Great Books in 60 Seconds: The Iliad

Written by on June 1, 2009 in The Great Books - 3 Comments

theiliad-pic“There is nothing alive more agonized than man / of all that breathe and crawl across the earth.”

Overview of The Iliad

Although little is known about the origins of the Iliad, this ancient Greek poem is recognized as the very first epic. The Iliad focuses on the hero Achilles and the events of the Trojan War.

You can read the Iliad for free on Project Gutenberg or listen to an audio version from LibriVox.

About the Author

The Iliad is commonly attributed to the Greek poet Homer. However, stories from the Trojan War had been passed on for decades before Homer, and many researchers believe that the poem may have been the result of several authors working together.

What Makes The Iliad a Great Book?

Just as modern Christians study the Bible, ancient Greeks turned to the Iliad and the Odyssey for moral instruction about life. As one of the first works of literature in the Western world, the Iliad serves as a model for everything that comes after it. Throughout the Western literary tradition, the characters and events in the Iliad keep coming up. Robert Browning wrote a famous poem about the Iliad, Shakespeare used the plot of the Iliad in one of his plays, Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin even wrote songs about the Iliad. In order to understand many of the great works that follow, you need to be familiar with this early poem.

The Iliad in a Nutshell (Spoiler Alert)

During the Trojan War, the Greek army captures two maidens. Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces, takes one of the women as his prize and gives the other to the great warrior Achilles. The father of one of the captured women is very upset and when Agamemnon refuses the money he offers, he asks the god Apollo to send a plague to the Greek army. When Agamemnon sees his men dying, he says: “Fine, I’ll give my woman back. But, I’m taking the one given to Achilles.” This disrespect makes Achilles very angry. So angry, in fact, that he sits all day in the army’s camp and refuses to fight. Achilles opts out of a lot of great battles, and the Greeks begin to lose.

Achilles’ friends beg him to return to fighting. They know that the Trojans will lose morale if they see the great Achilles on the battlefield again. Achilles is still upset with Agamemnon. But, he allows his best friend Patroclus to take his armor and pretend to be him in battle. Unfortunately, the Trojan king’s son Hector is fooled by the disguise and kills Patroclus.

When Achilles hears that his beloved friend is dead, he fills with rage and heads toward battle. He confronts Hector, slays him in a bloody fury, and drags Hector’s body behind his chariot. All of the gods and warriors believe that Hector should have a proper burial, but Achilles is still so angry he won’t hear of it. In a great display of disrespect, Achilles drags Hectors body around in circles every day, for the next nine days. Finally, Hector’s father comes to Achilles and begs for the body of his son. Achilles’ heart is softened by the words of the king and the both sides cease fighting so that the Hector can be given proper funeral rites.

Joining the Conversation

The Iliad brings up some issues that are discussed by many of the great books. Asking yourself these questions can help you respond to the text and clarify your own beliefs.

  • What are the qualities of a hero?
  • How does fate and the existence of god(s) determine the lives of people?
  • What is a respectable way to die and to be treated after death?

Further Reading

Images Illustrating the Iliad – Ancient paintings and photographs of artwork that illustrates the Iliad.

The Iliad: A Study Guide – A detailed look at the background, characters, and plot in the Iliad.

Note: The Great Books in 60 Seconds series is written to introduce readers to the major ideas of significant books in the Western cannon. In about a minute of reading, you can familiarize yourself with the major themes and ideas of important works. Of course, these posts aren’t meant to be a substitute for actually reading the works themselves.

3 Comments on "Great Books in 60 Seconds: The Iliad"

  1. Anon June 1, 2009 at 10:18 pm · Reply

    http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/heroes99/index.html was a course given by Gregory Nagy
    at Harvard for the public on the Illiad.

    The best place to read classics is at the Perseus project:

    http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text.jsp?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0134

  2. Anon June 1, 2009 at 10:23 pm · Reply

    The Homeric tradition was an oral one originally, and thus it is important to
    listen to Homer. Greg Nagy recites parts of the Illiad on this page:

    http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~classics/poetry_and_prose/homer/homer.html

  3. Jamie June 2, 2009 at 10:37 am · Reply

    Fantastic resources – thanks Anon!

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