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The Iliad, Books 1 - 4

LANG 350--Classical Mythology


Books 1 to 4 of the Iliad trace the events from the breaking out of the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon to the first combat on the battlefield. Though we are in the tenth year of the Trojan War, these encounters are the most violent that have taken place since the Greeks arrived.

Book 1 is one of the most carefully developed pieces of story-telling ever. It lays out the basis for the destructive falling-out between the two leading Greek heroes: Achilles, the most skillful combatant, and Agamemnon, the commander of the combined forces of the Greeks.

Book 1 (In a Nutshell)
Brief opening.

Chryses, the priest of Apollo, comes to Agamemnon to ask for the return of his daughter, Chryseis. Agamemnon sends him away empty-handed.

The priest calls on Apollo for help, who sends a plague to afflict the Greeks.

Achilles calls an assembly to discover the cause of the plague.

The soothsayer, Calchas reluctantly, but with assurance of protection from Achilles, reveals the cause: Agamemnon's taking of Chryseis.

Agamemnon agrees to give up his own woman, but insists on taking Achilles's as compensation.

Achilles will have Agamemnon's head before he will consent to this. But before he can act on this impulse, the goddess Athena dramatically appears to him alone, in the midst of the assembled troops, and advises him against this violence. So, Achilles decides to withdraw from the fighting and prays that Greek losses become so severe in his absence that Agamemnon is forced to recognize his importance to a Greek victory. His mother, Thetis, will represent him to the father of gods and men, Zeus.

On Olympus Zeus and Hera quarrel over Zeus's concession to Thetis. The dynamics of their relationship speaks to the nature of his authority, which, in the end, is supreme, but not without checks. What are the limiting factors in Zeus's use of his power and authority?

The quarrel becomes heated when Hera accuses Zeus of not taking sufficient interest in the Greeks. Zeus accuses her of meddling and doing so without having all the facts of the matter. Their fight ends when Zeus threatens her with violent force. Hephaestus steps in to remind Hera of the futility of challenging her husband and brings up an earlier occasion when he intervened in her behalf and was thrown down from the sky, suffering an injury which resulted in the limp he still bears. The gods turn to feasting, and Hephaestus, scrambles awkwardly about serving everyone and provoking laughter.

A night of banqueting comes to a close, and so does Book 1, as the gods retire to their beds, and Hera, once again, sleeps alongside her husband.

Study Questions

Book 1: The Quarrel

Why does Agamemnon respond so threateningly to the priest of Apollo? Why does Agamemnon give up his concubine, Chryseis? Why does he take Achilles's? Why is this such an outrage to Achilles? What action against Agamemnon does Achilles contemplate before he decides to withdraw from the fighting?

Apollo, Athena, Zeus, Hera, and Hephaestus all play roles in Book 1. What types of human activities attract the attention of the gods? What does this say about the magnitude of those activities?

Note also how Homer attends to the social and political dynamics of events. Who is present when Agamemnon and Achilles have their quarrel? Would this quarrel have erupted if they were the only two present? Compare the conversations between Zeus and Thetis, in private, and between Zeus and Hera, before the other Olympian gods. Would Zeus have even entertained Thetis' request, had she made it in the presence of the other gods? Would Zeus have reacted as violently toward Hera if she hadn't pressed him before other gods? Notice how even after she shows deference to him by using the respectful terms of address--"Dread majesty, son of Cronus"--when she disingenuously proceeds to lay out, in the presence of all, details of his pact with Thetis, Zeus becomes furious.

Quarrels & Reconciliations

There is a quarrel of Book 1 that will not conclude until the final books of the poem. There are other quarrels as well in Book 1 which are brought to some resolution even before the book is out: Chryses and Agamemnon part in anger over the ransom of the priest's daughter; and Zeus and Hera mix it up over the Olympian's pact with Thetis. To what extent are these quarrels concluded? Are they concluded peacefully?

From an artistic or dramatic point of view, what is the benefit of including the lesser quarrels in this book?

Book 2

While Olympian gods and mortals sleep, Zeus is pondering how to get the Greeks back to the battlefield following the pause begun by the plague in Book 1. A dream is sent to Agamemnon, who decides to rouse the troops and test their resolve by inviting them to return home. The scheme backfires and the troops jump up and run for their ships. Only with the help of Athena, is Odysseus able to bring them back to the assembly where they hear speeches encouraging them to fight.

As the troops and their leaders assemble and get ready for the discussion, a particularly offensive member continues to carry on, singling out Agamemnon for special criticism. This is Thersites (THUR-si-teez), "the ugliest man who ever came to Troy." He accuses Agamemnon of greed and blames him for their troubles. His railing is met with a blow on the back by Odysseus, who slaps him with the scepter--the staff held by the one in authority, or who has the floor, at an assembly--sending him off in tears, as the troops laugh at his hideous condition.

Thersites's criticisms do not sound so very different from Achilles's and we may wonder why he is dealt with so harshly by Odysseus, apparently with no sympathy from the troops, or Homer for that matter. A partial explanation must lie in the role played by the protocol of the assemblies. In other assemblies described in the Iliad, the generals and elderly Greeks, never common soldiers, address the troops. This was surely for practical reasons, but became a convention. Assemblies are called to order by someone in authority as well. The issues are addressed and discussion ensues. Thersites is in violation of all these. No rank is mentioned that would warrant his participation here. He does not have any special expertise or information either. It is especially significant that Odysseus strikes him down with the historic scepter given to Agamemnon's family. The use Odysseus makes of it raises an interesting question. Of all the things that might have represented authority in an assembly, was a staff chosen because it was useful to literally shut up one's adversary in debate?

So, before we are quick to sympathize with him for his unfortunate looks, we need to consider what Homer says about Thersites's behavior and how it reveals his character. His looks may only be the outward evidence of an internal offensiveness.

Why does Odysseus treat Thersites so harshly? How are Thersites's comments about Agamemnon different from Achilles's? How do the other warriors respond to Thersites's remarks?

Why the long list of cities represented in the catalogue of ships? What effect would hearing mention of your city have on you, if you were in the audience listening to a recital of this poem? How does the catalogue contribute to the Panhellenic quality of the work?

Book 2 ends with the catalogue of Trojans and their allies, complementing the preceding, and much longer, catalogue of Greeks. In fact, the last two warriors mentioned are Sarpedon and Glaucus, at the head of the forces from Lycia. Glaucus will figure importantly in the action at the opening of Book 6 and their conversation before combat in Book 12 says much about their commitment to the ideals of heroism.

Book 3

Book 3 opens with a face-off between the assembled troops of both sides, anxious for combat. Paris steps out from the body of Trojan troops to taunt the Greeks, when Menelaus sees him and leaps down from his chariot to take him on. When Paris withdraws into the troops, Hector reproaches him for cowardice and he decides to invite Menelaus to a contest that promises to decide the outcome of the War once and for all. If Paris wins, Helen stays with him and the Greeks go home without further conflict; if Menelaus wins, Helen returns with him to Sparta. In either case, Troy and Greece will be spared further injury and potential destruction over the matter of Helen.

As preparations are being made, Helen learns of the contest and comes out onto the city wall of Troy to watch. How do the old men of Troy respond to her presence? How does Priam regard her? Is there blame of her for the losses, economic as well as human, to Troy? She is described as having "terrible beauty." How does this quality compare with Hesiod's description of Pandora in the Works and Days?

Why do the gods intervene to rescue Paris from single combat with Menelaus? What is the outcome of this divine intervention for Paris? How does his character compare with other heroes in the poem?

At the close of the book, in just two lines, Homer takes us abruptly from Paris's bed, where he is enjoying the company of Helen, to the battlefield, where Menelaus is fuming, exasperated as he looks for his opponent who has vanished before everyone's eyes. Even the Trojans are angry with the disappearance of Paris. Agamemnon cries foul and demands the immediate return of Helen, and his troops shout in agreement.

Books 4-8

Consider the descriptions of fighting in these books. How graphic are the descriptions of fighting, wounding and death? What similes does Homer use to describe the behavior of combatants?

Book 4

Book 3 ends on the field of combat with Agamemnon demanding that Trojans return Helen, Book 4 opens on a council of Olympian gods with Zeus taunting Hera and Athena for letting Aphrodite get the upper hand in the single combat.

The gods decide to prompt an incident that will let general fighting resume. Athena visits Pandarus, who shoots and wounds Menelaus. The description of the bow used by Pandarus is remarkable for its history.

Diomedes ancestry is described. He will perform some remarkable feats in the field. His combats through books 5 through 8 constitute what the Greeks called an "aristeia," or feats of bravery, attended by divine involvement and enhancing his stature among the heroes.

Read the account of the first kill since the opening of the story (p. 160, lines 529- ). How detailed is it? What are the consequences? How balanced is the fighting?

How does Homer describe the death of Simoisius? How does the simile of the black poplar and its use contribute to the description of his death?

The Age of Heroes

Homer does not want to suggest that these characters are walking the streets of his hometown today. The events of the Iliad take place in another age, before his own, when heroes were alive and the gods had frequent interaction with them. Some of the main characteristics of this time are described by Hesiod in his Works & Days:

And Zeus fashioned a fourth race
To live off the land, juster and nobler,
The divine race of Heroes, also called
Demigods, the race before the present one.
They all died fighting in the great wars,
. . . .
And some, crossing the water in ships,
Died at Troy, for the sake of beautiful Helen.

(trans. S. Lombardo)

How are the characters of the Iliad "juster and nobler"? How does this portrait of heroes in general serve as important background to the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles? What are the indications that their "divine race" is more important to the gods?

What other characteristics of this age can you find in the Iliad? How does Homer show it to be a time apart from his, and our, own?

Thinking about images of violence

Some critics of current movies argue that graphic scenes of violence promote violence, while others argue that, if the consequences of these acts are included, film violence may actually have the opposite effect and discourage viewers from such action.

Do Homer's descriptions of combat glorify violence? Does Homer show more sympathy for the conqueror or the victim? How biased is Homer, a Greek, toward the Greeks in these descriptions? Is there a difference when the conqueror or victim is Greek and when he is Trojan?

What is the connection between the prospect of death and heroism? Are the heroes of the Iliad troubled by thoughts of death?

Go to: SYLLABUS | Iliad, Books 5-12 | Books 13-20 | Books 21-24

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Revised: 17 September 1997