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Iliad
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Iliad

The Iliad is, alongside the Odyssey, one of the two major Greek epic poems traditionally attributed to Homer, a blind Ionian poet. The Iliad and the Odyssey were the most important works in Ancient Greek literature, and are central to the Western canon. Scholars dispute whether Homer existed, and whether he was one person, but they usually date the poems' composition to around 850 BC.

Both are written in dactylic hexameter. The Iliad comprises roughly 16,000 lines of verse. Later Greeks partitioned it into twenty-four books, and this convention has been maintained to the present day with little change.

Warning: Plot details follow.

The Iliad narrates several weeks of action during the tenth and final year of the Trojan War, concentrating on the wrath of Achilles. It begins with the dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon, and ends with the funeral rites of Hector. Neither the background and early years of the war (Paris' abduction of Helen from King Menelaus), nor its end (the death of Achilles & the Trojan Horse), are directly narrated in the Iliad. The Iliad and the Odyssey are part of a longer cycle of epic poems of varying lengths and authors; only fragments survive of the other poems, however. , English, 1778 Victoria and Albert Museum]]

Background

Many Greek myths exist in multiple versions, so Homer had some freedom to pick and choose among them to suit his story. What follows are the most common background details to the Trojan War, including (parenthetically) whether or not Homer specifically mentions them. See Greek mythology for more detail.

Zeus became King of the gods by overthrowing his father Kronos; Kronos in turn had overthrown his father Ouranos. Zeus came to learn of a prophecy that he himelf would be overthrown by a son of his (No). (Within the extent of Greek myth, though, this never happened.) Another prophecy said of the sea-nymph Thetis, with whom Zeus had an affair (Yes), that her son would be greater than his father (No). Possibly for one or both of these reasons, Thetis was betrothed (Yes) upon Zeus' orders (Yes) to an elderly human king, Peleus (Yes). To Peleus and Thetis a son was born, named Achilles. It was prophecied that he would die, young, at Troy. Hoping to protect him, when he was an infant his mother bathed him in the river Styx, making him invincible everywhere except the heel by which she held him. He grew up to be the greatest of all mortal warriors.

All of the gods were invited to Peleus and Thetis' wedding, except Eris, or Discord. Insulted, she attended invisibly and cast down upon the table a golden apple on which were inscribed the words To the fairest. The apple was claimed by Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. They quarreled bitterly over it, and none of the other gods would venture an opinion favouring one contender for fear of earning the enmity of the other two. Eventually, Zeus ordered the matter to be settled by the judgment of Paris, the youngest prince of Troy, who was being raised as a shepherd because of a prophecy that he would be the downfall of Troy. Athena offered Paris wisdom, Hera offered him power, and Aphrodite offered him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris awarded the apple to Aphrodite, and returned to Troy.

The most beautiful woman in the world was Helen, daughter of Leda, who was seduced by Zeus in the form of a swan. Her brothers were Castor and Pollux, a boxer and a horseman. They died during (but not at) the Trojan War (Yes), and according to some traditions (including Roman mythology) later became gods. Scores of men sought her hand. Her father was unwilling to choose any for fear the others would attack him; finally he solved the problem by making all the suitors swear an oath to protect Helen and her husband. These suitors included Agamemnon, Ajax the Greater, Ajax the Lesser, Diomedes, Odysseus, Nestor, Idomeneus, and Philoctetes. Helen married Menelaus of Sparta; her sister Clytemnestra married his brother Agamemnon of Thebes. (See House of Atreus).

On a diplomatic mission to Sparta, Paris became enamoured of Helen, and she eloped with him. Menalaos called upon the suitors to make good their oaths. Odysseus, who had recently had a son, did not want to go, and feigned madness, sowing his fields with salt. Palamedes outwitted him by putting his infant son Telemachus in front of the plough, at which he turned it aside and admitted he was sane. Eventually an army of a thousand ships led by Menalos' brother Agamemnon was marshalled at Aulis, including all the above-named men and their own forces. A seer told them that the winds would not take them to Troy unless Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia. He did so, and the fleet set off. They landed at Troy, eventually, where there ensued a siege of nine years, broken only intermittently by fighting until the tenth year.

Shortly prior to the Iliad, Greek forces had a raided a nearby town allied to Troy. Agamemnon had taken prisoner a girl, Khryseis, daughter of a local priest. He begged the gods to punish the Greeks, and a plague overtook their army.

Story

The Iliad focuses mainly on Achilles and his rage against king Agamemnon, the Greek commander in chief, who has taken an attractive slave and spoil of war Briseis from Achilles. Achilles, the greatest warrior of the age, withdraws from battle and the allied Achaean (Greek) armies nearly lose the war.

In counterpoint to Achilles' pride and arrogance stands Trojan Hector, a nobleman with a wife and child who fights to defend his city. The death of Patroclus, Achilles' dearest friend, at the hands of the Trojan hero Hector, brings Achilles back for revenge, and he slays Hector. Later Hector's father, king Priam, comes to Achilles disguised as a beggar to ransom his son's body back, and Achilles is moved to pity; the funeral of Hector ends the poem.

The poem is a poignant depiction of the tragedy and poignancy of friendship and family destroyed by battle. The first word of the Greek poem is "Μηνιν" ("meinin", meaning "wrath"); the main subject of the poem is the wrath of Achilles; a literal translation of the first line would read "Wrath, sing goddess, of Peleus' son Achilles" or more intelligibly "Sing, goddess, the wrath of Peleus' son Achilles".

There are four widely read modern English translations. Richmond Lattimore provides the most "scientific" or "literal" translation. Robert Fagles emphasizes contemporary English phrasing and idiom over faithfulness to the Greek. The translations of Stanley Lombardo and Robert Fitzgerald are known for their attention to Homer's imagery.

Conclusion of the war, and after

Achilles was killed on the battlefield by Paris, with a poisoned arrow to his vulnerable heel. (See Achilles' Heel.) Ajax the Greater and Odysseus feuded over who would keep his armour. They drew lots and Odysseus won. Ajax went mad with grief and slaughtered his livestock, believing they were the Greek commanders. Overcome with grief, he then killed himself. The Amazons came to join the battle. Philoctetes, a crippled Greek who had been abandoned by the others along the journey, was recruited because the war could not, it was prophecied, be won without his bow.

Odysseus devised a plan to take the city. He had his men build a large, hollow wooden horse, then he and twenty others hid inside. The Greek ships withdrew out of sight of Troy, admitting defeat, and left behind them only the horse, purportedly as an offering to Poseidon for good winds on the return trip. The Trojans took this inside the city, and then feasted and celebrated in the belief the war was over. At night the soldiers crept out and opened the gates to the other Greeks who had sailed back under cover of night. The city was sacked, and in some accounts burned for seven years. Priam was killed. According to one tradition, Hector's wife Andromache threw his son Astyanax and herself from the ramparts to save them from slavery. According to another, they were killed by Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, to ensure that Hector's son could not seek vengeance for his father's death against Achilles' son. A Roman tradition held that Aineas escaped with his family and several hundred people, who after years of migration eventually founded Rome. (This was used by Virgil in his Aeneid.)

Odysseus' long journey home is narrated in Homer's Odyssey. Menelaos and Helen returned to Sparta to rule. Agamemnon took home as a slave the priestess Cassandra, who was gifted with prophecy but cursed never to be believed. When he returned home he was murdered by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus. They in turn were killed by Agamemnon's son, Orestes, and his daughter, Elektra.

The Iliad in subsequent arts and literature

Subjects from the Trojan War were a favourite among ancient Greek dramatists. Aeschylus' trilogy Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides follow the story of Agamemnon following his return from the war.

A loose film adaptation of The Iliad, Troy, was released in 2004, starring Brad Pitt as Achilles and Eric Bana as Hector, and directed by German-born Wolfgang Petersen.

External links