The Iliad

The Trojan War. Homer's Iliad has been called the world's first great war story, and it certainly ranks among the most enduring. But if Homer's tale is a great one, it is the heroes of the seige of Troy that make it so, and which are indelibly inscribed on our memories. Who can forget the brooding Achilles, the crafty Odysseus, noble Hector, or fair Helen? And this is only a fraction of the amazing cast present in the Iliad.

This site is intended to provide a fun, interactive overview of Homer's story and the heroes of the Trojan War. No research materials were used, only my faulty memory, so any errors are of my own making--and not Homer's.

The Heroes of the Trojan War

Select the hero of your choice for a pictorial representation and brief history:
Pictures of various heroes

Achilles is the greatest of the Greek heroes. The son of the nymph Thetis and the mortal Peleus, he is in the line of descent from the King of the Gods: Zeus. Zeus himself desired the fair Thetis, but a prophecy, that the progeny of Thetis would be greater than his father, caused him to steer Thetis toward a mortal man. In an attempt to render Achilles invulnerable, Thetis dips her son in the river Styx, holding him by the heel. Thus, Achilles is invulnerable--save for the famous Achilles heel. In the Iliad, Achilles is portrayed as vainglorious and arrogant, only regaining his dignity after losing his close friend, Patroclus.

A brief History of the Trojan War

The Iliad opens in the tenth year of the war, with the Greeks still unsuccessfully beseiging the mighty city of Troy. Fair Helen, the "face that launched a thousand ships," and the wife of the Greek king Menelaus, brother of Agamemnon, has been kidnapped by the Trojan prince Priam and taken to the Troy, initiating the war.
The primary theme of the Iliad is the brooding anger of Achilles, the greatest of the Greek heroes. As the story opens, Achilles has quarrelled with the leader of the Greek army, Agamemnon, over the woman, Briseis, whom Achilles had claimed as a prize of war. Enraged by the slight to his honor, Achilles withdraws from the fighting and appeals to Zeus, the ruler of the gods, to avenge him.

Zeus fulfills Achilles desire, and the fortunes of war turn against the Greeks. Eventually, Agamemnon sends a delegation to offer Achilles treasure and position if he will return, but Achilles remains aloof from the fight, declaring he will only return to the battle if the Trojans attack his own ships. Hector, the eldest son of King Priam of Troy, nearly succeeds in destroying the Greek fleet. Achilles realizes the disaster this could cause, but he cannot fight without losing honor. He is eventually persuaded to send his close friend Patroclus into the fray, leading his Myrmidons into battle. Patroclus wears the enchanted armor of Achilles, created by the god Hephaestus at the behest of Achilles' mother Thetis, and heroically drives back the Trojan army. In the process, however, he becomes caught up in the combat and attempts to take the Troy at the head of the combined Greek armies. The god Apollo, who supported the Trojans, intercedes through Hector, slaying Patroclus.

Nothing else could have convinced Achilles to act, but an inhuman anger now seizes Achilles, who takes the field with a new set of armor, freshly forged by Hephaestus. Achilles slaughters dozens of Trojans, but he knows that not only has he lost his friend, but his own death will follow soon, for his mother has revealed to him that he will not long survive Hector. In a titanic battle, with gods aiding each, Achilles kills Hector and carries the body back to his camp. Achilles holds an elaborate set of funeral games for his friend, but is still disconsolate. He attaches the body of Hector to his chariot and drags it repeatedly around the funeral mound of Patroclus. This desecration of noble Hector outrages many on all sides, and the Iliad ends with King Priam coming to Achilles' tent and pleading for the return of his son's body for burial. Achilles repents and returns Hector's body to Priam, but the war continues.

Contained within the Iliad are many fascinating characters that have a history that begins before the opening of the Iliad and continue after its conclusion. Among the most interesting is Cassandra, the doomed prophetess of Troy. The daughter of Priam, Cassandra is an exceptional beauty, and like many such women in Greek tales, is lusted after by a god. She spurns the advances of Apollo, however, who so favored her in her youth that he had granted her the gift of prophecy. Angered, Apollo curses the prophetess. Henceforth, all her prophecies will come true--but no one will ever heed her warnings. She warns all of Troy that the presence of Helen will bring the doom of the great city, to no avail. In an interesting irony, Cassandra prophesizes that she will avenge her city through marriage. Cassandra is captured in the sack of Troy, and is dragged from the temple of Athena by the Greek warrior Ajax, to be raped later. Athena is enraged over the incident (whether this is over the rape of Cassandra or the desecration of her temple is never clear), and curses the Greek army. Agamemnon takes Cassandra as a prize and the Greek fleet begins the journey home. Waves and wind drive the Greeks apart, causing most of the ships to sink or suffer other mishaps. The journey of Odysseus is recounted in the Odyssey, for he too suffered the curse of Athena. Agamemnon manages to return home, but before is arrival Cassandra prophesizes the murder of herself and the king at the hands of his wife. Typically, Agamemnon ignores her warning, and the pair are murdered by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus. And so ended Cassandra, whose prophecies all came true, including her revenge on the Greeks by way of "marriage."

Odysseus is perhaps the most famous character from the Iliad. His full tale is recounted in the Odyssey, but Ovid wrote that the famous Trojan horse was conceived of by the wily one. Odysseus' tale is one of the few that end happily, but even favored by Athena he suffers massive trials and tribulations before finally ending his life in peace.

Of all the characters in the Iliad, it is a relatively minor one that would go on to everlasting fame outside of Homer's works: Aeneas. Aeneas was the son of Anchises and the goddess Venus, and the cousin of King Priam. He fights Achilles to a standstill, finally being rescued by his divine mother. When the city is sacked, Aeneas gathers the remnants of the Trojans together and leads them on an epic journey that mirrors Odysseus' in many ways. At the end of his long journey, Aeneas founds the city of Rome. His tale is recounted in Virgil's Aeneid.

Feeling sufficiently enlightened about the Iliad? Try the Iliad Quiz!