The Iliad begins near the end of the 10-year siege of Troy by the Achaeans. The war began because Helen, the wife of the Achaean chieftain Menelaus, ran away with the Trojan prince, Paris. The Achaeans lay siege to Troy to recover Helen.
The main theme of the Iliad is stated in the first line, as Homer asks the Muse to sing of the “wrath of Achilles.” This wrath, all its permutations, transformations, influences, and consequences, makes up the themes of the Iliad. In essence, the wrath of Achilles allows Homer to present and develop, within the cultural framework of heroic honor, the ideas of strife, alienation, and reconciliation.
Achilles' wrath is initiated by his sense of honor. Honor for the Greeks, and specifically heroes existed on different levels. First, the pursuit of excellence. Second, nobility: on the personal level, men had to treat each other properly; personal regard and honor from one’s peers was essential to the proper functioning of society. Third, valor: obtained by a warrior for his accomplishments in battle. Fourth, and finally, the Greeks could obtain everlasting fame and glory for their accomplishments in life.
In the Iliad, Achilles’ initial anger is a direct result of an act that Achilles perceives to be an attack on his personal honor. Agamemnon takes Briseis from Achilles. In response, Achilles withdraws from the war, producing greater strife, both personally and within the larger context of the war. Achilles cannot reconcile his desire to fight honorably with his companions with his justifiable, but increasingly petulant, anger at Agamemnon. Moreover, Achilles’ withdrawal produces the real strife of war, as the Trojans, emboldened by the absence of Achilles, attack the Greeks and their ships with increasing ferocity and success.
The code which governs the conduct of the Homeric heroes is a simple one. The aim of every hero is to achieve honor, that is, the esteem received from one's peers. Honor is essential...