Introduction to the Poem
The Iliad deals with only a small portion of the Trojan War; in fact, it covers only a few months during the tenth year of that war. The ancient Greek audience, however, would have been familiar with all the events leading up to this tenth year, and during the course of the Iliad, Homer makes many references to various past events.
The story of the Iliad has its actual beginning in the creation of the great wall at Troy. The Trojans enlisted the aid of the sea god, Poseidon, to help build the wall. However, after the wall was constructed, Poseidon demanded his just compensation, but the Trojans reneged. Consequently, Troy was without divine protection and, in fact, Poseidon became its enemy.
At the time of the Trojan war, Troy was ruled by King Priam, who was married to Hekuba. According to legend, Priam and Hekuba had forty-nine children, including the warrior Hektor, the prophetess Cassandra, and the young lover, Paris (also known as Alexandros). Deiphobus is also one of the children of Priam and Hekuba.
When Hekuba was pregnant with Paris, she had a dream that Paris would be the cause of the destruction of Troy. An oracle and a seer confirmed that this son would indeed be the cause of the total destruction of the noble city of Troy. Therefore, for the sake of the city, Hekuba agreed to abandon her newborn infant to die by exposure on Mount Ida, but Paris was saved by shepherds and grew up as a shepherd, ignorant of his royal birth.
The Iliad begins: The Judgement of Paris
On the Greek side, the story of the Iliad begins with the wedding of Peleus, a mortal, and Thetis, a goddess. These two become the parents of Achilles. At their wedding, Eris, the goddess of strife, throws down a golden apple with the message, "For the Fairest." Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite all try to claim the prize, and no god, including Zeus, is willing to resolve the dispute.
After a long conference on Mount Ida, Paris, the poor but royal shepherd is chosen to be the judge of the dispute between the three goddesses. They all offer bribes to Paris. Hera offers him rule over all of Asia. Athena offers victory in battle and supreme wisdom. But Aphrodite, knowing her man, offers the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, wife of Menelaos, the ruler of Sparta. Paris proclaims Aphrodite the fairest of all and anticipates his prize.
The initiation of strife, in the form of Eris and her apple, at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, introduces an idea that runs throughout the Iliad. Strife, metaphorically embodied in a goddess in the legend, is the motivating factor in most of the major events in the epic. Strife provokes the war. Strife with Agamemnon over a slave girl causes Achilles to withdraw from battle. Strife between various groups and individuals sharpens the action of the poem. Finally, the resolution of strife provides an ending for the poem. Eris is rarely mentioned in the Iliad, but her presence is almost palpable.
Before going to the court of Menelaos to secure Helen, Paris establishes his legitimacy as a son of King Priam of Troy. Only then does Paris travel to Sparta, where for ten days he is treated royally as the guest of Menelaos and Helen. After ten days, Menelaos has to travel to Crete to conduct business. In Menelaos' absence, Paris abducts Helen and returns with her to Troy. Various accounts of this event make Helen either a willing accomplice to Paris' scheme or a resisting victim of kidnapping. In the Iliad, Helen's constant references to herself as a bitch and prostitute leave little doubt that Homer sees her as a culpable accomplice in the abduction.
Word of Helen's abduction reaches Menelaos in Crete. He immediately goes to his brother, Agamemnon, the great ruler of Mycenae. At first the two brothers try diplomacy with Troy to secure the return of Helen. When that fails, they determine to enlist the aid of many other rulers of small Greek kingdoms. Nestor of Pylos, an old friend of the family, accompanies Menelaos as he goes to each state seeking support. The Greek army that Menelaos and Nestor help assemble represents the Greek or Mycenaean notion of reciprocity. Actions were performed with the expectation of a reciprocal action. According to some accounts, the various Greek rulers had all courted Helen and felt an obligation to Menelaos. But, even so, they go on the raid with an understanding that they will receive a share of the booty that will come from the destruction of Troy and other nearby states. In fact, the opening dispute between Agamemnon and Achilles is over what they each see as inequity in the distribution of their war prizes.
Some of the Greek leaders were anxious to sack Troy; but two, Odysseus and Achilles, were warned by the oracles of their fates if they participated in the war. Odysseus was warned that his journey home would last twenty years, and thus he feigned madness; but his ruse was quickly discovered and he finally agreed to go to war. The Greeks knew that they could never capture Troy without the help of Achilles, who was the greatest warrior in the world. He was practically invulnerable as a fighter, because at birth his mother dipped him in the River Styx, rendering him immortal everywhere except in the heel, where she held him. (Later, Paris discovers this vulnerability and shoots a poisoned arrow into Achilles' heel — thus, we have the term "Achilles' heel," meaning one's vulnerability.) Achilles was warned that if he went to war he would gain great glory, but he would die young. His mother then disguised him in women's clothing, but the sly Odysseus discovered the trick and Achilles finally consented to go.
After a few months, the Greek army gathers at Aulis in Euboea. According to some accounts, they immediately launch an attack on Teuthrania, an ally of Troy, are defeated, and are driven back. Much of the army disperses. During this same period, the prophet Kalchas predicts that ten years will pass before the walls of Troy will fall. The Greeks, or Achaians as they called themselves, do not try a mass attack on Troy again for about eight years. They have not, as many imagine, spent nine years beneath the walls of Troy, as when the Iliad opens. Some scholars consider this first expedition story to be a variant account of the more common story, but many others think that the expedition against Troy was actually made up of two widely separated expeditions.
The story of the second (or possibly first) assembly at Aulis is the more famous account. At this assembly of the Achaian forces, they are unable to sail because of onshore winds. This time Kalchas reports that Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt, is offended because Agamemnon killed a deer sacred to her. The only way the Achaians can leave is by Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter, Iphigeneia, to Artemis. Agamemnon tricks Iphigeneia by telling her that she is to wed Achilles. When she arrives for her wedding, she is gagged so that she cannot pronounce a dying curse, and sacrificed to Artemis. The winds shift, and the Achaians (Greeks) sail for Troy.
The Achaians land at a protected shore near Troy. They build a wall of earth, stone, and timber to protect their ships. This wall is the focus of the Trojan attack in Books XII and XIII. After the construction of the wall, the Achaians begin their siege of Troy. Some of their forces raid nearby states. Achilles attacks cities to the south while Telamonian Aias (Ajax) takes Teuthrania.
A year later, the tenth year since the original prediction by Kalchas, all of the Achaians assemble near Troy to begin what they hope will be the final assault. Here is where the Iliad begins as a feud develops between Achilles and Agamemnon. The poem recounts the events of this feud as they take place over several days. The epic ends with the death and burial of the Trojan warrior, Hektor.
After the Iliad: The fall of Troy
The events after the Iliad that lead to the fall of Troy are not a part of the poem. After the burial of Hektor, the Trojans call on outside forces for help, and the Greeks lose many warriors. In one battle, Achilles encounters Paris, who shoots an arrow that, guided by Apollo, strikes Achilles in the right heel, the only place where he is vulnerable. Aias (Ajax) and Odysseus are able, with great difficulty, to rescue Achilles' body, and immediately there arises a dispute over who should receive Achilles' splendid armor. When it is awarded to Odysseus, Aias (Ajax) becomes so furious that he threatens to kill some of the Greek leaders. When he realizes the lack of honor in his threats, he commits suicide.
With the death of their two greatest and most valiant warriors, Aias and Achilles, the Greeks become anxious about ever taking Troy. After consulting various seers and oracles, they are instructed to secure the bow and arrows of Heracles, which are in the hands of Prince Philoctetes, a Greek who was abandoned earlier because of a loathsome wound that would not heal. Odysseus and Diomedes are sent to Philoctetes, and they convince him to return with the bow and arrows. In his first encounter in battle, he is able to kill Paris. This death, however, does not affect the course of the war.
The Greeks are then given a series of tasks that they must accomplish to secure victory: They must bring the bones of Pelops back to Greece from Asia, bring Achilles' son into the war, and steal the sacred image of Athena from the Trojan sanctuary. These tasks are accomplished, but none of them changes the course of the war. Then Odysseus conceives a plan whereby the Greeks can get inside the walls of Troy: A great horse of wood is constructed with a hollow belly that can hold many warriors. In the darkness of night, the horse is brought to the Trojan plain. Odysseus and some of his men are hidden inside the horse. The rest of the Achaians burn their camps and sail off behind a nearby island.
The next morning, the Trojans find the Greeks gone and the huge, mysterious horse sitting before Troy. They also discover a Greek named Sinon, whom they take captive. Odysseus provided Sinon with plausible stories about the Greek departure, the wooden horse, and his own presence there to tell the Trojans. Sinon tells Priam and the others that Athena deserted the Greeks because of the theft of her image from her temple. Without her help, they were lost and so they departed. But to get home safely, they had to have a human sacrifice. Sinon was chosen, but he escaped and hid. The horse was left to placate the angry goddess, and the Greeks hoped the Trojans would desecrate it, earning Athena's hatred. These lies convince Priam and many other Trojans, so they pull the gigantic horse inside the gates to honor Athena.
That night, the soldiers creep out of the horse, kill the sentries, and open the gates to let the Achaian army in. The Achaians set fires throughout the city, massacre the inhabitants, and loot the city. The Trojan resistance is ineffectual. King Priam is killed, and by morning all but a few Trojans are dead. Only Aeneas, with his old father, his young son, and a small band of Trojans, escape. Hektor's young son, Astyanax, is thrown from the walls of the city. The women who are left are given to the Greek leaders as war prizes, to be used as slaves or as concubines. Troy is devastated. Hera and Athena have their revenge upon Paris and upon his city.