Iliad: Book 1

Deacon Harrison Garlick and Adam Minihan jump into The Iliad Book 1.

Commentary on the text

Book One

The Rage of Achilles[1]

Rage—Goddess, sing of Peleus’ son Achilles. 

Iliad (1.1)

 6.        What happens in the first half of book one?

The rage of Achilles is both the theme of book one and of the Iliad as a whole. Achilles is the son of Peleus, King of Phthia, a legendary city-state in ancient Greece. Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae and leader of the federation of ancient Greek tribes that have come to war with Troy, holds as his slave and concubine a girl named Chryseis—a spoil of war (1.30). Her father, a priest of Apollo named Chryses, offers Agamemnon a “priceless ransom” (1.14) for his daughter. Despite the Achaeans (another name for the ancient Greeks), petitioning Agamemnon to accept the offer, he does not; thus, Apollo, moved by his priest’s prayer (1.42), strikes the Achaean army with a plague, i.e., his “arrows” (1.56, 69, 78, et al.), until Agamemnon finally agrees to return the daughter of Apollo’s priest and offer to the god a fitting sacrifice (1.135). However, Agamemnon finds it unfair that he, as high king, should have his “prize” taken from him while the lesser kings retain their women, their “prizes,” from war (1.158). He then demands that the concubine of Achilles, a girl named Briseis, be handed over to him (1.141, 203-221). The contention between Agamemnon and Achilles provides the catalyst for the events at the beginning of the Iliad that will shape the entire narrative.

7.        Why does Homer open in the middle of the narrative?

Homer begins the Iliad in what is called in media res, which is Latin for “in the midst of things” or “in the middle of things.” The Achaeans have already been on the beaches of Troy for nine years when Homer opens the Iliad (1.157). Questioning Homer’s rationale in opening his epic in such a fashion can provide greater insight into the purpose of the Iliad. In short, the opening may be in the middle of the Trojan War, but it is at the beginning of the narrative Homer wants to tell. It is notable Homer does not invoke the Muses to assist him in telling of the fall of Troy; rather, he invokes them to assist with the story of the rage of Achilles. The Iliad is the story of the tragedy that is Achilles.[2]


The in media res opening, however, bears a distinct effect upon modern readers of the epic. As noted above (Question 2), Homer did not invent the story of the fall of Troy. As such, his ancient readers would have been already familiar with the characters and the general narrative. Homer, at times, does not mention key aspects of his narrative until quite late in the development of his story. For example, Homer does not explain why Hera and Athena have a “deathless hate” for Troy until almost the very end of the text (24.34). At other times, Homer will not mention a key aspect of the Trojan war at all. Lattimore refers to these ancillary stories as “marginal material.”[3] The existence of these ancillary stories to the Iliad are known only because later writers included them in their poems or plays. There is much debate, however, on whether Homer elected not to include these stories in his epic or such stories were a later invention by other authors. Nonetheless, if one is to tutor others in the Iliad, one may elect to share all these ancillary stories at the beginning to provide greater context. This approach is taken by Edith Hamilton in her summary of the Iliad in her magisterial encyclopedia: Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes.[4] While somewhat fitting for a summary, such an approach arguably numbs the mind to the subtleties of Homer, as one no longer has to carefully watch for allusions or note missing influences or intentions. As such, and to rely more on Homer as the teacher, this guide will discuss such ancillary stories as they correspond to Homer’s development of the text.

8.        Who are the Muses?

The Muses are the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. Homer invokes the Muses for inspiration—to help him recall and tell the story of Achilles. The effect of the Muses is captured in English by amuse and its opposite, bemuse. Other notable derivatives are music, museum, and musings. In later Greek mythology, the nine muses were named and assigned patronages: “Clio was Muse of history, Urania of astronomy, Melpomene of tragedy, Thalia of comedy, Terpsichore of the dance, Calliope of epic poetry, Erato of love-poetry, Polyhymnia of songs to the gods, [and] Euterpe of lyric poetry.”[5] Homer’s invocation sets a template for later epic poetry. The Aeneid by the Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BC), the Divine Comedy by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (AD 1265-1321), and Paradise Lost by the English poet and protestant John Milton (AD 1608-1674) all invoke the Muses at the beginning of their epic poems. 

9.        What should we know about Agamemnon and his family 

One may have noted that Agamemnon praises the concubine Chryseis over and above his own wife. The high chieftain and king states: “I rank her higher than Clytemnestra, my wedded wife—she’s nothing less in build or breeding, in mind or works of hand” (1.132-34). The relationship between Agamemnon and his wife is one Homer will develop even into his sequel to the Iliad, the Odyssey. There is, however, an ancillary story here that has already occurred and is never mentioned by Homer in either of his epics.

On their way to Troy, the thousand-ship fleet of the Achaeans anchored at the island of Aulis.[6] The fleet was unable to leave due to a persistent north wind. Desperate to leave, a prophet named Calchas revealed that the goddess Artemis—the deity of the hunt, animals, care of children, etc.—was enraged because a rabbit, sacred to the goddess, had been slain by the Achaeans. To appease her anger, Artemis demanded that Iphigeneia, the daughter of Agamemnon, be sacrificed. As Hamilton records, “this was terrible to all, but to her father hardly bearable,” but “his reputation was at stake, and his ambition to conquer Troy and exalt Greece.”[7] Agamemnon consented.

The problem, however, was that his daughter was back at home. As such, he wrote his wife that “he had arranged a great marriage” for their daughter to Achilles.[8] Iphigeneia arrived, and “when she came to her wedding, she was carried to the altar to be killed.”[9] As written:


And all her prayers—cries of Father, Father,

Her maiden life,

These they held as nothing,

The savage warriors, battle-mad.[10]


The human sacrifice was accepted and the Achaean fleet permitted to leave. Though this narrative is not mentioned by Homer, it is important context to the relation between Agamemnon and his wife. Moreover, it is unfortunately not the last time human sacrifice will appear in the story of the Trojan war.

10.      What is the role of the gods in the Iliad?

The Greek gods dwell on Mount Olympus and are ruled by the chief god, Zeus. As Lattimore observes, “the gods of Homer are mainly immortal men and women, incomparably more powerful than mortals, but like mortals susceptible to all human emotions and appetites, therefore capable of being teased, flattered, enraged, seduced, chastised.”[11] Each god has a patronage or represents “projections of feelings or activities in the observed world.”[12] Phoebus Apollo, for example, is the god of archery, light, and truth, and Pallas Athena, who emerged from the head of Zeus, is the goddess of wisdom. “To be a god,” Fagles notes, “is to be totally absorbed in the exercise of one’s own power, the fulfillment of one’s own nature, unchecked by any thought of others except as obstacles to be overcome.”[13] The Homeric depiction of the gods—and also of characters such as Agamemnon and Achilles—as indomitable, obsessive personalities serves as a template for the tragic characters of later classical Greek playwrights.[14] 

Though the opening of the Iliad marks the rage of Achilles against Agamemnon, it also mentions the “will of Zeus” moving things toward their end.[15] A primary theme to unfurl throughout the Iliad is the interplay between the will of the gods and the actions of man. Notably, the gods disagree. Hera, Athena, and Poseidon support the Achaeans, while Apollo, Aphrodite, and Ares defend Troy. How much any god, however, may stray from the will of Zeus is a matter of some debate. Moreover, though Zeus reigns supreme on Mount Olympus, his will seems to encounter the boundaries of a nameless fate. Some see Zeus as “thwarted by fate,” while others declare emphatically that “Zeus is not subject to fate.”[16] Opportunities to explore these themes are abundant in the Iliad. As a preliminary, we may follow Fagles who observes Homer presents “the idea of destiny, which is fixed, is flexible.”[17]

11.      What happens in the second half of book one?


Here, let us discuss the second half of the narrative of book one. The woman Briseis serves as a catalyst for the brewing hatred between Achilles and Agamemnon. The latter explicitly tells Achilles: “I hate you most of all the warlords loved by the gods” (1.208). Agamemnon views Achilles as a threat to his rule; thus, he elects to take Achilles’ concubine to reinforce that he, not Achilles, is the superior (1.219, 334-41). Achilles begins to draw his sword against Agamemnon when he is checked by the goddess Athena (1.229). Wisdom tempers rage. Note, however, that Athena tells him: “if only you will yield,” which gives some insight into the cooperation of the human will with the divine (1.243).[18] Achilles then makes an oath that gives structure to the entire text. He swears that a “yearning for Achilles will strike Achaea’s sons and all your armies,” (1.281-2) and eventually makes clear he will retire to his ships and no longer fight for his fellow Achaeans (1.342-55, 403). Agamemnon does in fact take Briseis from Achilles (1.410) and returns Chrysis to her father alongside a penitential sacrifice to Apollo (1.525, 45).

12.      What is the importance of Achilles’ prayer to his mother?

Achilles prays to his mother, Thetis, to plead with Zeus “to help the Trojan cause” (1.485) in order to avenge the disgrace he suffered by Agamemnon (1.421). Thetis, a sea nymph, is the daughter of Nereus, the “Old Man of the Sea” (1.424), who is associated with the Mediterranean.[19] He is distinct and subservient to Poseidon—the Lord of the Sea and the brother of Zeus and Hades.[20] Achilles recounts how Thetis once unleashed the great sea beast Aegaeon to aid Zeus who the other Olympian gods had attempted to shackle (1.470). Thus, Zeus is in Thetis’ debt, and she is positioned well to intercede for Achilles. His mother vows to plead with Zeus (1.510), and she is successful in doing so (1.625). Note even the subtle nod of his divine assent is marked by “giant shock waves,” and his word cannot be revoked (1.629). This begins a series of requests by both gods and mortals that are woven together by Zeus into the ultimate fate of Achilles and Troy.

As an aside, it should be noted that Thetis and Peleus, King of Phthia, were in fact married and Achilles is their son, a demigod. Their wedding feast itself, however, holds an important insight into the genesis of the Trojan war—an ancillary story not yet alluded to by Homer.[21]

13.      Who are Hera & Hephaestus?

Hera is one of the deathless gods of Mount Olympus and the wife and sister of Zeus. She is the goddess who cares for married women, though she is arguably most famous for punishing the women with whom her husband has affairs. She is eternally suspicious of Zeus and, in the Iliad, bears an insatiable hatred for Troy. Here, she is concerned that Zeus has assented to Thetis’ request, which will cause Achaeans to be slaughtered against their ships (1.672). Note Hephaestus, the god of fire and forger of fantastic weapons and artifacts, attempts to quell the dispute of Zeus and Hera (1.687). Hephaestus is unique amongst the gods as he is both ugly and lame.[22] When Hera saw Hephaestus was born crippled, she tossed the infant fire god off Mount Olympus (18.462). At the end of book one, Hephaestus references a separate event in which Zeus tossed him off Mount Olympus when the “crippled Smith” attempted to protect Hera (1.711).[23] In the Iliad, Hephaestus is married to one of the three Graces,[24] but in Odyssey, the fire god is married to Aphrodite, the goddess of love.[25] The reader should take note of Hephaestus, because, though he is good natured, his memory about his fall as an infant will play an important part in fall of Troy.

[1] The subtitles are taken from the Fagles’ translation and are his own invention.

[2] Fagles, 3; Lattimore, 17.

[3] Lattimore, 23.

[4] Edith Hamilton, Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes (Black Dog & Levanthal Publishers: New York, 2017) 198.

[5] Hamilton, 33.

[6] Hamilton, 200.

[7] Hamilton, 200-01.

[8] Hamilton, 201.

[9] Hamilton, 201.

[10] Hamilton, 201.

[11] Lattimore, 54.

[12] Lattimore, 54.

[13] Fagles, 45.

[14] Fagles, 45.

[15] Fagles, 38-41.

[16] Fagles, 40; Lattimore, 54.

[17] Fagles, 40.

[18] Fagles, 39.

[19] Hamilton, 35, 198.

[20] Hamilton, 35.

[21] Hamilton, 198.

[22] Hamilton, 30.

[23] Fagles, 622; Hamilton, 30.

[24] A triad of female goddesses embodying beauty and various auxiliary concepts.

[25] Hamilton, 31.

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