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Introducing Homer's Iliad
Introducing Homer's Iliad

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3.1 Meter and word order

The sung nature of oral poetry is particularly apparent from the fact that there is a strong metrical structure, or rhythm, to the poetry in the ancient Greek. Various metrical structures can be seen in more modern poetry; for example, Shakespeare’s sonnets make use of iambic pentameter (five metrical ‘feet’ of two syllables each, one unstressed and one stressed: da-DUM). The poetic genre of the Iliad – heroic epic – has, in the original Greek text, a very strict metrical structure. For each line of verse, in the Greek there are six metrical feet – hence the full name of Homer’s poetry: hexameter – composed of a combination of short and long syllables. You don’t need to recognise the precise structure of the hexameter metrical line, but it is important to know this is the fundamental basis for how the poetry works.

Activity 5

Listen to the first audio, which is a recording of the English translation of the first seven lines of the Iliad. Then listen to the second audio, which is a recording of the first seven lines of the Iliad being recited in ancient Greek, in order to hear the rhythm. Finally, listen to the third audio, which discusses the metrical structure of these lines.

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Audio 1 Reading of lines 1–7 of the Iliad in translation
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Audio 2 Lucy Jackson reads lines 1–7 of the Iliad in Greek
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Audio 3 A discussion of meter in these lines
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As you heard, the metrical structure of the Iliad is particularly strict. You might expect that this would affect how creative the poet could be in his choice of words and phrases. Although the meter did in some ways constrain the poetry, in fact the poet was able to use the form to great effect by exploiting the flexibility of Greek word order.

Activity 6

Now return to those first seven lines, but this time you’re going to look at the order of the words in Greek, and how they’ve been translated into English. You are not expected to be able to read the Greek here (though if you’ve studied ancient Greek before, you may be able to recognise some words); a literal translation to illustrate the original word order is provided. For each line, you are given the Greek text, then the transliteration (the Greek text rendered in English letters), then the literal word order in English and finally the good English translation. Take a few minutes to study each line and see how the English translation relates to the original Greek word order. Then look more closely at the Greek word order, and see if you can spot any interesting effects.

Line 1

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος

menin aeide thea Peleiadeo Achileos

anger sing goddess son-of-Peleus Achilles

Sing, goddess, the anger of Achilles, Peleus' son,


Line 2

οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,

oulomenen, he myri’ Achaiois alge’ etheke,

accursed, that countless to-the-Achaeans agonies brought

the accursed anger which brought the Achaeans countless


Line 3

πολλὰς δ᾽ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν

pollas d’ iphthimous psychas Aidi proiapsen

many and mighty shades into-Hades hurled

agonies and hurled many mighty shades of heroes into Hades,


Line 4

ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν

heroon, autous de heloria teuche kynessin

of-heroes, them and prey causing-them-to-become of-dogs

causing them to become the prey of dogs and


Line 5

οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι, Διὸς δ᾽ ἐτελείετο βουλή,

oionoisi te pasi, Dios d’ eteleieto boule,

of-birds and all-kinds, of-Zeus and was-fulfilled plan.

all kinds of birds; and the plan of Zeus was fulfilled.


Line 6

ἐξ οὗ δὴ τὰ πρῶτα διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε

ex hou de ta prota diasteten erisante

from when indeed the first in-strife were-divided

Sing from the time the two men were first divided in strife—


Line 7

Ἀτρεΐδης τε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν καὶ δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς.

Atreides te anax andron kai dios Achilleus.

Son-of-Atreus both lord of-men and glorious Achilles.

Atreus' son, lord of men, and glorious Achilles.


You might have noticed that the translator tries to keep the same words on the same line in his translation, even though he cannot keep the same word order; it appears that the only major deviation is the word ‘agonies’, which he moves from the second line to the third line. Similarly, he tries not to add in any more extra words than are necessary to make sense of the Greek grammar, with the exception of the repetition of the word ‘sing’ on line 6.

You might have also noted that the first word in Greek is ‘anger’, which as you saw in the Troy Story I animation is the theme of the whole poem – the anger of Achilles. This is an intentional use of the flexibility of ancient Greek word order, to have the effect of highlighting the theme of the poem from the very beginning for the listening audience. It is difficult, however, to translate this into English in a way that maintains this effect, and so many translators choose to start with the imperative ‘sing’, directed towards the Muse.

You might have spotted a similar effect in the Greek on lines two and four, where the first word of each line is part of a phrase that runs over from the previous line: ‘accursed’ on line two, and ‘heroes’ on line four (this poetic technique of running a sentence over two lines to emphasise certain words is called enjambement). Thus, like anger, these words are highlighted and their force emphasised; we learn that Achilles’ anger will be terrible and destructive, and meet for the first time the heroes who will play such major roles in the epic.

However, it’s possible to draw out another interesting point from the introduction of the heroes here. You might have been surprised by the fact that the first thing we hear about the heroes is that their souls are being hurled into Hades. This sombre, reflective tone and focus on death contains no suggestion of a celebration of heroic activity. We can see from the very start, then, that the Iliad is not a poem that glorifies war, or even necessarily the heroic way of life; although the heroes are obviously set apart from ‘normal’ people (both at the time of the poem’s original performance and in the present day) by their strength, courage, and honour, they are still victims of the fighting and subject to their own mortality.