One of the first epic masterpieces, written in the same period as the Trojan war, the Illiad depicts the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achiles.
The poet invokes a muse to aid him in telling the story of the rage of Achilles, the greatest Greek hero to fight in the Trojan War. The narrative begins nine years after the start of the war, as the Achaeans sack a Trojan-allied town and capture two beautiful maidens, Chryseis and Briseis. Agamemnon, commander-in-chief of the Achaean army, takes Chryseis as his prize. Achilles, one of the Achaeans’ most valuable warriors, claims Briseis. Chryseis’s father, a man named Chryses who serves as a priest of the god Apollo, begs Agamemnon to return his daughter and offers to pay an enormous ransom. When Agamemnon refuses, Chryses prays to Apollo for help.
Apollo sends a plague upon the Greek camp, causing the death of many soldiers. After ten days of suffering, Achilles calls an assembly of the Achaean army and asks for a soothsayer to reveal the cause of the plague. Calchas, a powerful seer, stands up and offers his services. Though he fears retribution from Agamemnon, Calchas reveals the plague as a vengeful and strategic move by Chryses and Apollo. Agamemnon flies into a rage and says that he will return Chryseis only if Achilles gives him Briseis as compensation.
To help the Trojans, as promised, Zeus sends a false dream to Agamemnon in which a figure in the form of Nestor persuades Agamemnon that he can take Troy if he launches a full-scale assault on the city’s walls. The next day, Agamemnon gathers his troops for attack, but, to test their courage, he lies and tells them that he has decided to give up the war and return to Greece. To his dismay, they eagerly run to their ships.
When Hera sees the Achaeans fleeing, she alerts Athena, who inspires Odysseus, the most eloquent of the Achaeans, to call the men back. He shouts words of encouragement and insult to goad their pride and restore their confidence. He reminds them of the prophecy that the soothsayer Calchas gave when the Achaeans were first mustering their soldiers back in Greece: a water snake had slithered to shore and devoured a nest of nine sparrows, and Calchas interpreted the sign to mean that nine years would pass before the Achaeans would finally take Troy. As Odysseus reminds them, they vowed at that time that they would not abandon their struggle until the city fell.
Nestor now encourages Agamemnon to arrange his troops by city and clan so that they can fight side by side with their friends and kin. The poet takes this opportunity to enter into a catalog of the army. After invoking the muses to aid his memory, he details the cities that have contributed troops to the Greek cause, the number of troops that each has contributed, and who leads each contingent. At the end of the list, the poet singles out the bravest of the Achaeans, Achilles and Ajax among them. When Zeus sends a messenger to the Trojan court, telling them of the Greeks’ awesome formation, the Trojans muster their own troops under the command of Priam’s son Hector. The poet then catalogs the Trojan forces.
By the end of Book 2, Homer has introduced all of The Iliad’s major characters on the Greek side—his catalog of the Trojan troops at the end of Book 2 leads naturally into an introduction of the Trojan leadership in Book 3. The poem has already established the characters of Agamemnon, proud and headstrong, and Achilles, mighty but temperamental, whose quarrel dominates the epic. Now the poet provides description of two supporting actors, Odysseus and Nestor. Though both of these figures appear in Book 1, the army’s flight to its ships in Book 2 motivates their first important speeches and thus establishes a crucial component of their role in the epic: they are the wise, foresighted advisors whose shrewdness and clarity of mind will keep the Achaeans on their course. Furthermore, in successfully restoring the troops’ morale, Odysseus and Nestor confirm their reputation as the Achaeans’ most talented rhetoricians.
In addition to prompting the speeches of Odysseus and Nestor, the Achaeans’ flight to the ships serves three other important purposes in the narrative. First, it shows just how dire the Greek situation has become: even the army’s foremost leader, Agamemnon, has failed to recognize the low morale of the troops; he is wholly blindsided by his men’s willingness to give up the war. The eagerness with which the troops flee back to the harbor not only testifies to the suffering that they must have already endured but also bodes ill for their future efforts, which will prove much harder given the soldiers’ homesickness and lack of motivation. But second, and on the other hand, by pointing out the intensity of the Greeks’ suffering, the episode emphasizes the glory of the Greeks’ eventual victory. Homer’s audience knew well that the war between the Greeks and Trojans ended in Troy’s defeat. This episode indicates just how close the Greek army came to abandoning the effort entirely and returning to Greece in disgrace. That the troops prove able to rise from the depths of despair to the heights of military triumph conveys the immensity of the Greek achievement.
Third, the flight to the ships indirectly results in the famous catalog of the Achaean forces. Nestor’s advice that the troops be arranged by city ensures that the soldiers will be motivated: by fighting side by side with their closest friends, they will have an emotional investment in the army’s success, and their leaders will more easily be able to identify them as either cowardly or courageous. While the catalog of forces may seem rather tedious to modern readers—though it does build tension by setting up an all-out conflict—it would have greatly inspired Homeric audiences. Even the effort seemingly necessary to recount the catalog is epic and grandiose. The poet seems to invoke all nine Muses as he proclaims, “The mass of troops I could never tally . . . / not even if I had ten tongues and ten mouths” (2.577–578). The sack of Troy was a Panhellenic effort, and even the smallest cities played a part. Each Greek who heard the tale could take pride in hearing the name of his city and its ancient, mythic leaders mentioned as participants in this heroic achievement. By calling these men to mind, Homer doesn’t bore his audience but rather stirs them, evoking their honorable heritage.
Agamemnon’s demand humiliates and infuriates the proud Achilles. The men argue, and Achilles threatens to withdraw from battle and take his people, the Myrmidons, back home to Phthia. Agamemnon threatens to go to Achilles’ tent in the army’s camp and take Briseis himself. Achilles stands poised to draw his sword and kill the Achaean commander when the goddess Athena, sent by Hera, the queen of the gods, appears to him and checks his anger. Athena’s guidance, along with a speech by the wise advisor Nestor, finally succeeds in preventing the duel.
That night, Agamemnon puts Chryseis on a ship back to her father and sends heralds to have Briseis escorted from Achilles’ tent. Achilles prays to his mother, the sea-nymph Thetis, to ask Zeus, king of the gods, to punish the Achaeans. He relates to her the tale of his quarrel with Agamemnon, and she promises to take the matter up with Zeus—who owes her a favor—as soon as he returns from a thirteen-day period of feasting with the Aethiopians. Meanwhile, the Achaean commander Odysseus is navigating the ship that Chryseis has boarded. When he lands, he returns the maiden and makes sacrifices to Apollo. Chryses, overjoyed to see his daughter, prays to the god to lift the plague from the Achaean camp. Apollo acknowledges his prayer, and Odysseus returns to his comrades.
But the end of the plague on the Achaeans only marks the beginning of worse suffering. Ever since his quarrel with Agamemnon, Achilles has refused to participate in battle, and, after twelve days, Thetis makes her appeal to Zeus, as promised. Zeus is reluctant to help the Trojans, for his wife, Hera, favors the Greeks, but he finally agrees. Hera becomes livid when she discovers that Zeus is helping the Trojans, but her son Hephaestus persuades her not to plunge the gods into conflict over the mortals.
Like other ancient epic poems, The Iliad presents its subject clearly from the outset. Indeed, the poem names its focus in its opening word: menin, or “rage.” Specifically, The Iliad concerns itself with the rage of Achilles—how it begins, how it cripples the Achaean army, and how it finally becomes redirected toward the Trojans. Although the Trojan War as a whole figures prominently in the work, this larger conflict ultimately provides the text with background rather than subject matter. By the time Achilles and Agamemnon enter their quarrel, the Trojan War has been going on for nearly ten years. Achilles’ absence from battle, on the other hand, lasts only a matter of days, and the epic ends soon after his return. The poem describes neither the origins nor the end of the war that frames Achilles’ wrath. Instead, it scrutinizes the origins and the end of this wrath, thus narrowing the scope of the poem from a larger conflict between warring peoples to a smaller one between warring individuals.
But while the poem focuses most centrally on the rage of a mortal, it also concerns itself greatly with the motivations and actions of the gods. Even before Homer describes the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, he explains that Apollo was responsible for the conflict. In general, the gods in the poem participate in mortal affairs in two ways. First, they act as external forces upon the course of events, as when Apollo sends the plague upon the Achaean army. Second, they represent internal forces acting on individuals, as when Athena, the goddess of wisdom, prevents Achilles from abandoning all reason and persuades him to cut Agamemnon with words and insults rather than his sword. But while the gods serve a serious function in partially determining grave matters of peace and violence, life and death, they also serve one final function—that of comic relief. Their intrigues, double-dealings, and inane squabbles often appear humorously petty in comparison with the wholesale slaughter that pervades the mortal realm. The bickering between Zeus and Hera, for example, provides a much lighter parallel to the heated exchange between Agamemnon and Achilles.
Indeed, in their submission to base appetites and shallow grudges, the gods of The Iliad often seem more prone to human folly than the human characters themselves. Zeus promises to help the Trojans not out of any profound moral consideration but rather because he owes Thetis a favor. Similarly, his hesitation in making this promise stems not from some worthy desire to let fate play itself out but from his fear of annoying his wife. When Hera does indeed become annoyed, Zeus is able to silence her only by threatening to strangle her. Such instances of partisanship, hurt feelings, and domestic strife, common among the gods of The Iliad, portray the gods and goddesses as less invincible and imperturbable than we might imagine them to be. We expect these sorts of excessive sensitivities and occasionally dysfunctional relationships of the human characters but not the divine ones.
The clash between Achilles and Agamemnon highlights one of the most dominant aspects of the ancient Greek value system: the vital importance of personal honor. Both Agamemnon and Achilles prioritize their respective individual glories over the well-being of the Achaean forces. Agamemnon believes that, as chief of the Achaean forces, he deserves the highest available prize—Briseis—and is thus willing to antagonize Achilles, the most crucial Achaean warrior, to secure what he believes is properly owed to him. Achilles would rather defend his claim to Briseis, his personal spoil of victory and thus what he believes is properly owed to him, than defuse the situation. Each man considers deferring to the other a humiliation rather than an act of honor or duty; each thus puts his own interest ahead of that of his people, jeopardizing the war effort.