Great Books 101: Ancient to Medieval

"Homer's Iliad"


Homer’s Iliad can be best understood by examining some of its major major themes: rage, desire, delusion, deception, disaster and double-dealing, death and outrage, responsibility and evasion, and ultimately, glory. The poem tells the story of the Trojan War, and of Achilles, the greatest warrior of the Greeks.

The Iliad is a poem of rage: Rage is the first word of the poem, and Achilles’ rage is a major theme of the story. The Iliad is a poem of desire, especially the characters’ desires that make them who they are, but also lead to their destruction. The Iliad is a poem of delusion: The characters are constantly blaming the gods for their troubles instead of their own free will or choices. The Iliad is a poem of deception, perhaps most notably in the case of Achilles’ friend Patroclus, who dies in battle because of Achilles’ lie. The Iliad is a poem of disaster and double-dealing, especially the double-dealing of Achilles that leads to the disastrous death of his friend. The Iliad is a poem of death and outrage: Achilles re-enters the battle against Troy after the death of Patroclus and kills numerous Trojans, including Hector, dragging his body around the walls of Troy. This outrage turns Achilles’ glory from a high into a low point. The Iliad is a poem of responsibility and evasion: Achilles has been evading his responsibility, but at the same time he is responsible for the death of his friend. The Iliad ends when Zeus says he will bring the fighting to an end and grant Achilles his glory—a glory that Achilles wins not through battle, but by returning Hector’s body to his father. Achilles’ glory is to be free of his rage, which is the beginning of virtue.


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Discussion Questions

  1. How do the characters' desires both make them who they are, but also lead to their destruction?
  2. Discuss the rage of Achilles. How does it make him great, but also lead to his downfall and eventual transformation?
  3. What does the Illiad have to teach us about free will?

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