The Iliad: An Introduction

BY Simon Goldhill   October 16, 2015

Good morning. You’re about to hear The Iliad. It’s a foundational text of Western culture. It’s a foundational text not because it’s the first epic, but because it puts in place most of the great themes of Western literature, from power to adultery.

It sets in conflict Agamemnon, king of the Greeks—the most powerful man, the man with the most status—against Achilles, the man with the most force, the most military strong man. But if there’s one question that motivates the whole of The Iliad, it’s the question, What is it worth dying for? What are your commitments to fighting? What is your commitment to a good life?

For Achilles, the answer is simple: he will give up his life for immortal fame. And the story is how he prepared even to risk that hope when he’s insulted, but how he returns to battle to die young for that fame.

The great theme of The Iliad, announced in the first word, is wrath, rage, anger. And one of the questions that follows from that is, What is the place of violent emotion within society? For Achilles, violent rage is essential to his success as a hero—but it’s socially destructive.

Amidst this question of power and conflict emerges his friend Patroclus, who says to him in the middle of the epic, “What need have you of me, Achilles?” And the one thing Achilles has to learn by the end of the epic is what need he has of other people in his pursuit of personal glory.

Now this is part of the Almeida’s season of Greek tragedy at the theatre: wonderful performances of the Oresteia, which is now transferring to the West End, Bakkhai, currently on at the moment, and Medea starting soon. It couldn’t be more suitable to read The Iliad in this context.

In Ancient Greece in the 5th Century BC, all the Greek plays were put on at the festival of the Great Dionysia.  But at the same time next to the Festival of the Great Dionysia in similar years you had the Festival of the Great Panathenaia? And at the Great Panathenaia the whole of Homer was read aloud to the same audience that head the tragedies. So today we are doing something remarkably Greek.

And when the audience came into the theatre to hear the whole of The Iliad, they already knew a lot of the backstory. They knew that Paris had committed adultery with Helen and Helen had come to Troy. They knew the Greeks were already at Troy to try and capture the city and win back Helen. And one of the most remarkable things about the Iliad is it doesn’t try to tell the whole story: it just tells the few days of Achilles’ wrath, Achilles’ anger. It doesn’t even tell you the story of the end of Troy or the recapturing of Helen. It leaves you in a moment of truce at the end, with Hector dead, Achilles awaiting death, Troy awaiting destruction.

And when the Greeks came into the theatre to sit and hear the all of Homer, this is how it would have begun for them…