The epic poem, The Iliad, began as part of Greek oral tradition when great storytellers regaled the people with tales of the Trojan War. When Homer, likely around 750 B.C., first put words to paper, he created what is believed to be one of the first works of Greek literature. While there were other epic poems shared and written down, The Iliad seems to be the one to survive and thrive. It inspires us even today as it is still assigned to countless students from middle school to college as well as being retold in film and television.
The Iliad focuses on the major events that occurred in the final weeks of the ten-year long Trojan War and the Greek siege of the city of Troy. There were certainly other works also steeped in this oral tradition that described earlier conflict and battles of the Trojan War, but The Iliad is the best known. With its gripping tale of bloody battles, political maneuverings, and incessant intervention of the gods, The Iliad is one of the most loved tales in all of human history.
So, what makes The Iliad so unforgettable? It is essentially a tale of war, but it is also so much more. The poem tells the tale of Achilles, son of a mortal father and a goddess mother, refusing to continue fighting after his concubine is taken by the Greek leader, King Agamemnon. Pouting, Achilles refuses to lead his men back into battle even as the Greeks seem to be falling to the Trojan forces. It is not until Achilles’s friend, Patroclus, is killed that he emerges from his self-imposed isolation and returns to fight, helping the Greeks eventually defeat the Trojans (remember the horse?).
Throughout The Iliad, the gods intervene on behalf of the mortals, both Greek and Trojan. Although they were warned by Zeus to stay out of the war, their actions toward their favorite mortals raise tensions and cause even more chaos. The Greeks and Trojans concentrate on the seriousness of the war while the gods are used to explain how or why something happened, even lightening things up by mocking or mimicking the mortals. The glimpse into the gods and their involvement with mortals seen throughout The Iliad reveals to us, centuries later, what it meant to be Greek. Man was guided and driven by forces beyond his control, yet they still strived to be honorable, and pursued excellence. The pantheon of Greek gods were puppeteers, but the heroes of the Iliad are characterized by wild passions, making complex choices with immense consequences.
I read The Iliad in college in the same semester as the movie Troy hit the theaters. What stands out even today is the violence and sense of futility of war. Yet, Homer was able to shadow the darkness of war by the heroic acts and glimpses into what things were actually more important to the characters: love, friendship, and a strong sense of honor.