Homer and the Iliad

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Homer and the Iliad

Most scholars agree that the time period in which the events in the Iliad took place was about 1200 B.C. Similarly, most scholars believe that the Iliad was not written down until somewhere between 800 and 600 B.C. During and prior to this time period, there was a strong oral poetic tradition which involved traveling poets called rhapsodoi. These poets performed to audiences all over Greece. They sang the lines of epic poems while playing the lyre. Homer is believed to have been one of these poets. The modern understanding is that the story of the siege of Troy, an integral part of Greek mythology, was not created by a single man.

The oral poetic tradition thrived before the advent of writing. The people who lived in and around Greece at this time lived mostly in rather isolated city-states. Frequent festivals were held where singers and poets would compete for prizes. Out of this tradition comes the Homer whom tradition maintains was born on an island bordering the Ionian Sea. Homer not only composed the two epics that now bear his name, but he also composed numerous hymns. The recitation of the Iliad was recorded as one of the early events at the Olympic games.

Summary of the Iliad

Homer's Iliad begins nine years after the Greek armies first arrived at Troy. A plague has overcome the Greek armies because Agamemnon has refused to return the daughter of a Priest of Apollo. Achilles, the epic's central character, exposes this fact and confronts the king. Agamemnon agrees to release this girl, if, and only if, Achilles gives him his 'war-prize', Briseis in return. Achilles finds this to be tremendously unjust and withdraws from battle taking with him all of his soldiers. He asks the gods to grant him revenge and make the Greeks require his assistance in order to win Achilles remains withdrawn for the greater portion of the epic.

Agamemnon is encouraged to attack by a dream and after some trouble with his troops, rallies them. The Trojan side rallies also. The two armies move towards each other but are stopped by a challenge from Hector: Paris and Menelaus are to fight one on one to decide the war. Paris flees the battle with the help of a god and Menelaus rages on with his brother demanding the release of Helen and her treasure.

Zeus, the king of the gods, calls an assembly of the gods and orders them to stop helping the battle because he has decided how it is going to turn out.

Hector returns to Troy to pray for Diomedes to be taken from battle. He reprimands Paris for cowardice, speaks to Helen and spends some time with his wife Andromache. Paris and Hector return to war. The Trojans rally again and then Hector challenges a Greek captain to a duel. Ajax fights him but the duel is ended by nightfall and a truce. Both sides debate the follow day of the war expressing the need for a truce to care for their dead. The Trojans propose a settlement. The Greeks reject this, but agree to a truce day for burials.

Zeus again threatens the assembled gods and for a while they heed him. The battle begins and the Trojans, with the blessing of Zeus, push the Greeks back to their earthen walls. Zeus gives an omen to the Greeks and they rally. The Trojans rally again and continue to push onward. Night comes and the Trojan army camps outside the city. The Greeks send an embassy to Achilles requesting his return to battle in exchange for treasure and an unharmed Briseis. Achilles refuses. The Greeks go to sleep but the captains stay awake and Odysseus and Diomedes raid the Trojan camps.

The battle begins the next day with a Greek rally led by Agamemnon. Zeus instructs Hector not to fight until Agamemnon is wounded. With this omen fulfilled, Hector rallies the Trojans and pushes towards the ships. Odysseus and Diomedes are also wounded. Achilles watches the battle and sends Patroclus to see who has been wounded. The Trojans continue attacking and with extraordinary feats of strength and bravery by Hector and Sarpedon, they storm the Greek camp. The fighting remains fierce near the Greek ships.

Hector calls for torches to burn the boats as Patroclus observes the panic in his compatriots.

Patroclus returns to Achilles and requests to enter the battle. Achilles lets him go leading the myrmidons. Ajax and Hector continue to fight each other near the ships when the myrmidons enter battle led by Patroclus, easily mistaken for Achilles in the hero's armor. Patroclus kills the Trojan son of Zeus, Sarpedon and the battle centers around his body. Zeus has Apollo rescue the corpse of his son. The battle is pushed back to the walls of Troy Paris attempts to storm the walls of the city, ignoring the advice of Achilles. Patroclus is killed by a combination of the Trojan Euphorbus, Apollo and Hector.

With the death of Patroclus, the Trojans regain some ground as the two sides struggle for the body. Hector follows Achilles' chariot, desiring his horses. Hector is wounded and must retreat. The Greeks save the body of Patroclus. A runner brings the new of Patroclus' death to Achilles and the hero mourns requesting revenge from his mother. Thetis goes to Hephaestus and gets a new set of armor for her son which she bestows on him even though she finds him lying on the ground weeping.

Achilles goes to battle and Zeus releases the gods to fight as they desire. Aeneas stands up to Achilles but is wounded, saved again by a god. Achilles and Hector clash with their troops following and Achilles rampage continues.

Achilles splits the Trojan line and murders many in the near-by river Xanthus. The river god gets angry with him and Achilles eventually attacks the god himself. The god retaliates and chases Achilles only to be stopped by Hephaestus who repulses him at Hera's bidding. Achilles presses to the very walls of Troy. Hector exits to meet his adversary but then flees him, running around the city three times. Athena tricks him into facing Achilles who kills him after a short struggle. The Greeks dishonor Hector's body and Achilles drags him back to their camp behind his chariot.

The Greeks have a feast and build a pyre for Patroclus. They burn and then bury his body. After this, Achilles hosts a set of funeral games for his fallen friend. At night Zeus has Thetis tell her son that Hector ought to be ransomed and Iris tell Priam to ransom his son. With divine help, Priam comes to Achilles' camp and ransoms the body of his son. The two share a meal together and go to sleep. Priam leaves at the goading of Hermes before day break and the epic ends with the funeral of Hector.

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