The Iliad

Yesterday I finished reading Homer’s Iliad as translated by Caroline Alexander. I mentioned a few times how much I enjoyed it and want to explain what I liked about it.

I liked the translation. It’s done in free verse and uses the anglicized forms of the protagonist’s name, for example Achilles instead of Greek Akhilleus. That makes it easier to read than the German version I read in 1988 (that the year I noted in the book), which used the Greek versions of names. Also, it’s a new translation from 2015 and the German version was one from 1793 (!) – it may still be good, but it didn’t appeal to me when I was 20.

Here’s a comparison between the first sentences for my reader that know German:

Wrath, – sing goddess, of the ruinous wrath of Peleus’ son Achilles,
that inflicted woes without numbers upon the Achaeans,
hurled forth to Hades many strong souls of warriors
and rendered their bodies prey for the dogs,
for all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished;
sing from when they two first stood in conflict –
Atreus’ son, lord of men, and godlike Achilles.

Homer, The Iliad, trsl. Caroline Alexander, Vintage Classics, 2017 (2015), p. 1.

Singe den Zorn, o Göttin, des Peleiaden Achilleus,
Ihn, der entbrannt den Achaiern unnennbaren Jammer erregte
Und viel tapfere Seelen der Heldensöhne zum Aïs
Sendete, aber sie selbst zum Raub darstellte den Hunden
Und dem Gevögel umher; so ward Zeus‘ Wille vollendet:
Seit dem Tag, als erst durch bitteren Zank sich entzweiten
Atreus‘ Sohn, der Herrscher des Volks, und der edle Achilleus.

Homer, Ilias, trsl. Johann Heinrich Voss, Diogenes, 1980 (1793), p. 3.

The German chooses different words compared to the English version. For instance, instead of “warriors” the German says “sons of heroes”. Instead of “strong souls” it says “courageous souls”, and so on and so forth. Amazing how many differences there are in word choice between the two translation in just these few lines (I’m not going to list them all). The English free verse flows easily, the German, while also poetic, doesn’t run smoothly for me. The Greek names are unfamiliar; normally I’d expect “Achilles” instead of “Achilleus” and I bet I didn’t know that “Aïs” was “Hades” (which is usually “Hades” in German, too). And I’m sure I was too lazy to look it up. There must be modern German translations of the Iliad. I probably just bought the first book that I found in a bookstore and didn’t do any research. Of course, I can’t judge which of the translations is closer to the original because I don’t speak Greek (either ancient or modern).


I liked that all the motivations in the Iliad are quite psychologically plausible and easily recognizable even nowadays. Take the conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles: Achilles get angry because Agamemnon makes him give up a woman he’d captured in a raid, because Agamemnon thinks it’s his right because he’s the overall commander. Achilles believes that he’s the one mainly responsible for the Greeks’ success in their war against Troy and feels insulted and unappreciated. As we all know, this type of conflict is common in all sorts of contexts. I’ve seen it a lot in my job. People get upset if they feel they do all the work, while a manager or project lead takes the credit. Good managers don’t do that – it demotivates the employees. Unlike Achilles the employees don’t get to stop working for their manager (unless they resign).

There are a lot of characters on both sides of the conflict (kind of like Game of Thrones), but the main ones keep reoccurring and you soon recognize them. We learn interesting tidbits about the history of the minor characters (maybe just a line or two, but it’s still fascinating). And a lot of interesting stuff about the major characters (well, naturally). There’s lot of conflict between the Greeks (not only between Agamemnon and Achilles) and between the Trojans (Hector, for instance, is angry at his brother Paris, who caused the war by abducting Helen).

The gods love to interfere in the war. Zeus sometimes supports one side, sometimes the other. Hera, Athena, and Poseidon support the Greeks; Apollo and Aphrodite are on the Trojan’s side (among others – lots of gods play a role). The gods are also fickle. One moment they are supporting you, the next they’ve dropped you. It seems much safer to fly under their radar. When they notice you, you’re sure to eventually regret it. There are also a lot of quarrels among the gods. Hera, for example, is always scheming against Zeus.

The war is shown as a possibility for gaining glory (and lots of valuable booty), but we also see that it’s very brutal in general and merciless toward the losing side. The losing warriors will end up dead, their families enslaved, and their possessions stolen. Also, the descriptions of the battles are very graphic. Lots of gory descriptions of different ways to be killed. There are also discussions about how the war is futile and that glory isn’t worth much in the face of death. We see the grief that war causes, especially in Achilles when his companion Patroclus is killed and in Priam when his son Hector is slain. Some of the actions in this war are particularly heinous: fleeing warriors are cut down from behind or the bodies of slain warriors are defiled and their armour is stolen by the victors. Begging for mercy also doesn’t do much good – you end up dead anyway.

There are a lot of small vignettes of life in Troy and the Greek states in ancient times. Short but vivid insights into the life of shepherds, horse breeders, smiths, weavers, healers, hunters, athletes and others.

We get to see the point of view of women, especially the women of Troy. They are afraid of losing their husbands, brothers, or sons and then being enslaved and having their children killed. Helen is sometimes reviled because people resent her for being the cause of the war. She often regrets that she ever came to Troy.

I think that The Iliad has remained relevant through the centuries because it depicts themes of enduring relevance. War in all its futility and horror is something that we still grapple with today, sadly. Soldiers throughout history faced similar or worse horrors. Civilians have also always been and still are badly affected by wars. We still discuss questions of military honour and glory and right conduct in war. Just the setting is archaic, the themes and emotions remain relevant and relatable to readers today.

I enjoyed The Iliad  in the translation by Caroline Alexander very much. If you want to read Homer’s epic, make sure to select a translation that suits you.

One minus point: the ancient Greeks didn’t like dogs – “dog-faced” is an insult. WTF?

Keep safe, world.

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