Summary of the Iliad Book I

What happens in the first book of Homer's Iliad

Pope's The Iliad of Homer, books I, VI, XXII, and XXIV

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| Summary of Iliad Book I | Main Characters | Notes | Iliad Study Guide

Song of the Wrath of Achilles

In the very first line of the Iliad, the poet addresses the Muse, who inspires him with song, and asks her to sing (through him) the story of the wrath of the son of Peleus, aka Achilles. Achilles is angry with King Agamemnon for reasons shortly to be divulged, but first, the poet lays blame at the feet of Achilles for the death of many of the Achaean warriors. (Homer refers to the Greeks as 'Achaeans' or 'Argives' or 'Danaans', but we call them 'Greeks', so I'll use the term 'Greek' throughout.) The poet then also blames the son of Zeus and Leto, aka Apollo, who has sent a plague to kill the Greeks. (The parallel blame of gods and mortals is common throughout the Iliad.)

Apollo the Mouse God

Before returning to the wrath of Achilles, the poet elaborates Apollo's motives for killing Greeks. Agamemnon holds the daughter of Apollo's priest Chryses (Chryseis). Chryses is willing to forgive and even bless Agamemnon's ventures, if Agamemnon will return Chryses' daughter, but instead, the haughty King Agamemnon sends Chryses packing.

Calchas' Prophecy

To repay the indignity Chryses has suffered, Apollo, the mouse god, rains arrows of plague on the Greek forces for 9 days. (Rodents do spread plague, so the association between a divine mouse function and delivering plague makes sense, even if the Greeks weren't completely aware of the connection.) The Greeks don't know why Apollo is angry, so Achilles persuades them to consult the seer Calchas, which they do. Calchas reveals Agamemnon's responsibility. He adds that the plague will only lift if the dishonor is amended: Chryses' daughter must be freely restored to her father, and appropriate offerings made to Apollo.

Trade of Briseis

Agamemnon is not pleased with the prophecy, but realizes he must comply, so he agrees, conditionally: Achilles must hand over to Agamemnon Briseis. Achilles had received Briseis as a war prize from the sack of Thebe, a city in Cilicia, where Achilles had killed Eetion, father of the Trojan prince Hector's wife, Andromache. Since then, Achilles had grown very attached to her.

Achilles Stops Fighting for the Greeks

Achilles agrees to hand over Briseis because Athena (one of the 3 goddesses, together with Aphrodite and Hera, who was involved in the judgment of Paris, a war goddess, and the sister of the war god Ares), tells him to. However, at the same time he surrenders Briseis, Achilles sulkily quits the Greek forces.

Thetis Petitions Zeus on Behalf of Her Son

Achilles complains to his nymph mother Thetis, who, in turn, brings the complaint to Zeus, the king of the gods. Thetis says that since Agamemnon has dishonored her son, Zeus should honor Achilles. Zeus agrees, but faces the wrath of his wife, Hera, queen of the gods, for his involvement in the conflict. When Zeus angrily dismisses Hera, the queen of the gods turns to her son Hephaestus, who comforts her. However, Hephaestus won't help Hera because he still vividly recalls the anger of Zeus when he pushed him off Mt. Olympus. (Hephaestus is depicted as lame as a result of the fall, although this is not specified here.)

English Translation of | Summary of Iliad Book I | Characters | Notes| Iliad Study Guide

  • The Muse - without the inspiration of the Muse, Homer couldn't write. There were three Muses originally, Aoede (song), Melete (pracice), and Mneme (memory), and later nine. They were the daughters of Mnemosyne (Memory). The Muse of song was Calliope.
  • Achilles - best warrior and most heroic of the Greeks, although he is sitting out the war.
  • Agamemnon - lead king of the Greek forces, the brother of Menelaus.
  • Zeus - king of the gods. Zeus attempts neutrality.
    Known as Jupiter or Jove among the Romans and in some translations of the Iliad.
  • Apollo - god of many attributes. In Book I Apollo is known as the mouse and therefore plague god. He is upset with the Greeks because they have dishonored him by insulting one of his priests.
  • Hera - queen of the gods, wife and sister of Zeus. Hera is on the side of the Greeks.
    Known as Juno among the Romans and in some translations of the Iliad.
  • Hephaestus - blacksmith god, son of Hera
    Known as Vulcan among the Romans and in some translations of the Iliad.
  • Chryses - priest of Apollo. His daughter is Chryseis, who was taken as a war prize by Agamemnon.
  • Calchas - seer for the Greeks.
  • Athena - a war goddess who especially favors Odysseus and other heroes. Athena is on the side of the Greeks.
    Known as Minerva among the Romans and in some translations of the Iliad.

Profiles of Some of the Major Olympian Gods Involved in the Trojan War

Summary and Main Characters of the Iliad Book I

Summary and Main Characters of the Iliad Book II

Summary and Main Characters of the Iliad Book III

Summary and Main Characters of the Iliad Book IV

Summary and Main Characters of the Iliad Book V

Summary and Main Characters of the Iliad Book VI

Summary and Main Characters of the Iliad Book VII

Summary and Main Characters of the Iliad Book IX

Summary and Main Characters of the Iliad Book XI

Summary and Main Characters of the Iliad Book XII

Summary and Main Characters of the Iliad Book XIV

Summary and Main Characters of the Iliad Book XIX

Summary and Main Characters of the Iliad Book XX

Summary and Main Characters of the Iliad Book XXIV

English Translation of | Summary | Main Characters | Notes on Iliad Book I| Iliad Study Guide

The following are comments that occurred to me while reading English translations of Book I of the Iliad. Many of them are very basic and may be obvious. I hope they will be useful for people who are reading the Iliad as their first introduction to ancient Greek literature.

"O goddess"
The ancient poets gave the gods and goddesses credit for many things, including the inspiration to write. When Homer calls on the goddess, he is asking the goddess known as Muse to help him write. The number of muses varied and they became specialized.

"to Hades"
Hades is the god of the Underworld and a son of Cronus, making him the brother of Zeus, Poseidon, Demeter, Hera, and Hestia. The Greeks had a vision of an afterlife that includes having a king and queen (Hades and Persephone, daughter of Demeter) on thrones, various realms to which people were sent depending on how good they were in life, a river that had to be crossed via a ferry and a three-headed (or more) watchdog named Cerberus. The living feared that when they died they might be left standing on the other side of the river waiting to cross because the body was unburied or there was no coin for the ferryman.

"many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures"
We tend to think that once you're dead, you're dead, and what happens to your body makes no difference, but to the Greeks, it was important for the body to be in good shape. It would then be put on a funeral pyre and burned, so it would seem it makes no difference what it was like, but the Greeks also made sacrifices to the gods by means of burning animals. These animals had to be the best and unblemished. In other words, just because the body would be burned did not mean the body could be in less than pristine shape.
Later in the Iliad, this almost obsessive need for a body in good shape causes the Greeks and Trojans to fight over Patroclus, whose head the Trojans wish to remove and put on a spike, and over the corpse of Hector, which Achilles does everything he can to abuse, but without success, because the gods watch over it.

"so as to take away the plague from us."
Apollo shot silver arrows that could kill humans with the plague. Although there may be some debate over the etymology, Apollo appears to have been known as a Mouse god, probably because of a recognition of the connection between rodents and disease.

"through the prophesyings with which Phoebus Apollo had inspired him"

Augurs could predict the future and tell the will of the gods. Apollo was particularly associated with prophesy and is considered the god who inspires the oracle at Delphi.

"'A plain man cannot stand against the anger of a king, who if he swallow his displeasure now, will yet nurse revenge till he has wreaked it. Consider, therefore, whether or no you will protect me.'"
Achilles is here asked to protect the prophet against the will of Agamemnon. Since Agamemnon is the most powerful king, Achilles must be pretty strong to be able to offer his protection. In Book 24, when Priam visits him, Achilles tells him to sleep on the porch so that any possible emissary from Agamemnon will not see him because, in this case, Achilles would not be strong enough or willing to protect him.

"I have set my heart on keeping her in my own house, for I love her better even than my own wife Clytemnestra, whose peer she is alike in form and feature, in understanding and accomplishments."
says he loves Chrseis better than his own wife Clytemnestra. It is not really saying a lot. After the fall of Troy, when Agamemnon goes home, he takes along a concubine whom he publicly displays to Clytemnestra, antagonizing her even more than he already has by sacrificing their daughter to Artemis to ensure a successful sailing for his fleet. He seems to love her as property, as Achilles recognizes....

"And Achilles answered, 'Most noble son of Atreus, covetous beyond all mankind'"
Achilles comments on how greedy the king is. Achilles is not as powerful as Agamemnon, and ultimately, can't stand against him; however, he can be and is very annoying.

"Then Agamemnon said, 'Achilles, valiant though you be, you shall not thus outwit me. You shall not overreach and you shall not persuade me.'"
Agamemnon rightly accuses Achilles of over-reaching and by taunting the king, provokes him to insist on taking Achilles' prize.

"'What though you be brave? Was it not heaven that made you so?'"
Achilles is renowned for his bravery, but Agamemnon says it is no big deal, since it is a gift of the gods.

There are many biases/alien attitudes in the Iliad. The pro-Trojan gods are weaker than the pro-Greek. Heroism comes only to those noble birth. Agamemnon is superior because he is more powerful. Same with Zeus, vis a vis Poseidon and Hades. Achilles is too proud to settle for an ordinary life. Zeus has much contempt for his wife. Death can confer honor, but so can trophies of battle. A woman is worth a few oxen, but is worth less than certain other animals.

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