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Context

Learn about the historical and cultural context surrounding Homer's epic poem The Iliad with Course Hero's video study guide.

The Iliad | Context

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Trojan War

Based on its prominence in Homer's work, the Trojan War was a central and defining event of Greek prehistory. It is believed to have been fought in the 13th or 12th century BCE. The continued interest in it in Homer's time, approximately 400 years later, is significant. Greek city-states were fiercely independent and perpetually at war with one another, yet Homer describes the Achaean (Greek) army in Book 2 of The Iliad as originating from more than 150 different locations from all over mainland Greece and the Peloponnese. While this number of different groups may be poetic exaggeration, an alliance between any large number of them would have been remarkable. It is impossible to infer any historical details of the war from the poem. However, archeological evidence found in the ancient city believed to be Troy supports its destruction in war around 1250 BCE.

Troy is believed to have been located in northwestern Asia Minor, near the mouth of the Hellespont, now called the Dardanelles, in modern-day Turkey. As such, the Trojans were a separate people divided from Greece by the Aegean Sea. However, Greek culture had spread through much of western Asia Minor by Homer's time. He depicts them as worshipping the same gods and living by the same values as the Greeks they are fighting.

As depicted in The Iliad, the Trojan War was caused by Paris's seduction and theft of Helen from Agamemnon. Scholars, however, speculate that the conflict may have had more to do with a dispute over trade routes and the strategic location of Troy at the Hellespont.

Poetic Techniques

The structure of Homer's epics comes from the long tradition of oral poetry. Like The Iliad, these poems are not memorized word for word. Instead, poets improvise from a base narrative structure. They rely upon formulas that they can combine in a wide variety of ways. The poet knows the characters and major points of the story and has a large collection of formulaic descriptions for a range of characters, events, and situations. The poet composes the exact words during the performance, varying the words based on context and individual style.

This repetition of passages and familiar phrases might seem boring, but a master like Homer creatively varies and combines these formulaic elements in a spectacular range of ways. Repetition also helps listeners quickly recognize and mentally organize elements of the poem to better understand the story.

Additionally, oral poets composed in a meter (called hexameter) in which a poetic line consists of six sections, or "feet." Each foot has one of two constructions. It may have one long syllable followed by two short syllables (a dactyl), or it may be constructed of two long syllables (a spondee). Strict rules govern which elements can go where. Hexameter is associated with epic poetry. Its rhythm is distinctive and recognizable. Composing spontaneously within the restrictions of such a complex system makes the work of oral poets that much more impressive.

Influence

To the ancient Greeks The Iliad and The Odyssey were historical accounts of heroic events. Their characters set an example for Greeks of how to live life honorably, and their messages remained influential through Roman times and beyond. Greek scholars started to write about Homer by the late 6th century BCE. The Roman poet Virgil emulated Homer's meter, epic similes, plot structure, and many other elements of Homer's epics more than half a millennia later. More than a thousand years after Homer, Dante included characters from both Homeric epics in his Divine Comedy. The Iliad and The Odyssey are some of the oldest-surviving compositions in any language, yet they are far from obsolete. Both works continue to be taught, analyzed, adapted, and debated today.

Other oral traditions produced ancient epic poems as well. The Indian poet Vyasa may have authored Mahabharata around 400 BCE, and another Hindu poet, Valmiki, authored Ramayana approximately 500 BCE. Both contain similar heroic tropes and metaphors of war, such as red flowers blooming on the body of a wounded warrior.

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