What Homer Would Have Wanted You to Know Before You Read The Iliad
The Iliad is one of the greatest epics of all time, but it was originally performed for Greek audiences with in-depth knowledge of the events and characters central to the story. Because it can be a bit hard for a modern reader to just jump into this epic and understand what's going on, I've compiled and simplified some background information to help guide readers of any version of The Iliad - be it my new graphic novel adaptation or another version.
One of our historical sources for understanding the events that triggered the Trojan War is Herodotus' Histories. Herodotus says the Phoenicians, who were the most ambitious and skilled sailors on the Mediterranean, sent some merchant ships to Argos, one of the main power centers of Greece.
On that trip, the Phoenicians set up a market by their ships, sold wares to many Argive women who came to that market, and then seized several of them - including Io, daughter of the King - and sailed off with them as captives.
Kidnapping was, unfortunately, a very common practice at the time. Sometimes it was done by stealth, as in the story above. More often armies or small bands of raiders would plunder coastal towns, openly seizing valuables and capturing inhabitants to be carried off and enslaved. If an army conducted such a raid in wartime, there was an established procedure for dividing the "spoils of war," with common soldiers getting minor valuables while officers got the better "prizes," which included any captives. Female captives were considered the most valuable, especially if they were beautiful, highborn, or skilled in domestic arts such as weaving. The highest-status captives would typically become the property of the highest-ranking officer.
Even so, kidnapping a princess was still a major offense, and not one that would go unanswered. The Greeks retaliated by kidnapping Europe, daughter of the King of Tyre, and Medea, daughter of the King of Aea.
Each of these kings asked for their daughters back, and were refused.
So when Paris, prince of Troy, went to Sparta, he was, in Herodotus' words, "resolved to procure himself a wife out of Greece by violence."
(The mythological story is that he picked Aphrodite in a beauty contest because she promised him Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, and in so doing made enemies of Hera and Athena.)
Accounts differ about whether Io and Helen were abducted by force, or whether they fell in love with the visiting sailors and went willingly, but knowing the limitations on the rights of women at the time (and the aforementioned regard of humans as property), it is likely they had little say in the matter
Helen was very rich, very beautiful,and supposedly a daughter of Zeus rather than of Tyndareus, her mortal father. Most of the Greek kings had tried to court her, and in order to avoid bloodshed between them, Odysseus suggested they all swear an oath (known as the "Oath of Tyndareus") to defend whichever man won her hand. That man turned out to be Menelaus, King of Sparta.
After Paris took Helen, Menelaus' brother Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, used that oath to convince all the Greek kings to sail to Troy, ostensibly to get Helen back. Agamemnon almost certainly had ulterior motives (one being the wealth and power he would gain as chief of the united Achaeans), and every Greek captain was hoping to come home rich with plunder from Troy, but the oath was the linchpin holding it all together.
On their way to Troy, they all stopped at the island of Aulis, and were becalmed there. A seer named Calchas told them that the unfavorable winds were the doing of the goddess Artemis. She was angry with Agamemnon, he said, and could only be appeased if Agamemnon sacrificed his oldest daughter, Iphegenia.
Agamemnon was stuck. He was being asked to do the unthinkable, and had no way of really knowing if Calchas was correct. But the army believed Calchas, and if Agamemnon didn't make the sacrifice, they would probably all sail home. Helen would be lost, and Agamemnon's power play to be commander-in-chief and to plunder Troy would have utterly failed before it had even begun.
Some versions of the story differ as to Iphegenia's fate, but it's very probable that she was indeed sacrificed, for the sake of the war.
Fast forward about nine years. The Achaeans have besieged Troy and sacked many of the surrounding cities, but the walls of Troy still stand. The Trojans have been joined by many of their allies from all over Asia Minor. Everyone is tired and cranky and misses their former way of life. Think about what it would be like to spend nine years at war, either trapped in an overcrowded city or camped in a tent far from your home and family.
Then disease hits the Greeks. They are falling sick and dying, and everyone knows the god who dishes out disease is Apollo. Now Calchas speaks up again. He first gets Achilles to promise to protect him if he angers someone powerful. Then he tells everyone that the plague is Agamemnon's fault for refusing to give back the captured daughter of a priest of Apollo (a girl named Chryseis).
Once again, Agamemnon has no way of knowing if Calchas is right, he just knows he's being asked to give away his #1 prize of war. Equally important, he's once again having to obey two people he hates: Achilles, the upstart teenage warrior, and Calchas, who is barely more than a commoner and who compelled him to kill his own daughter. Neither of these guys should be able to overrule the commander, but here they are.
So Agamemnon decides he will give back Chryseis, but he will take Achilles' slave Briseis in return, to show he is still in charge.
That, however, is breaking a basic contract of Bronze-Age warfare. When the army divides up the "spoils" of a raid, there's no renegotiating. The army gave Briseis to Achilles, and being commander-in-chief doesn't give Agamemnon the right to just take anything he wants away from his officers.
Achilles is outraged. His rage and the suffering it causes--as Homer tells us in the opening lines--is the main subject of The Iliad.
Knowing that background should, I hope, give you more context for understanding what happens in The Iliad, and enhance your enjoyment of the epic -- whether you're reading my graphic novel or one of the many excellent translations of the full text (or hopefully both!)
Artwork from The Iliad, ©2019 by Gareth Hinds, used by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville MA.
THE ILIAD. Copyright © 2019 Gareth Hinds. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.