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sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.
The first lines of an ancient epic poem typically offer a capsule summary of the subject the poem will treat, and the first lines of The Iliad conform to this pattern. Indeed, Homer announces his subject in the very first word of the very first line: “Rage.” He then locates the rage within “Peleus’ son Achilles,” delineates its consequences (“cost the Achaeans countless losses . . .”), links it to higher forces and agendas (“the will of Zeus”), and notes its origin (when “the two first broke and clashed, / Agamemnon . . . and brilliant Achilles”). Interestingly, although these lines purport to focus on a human emotion, they interpret this emotion as unfolding in accordance with the expression of Zeus’s will. Similarly, Homer conceives of the entire epic as the medium through which a divine being—a Muse—speaks.
As evident in this passage, the poem emphatically does not undertake to deal with the Trojan War as a whole. The poet does not even mention Troy here, and he specifically asks the Muse to begin the story at the time when Agamemnon and Achilles first “broke and clashed”—nine years into the ten-year conflict. Nor does he mention the fall of Troy or the Greek victory, referring only to a vague “end” toward which Zeus’s will moves. This does not mean that the Trojan War does not play an important role in the poem. Homer clearly uses the war not just as a setting but as a wellspring for the value system he celebrates, and a source of telling illustrations for his statements on life, death, and fate. Nonetheless, the poem remains fundamentally focused on the conflict within a single man, and this opening passage conveys this focus to the reader.
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