100 Best Books for an Education

A Revision and Update of Will Durant's 100 Best Books for an Education

Note 31


The Iliad and the Odyssey of “Homer”*


The Siege of Troy

Was there such a siege? We only know that every Greek historian, and every Greek poet, and almost every temple record or legend in Greece, took it for granted; that archaeology has placed the ruined city, generously multiplied, before our eyes; and that today, as until the last century, the story and its heroes are accepted as in essence real. An Egyptian inscription of Rameses III reports that “the isles were restless” towards 1183 B.C.; and Pliny alludes to a Rameses “in whose time Troy fell.” The great Alexandrian scholar Eratosthenes, based on traditional genealogies collated late in the sixth century B.C. by the geographer-historian Hecataeus, calculated the date of the siege as 1194 B.C.

    The ancient Persians and Phoenicians agreed with the Greeks in tracing the great war to four abductions of beautiful women. The Egyptians, they said, stole Io from Argos, the Greeks stole Europa from Phoenicia, and Medea from Colchis; did not a just balancing of the scales require that Paris should abduct Helen? Stesichorus in his penitent years, and after him Herodotus and Euripides, refused to admit that Helen had gone to Troy; she had only gone to Egypt, under constraint, and had merely waited there a dozen years for Menelaus to come and find her; besides, asked Herodotus, who could believe that the Trojans would fight ten years for one woman? Euripides attributed the expedition to excess population in Greece, and the consequent urge to expansion; so old are the youngest excuses of the will to power.

    Nevertheless, it is possible that they used some such story to make the adventure digestible for the common Greek; men must have phrases if they are to give their lives. Whatever may have been the face and shibboleth of the war, its cause and essence lay, almost beyond doubt, in the struggle of two groups of powers for possession of the Hellespont and the rich lands lying about the Black Sea. All Greece and all western Asia saw it as a decisive conflict; the little nations of Greece came to the aid of Agamemnon, and the peoples of Asia Minor sent repeated reinforcements to Troy. It was the beginning of a struggle that would be renewed at Marathon and Salamis, at Issus and Arbela, at Tours and Granada, at Lepanto and Vienna. . . .

    Of the events and aftermath of the war, we can relate only what the poets and dramatists of Greece have told us; we accept this as rather literature than history, but even more for that reason a part of the story of civilization; we know that war is ugly, and that the Iliad is beautiful. Art (to vary Aristotle) may make even terror beautiful—and so purify it—by giving it significance and form. Not that the form of the Iliad is perfect; the structure is loose, the narrative is sometimes contradictory or obscure, the conclusion does not conclude; nevertheless the perfection of the parts atones for the disorder of the whole, and with all its minor faults the story becomes one of the great dramas of literature, perhaps of history.

    (I) At the opening of the poem the Greeks have already besieged Troy for nine years in vain; they are despondent, homesick, and decimated with disease. They had been delayed at Aulis by sickness and a windless sea; and Agamemnon had embittered Clytaemnestra, and prepared his own fate, by sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia for a breeze. On the way up the coast the Greeks had stopped here and there to replenish their supplies of food and concubines; Agamemnon had taken the fair Chryseis, Achilles the fair Briseis. A soothsayer now declares that Apollo is withholding success from the Greeks because Agamemnon has violated the daughter of Apollo’s priest, Chryseis. The King restores Chryseis to her father, but, to console himself and point a tale, he compels Briseis to leave Achilles and take Chryseis’ place in the royal tent. Achilles convokes a general assembly, and denounces Agamemnon with a wrath that provides the first word and the recurring theme of the Iliad. He vows that neither he nor his soldiers will any longer stir a hand to help the Greeks.

    (II) We pass in review the ships and tribes of the assembled force and (III) see bluff Menelaus engaging Paris in single combat to decide the war. The two armies sit down in civilized truce; Priam joins Agamemnon in solemn sacrifice to the gods. Menelaus overcomes Paris, but Aphrodite snatches the lad safely away in a cloud and deposits him, miraculously powdered and perfumed, upon his marriage bed. Helen bids him return to the fight, but he counter proposes that they “give the hour to dalliance.” The lady, flattered by desire, yields. (IV) Agamemnon declares Menelaus victor, and the war apparently ends; but the gods, in imitative council on Olympus, demand more blood. Zeus votes for peace, but withdraws his vote in terrified retreat when Hera, his spouse, directs her speech upon him. She suggests that if Zeus will agree to the destruction of Troy she will allow him to raze Mycenae, Argos, and Sparta to the ground. The war is renewed; many a man falls pierced by arrow, lance, or sword, and “darkness enfolds his eyes.”

    (V) The gods join in the merry slicing game; Diomed’s spear hurts Ares, the awful god of war, who “utters a cry as of nine thousand men,” and runs off to complain to Zeus. (VI) In a pretty interlude, the Trojan leader Hector, before rejoining the battle, bids goodbye to his wife Andromache. “Love,” she whispers to him, “thy stout heart will be thy death; nor hast thou pity of thy child or me, who shall soon be a widow. My father and my mother and my brothers all are slain; but, Hector, thou art father to me and mother, and thou art the husband of my youth. Have pity, then, and stay here in the tower.” “Full well I know,” he answers, “that Troy will fall, and I foresee the sorrow of my brethren and the King; for them I grieve not; but to think of thee a slave in Argos unmans me almost. Yet, even so, I will not shirk the fight.” His infant son Astyanax, destined shortly to be flung over the walls to death by the victorious Greeks, screams in fright at Hector’s waving plumes, and the hero removes his helmet that he may laugh, weep, and pray over the wondering child. Then he strides down the causeway to the battle, and (VII) engages Ajax, King of Salamis, in single combat. They fight bravely, and separate at nightfall with exchange of praise and gifts—a flower of courtesy floating on a sea of blood. (VIII) After a day of Trojan victories Hector bids his warriors rest.


Thus made harangue to them Hector; and roaring the Trojans applauded.

Then from the yoke loosed their war-steeds sweating, and each by his chariot

Tethered his horses with thongs. And then they brought from the city,

Hastily, oxen and goodly sheep; and wine honey-hearted

Gave them, . . . and corn from the houses.

Firewood they gathered withal; and then from the plain to the heavens

Rose on the winds the sweet savor. And these by the highways of battle

Hopeful sat through the night, and many their watch-fires burning.


Even as when in the sky the stars shine out round the night-orb,

Wondrous to see, and the winds are laid, and the peaks and the headlands

Tower to the view, and the glades come out, and the glorious heaven

Stretches itself to its widest, and sparkle the stars multitudinous,

Gladdening the heart of the toil-wearied shepherd—even as countless

’Twixt the black ships and the river of Xanthus glittered the watch-fires

Built by the horse-taming Trojans by Ilium.

Meanwhile the war-wearied horses, champing spelt and white barley,

Close by their chariots, waited the coming of fair-thronèd Dawn.


    (IX) Nestor, King of Elian Pylus, advises Agamemnon to restore Briseis to Achilles; he agrees, and promises Achilles half of Greece if he will rejoin the siege; but Achilles continues to pout. (X) Odysseus and Diomed make a two-man sally upon the Trojan camp at night, and slay a dozen chieftains. (XI)Agamemnon leads his army valiantly, is wounded, and retires. Odysseus, surrounded, fights like a lion; Ajax and Menelaus cleave a path to him, and save him for a bitter life. (XII-XIII) When the Trojans advance to the walls that the Greeks have built about their camp (XIV) Hera is so disturbed that she resolves to rescue the Greeks. Oiled, perfumed, ravishingly gowned, and bound with Aphrodite’s aphrodisiac girdle, she seduces Zeus to a divine slumber while Poseidon helps the Greeks to drive the Trojans back. (XV) Advantage fluctuates; the Trojans reach the Greek ships, and the poet rises to a height of fervid narrative as the Greeks fight desperately in a retreat that must mean death.

    (XVI) Patroclus, beloved of Achilles, wins his permission to lead Achilles’ troops against Troy; Hector slays him, and (XVII) fights Ajax fiercely over the body of the youth. (XVIII) Hearing of Patroclus’ death, Achilles at last resolves to fight. His goddess-mother Thetis persuades the divine smithy, Hephaestus, to forge for him new arms and a mighty shield. (XIX) Achilles is reconciled with Agamemnon, (XX) engages Aeneas, and is about to kill him when Poseidon rescues him for Virgil’s purposes. (XXI) Achilles slaughters a host of Trojans, and sends them to Hades with long genealogical speeches. The gods take up the fight: Athena lays Ares low with a stone, and when Aphrodite, going for a soldier, tries to save him, Athena knocks her down with a blow upon her fair breast. Hera cuffs the ears of Artemis; Poseidon and Apollo content themselves with words. (XXII) All Trojans but Hector fly from Achilles; Priam and Hecuba counsel Hector to stay behind the walls, but he refuses. Then suddenly, as Achilles advances upon him, Hector takes to his heels. Achilles pursues him three times around the walls of Troy; Hector makes a stand, and is killed.

    (XXIII) In the subsiding finale of the drama, they cremate Patroclus with ornate ritual. Achilles sacrifices to him many cattle, twelve captured Trojans, and his own long hair. The Greeks honor Patroclus with games, and (XXIV) Achilles drags the corpse of Hector behind his chariot three times around the pyre. Priam comes in state and sorrow to beg for the remains of his son. Achilles relents, grants a truce of twelve days, and allows the aged king to take the cleansed and anointed body back to Troy. 

* Ed. Note: For a discussion on how “Homer” composed these epics, please refer to Note 14 on how the “oral-formulaic” method worked.

Helen, it need hardly be said, was the daughter of Zeus, who, in the form of a swan, seduced Leda, wife of Sparta’s King Tyndareus.

Parenthetical numbers indicate books of the Iliad.


The Homecoming

Here the great poem suddenly ends, as if the poet had used up his share of a common story, and must leave the rest to another minstrel’s lay. We are told by the later literature how Paris, standing beside the battle, slew Achilles with an arrow that pierced his vulnerable heel, and how Troy fell at last through the stratagem of the wooden horse. Their victory vanquished the victors themselves, and they returned in weary sadness to their longed-for homes. Many of them were shipwrecked, and some of these, stranded on alien shores, founded Greek colonies in Asia, the Aegean, and Italy. Menelaus, who had vowed that he would kill Helen, fell in love with her anew when the “goddess among women” came to him in the calm majesty of her loveliness; gladly he took her back to be his queen again in Sparta. When Agamemnon reached Mycenae, he “clasped his land and kissed it, and many were the hot tears that streamed from his eyes.” But during his long absence Clytaemnestra had taken his cousin Aegisthus for husband and king; and when Agamemnon entered the palace they slew him.

    Sadder still was the homecoming of Odysseus; and here probably another “Homer”* has told the tale in a poem less powerful and heroic, gentler and pleasanter, than the Iliad. Odysseus, says the Odyssey, is shipwrecked on the island of Ogygia, a fairyland Tahiti, whose goddess-queen Calypso holds him as her lover for eight years while secretly he pines for his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus, who pine for him at Ithaca.

* Ed. Note: Precisely as “Second Isaiah” undertook to complete the book of Isaiah, so “Second Homer” completed the tale of the sack of Troy and the warriors’ homecoming.

Very probably, the narrative in this instance has less basis in history than the Iliad. The legend of the long-wandering mariner or warrior, whose wife cannot recognize him on his return, is apparently older than the story of Troy, and appears in almost every literature. Odysseus is the Sinuhe, the Sinbad, the Robinson Crusoe, and the Enoch Arden of the Greeks. The geography of the poem is a mystery that still exercises leisurely minds.


(I) Athena persuades Zeus to bid Calypso let Odysseus depart. The goddess flies to Telemachus, and hears with sympathy the youth’s simple tale: how the princes of Ithaca and its vassal isles are paying court to Penelope, seeking through her the throne, and how meanwhile they live gaily in Odysseus’ palace, and consume his substance. (II) Telemachus bids the suitors disperse, but they laugh at his youth. Secretly he embarks upon the sea in search of his father, while Penelope, mourning now for both husband and son, holds off the suitors by promising to wed one of them when she has completed her web—of which she unweaves at night as much as she has woven by day. (III) Telemachus visits Nestor at Pylus and (IV) Menelaus at Sparta, but neither can tell him where to find his father. The poet paints an attractive picture of Helen settled and subdued, but still divinely beautiful; she has long since been forgiven her sins, and remarks that when Troy fell she had grown tired of the city anyway.*

    (V) Now for the first time Odysseus enters the tale. “Sitting on the shore” of Calypso’s isle, “his eyes were dry of tears, and his sweet life ebbed away, as he longed mournfully for his return. By night indeed he would sleep by Calypso’s side perforce in the hollow caves, unwilling beside the willing nymph, but by day he would sit on the rocks and the sands, rocking his soul with tears and groans, and looking over the unresting sea.” Calypso, having detained him one night more, bids him make a raft and set out alone.

    (VI) After many struggles with the ocean, Odysseus lands in the mythical country of Phaeacia (possibly Corcyra-Corfu), and is found by the maiden Nausicaa, who leads him to the palace of her father, King Alcinous. The lass falls in love with the strong-limbed, strong-hearted hero, and confides to her companions: “Listen, my white-armed maidens. . . . Erewhile this man seemed to me uncomely, but now he is like the gods that keep wide heaven. Would that such a one might be called my husband, dwelling here, and that it might please him here to abide.” (VII-VIII) Odysseus makes so good an impression that Alcinous offers him Nausicaa’s hand. Odysseus excuses himself, but is glad to tell the story of his return from Troy.

    (IX) His ships (he tells the King) were borne off their course to the land of the Lotus-Eaters, who gave his men such honey-sweet lotus fruit that many forgot their homes and their longing, and Odysseus had to force them back to their ships. There they sailed to the land of the Cyclopes, one-eyed giants who lived without law or labor on an island abounding in wild grain and fruit. Caught in a cave by the Cyclop Polyphemus, who ate several of his men, Odysseus saved the remnant by lulling the monster to sleep with wine, and then burning out his single eye. (X) The wanderers took again to the sea, and came to the land of the Laestrygonians; but these, too, were cannibals, and only Odysseus’ ship escaped them. He and his mates reached next the isle of Aenea, where the lovely and treacherous goddess Circe lured most of them into her cave with song, drugged them, and turned them into swine. Odysseus was about to slay her when he changed his mind and accepted her love. He and his comrades, now restored to human form, remained with Circe a full year. (XI) Setting sail again, they came to a land perpetually dark, which proved to be the entrance to Hades; there Odysseus talked with the shades of Agamemnon, Achilles, and his mother. (XII) Resuming their voyage, they passed the island of the Sirens, against whose seductive strains Odysseus protected his men by putting wax into their ears. In the straits (Messina?) of Scylla and Charybdis his ship was wrecked, and he alone survived, to live for eight long years on Calypso’s isle.

    (XIII) Alcinous is so moved with sympathy by Odysseus’ tale that he bids his men row Odysseus to Ithaca, but to blindfold him lest he learn and reveal the location of their happy land. On Ithaca the goddess Athena guides the wanderer to the hut of his old swineherd Eumaeus, who (XIV), though not recognizing him, receives him with Gargantuan hospitality. (XV) When Telemachus is led by the goddess to the same hut Odysseus (XVI) makes himself known to his son, and both “wail aloud vehemently.” He unfolds to Telemachus a plan for slaying all the suitors. (XVII-XVIII) In the guise of a beggar, he enters his palace, sees the wooers feasting at his expense, and rages inwardly when he hears that they lie with his maidservants at night even while courting Penelope by day. (XIX-XX) The suitors insult and injure him, but he defends himself with vigor and patience. (XXI) By this time, the wooers have discovered the trick of Penelope’s web, and have forced her to finish it. She agrees to marry whichever of them can string Odysseus’ great bow—that hangs on the wall—and shoot an arrow through the openings of twelve axes ranged in line. They all try, and all fail. Odysseus asks for a chance, and succeeds. (XXII) Then with a wrath that frightens everyone, he casts off his disguise, turns his arrows upon the suitors, and, with the help of Telemachus, Eumaeus, and Athena, slays them all. (XXIII) He finds it hard to convince Penelope that he is Odysseus; it is difficult to surrender twenty suitors for one husband. (XXIV) He meets the attack of the suitors’ sons, pacifies them, and reestablishes his kingdom.

* After her death, said Greek tradition, she was worshiped as a goddess. It was a common belief in Greece that the gods punished those who spoke ill of her; even Homer’s blindness, it was hinted, came upon him because he had lent his song to the calumnious notion that Helen had eloped to Troy, instead of being snatched off to Egypt against her will.


    Meanwhile in Argos the greatest tragedy in Greek legend was pursuing its course. Orestes, son of Agamemnon, grown to manhood and aroused by his bitter sister Electra, avenged their father by murdering their mother and her paramour. After many years of madness and wandering Orestes ascended the throne of Argos-Mycenae (c. 1176 B.C.) and later added Sparta to his kingdom.* However, from his accession the house of Pelops began to decline. Perhaps the decline had begun with Agamemnon, and that vacillating chieftain had used war as a means of uniting a realm that was already falling to pieces. But his victory completed his ruin. For few of his chieftains ever returned, and the kingdoms of many others had lost all loyalty to them. By the end of the age that had opened with the siege of Troy the Achaean power was spent, the blood of Pelops was exhausted. The people waited patiently for a saner dynasty.

* Sir Arthur Evans has found, in a Mycenaean tomb in Boeotia, engravings representing a young man attacking a sphinx, and a youth killing an older man and a woman. He believes that these refer to Oedipus and Orestes; and as he ascribes these engravings to c. 1450 B.C., he argues for a date for Oedipus and Orestes some two centuries earlier than the epoch tentatively assigned to these characters in the text.