The Iliad

By Homer


The Iliad stands at the very origin of the European literary tradition. Little of any substance is evident before it, certainly not on the scale of Homer's grand epic, while its influence on that tradition is arguably greater than any other work. Together with the Odyssey, which may or may not have been created by the same man but which undoubtedly owes much to the Iliad in its conception, it became the cornerstone of Greek literature, and art in general. Both were utilised as the basis of the Greeks' education, being used (together with Hesiod) to teach about the gods and morality as well as providing information on the more practical side of domestic life. In time, the Romans, who drew so much from the literature of the Greeks, came to esteem Homer above all other poets, and his influence is to be seen in nearly all Latin poets, but particularly in Virgil, who in turn was the model for Dante and Renaissance writers, such as Milton and Spenser.

Throughout history, and especially during his critical rebirth in the Romantic and early Victorian periods, his popularity has been founded upon what was perceived to be his primitive nobility and morality, free from the artifice and ornament of much of classical and subsequent literature. Aristotle called him 'in the serious style the poet of poets' and 'unequalled in diction and thought'. For Thomas Blackwell, 'so unaffected and simple were the manners of those times, that the folds and windings of the human breast lay open to the eye; people were not as yet taught to be ashamed of themselves and their natural appetites, nor consequently to dissemble them... This was Homer's happiness, with respect to mankind' (Enquiry into the Life and Writings of Homer, 1735). Goethe, meanwhile, states that 'Homer's descriptions are poetic and yet ineffably natural... The Greeks expressed what exists, we express only its effects: they described what is terrible, we describe in a terrific style' (Italienische Reise). Finally, Shelley felt that 'that poem [the Iliad] considered as a whole surpasses any other production of the human mind'.