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Historical Context in Iliad

The Iliad offers only a brief glimpse into the ten-year conflict of the Trojan war. According to myth, the war started with the supposed abduction (or possible elopement) of Queen Helen of Sparta by the Trojan Prince Paris. Helen’s husband, King Menelaus of Sparta, convinced his brother, King Agamemnon of Mycenae, to lead an expedition to retrieve her from King Priam of Troy. The Greek heroes Odysseus, Achilles, Castor, and Ajax accompanied Agamemnon in his quest along with more than a thousand ships. Very little is actually known about the war beyond the events Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey recount, and it is even speculated that Homer simply wrote down the bulk of his two epic poems from the vast Greek oral-storytelling tradition.

The Iliad follows four days of the war starting with Chryses, a Trojan priest of Apollo, begging for his daughter to be returned to him by Agamemnon, and ending with the death of Hector of Troy. The poem begins well into the action of the war, but alludes to events transpiring both before and after the plot arc including Achilles death and the eventual fall of Troy.

Historical Context Examples in Iliad:

Book I

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"Ulysses..."   (Book I)

“Ulysses” is the Latin name for the Greek hero Odysseus, who plays a role in the Iliad but is more famous for being the hero of the Odyssey, a story also attributed to Homer and considered a continuation of the Iliad. Ulysses wanders the world after the Trojan War, trying to get back to his home, wife, and child.

"Ilius..."   (Book I)

Ilius is the Latin name for the city of Troy. The ancient Greek word for Troy was “ilion,” and both terms gave the Iliad its name, which loosely means “a story about Ilion or Ilius.”

"burned your thigh-bones in fat of bulls or goats..."   (Book I)

This phrase refers to the ritual sacrificing of animals in order to please the gods. Ancient Greeks would sacrifice a goat, sheep, pig, or cow and offer up the fat and bones to the gods, setting aside the meat for roasting and eating.

" Sminthe...."   (Book I)

Sminthe is another name for the god Apollo. The name relates to mice and indicates that Apollo was also the “mouse god.” Mice were highly regarded in ancient Greek society because they supposedly arose from the vapors of the earth and had prophetic powers.

"Achaeans...."   (Book I)

“Achaeans” is the primary name given to the Greek forces that opposed the Trojans in the Iliad. The army consisted of various ancient tribes located in and around present-day Greece. In the Iliad, the Greeks are variously called Achaeans, Achaians, Argives, and Danaans—whatever name suited the poet's metrical needs in a given line.

"SING, O GODDESS..."   (Book I)

One characteristic of epic poetry is the narrator's invoking a muse to help tell the story. The Muses were nine daughters of Jove, each of whom governed a particular science or art form. The narrator is probably referring to Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry. The other eight Muses and their domains include Clio (history), Erato (love poetry), Euterpe (music), Melpomene (tragedy), Polyhytmnia (sacred poetry), Terpsichore (dance), Thalia (comedy), and Urania (astronomy).

"Juno..."   (Book I)

Juno (or Hera), the queen of the gods, is portrayed by Homer as strong and precocious. She is often seen conniving behind her husband Jove’s back as well as constantly disagreeing with him. Her habit of tormenting Jove’s other lovers and wives is referenced in the Iliad. An ironic contrast to Homer's Juno can be seen in other myths of the tradition, where she is often described as being in constant pain because of a character whose name literally means “the glory of our Hera,” namely Hercules. This pain is due to a wound in her chest that Hercules gave her with an arrow while working on his “labors.”

"Jove..."   (Book I)

As you can see from these few lines of introduction to this book of Homer’s Iliad, the god Jove (or Zeus) is very important. Jove is the head of the Greek pantheon and ruler of the gods. He is husband to Juno and often claims to be neutral in regards to the Trojan war.

"prey to dogs and vultures..."   (Book I)

It was sacrilegious to allow a dead body to be defiled by animals and birds instead of buried in a dignified way. That corpses have been left on the battlefield indicate to the listener the brutality of the conflict, which has not allowed time to honor the dead.

"Dardanian..."   (Book II)

The adjective “dardanian” is another name for a Trojan warrior; it is derived from Dardanus, who was a son of Jove and former king of the region where Troy lies.

"And now, O Muses..."   (Book II)

With this line, the narrator invokes the Muses again. He asks for their help in the difficult task of cataloging all the ships involved in the war. He recites the name of the city or region each ship came from, the names of the commanders of each ship and the number of troops given by each region. He does this for both the Greek forces and the Trojan forces. Since these epic poems were recited aloud, not read, the catalog of ships would have been an exciting part of the poem for ancient audiences to hear because they could listen for the name of their own city or region and for the names of their own local legendary heroes.

"Nine of Jove's years are gone..."   (Book II)

A reference to the fact that nine years have passed since the beginning of the war. Notice many appearances of the number nine throughout The Iliad. Nine was considered by many ancient cultures to be a symbolic and/or sacred number.

"phalanxes..."   (Book IV)

The phalanx was the primary infantry unit in Bronze Age warfare and typically consisted of 16 ranks. The soldiers within the phalanx were equipped with lances that were about 13 feet long (in addition to their shields and short swords.) When a phalanx stayed intact it was impenetrable, but moved forward very slowly. A major benefit to this company is that horses will naturally shy away from massed humans, particularly with spears, and so the phalanx is an effective anti-cavalry weapon.

"temple of Minerva in the acropolis..."   (Book VI)

Most ancient Greek cities contained a fortified area called an acropolis. This structure was built upon the highest point in the city. The acropolis was the center of municipal and religious life, and it usually contained a temple dedicated to an individual god or goddess (in this case, Minerva, the goddess of wisdom.)

"the rites of fire..."   (Book VII)

This is a reference to a cremation ritual, common in Homer's time, but, according to some sources, was not as common during the time in which the poem is set (13th to 12th century BCE)

"ships forget not to bring me fire that I may burn them..."   (Book VIII)

According to some sources, the Achaean ships symbolize the future of the Achaean race. Since almost all able-bodied men are fighting at Troy, there are very few men at home. The burning of the ships would mean that none of the warriors would ever get back home again, which would result in the destruction of the Achaean race.

"upon their right hands..."   (Book X)

This passage is a reference to the idea that signs and omens on the right portend good luck, while those on the left indicate unluckiness, a superstition still held in many cultures today

"a leathern helmet that was lined with a strong plaiting of leathern thongs, while on the outside it was thickly studded with boar's teeth..."   (Book X)

Helmets that look like this, dating back to the Bronze Age, have been found by archaeologists in and around the region where the Iliad takes place.

"their real father, Neptune..."   (Book XI)

This is a reference to the belief that many Greek heroes had two fathers, one being a god and the other being a mortal man. Gods often lay with mortal women, but avoided responsibility for raising the children brought from these encounters. If gods chose to bring forth children with the wives or lovers of kings or great men, heroes were often raised in the home of their earthly fathers regardless of their godly parentage.

"the city was sacked in the tenth year,..."   (Book XII)

This passage establishes context for the plotline of the Iliad. The story takes place within the final year of the Trojan War, which was a ten year conflict ending with the fall of Troy.

"Dodona in your sway, where your prophets the Selli..."   (Book XVI)

Dodona was the site of a shrine to Jove, and the Selli were a brotherhood of ascetic priests who went barefoot and slept on the ground. Theirs was an order dedicated to Jove.

"babel..."   (Book XVII)

The translator of this edition of the Iliad employs an allusion to the Bible that would have been unknown to Homer. Humans created the Tower of Babel so that they could reach God and become his equal. God frustrated this plan and created the "confusion of languages" so that those who, up to that time, had all spoken the same language, could no longer understand each other. Babel thus became synonymous with language that no one can understand.

"lets you kill them whenever you choose..."   (Book XXI)

Diana is the goddess of both hunting and childbirth. The passage states that since Diana is responsible for childbirth—and because women often prayed to her for easy pregnancies—is equally responsible for the deaths of women during childbirth, which were not uncommon occurrences at the time. Juno accuses Diana of being unfit for battle, because her only "kills" are those of women giving birth.

"for he brings fire and fever in his train..."   (Book XXII)

Orion's Hound refers to Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, which appears to be next to the constellation of Orion. The claim that Sirius “brings fire and fever in his train” refers to the fact that the star Sirius rises during the peak of summer, a time when sickness was common. Illness seems to trail after the star.

" I wander all desolate by the wide gates of the house of Hades..."   (Book XXIII)

The ancient Greeks believed that the dead could not enter the underworld—also known as Hades—until they have been properly buried or cremated. Failure to do so would condemn the dead to wander about for an eternity instead.

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