Ancient Greece—Homeric Epics

Trojan War to Return of Odysseus

Era Summary       Characters       Timeline       Reading Assignments      

Era Summary—Homeric Epics

The Iliad and the Odyssey were epic poems that told of events that occurred during and immediately after a great war between Achaean Greeks and the city of Troy. They were said to have been created by a blind minstrel named Homer, who lived several hundred years after the Trojan War. Very little is known with certainty about Homer, although he authored what are widely believed to be the oldest and most important epics in Western Civilization.

It cannot be said too strongly how important these stories were to the Ancient Greeks. Every Greek was familiar with them – even Greeks that were illiterate. Many minstrels were thought to know them by heart (all 25,000 lines), and for hundreds of years Greeks of all occupations, from all over the Greek speaking world, listened to bards singing these stories as a favorite form of entertainment. The Homeric Epics held the same importance to Greek culture as the Bible holds to Christian culture. And like the stories in the Bible, the stories in the Iliad and Odyssey are not just about people, but about characters, values, and free will, and how the will of God (or Gods) influences human activity. A short summary of these immortal epics follow:

The Iliad—A Story of the Trojan War

Achilles
ACHILLES DRAGGING THE BODY OF HECTOR.
From the Mortals' point of view, the Trojan War began when a beautiful Greek Princess named Helen was kidnapped by Paris, a Trojan Prince. In order to honor a previously agreed upon pact, all of the Kings of Greece form an alliance to go to war with Troy and win her return. From the point of view of the Gods however, the Trojan War is the result of some bickering between jealous Goddesses on Mount Olympus, with Aphrodite and her lover Ares favoring the cause of Troy, but Athena, Hera and their allies, on the side of the Greeks.

Most of the action of the Iliad takes place in the last year of the war, when the two Greek leaders Achilles and Agamemnon argue over a slave girl, and Achilles, who is considered the Greek’s greatest warrior, lays down his weapons and refuses to fight. Achilles sulks and sits out the battle until his best friend Patroclus is killed. At that point his desire for revenge overtakes his self-pity and he leads the Greeks to a great victory before being killed himself.

Of course, this outline does not begin to describe the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of the Gods (who have been forbidden by Zeus to interfere directly, but are constantly scheming behind his back), and the complicated sub-themes of desire, envy, war-weariness, honor, loyalty, friendship, pleasure-seeking, glory-seeking, fate, and fear of death that are developed in the epic that made it so fascinating to the Greeks.

The Odyssey—The Ten-Year Voyage of Odysseus

The second of Homer’s books concerns the story of Odysseus, one of the Greek Heroes of the Trojan War. When called to fight in the War against Troy, he was happily married to his wife Penelope on the Island of Ithaca. He did not desire to go to war but could not avoid service, so his wife waited patiently for his return. But even after ten years, at the close of the Trojan War, when all the other heroes returned to their homes, Odysseus did not return.

Odysseus
HIS OLD NURSE RECOGNIZED THE SCAR ON HIS FOOT.
Although Odysseus greatly desired to return home, he was delayed by a series of adventures. He incurred the wrath of Poseidon by blinding his son, a Cyclops, and was denied a safe passage home. Instead, Odysseus and his crew were buffeted about the seas, meeting with cannibals, sorcerers, sea monsters and sirens. After successfully avoiding all these dangers, his crew was caught in a terrible storm and shipwrecked. All perished except Odysseus, who was castaway on the island of the beautiful Nymph Calypso. Although she offered him immortality if he would stay with her, he chose instead to continue his journey home.

On his return to Ithaca, however, he found the island in a terrible state. Believing that Odysseus was dead, hundreds of "suitors" had come to contend for Penelope’s hand in marriage, and were entertaining themselves at the expense of his household. But the faithful Penelope refused them all through delay and trickery. Soon after Odysseus returned in disguise, she promised to marry the man who could shoot the bow of Odysseus, knowing that no one else could bend it. Then Odysseus, dressed as a beggar, asked to shoot the bow. He, of course, succeeded and used it to kill the intruders, and thereby drove the unwanted suitors away from his property.

Like the Iliad, the Odyssey is rich in eternal themes. The ideas of duty, family, fidelity, fate, the longing for home, the art of deception, and the meaning of mortality, are only a few of the ideas discussed. The Iliad and Odyssey have been read, discussed, and admired for over 2600 years, and are two of the pillars of a classical education.

It is almost imcomprensible to modern students to realize that both poems, which comprise over twenty-six thousand lines of beautiful verse, were "composed" before the Greek Alphabet and writing were well established and were passed down primarily through oral tradition. They were not read by the Greeks, but memorized. And it is not unreasonable to conclude the habit of memorizing enormous tracts of insightful and spiritually uplifting verse may have had something to do with the undeniable genius of the classical Greeks.


Characters—Homeric Epics

CharacterDescription

The Iliad - Trojans

Helen Beautiful Spartan princess, and wife of Menelaus who started the Trojan when she ran off with Paris.
Paris Prince of Troy, kidnaps Helen with the help of Aphrodite.
Hector Prince of Troy, Brave and Noble leader of Trojans. Killed by Achilles.
Aeneas Trojan hero, and son of Aphrodite, who escaped Troy and eventually settled near Rome.
Cassandra Trojan princess who was given the gift of prophesy, but was never to be believed.
Priam King of Troy, who pleads with Achilles for the body of his son Hector.
Hecuba Queen of Troy, mother of Hector, Paris, and Cassandra.
Andromache Faithful wife of Hector who becomes a concubine of Achilles' son after the war.
Pandarus Trojan archer who unwittingly sabotages a truce by shooting Menelaus.

The Iliad - Greeks

Menelaus Spartan king and husband of Helen, who raised a fleet of "1000 Ships" to rescue her from Troy.
Agamemnon Brother of Menelaus, and Greek leader in the Trojan War. Killed by his wife upon his return home.
Achilles Greatest warrior hero of the Greeks, renowned for his fighting skills. Central character of the Iliad.
Patroclus Dearest friend of Achilles who dons the armor of Achilles and is killed by Hector.
Thetis Immortal Mother of Achilles, who seeks to protect him from harm.
Nestor Veteran warrior who is too old to fight, but serves as a trusted advisor to the Greeks.
Iphigenia Daughter of Agamemnon who is sacrificed to the Gods while the Greek fleet is stranded at Aulis.
Diomedes Courageous and noble hero, who leads the Greeks in battle after Achilles quits the field.
Ajax (Greater) Strongest and Bravest of the Greek warriors, chosen to do single combat with Hector.
Briseis Greek princess who is the cause of a great row between Achilles and Agamemnon during the Trojan War.

The Odyssey - Heroines and Heroes

Odysseus Greek hero known best for strategy and craft. Central character of the Odyssey.
Penelope Patient and faithful wife of Odysseus. Kept suitors at bay for twenty years as she awaited his return.
Telemaches Son of Odysseus who leaves Ithaca in search of his father.
Laertes Father of Odysseus, who sailed with Jason on the Argo and grieves for his lost son.
Nausicaa Phaecian princess who rescues Odysseus when he drifts ashore her land.

The Odyssey - Monsters and Immortals

Lotus Eaters Race of people who eat lotus plants that put the into an oblivious sleep.
Aeolus Ruler of the four winds, including the Boreas, the North wind, and Zephyrus, the West Wind.
Circe Sorceress daughter of Helios, exiled to the island of Aeaea, where she turned men into beasts.
Scylla Six headed sea-monster that grabbed sailors from every vessel that approached her.
Charybdis Giant sea monster in the shape of a whirlpool, who consumed vessels that sailed too close.
Harpies Ugly winged bird-women, who torment people by snatching their food away.
Sirens Beautiful Sea Nymphs who lure sailors to their death with alluring song.
Clashing Rocks (Symplegades) A pair of Rocks in the Bosperous that smash ships between them as they pass.
Talos Bronze giant who protect Crete by hurling boulders at passing ships.
Cyclopes Race of one-eyed giants, sons of Gaia, freed from Tartarus by Zeus.
Polyphemus Giant Cyclops, son of Poseidon, who captures Odysseus in his cave.
Laestrygonians Race of man-eating giants who ate a great many of Odysseus's men.
Calypso Sea nymph who fell in love with Odysseus and kept him captive for many years.

Recommended Reading—Homeric Epics

Read chapters from "core" texts before reviewing study questions.


Book Title
Selected Chapters (# chapters)

Core Reading Assignments

Lang - The Iliad    entire book
Lang - The Odyssey    entire book
Church - The Iliad for Boys and Girls    entire book
Church - The Odyssey for Boys and Girls    entire book

Supplemental Reccomendations

Guerber - The Story of the Greeks   The Childhood of Paris to The Burning of Troy (6)
Macgregor - The Story of Greece   Achilles and Briseis to The Bow of Odysseus (10)
Harding - Greek Gods, Heroes, and Men   Achilles and the Trojan War to The Wanderings of Odysseus (2)
Shaw - Stories of the Ancient Greeks   The Shepherd Prince of Troy to The Wanderer's Return (8)
Church - Stories from the Greek Tragedians   Iphigenia in Aulis (1)

Easy Reading Selections

Haaren - Famous Men of Greece   Agamemnon to The Adventures of Ulysses (3)
Baldwin - A Story of the Golden Age of Greek Heroes   The Golden Apple to The Long Siege (14)
Baldwin - Thirty More Famous Stories Retold   The Fall of Troy to Penelope's Web (2)
Peabody - Old Greek Folk Stories Told Anew   Stories of the Trojan War to Adventures of Odysseus (3)