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Plot Outline for Homer's Iliad and List of Principal Characters
by John Porter

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  • General Plot Summary of Homer's Iliad
  • Book-by-Book Plot Outline for Homer's Iliad
  • Principal Characters in the Iliad


    General Plot Summary of Homer's Iliad

    The Iliad is a lengthy poem of some 15,693 lines, divided into 24 books (cantos) and has as its theme the anger (menis) of the Greek hero Achilles, the greatest of the heroes to sail to Troy. In the tenth year of the war, Achilles quarrels with the leader of the expedition, Agamemnon, over a slight to Achilles' honor. In his anger, Achilles withdraws from the fighting and wins the aid of Zeus, the king of the gods, to see to it that the war turns against the Greeks. Eventually (Book 9) things begin to go so badly that Agamemnon sends a delegation to Achilles to offer him compensation and ask him to rejoin the fighting. In an effort to make good the slight to Achilles' honor, Agamemnon promises an immense amount of treasure, but Achilles still refuses to help the Greeks. In the anger of the moment, he declares that he will only fight once the Trojans attack his own ships: at that point, he feels, he will be able to rejoin the battle as a point of personal honor rather than as Agamemnon's hired lackey. In the course of Book 12 (the center of the poem) the Trojans bring the war right up to the fortifications surrounding the Greek ships. Under the leadership of the heroic Hector, they manage to breach the Greek defenses and are soon in a position to destroy the Greek fleet. At this point, Achilles sees the weakness of his plan: should the Trojans destroy the fleet, the Greek forces would be placed in a vulnerable position and could potentially be wiped out. Unable to rejoin the battle himself without losing face, he is persuaded to allow his loyal friend Patroclus to join the battle, disguised in Achilles' armor, in order to win the Greeks some breathing room. Unfortunately, Patroclus gets caught up in the fighting and, contrary to Achilles' instructions, attempts to take the city of Troy himself, only to be killed by Hector with the aid of the pro-Trojan god Apollo (Book 16). At this point, Achilles falls into an inhuman rage: his former anger at Agamemnon and the Greeks is forgotten in his grief at the death of his friend and his desire to take revenge on Hector. In his anger, Achilles slaughters Trojans by the dozens and in a heartless manner that indicates his own despair: not only has he allowed his friend to die; he now realizes that, in avenging Patroclus' death, he will be sealing his own fate, since his mother Thetis has told him that his own death is destined to follow soon upon that of Hector. Rather than winning glory by taking Troy, Achilles realizes that he is doomed to perish along with the men he is slaughtering, all as a result of his quarrel with Agamemnon. (At this point in the poem, the reader gets the sense that the humane qualities of the formerly noble Achilles have perished along with his friend.) Eventually (Book 22) Achilles and Hector meet and the latter is killed, prophesying Achilles' own death with his last words. Achilles holds elaborate funeral games for Patroclus (Book 23) but is still overwhelmed with anger, grief, and despair at the unexpected turn his fate has taken, and expresses this despair by continuing his excessive mourning of Patroclus' death and by mistreating the corpse of Hector, which he repeatedly drags around Patroclus' funeral mound. The poem concludes (Book 24) with the elderly Trojan king Priam, Hector's father, coming in person to Achilles' tent and begging for the return of his son's body for due burial. Rather than killing Priam on the spot, as might have been expected, Achilles joins Priam in his grief: the elderly Trojan king, who has seen so many of his sons slaughtered and knows that both he himself and his city are doomed, finds common ground with the brilliant young Greek hero, who has lost his best friend and knows that he too soon will die. Thus the poem concludes with Achilles' anger having been assuaged, but not in the way the audience might have expected: where the initial focus was on concern for personal honor and social standing, the poem's conclusion reflects on the way in which suffering and grief bind the poem's human agents together in a manner that transcends their political and cultural differences.


    Book-by-Book Plot Outline for Homer's Iliad
    (based on an original by D.J. Conacher)

    A. Introduction

    1. Prologue: Achilles' wrath. Anger of Apollo and its cause - the plague; quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles. Appeasement of Apollo. Wrath of Achilles; his appeal to Thetis; Thetis' appeal to Zeus and the resultant discord in Olympus.
    2. The Greeks tricked into preparing for battle even without Achilles. Agamemnon's dream. Greek assembly. Catalogue of forces available on each side.
    3. Paris, Hector, Menelaus, and Helen formally introduced. Main episode: truce between Greeks and Trojans while Paris and Menelaus fight single combat to decide the fate of Helen. Menelaus victorious but Paris rescued by Aphrodite.
    4. Decision on Olympus: the war must go on. Pandarus treacherously breaks the truce and shoots Menelaus. Agamemnon marshals his army for battle. Beginning of fighting: series of Greek and Trojan successes in alternation.

    B. The First Battle (two days)

    5. Diomedes dominates fighting. Confrontation with Aphrodite, with Apollo, with Ares. Greeks winning.
    6. The gods withdraw and the Greek successes continue. Hector returns to Troy. (Interlude: Diomedes and Glaucus.) Hector and his mother, the offerings to Athena; Hector with Paris and Helen; Hector with his wife and son; Paris goes with Hector to rejoin the fighting.
    7. Hector's duel with Ajax (inconclusive); truce for burials; Greeks build a wall around their camp. Night.
    8. Next day: Zeus forbids the gods to fight (Hera and Athena in particular). Greeks hard pressed; Trojans reach camp fortifications and bivouac outside them.

    C. That Night

    9. Greek embassy to Achilles (Phoenix, Odysseus, Ajax). Achilles rejects all attempts at a reconciliation.
    10. Night expedition by Odysseus and Diomedes into Trojan lines: capture of Dolon, killing of Thracian allies.

    D. Next Day

    11. Greek attack begins well, but one hero after another is wounded and has to withdraw. As the Greeks retreat, Achilles begins to show signs of interest and sends Patroclus to Nestor. Nestor's advice. Patroclus helps the wounded Eurypylus.
    12. The Trojans press their counter-attack and again reach the Greek fortifications.
    13. The Greeks are rallied by Poseidon, but Hector and the Trojans still come on.
    14. The desperate state of the Greeks spurs Hera to drastic action. She anesthetizes Zeus and urges Poseidon to make the most of his opportunities. The Greeks renew their efforts and drive the Trojans back.
    15. Zeus revives and at once reasserts himself, forcing Poseidon to withdraw. The Trojans advance again irresistibly, reach the ships and begin so set fire to them. Patroclus leaves Eurypylus and returns to Achilles.
    16. Achilles is persuaded by Patroclus to let the Myrmidons go out to fight under his (Patroclus') leadership; Achilles lends Patroclus his own armor and warns him not to go too far. The Trojans are routed (death of Sarpedon), but Patroclus forgets Achilles' warning and is killed by a joint effort on the part of Apollo, Euphorbus, and Hector. Hector strips his armor.
    17. Battle over the body of Patroclus, which is rescued by the Greeks. The Trojans advance once again.
    18. Achilles' despair at the death of Patroclus. Thetis promises him new arms. Achilles' appearance on the wall and his war-cry stop the Trojans, who hold a council of war. Hector carries the day for staying outside of the walls and fighting it out. Thetis and Hephaestus: the making of the arms; description of the shield. Night.

    E. Fourth Day

    19. Achilles and Agamemnon reconciled. Preparation for the decisive battle.
    20. The battle begins, with gods helping on both sides. Achilles leads the Greek advance, with great slaughter of the Trojans. His confrontation with Aeneas; two near confrontations with Hector. Trojans routed.
    21. Further exploits of Achilles: battle with the river Xanthus. Battle between the gods.
    22. The Trojans are driven in headlong flight into Troy, but Hector rejects all entreaties to enter the walls. Deceived by Athena, he fights Achilles, is killed, and has his body dragged away behind Achilles' chariot.

    F. Finale

    23. Burial of Patroclus. Funeral games (reconciliation of Achilles with the Greeks).
    24. The gods arrange for Priam to recover Hector's body from Achilles; Achilles receives Priam with kindness and sympathy (reconciliation of Achilles with the gods). Burial of Hector.

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    Principal Characters in the Iliad


    Greeks (Achaeans, Argives, Danaans) [FN 1]

    Agamemnon: commander of the Greek forces; king of Mycenae; son of Atreus. [Atreides]
    Menelaus: king of Lacedaemon (Sparta); brother of Agamemnon; husband of Helen.
    Helen: wife of Menelaus; daughter of Zeus and Leda; sister of Clytemnestra.
    Clytemnestra: wife of Agamemnon.
    Achilles: leader of the Myrmidons; king of Phthia (in Thessaly); son of Peleus and Thetis. [Peleion, Peleides]
    Patroclus: son of Menoetius; Achilles' companion.
    Nestor: elderly king of Pylos.
    Odysseus: king of Ithaca.
    Ajax: from Salamis; son of Telamon. [Telemonian — distinguish from the lesser "Oilean" Ajax]
    Diomedes: king of Argos; son of Tydeus.
    Calchas: chief seer of the Greeks.

    Gods allied with the Greeks:

    Hera: sister and consort of Zeus; goddess of marriage; particularly associated with Argos and Mycenae.
    Athena: daughter of Zeus; goddess of wisdom, culture, craftsmanship (especially domestic crafts); a martial goddess as well. [Pallas Athena; Tritogeneia]
    Poseidon: brother of Zeus; god of sea, horsemanship, earthquakes.


    Priam: elderly king of Troy.
    Hecuba: wife of Priam.
    Hector: leader of the Trojan forces; favorite son of Priam and Hecuba.
    Paris / Alexander: brother of Hector; abductor of Helen.
    Sarpedon: king of Lycia; son of Zeus and Laodameia.
    Aeneas: son of Anchises and Aphrodite.
    [Scamander / Xanthus and Simoeis: rivers near Troy.]

    Gods allied with the Trojans:

    Aphrodite: daughter of Zeus and Dione; goddess of sexual desire; protectress of Helen. [Cyprian]
    Apollo: son of Zeus and Leto; brother of Artemis; god of culture, poetry, music, healing, archery. [the Far-Darter]
    Ares: son of Zeus and Hera; god of war and violence.

    Other gods:

    Zeus: ruler of the gods; god of sky, weather, the thunderbolt. [See, e.g., Willcock on Iliad 1.518-19.]
    Hades: ruler of the nether world; brother of Zeus. [Hades is used to signify the god's realm (i.e. Hell) as well as the god himself.]
    Hephaestus: son of Hera; lame god of blacksmiths.
    Iris: messenger of the gods; goddess of the rainbow.
    Hermes: another messenger-god; patron of travelers, thieves, and charlatans; conductor of dead souls on journey to Hades (psychopompos).


    [FN 1] Note that Homer does not have a single word to refer to "the Greeks" as an identifiable people or nation but instead employs various regional terms: Achaea is in the north-central Peloponnese, while the Argives and Danaans, properly speaking, are the people from Argos (the area around Mycenae). You must remember that for Homer "Greece" is not a country in the modern sense of the term but an area dotted with various independent communities, all of whom share the same basic language, religion, and cultural traditions: see the Iliad and the Greek Bronze Age page. [Return to text]

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