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The Iliad | Study Guide


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The Iliad | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


In Book 16 of The Iliad, how do Achilles's instructions to Patroclus relate to the themes of pride and humanity?

When he lends Patroclus his armor and his horses, Achilles tells him to only drive the Trojans away from the ships and then come back. This is not for compassionate reasons or because he is worried about Patroclus's safety or whether he can defeat Hector—Achilles doesn't know Zeus has foreseen Hector killing Patroclus. Instead, Achilles wants the glory of driving the Trojans back to Troy and defeating Hector for himself. His pride in his status as the greatest fighter tells him he must be the one to claim these ultimate prizes, and he doesn't want Patroclus, his subordinate, to seize that honor while he isn't there.

How do Achilles's ideas regarding honor and glory change after Patroclus's death in Book 17 of The Iliad?

At the beginning of the poem Achilles finds the loss of a single prize so dishonoring that he wishes for large numbers of the Achaeans to die. With Patroclus's death, however, Achilles recognizes his own blame for causing it, and the honor of prizes no longer seems so important to him. He accepts the return of Briseis and all the treasures Agamemnon has promised, but he no longer seems to care about any of them. The only honor and glory that Achilles wants at this point in the story is to kill Hector in order to avenge his comrade's death.

What do readers learn about Achilles from his plans for Patroclus's funeral and burial in The Iliad?

Most of Achilles's plans for Patroclus's funeral reflect the rage he feels at the loss of his friend. In Book 18 he promises not to bury his friend until he has killed Hector, the man who killed Patroclus. He also promises rather barbarously to "cut the throats/of a dozen sons of Troy" and burn them on Patroclus's pyre to symbolically emphasize his comrade's power over his enemies. Achilles knows his plan stems from his anger, saying he will vent his "rage on them for your destruction." However, Achilles's plans for burying Patroclus in Book 23 also reflect the love and respect the two men had for one another. After Patroclus is burned on his funeral pyre, Achilles instructs Agamemnon to place his bones in a jar and keep it handy so his own bones can be added to it when he dies. They will be as close in death as they were in life. Achilles's action also reflects the cultural traditions surrounding the proper respect for the dead shared by both the Trojans and Greeks, which is displayed in a common bond between Achilles and Priam at the end.

How do the city scenes on Achilles's shield in Book 18 echo events in The Iliad?

The scene of the city at peace shows a conflict between two men. One man offers the other payment for the murder of one of his relatives, and the second man refuses to accept it. Although the offenses are different, this calls to mind the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon over Briseis. When Agamemnon offers compensation, Achilles deems it unacceptable and refuses it. The second city on the shield is, like Troy, under siege. The army outside the walls is split into two factions over an issue of prizes and plunder. Achilles's and Agamemnon's conflict over a prize also splits the Achaean army into two groups, though not equal ones: Achilles's Myrmidons, who stayed out of the fighting while he did, and the rest of the Achaean army. The gods Ares, Athena, Strife, Havoc, and Death also appear in both the war on the shield and the Trojan War.

In Book 19 of The Iliad, does Agamemnon's story about Zeus being tricked support his argument of madness?

Even as Agamemnon pledges in Book 19 to reward Achilles with all the treasures he promised, he contends that he was not responsible for deciding to take Briseis from Achilles. Instead he suffered from a kind madness sent by the goddess Ruin that made him do what he did. He supports his argument with a story about how Zeus was tricked by Hera (in a situation orchestrated by Ruin) to give the birthright he intended for Heracles to a different baby instead. On the surface, the story of Zeus's deception doesn't seem all that similar to Agamemnon's decision. Agamemnon made an ill-considered decision based on a blow to his honor and pride, while Zeus was tricked out of doing something he presumably planned to do for a while by his jealous wife, Hera. It could be said that both were blinded to the consequences of their decisions by a form of madness or delusion, which are two other meanings of the Greek word Atê, which has been translated in the poem as Ruin. However, the deception in Agamemnon's case originated inside himself rather than from an outside force, making his example seem a little off-base.

What does Briseis's grief over Patroclus in Book 19 of The Iliad reveal about her situation?

When Agamemnon returns her to Achilles in Book 19, Briseis shows sincere grief for Patroclus's death. She says he was kind to her. And he gave her hope of being free again and of having status as Achilles's wife when the war ended and he returned to his home in Phthia. She had no one else because her husband and her three brothers were killed when Achilles and the Achaeans attacked her home and took her captive. Even though she was considered a captive and property, Patroclus treated her with kindness and humanity. He gave her hope for a better life, and so she mourns his death.

What is the effect of the similes used in describing Achilles putting on his armor in Book 19 of The Iliad?

As Achilles puts on the armor made for him by Hephaestus, the god of fire, in Book 19, his shield is compared to a full moon whose light is like a watch fire in the mountains that is seen by a wind-tossed ship's crew "far from loved ones." The horsehair crest shines like a star—another distant and lonely image. And when he tests its fit, the armor feels like "buoyant wings lifting" him away from the earth. These images evoke distance, separation, and loneliness, emphasizing how far apart Achilles is from the people around him. He is alone among the human characters in his all-consuming rage and his extraordinary fighting abilities, and both these things separate him from his humanity.

What is the significance of Achilles's conversation with his horse in Book 19 of The Iliad?

The reactions of Achilles's immortal horses, which were given to his father by the gods, are some of the few supernatural occurrences in the poem not caused directly by the gods. Although Hera gives Achilles's lead horse, Roan Beauty (called Xanthos in some translations) the ability to speak, the words seem to originate from the immortal horse itself. Roan Beauty says there is nothing the team could have done to save Patroclus—the gods themselves were working against him—and he warns Achilles that he will soon die in battle himself. Achilles says he knows, but he intends to "drive the Trojans to their bloody fill of war" first. This exchange immediately before he goes into battle serves to highlight his deadly state of mind: he is reconciled to dying, but he has resolved to kill a lot of Trojans before that.

Based on Book 21 of The Iliad, why does Hera choose the god of fire to fight the god of the river?

When the god of the river Xanthus (or Scamander) is attacking Achilles in Book 21, Hera chooses Hephaestus, the god of fire, to fight the river. This is a logical choice because fire and water are opposing forces. This is demonstrated in their battle: Hephaestus shoots flames that shrink the river, drying out the plain around it and burning corpses and trees. The god of the river submits as the heat of the fire boils its water and stops the flow of its currents. It seems likely the river would have been dried up to nothing if Hera hadn't called Hephaestus back.

How does Agenor's soliloquy in Book 21 of The Iliad compare to Hector's in Book 22?

Two soliloquies (passages in which a character speaks to himself as if no one else is there) occur close together near the end of The Iliad. At the end of Book 21, as the Trojan army flees into the city, the Trojan Agenor deliberates whether to stand or run as Achilles approaches him. He initially considers running, thinking he might be able to get away, but he realizes Achilles would probably see him and kill him as he is running away. He honorably chooses to remain and attack Achilles before the god Apollo whisks him away. Hector has a similar soliloquy at the beginning of Book 22, as he waits at the gates of Troy to face Achilles. Hector's honor and pride prevent him from retreating into the city with the army. He feels responsible for their defeat and can't face his people. He briefly considers offering to surrender Helen, but he realizes that Achilles wouldn't show any mercy. The only path left is facing Achilles to either kill him or die with honor and glory. Unfortunately, his nerves give out and he flees before Achilles arrives. Agenor and Hector are in the same situation, waiting to confront Achilles as he approaches, and they consider similar issues of honor and survival. Agenor's deliberations foreshadow Hector's as he waits for Achilles at the gates of Troy. Only the outcomes of their decisions differ.

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