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The Iliad | Discussion Questions 1 - 10

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How do the first few lines of The Iliad preview the conflict, setting, and characters of the poem?

Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles,/... that cost the Achaeans countless losses." These lines begin the poem by describing the cause of the main conflicts in the story—Achilles's rage—and its consequences—many Achaean deaths. The poet continues, "And the will of Zeus was moving toward its end." This clarifies the setting of the story, placing it in the timeline of the Trojan War, which Zeus has decreed will be won by the Achaeans. The events of the poem occur when the war is near its end. (Later details reveal it is in its last year.) Next, Homer appeals to the Muse to tell that the conflict began between Agamemnon and Achilles. When he asks, "What god drove them to fight with such a fury?" it combines with the previous mention of Zeus to indicate the gods are involved in starting and sustaining the conflict in the story.

How do the conflicts between mortals compare and contrast to the conflicts between the gods in Book 1 of The Iliad?

There are a number of similarities between the mortal and divine conflicts in Book 1. Both take place at full assemblies of their respective groups, the Achaean army and the Olympian gods. Agamemnon is the most powerful leader in the Achaean army, and Zeus is the ruler and most powerful of the gods. Both conflicts rise out of existing tensions between the parties involved. Achilles and Agamemnon seem to already have low opinions of each other, so neither has much incentive to bend his pride to the other. Zeus and Hera refer to ongoing grievances in their relationship. One major difference is the fact that Hera submits to Zeus's power, whereas Achilles refuses to submit to Agamemnon's. In both conflicts a third party mediates in some way. Nestor's attempt to calm the waters between Achilles and Agamemnon accomplishes nothing, whereas Hephaestus's efforts to mend relations between his parents are more successful. He serves drinks, makes the gods laugh, and diffuses tensions, and Hera and Zeus go to sleep side by side.

In what ways are Achilles's and Agamemnon's characterizations of each other in Book 1 of The Iliad justified?

Even before they start arguing, Achilles pointedly says Agamemnon "claims" to be the "best of the Achaeans," implying he is not. He has two main complaints about Agamemnon: he is a coward and he is greedy. Achilles believes Agamemnon never takes part in the dangerous parts of battle yet uses his status to collect the largest share of the prizes the troops have risked their lives to seize. He also calls him a "staggering drunk." Achilles's claims are somewhat borne out in the poem. Agamemnon's refusal to lose what must have been one among many rich prizes speaks to some level of greed, although honor is also part of the equation. Agamemnon also displays cowardice by repeatedly suggesting sailing home (twice seriously) when the battle isn't going well, despite a promise of success from Zeus. However, he also fights effectively if somewhat ruthlessly in battle, risking himself enough to be wounded in Book 11. Agamemnon first acknowledges Achilles's bravery but then turns negative, mostly criticizing Achilles's focus on fighting to the exclusion of all else: "Always dear to your heart,/strife, yes, and battles, the bloody grind of war." Agamemnon apparently doesn't rate this quality very highly, saying he hates Achilles the most of all the Achaean leaders (although speakers tend to overstate when emotions are high). He also mentions Achilles's tendency toward excessive anger even before his rage fully manifests in the argument. Although not very diplomatically stated, Agamemnon's characterizations of Achilles are mostly accurate. He is a creature of war and rage throughout most of the poem. However, his conduct hosting the funeral games and his reaction to Priam's appeal at the end of the story demonstrate that there is more to his character when it is not being overwhelmed by anger.

Why do the "glittering gifts" Athena foretells for Achilles in Book 1 of The Iliad prove worthless?

When she stops Achilles from killing Agamemnon, the goddess Athena tells him that "one day glittering gifts will lie before you,/three times over" the prize he is about to lose to Agamemnon. This foretells three great treasures that he receives. First is his mother's gift of shining new armor made by the blacksmith of the gods, which she delivers in Book 19. That is closely followed by delivery of the treasure Agamemnon has pledged to give him for returning to fighting. The third is the royal ransom that King Priam brings when he begs Achilles to return his son Hector's body for a proper burial in Book 23. In a twist of situational irony where expectations do not match reality, Achilles cares little for prizes or the honor they bring by the time he receives these treasures, and the armor is only valuable to him because it enables him to go into battle to avenge his comrade's death.

What is the significance of the episode with Thersites in Book 2 of The Iliad?

In his rant against Agamemnon in Book 2, Thersites expresses many of the concerns of the common soldier after nine years of war. They are the ones who die in great numbers while commanders like Agamemnon often stay out of the fighting, and they are tired and ready to go home. He also echoes Achilles's complaint that Agamemnon takes the best of the plunder, thus claiming most of the honor, when he has not taken most of the risks. However, Homer says Thersites also has a habit of acting dishonorably. He consistently disrespects his superiors, and his desire to retreat from a fight goes against the code of honor. The Greek word for shame, which is the opposite of honor, also indicates ugliness; thus Thersites's lack of honor is reflected in his appearance as the "ugliest man who ever came to Troy."

How does Helen's interaction with Aphrodite in Book 3 of The Iliad reflect their history?

In the backstory of the Trojan War, Aphrodite caused Helen to fall in love with Paris and run away with him. Without the goddess's interference, she presumably would not have taken such an extreme action with such serious consequences. The nostalgia she feels for Menelaus, her home, and her family in Book 3 suggests that she was relatively happy and had strong emotional ties there. Homer emphasizes her regrets about leaving her daughter. When Aphrodite tries to reunite Helen with Paris in Book 3 of The Iliad, Helen resists being manipulated again. She is deeply aware of the consequences of the goddess's last interference—if she could go back and do things differently she would even die before running away with Paris, who is not quite the hero he claimed to be. However, she can neither go back nor can she resist the will of the goddess, so she continues to love (or at least make love to) Paris.

In Book 3 of The Iliad, in what way does Paris's disappearance violate the oaths of single combat?

The terms of the duel between Paris and Menelaus, as articulated by Agamemnon and sealed with sacrifices in Book 3, do not specifically cover a case in which one of the combatants disappears before the end of the duel. It is assumed they will fight until one of them is dead, and specific terms are set for the death of each fighter. Aphrodite's interference and removal of Paris from the contest falls into a gray area because neither fighter is dead. Agamemnon clearly feels Menelaus has defeated Paris and the terms for Paris's death should still be honored. However, the truce called for when the duel was arranged is still in place and is not truly broken until Athena inspires Pandarus to shoot the arrow that wounds Menelaus.

In Book 4 of The Iliad, what is the significance of the long description of Pandarus's bow?

The long description of the splendid bow, the deadly arrow, and Pandarus's process in making the shot signals to the audience that they are approaching an important event in the story. This a turning point in the war—a truce has been declared and, although it has been shaken, it is as of yet unbroken. If some kind of peaceful resolution can be reached, the Achaeans can go home and Troy will be preserved. When Pandarus wounds Menelaus, the terrible destruction of war is once again unleashed, setting in motion the events of the rest of the poem and the war, and reinforcing the theme that war is an unavoidable part of life.

How does Agamemnon's reaction to Menelaus's wound in Book 4 of The Iliad relate to the themes of honor and pride?

When Agamemnon fears that Menelaus is mortally wounded, he seems more concerned about the effect his brother's death would have on his honor and pride than the personal grief he would feel. Although he says he would "suffer terrible grief," he immediately brings up the disgrace he would suffer if he had to go home without a victory. Menelaus is at the heart of the war—his loss of Helen to Paris of Troy is the reason the Achaean allies joined together to attack the city, and they are fighting to return her to him. Agamemnon fears if Menelaus were dead, the army would no longer have a reason to fight and would want to go home. He thinks he would be seen as dishonorably backing down from a fight he started, reducing his pride and the respect he commands.

How is the noise of the Achaean and Trojan armies contrasted in Books 3 and 4 of The Iliad?

Homer twice contrasts the silence of the Achaean army with the noise of the Trojan army. At the beginning of Book 3, the Trojan army is compared to a flock of cranes, which were known for attacking the Pygmies (the ones from Greek mythology, not the real pygmies of Africa), making the Trojans's noise seem fierce and threatening. However, in Book 4 the noise of the Trojan army is described as the clamor of many tongues unable to understand one another, which suggests chaos and disorganization. The silence of the large Achaean army in both books, even as it marches, suggests organization and discipline.

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