Content created: 2011-08-28
File last modified:
Go to site main page,
student resources page.
Go to Iliad Maps, Greek Chronology.
Learnèd commentators view
in Homer more than Homer knew.—Swift
The Iliad is an epic historical account written in verse and attributed to an author we today call Homer. Some specialists consider Homer to have been a woman or a committee or a random collection of legends, but mainstream tradition regards him as a man, probably illiterate and possibly blind, living along the western coast of what is today Turkey.
The Iliad is considered to be one of the earliest masterworks of world literature, and it was enormously influential in Greek and Roman thought and in all the later societies influenced by the Classical Mediterranean world. Many college courses incorporate the Iliad for these reasons.
Many of the overriding themes of the Iliad —cocksure self-confidence, death, mortality, loss, fate— are also found in the Epic of Gilgamesh, probably dating from about the time of the Trojan war, some hundreds of years before Homer, and it seems probable that the widespread Gilgamesh story influenced the traditions that became the Iliad. (American world-civ and world-lit students can expect an exam question asking for a comparison of the two works.)
It is also an important historical source for our understanding of the age of Homer (about 800 BC) and of the events he seems to describe (about 1200 BC). This introduction is designed to help you interpret Homer’s Iliad as a cultural and historical document, but generally ignores its literary significance, although that is the focus of most college courses in which it is introduced. The presentation here consists of four main parts:
Parts 1-3 deal with the story itself. Homer assumes that his audience will already be familiar with many of the characters in his story, and with the events that preceded and followed it. The historical and mythological events that precede the story are laid out in Part 1. Part 2 is a synopsis of the book. Part 3 discusses what happened at Troy after the close of the Iliad, including the story of the famous Trojan Horse.
Part 4 is more modern. Modern readers want to know how much of the story is true. Did the Trojan War happen? Why? How accurate was Homer’s account? How can we know? What has been found at the archaeological site of Troy?
A critical fact is that, at about the same time Troy fell to the Greeks (if that is what happened), pretty much every other large human settlement in the region also was destroyed and/or abandoned, so “the Trojan War” for the historian makes sense only as (1) a part of the folklore of later Greeks and (2) part of a regional cataclysm that must be understood in much broader terms than those invoked by Homer. Some of these questions are discussed in Part 4.
Part 5 (an appendix) is a list of the principal players in the Iliad. There are lots of them, so it makes life easier to have a reference list. If you use this handbook while you read the Iliad, I recommend that you read the introduction to the list and look through it before you start reading, and then use it afterward if you get confused about who is who. If you are content with a quick overview of the book, you probably don't need it. If you are preparing for an exam, you may want to use a flash-card version of it (link).
Part 6 is a list of questions and answers about the Iliad. How these questions came to be and what they seek to accomplish are laid out in the introduction to Part 6. Each was originally intended to be read immediately after reading the corresponding chapter. They do not focus on character development, dramatic descriptions, or literary manipulations of the material (all of which are fascinating). Instead they direct attention to matters in which the Iliad can help us understand the society of Homer or of the Mycenaeans, or in which Homer or the Mycenaeans can help us understand other peoples (including ourselves).
A problem with these questions is that they are hard. After I composed them, I found that often I could not answer them, especially if I let a little time slip by between reading a chapter and approaching its questions. The reason is that the questions focus on some quite small details because these are where many of the clues lie about what Mycenaean life was like or about how reliable an account Homer is giving of it. Remember that for purposes of this site, you are not reading the Iliad as a work of literature, and these notes do not treat it from a literary perspective. If you are not reading the Iliad, but are using these notes only for the background information and the synopsis, you will probably not be able to make much use of Part 6. (Most of them cannot be answered from the story-line summary provided in part 2.)
Chronology. It is useful to have some sense of the order of events in the Greek world. A relatively simple one is available on this web site. (Link)
Later History. For interested students, this web site includes a quick overview of ancient Greek history beginning more or less at the time of the Iliad and continuing to the spread of Hellenism under Alexander the Great. (Link)
Sound. It is believed that Greek in Homer's period made use of pitch variations rather than stress accents. Although the pitch distinctions are preserved in the three accent marks that Classicists meticulously preserve today, the actual pitches are less clear, and in any case few people for the last two thousand years have been able to produce such a pronunciation. Some web sites have included reconstructed pronunciations, but they tend to be short-lived. (Old professors die off shortly after learning to pronounce the Iliad the way Homer would have recited it and their universities immediately unplug their web materials. There is probably a lesson in that.)
Over the years this essay has been read and improved by too many students and colleagues for me to enumerate them here. Although I keep introducing new errors and stubbornly retain some of the old ones, I am grateful for the many improvements that have been proposed and especially for the many that I have been able to incorporate. Thanks to you all.
Insofar as I know, all pictures accompanying this material are in the public domain or in some cases are photographs taken by me.
Return to top.
Go to Iliad Maps.
Go to Greek Chronology.