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
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.
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.
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!