REGISTER NOW AND GET
• 5 FREE tracks! • 101 tracks for $9.99
ClassicsOnline Home » HOMER: Iliad (The)
Perhaps the greatest poem of the Western world, The Iliad tells the story of fifty critical days towards the end of the Trojan war. Achilles has quarrelled with Agamemnon and sulks in his tent, while Hector brings his Trojans to the brink of victory; but fate will have the last word.
The Iliad is one of the two great epics of ancient Greece,
the other being, of course, The Odyssey. Of their author, Homer, we know almost
nothing: he probably lived in the 8th century BC, and it is almost certain that
he composed his verse orally, its literary form not being settled until the 6th
century BC. By this time Homer’s works had come to represent something like the
Bible in the Judaic-Christian tradition: they formed the artistic, moral and
narrative basis of ancient Greek (and then Roman) culture. The two epics
survived the Dark and Middle Ages, although they only became widely known again
in the Renaissance period. Since then, they have been repeatedly translated.
In The Iliad, Homer takes for his story fifty crucial days
from the ten year duration of the Trojan War. The Greek allies, nine years into
the siege, are wearying of their failure to take the city, and the poem opens
with a disastrous quarrel between Agamemnon, leader of the Greeks, and
Achilles, their finest warrior. Achilles withdraws from action to sulk in his
tent, and the Trojans find new success on the battlefield. Led by Hector, they
gradually drive the Greeks back to their ships, breaching the defenses hastily
thrown up around them. At this crisis, Achilles agrees to allow his dearest
friend, Patroklos, to borrow his armor and fight in his stead. Patroklos
repulses the Trojans with such success that they are pushed back to their own
walls, but is himself killed by Hector. Achilles is roused by grief and rage to
return to the fray. He kills Hector; King Priam pleads successfully for the
return of his son’s body; and the poem ends quietly with a truce for Hector’s
Such is the outline of the story. Homer makes no attempt to
conceal the eventual fate of his characters: his audience would in any case
have been familiar with the tale, but (more importantly) Homer actually
increases suspense and significance by inducing in the reader a painful sense
of human frailty and self-deception as we watch the characters moving towards
their fate. The tone and structure of this epic is essentially tragic: the
individual tragedies of (chiefly) Hector and Achilles (whose death is
anticipated, not described) are powerfully moving, but we have all the time a
sense of human beings placed in a religious context and operating always within
the shadow of greater powers. Achilles could choose between a long, dull, safe
life — and a brief, but glorious one. The gods do not allow a compromise.
Homer’s range and sophistication are shown in his treatment
of the gods. They are a family, and they quarrel as a family: when Thetis asks
Zeus to favor her son Achilles, Zeus agrees reluctantly, gloomily reflecting
that his wife Hera ‘will not spare/For gibe and taunt injurious’ when she
hears. Clearly some sort of divine comedy is being enacted — yet Homer is never
less than serious in his belief that the gods do indeed, however capriciously,
control the lives of men.
The tragic intensity of The Iliad is reinforced by wonderful
moments of human tenderness in between the bloody battles: Hector, half-aware
that his own death is not far off, bids farewell to his grieving wife
Andromache on the battlements of Troy, yet both can laugh affectionately at
their baby son Astyanax’s fear of his father in his plumed helmet; at the
emotional climax of the epic, King Priam touches Achilles’ heart by compelling
him to see and imagine how his own aged father Peleus would feel if the body of
his dead son were kept from him.
Much of the poem’s action is devoted to descriptions of
battle. In these, Homer is uncompromisingly realistic as to the manner and
moment of injury or death, and even though the diction is often conventional,
one feels on every occasion the stab of poignancy as another young man is ‘of
youth's prime/And vigorous manhood suddenly bereft.’ It is worth noting also
that roughly half the poem consists of dialogue: Homer is perhaps not only the
first great creator of epic poetry in Western civilization, but also its first
Homer wrote in hexameters, while Cowper uses blank verse
(unrhymed iambic pentameters) for his version. Translations of Homer by Dryden,
Pope and others had been made throughout the Augustan period, generally using
the rhymed couplet, but Cowper’s version combines almost ideally the dignified
music of Milton with the ‘classical’ restraint and formality of 18th century
verse, and an additional hint of early Romantic sensibility.
William Cowper, Translator
William Cowper (1731-1800) was educated at Westminster and
called to the bar in 1754. Bullied at school, he was subject to repeated bouts
of severe depression, which effectively destroyed his legal career and made his
private life equally unsuccessful. This depression became strongly associated
with his religious convictions, which made him acutely conscious of what he saw
as his personal and moral inadequacy. He lived for some time with the Reverend
Morley Unwin’s family at Huntingdon, and later with John Newton, the
Evangelical minister with whom he wrote some of the best-loved hymns in the
English language (including ‘God moves in a mysterious way’). His best-known
works are probably the discursive satires, such as Conversation and The Task,
which display a sharp wit moderated by sensitive humanity and a love of the domestic.
His translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey appeared in 1791. Listeners to
this version may be interested to know that Cowper’s Iliad is not currently in
print: the text has been prepared from the first edition.
Synopsis of The Iliad
Book 1: Agamemnon will not allow the priest Chryses to
daughter home. Apollo is affronted and sends a plague to
destroy the Greeks. Agamemnon is forced to return the girl, but as compensation
insists on taking Achilles’ prize, the maiden Bryseis. The
quarrel violently and Achilles refuses to fight for the
Book 2: Zeus sends a dream to Agamemnon, which incites him
to battle. The Greek army is called to arms.
Book 3: The battle is suspended while Paris and Menelaus try
to settle the quarrel in single combat. Aphrodite saves Paris from certain
Book 4: The truce is broken when Pandarus shoots at
Book 5: The Greek hero Diomede distinguishes himself in
battle, and also succeeds in wounding two divinities, Aphrodite and Ares, who
were helping the Trojans.
Book 6: Hector rallies the Trojans, resisting Andromache’s
plea that he should stay at home in safety.
Book 7: Hector and Ajax fight, inconclusively. The Greeks
build a defensive wall around their ships, and reject a Trojan offer of compensation
for the abduction of Helen.
Book 8: Battle is renewed, and the Greeks are driven back to
Book 9: The Greeks, in crisis, appeal to Achilles, but even
the beloved Phoenix cannot persuade him to help them.
Book 10: (Omitted in this version)
Book 11: Agamemnon leads the Greeks bravely, but fortune
favors the Trojans, and Achilles grudgingly allows Patroklos to appear in his
Books 12 -15 (given in prose summary): Hector breaches the
Greek defenses, and Agamemnon, tempted to give up, is only persuaded by
Odysseus and Diomede to persist.
Book 16: At last Patroklos sallies forth. He repels the
Trojans brilliantly but is eventually killed by Hector.
Book 17: A battle ensues for the body of Patroklos, which is
finally claimed by the Greeks, but only after Hector has taken and donned the
armor of Achilles.
Book 18: Achilles is told of his friend’s death.
Grief-stricken and enraged, he prepares to seek vengeance; Hephaestus forges
new armor for him.
Book 19: Achilles and Agamemnon are reconciled. Battle is
Book 20: Now the gods rejoin the battle, helping on both
sides. Hector escapes Achilles’ assault.
Book 21: Achilles drives many of the fleeing Trojans into
the river Scamander and slays them. The river indignantly pursues him. The
Trojan forces are driven back into their city.
Book 22: Hector confronts Achilles, who has chased him round
the walls of Troy. Hector is killed and Troy laments.
Book 23: Patroklos’ funeral takes place; the funeral games
Book 24: Priam seeks, in secret, Achilles’ tent to beg
Hector’s body. Achilles is touched by the old man’s grief and courage, and
relents, agreeing also
to a twelve days’ truce. Hector’s funeral concludes the poem.
Notes by Perry Keenlyside
The Principle Characters And Names In The Iliad
Agamemnon - son of Atreus, and thus also known as Atrides
King of Argos and leader of the
Greek expedition to Troy
Menelaus - King of Sparta and Agamemnon’s brother. Husband
The Atridae - Agamemnon and Menelaus
Achilles - also called Pelides (as he is the son of Peleus
and the goddess Thetis)
Patroklos - also called Menoetides (as he is the son of
Menoetius); close friend
Odysseus - cunning King of Ithaca, husband of Penelope
Diomede - also called Tydides (as he is the son of Tydeus),
Ajax - son of Telamon and brave fighter
Nestor - King of Pylos
Phoenix - aged warrior
Bryseis - the maid who becomes the focus of the dispute
between Agamemnon and Achilles
The Argives, The Danai/Danaians, The Achai/Achains -
for the Greek army
The Myrmidons - soldiers led by Achilles
Pallas Athena, Hera, Poseidon, Hermes, Hephaestus - Gods on
the Greek side
Priam - King of Troy
Hecuba - his wife
Hector - their son
Andromache - Hector’s wife
Hector’s brother. He had awarded the golden apple to Aphrodite who had given
him Helen in return. Paris’ abduction of Helen from Sparta to Troy initiated
the Greek attack.
Aeneas - son of Anchises
Pandarus - son of Lycaon. Goaded by Pallas Athena, he shoots
the arrow at Menelaus to break the truce.
Sarpedon - Lycian warrior fighting for Troy
Ilium – Troy
The Trojans, The Dardanians, Lycians - defenders of Troy
Phoebus Apollo, Aphrodite, Ares, Artemis, Hermes - Gods on
the Trojan side
Anton Lesser is one of Britain’s leading classical actors.
He has played many of the principal Shakespearean roles for the Royal
Shakespeare Company including Petruchio, Romeo and Richard III. His career has
also encompassed contemporary drama, notably The Birthday Party by Harold
Pinter. Appearances in major TV drama productions include The Oresteia, The
Cherry Orchard, Troilus and Cressida and The Mill on the Floss.
Last Albums Viewed
HOMER: Iliad (The)