Iliad Short Summary
The Iliad and its companion poem, The Odyssey are two of the most widely read stories of all time. They are believed to have been written by the blind poet, Homer. Their tales of heroism, pride, bravery, and war have impressed audiences for many centuries.
Although written on paper, the poems come from a long line of oral tradition in storytelling in which stories were relayed in lyrical poems that were often accompanied by music and dance. This tradition is alive in the composure of The Iliad with its verse, style, and meter.
Literary Elements of The Iliad
Type of Work: Poem
Published Date: Unknown
Setting: During the Bronze Age (12th/13th century BC) in Troy.
Main Characters: Achilles, Agamemnon
Major Thematic Elements: The glory of war heroes; military victories valued above personal life; the fleeting nature of human existence
Motifs: Armor; fire; burial
Exposition: It is nine years after the beginning of the Trojan War. The Greek army captures Chryseis and Briseis, two beautiful maidens from an ally town to Troy. Chryseis’s father offers a ransom for his daughter, but Agamemnon refuses to return her. Apollo hears her prayers and sends a plague to the Greek military camp.
Conflict: Agamemnon demands Achilles’s war prize (the maiden Briseis), which hurts Achilles’s pride greatly. Achilles then refuses to fight in the Greek army, which causes them to suffer losses to the Trojans.
Plot: Past tense, told by an omniscient third person narrator.
Major Symbols: The shield of Achilles; The Greek ships
Climax: Achilles returns to the war and the Trojans suffer a great defeat, ensuring the fall of Troy.
Literary Significance of The Iliad
What is The Iliad About? Set in the Bronze Age, The Iliad provides a historical look at how society in this time view morality and heroism. Many philosophers believed that the Bronze Age was a time of moral and artistic superiority in which humans worked in tandem with the gods and were punished for going against the gods. Because of this, many humans lived up to values that were godly in nature—heroic qualities such as super-human strength, bravery, honesty, etc. were coveted above all else. To live like a god would live meant that a human had high moral superiority.
Furthermore, although the Trojan year was believed to be fictious for a long time, there is now archeological evidence that Troy really existed and possibly did fall to the Greeks. This gives the poem a historical context as well that not only helps people understand the oral tradition of storytelling and the values of these ancient people but the social and political context in which they operated. The Iliad and The Odyssey are two of the greatest examples of the epic poem genre to this day for this reason.
Iliad Synopsis and Summary
When, after nine years of fighting with the Trojans, the Greeks (Achaeans) capture two young maidens, the Achaean leader Agamemnon takes them as war prizes. He keeps Chryseis and gives Briseis to Achilles. Chryseis’s father puts out a ransom for his daughter to come home, but Agamemnon refuses. Her father is a priest of the god Apollo, so Chryseis prays to Apollo who hears her and send a plague to the Achaean camp. Many Achaeans die from this plague, Agamemnon reluctantly sends Chryseis home. He then demands that Achilles give him Briseis. Achilles is insulted and furious and refuses to fight against the Trojans anymore. He enlists the services of Zeus, king of the gods, to slant the battling against the Achaeans so that they will lose the war.
With Zeus on the side of the Trojans and Achilles refusing to fight, the Achaeans begin to suffer grave losses in the war. There are many outstanding duels between figures such as Paris and Menelaus as well as Ajax and Hector. The Achaeans are continually beaten down until finally, a nighttime mission conducted by Odysseus and Diomedes allows them to uncover Trojan war plans. As much hope as this brings to the Achaeans, the Trojans are still able to beat the Achaean soldiers back until they reach the Achaean camp.
Achilles is concerned for his military comrades, but he is still too proud to take any action to help them. He creates a plan in which his friend Patroclus will take his place in battle using Achilles’s armor. Patroclus’s presence does help the Achaean army somewhat, but it can only last for so long before the Trojans regroup. Hector kills Patroclus in battle and steals Achilles’s armor. Achilles is filled with grief and rage after learning of his dear friend’s death. He agrees at this point to mend the rift between himself and Agamemnon and rejoins the battle. Thetis travels to Mount Olympus to plead with the gods for help in battle. The god Hephaestus forges Achilles a new set of armor and Achilles leads the Achaeans into battle the following day.
Hector and his men are camping outside the walls of Troy, but the Trojan army flees in terror when they see Achilles. Achilles is emboldened by his rage and kills many Trojan warriors. He even fights the river god, Xanthus, who is angered by how many bodies Achilles has caused to fall into his river. At last, Achilles reaches Hector and the two battle. The goddess Athena intervenes and tricks Hector into turning around mid-chase. It is at this point that Achilles is able to kill Hector. He drags Hector’s body behind his chariot across the battlefield back to the Achaean camp. The triumphant Achaeans have a celebration and funeral for Patroclus. For nine days, Achilles continues to drag Hector’s body behind his chariot in circles around Patroclus’s funeral bier. Finally, the gods insist that Hector have a burial. The god Hermes escorts Hector’s father to the Achaean camp. Achilles is moved by Hector’s father’s plea to have his son’s body and relinquishes it to the Trojans. Both sides agree to a truce and the war ends with the fall of Troy.