Hey guys, gals, and non-binary pals, and welcome to the first installment of my brand new series ‘How To Understand’. We’re gonna be exploring all of the parts of ancient history which are a) talked about in various types of education, b) talked about in general chit chat, or c) just a bit confusing. Up today: The Iliad – or as I like to call it, Troy Story.
~ A brief note ~
Before we get started, just a quick note for clarity's sake. I’m gonna be talking about two of the main dudes, Achilles and Patroclus, as lovers, because that’s the scholarly take I subscribe to (The Queer Classicist thinking something is gay??? Shocking I know!). You might see them referred to in other places as pals, comrades, or even if you’re watching a horribly inaccurate film, cousins. The truth is, it’s a debate that’s been going on for LITERALLY thousands of years – even Plato and Aristotle argued about it. Unless there’s a soon to be discovered epilogue that clears it up, we’re probably never going to know what type of relationship they had. But they definitely weren’t cousins. So yes – gay in this explanation, but your teacher might say they were just pals.
With that said, here we goooo….
- also the chapters are called books. Just a heads up. Right okay let's goooo...
Okay so the Iliad is a story by someone called Homer, who lived a really long time ago, probably around 750 BC. It tells the story of the last few years of a massive war – called the Trojan war, which was between a whole bunch of Greeks, and some people called the Trojans. Why only the last few years? Because this book isn’t actually a story about the Trojan war, it’s about “Achilles’ rage”. It’s basically a whole story describing why a guy called Achilles was pissed off, what happened while he was in a mood, and when he stopped being a buzzkill. It just happens to be set at the same time as the end of the war.
So the story starts with a girl. Not Helen, that was a different (but also important) character. This time it’s about a girl called Chryseis. The main Greek leader Agamemnon had captured her, and, as you can imagine, the girl’s dad wasn’t happy – so he came to ask for her back. Agamemnon, being a total tool, said no. Unfortunately for him, and literally everyone else, Chryseis’ dad was a priest, and pretty tight with the god Apollo, who was famous for all sorts of nice things like sunshine, music, healing… oh and plague. Apollo is NOT happy that Agamemnon is doing his pal wrong, so decides to send a plague to attack the Greeks, until they give Chryseis back. You’d have thought Agamemnon would have given up pretty soon right? His men are dying, there’s sickness everywhere, but no, he keeps being a stubborn ass, until all the other Greek leaders come up and try to convince him. Finally! He sees sense! But no, he’s still the most annoying character in this book, and he refuses to go without a kidnapped girl/sex-slave, and nicks another girl called Briseis from Achilles. Right, you still with me? Agamemnon stole a girl, got angry he had to give her back, so took another one from his friend to make up for it.
Turns out that these women were kind of a big deal. It was sort of like when you get a shiny Pokémon card, except instead of bits of paper, these were actually people with feelings. But Achilles wasn’t happy his shiny lady had been taken off him (bet her family felt like that too Achilles!), and he storms off in a huff. There it is! That’s the famous anger of Achilles that this entire story is about. So Achilles storms off, and throws a massive hissy fit, refusing to fight until Agamemnon gives Briseis back to him.
Feeling a bit confused? It’s like this – imagine a world where people treat women like disposable objects just to be used for their own enjoyment (crazy I know!). Agamemnon got angry his toy was taken away from him, so he stole his friend Achilles’ new toy. Then Achilles got grumpy and shouted that unless Agamemnon gave him his toy back, he, and all his friends, wouldn’t play with him anymore. And that’s exactly how it went. Achilles and his gang of super elite soldiers called the Myrmidons (like an off-brand Avengers) refused to fight until Agamemnon gave Briseis back.
Now until this point, the war had been really tough for both sides, with no clear winner. They’d just been going back and forth, back and forth, going on even longer than Brexit. People were fed up, they just wanted it to be over (sound familiar?). Agamemnon apparently hasn’t got the message though, and he decides to test his troops by saying hey, let’s go home… thinking that they’ll rush to reassure him that they really want to keep fighting. And they do rush! But back to their ships. Luckily a super charismatic guy called Odysseus manages to convince everyone not to leave, which Homer (the author) takes as a chance to list every single person who would’ve left, and all the others fighting on the Trojan side. Fascinating reading, I know.
So the Greeks minus Achilles and his Avengers decide they better keep on fighting. Soon both the armies head to meet each other. But then people get to thinking, hey - you know what would be better than thousands of people fighting and dying? What if just two people did that? The only two people that were properly invested in this war? Agamemnon and Paris. Don’t recognise Paris? Honestly he barely does anything tbh. That one thing that he did do though, was steal Menelaus' wife Helen, as in Helen of Troy. Did he steal her? Did she go willingly? Who knows – but Agamemnon is hella salty about it.
Back to the drama: Paris steps forward from the Trojan side and calls out Agamemnon, in a classic “Come at me bro!” move. The only problem is, Agamemnon doesn’t want to fight – he wants to send his brother Menelaus instead. Paris immediately runs away - honestly, don’t blame him, he didn’t go in for Menelaus, that dude is big. And probably super angry considering y'know, the whole stealing his wife thing. Unluckily for Paris, his big brother Hector is RIGHT THERE, and basically shames him into fighting. So here we go – Paris vs Menelaus, fight of the century – end of the war right here! Except obviously nothing is that easy. Paris is about to lose, when the goddess Aphrodite picks him up, and takes him back to his nice and safe bedroom. And hey, Helen’s there! She calls him a coward, and then they have sex (#couplegoals). With Paris disappeared away, Menelaus is declared the winner! Now it’s time for the war to be over, and Agamemnon to get Helen back right? Right guys? Guys?
You know what, Zeus actually agreed. He was all for the war ending. But his wife has a lottt of problems with Troy, and Zeus doesn’t need ANOTHER reason for Hera to be mad at him. So Zeus sighs, says fiiiiine, and sends his daughter Athena to stir up some shit. She does that really well, getting an arrow fired at old Ag’s brother Menelaus, and boom there goes the fighting again. Just like that, the war is back on, and they all get to stabbing.
This fight sees a dude called Diomedes briefly get to be the best – he prays to Athena for help after he gets hurt, and boy does she deliver. She gives him superhuman strength, but also the handy trick of telling if there are gods around, with a brief warning – don’t attack any gods! Actually… apart from Aphrodite, honestly go for it with her (Athena’s still salty over being told she wasn’t as pretty as Aphrodite). Diomedes fights like mad, and he’s about to hurt a guy called Aeneas (who the Aeneid will later be written about) but Aphrodite comes to help him! Too bad Aphrodite sucks at fighting, and Diomedes cuts her, forcing her to go back home to the gods again. Thinking there just aren’t enough gods involved in this mess, another god called Apollo decides to help out Aeneas for Aphrodite, and moves him away from the battle. Diomedes tries to attack him, but Apollo calls him out for it, and pushes him over, before getting his mate Ares (another god!) to fight with the Trojans. Now this is just getting crazy. The Trojans are honestly slaughtering the Greeks, just doing so well it’s mad. But the gods just can’t stay out of it, and Hera and Athena are back again, this time to rile up the Greeks. Athena gives Diomedes a thumbs up for hurting Aphrodite, then helps him hurt Ares. Ares goes off in a strop, and the rest of the gods follow him. Overwhelmed? Honestly same, take a breather – it’s not getting any less fighty any time soon.
Now that the gods have left, the Greeks are finally doing better. They’re on form, so good in fact, that Hector (remember him? Paris’ brother? Also happens to be the best of the Trojans?) runs home, to ask the women of Troy to pray to Athena to take pity on them. Once that’s all covered, he joins Helen in taking the piss of Paris until he agrees to go back to the fight. After convincing him, Hector goes to say bye to his wife, in what is arguably one of the most emotional parts of the Iliad. He’s wearing a big old helmet, his kid gets scared, it’s very cute. His wife Andromache tries to get him to stay, letting him know she’s pretty sure he’ll die out there, but he’s not frightened off. Andromache starts to mourn her poor stupid soon-to-be dead husband, as Hector and Paris head back to the fight.
With Hector and Paris back, the fighting gets pretty heated again, and by now even the gods are getting bored. Apollo and Athena convince the soldiers to fight a duel to decide it, and Hector steps forward. Hector is a super amazing soldier though (pretty much Wonder Woman), and everyone’s too scared. But eventually some volunteer, they do a short straws type thing, and a guy called Greater Ajax gets picked. Hector and Ajax start, but again the gods step in, decide it’s getting a bit dark, and they send everyone back to have a sleep. That night, the armies all chat, can’t agree on a truce, but can agree that they should take a day to bury all their dead people.
Book 8 is a bit of a tricky one. Zeus said ENOUGH to the gods on getting involved, and decided to use some magic scales to measure up who deserved to die most. Seems fair. And it seems like the Greeks are gonna lose out. He sends a bunch of lightening over the Greeks, and the Trojans start getting crazy talented at fighting. Hector is all riled up and he keeps on fighting, chasing the Greeks all the way back to their boats. Zeus reminds all the gods not to jump in anymore, and they watch on, as the Trojans surround the Greek troops. Night falls, but Hector plans on killing them all after he gets his beauty sleep.
In the Greek camp, everyone is gutted – Agamemnon even cries. He says they should just go home, but some of his other leaders try to encourage him. “What about Achilles?” someone mentions, and boom they have their plan. The only problem is, Achilles is very busy hanging with his boo Patroclus, and doesn’t want to join in. See, there’s a big old prophecy about Achilles – he can live a long, boring life, or have a short and famous one. And now he’s decided actually he wants a long old boring life thanks, he’s going home.
Odysseus and Diomedes decide to get sneaky. They creep over to the Trojan camp, and happen to bump into a Trojan spy trying to be equally sneaky! Unfortunately for the Trojan, he can’t compete, and after giving away all of his secrets, he also gives away his life. Oops. Odysseus and Diomedes kill a group of soldiers from Thrace that the spy told them were an easy target, and then run away to tell their mates what top sneaky spies they are.
Despite the incredible spying techniques of Odysseus and Diomedes, the Greeks are still losing. Blood starts literally pouring from the skies as the Greeks start getting massacred. There’s a bit of back and forth with the army lines, and super soldiers Hector and Diomedes get a bit scared/knocked up. More and more people are getting injured, and eventually even Achilles notices, so he sends his boyfriend to ask an important Greek called Nestor to find out what the lowdown is. When he meets him, Nestor begs our boy Pat to ask Achilles to fight, or even to just borrow Achilles’ armour, and Patroclus says he’ll give it a go. On the way out, Patroclus stops to patch up a soldier because that’s just how he does it. He’s a cutie, an angel, the best of this whole bunch. We stan a soft gay icon.
Honestly this is just more fighting. Hector leads his troops like a boss, ignoring some pretty shifty weird af signs (like an eagle dropping a snake on his soldiers) and is actually super successful! He chases the Greeks all the way back to their ships.
Zeus thinks he’s done a pretty good job of helping out the Trojans, so he goes off for a break. Meanwhile yet ANOTHER god, Poseidon (Zeus’ bro) decides hey, I think it’s my turn to get involved now! So he chats up some Greeks, giving them all sorts of confidence. The Greeks are back baby! It’s all messy again, with injuries on both sides.
Oof it’s gonna get weird again. The Greeks stop for long enough to realise how many of them are dead, and start to panic, with Agamemnon pushing again for them to go home (someone’s changed his tune since Book 2). But hey! The gods have put a lot of effort into this war! There’s a spot more divine convincing, and suddenly the Greeks are up for fighting again.
Now Hera’s realised she needs to get Zeus out of the way so she can start making the Trojans lose again. So she tricks Aphrodite into giving her some super sexy irresistible underwear, and promises a god of Sleep that she’ll hand over a daughter if he’ll help Zeus nod off for a bit (oh look! It’s women being used as objects again!). Sleep agrees, and off they fly to find Zeus. When they meet up with him, Hera puts that super sexy underwear to good use, and they have some hot hot lovin’, after which Zeus immediately rolls over and goes to sleep. Typical guy hey? But this time, Hera’s actually pleased about it. She lets the rest of her pals know that Zeus is out, and it’s time to kill those Trojans! The gods jump on it, and the Trojans have to retreat to their city.
Uh oh, spaghetti-o’s, Zeus is awake, and he’s seen all the shit the other gods have got up to. Luckily he doesn’t seem too bothered (it’s only dead humans after all), but he reminds Hera that he’s got to help out the Trojans for a bit, and wham bam slam, the Trojans are winning again. The Trojans do so well in fact, that they drive the Greeks right up to their boats again.
Our boy Patroclus, the angel, our favourite, is feeling bad about all the dying, because of course he is. He goes to Achilles and, like every gay ever, asks if he can wear his clothes for a bit. Achilles says that he’s still too angry to fight, but he’ll let Patroclus go but only if he comes back straight after the ships are all safe. Can you sense what’s gonna happen? It’s not going to end well. But it actually starts amazingly well – Patroclus is a hero, and everyone assumes it’s Achilles out there, so they get a massive confidence boost. There’s actually also another emotional bit where Patroclus is about to kill a guy called Sarpedon, who happens to be Zeus’ son, and Zeus wants to stop it but knows he can’t because he’s been all “can’t-get-involved-with-the-humans” for this whole war. It’s sadder than I made it sound, honest.
Anyway so Patroclus is on FIRE. He’s fighting like a boss, and even Hector starts running away back to Troy. But now Pat is feeling himself, he can do this, he can finally end the war – so he doesn’t go back to Achilles, he chases the Trojan army all the way to the walls of Troy. Homer (the author) actually does a brief aside here, where he lets us know that Pat could’ve done it, he could have defeated the Trojans right there… if it wasn’t for those pesky gods. Apollo gets involved, and persuades Hector to charge our boy, and it’s not looking good. But Patroclus saves himself! He kills Hector’s chariot driver, and you know what, I think he’s got this! Not if the gods have anything to do with it. Apollo appears behind Patroclus, and literally just stabs him in the back.
With Pat injured, Hector finally manages to kill him, although just before he dies, Patroclus reminds Hector that he’ll be next. You see, there was this weird prophecy thing going on throughout the war – Hector would die if he killed Patroclus, and Achilles would die if he killed Hector. Just a little tit for tat. So Patroclus helpfully reminds Hector that now he’s killed him, he’s gonna be dead pretty soon as well. And curtains close on Patroclus. Our angel is dead.
With Patroclus dead, everyone wants a piece of him. The Trojans all come to try and steal the armour off the body, and the Greeks run in to make sure Patroclus’ stays in one piece (one dead piece, but you get it). There’s a big old fight over the body, but luckily Greek reinforcements arrive, and they manage to take Patroclus back to Achilles (but not before Hector stole his armour). The Trojans get another god-boost in courage, and the battle is starting to look bad for the Greeks again.
When Achilles finds out about Patroclus, he loses it. His lover, companion, best friend, soul mate, has just died, and it’s all Achilles’ fault. He cries, and weeps, and covers himself in dirt, and punches the ground and cries some more. He cries so hard in fact, that even his goddess mum can hear him from the bottom of the ocean. When she comes up to see what’s wrong, he tells her, and announces his plan to kill Hector. Thetis (his momma), tries to stop him – reminding him that he’ll die if he does, but Achilles is set. If there’s no Patroclus, there’s no point in living anymore. Thetis runs off to get him some new armour from a god called Hephaestus, with a promise she’ll be back with it tomorrow.
Meanwhile, Achilles gets some god given strength to stand, and heads to the battlefield – literally just for a cathartic pain scream. He yells out all his suffering and pain, and it’s enough to send all the Trojans running back home.
That night, Hector’s army says hey, now Achilles is back, shouldn’t we hide in the city? But Hector is high on adrenaline, and some Athena-influence, and says nah, we’re gonna do exactly the same thing as we’ve been doing every single day so far. And his troops say yeah okay zero problem with that.
Meanwhile over with the Greeks, we see Achilles mourning some more for Patroclus. His body is cleaned up, but Achilles says he’s not going to bury him yet – he’s got to kill Hector first. He stays with the body, and cries some more.
While Achilles mourns his soulmate, his mum is on it with the support. She gets a brand-new set of armour made, and there’s a tonne of description of just how pretty it is.
Spoiler alert, but this is my favourite book.
With the armour all sparkly and new, Thetis heads up to Achilles to give him his new sorry-your-boyfriend-died gear, then promises she’ll keep Patroclus’ body looking sparkly new as well.
Now he’s all kitted up, Achilles announces he’s ready to fight and he’s skipping breakfast because THAT’S HOW KEEN HE IS. His soldiers however, not quite so keen, so Achilles ends up sat waiting for a bit while his troops eat. Seems a weird plot point for this super violent story? Agreed. But now we’re reminded yet again of how much Patroclus meant to everyone – Achilles takes some time with Briseis (who Agamemnon just gave back as a thank you – remember women are OBJECTS) to cry for Pat - who apparently was always super kind to the captured women (unsurprisingly angelic once again). Like all of us, Zeus finds this scene hella emotional, so pulls one of the more interesting divine interventions of this book – and fills Achilles’ up with some good old god food. No tummy rumbles for our boy!!
Think that’s weird? It’s gonna get crazier. Achilles heads to the battle, telling off his horses for letting Patroclus die as he goes. Seems strange? Not as strange as the horses REPLYING, and letting him know it wasn’t their fault !! it was a god !! and they’re gonna kill you !!! But Achilles only talks to horses, he’s not about to listen to them. Plus, he knew that already.
We’re in the final stretches folks. Zeus gets all the gods together and says, you know what, fuck it, let’s all go mad and get involved for one last time! But because every Greek god is a bit of a tool, they all decide that now they don’t want to do it anymore, and go sit down to watch.
Achilles is like a madman, killing everyone around, and Apollo quickly gives Hector a nudge, telling him to stay with his mates, and wait til Achilles comes to him. Kind of like advice when you’re trying to pet a cat? Anyway. Hector tries really hard, but just can’t resist, and runs up to fight Achilles. He instantly starts losing, and Apollo has to come rescue him.
Achilles carries on killing like it’s going out of fashion (which, tbf, it will soon). He kills so many people in fact, that the river gets completely full of bodies. The river, being also a god, gets fed up, and asks Achilles to stop killing people – but Achilles is full of vengeful anger, and he says he WON’T STOP KILLING. But he will stop throwing people in the river okay? But it’s a hard no to the ‘stop killing’.
The river’s not keen on this debate – he’s a fan of the Trojans and likes them being alive, so he calls to Apollo help him out. Achilles hears this, and gets so angry he fights the river. That’s right. He fights the actual river. And loses. Badly. But the gods are keen on the Achilles vs Hector showdown, so they force the river to let Achilles go.
Over on the other side of the battle, the king of Troy (a guy called Priam) has seen all his Trojans dying, and decided to open the city gates to let them run home. Only problem is, Achilles is back from his little river skirmish, and decides to chase them back to theirs. Luckily Apollo is jumping in again, and works with a Trojan prince to fight Achilles until the people are safely inside.
All the Trojans are in – apart from Hector. His dad, the king, tries to convince him to come back inside, but he’s too proud to slink away home, so he stays outside. And now it’s the big fight. Achilles approaches Hector, the gods wait for the showdown of all time… But first, Hector wants to ask Achilles nicely to stop. It doesn’t work. Okay so now it’s time for the fighting right?? Oh wait no – Hector’s off. Realising just how tough and angry Achilles looked, Hector just straight up runs away - racing around the city’s walls, with Achilles close behind.
After Zeus has double checked that yep, Hector definitely is needing to die today, the goddess Athena jumps in to stop this ridiculous chase me bit. She appears dressed as one of his pals, and shouts that they can take Achilles together! So Hector and his pal turn, and there’s Achilles right there. They both throw spears, they both miss – and Hector shouts to his friend “oi mate! Throw me your spear, I can take him!”. But there’s no one there. Athena is back to chilling and watching the fight.
Hector, basically just embracing death at this point, charges at Achilles, but forgets he’s wearing the dude’s armour (that he stole from his boyfriend’s dead body!) – and Achilles knows all its weaknesses. Achilles stabs Hector through the throat, and it’s done. Achilles wins. But before Hector dies, Achilles is quick to reassure him that his body definitely WON’T be being returned to Troy, and he definitely WILL be disrespecting his body. That’s for Patroclus. Achilles stabs the body a bit, then gets inventive, tying Hector to his chariot, and dragging him around the walls of Troy. Obviously Hector’s family all get a bit upset seeing this, and that’s where the scene ends.
We’re back to the Greek camp – and Achilles is still mourning Patroclus - who has to appear in a dream to ask him to please just finally bury him. It takes seeing his dead lover for Achilles to finally agree to let the body go – and then it’s all on for the wildest funeral ever. Achilles murders twelve captured Trojans (somehow in honour of Patroclus), and makes a massive funeral pyre.
The next day, it’s still more funeral fun, and there’s a massive set of games held in Pat’s honour. Basically a proto-Olympics, there’s tonnes of boxing, wrestling, all sorts. There’s then ANOTHER fight after ANOTHER Athena intervention at the races, but luckily the boys manage to sort this one out between them.
Spoiler alert – even though Achilles has buried Patroclus, he’s still grieving his lost love. And he’s also still dragging Hector’s body around because hey? He murdered him after all?
It takes 12 days, but even the gods get a bit sick of seeing all the body disrespecting that Achilles is up to. So they decide this probably has to end, and one final bit of god machinery ticks into action. Remember Hector’s dad Priam? The little king of Troy? Well that old man is on the move, creeping across the battlefield at night to get to Achilles’ tent. With a bit of divine guidance, he gets there, and immediately falls to his knees. There’s an emotional speech, in which Priam asks Achilles to think of his own dad, reminding him that he’s on his knees in front of his son’s murderer, and that’s pretty horrific for him. And honestly? Achilles is tired, and he’s sad, and he wants it all to be over. He cries for Patroclus, and for his dad that he left behind. Finally, Achilles agrees to let Priam take his son’s body home, and to pause the battle until they’ve buried him.
And that’s what they do. Priam sneaks the body home, and they build an enormous funeral pyre for him. On the tenth day, they light the pyre, and Hector is finally buried.
And that’s it folks, that’s where the Iliad wraps up. We’re finally through. Anticlimatic? Honestly, maybe. But a nice final reminder about how human Achilles is, and the real cost of war? I think so.
P.S. I know we didn't talk about the Trojan horse! That's cos it's not actually in this book! The Iliad finishes up BEFORE the war does, so we don't get the chance to see how the Greeks eventually take Troy. But you can read about it a little in Homer's follow-up of The Odyssey, and a lot in the Iliad rip-off The Aeneid, by a guy called Virgil.
If people are interested, I’ll put up a brief How To Understand the themes, which is the kind of thing that is really useful for exams (trust me, I’ve written about this in more exams than I care to remember). Let me know!