The Iliad Book 1 The Rage of Achilles


  • Map of Greece and Troy--click to enlarge:

  • Homer wrote the Iliad around 750 BCE. Troy fell about 1200 BCE. The distance in time is equivalent to you writing about Christopher Columbus!
  • Here is a picture of a papyrus fragment of the Iliad, Bk. 1 at Duke University
  • The Olympics began around the time of Homer: 776 BCE. The Olympics, Homer's Iliad, and some common religious beliefs were the bonds that kept otherwise-warring city-states of Greece in quasi-unity.
  • Do you want to hear what the beginning of the Iliad sounds like? Here's the first 10 lines.
  • Book 1

    • Reading time: about 47 minutes
    • Important gods in Book 1:
    • Apollo: son of Zeus and Leto, brother of Artemis. He is the champion of the Trojans. An archer and patron of the arts of music and poetry. He brings the plague on the Greeks when Agamemnon would not return Chryseis to the Trojans.
    • Athena: daughter of Zeus, patron of the Greeks (Achaeans), especially of Odysseus. She tries to make peace between Achilles and Agamemnon in Book 1.
    • Thetis: a sea-goddess, who is the mother of Achilles after sex with the mortal Peleus. She wants Zeus to aid the Trojans as a way to get even with Agamemnon for hurting her son, Achilles.
    • Zeus: the king of the gods. Brother and husband of Hera. See fuller note on page 683.
    • Hera: goddess, wife and sister of Zeus. Defender of the Achaeans/Greeks.
    • Hephaestus: god of fire, the blacksmith, son of Hera. He will make armor for Achilles later in The Iliad.
    • Rage
    • Rage is the very first word of the whole poem, setting the theme that will control the actions of the entire poem, the rage of Achilles. We are in the ninth year of the war of the Achaeans—another word for Greeks—being fought on foreign soil in Troy, a city in what is now Turkey. Achilles is a young man. The commanding general is Agamemnon, but Achilles is the greatest warrior the Greeks have. The Achaean Greeks have lost many soldiers in the war. Their bodies have become carrion—rotting flesh—for dogs to eat. How did the war come about? That is what the first lines do—bring us up to date, summarizing the first nine years. The epic of The Iliad was cover only the final few weeks of the war. In fact, this poem will not even tell us of the fall of Troy, just events that lead up to it. And while the background of the epic is the war between Achaeans and Trojans, the subject of the epic is the result of the fight between Achilles and Agamemnon, two Achaeans.
    • What we see from the start is that this is a psychological study of why humans fight, kill, and make war.
    • It is also a study of how men see and feel honor--and dishonor. Just as 50 and 60 year old men still fight over whether an action in 1970 in Vietnam was honorable or not, whether another man's not fighting in Vietnam makes him less of an honorable man, what one does in war remains a defining matter throughout one's life. On 265, Achilles says that Agamemnon has not won the respect of the toops through his war record but just because of his domination.
    • Lines 9-407. The origin of Achilles’ rage.
    • The Greeks raided the Trojan cities and captured two beautiful Trojan girls—Briseis and Chryseis. When you won a battle in those days, you took prizes—spoils or booty are the terms used. Chief booty could be young women. Agamemnon took Chryseis and Achilles took Briseis. Agamemnon rejected the plea of Chryseis’s father, priest Chryses. The result was a plague sent on the Greeks by Apollo Achilles calls a council and gets a prophet, soothsayer Calchas, who declares that Agamemnon’s refusal to give over the girl is the cause of the plague. In his anger at being humiliated, Agamemnon turns Chryseis over the her father, but demands Achilles’ girl in his girl’s place. The war of angry words between Agamemnon was finally halted by old Nestor and especially by goddess Athena. Achilles gives over the girl to Agamemnon but goes to his tent and refuses to fight.
    • In our initial view of Agamemnon and Achilles, how is each presented and how are our reactions toward each shaped by their words and actions? Homer does not tell us about Achilles; he just shows us Achilles in action. What do you conclude about him at this point? (We don’t see Achilles again until Book 9.) [Discuss Iliad Bk01 Q01]
    • The rage Achilles expresses is his response to his feeling of being publicly shamed by Agamemnon. His rage is extreme yet certainly not unknown. Reflect on how you relate to the extremity of his feelings of shame and rage and how you can understand his feelings, which lie at the core of the epic. [Discuss Iliad Bk01 Q02]
    • Lines 408-510. Achilles’s mother, Thetis
    • The goddess Thetis is Achilles’s mother. His father, however, is a mortal, Peleus. Therefore, Achilles is mortal. Thetis, whenever she visits her son, always brings a reminder of his mortality. Notice that Achilles’s short life and early death are emphasized in his meeting with his mother:
      • 417: "Mother! You gave me life, short as that life will be."
      • 491: Thetis answers him: "O my son, my sorrow, why did I ever bear you?/ All I bore was doom…/ Would to god you could linger by your ships/ without a grief in the world, without a torment!/ Doomed to a short life, you have so little time."
      • 602: Thetis beseeches Zeus on her son’s behalf: "Honor my son, Achilles!—/ doomed to the shortest life of any man on earth."
    • This theme of Achilles brief mortality hangs over his life and actions throughout the epic and gives his purpose a poignancy.
    • Reflect on what effect Achilles' awareness of his short life has on him and on us the readers.
    • 485 Achilles asks Thetis to go to Zeus to get Zeus to aid the Trojans against the Achaeans.
      This request of Achilles changes the dynamic of the epic. No longer is Achilles the injured party.
      Here he becomes responsible for the later destruction.
      Ironically, his wish will be responsible for his friend, Patroclus’s, death.
    • Lines 510-735. Zeus and Hera.
    • The quarrel of Zeus and Hera provides a lighthearted, humorous parody of the deathly-serious quarrel of Agamemnon and Achilles. Can you figure out who are the human parallels of Zeus, Hera, and Hephaestus?