Book Review: The Iliad

The Iliad, by Homer, translated by W.H.D. Rouse

I read this book as part of a fairly frequent attempt to review various ancient sources of Greek writing.  I had read much of the epic Greek poem (this version is a prose version of considerable quality) and was quite frankly not very impressed with it.  In reading it again with a (hopefully) more mature mindset, I found that the story itself had much to offer and that some of the elements that had bothered me before (like the focus on the shield that was made for Achilles’ armor and the endless parade of genealogies for the various doomed heroes of the Greeks and Trojans) did not bother me so much.  That is not to say that I looked at this book with a great deal of fondness for the worldview of the author, but rather to say that the artistic form of the epic poem did not get in the way of my enjoyment as it once did.  Perhaps I may even one day read the Aneid again and give that epic another chance [1].  This is the kind of book that gives one the hope that one’s reading will end up being worthwhile and enjoyable, and that is definitely something to celebrate.

This book is a prose novel form of Homer’s Greek poem, and besides containing nearly 400 pages of writing translated from the ancient Greek, it contains an introduction, preface, note on the translation, and pronunciation guide.  The contents of the book itself follow what is in Homer.  The course of the entire epic is a relatively short period bounded by Achilles’ refusal to fight after a quarrel over a slave girl that Achilles held as booty until Agamemnon had to return a captive woman in order to appease Apollo because the girl was the daughter of one of his priests.  The Greeks find themselves not as powerful as before with Achilles sulking on the side and the crisis of the Trojans sallying out from their besieged city to attack the fortified dock of the Greeks, resulting in the death of Patroclus, finally prompts Achilles to fight, after which he slaughters massive amounts of Trojans including the noble (but sometimes hotheaded and not always wise) Hector, whose body Achilles attempts to mutilate and dishonor before Priam is able to win back the corpse after a humiliating supplication.  With that the story ends, as Achilles is soon to die himself and then the Greeks are soon to defeat the Trojans and sack their city not long after that.

There are a lot of lessons that the book draws out, and some the book doesn’t.  The conception of the heathen Greek gods here is a henotheistic one, where Zeus is clearly portrayed as far more powerful and important but where there are still divisions and rivalries within the divine family.  Homer appears to view glory as something that can only be won by human beings as only they have something to risk, something underscored by the farsaical conduct of the gods, especially Ares and Aphrodite, who repeatedly are shown to be inglorious and cowardly and unable to defeat Athena or those she supports (like Diomedes).  The contrast between the sociable and noble Hector and the often petulant but extremely mighty Achilles is itself also a very interesting one that the author draws out.  This book is an example of an epic done right, being honest to what the source contains and also interested in capturing the tone of the original to convey as much as possible about its contents to an audience that does not know classical languages but wishes to be familiar with classical writings.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/09/16/book-review-works-and-days-theogony-and-the-shield-of-hercules-prose/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2014/09/25/forsan-et-haec-olim-meminisse-iuvabit/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/08/18/book-review-a-students-guide-to-the-classics/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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