The Iliad Summary

The Iliad is one of several myths in the ancient history where the main accent is made not on gods, their omnipotence and relationships but on people. These people are heroes and have some drops of divine blood in their veins too but still they are mortals, they love and hate, fight and feast, are blinded by pride and then pacified by humility. But the heroes grow too strong and even the Earth itself is tired to bear them. So the gods arranged the greatest war of all the ages, so that the heroes will exterminate each other and the burden will be lifted from Earth’s body. The gods decided that the city chosen for this war would be Troy or Ilion.

Troy was a prosperous city situated near the shore of Dardanelles. The greatest poem composed by the legendary blind poet and singer Homer is called Iliad after the second name of that city - Ilion. Before Homer gathered evidences and rhymed them there were only scarce stories about the incredibly long war, but the poet took only one episode from it and unfolded it in a way that represented the whole heroic age. This episode is focused on Achilles who was considered the greatest and the most iconic hero of his time.

The Trojan War lasted for ten years. A campaign against Troy gathered a dozen of Greek kings who led hundreds of ships with thousands of soldiers: a sole list of their names takes several pages of the poem. The leader amongst the leader was the ruler of the city of Argos, King Agamemnon. With him was his brother Menelaus (whose wife was the cause of the war - at least a formal cause), the mighty Ajax, the ardent Diomedes, the cunning Odysseus, the old and wise Nestor and lots and lots of people more. But the bravest, strongest and fastest among them was the young Achilles, the son of the sea goddess Thetis, accompanied by his friend (and, perhaps, lover) Patroclus.

The leader from the Trojan side was an old king Priam, the general of the troops was more able-bodied but as wise as his father prince Hector. His brother Paris was, nominally, also one of the leaders, but at first he behaved like a coward - moreover, his lust for Menelaus’ wife brought Troy to the edge of that great war. The people of Troy also had many allies amongst the neighboring cities, so the army of defenders was roughly equal to the attacking one.

The gods themselves participated in war: Troy was aided by shining Apollo and Greeks were defended by the queen of gods Hera and the wise warrior Athena. Zeus, as the supreme deity, watched the battle from the Olympian heights and judged it.

The war was planned long before the first Greek ship sailed to the Trojan shores. The wedding of the mortal hero Peleus and the sea goddess Thetis should be the last union of gods and mortals and Achilles should be the last half-blooded offspring. But gods needed mortals to eliminate themselves, so the goddess of discord came with the solution. At the feast she threw to the people a golden apple with the words “The most beautiful” written on it. Three goddesses - Hera, Athena and Aphrodite - descended to compete for this title and Zeus appointed the Trojan prince Paris to decide who of them deserves the apple. Each of the goddesses tried to bribe the judge: Hera promised to give him power and make him a great king, Athena offered to make him a hero and grant him wisdom and Aphrodite said that Paris would marry the most beautiful of mortal women. Paris gave the apple to Aphrodite. After that, Hera and Athena promised that they would aid anyone who would fight against Troy.

Aphrodite kept her promise. During Paris’ visit to Menelaus the prince saw his wife - Helen. She was indeed the most beautiful woman of all who lived in the world. With the help of the goddess Paris seduces Helen and convinces her to flee with him to troy and become his wife.

Helen was the daughter of Zeus and lots of Greek heroes competed for her hand and, to avoid the war between all the unfortunate suitors, they all made a promise to aid her future husband if someone would try to steal Helen from him. Helen chose Menelaus, and after Paris took her away and Menelaus declared war on Troy, almost all the Greece was obliged to go to fight with him. Only Achilles wasn’t another suitor - he was simply too young to marry Helen - he wanted to go to the war only for valor and glory.

The gods were still just watching without interfering. The Greeks started the siege, but Trojans, led by Hector and Sarpedon (another son of Zeus, the last on Earth) counterattacked. Achilles serenely watched as they make Greek army flee and approached their very camp: they are about to set Greeks’ ships on fire. Hera also watched the fight near her husband and, driven by hatred to Paris, decided to cheat. She took the magical belt of Aphrodite and approached her husband arousing the desire in him. Zeus was so charmed by his wife that he took Hera to the top of mount Ida to sleep with her on the beautiful meadow. While Zeus was asleep after long lovemaking, Hera helped Greeks to gather and raised their spirit. But soon Zeus woke up and while Hera was trembling in fear of his anger, he said to her to have patience. He promised Hera that Greeks would be victorious but not before Achilles entered the battle, so was his promise to Achilles’ mother, Thetis. 

But Achilles wasn’t ready yet, so Patroclus, his friend, took his armor and chariot to aid the Greeks instead. It was too painful for him to look at his comrades in distress, so he pretended to be Achilles and led the attack to encourage them and inflict horror in Trojan who knew well how Achilles’ armor looked like. Achilles told Patroclus not to put himself in great danger: his task was only to drive Trojans away from the ships. He said his friend that even if all the Greeks and Trojans fell in battle it wouldn’t really matter until they could still be alive together.

The plan worked exceptionally well. Trojans saw the armor and chariot of Achilles and fled almost immediately. But Patroclus, drunk with adrenaline, continued the pursuit far longer than it was needed. Sarpedon, the son of Zeus, turned back to meet him and even Zeus hesitated, asking Hera if they can spare his son. But Hera, who wasn’t fond of Zeus’ affairs and offsprings from them, coldly replied that the fate is the same for everyone.

Patroclus managed to defeat Sarpedon even without revealing his identity. Sarpedon fell dead and now no one stood between Patroclus and the gates of Troy. Except the god Apollo who decided that there was time to interfere in person. He warned “Achilles” that he wasn’t destined to enter Troy, but Patroclus didn’t hear even the god’s words. Then Apollo envelops himself in a cloud and becomes invincible, hitting Patroclus in the shoulder in the most unfair duel possible. Wounded Patroclus lost his strength, dropped his shield, helmet and spear. Hector, seeing that he wasn’t fighting real Achilles, came to deliver the last blow. Dying, Patroclus promised Hector that Achilles would avenge him.

When Achilles heard the news about his friend’s death, he was devastated. Patroclus died and it, though partly, was his fault. Moreover, his body was still there, surrounded by enemies. Achilles wanted to rush into battle immediately, but his armor and weapons were left on the battlefield with Patroclus. The hero rushed into his tent, screaming and crying so loudly and terribly that Trojans, horrified, retreated, thinking that Greeks brought some unnamed beast to fight them.

Night fell and all the night Achilles mourned his friend. His mother Thetis, seeing the sufferings of her son, asked the blacksmith god Hephaestus to forge the new weapon and armor to Achilles, so that he could avenge Patroclus. In the morning, the armor was ready: a shield, a helmet, a cuirasse and the bracers. The whole world was depicted on the shield - the sun and stars, war and peace, land and sea, wedding and mourning, battle and feast.

In the morning, Achilles put on the divine armor and demanded all the Greek leaders to gather and hold a council. His anger didn’t vanish, but now it was directed not to Agamemnon (who Achilles considered unfair in dividing trophies) but to the actual murderers: Trojans and especially Hector. Agamemnon, who also didn’t want to continue the quarrel, offered the hero to reconcile and both heroes accepted each other’s apologizes with dignity. The main cause of the quarrel, the beautiful captured noblewoman, Briseide, was returned back to Achilles accompanying by rich gifts. But Achilles wasn’t interested neither in wealth nor in women anymore, he was eager to fight and desired to have his revenge.

The next day the new battle started. Zeus finally allowed gods to fight as they please. Athena clashes in the battle with fierce Ares who fights on the Trojan side, Hera, the embodiment of maternal virtues meets the virgin huntress Artemis. Only Poseidon, who should be engaged in battle with Apollo, stopped, sadly saying that it’s not their destiny and that war is business of the mortals. Poseidon didn’t want to fight fellow gods and treat them like enemies because of creatures who would die by themselves in mere decades.

Achilles was the embodiment of wrath. He seized another Trojan prince, Aeneas, but the gods snatched him from Achilles’ hands. Aeneas wasn’t destined to fall in that battle, he should survive both Achilles and Troy. Enraged by his failure, Achilles killed countless Trojans. There were so much corpses that they cluttered the river making the river god Scamander to step out of the river and engage in fight for saving his domain. But Hephaestus interferes and pacifies the angered god.

The Trojans that survived fled back to the city. Hector covered the retreat alone, wearing previous Achilles’ armor. Achilles attacked him and Hector had to fight: despite his fear for himself he still had the duty as prince and general and was obliged to distract Achilles as long as it was needed for others to flee. Hector fought so bravely and selflessly that Zeus again asked if they could spare the heroes. But now it was Athena who reminded him that the destiny should be fulfilled.

Zeus took the scale with two destinies on it and Achilles’ one went up and Hector’s fell into the underworld. So Zeus ordered Apollo to leave Hector and Athena to aid Achilles. Athena slowed Hector down and he offered Achilles to promise him to give him a proper burial and was ready to give the equal promise to him. But Achilles is too drunk with his anger and he says that for Patroclus he would tear Hector apart, drink his blood and humiliate his body.

Hector tried to penetrate Achilles’ shield, but it was made by the god and thus was invincible for the mortal weapons. Instead, Achilles counterattacked and stroke Hector in the throat with his spear. Hector died, whispering to Achilles his last words about the vengeance of gods who were driven to destroy them all.

Achilles attached the body of his dead enemy to his chariot and rode it around Troy, mocking the deceased and enjoying the sight of old Priam and Hector’s wife Andromache weeping for him. Now Patroclus was avenged. Achilles arranged a lavish burial for his friend, killing twelve Trojan prisoners over his body. It would seem that he should tame his anger but it didn’t happen. Thrice a day Achilles rode his chariot with Hector’s body around Patroclus grave. The corpse should have been mutilated and starting to rot, but Apollo protected it. He wants the dead body to be exposed as long as it was possible. Finally, Zeus allowed Thetis to speak to her son, asking him to be humane in the last days of his life and give the body to his grieving family. Achilles obeyed his mother.

At night, King Priam secretly came to Achilles’ tent with a cart full of gifts. The gods themselves let him pass through the Greek camp unnoticed. Priam fell on his knees, begging Achilles to remember about his own father and let Priam bury his son in the name of Peleus. Priam told Achilles that, perhaps, Peleus was also old now, but he wasn’t crowded by enemies and he might have the slightest hope that his son would come back home after the war. Priam, on the contrary, is now alone, other his sons are cowards and Hector was his only heir and hope.

Achilles was deeply touched and they both cried together, mourning their own deceased and their fate that made them kill each other. The equal grief brought enemies closer and now Achilles’ heart was calmed down. He accepted gifts and gave the Hector’s body to Priam. He also promised to cease fighting until the Trojans gave they hero a burial.

Early in the morning, Priam returned to Troy with the body of his son to show it to his mother and widow. The whole city was enveloped in sorrow. Even Helena cried, seeing what her lust turned into. The funeral pyre was lit, the remains were collected into an urn and the urn was lowered into the grave. This part of “The Iliad” finishes with the description of the funeral feast.

There were still many events until the end of the Trojan War. The Trojans, having lost Hector, no longer dared to go beyond the city walls. But other allies of Troy engaged in battles coming to rescue to the city: from the land of Amazons to distant Ethiopia. The leader of the Ethiopians, the black giant Memnon who was also the son of a goddess. He tried to kill Achilles and almost succeeded, but the Greek hero managed to have the upper hand and kill Memnon. After that Achilles rushed to the gates of Troy where he was killed by the arrow of Paris (sent by Apollo, though). After his death, the Greeks didn’t hope to take Troy by force anymore, but Odyssey offered them another cunning plan.

Odyssey asked his fellow Greeks to build the enormous wooden horse from the remnants of their ships and hide inside that horse. He announced that the horse was a gift from Greeks asking to surrender. The Trojans opened the gates taking the horse inside, but at night all the Greeks exited the horse and killed the defenders of Troy from the inside. Troy was wiped completely, the last living Greek heroes returned home (that was described in another story such as “The Odyssey”) and some of the Trojan people led by Aeneas fled to later found Rome (that’s what another epic poem “Aeneid” of the Roman poet Virgil is about).