116 pages 3 hours read

Homer, Transl. Robert Fagles

The Iliad

Fiction | Novel/Book in Verse | Adult | BCE

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Summary and Study Guide


The Iliad is an ancient Greek epic poem attributed to Homer, a name believed to refer to a tradition of epic hexameter verse rather than an individual composer. When, how, and by whom the poem was composed continues to be debated. Scholars generally believe the poem was composed and passed on orally, possibly over hundreds of years, before it was written down at some point during the mid-8th century BC (approximately when the Greek alphabet was adapted) and later fixed for oral performance in Athens during the 6th century BC.

This study guide refers to the 1990 Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition translated by Robert Fagles. The Academy of American Poets awarded Fagles the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award for this work in 1991. Fagles explains in his translator’s note that he sought a middle ground between the oral performance features that characterize Homer (e.g., repetition and formulae) and the modern English reader’s expectations for variety. His is not a line-by-line translation but what he calls a “modern English Homer” (x). Chapter divisions exist in the source text, but the chapter titles are Fagles’s invention.

Plot Summary

The Achaeans and Trojans have been fighting the Trojan War for 10 years. The war was spurred when Paris of Troy fell in love with and abducted Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, who is the younger brother of the Achaean commander Agamemnon. The poem’s inciting event is a quarrel between Agamemnon and his best warrior Achilles. Its events explore themes around impermanence of human life and creations, poetry as a medium of immortalization, and the hero’s journey.

Following a raid on a nearby community, Agamemnon takes Chryseis, daughter of Chryses, priest of Apollo, as his prize. He rudely rejects her father’s substantial ransom for her return, despite his fellow leaders’ opposition. Apollo devastates the Achaeans with a plague, prompting Achilles to call a council in which he questions Agamemnon’s leadership. In retaliation, Agamemnon confiscates Achilles’s prize, Briseis, on the grounds that she will replace Chryseis, who Agamemnon grudgingly returns to her father.

Enraged, Achilles withdraws himself and his troops from battle and entreats to his mother, the sea goddess Thetis who once saved Zeus during an Olympian rebellion, to appeal to Zeus on behalf of his honor. Zeus cannot refuse her offer, though he knows it will cause strife with his wife Hera, who supports the Achaeans. He promises Thetis that he will make the Achaeans feel the loss of their best warrior. The tide of battle turns in favor of the Trojans, despite the meddling of Athena, Poseidon, and Hera on behalf of the Achaeans. As the situation grows increasingly desperate, Agamemnon sends an embassy to Achilles with the promise of many gifts, including the return of Briseis, to entreat him to return to battle. Achilles refuses, saying that no amount of treasure can compensate for the loss of his life. If he returns to battle, he will die, according to a prophecy told him by Thetis. He announces that he will only return if the Trojans directly threaten his ships.

Realizing that he has Zeus’s approval and Apollo and Ares’s assistance, Hector, Troy’s prince and mightiest warrior, grows increasingly confident. Apollo helps him break through the protective wall the Achaeans built around their camp. The Achaean leaders fight fiercely, but Hector sets one of their ships on fire. Worried for the Achaeans, Achilles’s companion Patroclus convinces Achilles to allow him to wear his armor into battle. If the Trojans think Achilles has returned to battle, they will retreat. Still too angry to return himself, Achilles agrees but warns Patroclus to return immediately after securing the ships and not to press on to Troy’s gates. Caught up in the rush of battle, Patroclus forgets his advice and is killed by Apollo and Hector.

Achilles’s grief fuses with his rage, and he returns to battle to exact revenge by killing Hector. He succeeds, with Athena’s assistance, then drags Hector’s corpse around the city, prompting Hector’s wife Andromache to collapse in grief, then lead Troy’s women in choral dirges. Achilles hosts funeral games for Patroclus, magnanimously distributing prizes to the participants, but his grief and rage are not satisfied. He continues dragging Hector’s corpse behind his chariot, infuriating the gods, who love and respect Hector. Thetis is sent to order Achilles to accept a ransom from Priam, Hector’s father. Priam goes to Achilles, recovers his son’s body, and brings it back to Troy. Hector’s wife, mother, and Helen each lead a lament for Hector. The poem ends with his funeral.