Homer’s Iliad: The Epic Tale Of The Trojan War

Homer’s Iliad presents the Trojan War as an epic clash of gods, warriors, and kings. This seminal work of Western literature remains an essential reading even in the modern era.

Aug 14, 2021By Michael Arnold, BA Art History, MA Ancient Mediterranean Archaeology
trojan war homer iliad
The Abduction of Helen by Jacopo Robusti Tintoretto, Venetian, 1578 – 1579, Oil on canvas, via Museo del Prado; with The Body of Patroclos Borne from the Battlefield by Diana Scultori, 16th c., via The Harvard Art Museums


According to legend, Alexander the Great kept two things under his pillow: a dagger and a copy of Homer’s Iliad. The warrior prince Achilles had been his idol since boyhood. When the Macedonian conqueror crossed the Dardanelles into Asia, he built an altar to pay tribute to him. Even at the time of Alexander’s Persian campaign, little was known about the historic Trojan War that had taken place over 800 years prior. Its fame survived solely through the epic of Homer.


Today, some historians believe that the city of Troy in The Iliad could be what archaeologists call Troy VI and VII—the context layer of that ancient city destroyed during the upheaval of the Late Bronze Age Collapse. It was at this time that entire empires, like the Hittites in Anatolia and the Mycenaeans in Greece, collapsed due to hostile incursions by the so-called Sea Peoples.


Despite this, we may never know for certain the reality of exactly how or why Troy VII fell, historically speaking. Homer’s evocation of the mythic Trojan War, however, remains as important today as it was to Alexander 2,300 years ago.


The Central Conflict of The Iliad: What Was the Reason for the Trojan War?

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Paris and Helen by Jacques-Louis David, 1789, Oil on canvas, via Musée du Louvre


Homer’s epic centers on a conflict that arose after Paris, a Trojan prince, stole Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, and wife of the Greek King Menelaus, from Sparta. In response, an alliance of Greeks sailed to Troy to recapture Helen and destroy the city. Hence, the idiom “the face that launched one thousand ships” was born. It proved to be no simple task, however, to besiege the high walls of the old Trojan King Priam or to subdue his fierce warrior son, Hector.


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The struggles of the Greeks are only exacerbated by troubles within their own ranks, particularly those generated by Achilles — a Greek prince of Peleus, who is unmatched on the battlefield. Because of a disagreement with Agamemnon, Achilles refuses to participate in the early battles of the Trojan War. It isn’t until a special friend of his, a certain Patroclus, is killed in battle that Achilles resolves to enter the conflict.


Trouble in The Greek Camp: Achilles & Agamemnon Quarrel

achilles death amphora trojan war
Amphora with Ajax Carrying the Dead Achilles, Archaic Period of Greece (530 – 520 BCE), Terracotta, via The Walters Art Museum


“An angry manthere is my story: the bitter rancor of Achilles, prince of the house of Peleus, which brought a thousand troubles upon the Achaian host.”
—The Iliad, Book I


Book I of The Iliad opens with an altercation between Agamemnon, king of kings at the helm of the Greek alliance, and Achilles. The cause of this fight was Agamemnon’s usurpation of Briseis, a beautiful maiden whom Achilles had won from the spoils of victory in battle. Agamemnon forces Achilles to forfeit her, and, as a result, Achilles refuses to continue fighting for him.


While crying at the loss of Briseis, Achilles is approached by his mother Thetis, a sea nymph. She takes pity on her son, who as she knows is doomed to die in the Trojan War, and resolves to address his plight with Zeus. So Thetis flies to Mount Olympus and begs the king of the gods to punish Agamemnon for his cruelty. Zeus agrees, against the will of his wife, Hera, who detests Troy and favors the Greek cities of Sparta and Argos. He consents to fix the events of the Trojan War against Agamemnon and the Achaeans until honor is restored to Achilles.


The Duel for Helen of Troy: Menelaus V. Paris

abduction of helen troy
The Abduction of Helen by Jacopo Robusti Tintoretto, Venetian, 1578 – 1579, Oil on canvas, via Museo del Prado


The Greek host described by Homer was enormous, far outnumbering the Trojans. But the Trojans had the advantage of being able to call on their many neighboring allies, such as the Phrygians and Lydians, and the walls of Priam had never before been breached. To avoid a bloodbath, Paris, (also called Alexandros in The Iliad) challenges Menelaus to a duel.


The rules of the duel between Menelaus and Paris were winner takes all: if Paris were to kill Menelaus, Helen would remain at Troy and the Greek host would have to disband and return to Argos. But Menelaus was a much greater man and warrior than the young Trojan prince. He’d nearly defeated him in their duel when Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, swooped in and saved the life of Paris. She carried him away in a fog and laid him to rest in his bed-chamber by Helen’s side.


Menelaus went into a rage. He declared victory and demanded that Helen be handed over. But before the Trojans could acquiesce to his will, there would be an attempt on the Spartan king’s life. This would set off the first major battle of the Trojan War.


The First Battle of the Trojan War

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The Mask of Agamemnon, Gold, Mycenae, Greece, 16th c. BC, via The National Archaeological Museum of Athens


“What harm has Priam or Priam’s sons done to you, that you never cease trying to make a wilderness of the noble city!”
—Zeus speaking to Hera, The Iliad, Book IV


Athena and Hera, the daughter and wife of Zeus, both of whom were firmly allied with the Greeks, had been observing the happenings at Troy from the sky. They wanted to see Priam’s city destroyed, and so Athena resolved to interfere in the unfolding events before the Trojans could turn Helen over and allow the conflict to dissolve. So Athena descended onto the battlefield in the form of a Trojan soldier and approached an archer among their ranks called Pandaros. She convinced him to shoot an arrow at Menelaus and strike him dead to recover the honor of Troy.


Pandaros fell for the goddess’s trick. He took aim and fired, but before his arrow could sink into Menelaus, Athena swatted it away.  Menelaus and Agamemnon then declared that the Trojans had broken their oath. Accordingly, the Achaeans prepared for battle — that is, all the Achaeans except Achilles and his Myrmidons. The Olympian gods took sides and marshaled with their respective favorites. Athena joined the ranks of the Achaeans while Hera wished them well from the heavens.


ancient troy digital reconstruction
Digital illustration of Troy VII, by Christoph Haußner, via The British Museum Blog


Zeus, honoring his oath to Thetis, favored the Trojans. Ares, god of war, also joined their ranks; he kept close to the mighty Prince Hector throughout the battle. Apollo and lovely Aphrodite also cheered for the Trojan warriors, intervening in events intermittently.


It’s in this first battle that we’re introduced to the preeminent Greek heroes of the Trojan War: there was Teleimonian Aiax, also called Ajax, a giant, mighty warrior; Odysseus Laertes the king of Ithaca and later the protagonist of The Odyssey; and the fierce soldier called Diomedes, who receives the blessing of Athena and goes on to vanquish many Trojans. On the Trojan side was Aeneas, protagonist of the epic, The Aeneid, and mythical founder of the Roman race. Prince Hector is the powerhouse of the Trojan army until his untimely demise at the hands of Achilles.


The Trojan Army Defends Troy: Hector V. Ajax

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Ajax, front view by Pietro Fontana, 1817, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Keeping his promise to Thetis, Zeus ensured that the early battles of the war resulted in good outcomes for the Trojans. The laundry list of other gods who allied with Troy also helped in this cause. Ares remained glued to Hector. And at one point, Aphrodite intervened to rescue her son, Aeneas, but was stabbed by Diomedes; she ran off to Olympus never to return to the battlefield.


Apollo also intervened on behalf of the Trojans. But, irrespective of this, “many Trojans and many Achaeans fell on that day and lay prone in the dust side by side,” writes Homer. Apollo and Athena, sick to see that so many of their favorites had fallen in battle, conspired with one another to reach a ceasefire. So at the opening of Book VII, they embolden Hector to face off with Ajax in the deciding duel of the first battle.


“So terrible was that prodigious man, the safeguard of the nation, as he marched 

and a smile on his grim face, shaking his long spear.”
—Description of Ajax entering the duel, The Iliad, Book VII


Hector and Ajax were well-matched, and just as their duel intensified, night fell and the two men called a truce and departed as friends. The Achaeans and Trojans agreed to a one-day ceasefire to collect their dead. Priam and his 50 sons strategized behind their high walls, and the Greeks built a moat and fortification around their ships and encampment.


Zeus Threatens the Olympians; The Achaeans Suffer at the Hands of Hector

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Statue of Jupiter (Zeus), Roman, 100 – 1 BC, via The Paul J. Getty Museum


“If I see any god going to help either Trojans or Danaans [Achaeans]

on his own account, he shall get a thunder stroke and go home very uncomfortable.”
—Zeus reprimanding the other Olympian gods, The Iliad, Book VIII

At the opening of Book VIII, Zeus takes a hard line with the other gods about any further intervention in the Trojan War. He reasserts his will that the Trojans should win the early battles. And by the end of Book VIII, the Greeks are in a dire situation.


Hector had been relentless in battle, and the Trojans had successfully invaded the Achaean encampment. Agamemnon first prays to Zeus to spare the lives of the Achaeans. Next, he resolves to plead with Achilles to enter the war and save his countrymen — the last hope for the Greeks.


Agamemnon Pleads With Achilles

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Roman panel relief of Achilles and Briseis, 30 BC – 80 AD, via The British Museum


Agamemnon sends envoys to Achilles with his terms of apology. He promises to return Briseis to him and to ensure that he is enriched from the spoils of Troy. But Achilles declines the king’s proposal, and the Achaeans continue to suffer at the hands of Hector. It isn’t until Book XIV that the tides begin to turn. It’s at this time that Hera plays a trick on Zeus. She channels the charms of Aphrodite to distract Zeus from the events of the Trojan War. Then she seduces him, and, afterward, Zeus falls asleep.


While Zeus slumbers, all the other gods, including Hera, begin to intervene in the battle again. But Hector, who is imbued with the courage of Apollo, is relentless. He and his men break into the Achaean camp and set fire to the Greek ships. Seeing the conflagration, Patroclus, the dear friend of Achilles, can abstain from action no longer. After unsuccessfully pleading with the   Myrmidons to join the battle, he decides to don Achilles’ armor and enter it himself.


Hector Kills Patroclus

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The Body of Patroclos Borne from the Battlefield by Diana Scultori, 16th c., via The Harvard Art Museums


Hector and the Trojans had set the Greek encampment ablaze. Out of the wild conflagration came Patroclus charging toward the Trojans and cutting them down left and right. When he reached Sarpedon, a son of Zeus and king of Lycia, the pair faced off. Patroclus killed him, and, as a result, sent Hector into a rage.


Hector vowed to avenge Sarpedon, but, before he could, Patroclus and the spirited Greeks drove the Trojans back to their city walls. The Achaeans were so fierce that they would have taken Troy that day if it weren’t for Apollo’s interference.


The patron god of Troy was standing on top of the city walls and commanded Patroclus and the Greeks to retreat. Then the god started playing tricks on him to confuse and exhaust him. Hector seized the opportunity to strike at Patroclus. He stabbed the young Greek in the belly with his spear, killing him on the spot.


Achilles’ New Armor & The Death of Hector

hector death scene roman sarcophagus
The death of Hector as depicted on a Roman Sarcophagus, 180 – 200 AD, via Wikimedia Commons


In Book XVIII, Thetis visits Achilles and offers to have new armor custom made for him. His old armor had been stripped off the corpse of Patroclus and paraded into Troy by Prince Hector.


Needless to say, Achilles was devastated about the death of his dear companion and he later honored him with an elaborate funeral. Thetis took it upon herself to commission Hephaestus, the god of metalworking, to craft a shield imbued with divine power for her son.


“Lions and men make no truce.”
—Achilles addressing Hector, The Iliad, Book XXII 


Achilles then takes to the battlefield with his new armor. He meets Hector outside the walls of Troy, where the gods had been making a last minute deliberation on the Trojan prince’s fate.


peter paul rubens achilles kills hector painting
Achilles kills Hector, Peter Paul Rubens, 1630-1635, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam


The scales of fate were in favor of Achilles, and Apollo and Zeus begrudgingly abandoned their favorite. Achilles overpowered Hector in combat, and then chased him around the city three times. Finally, he cast his spear through Hector’s neck and removed his dead body back to the Achaean encampment.


That night, Achilles hosted the funeral of Patroclus — a hero’s sendoff complete with festival games and the human sacrifice of 12 Trojan princes. He defiled the corpse of Hector, but later returned it to the Trojans out of respect for the wishes of King Priam.


The Trojan War and the Fall of Troy

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Map of the ancient Greek Aegean World, via British Museum Blog


It may be shocking to read this, but there is no mention of a Trojan Horse in The Iliad. Additionally, Troy hasn’t been sacked by the close of Homer’s epic, and there’s no clear indication as to which side will be victorious. We learn of the city’s cruel fate from The Aeneid, in which a ten year war leads to the fall of Troy and is described at the epic’s opening. This triggers a Trojan diaspora that stretches far beyond the confines of the Aegean world.

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By Michael ArnoldBA Art History, MA Ancient Mediterranean ArchaeologyMichael is a contributing writer and former world traveler whose hometown is New York City. He spent the majority of 2019 exploring Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. And currently, he’s studying for a masters degree in Ancient Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Pavia in Italy. In his spare time, Michael enjoys researching and writing about art, history, and archaeology with a focus on the ancient world.