Nearly three thousand years after they were composed, the Iliad and the Odyssey remain two of the most celebrated and widely read stories ever told, yet next to nothing is known about their composer. He was certainly an accomplished Greek bard, and he probably lived in the late eighth and early seventh centuries b.c. Authorship is traditionally ascribed to a blind poet named Homer, and it is under this name that the works are still published. Greeks of the third and second centuries b.c., however, already questioned whether Homer existed and whether the two epics were even written by a single individual.
Most modern scholars believe that even if a single person wrote the epics, his work owed a tremendous debt to a long tradition of unwritten, oral poetry. Stories of a glorious expedition to the East and of its leaders’ fateful journeys home had been circulating in Greece for hundreds of years before the Iliad and Odyssey were composed. Casual storytellers and semiprofessional minstrels passed these stories down through generations, with each artist developing and polishing the story as he told it. According to this theory, one poet, multiple poets working in collaboration, or perhaps even a series of poets handing down their work in succession finally turned these stories into written works, again with each adding his own touch and expanding or contracting certain episodes in the overall narrative to fit his taste.
Although historical, archaeological, and linguistic evidence suggests that the epics were composed between 750 and 650 b.c. they are set in Mycenaean Greece in about the twelfth century b.c., during the Bronze Age. This earlier period, the Greeks believed, was a more glorious and sublime age, when gods still frequented the earth and heroic, godlike mortals with superhuman attributes populated Greece. Because the two epics strive to evoke this pristine age, they are written in a high style and generally depict life as it was believed to have been led in the great kingdoms of the Bronze Age. The Greeks are often referred to as “Achaeans,” the name of a large tribe occupying Greece during the Bronze Age.
But Homer’s reconstruction often yields to the realities of eighth- and seventh-century b.c. Greece. The feudal social structure apparent in the background of the Odyssey seems more akin to Homer’s Greece than to Odysseus’s, and Homer substitutes the pantheon of deities of his own day for the related but different gods whom Mycenaean Greeks worshipped. Many other minor but obvious anachronisms—such as references to iron tools and to tribes that had not yet migrated to Greece by the Bronze Age—betray the poem’s later, Iron Age origins.
For centuries, many scholars believed that the Trojan War and its participants were entirely the creation of the Greek imagination. But in the late nineteenth century, an archaeologist named Heinrich Schliemann declared that he had discovered the remnants of Troy. The ruins that he uncovered sit a few dozen miles off of the Aegean coast in northwestern Turkey, a site that indeed fits the geographical descriptions of Homer’s Troy. One layer of the site, roughly corresponding to the point in history when the fall of Troy would have taken place, shows evidence of fire and destruction consistent with a sack. Although most scholars accept Schliemann’s discovered city as the site of the ancient city of Troy, many remain skeptical as to whether Homer’s Trojan War ever really took place. Evidence from Near Eastern literature suggests that episodes similar to those described in the Iliad may have circulated even before Schliemann’s Troy was destroyed. Nonetheless, many scholars now admit the possibility that some truth may lie at the center of the Iliad, hidden beneath many layers of poetic embellishment.
Like the Odyssey, the Iliad was composed primarily in the Ionic dialect of Ancient Greek, which was spoken on the Aegean islands and in the coastal settlements of Asia Minor, now modern Turkey. Some scholars thus conclude that the poet hailed from somewhere in the eastern Greek world. More likely, however, the poet chose the Ionic dialect because he felt it to be more appropriate for the high style and grand scope of his work. Slightly later Greek literature suggests that poets varied the dialects of their poems according to the themes that they were treating and might write in dialects that they didn’t actually speak. Homer’s epics are Panhellenic (encompassing all of Greece) in spirit and use forms from several other dialects. This suggests that Homer suited his poems to the dialect that would best complement his ideas.
The Aftermath of the Iliad
he Trojan War has not yet ended at the close of the Iliad. Homer’s audience would have been familiar with the struggle’s conclusion, and the potency of much of Homer’s irony and foreboding depends on this familiarity. What follows is a synopsis of some of the most important events that happen after the Iliad ends.
The Death of Achilles
In the final books of the Iliad, Achilles refers frequently to his imminent death, about which his mother, Thetis, has warned him. After the end of the poem, at Hector’s funeral feast, Achilles sights the beautiful Polyxena, the daughter of Priam and hence a princess of Troy. Taken with her beauty, Achilles falls in love with her. Hoping to marry her, he agrees to use his influence with the Achaean army to bring about an end to the war. But when he travels to the temple of Apollo to negotiate the peace, Paris shoots him in the heel—the only vulnerable part of his body—with a poisoned arrow. In other versions of the story, the wound occurs in the midst of battle.
Achilles’ Armor and the Death of Ajax
After Achilles’ death, Ajax and Odysseus go and recover his body. Thetis instructs the Achaeans to bequeath Achilles’ magnificent armor, forged by the god Hephaestus, to the most worthy hero. Both Ajax and Odysseus covet the armor; when it is awarded to Odysseus, Ajax commits suicide out of humiliation.
The Palladium and the Arrows of Heracles
By the time of Achilles’ and Ajax’s deaths, Troy’s defenses have been bolstered by the arrival of a new coalition of allies, including the Ethiopians and the Amazons. Achilles killed Penthesilea, the queen of the Amazons, before his death, but the Trojans continue to repel the Achaean assault. The gods relay to the Achaeans that they must perform a number of tasks in order to win the war: they must recover the arrows of Heracles, steal a statue of Athena called the Palladium from the temple in Troy, and perform various other challenges. Largely owing to the skill and courage of Odysseus and Diomedes, the Achaeans accomplish the tasks, and the Achaean archer Philoctetes later uses the arrows of Heracles to kill Paris. Despite this setback, Troy continues to hold against the Achaeans.
The Fall of Troy
The Achaean commanders are nearly ready to give up; nothing can penetrate the massive walls of Troy. But before they lose heart, Odysseus concocts a plan that will allow them to bypass the walls of the city completely. The Achaeans build a massive, hollow, wooden horse, large enough to hold a contingent of warriors inside. Odysseus and a group of soldiers hide in the horse, while the rest of the Achaeans burn their camps and sail away from Troy, waiting in their ships behind a nearby island.
The next morning, the Trojans peer down from the ramparts of their wall and discover the gigantic, mysterious horse. They also discover a lone Achaean soldier named Sinon, whom they take prisoner. As instructed by Odysseus, Sinon tells the Trojans that the Achaeans have incurred the wrath of Athena for the theft of the Palladium. They have left Sinon as a sacrifice to the goddess and constructed the horse as a gift to soothe her temper. Sinon explains that the Achaeans left the horse before the Trojan gates in the hopes that the Trojans would destroy it and thereby earn the wrath of Athena.
Believing Sinon’s story, the Trojans wheel the massive horse into the city as a tribute to Athena. That night, Odysseus and his men slip out of the horse, kill the Trojan guards, and fling open the gates of Troy to the Achaean army, which has meanwhile approached the city again. Having at last penetrated the wall, the Achaeans massacre the citizens of Troy, plunder the city’s riches, and burn the buildings to the ground. All of the Trojan men are killed except for a small group led by Aeneas, who escapes. Helen, whose loyalties have shifted back to the Achaeans since Paris’s death, returns to Menelaus, and the Achaeans at last set sail for home.
After the War
The fates of many of the Iliad’s heroes after the war occupy an important space in Greek mythology. Odysseus, as foretold, spends ten years trying to return to Ithaca, and his adventures form the subject of Homer’s other great epic, the Odyssey. Helen and Menelaus have a long and dangerous voyage back to their home in Sparta, with a long stay in Egypt. In the Odyssey, Telemachus travels to Sparta in search of his father, Odysseus, and finds Helen and Menelaus celebrating the marriage of their daughter, Hermione. Agamemnon, who has taken Priam’s daughter Cassandra as a slave, returns home to his wife, Clytemnestra, and his kingdom, Mycenae. Ever since Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigeneia at the altar of Athena, however, Clytemnestra has nurtured a vast resentment toward her husband. She has taken a man named Aegisthus as her lover, and upon Agamemnon’s return, the lovers murder Agamemnon in his bath and kill Cassandra as well. This story is the subject of Aeschylus’s play Agamemnon. Meanwhile, Aeneas, the only great Trojan warrior to survive the fall of Troy, wanders for many years, searching for a new home for his surviving fellow citizens. His adventures are recounted in Virgil’s epic Aeneid.
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Glory of War
One can make a strong argument that the Iliad seems to celebrate war. Characters emerge as worthy or despicable based on their degree of competence and bravery in battle. Paris, for example, doesn’t like to fight, and correspondingly receives the scorn of both his family and his lover. Achilles, on the other hand, wins eternal glory by explicitly rejecting the option of a long, comfortable, uneventful life at home. The text itself seems to support this means of judging character and extends it even to the gods. The epic holds up warlike deities such as Athena for the reader’s admiration while it makes fun of gods who run from aggression, using the timidity of Aphrodite and Artemis to create a scene of comic relief. To fight is to prove one’s honor and integrity, while to avoid warfare is to demonstrate laziness, ignoble fear, or misaligned priorities.
To be sure, the Iliad doesn’t ignore the realities of war. Men die gruesome deaths; women become slaves and concubines, estranged from their tearful fathers and mothers; a plague breaks out in the Achaean camp and decimates the army. In the face of these horrors, even the mightiest warriors occasionally experience fear, and the poet tells us that both armies regret that the war ever began. Though Achilles points out that all men, whether brave or cowardly, meet the same death in the end, the poem never asks the reader to question the legitimacy of the ongoing struggle. Homer never implies that the fight constitutes a waste of time or human life. Rather, he portrays each side as having a justifiable reason to fight and depicts warfare as a respectable and even glorious manner of settling the dispute.
Military Glory over Family Life
A theme in the Iliad closely related to the glory of war is the predominance of military glory over family. The text clearly admires the reciprocal bonds of deference and obligation that bind Homeric families together, but it respects much more highly the pursuit of kleos, the “glory” or “renown” that one wins in the eyes of others by performing great deeds. Homer constantly forces his characters to choose between their loved ones and the quest for kleos, and the most heroic characters invariably choose the latter. Andromache pleads with Hector not to risk orphaning his son, but Hector knows that fighting among the front ranks represents the only means of “winning my father great glory.” Paris, on the other hand, chooses to spend time with Helen rather than fight in the war; accordingly, both the text and the other characters treat him with derision. Achilles debates returning home to live in ease with his aging father, but he remains at Troy to win glory by killing Hector and avenging Patroclus. The gravity of the decisions that Hector and Achilles make is emphasized by the fact that each knows his fate ahead of time. The characters prize so highly the martial values of honor, noble bravery, and glory that they willingly sacrifice the chance to live a long life with those they love.
The Impermanence of Human Life and Its Creations
Although the Iliad chronicles a very brief period in a very long war, it remains acutely conscious of the specific ends awaiting each of the people involved. Troy is destined to fall, as Hector explains to his wife in Book 6. The text announces that Priam and all of his children will die—Hector dies even before the close of the poem. Achilles will meet an early end as well, although not within the pages of the Iliad. Homer constantly alludes to this event, especially toward the end of the epic, making clear that even the greatest of men cannot escape death. Indeed, he suggests that the very greatest—the noblest and bravest—may yield to death sooner than others.
Similarly, the Iliad recognizes, and repeatedly reminds its readers, that the creations of mortals have a mortality of their own. The glory of men does not live on in their constructions, institutions, or cities. The prophecy of Calchas, as well as Hector’s tender words with Andromache and the debates of the gods, constantly remind the reader that Troy’s lofty ramparts will fall. But the Greek fortifications will not last much longer. Though the Greeks erect their bulwarks only partway into the epic, Apollo and Poseidon plan their destruction as early as Book 12. The poem thus emphasizes the ephemeral nature of human beings and their world, suggesting that mortals should try to live their lives as honorably as possible, so that they will be remembered well. For if mortals’ physical bodies and material creations cannot survive them, perhaps their words and deeds can. Certainly the existence of Homer’s poem would attest to this notion.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
One would naturally expect a martial epic to depict men in arms, but armor in the Iliad emerges as something more than merely a protective cover for a soldier’s body. In fact, Homer often portrays a hero’s armor as having an aura of its own, separate from its wearer. In one of the epic’s more tender scenes, Hector removes his helmet to keep its horsehair crest from frightening his son Astyanax. When Patroclus wears Achilles’ armor to scare the Trojans and drive them from the ships, Apollo and Hector quickly see through the disguise. Then, when a fight breaks out over Patroclus’s fallen body, the armor goes one way and the corpse another. Hector dons the armor, but it ends up betraying him, as it were, in favor of its former owner. Achilles’ knowledge of its vulnerabilities makes it easier for him to run Hector through with his sword. By this point in the story, Achilles has a new set of armor, fashioned by the god Hephaestus, which also seems to have a life of its own. While Achilles’ mortal body can be wounded—and indeed, the poem reminds us of Achilles’ impending death on many occasions—Homer describes the divine armor as virtually impervious to assault.
While martial epics naturally touch upon the subject of burial, the Iliad lingers over it. The burial of Hector is given particular attention, as it marks the melting of Achilles’ crucial rage. The mighty Trojan receives a spectacular funeral that comes only after an equally spectacular fight over his corpse. Patroclus’s burial also receives much attention in the text, as Homer devotes an entire book to the funeral and games in the warrior’s honor. The poem also describes burials unconnected to particular characters, such as in Book 7, when both armies undertake a large-scale burial of their largely unnamed dead. The Iliad’s interest in burial partly reflects the interests of ancient Greek culture as a whole, which stressed proper burial as a requirement for the soul’s peaceful rest. However, it also reflects the grim outlook of the Iliad, its interest in the relentlessness of fate and the impermanence of human life.
Fire emerges as a recurrent image in the Iliad, often associated with internal passions such as fury or rage, but also with their external manifestations. Homer describes Achilles as “blazing” in Book 1 and compares the sparkle of his freshly donned armor to the sun. Moreover, the poem often compares a hero’s charge or an onslaught of troops to a conflagration sweeping through a field. But fire doesn’t appear just allegorically or metaphorically; it appears materially as well. The Trojans light fires in Book 8 to watch the Achaean army and to prevent it from slipping away by night. They constantly threaten the Achaean ships with fire and indeed succeed in torching one of them. Thus, whether present literally or metaphorically, the frequency with which fire appears in the Iliad indicates the poem’s over-arching concern with instances of profound power and destruction.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Achaean Ships
The Achaean ships symbolize the future of the Greek race. They constitute the army’s only means of conveying itself home, whether in triumph or defeat. Even if the Achaean army were to lose the war, the ships could bring back survivors; the ships’ destruction, however, would mean the annihilation—or automatic exile—of every last soldier. Homer implies that some men shirked the war and stayed in Greece, while others, such as Peleus, were too old to fight. However, to Homer’s original audience, the Achaean warriors at Troy represented more than a mere subpopulation of the Greek race. Homer’s contemporaries believed that the heroes represented here actually lived historically, as real kings who ruled the various city-states of Greece in their earliest years. Ancient audiences regarded them as playing definitive roles in the formation and development of Greece as they knew it. The mass death of these leaders and role models would have meant the decimation of a civilization.
The Shield of Achilles
The Iliad is an extremely compressed narrative. Although it treats many of the themes of human experience, it does so within the scope of a few days out of a ten-year war. The shield constitutes only a tiny part in this martial saga, a single piece of armor on a single man in one of the armies—yet it provides perspective on the entire war. Depicting normal life in peacetime, it symbolizes the world beyond the battlefield, and implies that war constitutes only one aspect of existence. Life as a whole, the shield reminds us, includes feasts and dances and marketplaces and crops being harvested. Human beings may serve not only as warriors but also as artisans and laborers in the fields. Not only do they work, they also play, as the shield depicts with its dancing children. Interestingly, although Homer glorifies war and the life of the warrior throughout most of his epic, his depiction of everyday life as it appears on the shield comes across as equally noble, perhaps preferable.