|Department of English
The Iliad – Discussion Questions for Books 1—17
(Note that numbers refer to lines in each book. Words in bold designate important characters and concepts)
The proem consists of the first 8 lines. It is a masterpiece of poetic compression; every word counts. What does evoking the Muse entail? What is the epic about? What thematic concerns are introduced?
The theme of the mutilation of the corpse will be important throughout the epic; it is the title of an important book by Charles Segal.
What, exactly, is the will of Zeus?
Mark Edwards writes (in Homer: The Poet of the Iliad, p.21): "From the very first lines, H. Will raise the origins of human suffering." What are these origins?
Throughout the first two books look for details that provide basic information about the war.
8 The descriptive phrases "lord of men" and "brilliant" are verbal formulas called epithets that regularly accompany the names Agamemnon and Achilles. Epithets always denote some essential quality. Look for other such epithets. We will discuss formulaic composition in class.
9 What kind of god is Apollo? To what does he respond?
29 Study the words and actions of Agamemnon carefully. What is the basis of his authority?
61 Achilles calls an assembly. What is his function in society? Is he usurping Ag.'s authority? What motivates him here?
100 Note how Ag. And Ach. bait each other. Note how they talk about women. With which combatant do you side? Does either have justice on his side? Why is Briseis important?
240 Note the way Homer describes Ach.'s inner conflict. What kind of psychology is this? Athena intervenes. Why? Note how she restrains him. Why does he obey her? Ach. swears by a scepter that he will not fight again; why does he compare himself to the scepter?
290 What is Nestor like? What does he urge and why? Do they listen?
420 Achilles calls for his mother, the goddess Thetis. Their relationship is extremely important, so study their action carefully. Note what he requests, and keep it in mind later, because his request is not granted in precisely the way he intends. Remember also that in the first line Achilles is called the son of Peleus. Through the course of the poem, consider whether his mother or father is more important to him.
490 Thetis first mentions his fate. Consider why this fate is appropriate to Achilles in particular.
590 Homer moves the action to the gods. Do the interactions among the gods parallel those among the humans? In what ways? What do the gods do here that the humans do not? Is there a function in the story for the gods' 12 day absence? You will need to consider the role of the gods throughout the epic.
Note the general crisis of indecision in Ag. and the consequent crisis of authority, giving rise to the rebellion of the lowly Thersites. In what ways is Thersites different from the other Achaeans? Who restores order?
102 The Achaeans are compared to bees in the Iliad's first simile, a poetic figure comparing two different things. The Iliad is famous for its extended similes. What effect does this and other similes have?
Only skim the catalog of heroes towards the end of Book 2. What function does this catalog serve?
One feature of Homer's genius is how he manages to include events before and after the war through allusion and symbolism. Throughout this book and the next one Homer alludes to the background and causes of the war, without going into much detail. Look for specific techniques he uses to do so.
The two sides are massed for a mighty conflict, but the poet turns to a single duel between Menelaus and Paris. Why hasn't this duel occurred before? What function does it have in the story?
145 Helen appears. What is she like? Why can't King Priam, after 9 years, identify the Greek warriors? Note how Homer develops the Trojan character. Are the Trojans presented sympathetically?
428 Why does Aphrodite save Paris? What is he like? Study carefully his interaction with Helen, and consider the way she talks about herself.
Concentrate on the breaking of the truce by Pandarus. Why and how does he break the truce? Beyond the obvious, what is Homer's point here?
257 Agamemnon begins a minor aristeia. What do think an aristeia is? Every major hero will have one, though Agamemnon’s comes later. Look for a pattern of action after a couple of instances; because the traditional nature of Homeric poetry tends to use such patterns, these moments are called typical scenes.
Diomedes has his aristeia, under the protection of Athena. Does her help detract from his glory or magnify it? Why can Diomedes now recognize other gods on the battlefield? Why does Athena want Aphrodite injured? (And how can a god be injured, anyway?)
680 Hector intervenes. Given that Hector is the most important Trojan fighter, why does Homer keep him in the background for so long. Keep track of his epithets. Note the simile comparing Hector to a roaring river and remember it the next time a river is involved in a simile about Hector.
800 Note how the gods are becoming more directly involved in the fighting. What does this signify?
990 Diomedes wounds Ares. Compare the reactions of humans and gods when they are injured?
140 Study the exchange of Glaucus and Diomedes, who agree not to kill each other. Why? What is the ethic here? Note Homer's comment on their armor trade.
290 This is Hector's book. Here we see who, what and why he is. How does the narrator seem to feel about Hector? Compare and contrast his heroism with Achilles. Consider his relations with women. Note his self-consciousness about the inevitable fate of Troy and his family (520). What, exactly, motivates him to keep fighting? Do you see anything potentially wrong or self-contradictory with his reasoning? Don't sentimentalize his hopes for his son too much.
Hector and Paris return to battle. Two further abortive attempts to end the war. Hector and Ajax duel, the latter having been chosen by lot; note how chance matches nature, since Ajax is the best fighter after Achilles. Apollo and Athena watch "like vultures" (65). Note Hector’s bargain concerning the return of corpses, for this will be important later. Do you think Hector is growing or shrinking in stature? Afterwards, the Trojans consider returning Helen (400), and a truce is called to burn the bodies of the fallen warriors. Divine discussion of the battlements built on the pyre (500) raises the theme of human arrogance and weakness.
Zeus bans further divine intervention. Note the magnificent image of Zeus' scales (80); this will return later. Zeus signals the Greeks' collapse, but still pities (280ff.): is he confused? Given that the proem told us that these events are the will of Zeus, what does Zeus really want?
400 Athena and Hera rebel, but Zeus recalls them, with the sudden first account of the fated death of Patroclus. Is this what Achilles and Thetis had in mind? Why "must? Patroclus die?
580 Hector, flush with glory, decides to camp on the plain; is he being reckless here? Note the beautiful, yet somehow ominous, simile at the end of the book. What effect does this simile have?
An important book. Agamemnon admits his error and sends an embassy to Achilles, consisting of Odysseus, Phoenix and Ajax. Consider why these three in particular go. Compare Agamemnon's instructions with what actually happens, focusing in particular on the conduct of Odysseus.
This book is so dramatic, tense and emotional that one could stage it as a play. True to Zeus' promise, the Greeks are begging Achilles to return. Agamemnon offers boundless riches, yet Achilles feels it is not enough to repair his honor: why? Do you think he is right? Odysseus repeats Agamemnon's speech verbatim except for the last lines: why? Study closely to what values the warriors appeal in trying to persuade him. Note the graciousness with which Achilles receives them, but the rage he displays in his response. His speech ranges brilliantly, at times almost incoherent, often returning to the same point obsessively. How, if at all, has he changed from Book 2? He says he will go home, but is this a real option? Note that he is easily convinced to hold back until the Trojans reach his ships. In general, do you feel that Achilles is being unjust in this book?
Phoenix attempts to persuade Achilles by telling him a story about Meleager. Do you see any parallels between the myths of Meleager and Achilles? Do you see any potential significance in the name Cleopatra? Ajax's speech given what happens to him after the war, is filled with irony. Note that Ajax seems to have the most impact on Achilles.
To boost morale, Diomedes and Odysseus go out on a night raid against the Trojan camps. Consider how this episode could foreshadow the later fall of Troy. Note also how Hector's arrogance has placed his men in danger.
Agamemnon's aristeia. Compare it to Diomedes in Book 5, and try to discern a pattern. Note also that when he is finally wounded his pain is compared to a woman in labor !! (310) Diomedes wounds Hector and Paris wounds Diomedes. Odysseus fights alone, but is saved by Ajax and Menelaus. Paris wounds Machaon. This will become very important, so watch for its consequences, beginning at 705. Nestor gives Patroclus the idea of wearing Achilles' armor. One by one, the Achaeans are falling.
Look for ways in which this book and the next set the stage for Hector's fall, as his success makes him progressively more reckless. Look for warnings Polydamas gives Hector, and note where and why he stops listening.
1-40 Again, Homer extends the poem's range beyond its plot, thus imparting a greater sense of inevitability to its action.
320 Pay close attention to this simile and its effect.
340 Sarpedon and Glaucus (compare this scene with Glaucus and Diomedes in Book 6) give the most complete statement of the heroic code. Why do heroes risk their lives? Note how the awareness of mortality changes everything. Compare their ethos with Achilles' speech in Book 9
530 Hector crashes through the gates. Note how Homer shows us Hector is simultaneously totally victorious and totally out of control.
Poseidon intervenes for the Achaeans
160 Compare this simile to the earlier one comparing Hector to a river. What has changed?
780 Hector is ignorant that the Achaeans have fought back
840 Polydamas warns Hector for the third time, stopping, temporarily his recklessness.
Amid the carnage, Homer breaks the tension with this amusing interlude.
First, Agamemnon proposes leaving, and in response Odysseus and Diomedes revile him.
375 Note Zeus' rather odd idea of flattery to his wife.
490 Zeus asleep, Ajax knocks out Hector. What does this tell you about Hector?
Note the pattern: Greeks win in Bks 11 & 14, Trojans win in Bks 12 & 15, leaving Bk 13 as an interlude.
After Book 13, concentrate on Bks 16-18, 22, and 24, although all of the Books after 16 are important.
Zeus wakes up and is not happy, and thus cleans up the mess. Apollo helps Hector recover. Following the forecast of Patroclus' death in Book 8, Zeus now augments his prophecy to include, for the first time, Hector. Why does this happen here? Ajax thwarts efforts to burn the ships.
Patroclus convinces Achilles to let him enter battle wearing his armor. Why doesn't he go himself? If he is so insistent on not participating, why send Patroclus? This the fourth time someone has begged him (Book 9), and, as usual, the fourth time is the charm. Think about the potential symbolism of the armor. What part of Achilles' armor does Patroclus leave behind? Note the description of his armor compared to those of Diomedes, Agamemnon and Hector before their aristeiae. Pay careful attention to Achilles' instructions to Patroclus, and the similes describing the Myrmidon warriors.
Patroclus kills Sarpedon, Zeus' son, whom Zeus considers saving. Why doesn't he? What happens to Sarpedon? This is the first important death in the epic, beginning the sequence that leads to Hector's death. Look for changes in the narrative tone and level of elaboration.
What happens to Patroclus after killing Sarpedon? Look at the descriptions of his mind and emotions.
As Patroclus approaches the wall, the tone of the poem begins to take on a surreal tone it will keep until the end of the epic. Note the heavy stress on the future, on inevitability.
Is Patroclus diminished in the end or exalted? Is Hector's conquest of him glorious? Note that, despite the intention of tricking the Trojans that vAchilles has returned, they never think that. Why do you think this is so? What effect would it have had on the story if Hector had bent over the dead Patroclus and said, "It's only Patroclus."
Hector says he will give Patroclus' corpse to the vultures; consider the ramifications. And does Hector has a realistic idea of his role in the death of Patroclus?
The battle over the hero's corpse. Do you see any significance in Menelaus being the first defender of Patroclus' corpse body, “braced like a mother cow lowing over a calf” (5)? Menelaus himself talks about this.
Is Zeus' attitude to Hector changing? Why or why not?
Hector dons the armor of Achilles; symbolism? (220)
305 Zeus draws a mist over the scene.
500 Zeus laments Achilles' immortal horses, who mourn Patroclus, and Zeus launches into a meditation on human mortality . Ajax, once again, is the main defender. The Achaeans worry about Achilles' reaction and send Nestor's son Antilochus.