The Iliad

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The Iliad Book 2 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Zeus is kept up at night trying to devise the best plan to honor Achilles by harming the Achaeans. He decides to send a treacherous dream to Agamemnon. The dream, taking the form of the wise Nestor, tells Agamemnon that Troy will fall if he attacks immediately at full strength. Agamemnon awakes, convinced he will finally capture Troy that day, and he calls an assembly of the army and a meeting of the captains.
The dream that Zeus sends to Agamemnon is a false omen, one that Agamemnon takes as a sign of fate. Zeus’ will does come to pass, but in the exact opposite way that Agamemnon expects: he is driving his men to certain defeat in order glorify Achilles, who will sit out the battle.
Themes
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Agamemnon repeats his dream to the assembled captains, and Nestor supports his plan. Before attacking, Agamemnon decides to test the courage of his soldiers, and tells the assembled soldiers that despite the original prophecy of Zeus and that fact that they outnumber the Trojans, the time has come to give up hope of capturing Troy. He tells his troops that it is time to sail home, and to his dismay, the soldiers immediately begin to prepare their ships to depart.
Agamemnon’s test intends to show the strength of his soldiers, but instead shows his own mistaken judgment. The common soldiers have no stake in a war against Troy, have suffered great losses, and are eager to return to their families and homes. Agamemnon has put too much faith in his dream.
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Hera sees the Achaeans preparing to sail, and sends Athena to stop them from leaving. Athena appears beside Odysseus and tells him to hold the men back from readying the ships. Recognizing a god, Odysseus runs through the encampment, telling his fellow captains to stand fast and disciplining the common soldiers. He manages to marshal the men back into their ranks.
For Hera, it is of the utmost importance that Troy be completely destroyed. She sends Athena to help ensure her plans come to pass. Odysseus appeals the captains’ sense of honor to keep them from sailing.
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The armies have regrouped, but one common soldier, Thersites, dissents from the ranks. He is described as obscene, ugly, and insubordinate. In front of everyone, he criticizes Agamemnon for hoarding treasure while the soldiers of Achaea are slaughtered, and suggests that the Achaeans should sail home without him. Odysseus steps in, reprimands him, and strikes him over the shoulder with Agamemnon’s scepter. The soldiers laugh at Thersites.
Thersites objections are legitimate in many ways: common men are being slaughtered for Agamemnon’s pursuit of treasure and honor. At the same time, Thersites is a character out of step with the ancient Greek code of values. His dissent is not honorable, and so he is portrayed as a character of great ugliness.
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Odysseus makes a speech to Agamemnon and the troops. He criticizes the men for being so ready to depart from Troy after all of their hard fighting. Next, he recalls the former prophecy of Calchas. Before the fleet reached Troy, the army was offering a sacrifice when they saw a snake crawl up a tree to reach a nest, where it swallowed eight baby sparrows and the mother, and then turned to stone. Calchas interpreted this as a sign that Troy would fall after the ninth year of battle.
Odysseus’ speech restores the code of warrior’s honor that Thersites has disrupted, indicating that it would be cowardly to return home without achieving victory first. The details in the story of the prophecy give weight to Odysseus’ claim that the gods have fated an Achaean victory, encouraging the soldiers to continue fighting.
Themes
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Odysseus’ speech rallies the armies. Nestor then advises the men to honor their oaths by continuing the war. He says that any man who tries to sail home will meet his death, and suggests that the armies organize themselves by tribe, as men fighting with their kin will show their true bravery. Agamemnon agrees and also expresses some regret for quarreling with Achilles, stating that the argument came from Zeus, and that Troy would fall “if the two of us / could ever think as one”.
Nestor expresses the idea that family bonds increase the fighting strength of soldiers, as they will be more passionate to fight for those beside them. Agamemnon uses the gods to deflect his responsibility describes his argument with Achilles as something created by the gods, not his own action.
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Agamemnon orders the men to eat and then ready themselves for battle. The armies disperse and the men make sacrifices to the gods. Agamemnon sacrifices an ox to Zeus, praying to defeat the Trojans, but Zeus is not yet prepared to grant his request. After eating, Nestor and Agamemnon decide to review the armies before they march out. Athena shines her bright shield on the massing armies, which are described as being like swarms of flies and flocks of animals under tight control.
The preparatory sacrifices indicate how deeply the soldiers believe that the gods determine success or failure on the battlefield. Homer gives multiple descriptions of the massing armies, using rural Greek images to create a complex picture of the immense number of Achaean troops.
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Homer invokes the Muses to help him list the enormous number of kings and armies of Achaea, beginning what is known as the Catalogue of Ships. The armies are listed by the region and its chiefs, often with some brief background information about a hero or a city from which the men came. Homer also gives an indication of strength by listing the number of ships that sail for each army. Great Ajax is singled out as the best Achaean soldier after Achilles.
The Catalogue of Ships is considered to be an important link to the oral tradition of Greek poetry, suggesting the political makeup of Bronze Age Greece. The Catalogue also provides information about the size and makeup of the Greek armies in the poem, and lets us know about the homelands of the chiefs and soldiers.
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As the armies of Achaea storm out to battle, Zeus sends his messenger Iris to Troy, alerting them to assemble their own armies to meet the Achaeans. Hector breaks up their meeting of chiefs, and a similar catalogue of the Trojans and their foreign allies follows. Hector is singled out as the bravest Trojan.
Zeus immediately alerts the Trojans of the Achaean threat, helping to ensure the Achaean's defeat. The list of the Trojan armies creates a sense of their force’s size and a geographic picture of the regions that are allied to the Trojans.
Themes
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The Gods Theme Icon
Wartime Versus Peacetime Theme Icon