The Iliad is the written version of a long poem out of the Greek oral tradition, and at near 3000 years old it’s one of the oldest books still in print. It recounts the history of the Trojan War, in which a confederation of Greek tribes besieged the city of Troy, back in the days when men were bigger and stronger and generally more fabulous than they are “now” in the present when the story was being told.
You may already be familiar with the events of the story, which has about six zillion named characters but only a couple dozen who really signify. But if you are like me, you might expect that there’s more in the Iliad than there actually is.
Things That Happen in the Iliad
In the 450 pages of my edition, the following events – and only the following events, really – transpire.
1. Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks and a big jackass, forces his best general, Achilles, to give up a slave woman whom he was awarded for a feat of arms. This insult provokes Achilles, an even bigger jackass, to withdraw himself and his elite troops (the Myrmidons) from the battle. (In my version, the very readable and entertaining translation by Robert Fitzgerald, Achilles is unfortunately referred to as “Akhilleus.” Doubtless Fitzgerald was making some kind of Important Point for the classicists, but please.)
2. The Greeks and Trojans fight back and forth between the walled city of Troy and the stretch of beach where the Greeks have hauled up their ships. Back. And forth. Eventually, the Trojans have the Greeks backed right up against the sea.
3. Alarmed at the threat of imminent defeat, the Greek leadership convinces Achilles’ best pal, Patroklos, to dress up in Achilles’ armor and lead the Myrmidons on a counteroffensive.
4. More fighting back and forth. Patroklos pushes the Trojans back, but is then felled by Hektor, the prince of Troy and himself something of a jackass. The armies fight over Patroklos’ body all day, the Greeks finally coming up with it.
5. Achilles goes absolutely nuts with grief. After elaborate preparation, he re-enters the battle and blazes a path of wanton death and gore as he chases the Trojans back to their city.
6. Achilles chases Hektor around Troy three times, and then kills him. In what is considered an unsporting gesture, he drags the corpse back to the Greek camp behind his chariot.
7. After Patroklos’ funeral, there’s horse racing and other games!
8. Achilles, still pissed at Hektor for killing Patroklos – which seems a little harsh, since Patroklos for all of his charms was after all a soldier trying to sack Hektor’s town – gets up every morning and drags Hektor’s corpse around for a while behind his chariot.
9. After several days of this, Hektor’s father King Priam comes down to talk, cajole, and bribe Achilles into giving up the corpse. Achilles relents, and the Trojans have a big funeral for Hektor. The End.
Things That Don’t Happen in the Iliad
Although I was expecting all of the above to happen, there was also plenty that I expected to happen that didn’t. Maybe you would have expected them too?
1. The Trojan prince Paris does not steal Helen from Menelaos, thus setting up the roots of the conflict. People refer to this incident in passing occasionally, but it’s never spelled out.
2. Agamemnon doesn’t assemble the Greek host to get revenge and get Helen back. How the Greeks came to be on their beachhead is hardly ever mentioned.
3. Achilles doesn’t have a weakness in his heel, nor is he struck there and killed. There’s a lot of talk about how he’s doomed to die in the war, but at the end of the book he is still alive, kicking, and as big a jerk as ever.
4. The Greeks do not hide themselves inside a big wooden horse, get dragged into Troy, and then sneak out in the night to sack the town. In fact, it doesn’t really seem like the kind of thing these Greeks would want to do. They are all about open-formation hand combat.
5. The Trojan princess Cassandra has a couple of cameos, but doesn’t have any particular ability to see the tragic, tragic future, and does not make dire but accurate predictions that go unheeded.
6. Troy does not fall.
Maybe these things happen in the Odyssey? But I always thought the Odyssey was all about Odysseus (who is, along with a pair of Ajaxes (or, in Fitzgerald-speak, “Aiases”) the rare character in the Iliad who is not especially a jackass) sailing around in a boat and having wacky adventures? Maybe there are flashbacks or something. Either that, or all of this other stuff about the Trojan War is coming from some other mythology entirely.
My little plot synopsis above covers only the human half of the story. The book is also saturated with actions of the Gods, all of whom are for one reason or another, or for no reason at all, highly invested in this conflict. There is a curious double-reality throughout, wherein men are clearly thought to be heroic, courageous, skilled, and strong, or not, and judged as to their worth accordingly; but at the same time, every action great or small is determined by the will of the Gods. The whole arc of the story, from the Trojans’ near success to the death of Patroklos and the triumphant return of Achilles, is an elaborate plan wrought by the Gods. Whenever a significant character triumphs or fails, it’s because a God is intervening. And since the Gods, to put it mildly, are not rowing in unison, any given human might be subject to divine aid or vengeance, or both, at any moment, for no apparent reason. For the humans, it’s a state of affairs much like the random forces that people are subject to in our own reality, except with really wild back-stories about dysfunctional divine family life.
Greeks and Things
War is ever an expensive enterprise, and this is certainly true on the plains outside of Troy. We notice from early on that, whenever anyone is killed – and this happens a lot, in fairly grisly detail – the person doing the killing stops the fight, gets the body to relative safety, and makes sure his victim’s armor and weapons get back to the appropriate stash. Continuing the assault is important, but not so important as to let good weapons and armor get away.
Loot is lovingly described, be it weapons or vases or whatever. ”Whatever”includes women, flattered as “soft-belted” and unambiguously seen as things when discussed as prizes of war. One woman is described as being worth four bulls – that’s a very soft belt! – and it is Agamemnon’s reapportioning of loot in the form of Achilles’ trophy babe that kicks off the whole story in the first place.
Non-slave women have it a little better. The female goddesses come off as jackasses, but so do the male ones. A few of the Trojan noblewomen get to make short speeches, but nobody pays much attention. Before Hektor goes out to fight Achilles, his mom publicly undoes her robe and brandishes a breast at him, apparently an attempt to make him realize how much he, the son she nursed as a baby, means to him, the idea being that this will convince him to remain safe inside the walls. It is hard to imagine this tactic working on a military leader of any era, and it certainly doesn’t work on Hektor.
The Best Scene
Diomedes, one of the Greek heroes, is hacking and slaying his way through the battle when he comes across the Trojan Glaukos. Glaukos announces himself and his genealogy, as warriors about to fight so often do. Diomedes rests on his spear and says “Wow! We can’t fight! We’re friends! And then they talk at length about how their fathers were buddies and how Diomedes still has a gift that Glaukos’ dad gave his own dad on the mantle back home in Greece, and so on. “Wow!” says the Trojan, and they do a big man-hug. Then Diomedes suggests they exchange armor to mark their friendship, and then go find other people to try to kill. “Cool,” says Glaukos, and Both men jumped down then to confirm the pact, taking each other’s hands, and off they go back into the battle, making sure they don’t end up fighting against each other.
So, it’s a odd and charming little story about friendship between enemies in the chaos of war. Cool! But then, this sly little aside:
But Zeus had stolen Glaukos’ wits away – the young man gave up golden gear for bronze, took nine bull’s worth for armor worth a hundred!