In most stories, “what is it about?” refers to a question of the plot: what happened? In higher literature, there is — in addition to the plot — themes and even worldviews which are conveyed through the story.
As an introduction to what the Iliad is about, YouTuber Lindeybeige does a pretty good job of dispelling some assumptions that most people have about the story. To cut to the point, the story is fundamentally not about the Trojan War, even though it takes place within the Trojan War.
So what is the Iliad really about?
As far as plot is concerned, I don’t think I will do a better job summarizing the key events than Wikipedia. If you haven’t read the story and need a quick re-orientation, the synopsis there is a good place to start. Here, I will focus on themes, which will help us figure out which elements of the story really drive the rest.
Thankfully, there is no better place to begin than with the very first lines.
Homeric literature is written in a format reminiscent of news-copy. In news-copy, the headline summarizes the story, the subheading gives a slightly more detailed summary, the first paragraph gives a very brief chronological account, and from there goes into further detail. In a similar fashion, the Iliad gives the reader a single word which summarizes the subject of the story: μῆνιν (menin) — “wrath” or “rage.” The subsequent words in those first lines (specifically the first seven) serve more or less as our analagous subheading and first paragraph.
The story is not about the Trojan War per se, but is about the wrath of a particular character — Achilles — and the fall-out of this wrath.
μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
Wrath, sing, Goddess, [of] Peleus’ son Achilles,
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,
accursed, which myriad [to the] Achaeans suffering brought,
πολλὰς δ᾽ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν
Many but sturdy spirits [to] the land of the dead untimely sent
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
[Who were] heroes, but their bodies prepared as a feast for dogs
οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι, Διὸς δ᾽ ἐτελείετο βουλή,
[and] birds of prey, all, Zeus’s but completed will,
ἐξ οὗ δὴ τὰ πρῶτα διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε
following from the time [that] dispute separated
Ἀτρεΐδης τε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν καὶ δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς.Book 1
Atreus’ son lord of men, and godly Achilles.
I have translated these in an interlinear fashion to maintain the word-order. This makes the English a little grammatically difficult, but I think it is important (at least for the first few lines) in order to grasp what Homer is saying is the subject here. Troy is never mentioned. Paris, Helen, and the Trojan Horse are never mentioned. What the Iliad is truly and fundamentally about is encapsulated in the very first line.
First and foremost, the story is about wrath and its effects. That is the plot. Secondly, it is about the medium itself: song (and, by extension, the muses connected to singing). This is slightly more esoteric, but is critical to understanding what Homer is conveying. Third, it is about Achilles, not just the character, but what the character represents.
In a story that includes countless descriptions of violent acts and brutal deaths, it is perhaps strange that the most powerful act of “wrath” in the entire story is not positive, but negative: not an act of violence, but one of withdrawal and inaction.
After Agamemnon and Achilles fall out, Achilles’ wrath is enacted by removing himself and his men from the field of battle. They “sit out” on the sidelines. Being the best warrior among the Achaeans, this is a serious loss. Other Greek warriors demonstrate serious martial prowess, perhaps none so much as Diomedes, but ultimately, none of them can do what Achilles did, and the Trojans — led by prince Hector — press back the Achaeans and threaten to burn their ships. Agamemnon sends men to try to persuade Achilles to return to the fight, offering great wealth and the girl back, but Achilles refuses.
What is this saying about the nature of wrath? Perhaps “wrath,” as an English term, isn’t even the right word for this concept that Homer is trying to convey. By way of illustration, we see Achilles explain his thinking to Agamemnon’s emissaries:
For not of like worth with life hold I even all the wealth that men say was possessed of the well-peopled city of Ilios in days of peace gone by, before the sons of the Achaians came; neither all the treasure that the stone threshold of the archer Phoebus Apollo encompasseth in rocky Pytho. For kine and goodly flocks are to be had for the harrying, and tripods and chestnut horses for the purchasing; but to bring back man’s life neither harrying nor earning availeth when once it hath passed the barrier of his lips. For thus my goddess mother telleth me, Thetis the silver-footed, that twain fates are bearing me to the issue of death. If I abide here and besiege the Trojans’ city, then my returning home is taken from me, but my fame shall be imperishable; but if I go home to my dear native land, my high fame is taken from me, but my life shall endure long while, neither shall the issue of death soon reach me.Book 9
What we see in Homer’s Odyssey is that a return home does not necessarily guarantee one an escape from conflict. Indeed, one of the great symbols of the story of the Iliad — a shield made for Achilles by the God Hephaestus — depicts two cities, one at war, and one at peace, but even the city at peace is in conflict: a trial is underway in which two sides are arguing over the validity of a blood-price for a murder.
Life itself is depicted as a never-ending series of conflicts, and the wrath of Achilles’ withdrawal may be perceived as a kind of anger not at a particular king, but at the futility of all of the conflicts, since nothing is ever fully resolved. Perhaps even an anger with life itself, and a desire to withdraw from the conflicts that constitute living. This is perhaps an ironic point, given that life is Achilles’ justification for wanting to withdraw, and cease risking his life on behalf of someone else’s gripe. But we will return to this point shortly.
Marshall Mcluhan famously said that “the medium is the message,” and this is especially true of Homeric epic. Homer believes that the tale of Achilles is cosmically important, and it is only by means of epic song that he can convey this tale in a way which will reach his audience effectively. Perhaps the endurance of the story is testament to the truth of this belief.
But song is not just the medium. It is also part of the content of the story. In one particularly interesting scene (incidentally, the scene before Agamemnon’s emissaries speak with Achilles), Achilles himself is singing:
So they came to the huts and ships of the Myrmidons, and found their king taking his pleasure of a loud lyre, fair, of curious work, with a silver cross-bar upon it. Therein he was delighting his soul, and singing the glories of heroes. And over against him sate Patroklos alone in silence, watching till Achilles should cease from singing.Book 9
The Iliad is full of song. Aside from itself being a song of sorts, it contains songs of glorious heroes from the past, and songs of sadness and lament. But to understand the importance of song, we must look at the Goddesses of song — the Muses. Their name is our etymological source for the word “music,” but they themselves are supposed to remember everything. Indeed, their gift (song) is a gift of memory. Song and memory are related, even synonymous in some contexts.
It is difficult to trace out the exact etymological relation, but myth, music, memory, and mystic all seem to be etymologically related. The linguistic relation between music and memory may be a little more tenuous, but it is clear from the text that they are very closely related functionally: music is a tool for memory.
The musicality of the Iliad is thus an argument for its trustworthiness. Homer is claiming to recall these events with totality, with the objectivity and veracity of the Gods themselves, owing to the power of this medium. But there is also an aesthetic argument one might read out of the choice of medium, perhaps metaphorically comparing life itself to song, whose beauty lies in the creation of conflict and resolution.
This is a broad topic which may warrant a more complete post later.
As with the Odyssey, the Iliad is a strange book in that our ostensible protagonist seems absent throughout most of the story. We see him argue with Agamemnon at the very beginning, but then he kind of disappears from the narrative (which, as mentioned above under “wrath,” he seems to have chosen of his own volition), and — with the exception of Book 9 — only truly reappears in Book 18 (there are only 24 books). All kinds of fighting goes on, and heroes are killing each other and winning glory and dying terribly, but Achilles is nowhere to be seen.
The importance of Achilles lies in what he represents, which can be seen from his name. Achilles is derived from αχος (akhos) “sorrow” and λαος (laos) “people.” He is the personification of the suffering of “the people,” who are the audience. Beautiful and talented, yet doomed to die young, his very existence is tragic, and in the face of the apparent cosmic injustice of it all, Achilles — the noblest and unluckiest of all the Achaeans — is tempted in wrath to withdraw from the conflict of life itself; to essentially cut his losses and stop trying. Even his mother, in a moment of deep empathy, seems to almost wish that she had never given birth to him:
Then Thetis weeping made answer to him: “Ah me, my child, why reared I thee, cursed in my motherhood? Would thou hadst been left tearless and griefless amid the ships, seeing thy lot is very brief and endureth no long while; but now art thou made short-lived alike and lamentable beyond all men; in an evil hour I bare thee in our halls.Book 1
He is the most extreme example of an emotion that all of us face, one which is perhaps captured in the Biblical story of Job.
But of course, there is a price to pay for that choice, and because of Achilles’ refusal to reconcile and return to the battle, his childhood friend Patrokles is killed in his place.
There is much more to say about the themes and story of the Iliad, but as a starting point, “wrath,” “song,” and “Achilles” are a textually-based foundation upon which the rest of the story can be better understood. The story is about how suffering, life, song, and the Gods all interact in all of our lives, through the lens of how they interplay in a single life, but does so without judgment. Instead it leaves us the readers — like the judge of a trial — to determine what our lives are truly worth.
…the folk were gathered in the assembly place; for there a strife was arisen, two men striving about the blood-price of a man slain; the one claimed to pay full atonement, expounding to the people, but the other denied him and would take naught. And the folk were cheering both, as they took part on either side. And heralds kept order among the folk, while the elders on polished stones were sitting in the sacred circle, and holding in their hands staves from the loud-voiced heralds. Then before the people they rose up and gave judgment each in turn. And in the midst lay two talents of gold, to be given unto him who should plead among them most righteously.Book 18