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Introducing Homer's Iliad
Introducing Homer's Iliad

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1 The Troy story

Homer’s two poems – the Iliad and the Odyssey – together tell the story of a war between Greeks and Trojans at a place called Troy (or Ilium, to give it its Latinised name – hence the Iliad), and the return home of one of the heroes, Odysseus (hence the Odyssey). Even if you think you don’t know anything about the Trojan War, perhaps you’ve heard the phrases ‘Achilles’ heel’, ‘Trojan horse’, or ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’? Or you may have seen a film, watched a TV programme, or read a novel based on the story of Troy. For many people, these stories are a gateway into the classical world.

Since Homer’s poems are part of the Trojan War story, it is a good idea first to provide a summary of the siege of Troy: why it began, what happened there, and how it ended. Although there’s a considerable cast of characters, both divine and mortal, you don’t need to know them all: the course will help guide you through all details that are important. It’s also worth highlighting two features of this account. First, this summary has been stitched together from a wide range of sources. Versions of the Troy story don’t just appear in Homer: we have other literary sources, including fragments of rival epic poems about the war (one called the Cypria narrated its beginning, another called the Sack of Troy its end); a poem about the origins of the cosmos under Zeus’ rule (Hesiod’s Theogony); and a collection of thirty-three poems honouring the gods (the Homeric Hymns), while the backstory to Achilles’ mother, Thetis, is preserved in the much later fifth-century poem Isthmian 8 by Pindar. Extracts from the Trojan story also appear in other media, notably depictions on ceramics and temple friezes. There is never any one canonical version of the Trojan War, nor any one version that tells the whole story. Second, what we see here is myth in action: the Troy story isn’t historical fact but a traditional story for thinking about the past, involving supernatural beings (gods and heroes), and continually retold and reworked from the standpoint of each successive generation.

Please note: Though we call the poet of the Iliad and the Odyssey ‘Homer’, in fact very little is known about who wrote them. This question of authorship will be discussed in more detail later in this course.