The Bucket List Book Adventure: Book 1 - The Iliad - Homer

Dear Henry,

I finished the first book on my bucket list book list, the Iliad! (Read about the bucket list here) Let me tell you all about it!

Around 3000 BC, a large, wealthy city was built on the coastal plain of the northeast corner of Turkey and across the Agean sea from Greece. It was primarily considered a myth until the amateur archeologist (and millionaire) Heinrich Schliemann discovered a city built on the plain. Mr. Schliemann was not the only amateur archeologist to be looking in the area. Frank Calvert, a British consular official, was also looking for Troy, and the two had often traded notes. However, Heinrich Schliemann's budget was much larger, and he could devote more time and resources to the work of uncovering the city. More surprising than its discovery was its age. Troy was an ancient city before its destruction and was founded at the beginning of the Bronze age. It was destroyed twice, the last presumably by the Myceans, around 1250 BC.

The Mycenaeans were a more recent cultural and ethnic group in the Mediterranean.  Their culture began in the southeastern part of Greece around 1600 BC. The Mycenaeans were the culture that replaced the Minoans, although, for many centuries, the two cultures coexisted and were considered the "First Greeks." Unfortunately, their culture did not long survive the fall of Troy, collapsing around 1200 BC. The Dorian peoples, an iron age culture, replaced the Mycenaeans. 

The Iliad wasn't written until 750-700 BC, about 500 years after the war, and was based upon an oral historical tradition.  The Iliad was written assuming that anyone reading or hearing the poem already knew the story, which we do, even now, more or less (Brad Pitt did quite well as Achilles, I think.) 

The Iliad was written initially as a series of war poems, of which only the Iliad and the Odessey remain. The missing works are the Cypria which was a bit of the pre-Trojan war history and contained the story of Paris and the Golden Apple and the reason behind the Trojan war - Aphrodite promised Paris the most beautiful woman in the world (Helen) if he gave her the golden apple. So Paris gave Aphrodite the apple, and she, in turn, provided the means for Paris to kidnap Helen from her husband, Menelaus. He just happened to be the king of Sparta and the brother of Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae and the dominant king at the time. This poem also explains why Athena and Hera were against Troy from the beginning - neither goddess got the apple. 

The other poems all take place following the Iliad. The Aithiopis tells the story of Achilles' fight with the Amazon queen Penthisiles and about the death and funeral of Achilles. Very little of this poem remains, although the storyline was told in another epic called Chrestomathy that was written around 200 AD, or nearly 1,000 years after the Homeric writings. The battle between Achilles and Penthisiles and the death of Achilles were also popular subjects for Mediterranean pottery decorations, and much of the story exists there as well. The Ilias Parva, or little Iliad, follows the Aithiopis;. Although more fragments of this poem exist; we still primarily rely on the Chrestomathy for Ilias Parva's contents, which told of the suicide of Ajax following his defeat at Achilles' funeral games by Odysseys, the fulfillment of the prophecies to bring about the fall of Troy and the building of the Trojan Horse. The Iliupersis told of the dedication of the horse to Athena, the leaving of Aeneas, and the sack of Troy. The Iliupersis is nearly completely lost, with only 10 lines of the poem still remaining. Finally, there is the Nostoi, which tells of the homecoming of the Greeks (and Agamemnon's heated exchange with his wife Clytemnestra that ends with his death.) Admittedly, if it weren't for the work of the mysterious Proklos and his work The Chrestomathy, much of the story would have been lost entirely.

It should also be noted that, while Homer could arguably be called the most influential "western"  author, no one knows who is or anything about him. It has been assumed that he (she?) was from the Ionic region of Greece based upon the dialect of the writings, but there isn't any proof that it was a single poet.  Some historians believe Homer was more a style of poetry than a specific person's name, although I would think that even the style had to be named after someone. 

The Iliad covers 51 days of the last year of the 10-year Trojan war. It begins with Agamemnon's confrontation with Chyrses, a priest of Apollo, over the theft of his daughter Chryseis or Astynome, whom Achilles had stolen from a festival earlier. Agamemnon refused to give her up, Chyres appealed to the god Apollo, and the Greek army was struck by a plague. Finally, Agamemnon is convinced to return Chryseis to her father but insists upon taking Briseis, whom Achilles had taken when he conquered Lyrnessus and made his concubine. Achilles, in a snit, decided to retire to his camp with his soldiers and fight no more. Achilles also appealed to his mother, the sea nymph Thetis, who promised to take the case to Zeus and convince him to support the Trojans.

Zeus was fond of most of the Trojans (no one liked Paris) because they regularly provided sacrifices to him, and good ones at that, but Hera didn't like Paris AT ALL and, by extension, the rest of the Trojans. So Zeus agreed to help, but only on the low and didn't do much more than send false prophecies to the Greeks.

There were a few skirmishes, and then, Paris challenged Menelaus in single combat, with the winner taking Helen and ending the war. Unfortunately, Paris lost and acted like a coward, and Aphrodite had to carry him away. This was probably the scene that most revealed Paris's character and history (both modern and ancient) have not treated him kindly. I will admit that after watching Wolfgang Peterson's Troy, I have struggled to see Orlando Bloom in any other production because of his acting skill and his portrayal of Paris.

After some argument about who won the fight, fighting resumed between the two parties, with the Trojans seeming to be the slightly stronger army. Finally, the stalemate ended when Patroclus, the cousin, childhood friend, and maybe lover of Achilles, puts on Achilles's armor and leads the Myrmidons (Achilles' army) into battle.

This is an excellent example of why you should never pretend to be something you aren't.

Hector killed Patroclus in battle; this was perhaps the biggest shock I came across in the book. I had always thought that Hector had killed Patroclus by accident. But in book XVI, Apollo revealed to Hector that it was Patroclus who was wearing the armor of Achilles. Consequently, Hector knew precisely who he killed and the probable consequences. Unfortunately, Hector also managed to take Achilles' armor, although the Greeks were able to bring Patroclus's body back to Achilles.

To say that Achilles was upset was an understatement. 

The death of Patroclus propelled Achilles (with a new set of armor his mother brought him from the god Hephaestus) back into the war. He would ultimately kill Hector (I'll let you read the final battle) and, with a sheer vengeance, spent the next 12 or so days dragging Hector's body around.

Finally, the gods (including Achilles' mother, Thetis) intervene and convince Achilles to return the body to the Trojans. The Greeks grant the Trojans 12 days of mourning and funeral games in Hector's honor, and the story ends there, before the fall and sack of Troy. 

The Iliad is an incredibly bloody, gory tale. During the 51 days covered in the story, there were more than 200 deaths. Many were described in great detail and involved the spilling of entrails. 

The story also details, more or less, the Mediterranean Bronze age perception of honor and values. For example, Hector was considered (and is still felt in many circles) the perfect "man" - One who mastered his fear and fought valiantly for his city, even though he knew that he would die doing so. Earning glory through battle was the ultimate virtue of that period, and culture and reputation mattered a great deal.  I'm not sure our standards of honor have changed that much since then.

The character of Achilles also weathers time reasonably well, at least until the end (his bloodlust following the death of Patroclus was staggering)

Less enduring is Agamemnon, who commits the same crime Paris did - stealing a woman who belonged to another. I also noted that while Agamemnon fought with his army, he occasionally killed people from behind. Which seems a little dastardly, even now. 

Menelaus, whose "honor" caused the war in the first place, really is a bit player in the Iliad and doesn't do much but defer to his brother. It would be nearly 1200 years before Sparta became a city-state to be feared. He also stabbed people in the back during a couple of the battles.

Finally, there is Paris. He was always perceived as a coward and a sneak. Paris brought war to his city and barely left his bed chamber to fight it, and when he did, Aphrodite had to save him. 

As a child of the modern world, I found the plight of the women in the Iliad heartbreaking. Women were stolen from their homes, forced to endear themselves to the men who captured them (in Brises' case, with her dead husband's blood still on her), and passed about camps as war trophies. Even Andromache, Hector's wife, would face slavery and her son's death after Troy's fall. 

The story also discusses the fickleness of the gods; Zeus was on Troy's side, at least until Hera became too much to deal with, and Hera hated Troy simply because of Paris. The other gods chose sides mainly based on personal vindictiveness, inner-god politics, and which army their children were in. The entire turmoil reminds me of a quote from James McBride's book The Good Lord Bird (review here) "Everybody got God on their side in a war. The problem is, God ain't telling nobody who He's for."

The Iliad is an important story to read. It is the oldest piece of Western Literature and brings forth the values of honor, courage, and fighting for one's people. It also provides a good lens into women's lives in the ancient world, and I've got to say, we've come a long way since then.

xoxo a.d. elliott

P.S. Other stories of Troy I enjoyed:


a.d. elliott is a wanderer, writer, and photographer currently living in Salem, Virginia. 

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