Book Review – The Illiad

Book Review ~ March 2019

~ The Illiad by Homer

The Illiad is an epic poem by Ancient Greek bard, Homer. Comprising of some 15,693 lines, it is often dubbed the first great work of Western literature, succeeded by its sequel, The Odyssey. Nowadays the Illiad is dated to c. 7th Century BC, to the archaic period of Classical Antiquity. The backdrop to the poem is during the Late Bronze Age Collapse in early 12th Century BC, separating Homer from his subject matter by around 400 years. The dating of both Homer and the Illiad is something still disputed by historians and Literary Scholars today. Herodotus, an Ancient Greek Historian born c. 484 BC, maintained throughout his life that Hesiod[1] and Homer existed no more than 4 centuries before his own time, placing them c. 850 BC. Establishing an authentic date for the life of Homer is extremely difficult, even more so as the only documented records of his life that are known to have existed are his writings of the Odyssey and the Illiad.


Map of Ancient Greece
Map of Ancient Greece

The Illiad is set during the final year of a long war between the Greeks and the Trojans.

The events that prelude the Illiad are not essential reading, but serve a wider purpose in understanding the story and themes at work. The war originated from a quarrel between three goddesses, Hera[2], Athena [3] and Aphrodite [4] over a golden apple given to them by Eris[5]. Zeus sent the goddesses to Trojan Prince, Paris, who presented the apple to Aphrodite, as she was the fairest of the three. In response Aphrodite made Helen, the most beautiful woman, fall in love with Paris. When Paris seduces and kidnaps Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, Menelaus and his brother, Agamemnon, raise an army to retrieve her from Troy. The Trojans refuse to return Helen, providing a casus belli[6] for the Trojan war.

The Illiad introduces us to the Trojan War a decade after the events described above. Achilles, son of goddess Thetis[7], was gifted captured Briseis as a war prize following the sack of Lyrnessus. Achilles also brought back from Lyrnessus another girl, Chryseis, who was gifted to King Agamemnon. Chryseis’ father offered a great ransom in exchange for his daughter and Agamemnon was eventually compelled to return his prize, or else he would face the wrath of the gods. After the loss of Chryseis Agamemnon demanded that Briseis, Achilles’ concubine, be handed over to him as compensation. Insulted and angry Achilles stormed out of battle, taking his forces of Myrmidons, Hellenes and Achaeans with him. Devoid now of their best fighter, the Greek army is pushed back to their ships by an inspired Trojan force. It is only after a great tragedy that Achilles rejoins the battle, turning the tables on the Trojan army once and for all.

Whilst reading the Illiad it is important to remember that the Homeric style in which it was written would traditionally have been performed orally. Trained poets would perform the epic without the aid of writing, but with flexible sentences and scenes for on-the-spot development of epic poems. This explains why, throughout the Illiad, there are numerous repetitions of single phrases or actions. One device Homer seems partial to is ‘ring-composition’, where a poet will repeat an idea or phrase in order to return to his original point. In the example below we can see how Homer begins the action with Agamemnon spurring on the Greeks and, after a lengthy metaphor, brings the audience back to where he started, with Agamemnon.

And all the while lord Agamemnon, shouting to the Greeks followed up and killed. As a raging fire attacks a thickly wooded forest; a billowing wind throws the flames back and forth, and uprooted bushes fall headlong before the fire’s onslaught – so the routed Trojans were mown down by Agamemnon’s onslaught.

Book 11 ~ lines 153 – 158

What struck me most while reading the Illiad is Homer’s ability to separate his own judgment from his subject matter. Many authors succumb to the temptation of describing in detail the personalities of their characters, leaving very little to the reader’s own imagination. Homer, however, is a third person narrator, simply canvassing the scene without ever offering a judgment or evaluation. This narrative stance fascinates me because it is so unlike anything we typically stumble upon in poetry or fiction. His objectivity allows the reader the flexibility to come to their own conclusions about the motives and personalities that drive the characters.

Homer’s Illiad has many admirable qualities; brave heroes, bloody battles, interfering immortals, solid friendships and deadly destiny. The emotional depth of the characters raises the epic above a simple war story. It is a tale of love, loss, wrath and revenge. All in all the Illiad is a fantastic piece of literature, although the complexity of the writing can make it a little tough to get through, it is most definitely worth it.


Footnotes

[1] Hesiod is a Greek poet thought by scholars to have been active from c. 750 BC, around the same time as Homer

[2] Hera is the goddess of marriage, life and love, and the wife of Zeus.

[3] Athena (sometimes known as Athene) is the goddess of many things; wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilisation, justice, warfare, mathematics, strength, strategy, arts & crafts and skill.

[4] Aphrodite is the goddess associated with love, beauty, pleasure, passion and procreation.

[5] Eris is the goddess of strife and discord.

[6] Casus belli is a Latin expression that translates to “an act or event that provokes or is used to justify war”.

[7] Thetis appears most often in Greek Mythology as a sea nymph, a goddess of water.

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