Inter​pretation

1.1 The Chimaera Model

The Iliad divides into three battle parts: 1.1 the immortal hero - 11.1 the plan of Zeus - 18.1 the mortal hero. The first centers on Diomedes, the mortal hero is Achilles whose death is the underlying subject of the poem. The Plan of Zeus, Διὸς βουλή, is his gift to Achilles: the restoration of his honour by having many Achaeans slaughtered at the ships (Il 2.1-). The three parts are surrounded by four "Embassy and Assembly" episodes, dedicated to speech rather than to battle. In all the E&A parts Achilles plays a major role. The first two deal with his life, the last two with his death.
A fitting model for the top level structure is the Chimaera(2) (she-goat), a fire-breathing monster killed by Bellerophon (Il 6.179-). She has three parts and four legs: a lion (representing the immortal hero) in front, a goat (a common sacrificial animal) in the middle and a snake at the back (representing both death and immortality). All this will be explained below in commentaries on the individual parts.

Chimaera
The Chimera on a red-figure Apulian plate, c. 350–340 BC (Musée du Louvre)
Picture and text from wikipedia

The boundaries of the parts (or "themes") have been chosen because of a strong shift of focus there in the poem and because of internal symmetry. Some parts fall more or less outside the symmetry of the structure: mainly the proem, the catalogue of ships, the shield and Patroclus' funeral games. The Embassy and Assembly 2, books 8-10, is a bit of an anomaly. This is dealt with here.
For more on the structure, see here. There may also be a time-structure corresponding to the "what was, what is and what will be" that is the expertise of the seer Kalchas (Il 1.70). So the first part would refer to the past, the middle part, the long day of battle, to the present (the poet's time, whenever that was) and the last, the Achilles part, to the future. More about this ad loc.

I: 1.1 The Immortal Hero

In the E&A themes of the "immortal hero", Achilles still thinks he can get out of there alive. He chooses life, so to speak. In the quarrel with Agamemnon, when he sheaths his sword; in the Embassy of E&A 2, when he refuses to go to battle. See the (im)mortal hero.
The "immortal" in the title of this theme applies not only to Achilles at this stage, but also to Diomedes, the too-good-to-be-true hero. For more on Diomedes see here.
The two "Truce and Duel" themes surrounding the aristeia are one reason to associate this theme with 'past'. See here for more explanation of this.

1.1 Embassy & Assembly 1

A most carefully structured part of the poem. Two assemblies surround an intermezzo which is set up as a repeated sequence of themes. The assembly parts start off with a short introduction, the first explaining the wrath of Apollo, the second the plan/wrath of Zeus(3). The two assemblies have a number of likenesses and contrasts, mainly:

First Assembly
Second Assembly

Wrath of Apollo

Plan/Wrath of Zeus

Apollo sends a disease (killing many)

Zeus sends a deadly dream, killing many

Achilles attacks Agamemnon

Thersites attacks Agamemnon

Athena intervenes

Odysseus, Athena's favourite, intervenes

Achilles: 'we are not winning, let's go home'

Agamemnon: 'we are not winning, let's go home'

1.1 proem: the Wrath of Achilles, the will of Zeus

About Il 1.5:

1.8 the First Assembly

On the surface, Agamemnon is shown to be most in the wrong during the visit of Chryses and the quarrel with Achilles. This is a rhetorical must: Achilles is after all a proxy for the listener, the hero one is supposed to identify with. But we do have to notice what Achilles is actually doing:

  1. He calls an assembly without consulting either the king himself or the council. In every day and age, a king would see this as a challenge to his leadership(4).
  2. Moreover, his statement 'we have been rebuffed, we had better go back' is a direct attack: it says 'you have failed'. Even if it is only sarcasm.
  3. Achilles reassures Kalchas who is afraid of the anger of the king, that he will be protected by Achilles, explicitly naming Agamemnon.
  4. In this society, the king typically promises a share of the loot to the men in return for fighting for him and in accordance with their status. Here, ironically, it is Achilles who promises the king a new prize when they sack Troy (Il 1.127-9)

1.8 the Wrath of Apollo, Chryses' embassy

See the page on Apollo.

1.33 Chryses' request to Apollo: punish the Achaeans

Self-reflection? "going far from the ships", praying to Apollo.
The epithets of Apollo seem strangely underwhelming: protector of Killa? ruler of Tenedos? killer of field-mice? I know this last one may be an important function for farmers and there is supposed to have been a temple of Apollo Smintheus but still it is not a really impressive list for such an important god. Irony?

1.43 Apollo sends a disease

Again, self-reflection? See 1.33-. If it is, we have one angry poet here.

1.53 Achilles calls an assembly

Here, in Homer's "Achilles judgement", is his first choice: power or kingship. Hera seems to offer him this (1.55) - calling an assembly is the act of a king - and the ensuing quarrel makes clear that he cannot have it, he cannot be 'best of the Achaeans' this way. Agamemnon is the better man because he rules more people (1.281). All the same, Hera loves them both (1.195-6).

1.68 Kalchas, seer by the grace of Apollo

1.68 'Prophecy' is one of the domains of Apollo. A prophet is someone who says "if you do this, that will happen", in past, present or future mode. Within the Ionian world of Homer's time, the Iliad itself is a prophecy "change your politics or you will be kicked out of Asia" in other words: "soon you will need Achilles".

1.101 hates Kalchas

Kalchas, a self-reflection of Homer, is of course hated by Agamemnon, a reflection of the intentions and policies of the Ionian migration or perhaps even of a specific person who considers himself the leader of this conquest. No wonder H. could not stay in Smyrna. As a bard with a (for some) unwelcome political message, he really must work under the protection of Achilles, his public.

1.109 wants another prize

We see Agamemnon defending his number one position. Prize = honour.

1.121 Achilles: when we sack Troy

Achilles is acting like a king: dividing the loot of the yet-to-be-sacked city.

1.188 Athena's intervention

Here, in Homer's "Achilles judgement", is his second choice: success in war as represented by the goddess Athena. This means being a victor, getting the loot and living to enjoy it. Achilles takes it but he has yet to learn that he cannot have all of it.

1.195 Hera sends Athena to calm him

Hera loves them both: this means both of them can claim to be 'best of the Achaeans'.

1.212 Athena's prophecy (threefold gifts)

Cleverness or cunning and material gain are clearly related in Greek thinking. Take the word "kerdistos": both "most crafty, most cunning" and "most profitable". So Athena's offer here is both clever and profitable: threefold gifts.

1.233 Achilles swears by the sceptre

The description of the sceptre is a picture of exile: 'a man is like a tree' is an obvious metaphor. He is 'rooted' in a certain place and he may be founder of a large family with many 'branches'. If he is exiled, this sceptre which has been cut from its stump, is a fitting picture. For the stump I also refer to the 'stump that has not rotted in the rain' (Il 23.326-) that is a sign for Antilochos to turn around. Another reference may be the tree trunk that is the foundation of Odysseus' bed (Od 23.181-)

1.247 Nestor's advice

This whole theme appears to be about 'obeying'. The Greeks, being a warrior people, 'obey' the voice of heroism represented by Nestor. He wants the two quarrelsome heroes to obey him, just as the heroes of old did. But Agamemnon accuses Achilles of wanting to be the best of them all, the leader who orders everyone about. Agamemnon is not going to obey that. Achilles in turn refuses to follow the leadership of Agamemnon though he will not fight him because of the girl.

1.306 embassies

Note the repeated sequence: unwelcome request - complaints - harmony restoring meal. First it deals with the men, then the gods.

1.313 Agamemnon makes the men purify themselves

Note that after Chryseis is shipped back to her father, a cleansing is ordered by Agamemnon. See here

2.1 the Second Assembly

Here the Plan of Zeus, already mentioned in Il 1.5, is conceived. Its realization is somewhat delayed, in the first day of battle there is no question of the Achaeans being "slaughtered by the ships" (1). This plan properly refers to the great day of battle that starts at Il 11.1. That day the fighting actually reaches the ships which is the signal for Achilles to send Patroclus into battle.

2.1 Zeus' and Agamemnon's council

A repeated sequence ABCDABCD stating Agamemnon's false dream, its source and its effect. The repetition of the dream contents stresses very much its message: Troy is not to be conquered now. The colour in the map shows a connection with the "wrath of Apollo" segment in the first assembly: the wrath of Apollo vs. the wrath of Zeus (Zeus doesn't seem very angry here but the Achaeans would interpret their coming failure on the battlefield as the wrath of Zeus). Also, Agamemnon's error: refusing Chryses in the first, accepting pseudo-Nestor in the second assembly. He obeys the wrong old man.

2.16 the Deadly Dream

'οὖλε ὄνειρε' is hard to translate, mainly because the dream takes the appearance of Nestor. 'evil' or 'malicious' may be an obvious translation but not right because there is no sense that Nestor is either of those things. 'Lying dream' is not a translation but an interpretation. However, the ruthless kind of heroism that Nestor stands for certainly is deadly, so I chose 'deadly dream'. Robert Fagles translates it 'murderous'.

2.72 Nestor accepts it

Nestor is the one who always says things like this. See Il 2.336-. He is the generic 'voice of heroism'.

2.142 Odysseus' 2 speeches

Odysseus addresses two audiences. The first are 'kings and prominent men', the second the 'common people'. This corresponds to the double-layered rhetoric of the Iliad. More on this here.

2.211 Thersites, Odysseus' intervention

Thersites, the other side of Achilles, gets beaten with the sceptre just like the people in Odysseus' 'speech to commoners' (Il 2.198-). He and Achilles could be connected with the concept of "pharmakos", the scapegoat (sacrifice). Probably the Homer's public would notice this connection. The Patroclus story clarifies to us what the "sacrifice" entails. More about this here.

2.216 Thersites

Note that "worst of the Achaeans" Thersites' criticism of Agamemnon is the same as Achilles'.

2.278 Odysseus and Nestor, 2 speeches

Odysseus' message is "stay!". In the real world of Ionia this means: do not provoke the people inland, the inhabitants of the large floodplains, into attack so fierce that the Ionians would have to flee. The Cretan story of Odysseus in "Egypt" comes to mind, see Od 14.257-. The Ionians, especially those of Smyrna and Milete, were threatened in Homer's day and this threat never subsided. In other words, it means "be a wooden horse. don't run this way and that".
Nestor's message as always is "live up to your boast! attack!".

2.284 9 years fighting without result

"ἐνιαυτός": a year. But it can really mean any period or cycle. I propose the poet really means 'generation', that would fit more or less the period 1000BC - 750BC or 9 generations, the period of the Ionian migration.

2.336 Nestor's speech: 'attack!'

Here we see Nestor in his role as Agamemnon's chief whip.

2.354 not leave before we punish them for Helen

"τίσασθαι δ' Ἑλένης ὁρμήματά τε στοναχάς τε", lit. "to punish (them) for the struggles and groans of Helen". But the majority translates it "...because of Helen. The first one says that Helen was struggling and groaning, because she was abducted and raped. The second one has the Achaean warriors struggling and groaning, trying to get Helen back. This is in my opinion a less plausible interpretation but it has the advantage that it leaves open the possibility that Helen followed Paris voluntarily. This is in agreement with the most prominent view of Helen in the Iliad and Odyssey. This line occurs only in two places: here in 2.356 spoken by Nestor and in 2.590 it is what Menelaos has in mind. Of course Menelaos has to believe she was abducted. As for Nestor: he is the voice of heroism, he, too, must say that Helen was abducted and raped. If she was not, the whole revenge crusade does not make much sense, and certainly not his little speech here.
The poet is concerned to deny the abduction-version of the story. This leaves Helen herself open to terrible blame, so he makes an effort to shift it from her to the gods and the men (see here. Only Paris is not defended, that guy who "travels across the sea to grab women".

2.402 Prayer to Zeus: denied

The poet confirms here, together with the Deadly Dream episode, that Zeus will not allow them to take Troy "now".

2.455 catalogue of ships and men

This long catalogue does not really fit within the chimaera-model. That may mean that it is not normally recited during a performance of the whole Iliad.
My theory is that the Achaean catalogue is an adaptation of something that was part of the education of high-ranking members of the top aristocracy (the great houses). It would make sense for them to know and to teach to their sons all or most of the regions in Hellas, the names of their leading families and an estimate of their strength. Also, if this was something learned through many generations, it would explain older, even Mycenean remnants in the data. Updating it would always lag behind the real situation. All this is another reason for me to think the poet a member of a high aristocratic family.

3.15 Diomedes

The head of the chimaera has Diomedes' aristeia as the centre piece. The head is of course the most heroic part of the animal: it breaths fire. The aristeia is surrounded by two "truce and duel" themes which really would make sense only in the beginning of the war. So this theme is firmly associated with "yesterday" or "what was". Moreover it is not dedicated to Diomedes only. The two duels are a comment on proper heroic behaviour: be brave and take responsibility. In a warrior society the whole Helen-affair should have been settled by a duel, an ordeal, as the closest approximation to justice available. First the two most interested parties. That unfortunately is not a realistic option: see below. The next possibility is a duel of both side's champions. All duellers act as they ought to even though some of them are not strong fighters. Paris has to be shamed into this, an echo of Achilles. They do this for their own honour or for their comrades.
The tone of the Diomedes part is somewhat lighthearted and ironical. This characterizes the poet's approach to Diomedes as contrasted with Achilles, the tragic hero. Diomedes gets his golden armour at a very cheap price(4), Achilles pays for his with his life and that of his comrade.

3.15 A Truce and a Duel 1: Menelaos - Paris

"Pretty boy" Paris is a bit of a shirker - something Achilles would be called if he were not Achilles. Achilles has in common with Paris that he "chooses beauty" though with a rather different meaning.

3.340 Paris not on the battlefield but in the bedroom

The phenomenon "Paris", the pretty good-for-nothing who is preferred by the girls over "real" heroes, is not to be found on the battlefield - it is useless to seek revenge through war. The bedroom is where he is to be found. If you seek revenge on him, best leave it to Helen.

3.374 Aphrodite helps Paris

This is one of the places where a god does something very literal (breaking the strap) and it is not easy to reconcile this to my theory that the gods are "what we obey". More on this here

4.1 Zeus proposes peace but accepts war

This is one of the places where Zeus yields to the two main goddesses (see 4.68-)

4.50: Pandaros breaks the oath

This scene appears to put the blame on the Trojans, but Homer does set some flags here: the chain of command, normally starting with Zeus, is here: Hera->Zeus->Athena->Pandaros. Zeus proposed peace in the previous theme. Why does he accede to this?
There is a likeness to the Menelaos-Helen-Paris situation. Menelaos is "wounded" by Paris' betrayal, the war is started to heal him. Zeus, in the Iliad, was never really happy with this war.

4.68 Zeus sends Athena

"οὐδ' ἀπίθησε πατὴρ ἀνδρῶν τε θεῶν τε": "the father of gods and men did not disobey", a rather remarkable scene. This will come back later in the raising of Achilles (see Il 18.356-)

4.141 coloring his thighs, like a Carian woman stains ivory.

Hidden but harsh and ironical: Menelaos' thighs are stained red, "like the ivory of a Carian or Maeonian woman..". What is ivory? Its whiteness is typically associated with women (e.g. Od 18.196-). The thighs of a virgin are white like this, especially sawn (parted for the first time) ivory. Then it gets stained red. This is what happens if you raise the banner "they raped our women!"

4.188 Machaon heals Menelaos

Machaon: warrior, the healer. Menelaos is "wounded", real (here) or metaphorically (by Paris and Helen), and war is started or resumed to do the healing. Later (11.504-) Dr. War will get wounded himself. Then they are really in trouble. Achilles obviously is the archetypical "warrior, the healer".

4.220 Diomedes' aristeia(5) or 'How to be a Hero and Live'

Here we have the head of the chimaera in a curious aristeia which seems to be mostly about the relationship between men and gods. It will be made clear that D. is an ironical hero. He is not being made fun of though, most of the ironies are true and important points. It's just that...things are not that simple in reality.

4.220 Intro: Agamemnon's epipolesis

Untypically, this introduction seems to be balanced by the 6.37 theme.
The epipolesis (Agamemnon goes the rounds): probably it is meant to be humorous. Agamemnon is encouraging those who do not need it, praising or criticising those who do not deserve it, reminding Nestor that he is too old and getting rebuffed by those who need criticism. Diomedes anyway is getting unfairly dissed in public by his commander. Does not talk back though.

4.327 to Menestheus and Odysseus

The Athenians are "Raisers of the war-cry". Good at the war-cry, reluctant to go and fight. That is an implied criticism of the Athenians. See also Il 2.550-, where Menestheus is called the greatest marshaller of armies. In the tradition about the Ionian migration, the men came east through Athens. Homer is saying that Athens is sending men to wage a war, but is reluctant to help when needed.

4.365 to Diomedes

One sure way to rile up Diomedes is to compare him to his father

4.457 War, with the gods taking part

The aristeia looks like an analysis of the role of gods on the battlefield. When the gods take part, there appears to be a to and fro of battle, with both sides winning individual duels. No doubt this is Homeric 'realism' because after all, both parties have gods on their side. When the gods retreat, all the killings are by Achaeans. This is a fantasy. It says: we, as men, are by far the better fighters. They are only women without breasts. The only reason we haven't won yet, is that gods are thwarting our efforts.

5.1 Diomedes and Athena 1: without Ares

The same goes double for the participation of the god of war, Ares. Diomedes is brave enough: even with Ares against him he wins a pair of horses.

5.1 Diomedes stands out, gets the horses

Capturing enemy horses: the highest accolade, even better than winning armour.

5.85 Diomedes wounded, asks Athena's help and gets it

This is what you ought to do when wounded or otherwise in trouble: pray to the gods. Considering what follows, this means here: rely on yourself, on untapped resources within you, even in untested situations. Agamemnon and the other "heroes at the back" should have done this in "four woundings" (Il 11.84-).
If you do this, you will be ok if you are clever enough to "know yourself" and distinguish gods from men. There is the crux and the problem that makes Diomedes an ironical hero. It is again explained in Nestor's advice to his son Antilochos, Il 23.306-.

5.274 Kills Pandaros, wounds Aeneas but Aphrodite saves him

Aeneas is a bit of a riddle. A "child of love", born out of wedlock, high-ranking but without real status, he is the only one who faces up to Achilles and lives. I see a self-reflection of the author in him, a former leader of men who lost the political struggle in his hometown and had to give up his "horses" to a fantasy hero.

5.330 Diomedes fights the gods

Our hero finding his limits here. Two extraordinary scenes that go to the heart of what the Iliad is about.

5.330 Diomedes vs. Aphrodite who is protecting Aeneas

Diomedes vs. the goddess of love: this goes directly to the Chryseis-Briseis-Helen theme. It says that sexual desire has no place in the war. If you go capturing girls for pleasure and a war ensues because of that, what you are doing is giving the reins of Ares' chariot in the hands of the goddess of desire. So, "Retreat, daughter of Zeus, from war and battle-strife"

5.370 Dione: mortals who fight gods

"Dione" appears to be a female form of the name "Zeus". She makes a rare appearance here as the mother of Aphrodite. Zeus, the god of Justice, of giving others their share, is a "rule" god. Justice is normally not a desire, see Plato's Republic. Dione would be a "desire" goddess, a desiring to share. Not a bad image of Love.

5.432 Diomedes vs. Apollo

First of three enactments of "the hero versus Apollo". Apollo being the god of prophecy and poetry, the reference is clear: the poet is warning his contemporaries: "do not go too far; defend your city with all your fierceness but do not go out and try to take Troy. For now, Zeus will not let you". Patrocles does go too far and pays for it, Achilles in ironical reversal does attack a fourth time but gets away with it. However, he does not storm the gates of Troy.

5.445 Diomedes and Athena 2: with Ares

Of course if Athena herself helps you, you can do the impossible, such as defeating Ares. This god is portrayed in the Iliad as a young brainless hothead. This hides the obvious fact that he is a very fearsome and powerful god especially for a warrior people like the Greeks. And he is against them! Consequently there is a warning woven into this theme: Hera raises her voice like 50 men; a wounded Ares gives a roar like 10.000 men. The mechanism here is "Nikē Heteralkēs" - a victory that fuels the fighting spirit of the other side. A small victory, an ambush with only 50 men, may call out a 10.000 strong army. The Smyrneans really needed their wall...

5.733 Athena puts on her father's tunic

Remarkably, Athena puts on Zeus' clothes. Is Homer telling us that sometimes we may mistake Victory for Justice?

5.743 puts on the helmet, grabs her enormous spear

In the Ancient Greek view, women cannot really be warriors (except the Amazons). Women were thought to lack the "do or die" mentality that men were supposed to have. So a woman in arms is someone who wants to do but not die. This fits in well with the kind of advice that Diomedes gets from Athena. It does not produce the greatest of heroes though: those are the ones, men or women, who give heir lives for us.

5.661 Menelaos obeys him, kills Adrastos

5.662: "αἴσιμα παρειπών": "convincing him that this is proper". This must be a secondary focalization, it tells us what Agamemnon's opinion is, not the narrator's.

6.73 A Truce and a Duel 2: Hector - Aias

The second best option in a heroic society for the solution of a conflict: a duel between the champions of both sides. But first some exercises in irony and an introduction to Hector, the realistic hero.

6.73 Helenos has a solution

Your army is in trouble. You are the leader and its strongest hero. So, your brother comes and tells you: "I know a solution. You go back to the city, tell the women to make a sacrifice, we will hold the line meanwhile". Aren't you lucky!

6.119 Diomedes and Glaucos: friendship

Having a golden armour is a surefire way of getting recognized as a superhero. See Achilles or Patrocles and Hector wearing his armour (but see also Il 2.867-). No doubt it has something to do with the way people of Homer's time imagined their heroes. As the cases of Patrocles and Hector show, it is not easy to win that glory. Except, naturally, for Diomedes: he gets it by an exchange of armour on the battlefield with a guest-friend of the family. Note especially the poet's comment at 6.234-.

6.122 Diomedes' challenge

"Watch out for me! But if you're a god, don't let me stop you". Did people talk like that on the battlefield?

6.152 Story of Bellerophon

I must admit to not being able to figure out why this Bellerophon story is here. It has some points in common with Phoenix' lifestory (Il 9.430-): quarrel about father/patron's wife, exile etc. This makes me suspect that there is hidden self-reflection here, hidden in such a way that only intimates would understand it. Slaying the monster, obeying 'signs from the gods' seems self-reflective but the whole will remain a riddle.

6.234 poet's comment

Here we have a wonderful double entendre: the improbability of Diomedes earning his golden armour without having to work or suffer for it. The view of this hero is still the same in the Odyssey, where he and Nestor sail home without a hitch but all the others have endless trouble (Od 3.167-). Next to that, it is a characterization of the Iliad in two words: "ἑκατόμβοι' ἐννεαβοίων", literally "worth a hundred oxen, for nine". It also sounds like "a hecatomb for nine oxen" which is exactly what the Iliad is. The number nine is explained here.

6.237 Hector in Troy

An in-depth view of Hector and the people close to him. Very nice example of character building by showing us the people's actions without the narrator getting in the way, worthy of a Jane Austen. Hector's mother, offering him wine, Paris handling his armour and weapons in the bedroom, also Helen, dissatisfied with the husband she has, offering Hector Paris' seat. And most poignant of all, the picture of his wife Andromache, see here.

6.405 to Hector: your menos will kill you

She is right about him of course, just like the lion in 12.47, "ἀγηνορίη δέ μιν ἔκτα" his "overdose of manliness" will cause the shame (for losing or being a coward) that will kill him. (see 6.640-)

8.500 they mourn Hector while he is alive

The women were right of course, just as Andromache's tactical advice ("rally the men by the weak spot in the wall" was no doubt correct. But he, her only protection, chooses his manliness over her and his child. He probably had no other choice in that world.

6.506 beautiful like a stallion

"ἀγλαΐηφι πεποιθὼς": "persuaded by beauty". Paris chose, and now chooses again, Heroic Beauty, just as Achilles will do. Of course Achilles' beauty is greater, as Achilles is the greater hero.

6.520 Hector: you are brave, but don't be unwilling

Paris here acts like a "smaller version" of Achilles' refusal to fight. Their motivations (not fighting because of a woman) are not exactly the same but in a war, all reasons for not participating are the same, and wrong. But a man-to-man speech by a brother should solve the problem.

7.4 another solution: Aias - Hector

If the war cannot be stopped by having the two responsible parties fight it out, it could be done by a duel of their champions. It happens and - how could it be otherwise - the Achaeans come off best. The attempt ultimately fails because the spectators of both sides are so anxious about their champion's survival that they stop the fight before it's decided. Note that during Paris' and Menelaos' duel there was no such anxiousness.

7.23 Apollo: why have you come

The butler translation is wrong here: "μάχης ἑτεραλκέα νίκην": a hard-to-translate phrase which means: "a victory giving the will to fight to the other side". The Japanese victory at Pearl Harbor would be a good example of this. So the sentence does not just mean giving a victory to the Danaans. Apollo predicts that the victory will be followed by a larger scale Trojan revenge (just as Hector killing Patrocles is a victory of this kind, for it raises Achilles).

7.313 The people choose war

As I will argue elsewhere, this whole theme is a short "Embassy and Assembly" part. Originally this may have been followed by 11.1 The Plan of Zeus.
Also it introduces the Achaean wall which plays such an important role later on. Given the fact that Smyrna had a remarkable city wall, the earliest known in the post-Mycenean Greek world, this seems another piece of circumstantial evidence for locating the poet in that city.
Note that it is Nestor, the voice of heroism, who initializes the building of the wall. A city wall like Smyrna's is not just a defense, it is offensive, like building a military base in enemy territory. It says: "I can do raids on you all I like and you cannot touch me".

7.446 Poseidon is not pleased

Why is the anti-Trojan Poseidon not pleased, see also 12.1-

8.1 Embassy & Assembly 2: the embassy to Achilles

This Embassy & Assembly part is obviously different from the other three. It contains a day of battle and the infamous night raid which is declared to be an interpolation by most scholars. See here why I think it is Homeric; and if not, it is by someone who understood Homeric principles of composition very well.

8.1 Failure by Day

This theme is a preparation for the Embassy to Achilles by showing an Achaean defeat which gets them into deep trouble.

8.41 Zeus mounts his chariot, flies between heaven and earth

Zeus never comes down to earth. Poseidon, his brother, does.

8.47 Takes his seat on mt. Ida

A telling difference: Zeus does not bind his horses, he lets them roam free. Poseidon does not (Il 13.32-). He does feed them, though, on ambrosia. Apparently they are immortal horses. Why Zeus' horses should be hidden in mist is unclear to me. Is it because one of them is an anonymous wandering bard?

8.80 Diomedes and Nestor

A striking parallel to the "Hera and Athena attack" theme at 8.350-. It looks a bit like an enlarged "double determination" feature although in the details of the action there is no exact agreement between the human and the divine. But there is the repeated sequence attack - Zeus drives them back - anti-Achaean boast.

8.167 Dio. hesitates but Zeus thunders again

Diomedes finding his limits again, this time with Zeus as the warning agent. Zeus needs to thunder only three times before Diomedes gives up (normally the fourth time is disastrous).
8.171: see here. The poet is slowly working his way up to the return of Achilles.

8.212 Counterattack 1

A failed counterattack, just like the one at 14.361- and Patrocles' aristeia (16.124-). Also, let us not forget, Hector's attempt to drive the Achaeans away. The only successful counterattack is the one by Achilles and it succeeds only because he does not go too far (this time).

8.477 I don't care what you think

"οὐ σέο κύντερον ἄλλο" - no one is more dog-like than you (Zeus to Hera). Does this refer to her being "dog-eyed" κυνώπης, "shameless" (acc. to LSJ)? Helen calls herself that, but she is not at all shameless the way Homer paints her.

9.1 council: Agamemnon wants to go home

Now he means it! (see Il 2.100-) Again, Agamemnon is shown to be a less than perfect leader. Diomedes has a little revenge and shows that he is a good pupil of Nestor: talk big.

9.114 the offer

It is quite a list that Agamemnon sums up. But, of course, Achilles will never take Troy and never come home - and he knows it (Il 9.410-). That reduces the value of Achilles to seven tripods, ten 'talents' (think coin-size) of gold, twenty iron kettles, twelve horses which have already won their prizes and seven women plus Briseis, all captured by himself. This list really does not look as impressive anymore, but it is a recognition of his honour.

9.157 ...but he must submit to me

Here is the crux of the whole operation, the part that Odysseus leaves out in his speech to Achilles (Il 9.229-).

9.182 Achilles' meal

Achilles is probably like a typical Achaean: when his blood is not up, he is quite a nice guy.

9.212 Patroclus deals the bread, Achilles the meat

As always, the descriptions of meals and their preparations are full of metaphorical meaning. Here the difference is emphasized between Patroclus, a mere bread-eating mortal and Achilles the half-god. You, listener, your share will never be more than bread.

9.218 Patroclus is asked to make the offerings

Metaphor again: Achilles tells Patroclus to make the offering. Later he will also ask his friend to 'become a light to the Achaeans'

9.225 comments on the 'equal meal'

The start of Odysseus' speech appears to fall outside the ring-structure of 229-306. This is unusual.

9.229 Odysseus offers the gifts

See also 9.157. Note the careful low-level ringstructure of the speech and the clever rhetoric. Everything Odysseus says is true, except the bit about Peleus' words (252) is probably rather tongue-in-cheek (see Il 11.783-). But he leaves out the final words of Agamemnon though: "δμηθήτω", let him submit. This gives Achilles a handle for his subsequent refusal.

9.283 one of Agamemnon's daughters

Funny kind of riddle. Chrysothemis "golden order" = Hera, Laodike "people (or army)'s justice = Athena, Iphianassa "rules by force" = Aphrodite.

9.307 Achilles refuses

There is an eternal question: was Achilles right or wrong to refuse the offer? Here in book 9, Homer leads us to believe he is right. Later, the death of Patroclus clearly shows him it was wrong. In a modern polis, like Sparta for instance, there is no way a citizen can refuse to join the fight. But let us leave the judgement aside and ask the more important question: why did he refuse?
Achilles tells us it is because he hates liars in general and Agamemnon in particular and that no amount of treasure or women is worth dying for. This last point is, in my opinion, the real choice. Achilles will never admit that of course, possibly not even to himself, hiding behind his (real) anger with Agamemnon. But he is still obeying Athena, who says: be a winner and survive. Achilles is still "φιλόζωος", loving life, and he questions the honour of war. But he forgets about shame.

9.346 Hector will beat you, but I will sail home

For the real Ionians, clearly, 'sailing home' was always an absurd option. There was no place for them to go back to in mainland Achaea. Their only option was "stay" (Il 2.278-)

9.430 I was like a father to you

For possible reflections of the poet himself, see here.

9.496 conquer your pride

Scenes of old men preaching to Achilles to restrain his anger, in particular those by Priam and Phoenix, sound like they may have been inserted later by the poet, possibly when the poem was being written down.

9.524 Meleager's anger

Homer reworks the story to make it fit the Iliadic situation: Meleager (Achilles) quarrels with his mother (Agamemnon) and refuses to fight until his wife (Patroclus) convinces him otherwise. Phoenix is, however, glaringly silent about the most noteworthy feature of the Meleager-story: the firebrand that represents his life, which is thrown on the fire by his mother, killing him - reminding us of Patroclus' (= Achilles') funeral pyre and also of a hard fact: the hero and his proxy are a sacrifice.

9.606 Achilles: "Zeus' honour is enough for me"

Here Achilles gives proof of serious error, the kind that might get you scapegoated in some circumstances. His society is based on honour that comes from fellow-citizens. To say that Zeus' honour is enough for you is to place yourself outside society. It shows that you cross a line dividing the human and the divine. This is probably to be expected of a 'hemitheos', a half-god, but the 'Delphic' movement of which Homer is a part is concerned to unblur this dividing line.

9.622 Aias' laconic comments

Short and to the point, Aias' appeal is nearly irresistible among warriors. But Achilles can still hide behind his anger.

9.649 I will not fight before Hector reaches my hut

This sounds like a sarcastic comment you might make to someone refusing to join the army: "do you think they will stop when they reach your house"? It just flags the fact that from the community's point of view, Achilles is completely wrong.

9.663 Achilles and Patroclus sleep with women they had carried off

Well, really!

10.1 Success by Night

The Doloneia: does it belong in the Iliad? It is harsh, killing defenseless people is not how we like to see ourselves. But I have yet to hear of a general who would pass up such an opportunity. It has been accused of Odyssean language and clearly it is 'untypical'. It has more action-oriented writing than the typical formality of battle scenes. All this may just have to do with the subject matter. If it is a later addition in the way explained here, the question must be "why this?".
Reading it back into the political situation in Smyrna in Homer's time, he seems to be saying that this way, ambushes and night raids, is the only way they can have successes and keep up morale. But it will not win them the war, on the contrary, they will win themselves a "victory that raises the fighting spirit of the other side", "μάχης ἑτεραλκέα νίκην" or revenge-provoking attack. See also the ambush scene on the Shield, Il 18.509-.

10.194 Nestor asks for a volunteer

Again the typical roles of the heroes: Nestor, the voice of heroism, asks them to go; Diomedes, the ambitious too-good-to-be-true hero who listens well to this voice; Odysseus the reluctant participant who only cares about surviving. He does none of the killing: is this to avoid the miasma that comes with it?

10.299 Dolon volunteering

Another example of Homer's habit of creating an ironical opposite to the protagonists, cf. Achilles and Thersites, The Phaeacians and the Laestrygonians, Odysseus and Iros and, of course, Achilles and Patroclus. The second one seems designed to bring us back to the real world: "this is what will happen if you are fool enough to try this".

II: 11.1 The Plan of Zeus

The middle part tells us the harsh reality of war. The name comes from Il 2.3-4 where Zeus is pondering how to honour Achilles and decides to have many Achaeans slaughtered. This is the first part of a Plan whose full meaning only becomes clear in book 24, with Priam's embassy to Achilles.
This theme forms the transition between the immortality and the mortality of the hero. The stories of Idomeneus, Patrocles, Menelaos and Hector illustrate this learning curve. The day starts with the confident marching out of the Achaeans, and it ends with Menelaos desperately defending the body of his comrade and Antilochos running for help to Achilles. In the middle, an irreverent story about Hera trying to get her way by seducing Zeus. In the middle of that, the counterattack: a short preview of Patroclus' aristeia surrounded by warning flags: this cannot happen, Zeus does not sleep, you cannot win "against fate". Their manipulation of Patroclus (the Achilles) is a trick (metis) and Homer makes it quite clear. See here.

11.1 Agamemnon's Aristeia

It should be noted how the balancing themes in this middle section show a high-low contrast: Agamemnon vs. Menelaos, Idomeneus and Poseidon vs. Patrocles and Apollo. By the time 'Hector resumes his attack', the high-born and the clever are off the battlefield(7). They have a good excuse naturally but I wonder if it is quite good enough in a heroic warrior culture. The result is anyhow that the therapontes and the young men are left to do the work (Patroclus, Menelaos, Antilochos, Meriones(8)). The word 'sacrifice' comes to mind. Even the name Meriones reminds of the thighbones of an ox which are wrapped in fat to make a sacrifice to Zeus.

11.1 Arming scene - Zeus sends Eris

Expected divine presence, in a traditional aristeia, would probably be Athena or Ares. But here, Zeus sends Eris (Discord or Strife). There must be a characterization of Agamemnon's actions in this. If we read book 11 as following book 7 (see here), then it is clearer: It is Agamemnon who is unnecessarily continuing the war. The bloody portents hark back to the 'Plan of Zeus' (Il 2.1-)

11.84 Agamemnon fights and is wounded

There are no real cowards in the Homeric battles. Even the ones he criticizes - Agamemnon, Odysseus, Paris etc. - are still shown to be brave fighters. Just not enough.

11.264 Agamemnon retires

This is like a captain being the first to leave his sinking ship. There is a second devastating criticism - and I am surprised none of the commentators mentioned this before: he fights on until the pain becomes like that of a woman in childbirth. Now everyone knows this is no sinecure but... the alfa male Agamemnon cannot go through what every woman has to go through?

11.310 the leaders are wounded

First a short sequence to show that they really are brave men. Then, they get "conveniently" wounded. Diomedes first, to show he is a quick learner. Getting a little wounded is a good thing: it shows you were there, taking part, and then gives you a good excuse not to be. Coincidentally this happens just as the battle is turning around and things are getting hot.

11.504 Paris wounds Machaon and Eurypylos

For Machaon or "Dr. War" see Il 4.188-. The descendants of Neleus may have called their cities or their whole area in Ionia "Pylos" ("sandy Pylos"). Eurypylos is a known hero, but here he is likely to be used as a personification of this ("broad Pylos").

11.618 Patroclus visits Nestor

Nestor's cup, "no one could lift it but he": it means he had so much practice, he could drink anyone under the table. There is a definite connection between heroism and alcohol. Ref. also Charybdis.

11.668 Nestor's tale

Note the sequence: cattle raid - attack by an enemy army. Another example of a revenge-provoking victory. The 'being forbidden to fight' is reminiscent of Patroclus' current position.

11.762 When Nestor visited Achilles and Patroclus

Fighting in Achilles' armour: "you must be the Achilles now". Nestor knows pretty well that it will get P. killed, but it will give the Achaeans some respite and, crucially, his death will "raise the fighting spirit" of the army: the spirit of Achilles.

11.804 Patroclus sees Eurypylos, helps him

Patroclus has a double motivation for wanting to join the battle: the heroic tales of fame and glory from Nestor and the pity he feels for his wounded comrades. Patroclus is a healer, like Achilles, he is to cure the town from the hysteria and near madness that must have accompanied a real siege.

12.1 one day, the gods will obliterate the wall

This is a hard passage to interpret, especially if we think the Achaean wall refers to the city wall of Smyrna. But it does fit in with the ring-structure. Could it be a later addition, added after Smyrna had been sacked by the Lydians, late 7th c. BC? But why is Poseidon so much against this wall? See also Il 7.446-.

12.175 second attack: Hector refuses Polydamas' advice

Here, a clear example of Homer's technique to set at rest the hearts of a fiercely chauvinistic audience. In the middle of a great disaster for the Achaeans, he tells them it will be alright in the end and they are really fighting bravely. Polydamas is right of course, seers always are in the Iliad, but Hector is also right: it is now or never, they are committed. No buts now.

13.1 Idomeneus and Poseidon

A god and a man get most of the focus here. Idomeneus is a high aristocrat, claiming Minos himself as his ancestor. Poseidon is the brother of Zeus, grandfather of Nestor, founding father of the Neleids who play an important role in Greek history. Both are therefore very high on the aristocracy scale. Patrocles is nobody on this scale, a therapon of Achilles i.e. a common Greek soldier. The balancing theme about Patrocles and Apollo (Il 15.220) is clearly about the lower ranks. Apollo is a god, it is true, but a nothos, born out of wedlock. See Il 21.435, 'Apollo will not fight Poseidon'.

13.1 Idomeneus' aristeia

Curiously, it is Poseidon who gets the introduction to the aristeia. This aristeia itself is a remarkable piece. It has hardly any fighting in it, only exhortation and description of the to and fro of battle. Their battle appears to consist mostly of 'encouraging others' and it makes me suspect that it is meant as a kind of caricature.

13.70 I knew him by the back of his legs when he left

The trope here is "encouraging others to fight and then withdrawing yourself". It happens a lot in the Iliad and we may suppose that the Greek warrior class felt some scepticism against such exhortation. Moreover, Kalchas is a reflection of the poet himself, who encourages the Ionians to stand their ground while going into exile himself.

13.169 death of Poseidon's grandson

Another typical theme: the death of the son of a god. Here, there appear to be no consequences except Poseidon doing some "encouraging from behind". Is Poseidon being made to look foolish or weak?
In 13.516- a son of Ares is killed (Idomeneus conveniently left just before that), this will be played out in 15.78-. Then, of course, there is the poignant death of Zeus' son Sarpedon (16.419-) followed immediately by the killing of Patroclus. See the comments ad loc.

13.660 Paris kills Euchenor

The death of Euchenor ("boaster") is a small, humorous reflection of the Achilles story. The prophecy "you can go with the army and die in battle or stay home and die of a terrible disease" is a father's comment on, or the answer to, mother Thetis' prophecies that accompany Achilles. The terrible disease is of course shame. This is the social emotion that holds all city-states (but Sparta especially) together.

III: 18.1 The Mortal Hero

Here is a major transition, from the body of the chimaera to its tail. The action of the narrative goes on without a pause so it is hard to know where to draw the line here. But I think the ancients who created the division of the books got it right: here at 18.1 the focus changes from the battle to Achilles. The snake is a fitting metaphor of Achilles: it is a feared and deadly animal (Il 3.30-) and it lives forever: it just sheds its skin and lives on in a new skin. So it is with Achilles: just as in the Iliad there are several Achillesses (Patrocles, Hector, Antilochos), so there will be in reality. He both dies and is immortal: a half-god.

20.1 The gods may help you...



  1. This metaphor is my own. I see no indication that Homer uses it in this manner, but the the likenesses are too good to pass up.
  2. Zeus is not shown to be angry in book 2, but his 'plan' will be experienced by the Achaeans as his wrath.
  3. Note that Telemachus also does this in the Odyssey. There may be no King in Ithaca at that moment, but the leaders of the community, whoever they may be, must see this as a challenge. There are situations where an individual may call an assembly (Od 2.25-) but these are not applicable, neither in Iliad 2 nor in Odyssey 2.
  4. Another indication that the first day of battle stands for "the past"
  5. "χρύσεα χαλκείων, ἑκατόμβοι' ἐννεαβοίων" (Il 6.236): "gold for bronze, a hundred oxen for nine" see here.
  6. An aristeia is a part of the poem with a typical structure (introduction - battle, where the introduction is typically made up of arming - praying - exhortation - marching out), likely an independent form of praise poetry describing the excellence in battle of one hero. There are 4 complete aristeia's in the Iliad: those of Diomedes, Agamemnon, Patroclus and Achilles. The latter two are presumably the most typical and un-ironical. Idomeneus and Menelaos also get a large stretch mainly devoted to them but they are not standard aristeia's.
  7. the saying 'heroes in front, heroes at the back, cowards in the middle' comes to mind.
  8. Aias is there of course, but Aias is always there. That is his meaning: he is the personification of the (almost-)unbeatable defense of the Achaians.
  9. sacrifice to the gods of a "hundred oxen" (or just many cattle), the ultimate sacrifice. Also simply meaning a great slaughter, like a battle.