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Companion to the Iliad

Companion to the Iliad

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by Malcolm M. Willcock

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Those who are able to read Homer in Greek have ample recourse to commentaries, but the vast majority who read the Iliad in translation have not been so well served—the many available translations contain few, if any, notes. For these readers, Malcolm M. Willcock provides a line-by-line commentary that explains the many factual details, mythological


Those who are able to read Homer in Greek have ample recourse to commentaries, but the vast majority who read the Iliad in translation have not been so well served—the many available translations contain few, if any, notes. For these readers, Malcolm M. Willcock provides a line-by-line commentary that explains the many factual details, mythological allusions, and Homeric conventions that a student or general reader could not be expected to bring to an initial encounter with the Iliad.
The notes, which always relate to particular lines in the text, have as their prime aim the simple, factual explanation of things the inexperienced reader would be unlikely to have at his or her command (What is a hecatomb? Who is Atreus' son?). Second, they enhance an appreciation of the Iliad by illuminating epic style, Homer's methods of composition, the structure of the work, and the characterization of the major heroes. The "Homeric Question," concerning the origin and authorship of the Iliad, is also discussed.

Professor Willcock's commentary is based on Richmond Lattimore's translation—regarded by many as the outstanding translation of the present generation—but it may be used profitably with other versions as well. This clearly written commentary, which includes an excellent select bibliography, will make one of the touchstones of Western literature accessible to a wider audience.

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University of Chicago Press
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Phoenix Bks.
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A Companion to the Iliad

By Malcolm M. Willcock, Richmond Lattimore

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1976 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-89855-1


The Greek commander, Agamemnon, is forced by the arguments of Achilleus at a public assembly to agree to return his captive, Chryseis, to her father, a local priest. This leads to a violent quarrel, during which Agamemnon uses his superior rank to inform Achilleus that he will replace Chryseis with Achilleus' own captive, Briseis. Achilleus publicly withdraws from the army and asks his goddess mother, Thetis, to persuade Zeus to help the Trojans. After an interlude, in which Odysseus sees to the formal return of Chryseis to her father, Zeus undertakes to do as Thetis asks; there is then a bad-tempered scene on Olympos between him and his wife, Hera, which is settled by the efforts of Hephaistos.

It is evident from the way the poet moves straight into his story after the briefest of introductions that the general tale of the war against Troy was familiar to his audience, as were the characters. The Iliad plot is treated as an episode in the long story of that war.

The composition of Book 1 is simple and natural; it falls into three sections:

The quarrel itself, its causes and its immediate consequences.
430–492 An interlude showing the passage of time, and allowing the
return of the girl Chryseis to her home.
493–611 A balancing scene among the gods.

1. The goddess is the Muse, the personification of the poet's inspiration. The oral poet did not consciously compose his verses. They came into his mind unbidden; and he believed, or affected to believe, that the Muse had told him what to say. She is asked to sing, because this heroic verse was not spoken but was intoned to a musical accompaniment. (What was a reality for Homer became a convention for later poets: "I sing of arms and the man" [Virgil]; "Sing, heavenly Muse" [Milton].)

And the subject that the Muse is to sing of, the subject of the Iliad, is—we should note—the anger of Achilleus. In other words, the plot of the Iliad is human and psychological; we are not going to hear a simple chronicle of the events of the Trojan War but the causes and consequences of a quarrel between the Greek leaders.

2. The Greeks in the Iliad are called indiscriminately by three names: Achaians, Argives, and Danaans (Lattimore 19).

3. Hades: the god of the underworld.

4–5. It is a common threat in the Iliad that one will give the enemy's body to the dogs and birds to eat, not allowing his friends to bury him. In practice, however, no corpses are specifically said to be eaten by these scavengers; and in Book 7 the two sides will make a truce for the burial of the dead.

The will of Zeus is a key phrase, meaning, in effect, the plot of the Iliad. His "will" is to fulfill the promise he makes to Thetis in the scene starting in line 498. See also 15.61–77 n.

7. Atreus' son. Atreus was the father of the two brothers, Agamemnon and Menelaos; but when one person is described as Atreus' son, it will naturally be the elder of the two, the commander-in-chief of the army, Agamemnon. Such referring to people by their father's name (their patronymic) is a common feature of the Iliad.

Lines 1–7 are all that there is of introduction to the Iliad. The poet now proceeds straight to the quarrel and its cause. We may notice that, in these introductory lines, the city of Troy has not even been mentioned; it is worth repeating that the theme of the poem is the anger of Achilleus, and the disastrous effects it had for the Achaians.

9–10. Apollo is the most important divine supporter of the Trojans. He is the archer god, "he who strikes from afar" (15, 21), the god of disease and healing. The pestilence (plague) which he sends is further described in 50–52.

13. his daughter. The daughter's name (Chryseis) is given in 111; the details of her story, in 366–69.

14. The ribbons were the loose ends of a band of wool (with religious significance) attached to the top of the staff which the priest carried in virtue of his sacred office. He is here simultaneously a suppliant and a priest and so is doubly to be respected. It is quite possible that the ribbons were literally those of Apollo, i.e., that they were normally part of the adornment of his statue in the temple and had been brought by Chryses to confirm his status in relation to the god.

17. Greaves were shin guards, worn particularly as a protection against low-flying stones or arrows.

strong-greaved is an example of the Homeric "stock epithet"—a descriptive adjective which has a general application to its noun but no special significance for the present circumstances. Thus we find hollow ships in 26–27 and the murmuring sea in 34.

18. The Homeric gods live on Olympos, the towering mountain in northeast Greece.

19. Priam's city: Troy.

30. The name Argos is used rather casually in the poem. Sometimes it indicates the famous city of Argos (home, in fact, of Diomedes); sometimes, as presumably here, the northeast Peloponnese; sometimes the whole Peloponnese; and sometimes Greece (just as "Argives" is used as a general term for Greeks [2 n.]).

31. It is cruel and insensitive of Agamemnon to speak in these terms to the girl's father. Already here at the beginning the poet has given a little touch toward the delineation of the king's character.

going up and down by the loom: i.e., weaving, a major task of the women in the house. The phrase shows that an upright loom is envisaged, as in the simile of 23.760–63.

37–38. Chryse (home, of course, of Chryses) and Killa are towns near Troy; Tenedos is an island off the coast.

39. The title Smintheus is of considerable interest. It means "mouse god," from a word for mouse which survived in the Cretan dialect in historical times. It is generally believed that this unique name for Apollo derives from a time when he was worshiped in animal form, as Hera was, in the form of a cow, and Athene, of an owl (551 n.). The mouse was perhaps associated with bubonic plague (which is carried by rats), so that the title Smintheus may be particularly appropriate to the present appeal by Chryses. (At 1 Samuel 6:4–5, the Philistines are instructed to make golden images of mice to help remove a plague.)

This line begins a common prayer formula: "If I have ever pleased you in the past, help me now."

40. rich thigh pieces. The practice at sacrifices was to wrap the thigh bones of the animal in folds of fat and then burn these, as symbolic of the whole animal, as an offering to the god. The more nutritious parts were eaten by the worshipers.

42. The arrows of the god indicate the plague (9–10 n.).

Danaans (cf. 2 n.) is an ancient tribal name whose origins are totally lost. It is no doubt connected with the mythological figures Danaos and his daughters, the Danaïds, and with Danaë, the mother of Perseus. As to whether the name is to be identified with the Danuna, found in a list of peoples of the sea who attacked Egypt in about 1172 B.C., opinion is divided (PAGE 22).

54. Achilleus takes the initiative and so exposes himself to the possibility of a clash with Agamemnon.

55. Hera, wife of the supreme god, Zeus, is, with Athene, the most constant divine supporter of the Greeks and inveterate enemy of the Trojans.

65. for the sake of: i.e., "for the lack of," "for the nonfulfillment of." A hecatomb is a large sacrifice of animals to a god.

71. Ilion: Troy. Kalchas had been the prophet of the Greek army from the beginning (2.300), and had apparently directed the course of the fleet when they came to Troy nine years before.

84. of the swift feet: another example of the stock epithet (17 n.). Achilleus' agility has no relevance to the present situation.

91. claims. This word perhaps gives a wrong impression in English. This line is not an attack on Agamemnon. He isthe greatest of all the Achaians , i.e., the most powerful and kingly, and Achilleus does not dispute this. All the same, Achilleus' promise of support for Kalchas is hardly conciliatory to Agamemnon, who was obviously referred to in 78–79.

111. Chryseis is more a description than a name, as it merely means "Chryses' daughter." Later romances corrupted it eventually to Cressida (cf. note on Troilos, 24.257); but that is all long after Homer.

113. The overt comparison of a slave girl with his wife portrays the same insensitivity in Agamemnon as he showed in his words to Chryses (31 n.).

118. The real reason for the quarrel is that the king is not big enough for his position. He needs recognition and so takes the view that it is improper that he alone should be without a share of this particular lot of booty. Achilleus' reply is perfectly reasonable, apart from the personal remarks in the first line.

125. what we took from the cities by storm. The Achaians, while besieging Troy, had made a number of expeditions against nearby towns. Achilleus claims in 9.328–29 to have personally led the attack on twenty-three.

138. Aias, when mentioned without further identification, is normally the greater Aias, the son of Telamon. He and Odysseus are named here as the two most important leaders of the Achaians, apart from Agamemnon and Achilleus himself.

It is simply assumed that each chief has a female captive from the booty of the captured city.

145. Idomeneus, another of the chief leaders, had the powerful Kretan contingent under his command.

146. The sneer in the second half of the line is an answer to Achilleus' "greediest for gain of all men" in 122.

149–71. Achilleus, who seems hardly to have heard the second half of what Agamemnon said, is now very angry. This speech shows a combination of rhetoric and intense feeling which is reserved to Achilleus in the Iliad; one may compare his tremendous outburst in reply to Odysseus in the Embassy scene, in 9.308–429, and his speech to his mother at 18.98–126.

155. Phthia (in Thessaly, in northern Greece) is the home of Achilleus; the Myrmidons (180) are his troops.

159. The purpose of the expedition was to recover Helen, the wife of Menelaos, stolen from him by Paris. Agamemnon, the great king of Mykenai, took action to support his brother; the other Greeks are present out of deference to Agamemnon.

163. when the Achaians sack some ... citadel. See 125 n.

184. Briseis, like Chryseis (111), is merely a descriptive name, for she is the daughter of Briseus (392). Achilleus had captured her after killing her husband and brothers when the town of Lyrnessos was taken (2.690, 19.291–96); it was on this same expedition that he took Hypoplakian Thebe (2.691), made numerous captives, including Chryseis (1.366), and killed the father and brothers of Hektor's wife Andromache (6.416–24). (On the similarities between the fates of Briseis and Andromache and on other obscurities about Briseis in the Iliad, consult REINHARDT 50–57.)

188. Peleus' son: Achilleus (1). For the use of the father's name on its own like this, see 7 n.

194. Athene descended. Athene comes down from the sky to stop Achilleus from attacking Agamemnon. Visible only to him, she takes him by the hair. It is not easy for us (because we are unbelievers) to understand or accept the activities of the gods in the Iliad. They act as independent agents but nevertheless preserve a specific power, each in relation to his or her own separate function. The function of Athene is to be the pro-Greek goddess of organized, disciplined warfare. She normally acts through heroes who are natural winners—Odysseus, Diomedes, Achilleus. Here she instigates, and in some sense represents, the self-control of Achilleus.

201. The phrase winged words does not imply anything special in what is said. It is part of an ancient formula, based on the simple fact that words pass through the air from the mouth of the speaker to the ear of the hearer.

202. The aegis is a supernatural weapon of Zeus. It is normally defensive and may be thought of as a shield; but it can be used offensively, because, when shaken in the face of the enemy, it strikes terror into their hearts.

The words once more do not mean that Athene has come down in this way previously. What Achilleus means is that here is another reason for annoyance: "Have you come here, too?"

206. grey-eyed. See 551 n.

207. but will you obey me? Notice how Homer preserves the human dignity of his characters. They are not pawns in the hands of these powerful gods. Athene can advise, but she does not compel. The decision and the responsibility remain with Achilleus.

211. The words and it will be that way mean that what Achilleus says in his abuse of Agamemnon will in practice come to pass.

213. In other words, Achilleus will in due course get material compensation for the present loss of his "gift of honor" (Briseis).

224. Atreides: the commonest form of the patronymic, meaning "son of Atreus" (7).

234. sceptre. We learn elsewhere in the Iliad (23.568) that a speaker in the assembly held a scepter handed to him by one of the heralds.

242. man-slaughtering Hektor. The reference to Hektor is a kind of foreshadowing of later events, for he is to be the major threat to the Achaians in the Iliad.

247–48. Nestor now intervenes in the quarrel. He is the oldest by far of the Achaian leaders and thus a figure to whom respect is due. He is portrayed as clearheaded and a good adviser, if a little given to reminiscing about his youth. He is one of Homer's favorite characters.

Nestor is king of Pylos, a city on the west coast of the Peloponnese, in an area unimportant in later Greece but one of the two or three strongest kingdoms in Mycenaean times (11.681 n.). He is represented (250–52) as having lived through two generations and now being king in the third; i.e., he was in his sixties or seventies.

255. Priam, the patriarchal king of Troy, had fifty sons and numerous sons-in-law (6.244).

259–74. Nestor produces a mythological example, or paradeigma, to increase the persuasiveness of his words—a device used several times in the Iliad, notably in the example of Niobe in Achilleus' speech to Priam in 24.601–19. It is characteristic of such "examples" that they are constructed according to the principle of "ring composition," which can best be explained here by a schematic summary:

a     259
Accept my advice.
b. 260-261 I once associated with better men than you, and
they listened to me.
c 261-71 This is the story.
b' 271-73 They were better than you, and they listened
to me.
a' 274
So you should accept my advice.

Ring composition probably originated as a mnemonic method for the oral bard. It is very common indeed in speeches in the Iliad; for other examples, see the Index.

The central myth is from the war between the Lapiths and the centaurs, familiar perhaps from the Parthenon sculptures, now in the British Museum. The centaurs were half-human creatures (the beast men of 267) who lived around Mount Pelion in Thessaly; the Lapiths were a human tribe. The war is referred to again in 2.742–44.


Excerpted from A Companion to the Iliad by Malcolm M. Willcock, Richmond Lattimore. Copyright © 1976 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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