The Iliad | Study Guide


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Book 1

Course Hero's video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of Book 1 of Homer's epic poem The Iliad.

The Iliad | Book 1 | Summary



In the tenth year of the Trojan War, Achilles, the greatest fighter for the Achaeans (the Greeks and their allies), is enraged. King Agamemnon, who leads the Achaeans, has brought an illness upon the army by refusing to give up a woman, Chryseis, whom he seized as a prize in a recent battle. Chryseis is the daughter of a priest of the god Apollo. When Agamemnon refuses to give her back in exchange for a ransom, her father calls on the god, and Apollo sends a plague.

When Achilles calls on Agamemnon to give up Chryseis in return for future compensation, Agamemnon seems to view the idea of future compensation as unlikely for a warrior who lives moment by moment and demands immediate restoration of his pride by claiming Briseis, the woman Achilles has taken as a prize. Only the intervention of Athena stops Achilles from killing Agamemnon at that moment, and he vows Agamemnon will beg for his skills one day. Achilles refuses to fight and appeals to his mother, the goddess Thetis, to avenge his pride. Thetis secures the pledge of Zeus, king of the gods, that the Achaeans will lose the war until the insult to Achilles's honor has been repaired.


As stated in its iconic first line, The Iliad is about the consequences of Achilles's rage. Why is he angry? It's all about pride and honor. Honor is a sacred concept in the ancient world. The Greek word for honor also means price or value, closely connecting honor with riches and prizes. Thus, Agamemnon's loss of a highly valued prize is also a significant loss of honor. However, it seems there would also be honor in giving up something of value to protect his army. But Agamemnon's pride gets in the way of his considering it, even for the promise of valuable future prizes.

Agamemnon will only accept the immediate replacement of Chryseis with an equal prize. He zeroes in on Achilles who stands up to him. Each man insults the other's honor and pride: Achilles calls Agamemnon greedy and a coward, and Agamemnon disdains Achilles's battle skills. Nestor's unsuccessful appeal for peace between them is an attempt to soothe each man's honor. When Agamemnon takes Briseis, not only is Achilles dishonored, but also his mother Thetis by extension. Agamemnon has not only insulted his greatest warrior but he has also insulted the gods, bringing to boil all the ingredients that advance the plot. Many later readers of The Iliad would also have been aware that Agamemnon also has the blood of his daughter Iphegenia on his hands because he sacrificed her life to gain the winds in the sails of his stranded ships on their way to Troy prior to the events of The Iliad. They might also have known that Agamemnon was murdered by his wife after his return from the war partly in vengeance for the murder of their daughter. Although these stories are not part of The Iliad, they add to the modern reader's understanding of the character of Agamemnon and the arrogance that led him to risk all in serving his pride and achieving his ends.

Throughout the poem the gods pull the strings of the human world. The conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon has obvious roots in human nature, but it would not have developed without the plague sent by Apollo. Hera, the queen of the gods, also contributes by prompting Achilles to seek the cause of the plague. To the ancient Greeks, both internal motivations and events beyond human control could be explained as the work of the gods. Achilles is only prevented from killing Agamemnon by the goddess Athena, emphasizing the power of his rage as beyond human control.

Recognizing features of the improvisational oral performance tradition in which The Iliad was developed helps make sense of the poem. Recurring characters and objects are often referred to with epithets (characterizing words or phrases). Each character or object can be described a number of ways. Achilles is often described as "swift runner," "dear to Zeus," and "godlike." Apollo is usually referred to by his role as an archer, and the Achaean ships are often "black," "swift," or "beaked." In a performance, the poet chooses the description that fits the number of syllables needed to fill out the poetic line. The repetition of descriptions also helps listeners quickly identify recurring characters and objects. Some epithets are used for multiple people or things, such as the application of "lord of the war cry" to Menelaus, Diomedes, and occasionally others.

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