The Essential Iliad

The Essential Iliad

The Essential Iliad

The Essential Iliad


While preserving the basic narrative of the Iliad , this selection also highlights the epic's high poetic moments and essential mythological content, and will prove especially useful in surveys of world literature.


The Iliad is the story of a raging anger and its human toll. The poem recounts “the rage of Achilles,” the greatest of the Greek heroes fighting in the war against Troy. Achilles’ rage is superhuman (the Greek word translated as “rage,” me-nis, is used otherwise only of gods) and aligned with cosmic forces: it fulfills the purposes of the supreme god Zeus and brings overwhelming destruction both to Achilles’ Greek companions and to their enemies, the Trojans. This rage, the poet tells us,

                  … cost the Greeks
Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls
Of heroes into Hades’ dark,
And left their bodies to rot as feasts
For dogs and birds, as Zeus’ will was done. (1.2–6)

And yet this far-reaching fury has its origins, not in the enmity of the Greeks and Trojans, but in the day-to-day tensions of the Greek camp, where a long-standing rivalry between Achilles and his commander Agamemnon flares up in a bitter quarrel. As it opens with this episode of internecine strife, the Iliad draws us into a world of warrior aristocrats for whom honor, gained and regained in the front lines of battle, is paramount. Under conditions of extreme pressure, their carefully cultivated distinctions of status give way to contention and hostility.

The story begins with a series of fateful blunders on the part of Agamemnon. Agamemnon has as a war prize a woman, Chryseis, who is the daughter of a priest of the god Apollo. When her father appeals to him to return her, invoking Apollo and offering a rich ransom, Agamemnon rudely dismisses him until Apollo sends a plague against the Greeks, which forces Agamemnon to give Chryseis back. Insisting that his loss of Chryseis must be compensated, Agamemnon

*Line numbers in the Introduction and in the margins of the translation refer to the translation.

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