The Iliad
Homer
Contributed by Joslyn Justiniano
Book 1
Summary

Invocation of the muse takes place, with the poet asking for help in conveying the story of Achilles’ rage. It is made clear that Achilles is the greatest hero of the Greeks to fight in the Trojan War. The story begins nine years following the beginning of the war, as a Trojan-allied town is sacked by Achaeans. The Achaeans capture a pair of beautiful maidens. Their names are Chryseis and Briseis. Chryseis is chosen by Agamemnon, the Achaean army’s commander-in-chief, as his prize. Briseis is claimed by Achilles, a valuable warrior.  Chryses, a priest of the god of Apollo, is Chryseis’s father. He begs Agamemnon to return his daughter to him. He offers a huge ransom in return. Agamemnon refuses to accede to this plan, and Chryses directs his prayers for help to Apollo. The Greek camp suffers the death of numerous soldiers when Apollo sends a plague upon it. After they have suffered for ten days, Achilles orders an assembly of the Achaean army. He requests that a soothsayer tell him what caused the plague. This soothsayer is a powerful seer called Calchas. While Calcas is afraid of Agamemnon’s retribution, he reveals that the plague was intended as a strategic act of vengeance by Chryses and Apollo. Agamemnon becomes very angry, and he declares that he will give back Chryseis only on the condition of Briseis being given to him by Achilles as compensation.

Achilles, who is very proud, is infuriated and humiliated by Agamemnon’s demand. An argument ensures. Achilles threatens Agamemnon, saying that he will withdraw from battle, bringing the Myrmidons, his people, back to their home of Phthia. Agamemnon says that he can visit Achilles’ tent and take Briseis. Achilles is ready to draw his sword on the Achaean commander, but his anger is checked by the appearance of Athena, a goddess. She has been sent by the queen of the gods, Hera. The guidance provided by Athena, when combined with a speech by Nestor, a wise advisor, prevents the duel. Agamemnon sends Chryseis back to her father on a ship. He also sends heralds to arrange for Briseis to be escorted out of Achilles’ tint. Achilles appeals to his mother, Thetis, the sea-nymph, to request that the king of the gods, punish the Achaeans. He tells her the story of his conflict with Agamemnon. She says that she will discuss the matter with Zeus, and that the king of the gods owes her a favor. Thetis says that she will do this when Zeus comes back from thirteen days of feasting with the Aethiopians. The ship carrying Chryseis is being navigated by Odysseus, the Achaean commander. After the ship lands, he brings the maiden back to her father and makes a sacrifice to Apollo. Chryses feels joyful at the sight of his daughter, and he prays that the Achaean camp is relieved of the plague. His prayer is acknowledged by Apollo. Odysseus goes back to his comrades.

The beginning of more severe suffering is all that comes after the end of the plague. Achilles has not participated in battle since he quarreled with Agamemnon. After twelve days pass, Thetis appeals to Zeus, as she promised to do. Zeus shows reluctance to assist the Trojans. This is because Hera, his wife, supports the Greeks. However, he does finally agree. Hera is extremely angry when she finds out that Zeus is assisting the Trojans. However, Hephaestus, her son, persuades her to refrain from causing conflict among the gods for the sake of the mortals.

Analysis

Similarly to other ancient epic poems, The Iliad’s subject is presented clearly from the beginning. The poem’s focus is specified in its opening word: menin, or “rage.” The Iliad focusses on the rage of Achilles, including how it starts, how it weakens the Achaean army, and how it is eventually redirected to the Trojans. While the Trojan War overall is an important part of this work, the larger context of conflict eventually provides background instead of subject matter. By the beginning of Achilles and Agamemnon’s quarrel, the Trojan War has been in progress for almost ten years. The absence of Achilles from the battle, by contrast, lasts merely days, and the epic concludes shortly following his return. The poem does not describe the war’s origins or its end (which is the context of Achilles’ wrath). Rather, it examines the origins and the end of the wrath itself, thereby narrowing the poem’s scope and changing it from the larger conflict between two peoples to a narrower one between individuals.

However, while the poem’s central focus is a mortal’s rage, it is also significantly concerned with the gods’ motivations and actions. Even prior to Homer describing the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon, Homer tells us that Apollo bears responsibility for the conflict. There are two general ways in which gods participate in mortal affairs in the poem. Firstly, they have a role as external forces that impact the course of events. An example where we see this is when Apollo causes a plague to descend on the Achaean army. Secondly, they are representative of the internal forces that impact individuals. An instance showing this is when the goddess of wisdom, Athena, stops Achilles from abandoning reason and encourages him to hurt Agamemnon with insults and words instead of the sword. However, while it’s true that the gods play a significant part in the partial determination of grave matters of violence and peace, as well as life and death, they have one other function: comic relief. Their silly squabbles, double-dealings, and intrigues frequently appear humorous in their pettiness in comparison to the slaughter and death that is such a pervasive part of the mortal realm. Zeus and Hera’s bickering, for instance, is a much more light-hearted example of conflict than that of between Achilles and Agamemnon.

The gods of the Iliad, in fact, seem more prone to the folly usually ascribed to humans than the humans themselves. We see this in how they appear unable to fight the impulses of shallow grudges and base appetites. Zeus undertakes to assist the Trojans, but he does so because he owes a favor to Thetis, not because he feels he has any profound moral reasons. In a similar way, Zeus’s hesitation in saying that he will do this comes from his worry about annoying his wife instead of any kind of worthy wish to allow fate to proceed as it wishes. Zeus silences Hera when she becomes upset through the threat of strangling her. These examples of domestic strife, hurt feelings, and partisanship are prevalent among the gods we see in The Iliad. The Iliad portrays the gods and goddesses as being less imperturbable and invincible than people might think them to be. The audience probably expects these types of relationship dysfunctionalities and unreasonable sensitivities in human characters, but certainly not in divine ones.

The conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon displays one of the most significant aspects of the value system of ancient Greece: the focus on personal honor. Both Achilles and Agamemnon make their respective individual glories their focus rather than the well-being of their forces. As the Achaean force’s chief, Agamemnon thinks that he deserves to have the best possible prize—Briseis—and he is therefore willing to be antagonistic to Achilles, the most important Achaean warrior, to gain that which he believes should be properly his. Achilles would prefer to defend the claim he feels he has to Briseis, who he sees as his personal spoil of war. He believes that she is owed to him. He would like to defuse the situation after that. Each man thinks about giving one another humiliation rather than carrying out an act of duty or honor. In doing this, each therefore puts his own personal interest ahead of the interest of his people. This jeopardizes the war effort.

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