A Greek hexameter epic poem in twenty-four books, and traditionally attributed to Homer, written in the eighth century BCE.

The Iliad opens with a scene in the last of the ten years of the Siege of Troy, and the action of the poem continues for only seven weeks. With great ingenuity (as it would seem) just enough incidental indications are given of the early history of the war to supply the needed basis for an intelligent appreciation of the story. As Horace says, Homer semper ad eventum festinat et in medias res, non secus ac notas auditorem rapit.

The judgment of Paris and the assignment of the prize of beauty to the Goddess of Love are referred to in the Homeric poems but once, and that in a doubtful passage (xxiv, 29, 30). Paris (his Greek name Alexander is more frequent in the poems), the voluptuous son of Priam, king of Ilios (the later Ilium), in the Trojan land, on the south western shore of the Hellespont, had sailed to Lacedaemon and carried away Helen, the beautiful wife of Menelaus, the king, and many of her possessions. In order to avenge this insult and to recover the woman and her treasures, Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, gathered an army at Aulis, and with 1,186 ships (and perhaps 100,000 men) set sail for the plain of Troy.

For ten years they besiege the city. They bring with them no supplies, and spend much of their time in making forays on the neighboring districts and more formal expeditions against the adjoining towns. The captured men are slain or sold to distant islands; the women are kept as slaves. The Trojans are not closely barred within their walls, but they are unable to cultivate their fields and are obliged to send their treasures to their neighbors, in order to buy provisions and to hire mercenaries. The loss of men does not seem to have been very great on either side in the early years of the war.

At the opening of the Iliad, an old priest of Apollo, Chryses, comes to the Greek camp to ransom his daughter, who had been captured by the Greeks and given as a prize of honor to Agamemnon. The king refuses the request, and Apollo avenges the slight to his priest by sending a pestilence upon the Greek camp. After nine days an assembly of the army is called, and the seer Calchas declares the cause of the god's anger. The rude language used by Achilles, the mightiest of the Greek warriors, arouses the wrath of Agamemnon, and a quarrel follows. Achilles "sulks in his tent," while his mother, the goddess Thetis, persuades Zeus to grant victory to the Trojan arms.

The action of the Iliad includes only four days of battle. In the first (ii-vii, 380), neither side gains any great advantage; in the second (viii), the tide of battle often turns and the gods interfere again and again, but at last the Trojans drive the foe to their camp, and bivouac on the plain, near the Greek watchfires. In the third day of battle, (xi-xviii), the Trojans break into the Greek camp and begin to set fire to the fleet; but as soon as Achilles sees the flickering flame he sends his comrade Patroclus with his Myrmidons, enjoining upon him to drive the Trojans from the camp, but not to attempt to capture the city. Patroclus forgets the warning of his chief, and filled with the spirit of the combat presses on too far; Apollo strikes him (the only instance in the poems of such direct interference of a divinity), and Hector slays him. Achilles now becomes more angry at Hector than he had been at Agamemnon, and takes an active part in the fourth day of battle (xix-xxii), in which he drives the Trojans in confusion into their city, and slays Hector.

The twenty-third book is devoted to the funeral games in honor of Patroclus, in accordance with the curious ancient custom of honoring the dead with horse-races and foot-races and contests in wrestling, boxing, putting the shot, and shooting the bow. In the twenty-fourth book old Priam comes to the Greek camp and ransoms the body of Hector from Achilles, who here appears in a gentler mood. The poem closes very simply: Thus these were busy with the burial of Hector. See also Odyssey.


This article incorporates text from Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (1898) by Harry Thurston Peck, which is in the public domain.