The Iliad of Homer in ancient Greek
Fallen Warrior Statue
The Iliad in Greek
Click here to read Book 1 of the Iliad in Greek
Western literature begins with the Iliad, an epic poem that celebrates humanity by showing its destruction at the hands of competitive, vengeful young men. It is a war story told from a godlike perspective, but also through the eyes of a parent who spent twenty years raising a child at home, only to see him cut down in an instant on the battlefield. It is, in the minds of many readers, not only the foundation but also the summit of the Western literary tradition.

The extraordinary balance in the Iliad between simplicity of means and grandeur of vision, between pathos and objectivity, between flights of fancy and gritty realism, has never been equalled in any product of the human imagination. As in the case of Shakespeare, the work is of such a high level that it is difficult to imagine an actual individual sitting down to compose it... and as in the case of Shakespeare, there is mystery wrapped around the historical identity of the poet.

What we can say with some certainty is that the Iliad was composed in the early 8th century BCE in the eastern part of Greece called Ionia (present-day Western Turkey) by a poet working in an ancient tradition of oral poetry, chanting the exploits of heroes to the accompaniment of a 4-stringed lyre.

The oral epic tradition provided formulaic epithets ("swift-footed Achilles") and formulaic incidents which were reworked by the monumental composer we know as Homer with the possible assistance of a newly invented method of writing, to narrate events from the ninth year of the Trojan War, an actual war that had occurred four centuries earlier, pitting Eastern Greece against Western Greece, and furnishing rich material for generations of bards.

The language of the Iliad is a mixture of Ionian Greek and Aeolian Greek, which fits in with the traditional story that Homer was born in Smyrna (present-day Izmir), an Aeolian city that had joined the Ionian league. But much of the language is an archaic admixture derived from the oral tradition. It appears that the Iliad was passed down orally by Homeric rhapsodes for two hundred years, and then put into written form in the 6th century BCE for government-sponsored recitations at the Panathenaea Festival in Athens. As we are well aware from the publication history of Shakespeare's plays, such a process does not result in a single, authoritative version. The Alexandrian librarians who edited the Iliad in the 2nd and 3rd centuries BCE -- Zenodotus, Aristophanes of Byzantium and, above all, Aristarchus -- had to reconcile variants when establishing the text that we use today.

As for the text of the Iliad here, on this website, I have tried to carry it forward into the new millennium by taking it backward in time. The digamma (Ϝ = English w) has been restored wherever the meter indicates that a digamma originally intervened. On rare occasions, an initial sigma (σ) has been restored as well. But there is a limit to acceptable strangeness, which is why I have not restored the digamma to Ilium itself: the proper historical spelling would be Fῑλιος (pronounced "Wheelius"). Additionally, on the assumption that connective/correlative τε (= "both/and") and gnomic τε (= "habitually/ characteristically") represent two different lexemes, rather than two different senses of the same lexeme, I have designated the latter with a grave accent, τὲ.

Modern emendations and modern punctuation have been avoided wherever possible, especially in the case of commas, which are usually an unwelcome intrusion upon the exquisite system of particles that give both clarity and effervescence to the epic hexameters.

The architecture of the Iliad is rooted, at every level, in the idea of parallelism. But I will not comment any further on the poem. My dissertation defense was mercifully short, in large part because the Iliad is such a personal experience that most people would rather not listen to someone telling them what it means. Part of the spell it casts over us comes through the way that the Iliad forces us to develop our own sense of what is happening, without any guidance from the poet. There is no cinematic background music to manipulate our responses. Enjoy!