How to Read the Iliad

Note: This is another republication from Thermidor, where it first appeared on March 20, 2018.

“The classics have more and more become a baton exclusively for the cudgelling of schoolboys, and less and less a diversion for the mature.” Ezra Pound’s observation, from a 1920 essay on translations of Homer, may have been true at the time but has, in the following decades, become somewhat optimistic. Often, schoolboys aren’t really taught the classics at all, but insofar as they are, “cudgelling” is still about right. I can’t completely blame those reluctant to read old books, since the very sight of anything from the Odyssey to The Scarlet Letter is apt to bring back memories of chapter quizzes and book reports due by next Friday.

Even if we get past the cudgelling, though, Pound’s reference to the classics as a “diversion” may surprise some readers. Aren’t they supposed to improve our moral character, erudition, cultural literacy, and those sorts of high-minded things? Well, sure, they can do that. However, we’re unlikely to get any of those benefits if reading is too much of a chore, and it’s worth remembering that literature is written, first and foremost, to be enjoyed. Shakespeare, it’s often pointed out, wrote for a popular audience. We may also note that in the Poetics, despite the dry literary analysis, Aristotle clearly enjoys the pleasure and spectacle of poetry and drama, and in Timber, or Discoveries, Ben Jonson says that poetry, among other things, “delights our age,” “entertains us at home,” and “shares in our country recesses, and recreations.”

This is why, though literature has always been a primary hobby for me and one that I’m eager to share, I don’t insist on others delving into it as much as I have. One should have an interest in the arts, but if that’s music, painting, or something else, that’s fine. The goal is to have something, almost anything, better than blockbuster movies, top 40 radio, and other components of mass culture to spend one’s time on. Even non-artistic hobbies, like fishing or target shooting, will work for this purpose. Also, if you do choose to pursue literature, I’d encourage you to focus on an area of particular interest to you. Do you remember liking, say, Poe’s short stories in school? Then start by seeking out other Gothic or Nineteenth Century authors. Do you have a fondness for the Middle Ages? Go check out the many Arthurian romances, then, or a volume of Boccaccio.

Now, with all that said, there are a few authors who every educated person should have a basic familiarity with. These writers are also good starting points if you want to take the study of literature seriously, or if you’re just not sure where else to begin. Exactly which authors would go on that list is debatable, but people like Ovid, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare will be near-universal choices. Another would be Homer, and he’s the one I’ll focus on here, and specifically the Iliad.

We’ve already met Homer’s contemporary Hesiod, and as I mentioned there, Homer has the mixed blessing of finding his work on high school reading lists. This does ensure that most people still know who he is, though I have found that one can’t take that for granted, but it also forms negative associations with his work. It’s likely that the Odyssey is one of the books you were cudgelled with as a schoolboy. That may be one reason to read the Iliad first, not just because it’s the prequel but because it’s easier to get a fresh start on it and enjoy it on its own terms as a diversion and not as something you had to do a 500-word character analysis on.

The Iliad, though, is also a bit of an odd book, at least to our modern eyes and compared to the more novel-like Odyssey. It opens near the end of the Trojan War, with a dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon. At first, a reader may assume the work is about Achilles, and to a large extent it is, but he’s not even present for the majority of the poem. Feeling his honour has been insulted, he goes off to his own tent in the first book, and stays there until near the end. The rest of the book is, on the surface, just a whole bunch of men fighting and gods scheming.

So, what’s going on here?

Let’s start by looking at Achilles. Homer tells us in the Iliad’s famous opening lines that the story’s events are set off by this hero’s wrath. Quoting Lombardo’s translation:

Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage,
Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks
Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls
Of heroes into Hades’ dark,
And left their bodies to rot as feasts
For dogs and birds, as Zeus’ will was done.
Begin with the clash between Agamemnon—
The Greek warlord— and godlike Achilles.

Let’s set aside the details, and just say in short that Achilles, again, felt his honour was slighted by Agamemnon, so he heads off to his own tent, much to the disappointment of new readers. Achilles, after all, is one the most famous heroes in Greek literature, so naturally he should be off doing hero stuff, but instead he spends most of his time in camp feeling sorry for himself. Most of the fighting is left to the B-list heroes, and it’s not until near the end that Achilles finally comes out. Even more irritating to many readers is that his allies need him out on the battlefield, but here he is making others suffer for his personal hatred.

In part, this is a literary device. Literature, as I’ve touched on elsewhere when discussing Socrates’ criticisms of Homer, must sometimes depict interior states through action to really convey these thoughts and emotions. This poem is about Achilles’ rage. How can Homer depict rage? He can’t just say that Achilles was angry, or have him say a few sharp words to Agamemnon and then get on with it. He needs to harangue Agamemnon and storm to his own tent, and then remain there implacable. This conveys that he isn’t just angry or irritated, he isn’t just having a bad day or getting into a shouting match with a bad boss. This is something beyond that, and though it may seem overblown, consider also that the Iliad isn’t about folks like us. In the Poetics, Aristotle distinguished comedy from tragedy and epic in part by their subjects; comedies concern themselves with people worse than us, but epics are about men greater than ourselves. We’re nine years into a massive ten-year war, involving kings, sages, famed warriors, men with divine ancestry, and even the gods themselves. Homer mentions multiple times that this or that character is stronger, wiser, or nobler than any man alive in our own times, and even minor characters who only show up for a few lines are often described as “good with a spear” or such, or given some other mark of distinction. We can expect, then, that even their emotions are, in some way, bigger than ours.

In any case, Achilles’ rage does eventually cool to the point where he allows his closest friend, Patroclus, to take the field with some of his men just long enough to avert certain disaster for the Greeks. However, if there’s one thing that will get a man in Greek literature killed without fail, it’s hubris. Patroclus accomplishes his task of saving the Greeks from destruction, but then keeps pushing, only for Hector, Troy’s greatest champion, to kill him. At this point, we finally see the sort of heroic rage many of us expected all along, and when Achilles finally takes the field he’s fighting and killing everyone from Trojan heroes to a river god to, eventually, Hector himself, whose body he proceeds to desecrate. The wrath of Achilles continues to burn, making his eventual meeting with Priam, Hector’s father, all the more powerful.

I’ll set that meeting aside for now, but that’s Achilles’ story heavily abridged, but what about the other 2/3 or so of the poem? At first glance, much of it is reducible to “dudes fighting,” and a huge portion could be cut without affecting this main story.

This seemingly extraneous material, however, isn’t placed there arbitrarily. For one thing, the Iliad is a history. Well, to some extent. The historicity of the Trojan War is a contentious issue, but ostensibly Homer is narrating a story from a real event from long before, and so like a historian he’s telling us everything that happened during this phase of the war, albeit in a stylised fashion. This is one possible explanation for why the Catalogue of Ships is there, where Homer lists all of the Greek commanders, where they came from, and how many men they brought with them. Much like the Bible’s genealogies, modern audiences tend to find this dreadfully boring, but it makes more sense if these people were actually there and this is who they brought with them. Even if this is completely fictional, it still gives the poem a more authentic feel. Regardless, the ancients had a much stronger sense of place and pride in their own ancestors than we generally do today, and so delighted in this sort of thing.

Also, a lot of this is just enjoyable to read. Many episodes in the Iliad make for fascinating reading on their own, even apart from the main narrative. Take, for example, the meeting between the Greek hero Diomedes and the Trojan Glaucus in Book VI. They encounter each other on the battlefield, and when Diomedes challenges Glaucus, he takes a moment to discuss his ancestry (yes, he gives a speech right there in the middle of a battle, but that’s what you do when you’re an epic hero; just roll with it). When he mentions that his grandfather was Bellerophon, himself a mythical hero, Diomedes’ attitude changes:

Diomedes grinned when he heard all this.
He planted his spear in the bounteous earth
And spoke gently to the Lycian prince:

“We have old ties of hospitality!
My grandfather Oeneus long ago
Entertained Bellerophon in his halls
For twenty days, and they gave each other
Gifts of friendship. […]
[T]hat makes me your friend and you my guest
If ever you come to Argos, as you are my friend
And I your guest whenever I travel to Lycia.
So we can’t cross spears with each other
Even in the thick of battle. […]
And let’s exchange armor, so everyone will know
That we are friends from our fathers’ days.”

With this said, they vaulted from their chariots,
Clasped hands, and pledged their friendship.

Not only is this just a good story on its own, it’s also a striking example of how seriously the Greeks took the laws of hospitality, as these two men are unable to fight each other not because they themselves are old friends, but because their grandfathers were!

Of course, this amiable meeting is very much the exception rather than the rule for how these encounters generally proceed. Sometimes, Homer will just list off a bunch of people getting killed in a few lines, as when Achilles first rejoins the fighting, to emphasise how many warriors he was able to kill, and kill quickly. Usually, though, he’ll dwell on each death, typically described with similes. Here, for example, Patroclus meets with Sarpedon:

When they were close, Patroclus cast, and hit
Not Prince Sarpedon, but his lieutenant
Thrasymelus, a good man—a hard throw
Into the pit of his belly. He collapsed in a heap.
Sarpedon countered and missed. His bright spear
Sliced instead through the right shoulder
Of Pedasus, who gave one pained, rasping whinny,
Then fell in the dust. His spirit fluttered off. […]

Sarpedon cast again. Another miss. The spearpoint
Glinted as it sailed over Patroclus’ left shoulder
Without touching him at all. Patroclus came back,
Leaning into his throw, and the bronze point
Caught Sarpedon just below the rib cage
Where it protects the beating heart.
Sarpedon fell

As a tree falls, oak, or poplar, or spreading pine,
When carpenters cut it down in the forest
With their bright axes, to be the beam of a ship,

And he lay before his horses and chariot,
Groaning heavily and clawing the bloody dust,

Like some tawny, spirited bull a lion has killed
In the middle of the shambling herd, groaning
As it dies beneath the predator’s jaws.

Homer is justly famous for these similes, which are both excellent in themselves and do a fine job heightening the effect of what he describes.

Now, Sarpedon was a major character, but interestingly, Homer doesn’t have many “redshirts” on the field. Whenever he mentions a major character killing someone, he’ll at least give the victim’s name, and often tell us something about him.

One early victim was Anthemion’s son,
Simoeisius, a blossoming lad
Whom Telamonian Ajax marked and hit.
His mother bore him on the Simois’ banks
On her way down from the slopes of Ida
Where she had gone to see her family’s flocks.
So his parents called him Simoeisius,
But he died before he could pay them back
For rearing him. As he advanced
In the Trojan front lines, the bronze point
Of Ajax’s spear pierced his right nipple
And ripped through his shoulder. He fell
Down to the ground and lay in the dust.

A poplar that has grown up in rich bottom soil,
With a smooth trunk branching out at top,
Catches the eye of a wainwright, who wants
To curve it into a pole for a fine chariot.
He cuts it with a few flashing strokes of his axe,
And now it lies drying by the river bank.

This is the only time Simoeisius is mentioned in the whole poem, but we know where he’s from and a little about his background, and Homer does this many times throughout the poem. What this does, and what all this seemingly unnecessary material does, is give us a sense of the scale of this war and the stakes involved. Because there are no anonymous soldiers, all the many deaths carry some weight. Homer spends a lot of time praising martial prowess, but he doesn’t pretend war has no consequences, either.

There’s one more issue to address before leaving, because I’ve noticed that one reason some people begin the Iliad*but then give up on it comes down to choosing a poor translation. With old literature it’s tempting simply to get a cheap or free ebook edition, but with so many translations of Homer of varying quality, this is really a roll of the dice. Don’t do that. My favourite is Robert Fitzgerald’s, so if you just want a recommendation, go with his. I’ve also read Stanley Lombardo’s, whose version I’ve used above and which is also enjoyable; it’s also rather modern and casual in places, which I have mixed opinions about but which some readers may prefer. Richmond Lattimore’s and Robert Fagles’ are also popular and probably worth a look.

For the more adventurous, George Chapman’s and Alexander Pope’s are the most popular older translations. These are more poetic than modern versions, but be aware that they can also be more difficult to follow if you’re not used to their style of poetry. Also, Chapman’s is significantly longer because he expands on the poem in many places. I recommend taking a look at Wikipedia’s convenient list of English translations of Homer, which includes the first several lines from most common versions, and going from there.

The Iliad is one of those books that whole other books have been written about and it fully deserves its extraordinary reputation, so I’ll end with one final observation. The epic poem is my choice for the greatest medium in the arts; there aren’t a lot of them, relatively speaking, because they’re so challenging to write. However, they’re also disproportionately well-represented on any list of “greatest books ever written.” I’ve already mentioned the authors of the Metamorphoses, Aeneid, and The Divine Comedy. We may also add Beowulf or, much later, Ezra Pound’s Cantos. G. K. Chesterton is somewhat overrated, but I’d wager that his Ballad of the White Horse will be his longest-lasting legacy. Even a comedic epic like Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark has some weight to it. We could list more, but the point is that getting one epic into the Western canon is an impressive achievement. Homer, though, managed to write two (yes, I’m setting aside the Homeric Question). This fact makes him a powerful contender for the greatest and most essential author in Western literature.