Forgotten Allusions in Homer's Iliad

Date Published: 15.06.2022

Wadham lecturer claims opening book of Iliad alludes to start of Trojan war.

“Sing, goddess, about the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, the accursed anger that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans.”

Thus begins Homer’s Iliad, an epic poem that recounts the Trojan war of Greek mythology. Or at least a thin slice of it. The literary classic zooms in on only 51 days, ten whole years after the war began.

That’s a lot of time left off the page. But not entirely; scholars recognise that the poem alludes to events beyond these 51 focal days. What Tom Nelson, Wadham lecturer in Classics, argues is that the poem begins its allusive scheme from the beginning. The opening book alludes back to the very start of the war.

“Most scholars think that the poem only starts to replay earlier events of the war from book 2,” Tom explains. “Book 1 is dismissed as merely setting up what’s to come.”

But Tom thinks the Iliad wastes no time before evoking the wider Trojan war tradition.

The idea that book 1 might be doing more than laying brickwork came to Tom when teaching. Reading the text with students, he started on an inconspicuous line that suddenly nagged at him. And it kept nagging at him.

The line described the Greek hero Odysseus bringing a daughter to her father at an altar to appease the anger of the god Apollo. This reminded him of a story from the beginning of the Trojan war: how Odysseus brought Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia to her father at an altar, so she could be sacrificed to appease the anger of another god, Artemis.

He sat on the parallel for a few years before pursuing the idea in earnest and discovering more and more connections.

“It’s subtle”, Tom admits. “The allusions are not as in-your-face as the allusions later in the poem. But they’re there.”

He lays out his case in a new paper published in TAPA, the official journal of the Society for Classical Studies.

There were myths and motifs about the Trojan war before the Iliad was formed. While it’s not easy to reconstruct what these were, the sacrifice of Iphigenia is a good candidate for being an old and well-established part of the Trojan war tradition. The story concludes with Artemis clearing the seas of her angry storms, allowing the Greeks to begin the siege of the city of Troy.

Tom outlines six elements that make up the sacrifice of Iphigenia story. He then argues that all six elements are replayed in the Iliad’s first book. And they don’t just appear haphazardly. They appear in the same narrative order. Tom contends that’s not a coincidence.

What does the discovery mean? “It affects how we imagine the audience responding to the characters from the start,” Tom explains. For instance, the allusions show Agamemnon to be repeating the same hubristic actions as before, angering both a god and Achilles. “He has clearly not learned from his past mistakes.”

It also shows how the Iliad addresses a conundrum. How do you begin an epic poem in an oral tradition where you can start at any place? The Iliad starts where it wants to, ten years in, but still manages to start – in its own way – at the very beginning.

Tom’s published paper, “Iphigenia in the Iliad and the Architecture of Homeric Allusion,” is available on the TAPA website. A copy of the full text is also available on his page.

Thomas Nelson