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Book review: the Iliad

Translated by Emily Wilson


I didn't know what the Iliad was about. I thought it was the story of how Helen of Troy gets kidnapped, triggering the Trojan war, which lasts a long time and eventually gets settled with a wooden horse.

Instead it's just a few days, nine years into that war. The Greeks are camped on the shores near Troy. Agamemnon, King of the Greeks, refuses to return a kidnapped woman to her father for ransom. (Lots of women get kidnapped.) Apollo smites the Greeks with arrows which are plague, and after a while the other Greeks get annoyed enough to tell Agamemnon off. Achilles is most vocal, so Agamemnon returns that woman but takes one of Achilles' kidnapped women instead.

Achilles gets upset and decides to stop fighting for Agamemnon. He prays to his mother, a goddess, wanting the Greeks to suffer ruin without him. She talks to Zeus, who arranges the whole thing, though Hera (his wife and sister) and Athena aren't happy about it because they really want Troy sacked.

So Zeus sends a dream to Agamemnon, telling him to attack Troy. Agamemnon decides to test the Greek fighters, telling them it's time to give up and sail home. So they start running back to the ships, but Athena tells Odysseus to stop them, which he does mostly by telling them to obey orders.

There's a bunch of fighting between Greeks and Trojans, and bickering among the gods, and occasionally mortals even fight gods. In the middle of it there's a one-day truce, which the Greeks use to build a wall, complete with gates. Poseidon says it's such a good wall that people will forget the wall of Troy, which upsets him because they didn't get the gods' blessing to build it.1 Agamemnon tries to convince Achilles to fight again by offering massive rewards, including the woman he stole earlier, whom he swears he has not had sex with as is the normal way between men and women.

Eventually the Trojans fight past the wall and reach the Greek fleet. At this point Patroclus, Achilles' bff (not explicitly lover, but people have been shipping them for thousands of years), puts on Achilles' armor and goes to fight. He's skilled and scary enough that the Trojans flee. Achilles told him not to chase them, but he does so anyway, and he's killed by Hector. Hector takes the weapons and armor, and there's a big fight for his body, but the Greeks manage to drag it back to their camp.

When Achilles finds out he's pissed. The god Hephaestus makes him a new set of weapons and armor, Agamemnon gives him the massive reward from earlier, and he goes on a killing spree. He briefly gets bored of that and stops to capture twelve Trojan kids, but quickly resumes. Eventually all the Trojans except Hector flee into Troy. He kills Hector and drags the body around the city then back to camp. There's a funeral for Patroclus, which includes killing those twelve kids, but then every morning he just keeps dragging Hector's body around Patroclus' pyre. The gods don't let it get damaged, but this is still extremely poor form.

Eventually the gods get Hector's father Priam to go talk to him. Hermes disguises himself as a super hot Greek soldier to guide Priam to Achilles' tent. Priam begs and also offers a large ransom, and Achilles returns the body and gives them twelve days for a funeral before the fighting restarts. Most of this is gathering firewood.


Some excerpts.

Diomedes meets Glaucus on the battlefield, and asks his backstory to make sure he's not a god. Glaucus tells the story of his grandfather Bellerophon, and Diomedes realizes that his own grandfather had been friends with Bellerophon:

The master of the war cry, Diomedes,
was glad to hear these words. He fixed his spear
firm in the earth that feeds the world, and spoke
in friendship to the shepherd of the people.

"So you must be an old guest-friend of mine,
through our forefathers. Oeneus once hosted
noble Bellerophon inside his house
and kept him as his guest for twenty days.
They gave each other splendid gifts of friendship.
Oeneus gave a shining belt, adorned
with purple, and Bellerophon gave him
a double-handled golden cup. I left it
back home inside my house when I came here.
But I do not remember Tydeus.
He left me when I was a tiny baby,
during the war at Thebes when Greeks were dying.
Now you and I are also loving guest-friends,
and I will visit you one day in Argos,
and you will come to visit me in Lycia,
whenever I arrive back home again.
So let us now avoid each other's spears,
even amid the thickest battle scrum.
Plenty of Trojans and their famous allies
are left for me to slaughter, when a god
or my quick feet enable me to catch them.
And you have many other Greeks to kill
whenever you are able. Let us now
exchange our arms and armor with each other,
so other men will know that we are proud
to be each other's guest-friends through our fathers."

With this, the two jumped off their chariots
and grasped each other's hands and swore the oath.
Then Zeus robbed Glaucus of his wits. He traded
his armor with the son of Tydeus,
and gave up gold for bronze—gold armor, worth
a hundred oxen, for a set worth nine.

At one point Hera dolls herself up to make Zeus want to sleep with her. This is the flirting game of Zeus, greatest of all the gods:

"You can go later on that journey, Hera,
but now let us enjoy some time in bed.
Let us make love. Such strong desire has never
suffused my senses or subdued my heart
for any goddess or for any woman
as I feel now for you. Not even when
I lusted for the wife of Ixion,
and got her pregnant with Pirithous,
a councillor as wise as any god.
Not even when I wanted Danae,
the daughter of Acrisius, a woman
with pretty ankles, and I got her pregnant
with Perseus, the best of warriors.
Not even when I lusted for the famous
Europa, child of Phoenix, and I fathered
Minos on her, and godlike Rhadamanthus.
Not even when I wanted Semele,
or when in Thebes I lusted for Alcmene,
who birthed heroic Heracles, my son—
and Semele gave birth to Dionysus,
the joy of mortals. And not even when
I lusted for the goddess, Queen Demeter,
who has such beautiful, well-braided hair—
not even when I wanted famous Leto,
not even when I wanted you yourself—
I never wanted anyone before
as much as I want you right now. Such sweet
desire for you has taken hold of me."


It feels kinda blasphemous to say, but by modern standards, I don't think the Iliad is very good. Sorry Homer.

Not that there's nothing to like. I enjoyed some turns of phrase, though I don't remember them now. And it was the kind of not-very-good that still left me interested enough to keep listening. I'm sure there's a bunch of other good stuff to say about it too.

But also a lot that I'd criticize, mostly on a technical level. The "what actually happens" of it is fine, but doesn't particularly stand out. But the writing quality is frequently bad.

A lot of the fighting was of the form: Diomedes stabbed (name) in the chest. He was from (town) and had once (random piece of backstory), and he died. (Name) was killed by Diomedes, who stabbed him in the throat; his wife and children would never see him again. Then Diomedes stabbed (name) in the thigh, …

So I got basically no sense of what it was like to be on the battlefield. How large was it? How closely packed are people during fighting? How long does it take to strip someone of their armor and why isn't it a virtual guarantee that someone else will stab you while you do? The logistics of the war are a mystery to me too: how many Greeks are there and where do they get all their food? We're told how many ships each of the commanders brought, but how many soldiers and how many servants to a ship?

I also had very little sense of time, distance, or the motivations or powers of the gods.

There were long lists that bored me, and sometimes Homer seemed to be getting paid by the word—lots of passages were repeated verbatim, and a few repeated again. (Agamemnon dictates the reward he'll offer Achilles to a messenger, then the messenger passes it on to Achilles, and we're told it again after Patroclus' death.)

We're often told that some characters are the best at something or other, but given little reason to believe it. Notably, Hector is supposedly the most fearsome Trojan fighter, but he doesn't live up to his reputation. He almost loses one-on-one against Ajax before the gods intervene to stop the battle; he gets badly injured fighting Ajax again; and even after being healed, he only takes down Patroclus after Patroclus has been badly wounded by someone else. And Achilles is supposed to be the fastest runner, but when he chases after Hector, he doesn't catch up until Hector stops running away. Lots of people are described as "favored by Zeus" but Zeus doesn't seem to do jack for them.

Even when the narrative supports the narrator, it feels cheap. Achilles is supposedly the best Greek fighter, and when he fights, he wins. So that fits. But how did he become so good at it? Did he train harder? Does he have some secret technique? Supernatural strength? We're not told. (His invulnerability-except-heel isn't a part of this story, and half of everyone is the son of some god or goddess so that's no advantage to him. To be fair: a reader points out that Superman stories don't necessarily give his backstory either.)

The poem is in iambic pentameter, with occasional deviations at the beginnings and ends of lines. I guess that's technically impressive, but I mostly didn't notice. I also didn't notice any pattern in where the line breaks occur, so the "pentameter" part of it seems mostly irrelevant. If it had been unmetered, I don't think I would have enjoyed it noticeably less.

Is this just my personal tastes, such that other people would really enjoy the book? I dunno, probably at least a bit, and I've spoken to at least one person who said he did really enjoy it. Still, my honest guess is that if the Iliad was published for the first time today, it wouldn't be especially well received.

If it's not just me, is the problem that writers today are better at writing than writers a long time ago? Or that they're operating under different constraints? (The Iliad was originally memorized, and meter and repetition would have helped with that.) Or do readers today just have different tastes than readers a long time ago? I don't know which of these is most true. I lean towards "writers are better" but I don't really want to try making the argument. I don't think it matters much, but feel free to replace "the Iliad isn't very good by modern standards" with "the Iliad doesn't suit modern tastes" or "isn't well optimized for today's media ecosystem".

And how much is the original versus the translation, or even the narrator of the audiobook? I still don't know, but the translation is highly praised and the narration seemed fine, so I lean towards blaming the original.


What is up with classics?

Like, what makes something a classic? Why do we keep reading them?2 Why did it feel vaguely blasphemous for me to say the Iliad isn't very good?

I'm probably not being original here, but….

I think one thing often going on is that classics will be winners of some kind of iterated Keynesian beauty contest. A Keynesian beauty contest is one where judges have incentive to vote, not for the person they think is most beautiful, but the person they think the other judges will vote for. Do a few rounds of those and you'll probably converge on a clear winner; but if you started over from scratch, maybe you'd get a different clear winner.

(I vaguely recall hearing about experiments along the lines of: set up some kind of Spotify-like system where users can see what's popular, and run with a few different isolated sets of users. In each group you get clear favorites, but the favorites aren't the same. If true, this points in the direction of IKBC dynamics being important.)

But what contests are getting run?

A cynical answer is that it's all signaling. We read something because all the educated people read it, so it's what all the educated people read. I'm not cynical enough to think this is the whole story behind classics, or even most of it, but it sure seems like it must be going on at least a little bit.

(Of course we're not going to get a whole crowd of admirers to admit "there's nothing here really, we just pretend to like this to seem sophisticated". So even if this is most of the story, we might not expect to find a clear example.)

To the extent that this is going on, then we'd expect me to be scared to criticize the Iliad because that exposes me as uneducated. Or we might expect me to criticize it extra harshly to show how independent-minded I am. Or both!3 And in fact I don't fully trust myself to have judged it neutrally, without regard to its status.

My guess: this is why some people read the Iliad, but it's not the main thing that makes it a classic.

Less cynically, we might observe that classics are often referenced, and we want to get the references. I don't think this could make something a classic in the first place, but it might help to cement its status.

In fact, it's not a coincidence that I listened to the Iliad soon after reading Terra Ignota. I don't really guess this is a large part of why others read it, but maybe.

(Also not a coincidence that I read A Midsummer Night's Dream soon after watching Get Over It. Reading the source material radically changed my opinion of that film. It went from "this is pretty fun, worth watching" to "this is excellent, one of my favorite movies".4 Similarly, See How They Run was improved by having recently seen The Mousetrap.)

A closely related thing here is that because lots of other people have read the classics, they've also written about the classics and about reading the classics. So if you enjoy reading commentary on the thing you've just read, the classics have you covered.

Some things might be classics because they're just plain good. There was a lot of crap published around the same time, and most of it has rightly been forgotten, but some was great even by the standards of today.

Like, maybe if you published Pride and Prejudice today, it would be received as "ah yes, this is an excellent entry in the niche genre of Regency-era romance. The few hundred committed fans of that genre will be very excited, and people who dabble in it will be well-advised to pick this one out".

But as I said above, I don't think the Iliad meets that bar.

I would guess the big thing for the Iliad is that it's a window into the past. Someone might read Frankenstein because they're interested in early science fiction, or because they want to learn something about that period in time. And someone might read the Iliad because they're interested in early literature or ancient Greece.

(And this might explain why classics often seem to be found in the non-fiction section of the library or bookstore. It's not that they're not fiction, but they're not being read as fiction.)


The trouble is, that needs a lot of context. And I don't know enough about ancient Greece to learn much from the Iliad. I did learn a bit—like, apparently they ate the animals they sacrificed! I guessed that that was authentic, and it was news to me.

But when Priam insults his remaining sons, is that a normal thing for him to do or are we meant to learn from this that Priam is unusually deep in grief or something?

Do slaves normally weep for their captors, or does that tell us that Patroclus was unusually kind to them?

When Diomedes gets injured stripping someone of his armor, did that happen often? Is Homer saying "guys this macho bullshit is kinda dumb, kill all the other guys first and then take the armor"?

When Nestor says "no man can change the mind of Zeus", and then shortly afterwards Agamemnon prays to Zeus and Zeus changes his mind, I can't tell if that's deliberate irony or bad writing or what.

I don't even know if the early listeners of the Iliad thought these stories were true, or embellishments on actual events, or completely fabricated.

Consider Boston Legal, which ran from 2004-2008, because that happens to be the show I'm watching currently. I think I understand what the writers were going for.

The show asks the question "what if there were lawyers like Alan Shore and Denny Crane". It doesn't ask the question "what if there were lawyers"—we're expected to take that profession as a background fact, to know that there are real-life lawyers whose antics loosely inspired the show. We're not supposed to wonder "why are people dressed in those silly clothes and why don't they just solve their problems by shooting each other". (Well, Denny does sometimes solve and/or cause his problems by shooting people, but.)

It explores (not very deeply) the conflicts between professional ethics and doing the right thing, and I think that works best if we understand that the professional ethics on the show aren't something the writers just made up. I'm not sure how closely they resemble actual lawyerly professional ethics, but I think they're a good match for the public perception of lawyerly professional ethics.

It shows us a deep friendship between a Democrat and a Republican, assuming we get the context that such things are kinda rare. When Denny insists that he's not gay, that marks him as mildly homophobic but not unusually so. When they have (sympathetic!) episodes on cryonics and polyamory, we're expected to know that those things are not widely practiced in society; the characters' reactions to them are meant to read as normal, not as "these characters are bigoted".

(Boston Legal also has a lot of sexual harassment, and honestly I don't know what's up with that.)

One way to think of fiction is that it's about things that might happen, that might also happen differently. It's not just significant "what happened" but "what didn't happen; what was the space of possibilities that the actual outcome was drawn from". In Boston Legal I know a lot of ways things might turn out, which means when I'm watching I can make guesses about what's going to happen. And when it does happen, I can be like "okay yeah, that tracks"—even if I hadn't thought of it myself, I can see that it fits, and I can understand why the writers might have chosen that one. In the Iliad I don't know the space of possibilities, so when something happens I'm like "okay, I guess?"

Or: fiction is in the things we're shown, and the things we're not shown even though they (fictionally) happened, and the things we're not shown because they didn't happen. Why one thing is shown and another is unshown and another doesn't happen is sometimes a marked choice and sometimes unmarked. (That is, sometimes "the writers did this for a specific reason and we can talk about why" and sometimes "this was just kind of arbitrary or default".) And if you can't read the marks you're going to be very confused.

I can't read the marks in the Iliad. I don't know what parts of what it shows are "this is how stuff just is, in Homer's world" and what parts of it are "Homer showing the audience something unusual". That makes it difficult for me to learn about ancient Greece, and also makes it difficult to know what story Homer is telling.

I listened to the audiobook of the Iliad because I happened to know that it was originally listened-to, not read, so it seemed closer to the intended experience. But in hindsight, I can't get the intended experience and I shouldn't have tried.

I think to get the most out of the Iliad, I should have read it along with copious historical notes, and deliberately treated it as "learning about ancient Greece" at least as much as "reading a fun story".

Originally submitted to the ACX book review contest 2024; not a finalist. Thanks to Linda Linsefors and Janice Roeloffs for comments.

  1. Why didn't they build it sooner? My headcanon is that they were waiting to get blessings to go ahead, but it was stuck in planning committees for nine years. Eventually they decided to build without the proper permits. Zeus says Poseidon will be allowed to tear it down after they leave—it wouldn't do to have construction lying around that's not up to code. 

  2. These might seem like similar questions, since we can think of classics as "the things we keep reading". But I think it makes sense to think of cultural trends as distinct from "individual trends multiplied over lots of individuals". Like, you could explain an election result as "lots of people have individual trends towards voting for someone they think was good for the economy last term". But that misses that there was a deliberate media effort encouraging people to think about specific parts of the economy and not so much about other parts of the economy or about foreign policy.

    Also… are there old-but-popular things that don't get labeled "classics"? Nothing comes to mind, but that doesn't mean they don't exist. 

  3. Sure is convenient how many observations this theory can explain. 

  4. Spoilers follow. Get Over It is a musical adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, set in a high school where the students are putting on a musical adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream. What I love about it is the way the adaptation in the film interacts with the adaptation that is the film. The play-in-the-film is a musical, so that makes the film a musical. And more twistily, the protagonist of the film plays the protagonist of the play, and the antagonist plays the antagonist, as you'd expect. But these roles have been swapped—Lysander is the protagonist of the play but the antagonist of the film, playing Demetrius in the play; and Demetrius is the antagonist of the play but the protagonist of the film, playing Lysander in the play. Hermia and Helena play themselves. In the climax, film-Demetrius declares his love for film-Helena by improvising some lines where play-Lysander declares his love for play-Helena. So he changes the ending of their play, which makes the ending of the film match the ending of the original play. 

Posted on 18 June 2024

Comments elsewhere: LessWrong; /r/slatestarcodex