poseidon is able to help the Greeks. Zeus is angered when he wakes up and sends Apollo to help the Trojans. Many of the warriors on both sides die. Here, the battle reaches the ships, and Patroclus begs to return to the fighting. They arrive at the ships and towards the end of the fighting, Patroclus is killed by Hector.

Achilles vows revenge. He is able to retrieve Patroclus’s body, and at Thetis’s request, Hephaestus makes Achilles a new set of armor. Although Achilles’s horse prophesies his death to him, Achilles continues into battle again. Now, the ban is lifted on the gods, and they all return to helping both sides.

The number of the dead mounts, but Hector ignores the warnings and turns to face Achilles. He is eventually killed after being chased around the walls, and Achilles dishonors the body. The ghost of Patroclus appears to request his funeral rites.

Zeus decides that Hector’s body must be returned to King Priam, and so the king takes a wagon out of Troy and begs for his son’s body. Achilles is moved to tears and the two mourn together everyone they have lost in the war. After eating together, Priam buries Hector’s body.

The major theme of this poem is fate versus free will. The hand of fate was impossible to escape for the Greeks, and in this epic poem, the characters are unable to escape what has been foretold. Every choice they make, whether they understand their destiny or not, only serves to move them closer to the will of fate. Even the gods consider acting against fate, but they are unable to change the outcome.

Another major theme is that of love. The epic poem features deeply moving portrayals of love in many forms. For example, the love friends share is highlighted in their deaths. The main characters grieve deeply for the loss of their friends. In other cases, families are held together and torn apart by their love. There are a few very touching scenes between Hector and his wife, Andromache, that reveal not only their love for each other, but also their love for their children.

The poem could be considered the very first anti-war piece of literature. Although Achilles goes to war in pursuit of glory, by the end, we understand that the two sides, including Achilles, have lost far too much in the continued conflict. The poem ends with the mourning of Hector and the two enemy warriors sharing a meal. The cost of war was far greater than either side anticipated.