starting The Iliad

Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles… 

This month I am reading The Iliad for the 10 yr reading plan. The last time I read The Iliad was about 13 years ago so it definitely feels like the first time all over again. What fun! I love that the story is mostly a surprise to me now but I keep having these flash visions of my tiny gray-haired Greco-Roman Civ teacher jumping around the room and raving about kleos and how it all comes down to kleos 

Kleos is Greek for honor/glory and in the beginning of The Iliad it is the whole reason why Agamemnon and Achilles get in their fight in the first place. In Homer’s Greece, after a war, whatever the conquering army has managed to steal, loot, and plunder gets divided up between the victorious heroes and adds to each warrior’s kleos. Naturally, the women are some of the highest prizes. (Just an aside, I have often wondered if this is where we get our expression “trophy wife”.) 

When Book One opens, Agamemnon and the armies fighting with him have recently divided up some war spoils which include a priest’s daughter named Chryseis, who was given to Agamemnon. Well, Chyseis’s father is so upset at losing her that he comes to Agamemnon with ransom and begs for her release. Agamemnon refuses and the priest calls down the wrath of Apollo onto Agamemnon’s army. 

I can’t help loving the instant justice of this. Agamemnon had the chance to be merciful, he was even offered a ransom in exchange but he refuses and is immediately punished. How nice would it be to just point out someone’s wrongdoing and have some god swoop down and rain arrows on that person for their unnecessary nasty behavior? It would be so satisfying wouldn’t it?  

So after Apollo’s wrath has gone on for a bit too long, Achilles (who is fighting with Agamemnon but heads up his own troops, the Myrmidons) gets a little irritated. Agamemnon’s selfishness is causing a lot of death and destruction for all those around him and Achilles would just like him to step up and be a better man. Instead, Agamemnon says he will only return Chyseis if he can take the woman that Achilles was given. Achilles gets doubly pissed here because really, they are all there fighting this long and awful war just because of Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus (husband of Helen, who has been abducted by Paris).

Achilles loses Briseis (and she certainly doesn’t seem at all happy to be led away to Agamemnon’s tent) and as a result he vows to quit fighting. He calls upon his mother, the goddess Thetis, to convince Zeus to help the Trojans win the war so that Agamemnon and his armies will acknowledge how much they needed Achilles.  

This kleos thing is a pretty big deal after all. As I understand it, for a warrior, their kleos was a tangible, visible measure of their worth as a fighter and/or protector. By taking Briseis, Agamemnon is making it clear that he is worth more than Achilles. Which Achilles argues is simply not true at all. Achilles points out that Agamemnon takes the war spoils for doing basically nothing while Achilles is out getting wounded and beat-up.

whenever we sack some wealthy Trojan stronghold / my arms bear the brunt of the raw, savage fighting, / true, but when it comes to dividing up the plunder / the lion’s share is yours, and back I go to my ships, / clutching some scrap, some pittance that I love, / when I have fought to exhaustion 

Reading Book One last night made me laugh a little – here are all these big, warrior men arguing (I won’t say whining, but I could) about women and recognition. About who gets what and who is more important. And when something goes wrong, Achilles goes running to…his mother. In some sense they sound a bit like spoiled kids fighting over their toys on a playground-battleground. But at the same time, The Iliad is about rage. Real, dangerous, violent and destructive rage. It is about pride and about loss. Homer’s poem makes it clear from the first page that war and tragedy are inseparable, and that glory and honor are kind of beside the point. People, loved ones, will die. What could be worse than that?    

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Michelle

Reader, writer, translator, nature-lover, happy expat and concerned world citizen.

11 thoughts on “starting The Iliad”

  1. I could post this under your “10 Year Plan” post, I guess. But anyway, good luck on the big plan. I’ve done/ am doing something similar, and may even be in my 10th year. It can be done!

  2. I just read The Iliad last year and you are making me want to read it again! The heroes do often act like children don’t they? But oh, so much death it’s heart-wrenching.

  3. This is where I admit my ignorance and say that I have never read ‘The Iliad’ although I must have read a précis or something because everything you write about is familiar. I was thinking about starting the year with some Greek drama, just to cleanse the palate but haven’t yet got round to it. I think I must treat this post as a wake up call and get round to it.

  4. I don’t think I have ever read the Iliad, but I brought a copy to Japan when I moved. Perhaps I should read it before the weather turns warmer. I skipped the second half of your post because I didn’t want to read too much. Here’s to the Kleos!

  5. I read the Iliad last year and I had no clue about kleos (having had no Greek civilisation course). Thanks for letting us know about it, it just gives a new light to the whole story. I wish we could have the story told from Chryseis and Briseis’ side.

  6. Amateur Reader – thanks for the good wishes and congratulations on being nearly finished with your own big plan!

    Stefanie – It is terrible, and Homer does such a good job of showing us how awful and tragic war is. I am going to enjoy this read a lot, I can already tell.

    Ann – I read some of Aristophanes plays last year and that might be fun for you as well. Something silly like The Lysistrata. I get to read Oedipus and Antigone next month and I simply can’t wait!

    LK – Good to see you here. Hope everything is okay.

    Dorothy – I think I would love to teach this book someday, what a treat!

    Bikkuri – I don’t give too much away because I only wrote about what happens in Book One. I am really enjoying this re-read. I’d also love to hear what you think about the story as well.

    Smithereens – What a good idea. Someone (maybe you!) should write a story from Chryseis or Briseis’s perspective, that would be tremendous!

  7. Hi verbivore!

    I just finished reading The Iliad for the firest time a few months ago (following it immediately with The Odyssey) and thoroughly enjoyed it. I found the central themes of death and glory fascinating. Like you, I also found the characters of Achilles and Agamemnon (but especially Achilles) to be rather spoiled brats. As you mentioned, it is interesting that the great warrior Achilles either runs to his mother or sulks for most of the first half of the epic.

    We can also see this notion of wounded pride reflected in our modern times, especially with many figures of power and their obsession with legacy and revenge.

    Are you reading the Fagles translation? I found it conveyed the brutality of the epic in a visceral and powerful way (I read Book I in a few translations, and chose this one).

    Have fun reading!!!

  8. Hello Stephen – Thank you for leaving a comment. I am really enjoying The Iliad, such a tremendous book/poem. I agree with your thought about the book still resonating with a modern audience – such pertinent universal themes.

    I am also reading the Fagles translation and find it’s splendid. I admit I didn’t do any research regarding which translation to take so am glad that some one else did.

    Enjoy The Odyssey!

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