The Iliad

translated by
Robert Fagles

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Introduction by Bernard Knox

The Iliad


classical Greek writers

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Introduction to The Iliad
Bernard Knox

Copyright © Bernard Knox, 1990

The Iliad

Yet though it is always metrically regular, it never becomes monotonous; its internal variety guarantees that. This regularity imposed on variety is Homer’s great metrical secret, the strongest weapon in his poetic arsenal. The long line, which no matter how it varies in the opening and middle always ends in the same way, builds up its hypnotic effect in book after book, imposing on things and men and gods the same pattern, presenting in a rhythmic microcosm the wandering course to a fixed end which is the pattern of the rage of Achilles and the travels of Odysseus, of all natural phenomena and all human destinies.

The Trojan War

But though we may have our doubts, the Greeks of historic times who knew and loved Homer’s poem had none. For them history began with a splendid Panhellenic expedition against an Eastern foe, led by kings and including contingents from all the more than one hundred and fifty places listed in the catalogue in Book 2. History began with a war. That was an appropriate beginning, for the Greek city-states, from their first appearance as organized communities until the loss of their political independence, were almost uninterruptedly at war with one another. The Greek polis, the city-state, was a community surrounded by potential enemies, who could turn into actual belligerents at the first sign of aggression or weakness. The permanence of war is a theme echoed in Greek literature from Homer to Plato.

The Iliad accepts violence as a permanent factor in human life and accepts it without sentimentality, for it is just as sentimental to pretend that war does not have its monstrous ugliness as it is to deny that it has its own strange and fatal beauty, a power, which can call out in men resources of endurance, courage and self-sacrifice that peacetime, to our sorrow and loss, can rarely command. Three thousand years have not changed the human condition in this respect; we are still lovers and victims of the will to violence, and so long as we are, Homer will be read as its truest interpreter.



The Gods

In any civilization which makes a place in its thought for free will (and therefore individual responsibility) and pattern (and therefore overall meaning), the two concepts—fixed and free—exist uneasily cheek by jowl. The only escape from this logical contradiction is the prison of rigid determinism, a pattern fixed from the beginning and not subject to change, or on the other hand, the complete freedom and meaningless anarchy of an unpredictable universe. And Greek thought, like ours (or those of us at least who still live in the humane traditions of the West), tries to embrace the logical contradiction of freedom and order combined.

In Homer the combination is a subtle one; the idea of destiny, of what is fixed, is flexible. Zeus can predict the future—the deaths of Patroclus, of Achilles, the fall of Troy—and in all these cases it is impossible to say whether the result is destiny or his will or both. But sometimes the possibility is raised that what is fated will actually be annulled by divine will—or even by human.


Free will

Both sides, now Achilles is absent, want peace, but the war goes on. We too have seen and may see again similar situations, and when the catastrophe comes on us in spite of the universal desire to avoid it, we fall back on explanations that are perhaps more sophisticated but no more satisfactory: the irrationality of human nature, the will of history (Croce’s phrase), the will of God or even pure accident—and in the last analysis these explanations are just as metaphysical as Homer’s gods.
Each one is a separate force which, never questioning or examining the nature of its own existence, moves blindly, ferociously, to the affirmation of its will in action. The Homeric god recognizes no authority outside itself—except superior force.



Zeus in his sphere of power, Aphrodite in hers, are irresistible. To be a god is to be totally absorbed in the exercise of one’s own power, the fulfillment of one’s own nature, unchecked by any thought of others except as obstacles to be overcome; it is to be incapable of self-questioning or self-criticism. But there are human beings who are like this. Preeminent in their particular sphere of power, they impose their will on others with the confidence, the unquestioning certainty of their own right and worth that is characteristic of gods. Such people the Greeks called “heroes”; they recognized the fact that they transcended the norms of humanity by according them worship at their tombs after death. Heroes might be, usually were, violent, antisocial, destructive, but they offered an assurance that in some chosen vessels humanity is capable of superhuman greatness, that there are some human beings who can deny the imperatives which others obey in order to live.

The heroes are godlike in their passionate self-esteem. But they are not gods, not immortal. They are subject, like the rest of us, to failure, above all to the irremediable failure of death. And sooner or later, in suffering, in disaster, they come to realize their limits, accept mortality and establish (or reestablish) a human relationship with their fellowmen. This pattern, recurrent in the myths of the Greeks and later to be the model for some of the greatest Athenian tragedies, is first given artistic form in the Iliad.



text checked (see note) November 2021

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The Iliad

Translation copyright © Robert Fagles, 1990

Book Six

Hector Returns to Troy

to Andromache]

“No man will hurl me down to Death, against my fate.

And fate? No one alive has ever escaped it,

neither brave man nor coward, I tell you—

it’s born with us the day that we are born.”



Book Twelve

The Trojans Storm the Rampart

The Argive trench could not hold out much longer,

nor could the rampart rearing overhead, the wide wall

they raised to defend the ships and the broad trench

they drove around it all—they never gave the gods

the splendid sacrifice the immortals craved,

that the fortress might protect the fast ships

and the bulking plunder heaped behind its shield.

Defying the deathless gods they built that wall

and so it stood there steadfast no long time.

Book Thirteen

Battling for the Ships


“Zeus, Father Zeus, they say you excel all others . . .

all men and gods, in wisdom clear and calm—

but all this brutal carnage comes from you.

Look how you favor them, these reckless Trojans,

their fury always in uproar—no one can ever slake

their thirst for blood, for the great leveler, war!

One can achieve his fill of all good things,

even of sleep, even of making love . . .

rapturous song and the beat and sway of dancing.

A man will yearn for his fill of all these joys

before his fill of war. But not these Trojans—

no one can glut their lust for battle!”

to Hector]

“Impossible man! Won’t you listen to reason?

Just because some god exalts you in battle

You think you can beat the rest at tactics too.

How can you hope to garner all the gifts at once?

One man is a splendid fighter—a god has made him so—

one’s a dancer, another skilled at lyre and song,

and deep in the nest man’s chest farseeing Zeus

plants the gift of judgment, good clear sense.

And many reap the benefits of that treasure:

troops of men he saves, as he himself knows best.

So now I will tell you what seems best to me.”



Book Fifteen

The Achaean Armies at Bay

warned by Iris]

But the glorious god of earthquakes shook in anger:

“What outrage! Great as he is, what overweening arrogance!

So, force me, will he, to wrench my will to his?

I with the same high honors?

Three brothers we are, all sprung from Cronus,

all of us brought to birth by Rhea—Zeus and I,

Hades the third, lord of the dead beneath the earth.

The world was split three ways. Each received his realm.

When we shook the lots I drew the sea, my foaming eternal home,

and Hades drew the land of the dead engulfed in haze and night

and Zeus drew the heavens, the clouds and the high clear sky,

but the earth and Olympus heights are common to us all.

So I will never live at the beck and call of Zeus!

No, at his royal ease, and powerful as he is,

let him rest content with his third of the world.

Don’t let him try to frighten me with his mighty hands—

what does he take me for, some coward out-and-out?

He’d better aim his terrible salvos at his own,

all his sons and daughters. He’s their father—

they have to obey his orders. It’s their fate.”

[Telamonian Ajax]

“Be men, my friends! Discipline fill your hearts!

Dread what comrades say of you here in bloody combat!

When men dread that, more men come through alive—

when soldiers break and run, good-bye glory,

good-bye all defenses!”



Book Sixteen:

Patroclus Fights and Dies

If only he had obeyed Achilles’ strict command

he might have escaped his doom, the stark night of death.

But the will of Zeus will always overpower the will of men,

Zeus who strikes fear in even the bravest man of war

and tears away his triumph, all in a lightning flash,

and at other times he will spur a man to battle,

just as he urged Patroclus’ fury now.

Book Seventeen:

Menelaus’ Finest Hour

[Telamonian Ajax]

“Dear god, enough! Any idiot boy could see

how Father Zeus himself supports these Trojans.

All their weapons land, no matter who flings them,

brave fighter or bad—Zeus guides them all to the mark.

Ours all clatter to ground. Wasted, harmless shots.

So come, alone as we are, find the best way out:

how do we pull the body clear and save ourselves,

make it back to our lines and bring our friends some joy?

They look our way in despair, they must. All hope gone

that murderous Hector’s rage and invincible spear-arm

can be stopped—not now—

he’ll hurl himself against our blackened hulls!”

Book Eighteen:

The Shield of Achilles

Now Hera the ox-eyed queen of heaven drove the sun,

untired and all unwilling, to sink in the Ocean’s depths

and the sun went down at last and brave Achaeans ceased

the grueling clash of arms, the leveling rout of war.

mourns Patroclus]

“Till now I’d hoped, hoped with all my heart

that I alone would die

far from the stallion-land of Argos, here in Troy,

but you, Patroclus, would journey back to Phthia

and then you’d ferry Neoptolemus home from Scyros,

fast in your black ship, and show him all my wealth,

my servingmen, my great house with the high vaulting roof.

For father, I fear—if he’s not dead and buried yet—

just clings, perhaps, to his last breath of life,

ground down now by the hateful siege of years,

waiting, day after day, for painful news of me—

until he learns his only son is dead.”

Book Twenty:

Olympian Gods in Arms

to Achilles]

“A man’s tongue is a glib and twisty thing . . .

plenty of words there are, all kinds at its command—

with all the room in the world for talk to range and stray.

And the sort you use is just the sort you’ll hear.

What do we need with wrangling, hurling insults?

Cursing each other here like a pair of nagging women

boiling over with petty, heartsick squabbles, blustering

into the streets to pelt themselves with slander,

much of it true, much not. Anger stirs up lies.

I blaze for battle—your taunts can’t turn me back,

not till we’ve fought it out with bronze. On with it—

taste the bite of each other’s brazen spears!”

Book Twenty-Two:

The Death of Hector

to Hector]

“You unforgivable, you . . . don’t talk to me of pacts.

There are no binding oaths between men and lions—

wolves and lambs can enjoy no meeting of the minds—

they are all bent on hating each other to the death.

So with you and me. No love between us. No truce

till one or the other falls and gluts with blood

Ares who hacks at men behind his rawhide shield.

Come, call up whatever courage you can muster.

Life or death—now prove yourself a spearman,

a daring man of war! No more escape for you—

Athena will kill you with my spear in just a moment.

Now you’ll pay at a stroke for all my comrades’ grief,

all you killed in the fury of your spear!”

Book Twenty-Four:

Achilles and Priam

to Priam]

“Let us put our griefs to rest in our own hearts,

rake them up no more, raw as we are with mourning.

What good’s to be won from tears that chill the spirit?

So the immortals spun our lives that we, we wretched men

live on to bear such torments—the gods live free of sorrows.

There are two great jars that stand on the floor of Zeus’s halls

and hold his gifts, our miseries one, the other blessings.

When Zeus who loves the lightning mixes gifts for a man,

now he meets with misfortune, now good times in turn.

When Zeus dispenses gifts from the jar of sorrows only,

he makes a man an outcast—brutal, ravenous hunger

drives him down the face of the shining earth,

stalking far and wide, cursed by gods and men.”

text checked (see note) November 2021

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