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Book 4

Course Hero's video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of Book 4 of Homer's epic poem The Iliad.

The Iliad | Book 4 | Summary

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Summary

On Olympus, the gods argue over the war. Zeus suggests that the peace hold and Helen go home with Menelaus, both because Troy is his favorite city and to mock Hera's and Athena's passion for the death of Trojans. Hera protests she wouldn't object if Zeus destroyed all her favorite cities, so he shouldn't protest the destruction of Troy. Zeus yields and sends Athena to provoke Troy to break the truce.

Disguised as a soldier, Athena urges Pandarus, a Trojan archer, to kill Menelaus. His arrow hits Menelaus in the belt and draws blood, but Athena doesn't actually want Menelaus dead and prevents a mortal wound. However, the truce is broken. Agamemnon uses praise and scorn to rouse his troops, and the Achaean army surges in violent waves to the attack. As gods drive them on, warriors on both sides die in droves.

Analysis

As Book 4 begins, the gods are arguing about mortals as usual. Unlike in most modern religions, the Greek gods embody all of the same passions and flaws as humans. They also freely interact with humans to persuade them into action through reason and emotions. The difference is they cannot die. This makes their conflicts seem somewhat trivial, even comical, in contrast to the death and destruction happening down on earth. Because they face no consequences, they take more pleasure in the conflict than the mortals, for whom it is a deadly serious business. With a truce declared, there is a real chance that the war can be ended peacefully, but Hera and Athena keep it going to avenge their own injured pride.

War erupts in the second half of Book 4. Although he alludes to the death of foot soldiers, Homer primarily focuses on individual clashes between champions and other notable fighters. His descriptions of the deadly wounds fighters inflict on one another are brutal but also based on a consistent formula. Spears, arrows, swords, and rocks crush, stab, slash, and rip a rotating list of body parts, with the occasional embellishment of an organ or other internal element. Homer rearranges these basic elements with different specific details to create an almost endless variety of battle deaths.

Stripping armor from fallen enemies or taking possession of their horses is an important element of battle. These are valuable prizes, and claiming them both increases the winner's honor and dishonors the dead fighter. Seizing this honor is important enough that fighters make themselves vulnerable in the middle of battle to do so, sometimes with fatal consequences. After the first battle death described in the poem, another fighter immediately attempts to strip the gear off the body of the dead man and is killed because he exposes his side in the process.

Neither side is portrayed as better than the other in the poem—fighters from both sides die the same tragic deaths. This is illustrated poignantly at the end of Book 4 with an image of two dead fighters from opposite sides lying next to each other as men from both sides of the conflict die around them.

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