Summary and Analysis
Zeus, fulfilling his promise to Thetis that he will help the Trojans, sends a fraudulent dream of hope to Agamemnon. Agamemnon is absolutely convinced by his dream that he can defeat the Trojans once and for all in battle the next morning. So, full of false hope, he and his council plan a mass assault on Troy.
But, to test the loyalty of his army before he begins this mass assault, Agamemnon announces to the soldiers that nine years of war is more than enough; they should return home. To his great surprise, his troops react to his suggestion with loud enthusiasm. Breaking ranks, they run to prepare their ships for the trip home. Only through the efforts of Odysseus, guided by Athena, is the mad rush to the ships halted. Then Odysseus convinces the Achaians that it is far more honorable to remain and conquer Troy. Wise old Nestor adds his voice to that of Odysseus, and the army agrees to stay and fight.
Offering a sacrifice to Zeus, Agamemnon orders the army to prepare itself for the attack. He then holds a splendid review of the whole Achaian army, thus giving Homer an opportunity to enumerate all of the Achaian contingents and their heroes.
When news of the Achaian maneuver is received in Troy, Hektor orders his troops to prepare to meet the Achaians on the plain in front of Troy. Then, as the Trojan troops march through the city gates, Homer gives us a review of the Trojan leaders and the cities that have sent military assistance to them.
Book II is divided into two large segments: Agamemnon's dream and the rallying of the men after they try to return to the ships, and the great catalogue of the Greek kings, heroes, and ships that have come to Troy.
The catalogue is a significant break in the action of the epic, serving as a list of all the characters involved in the rest of the poem as well as a reminder that eight years of fighting have preceded the opening of this story. The catalogue is also of interest to historians and other scholars who use its descriptions of over 150 places and characters as a source for piecing together information about Bronze Age Greece.
Analysis of the information found in these two catalogues of opposing armies has been of great value to historians, linguists, and archaeologists in reconstructing an important and little-known period of early Greek history. The presence of these catalogues in the Iliad is a good example of the way Homer composed his poems on a foundation of historical and literary tradition.
The first part of Book II involves the false dream that Zeus sends to Agamemnon. In this instance, the god does not advise or aid the human, but actually deceives him in an effort to inflict injury on the Greeks. There is more than a hint in Zeus' use of this false dream that he thinks he can overcome fate and be able to prevent the victory of the Greeks over the Trojans. More obviously, Zeus' intervention shows that the gods are not always concerned with the consequences their actions may have on the humans. The false dream causes death and destruction for both Greeks and Trojans, but that fact does not enter into of Zeus' thinking. That humans are mortal is of little importance to the immortal gods.
Agamemnon's reaction to the dream further calls into question his adequacy as a leader. First, he accepts the dream without question. Second, he decides to test his men's desire for battle by offering them the prospect of returning home instead of continuing in the war. To men who have been away from home, wives, and children for more than eight years, the offer seems to be worth far more than glory and honor, and a near riot of men rushing to the ships ensues. Third, it is not Agamemnon but Odysseus and Nestor who bring the men's hearts and minds back to war and personal honor.
This issue of war and men's honor is brought into distinct focus through the speech of Thersites and Odysseus' response to it. Thersites, a physically misshapen Greek warrior, argues forcefully and effectively that the war is not worth fighting and that Agamemnon is a flawed leader, constantly taking the largest share of loot for himself and having now alienated Achilles in the process. His argument, strong as it is, is no match for the verbal attack that Odysseus makes on Thersites. Odysseus makes the point that Thersites is a commoner and has no business speaking out against kings and nobles. Odysseus further implies that Thersites has no personal pride or honor because he does not wish to fight. Also, Thersites' lack of honor is reinforced symbolically by his deformed appearance. Odysseus punctuates his attack by slapping Thersites on the back with a scepter, raising a welt and causing tears to flow. This public humiliation and marking of Thersites ends all talk of returning home. Pride and honor require soldiers to fight. Only the deformed in mind and body would argue otherwise.
Also in Book II, Homer begins to utilize the epic or extended simile more frequently. These similes are used throughout the work more frequently than the more common simple simile. For example, in line 544 Homer compares the armies to "flocks of winging birds, geese or cranes," and then adds the specific appearance of the birds and the precise place — "round the Cayster outflow" — where the birds flock. Other such similes may extend to a page or more in length. These similes, when examined, add much detail and comment on the individual scenes in which they occur. Analysis of specific similes produces a deeper understanding of the work as a whole.
aegis a shield borne by Zeus and later, by his daughter Athena and occasionally by Apollo; a sign of Zeus' protection.
Catalogue of Ships list of Greek kings and their countries in Book II. This listing of a group of warriors, countries, or other items is a relatively common epic device.
epic simile a simile is a comparison using like or as. An epic simile is an extended simile that may go on for ten, twenty, or more lines and may contain multiple points of comparison.
epithets a descriptive name or title. Phrases such as "breaker of horses," "long-haired," or "well-greaved," are frequently associated with a particular character or sometimes warrior group. The epithet was an epic device or convention that helped the poet in the oral composition process.
Mycenae Achaian kingdom of Agamemnon. Mycenae was probably the most famous of all the Greek kingdoms.
Thersites Greek soldier who verbally criticizes Agamemnon. He is ugly and somewhat deformed and treated as a comic character. He is the only common soldier to have a speaking role in the Iliad. He is put down both verbally and physically by Odysseus.