May 15, 2023

From Gerald R. Lucas

Notes on the Iliad, Book 1: Power Struggles and Divine Intervention

Book 1 of the Iliad lays the foundation for the epic conflict, introducing key thematic elements and characters while setting the stage for the power struggles and divine interventions that unfold throughout the narrative. It showcases the mastery of Homer’s poetic style, employing vivid imagery, formal elements, and the interplay of honor, pride, and hierarchy to captivate readers. The taking of Briseis by Agamemnon serves as a crucial catalyst, driving the plot and showcasing the far-reaching implications of hubris.

The Rage of Achilles, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

The Iliad begins with a plague inflicted upon the Greek camp by Apollo as a consequence of Agamemnon’s refusal to return the captive daughter of Chryses, a priest of Apollo. Achilles demands an explanation, and upon learning the cause, urges Agamemnon to return the girl. However, Agamemnon refuses, asserting his superior rank and claims that he will take Achilles’ prize, the captured Trojan woman Briseis, as compensation. Achilles, outraged by Agamemnon’s disrespect and the perceived injustice, withdraws from the battle, seeking redress from the gods.

Epic Qualities

The opening of the Iliad exemplifies the conventions of epic poetry. It begins with an invocation to the Muse, establishing the epic’s grandeur and invoking divine inspiration. The poem’s narrative scope and timeless themes of heroism, honor, and the intervention of gods elevate it to the realm of the extraordinary. The vivid descriptions and carefully crafted language captivate readers, immersing them in the world of the gods and mortals. It begins in medias res, a few weeks before the end of the Trojan war, and contains the epic question: what causes the break between Agamemnon and Achilles? Book 1 answers this questions and sets the stage for the rest of the epic.


Book 1 introduces several thematic elements that resonate throughout the epic. The concept of honor (timē) and its preservation holds immense importance. Agamemnon’s actions challenge the code of honor, as he dishonors Chryses (thus insulting Apollo) and infringes upon Achilles’ honor by taking Briseis. The theme of pride, or hubris, is evident in Agamemnon’s stubborn refusal to yield and Achilles’ subsequent withdrawal from battle. The consequences of pride and the delicate balance between mortal actions and the influence of the gods are recurrent themes explored throughout the epic.

Major Participants

Book 1 features significant participants who shape the course of events. Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks, represents the struggles for power, authority, and honor. His clash with Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors, highlights the tension between individual glory and collective objectives. The divine figures, Apollo and his priest Chryses, underscore the intervention of gods in mortal affairs, setting the stage for their continued influence on the unfolding conflict.

Formal Elements and Hierarchy

Book 1 establishes a hierarchical structure within the Greek army. Agamemnon’s position as the supreme commander grants him authority and privileges, symbolizing the formal power structure of the society. The tension arises when Achilles, the best of the Greeks, challenges Agamemnon’s authority, questioning the legitimacy of his decisions. This conflict between individual prowess and authority becomes a significant motif in the Iliad, illustrating the complex dynamics of power and the clash between personal interests and collective goals.

The Conflict

Agamemnon's act of taking Briseis from Achilles serves as a catalyst for the major conflicts and themes in the Iliad. It represents the violation of the warrior’s honor (timē), causing Achilles to withdraw from battle and seek retribution. Achilles’ anger and his subsequent absence from the war unleash a chain of events that bring the Greeks to the brink of defeat. Agamemnon’s action highlights the fragile balance between power, pride, and the consequences of disrespecting the Greek champion.

The contention between Agamemnon and Achilles revolves around issues of honor, power, and personal pride. At stake is not only the reputation and status of these two individuals but also the harmony and effectiveness of the entire Greek army in the war against Troy.

The taking of Briseis by Agamemnon is considered egregious for multiple reasons. Firstly, in the ancient Greek society depicted in the Iliad, the spoils of war, including captured women, were seen as a mark of honor and status for the victorious warriors. Briseis was awarded to Achilles as his prize for his exceptional valor in battle, and taking her away undermines his honor and diminishes his standing among his peers. Secondly, the act is an affront to Achilles’ personal pride and sense of entitlement. It symbolizes Agamemnon’s disrespect and lack of appreciation for Achilles’ contributions to the war effort. It is a direct challenge to Achilles’ status and an insult to his heroism.

Thomas 1815 Briséis pleurant sur le corps de Patrocle.jpg

Despite the offensive nature of Agamemnon’s actions, Achilles allows it to happen, albeit reluctantly. Achilles’ decision to let Agamemnon take Briseis is not due to acceptance or agreement with the action itself. Instead, it is a response to the overwhelming sense of injustice and a deep-rooted belief in the formal hierarchy and authority that governs their society. In ancient Greece, respect for authority and adherence to the established social order were highly valued. Achilles, as a warrior deeply embedded in the hierarchical structure, acknowledges Agamemnon’s position as the supreme commander and recognizes that challenging him openly would disrupt the delicate balance of power and jeopardize the collective effort against Troy. Therefore, despite his anger and frustration, Achilles allows the taking of Briseis to happen, choosing not to directly challenge Agamemnon’s authority.

Perhaps even more strategically, Achilles allowing Agamemnon to take Briseis is indeed part of a larger plan for vengeance. Feeling deeply wronged and dishonored by Agamemnon’s actions, Achilles decides to withdraw from the battle. As a result, he employs a strategic maneuver to leverage divine intervention and influence the outcome of the war. Achilles sends his mother, Thetis, to plead with Zeus, the father of the gods, to intervene on his behalf. He requests that Zeus punish the Greeks by allowing the Trojans to gain the upper hand in battle, demonstrating the consequences of Agamemnon’s disrespect and motivating the Greek leader to seek Achilles’ reengagement in the conflict.

By orchestrating this divine intervention, Achilles aims to teach Agamemnon a lesson and ensure that his grievances are acknowledged. He knows that the absence of his formidable presence on the battlefield will greatly impact the Greek forces, and he uses this to his advantage. He strategically creates a situation where the Greeks suffer losses, highlighting Achilles’ irreplaceable value and the necessity of his involvement. Ultimately, Achilles’ plan is to force Agamemnon to recognize his mistake and come to him in a position of humility and desperation, begging for his return. This strategic move allows Achilles to regain his honor and secure significant concessions from Agamemnon, reinforcing his status and demonstrating the extent of his power and influence. This plan, however, will have disastrous effects on the Greek forces and to Achilles himself, as it leads directly to the death of his friend Patroclus.

Thus, Achilles' decision to let Agamemnon take Briseis is not merely a passive acceptance of the transgression. It is a calculated move within a broader strategy to exert control, manipulate the course of the war, and secure his own position of power and respect.

According to the formal hierarchy, Agamemnon is technically in the position of authority and command. He holds the position of the supreme commander of the Greek forces, which grants him the formal power and decision-making authority. From a strict hierarchical perspective, Agamemnon’s actions may be seen as within his rights. However, the Iliad presents a more complex narrative that goes beyond a simple question of who is “correct” based on formal hierarchy. It delves into the moral implications, individual honor, and the consequences of power dynamics. Achilles, as the greatest warrior and a respected figure among the Greeks, represents an alternative ideal of honor and heroism. The clash between Agamemnon and Achilles highlights the tension between formal authority and the individual pursuit of honor, leaving room for interpretation and moral judgment in the readers’ eyes.

Other Important Details

In addition to the central conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles and the taking of Briseis, there are several other crucial events, scenes, and symbols to look out for in Book 1 of the Iliad:

The Plague: The outbreak of the plague, sent by Apollo, serves as a divine manifestation of anger and sets the stage for the ensuing conflict. It highlights the direct involvement of the gods in human affairs and foreshadows the impact of divine intervention throughout the epic.

Chryses’ Prayer: Chryses, the priest of Apollo and father of the captive girl, offers a heartfelt prayer to Apollo, beseeching him to unleash his wrath upon the Greeks. This prayer and Apollo’s subsequent response (note the image of Apollo’s arrows as plague taking out the Greek soldiers) emphasize the power of prayer and the divine response to the pleas of mortals.

Achilles’ Wrath: Achilles’ withdrawal from battle and his subsequent prayer to his mother, Thetis, demonstrate his intense anger and his willingness to seek the intervention of the gods. It sets the stage for his journey towards seeking justice, revenge, and the ultimate reparation of his honor.

Thetis and Zeus: Thetis’ visit to Zeus to seek his support for Achilles’ cause is a pivotal moment, showcasing the complex relationships between gods and mortals, the role of divine intervention, and the underlying power dynamics among the Olympian deities.

Assembly of the Greeks: The gathering of the Greek leaders and the ensuing debates provide insights into the politics, rivalries, and dynamics among the Greek forces. It highlights the challenges of maintaining unity and cooperation within a diverse coalition, and the negotiations for power and influence.

Athena’s Intervention: Athena’s involvement in Book 1, as she restrains Achilles from attacking Agamemnon and guides him towards a more strategic approach, exemplifies the influence of the gods on human decisions and actions. It reveals the subtle interplay between divine guidance and mortal agency. Figuratively, Athena represents Achilles’ own better sense that curbs his desire to kill Agamemnon on the spot.

Symbolism of the Scepter: Agamemnon’s scepter, a symbol of his authority as the supreme commander, becomes a prominent motif in Book 1. It represents the hierarchical power structure within the Greek army and the struggle for dominance and control. The scepter serves as a physical manifestation of Agamemnon’s authority and becomes a focal point in the ensuing negotiations and conflicts.

Writing Prompts

  1. Explore the concept of honor in the Iliad. How is honor defined and valued in the epic? Analyze the actions of Agamemnon, Achilles, and other characters in Book 1 and discuss how their pursuit of honor shapes the events that unfold.
  2. Consider the role of divine intervention in Book 1. How do the actions of the gods, particularly Apollo and Athena, impact the mortal characters and influence the course of events? Discuss the significance of the gods’ involvement and their motivations in the epic.
  3. Reflect on the theme of pride and its consequences in the Iliad. Analyze the pride displayed by Agamemnon and Achilles in Book 1, and explore how their pride leads to conflict and shapes their interactions with other characters. Discuss the portrayal of pride as both a strength and a weakness.
  4. Examine the symbolism of the scepter in Book 1. Explore its significance as a representation of authority, power, and hierarchy within the Greek army. Discuss how the scepter contributes to the dynamics between Agamemnon, Achilles, and the other leaders, and analyze its role in the negotiations and conflicts that arise.
  5. Compare and contrast the responses of Agamemnon and Achilles to the challenges they face in Book 1. Analyze their leadership styles, decision-making processes, and their approaches to resolving conflicts. Discuss how their actions and choices shape the narrative and impact the course of the war.
  6. Reflect on the portrayal of women in Book 1. Explore the roles of Briseis, Chryseis, Thetis, and Hera in the narrative and discuss the treatment and representation of women in the epic. Analyze the influence of women on the actions and decisions of male characters and the dynamics of power between genders.
  7. Consider the moral implications of the characters’ actions in Book 1. Analyze the choices made by Agamemnon, Achilles, and other characters and discuss the ethical dilemmas they face. Reflect on the broader ethical questions raised by the epic, such as the justification of war and the boundaries of honor.