Rage that reverberates unto the very heavens, desire for glory that deforms devotion to home, grief so profound as to make a warrior relent and a king beg—these are only a few of the subjects of Homer’s Iliad. Yet as much as the Iliad is about matters of great magnitude, there are as many moments of tenderness and delicacy. The poem imbricates the enormity and intimacy of human life given over to violence.

Emily Wilson’s 2023 translation of the Iliad puts the epic into English blank verse. As a result, her translation is eminently readable—but this raises a question for its readers: should a poem both beautiful and barbaric be easy to read? In addition to confronting questions that the poem itself puts before us, this seminar will also consider what it means to read such a poem and how much—or little—translation may interrupt or illuminate its timeless meaning.

Image: Canova Antonio, Achilles Delivers Briseis to Agamemnon’s Heralds


Mary Elizabeth Halper & Emily Austin on Grief in the Iliad


Mary Elizabeth Halper

Mary Elizabeth Halper is Dean of the Humanities at Hertog program and a tutor at St. John’s College, Annapolis. Previously, she was Associate Director of the Hertog Foundation. She graduated with B.A.s in Philosophy and Classics from the University of Dallas and has since been devoted to liberal education in various forms.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session


  • Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Emily Wilson. Books 1–4.

Discussion Question:

Book 1

  1. What precisely is the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon about? What is at stake in their quarrel? And what do their reactions to the quarrel reveal about their characters?

Book 2

  1. How do the various leaders of the Greek army (Agamemnon, Odysseus, Nestor) respond to the aftermath of Achilles’ departure from the fighting?
  2. Why might the poet take such pains to provide a catalog of the Greek ships and soldiers?

Book 3

  1. In this first look at the Trojans, can we discern a distinctive Trojan character? What might we surmise about Troy as a city from its denizens?
  2. How does Helen figure into the action of Book III? Is she at home at Troy? Is she in any way Trojan?

Book 4

  1. Compare Athena’s intervention with Pandarus to Aphrodite’s intervention with Paris; compare also Hector & Paris’ fraternal relationship to Agamemnon and Menelaus’. Does the difference between Trojan and Greek carry over to their divine partisans? Does it shade fundamental human relationships?
  2. What rhetorical tactics does Agamemnon deploy to rouse the Greek heroes? What evidence is there for his preeminence among the Greeks?


  • Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Emily Wilson. Books 5–8.

Discussion Question:

Book 5

  1. What makes Diomedes capable of harming gods and goddesses? Why him among all the Greek soldiers?
  2. How do the gods and goddesses compare to the mortals as agents? How does their involvement in the fighting reflect on the struggle of the mortals?

Book 6

  1. Consider Agamemnon’s speech to Menelaus at 6.72–82. What has caused this call for absolute destruction? What could warrant it?
  2. What has the war done to the relationships within Troy—specifically Hector’s relationships to his mother, his brother, Helen, his wife, his son?

Book 7

  1. Hector’s duel ends very differently than Paris’ in Book 3. What is the source of this difference?
  2. At 7.581ff, Zeus chides Poseidon for his hyperbolic claims about the Greek wall. But are Poseidon’s concerns overblown? Have the Greeks done something that can outstrip divine power? If so, how?

Book 8

  1. What are the politics of Olympus? Only after an attempt at defection does Zeus reveal his “divine decree” about the course of the war—is this admission a concession?
  2. At 8.714ff., Hector says: “I wish I could be deathless and unaging/ forever and receive as much acclaim/ as to the gods, Athena and Apollo,/ and this could be as sure as that tomorrow/ brings ruin for the Greeks!” What is the substance of this prayer? What does Hector truly want?


  • Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Emily Wilson. Books 9–12.

Discussion Question:

Book 9

  1. How do the ambassadors to Achilles’ attempt to persuade him to return to the war? What is the result of each’s attempt?
  2. According to Achilles, the disjunct that determines his life is to fight, die, and “have a name that lasts forever” or to return home, gain a long life, but lose his glory. Setting aside the extent to which fate has a hand in this—what in Achilles convinces him of its truth?

Book 10

  1. Intersecting attempts at espionage—what accounts for the success of the one over the other?
  2. Is there any glory in Odysseus and Diomedes’ night raid? Are they acting in a different heroic mode?

Book 11

  1. Death-blows are delivered with crowing boasts; near-misses are excused with churlish grumblings. What role does speech play in the heroes’ activities?
  2. Why does Achilles send Patroclus to assess the Greek wounded? How does Nestor take advantage of this opportunity?

Book 12

  1. Is this central book a turning point? What is the significance of burning the ships? Have the terms of the war from the Trojan perspective shifted since Zeus gave Hector his favor? Have the terms of the war from the Greek perspective shifted?
  2. Could the Trojan advantage here be considered sufficient to discharge Zeus’s promise to Thetis?


  • Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Emily Wilson. Books 13–16.

Discussion Question:

Book 13

  1. Why does the poet dwell on the other heroes in the Greek camp? What do these episodes (with the Ajaxes, with Idomeneus and Meriones) reveal about being a hero?
  2. Consider Polydamas’ speech about the heterogeneity of characters at 959ff—why does this persuade Hector? Do we see him putting this wisdom to use?

Book 14

  1. What differentiates the responses of Agamemnon, Odysseus and Diomedes, and Hera to the advance of the Trojans past the Greeks’ wall?
  2. What strategy does Hera employ against Zeus? Why is it effective? What is its effect?

Book 15

  1. How should we understand the relationship between divine and mortal deeds? As a dialectic? As point and counterpoint (as in a complex melody)? As phenomena and underlying cause?
  2. The resurgence of the Trojans is the final push for Patroclus—why? The zig-zag of Trojan success, the swift shifting of the Greeks’ despair to hope and back again, were these necessary to press Patroclus to action?

Book 16

  1. What sways Achilles to permit Patroclus to lead the Myrmidons into battle? Is this a softening of his position? If not, how does it comport with his still seething rage? What is Patroclus’ character as leader and warrior?
  2. Sarpedon, closest friend to Glaucus and Zeus’ own son, falls as part of the working out of Zeus’ plan; his body becomes the focal point of an especially bloody moment. What does his death and the ensuing struggle for his corpse mean for the Trojan and Greek troops?
  3. As a prelude to Hector’s killing blow, Apollo surreptitiously deprives Patroclus of the full protection of Achilles’ armor. Is Hector not the sole slayer of Patroclus for a reason.


  • Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Emily Wilson. Books 17–20.

Discussion Question:

Book 17

  1. Another battle over a corpse, this one more involved. Why is the body, arms, and armor of this warrior an occasion for such concentrated conflict?
  2. Consider Zeus’ aside at 259ff. after Hector dons the armor stripped from Patroclus. What exactly is Hector’s folly? And what could make him able to recognize it?

Book 18

  1. Achilles’ grief over Patroclus reorients his rage–“sweeter than honey”—does this undercut the seriousness of the initial quarrel with Agamemnon? Does Achilles rejoin the battle for different reasons than those for which he left?
  2. Hector declines Polydamas’ advice this time. Has killing Patroclus changed him?
  3. The shield Hephaestus crafts for Achilles is both cosmic and detailed—why? Is it comparable to the poet’s craft?

Book 19

  1. Why is Achilles “possessed by even greater rage” when he beholds the shield? And how does his rage pair with his feelings of joy and satisfaction at the gift?
  2. Agamemnon’s ameliorative myth about Delusion and Odysseus’ practical plea for a pause before resuming battle both seem attempts to temper Achilles’ rage. Are they effective? What are their effects?

Book 20

  1. We see Achilles fight at last. What kind of warrior is he?
  2. With Achilles’ return to the field, Zeus allows the gods and goddesses free rein in the battle—does this change the tempo of the bloodshed?


  • Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Emily Wilson. Books 21–24.

Discussion Question:

Book 21

  1. How does Achilles respond to Lycaon’s plea for mercy? How does his response differ from other denials of reprieve (cf. Agamemnon’s speech in Book 6)?
  2. Achilles’ confrontation with the river god Xanthus (Scamander) draws the gods and goddesses into battle as well. How can we reconcile their deeds with the repeated claims that mortals are not worth the effort?

Book 22

  1. Both Priam and Hecuba try to persuade Hector to come inside the city’s walls, to no avail. What is Hector’s (unspoken) response?
  2. The poet likens the chase as to one in a dream: “—you never catch, you never get away—” (265). Soon thereafter, Hector mistakes Athena for his brother and then miscalculates the possibility of negotiating with Achilles; Achilles in turn misunderstands what recompense Hector’s death will bring him. The chase does end in fact; but does it truly end? What is the meaning of the chase and its supposed conclusion?

Book 23

  1. Patroclus’ shade visits Achilles (in a dream?)—and acknowledges nothing of Achilles’ vengeance. Why does Patroclus only ask for burial? Why does he recall the circumstances of his attachment to Achilles’ household? Is there a tacit condemnation in the shade’s speech?
  2. How are we to take the funeral games of Patroclus? Do these faux conflicts diminish the seriousness of the conflict in the preceding books? Or do they heighten the difference?

Book 24

  1. Patroclus’ corpse was preserved by Thetis; Hector’s by Apollo. Are these two warriors reflections of each other in other ways?
  2. Why does Achilles return Hector’s body to Priam? More than that: he gives Priam hospitality, a meal, and a place to rest. Even more: he grants the Trojans respite from the war for Hector’s funeral games. Why?
  3. The poem, which began with Achilles’ rage, ends with lamentations for Hector. Is Achilles’ eclipsed? Or could the mourning for Hector be Achilles’ final claim to glory?

Other Courses You Might Be Interested In

Plato’s Republic

Study Plato’s Republic, perhaps the greatest work of political philosophy ever written.

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick

Explore the fundamental human question of the nature and existence of God with Melville's great American novel.

Machiavelli’s The Prince

Study the classic treatise that brought Machiavelli fame—and infamy.

War Studies Program

Learn the theory, practice, organization, and control of war and military forces.