But even within their ranks, The Iliad and The Odyssey—attributed to Homer in the 8th century BC—are far older than Oedipus the King (Sophocles, 5th century BC), and The Aeneid (Virgil, 1st century BC). In other words, Homer’s epics were to Virgil what Medieval literature is to us today.
Here’s what they have in common:
Characters. Many celebrated Greek and Trojan heroes make appearances—in real-time or in flashback—in all three. Among them are Achilles, Aeneas, Odysseus, Hector, Paris, and Helen.
Themes. The trio relies heavily on themes of duty and fate, as well as prophecy, divine intervention by squabbling gods, family, pride, and heroism.
Style. All three are written in verse (specifically dactylic hexameter), but with one important distinction: Homer is believed to have composed The Iliad and The Odyssey orally, while Virgil drafted and revised The Aeneid on paper over a ten-year period.
Setting/Plot. The Trojan War and its aftermath are central to each story line. The Odyssey and The Aeneid serve as parallel “sequels” to The Iliad, depicting the homeward journeys of Greek warrior Odysseus and Trojan warrior Aeneas, respectively. Odysseus and Aeneas even encounter some of the same places and faces on their concurrent sea voyages.
I waltzed up to each book with exactly zero background knowledge—a heinous mistake for which I’d like to kick my own ass. There is a clear sequence to follow (Iliad, then Odyssey, then Aeneid) for the best reading experience, and loads of inter-textual references to look out for. Virgil nods left and right to his long-dead bro Homer throughout The Aeneid, even going so far as to model the first half on The Odyssey and the second on The Iliad. I, of course, missed out entirely on this continuity and spend most of my free time grieving its loss.
For the familiar-in-need-of-a-refresher, and for the uninitiated-but-newly-curious, here are the basics on the Classical classics:
- When The Iliad kicks off, we’re already well into the Trojan War’s fourth quarter. Ten years have passed since Paris whisked Helen away from her husband, the king of Sparta, and battle has raged ever since.
- Enter Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors, with the greatest of weaknesses. No, not his heel, Sherlock—his pride. Less man-god than man-baby, Achilles throws a pouty tantrum and refuses to fight when his war trophy, the beautiful Briseis, is taken away from him.
- The Greeks suffer great losses until Patroclus, Achilles’ best friend, sneaks off to battle in Achilles’ armor, only to be cut down by Hector, Prince of Troy. Achilles throws another tantrum and then takes his vengeance, triumphing over Hector in a one-on-one showdown.
- Achilles’ final tantrum—which sees him dragging Hector’s corpse behind his chariot in a decidedly unsportsmanlike manner—ends only when the Trojan King Priam comes to beg for his son’s body back.
- That’s it. That’s the end. All you’ve been waiting for, since page one, is the Trojan Horse, but The Iliad knocks off with Hector’s funeral and a few lame hints at Troy’s looming fate. Not cool, Homer.
- Fast-forward another ten years, and Odysseus, who fought alongside Achilles against the Trojans, still hasn’t made it home to Ithaca. Everyone assumes he is dead, and his wife Penelope is thronged with unwelcome suitors.
- As it turns out, Odysseus isn’t dead. It’s just that Poseidon has it out for him, and controls the sea, so…
- Odysseus tells the Phaeacian king and queen all that has befallen him since his departure from Troy: He and his men got high off lotus flowers and captured by a Cyclops. Then the witch-goddess Circe turned most of his crew into pigs. Odysseus went on to have a lot of sex with Circe, visit the Underworld to speak to the dead, bypass the deadly Sirens, and straddle the six-headed monster Scylla and whirlpool Charybdis, before spending seven years as prisoner to Calypso (a nymph).
- Once home, finally, Odysseus disguises himself as a beggar to slaughter all of Penelope’s suitors. (I swear this makes sense in context.) (Kind of.)
- Mention is made of the Trojan Horse, but we STILL don’t get the full story—even though it was Odysseus who led the whole scheme. Homer: you epically suck.
- Like The Iliad and The Odyssey, The Aeneid hits the ground running at the end of the Trojan War. This time we follow Trojan hero Aeneas out of his freshly ruined city to find a new home. His first stop is Carthage, where Queen Dido promptly falls in love with him.
- Here and now, we hear the tale of the Trojan Horse at last. It was Odysseus’s idea for the Greeks to build a large wooden horse, hide inside it, offer it as a “parting gift” to the Trojans, and then emerge under cover of night to lay siege to the city—this time, from within its walls.
- A few misunderstandings later, Aeneas unceremoniously abandons Dido. Dido ceremoniously kills herself.
- Aeneas visits Sicily and the Underworld before settling in Latium, where his army immediately goes to war with the locals. And wins.
- Remember that new home Aeneas wanted to build for the last of the Trojans? Well, he’s already there. “Latium” is present-day Rome.
For the record, I enjoyed The Iliad the most. With an excellent sense of pacing and an unbiased narrative voice, it is often quite interesting and often quite beautiful. In the spirit of oral tradition, I listened to The Iliad on audiobook, and then wished I’d done the same for The Odyssey and The Aeneid. And while I’d prefer my Greeks (and Trojans) a little less bloodthirsty and a little more feminist, I can’t argue with the effusive spirit—at once larger-than-life and intensely human—that has made them immortal.
Now for a few fun facts. I’d skip them for the sake of time, but these are too fun not to share:
- We know basically nothing about Homer, to whom both of the oldest known works of Western literature are attributed. We think he existed, we think he authored most (if not all) of The Iliad and The Odyssey, and we think he was blind.
- The Aeneid was unfinished at the time of Virgil’s death. As legend has it, Virgil, ever the perfectionist, ordered the manuscript burned on his deathbed. Fortunately, Caesar Augustus intervened and, ironically, Virgil’s legacy has had extraordinary staying power.
- A Classical civilization and literature teacher created this insanely great infographic devoted to all the deaths in The Iliad. She includes battle stats, top performances, and all the most gruesome deaths.
- I’ve been keeping track (or trying to) of references within the classics to other classics on The List, and the Greeks show up EVERYWHERE: The Divine Comedy, Middlemarch, The Portrait of a Lady, The Magic Mountain, Tristram Shandy, Tom Jones, In Search of Lost Time, and more. James Joyce’s Ulysses in particular draws on The Odyssey in both character development and structure (not surprising, since “Ulysses” is Odysseus’ Latin name).
- While there is, no doubt, much more legend than fact in all three Classical epics, the city of Troy and the Trojan War are believed to be real—at least, in some form. In the late 19th century, German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann excavated the site we now assume to be the city of Troy in northwestern Turkey. Since then, we have found evidence of nine different cities built on the site across the centuries, as well as a war (or wars) that may have inspired Homer’s Iliad.
Are They Three of the Greatest Books of All Time?
I’ve been known to work up a lot of nerve, but even I won’t besmirch the names of the most Classic classics. You just don’t survive the onslaught of time unless you’re a warrior—and our beloved Greeks and Trojans were nothing if not that.
Long ago, I learned how to be brave, how to go forward always.
His destiny, his homecoming, is at hand,
when he shall see his dearest, and walk on his own land.
As the goddess ended, Dawn came stitched in gold.
For now the seventh summer carries you,
a wanderer, across the lands and waters.
In his deepest heart there surge
tremendous shame and madness mixed with sorrow
and love whipped on by frenzy and a courage
aware of its own worth.
Fortune helps those who dare.
Read: 2014 (Aeneid); 2015 (Odyssey); 2016 (Iliad)