Michael McCooe – Age of Antiquity: The Iliad

Often attributed to the semi-legendary Greek writer Homer, The Iliad is an ancient Greek epic poem. The Iliad chronicles the quarrels between fabled warrior Achilles and King Agamemnon in the Trojan War and has since gone on to become one of the most famous examples of antiquated literature.

Great plague  

The Iliad opens nine years after the beginning of the Trojan War. It begins when the Greek (Achaean) army sacks a town allied with Troy and they capture the beautiful maidens Chryseis and Briseis. Their King Agamemnon takes Chryseis as his prize, while their greatest warrior Achilles, goes for Briseis. The girls are the daughters of Chryses, a priest of the sun god Apollo. He offers a big ransom for his daughters’ safe return, but is refused, so he prays to Apollo, who inflicts a plague on the Achaeans.

The Achaeans start dying from this plague, so Agamemnon asks Calchas, a prophet, to determine its cause. After receiving his answer, Agamemnon keeps Chryseis, but demands that Achilles return Briseis to appease Apollo. In response, Achilles vows to no longer fight, swearing vengeance upon the Achaeans. Through his mother Theta, a sea nymph, Achilles enlists Zeus’ (the King of the gods) aid. Afterwards, the ceasefire between the two sides is broken by the Trojans, who are helped by Zeus.

Escalating tensions

This battle rages over several days and the Achaeans suffer heavy losses. They’re pushed back and forced to hide behind their ramparts to protect their ships. The great warriors Diomedes and Odysseus then learn about the Trojans’ future plans on a night-time reconnaissance mission, providing new hope to the Achaeans. However, the Trojans manage to break through the Achaeans’ ramparts and set one of their ships alight the next day, leaving the Greeks fearing defeat at the hand of Troy.

Achilles grows concerned at the plight of his comrades. On the wise King Nestor’s advice, Achilles lends his famous magical armour to his friend Patroclus, a fine warrior himself, so he could fight for the Achaeans disguised as Achilles. With Patroclus, the Achaeans force the Trojans back to their walled city but when Patroclus reaches the gate, his armour is struck down by Apollo, after which he’s slated by the Trojan hero Hector. After this fighting breaks out, as both sides want to take the body and the armour. The armour is captured by the Trojans, but the Achaeans manage to recover Patroclus’ body.

Final battle

Achilles then learns that Hector has killed Patroclus, enraging him so much that he pledges to re-join the Achaeans. After Thetis asks the god Hephaestus to forge new armour for Achilles, he rides out into battle at the head of the Achaean army. Meanwhile, Hector orders his men to camp outside Troy’s walls, not expecting Achilles to return. When Achilles approaches, the Trojans flee but in his rage, Achilles cuts them all down, before confronting Hector outside Tory’s walls. Ashamed that he gave his men poor advice, Hector refuses to flee, instead leading Achilles on a chase around Troy’s walls.

Eventually Athena, the goddess of wisdom, tricks Hector into turning round. The two fight and Achilles slays Hector, before lashing the body on the back of his chariot and dragging it back to the Achaeans. The victorious Achaeans then hold a long funeral for Patroclus. For the next nine days, Achilles drags Hectors’ body around his friends’ funeral bier, until the gods decide that Hector deserves a funeral. Zeus sends his messenger Hermes to accompany Hector’s father, Trojan King Priam, to the Achaeans.

Priam then proceeds to tearfully beg Achilles to take mercy on a heart-broken father and return his son’s body. After Priam reminds Achilles of his own father, Peleus, the hero is deeply moved and relents to the request. As The Iliad ends, Achilles gives Hector’s body to Priam and the sides declare a truce, which is only temporary, as Hector is heralded with a hero’s send-off. It’s followed by The Odyssey, which turns the focus onto Odysseus as he travels home at the end of the Trojan War.

You can also read a blog by Michael McCooe on Classical Music.