Helpful Resources for Reading Homer’s Iliad

Every summer my Rediscovering the Classics group chooses a reading project that is slightly different from our usual “school-year” syllabus. One year we read short stories, another year we decided to delve into poetry. This year we decided to tackle Homer’s Iliad–one of those classics that everyone wants to read, but many people find intimidating. To our delight, the group is finding that when broken up into bite-size chunks, and read with a worthy group of friends, this daunting book can actually be a page-turner. We’re only 8 chapters in as of this writing, but already our group is asking probing questions, participating in heated discussions, and having a hard time holding ourselves back from reading ahead!

Many of the questions that crop up regularly have to do with the context in which the story takes place–the culture of the ancient Greeks and Trojans, the lineage (both mortal and immortal) of the major characters, the many locations mentioned throughout the story, political structure, religious values and traditions, etc. At each of our meetings we take one of these contextual subjects to learn a little more about and discuss in relation to the book itself. As moderator I have found that the internet is littered with helpful facts and information, but wading through all that information to find the right pieces can be time consuming! Here are a few of the most helpful sites I’ve found. I link to these with a deep bow of gratitude to the original authors and owners.

When starting a new book the first place to start your research is often with the setting. The Trojan War, for all of its timeless and far-reaching consequences, was actually a fairly localized skirmish, almost nothing compared to the world wars we’ve experienced in the past century.

Detailed Map of the Aegean Sea with Places of Origin of Major & Minor Characters.
From the Boston College Cassandra Home Page

 To put it in perspective, here’s what this area looks like today:

Modern Map of the Mediterranean Sea and Surrounding Areas.
Courtesy of Google Maps.

Because The Iliad begins in media res, the next question asked by readers is often “How did these characters get here?” In the case of The Iliad, this isn’t an easy question to answer. The events leading up to the Trojan War are many and convoluted, and in a few cases there is some disagreement about how events actually transpired. For an excellent overview of the events immediately leading up to the story we read about in The Iliad, please see Stanford University’s page on The Trojan War. However, as any lover of ancient mythology will know, one myth always leads back to another, and that one back even further, on and on until it makes your head spin! For even more back story about the events and characters in The Iliad (back story which some argue is extraneous, but which I believe gives important insight into the hearts and minds of some of our main characters) the Heroes and Heroines webpages over at TimelessMyths.com is a useful resource. The grammar and writing style leaves something to be desired, but for sheer volume of information easily accessible in one organized page there is no better place to go.

Once you feel comfortable with the setting and back story of The Iliad you’ll begin to notice that many chapters detail the ancestry of our heroes at length; at such length, in fact, that you may begin to feel that you need to draw a convoluted family tree just to understand how all our heroes are (or are not) connected to each other and to the gods and goddesses. Luckily, someone has already done this for you, and the detailed ancestry of many of our heroes, gods and goddesses can by found in Hesiod’s Theogeny (to find this in a readable size please visit the Theoi Website):

Hesiod’s Family Tree of Greek Gods. Find this in a readable size at the Theoi Website

If you’re looking for a more pared down family tree relating only to the main characters, here is one detailing the Greek side of the war, made by me to share with my class–apologies for the unprofessional look of it, I just drew it up by hand one afternoon. Gods are in black, mortals are in the color of their lineage, demigods are in color with a black underline:

Homemade Family Tree

And there is a genealogy of the royal house of Troy found in the back of the Penguin Classics edition of The Iliad, Robert Fagles translation, which I will not include here for copyright purposes (sorry). I will tell you, however, that Hector and Paris and etc. are descended from Zeus through their father Priam, and that they are cousins to Aeneas (son of Aphrodite and Anchises) and the nephews of the infamous Tithonus.

This is as far as I’ve gotten thus far regarding handy resources for reading The Iliad. As I mentioned, we’ve only read through chapter 8 yet, so I will post more resources as we continue and as they seem useful. If you have any questions or requests please feel free to leave a comment. In the meantime…

…Happy Reading!

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