A Prelude to the Iliad

Stories You Need to Know

Basic Questions in Homer

  • What does it mean to be a hero?
  • How valid is the heroic code?
  • How far can a hero go in pursuing his own desires without offending the gods or alienating himself from his community?
  • When does war become murder?

The Sequence of Events in the Iliad

Chryses, quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles, Achilles' wrath, Zeus promises Thetis that he will help the Trojan cause, " how mad to disgrace Achilles, the best of the Achaeans" ( Book I 489-490), catalogue of the armies, Paris and Menelaus duel, the truce erupts in war and indefinite encounters, Diomedes shows his prowess, Hector returns to Troy, Ajax and Hector duel, embassy to Achilles, wounding of Achaean chieftains, Trojan irruption into the Greek camp, Patroclus's intervention and death, Achilles' renunciation of his wrath against Agamemnon, Achilles seeks vengeance and slays thousands, battles the river Skamandros, Achilles and Hector fight, funeral of Patroclus, the ransoming of Hector's body, Trojans hold burial feast and mourn Hector.

A series of delays to the expected Achaean defeat (Zeus' promise to Thetis), makes Book 2 and Book 7, the delay creates the dramatic tension in the first third of the epic.

Key Events:

  • The duel of Paris and Menelaus, Book 3
  • The breaking of the truce and Agamemnon's inspection of the troops, Book 4
  • The victories of Diomedes, Book 5
  • Hector's return to Troy and his encounters with Andromache, Helen, and Paris, Book 6
  • The embassy to Achilles, Book 9
  • The fighting is the thickest in Books 11-21
  • The scene between Patroclus and Achilles at the beginning of Book 16
  • The making of Achilles new armor by Hephaestus and the reconciliation of Achilles and Agamemnon in Book 19.
  • Hector's death
  • The meeting between Priam and Achilles

Structure: Linear and Symmetrical

On the one hand, the Iliad is linear; the narrative movement is towards death and destruction. The movement also exemplifies the caustic underbelly of a war gone awry, a landscape where the heroic code is lost.

The First Third: Diomedes, whose aristeia in Books 5 and 6 is the perfect embodiment of the tradition of heroic values--courage while fighting in the front ranks for honor and glory, respect for his commander Agamemnon and the gods, and even though he wounds both Ares and Aphrodite, he retreats before Ares and gives way to Apollo, thus remaining within mortal limits. Diomedes is a conventional or prototype Greek hero.

The Second Third: Patroclus represents moral issues that go beyond tradition. The aristeia of Patroclus in Book 16 reflects a dislocation of values, for Patroclus is not fighting for his own glory but so he might honor the son of Peleus. When Patroclus puts on Achilles's armor he loses his own identity and his characteristic gentleness. He fails to maintain his sense of self; Apollo warns him with the same language he uses to warn Diomedes before, but Patroclus pushes on until Apollo strikes him, making him an easy target for Hector.

The Final Third: Achilles is even more dislocated and untraditional, a deadly force of destruction that barely acknowledges human limits. He is no longer the best of the Achaeans but rather the beast of the Achaeans, a personification of war itself.

The linear structure can also be seen in the chronology of the three major duels--past, present, and future. The duel between Menelaus and Paris signifies the source of the Trojan War for Paris abducts Helen, Menelaus' wife--the past. The duel between Ajax and Hector ends in a stalemate signifying the current frustrating stalemate of the Ten Year War between the Greeks and the Trojans--present. The climatic duel between Hector and Achilles brings about the death of Hector and effectively marks the fall of Troy--future.

The Symmetrical Structure is evident in Books 1-3 and 22-24. The structure is chiastic, taking the name from the Greek word Chi, written X, because it exhibits a narrative line that crosses over. In a chiasm, then, the first is later the last, the second is the next to last and so on towards the center. The chiasm is first, last--last, first. The word "Kayak' serves as a good example of a chiasm. Bob Dylan's song"The Times are a Changing" includes the same notion: "The first one now will later be last, for the times they are a changing." The chiasm also includes the concept of reversal, defined by Aristotle in his Poetics.

This structure reflects a basic technique known as a ring composition. We listen to the tales of Odysseus in The Odyssey, told as a ring composition, beginning and ending in the hall of King Alkinoos and his Queen Arete. Such artistic organization can also be seen in the geometric designs on Greek painted pottery of the eight century B. C. The human images in the center reflect the narrative linear action, while the geometric designs on the top and bottom signify order and symmetry. The pottery design demonstrates the central concept in the later Greek World--balance. And as art symbolizes the mythic paradigm of departure/fulfillment/return in the cyclical reality of the pottery itself.

The result of the two structures--harmonious (symmetry) and harsh (linear)--gives the Iliad its artistic organization.

The principle of symmetry can be illustrated by looking at the relationship between the first three books and the last three books of the epic. The following paragraphs are a direct quote from the scholarly writings of Seth L. Schein in his book entitled The Mortal Hero, published in 1984 by University of California Press. The quote is located in Chapter 3 "The Poetic Tradition," pages 31-32:

  • Book 1, Agamemnon rejects the supplication of Chryses and refuses to release his daughter for ransom; in Book 24, Achilles accepts the supplication of Priam and releases the body of his son for ransom. In each instance Apollo is instrumental in setting the action in motion . . . [he sends the] plague against the Greek army (Book 1. 50-60). In Book 24. 40-65, [Apollo] chides the other gods for being willing to assist Achilles ion his defilement Hector's body. . . . Each book also contains a meeting between Thetis and Zeus in which they discuss Achilles. Even the pattern of the days in the two books is almost exactly balanced: in Book 1, the day of Chryses' supplication is followed by nine days of plague, one day on which the Greeks appease Apollo after Achilles and Agamemnon quarrel, and a twelve day break until the gods return to the land of the Aithiopes; in Book 24, after Achilles mistreats Hector's corpse for twelve days while the gods argue about what to do, there is the day of Iris' message to Priam from Zeus and the old man's ransom of Hector's corpse, followed by nine days during which the Trojans gather wood to burn the body, its cremation on the ten day and burial on the eleventh. [The two long stretches of time frame the dramatic action of the poem, and throw in relief, so to speak, the deadly Wrath of Achilles.]
  • The correspondence between Books 2 and 23 and Books 3 and 22 is less detailed . . . but equally significant. Books 2 and 23 present descriptions of the Greek army assembled in a large group [with the leaders introduced.] [Homer uses the description of the armies to tell the Trojan saga without really having to retell the story directly. The details go back into the past as well as forward into the future.]
  • Books 3 and 22 are clearly parallel . . . because of the duels of Paris and Menelaus and Hector and Achilles. [The first duel is between the two husbands of Helen and recapitulates the origin of the war; the duel between Achilles and Hector is the final battle of the poem which symbolizes the end of the war--the death of Hector symbolically equals the sack of Troy.]