The Iliad

by Homer

Reviewed by David Maclaine

The Iliad by Homer If you want to know about the Trojan War, read The Iliad. Okay, it’s not really a novel, but a good prose translation will make it sound like one. If you read many of the other books that follow on this list, you’ll find that they refer to Homer’s masterpiece again and again. These characters know about the wrath of Achilles and the grief of Priam; shouldn’t you? And don’t even try the excuse that it’s too high-brow for a fan of genre fiction. Here’s a glimpse of a boxing match held during some funeral games:

"One could hear the grinding of their teeth, and they sweated from every pore of their skin. Presently Epeüs came in and gave Eurylaus a blow on the jaw through his guard; Eurylaus could not keep his legs; they gave way under him.... But noble Epeüs caught hold of him and raised him up; his comrades also came round him and led him from the ring, unsteady in his gait, spitting clots of blood, his head hanging on one side. They set him down among them half conscious, and then went to fetch the double cup."

Could you see that scene any more clearly if Marty Scorsese had shot it in his Raging Bull-style slow motion? Homer didn’t get to be the fountainhead of Western lit by being a slouch. The Iliad is a war story, with lots of one-on-one fights to the death, desperate battles for survival, and daring night raids. It’s a tale about pride and the lure of glory, and the way small disputes spin into full-scale tragedy. There are also a bunch of interfering gods and some ornate poetic metaphors. Deal with it. There were Greeks in the time of Socrates who believed that everything you needed to know was in Homer. That was a wee bit of an overstatement, but not as bad as claiming to be educated when you’ve never read this book. (circa 800 B.C.; various editions range from 400-700 pages, not as long as it sounds, because the verse format means fewer words to a page)

More about The Iliad at Powell's Books, or The Book Depository

The Iliad appears on the list of The 36 Best Historical Novels for a Survey of Ancient Greek History

Other early historical narrative poems:

The Odyssey by Homer (circa 800 B.C.), about Odysseus's ten-year struggle to return home from the Trojan War. More info

The Aeneid by Virgil (between 29 and 19 B.C.), about the escape of Aeneas from Troy to Latium (Italy), where he founds Rome, and the wars that follow. More info

The Metamorphoses by Ovid (8 A.D.), a collection of legends and love stories from the creation of the world to the death and deification of Julius Caesar. More info

Nonfiction about the Trojan War:

The Trojan War by Carol G. Thomas and Craig Conant (2005). More info

In Search of the Trojan War by Michael Wood (1985, updated edition 1998). More info

Troy and its Remains by Heinrich Schliemann (1875), by the nineteenth-century archaeologist who excavated the ruins at Troy and was the first to identify the site with the ancient city. More info

At the Movies:

Troy, the 2005 movie directed by Wolfgang Peterson and starring Brad Pitt as Achilles.


Heinrich Schliemann and the Discovery of Troy, a video at YouTube

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