The Iliad

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Themes and Colors
Honor and Glory Theme Icon
The Gods Theme Icon
Fate and Free Will Theme Icon
Wartime Versus Peacetime Theme Icon
Mortality Theme Icon
Love and Friendship Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Iliad, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Fate and Free Will Theme Icon

Throughout the Iliad there is a deep sense that everything that will come to pass is already fated to happen. For Homer, the Trojan War was already an old story passed down for generations, and the poem is presented from the very beginning as a completed story, “the will of Zeus…moving toward its end.” In the lives of men, the gods are powerful enough to act as fate, spurring them to actions they might not have undertaken on their own, such as Achilles’ decision not to kill Agamemnon or Helen’s return to Paris’ bedchamber, sent forth by Aphrodite. The soldiers of the poem often use the idea of fate to justify their actions, as they reason that the current battle might be their fated time to die. As Hector puts it: “And fate? No one alive has ever escaped it, / neither brave man nor coward, I tell you— / it’s born with us the day that we are born.” In Book VIII, the fate of the war is represented as a scale that Zeus literally tips in favor of the Trojans.

However, Zeus is not all-powerful, and the other gods are capable of deceiving him in order to turn the war to their advantage, at least temporarily. Accordingly, Zeus and the other gods occasionally speak about fate as something not even totally in their control. For instance, the fate of Achilles is foretold by prophecy, although the gods help bring it to pass. Thetis tells Achilles that he has the choice to either return home and live a long life without glory, or die a glorious death fighting at Troy. Paradoxically, Achilles seems to have some choice in his fate, and it is hard to say whether Achilles’ fate is already determined, or whether he controls his fate up until he makes his choice. Achilles decides to fight, knowing that he is sealing his fate when he returns to battle. Ultimately, the relationship between fate and free will in the Iliad remains unclear.

Fate and Free Will ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Fate and Free Will appears in each section of The Iliad. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Fate and Free Will Quotes in The Iliad

Below you will find the important quotes in The Iliad related to the theme of Fate and Free Will.
Book 1 Quotes

Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighter’ souls, but made their body carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.

Related Characters: Achilles, Zeus, Agamemnon
Page Number: 1.1-8
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, at the beginning of the poem, Homer establishes the task ahead of him. Homer will describe the history of the great hero Achilles, who fought alongside his peers the Achaeans (in modern terms, the Greeks) against the Trojans, commanded by the great king Agamemnon.There's a lot to notice here. First, consider that the first word of the poem is "rage." The Iliad is a poem about the savagery and brutality of war, which could be considered the "rage" between different kingdoms. But the poem is also about the rage of individuals: great men like Achilles, who were inspired by their emotions to fight in battle, often achieving great glory in the process. Homer, it's been suggested, both approves of rage and questions what its purpose is. Rage, he says, results in one thing: death (the "carrion feasts"). Yet Achilles's rage also ensures that he'll be remembered forever--as evidenced by the Iliad itself. Finally, it's crucial to notice that Homer is asking the goddess (sometimes translated as "muse") of poetry for inspiration. Homer doesn't see himself as a writer in the modern sense of the word: he's not inventing a story to entertain his audience. Instead, Homer sees himself as merely transcribing the poetry of the gods--an epic, larger-than-life story about the greatest Greeks of history.

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Someday, I swear, a yearning for Achilles will strike
Achaea’s sons and all your armies!

Related Characters: Achilles (speaker)
Page Number: 1.281-282
Explanation and Analysis:

Achilles quarrels with Agamemnon, the king of the Achaeans. As a result of their quarrel, Achilles refuses to fight alongside his Achaean peers: he wants to humiliate Agamemnon in the upcoming battles with the Trojan enemy. In this scene, Achilles warns Agamemnon and the other Achaean soldiers that they're going to miss him while he's gone. The next time they're fighting the Trojans, he insists, they'll wish he was there to protect them.

Achilles's speech demonstrates his arrogance and "swagger"--he knows he's valuable to the Achaean war effort, and he doesn't shy away from saying it. And Homer also emphasizes Achilles's rage--the quality he began his poem discussing. It's because of Achilles's anger with Agamemnon that he refuses to fight: he's so concerned with individual honor and respect that any slight from the king is enough to discourage him from battle (and his sulking arguably causes hundreds of lives to be lost--those he could have saved).

O my son, my sorrow, why did I ever bear you?
All I bore was doom…
Doomed to a short life, you have so little time.

Related Characters: Thetis (speaker), Achilles
Page Number: 1.492.494
Explanation and Analysis:

Achilles (still seething from his argument with Agamemnon) approaches his mother, the sea goddess Thetis. Achilles asks Thetis to punish Agamemnon for his disrespect, and Thetis agrees to ask Zeus for help in punishing Agamemnon. And yet Thetis is saddened by Achilles's request. She knows that a prophecy was made long ago: Achilles will either die young and gloriously, or he'll live a long, peaceful, and forgettable life. In short, then, Achilles is asking Thetis to arrange for her own son to fight in battle and die.

Thetis is understandably upset that she's doomed to lose her son. And yet she doesn't dispute Achilles's wishes: she knows that the prophecy is set in stone, and she even seems to believe that Achilles is better off dead and glorious than he is alive and unknown.

Book 2 Quotes

I and Achilles…Ah if the two of us
could ever think as one, Troy could delay
her day of death no longer, not one moment.

Related Characters: Agamemnon (speaker), Achilles
Page Number: 2.448-452
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, King Agamemnon expresses some regret for having argued with Achilles. Agamemnon knows that Achilles is enormously valuable to the Achaean war effort: the Acheans really can't win the war with Troy without him. Agamemnon makes an interesting point: if he and Achilles could just work together, the Trojan War would be over in a day.

Agamemnon makes an interesting point about leadership. The implication of the passage is that Greece isn't big enough for two giant egos: Agamemnon and Achilles are bound to fight because they're both proud, powerful men. (The critic Franco Moretti has argued that the disagreement between Achilles and Agamemnon symbolizes the divisions between soldiers and governors in all complex societies.) And notice also that Agamemnon isn't speaking to a big group--he's just talking to Odysseus (another hero with a big ego). Agamemnon knows that he can't apologize to Achilles: he's too proud and noble for that. The best he can do is express his regret privately.

Book 3 Quotes

Maddening one, my Goddess, oh what now?...
Well, go to him yourself—you hover beside him!
Abandon the gods’ high road and become a mortal!...
suffer for Paris, protect Paris, for eternity . . .
until he makes you his wedded wife—that or his slave.

Related Characters: Helen (speaker), Aphrodite, Paris
Page Number: 3.460-474
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Helen--the beautiful woman for whom the Trojan War was fought--looks down from the walls of Troy at the battle taking place between Menelaus and Paris: respectively, her Achaean husband and the Trojan prince who kidnapped her. As Helen watches the two men fight for "ownership" of her, Helen sees that Paris is losing, but that the gods won't let him die--he is the favorite of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Helen ruefully notes that Aphrodite is Paris's protector, and as long as she "debases" herself by coming to earth and saving him, she might as well become his slave, too.

Helen's speech suggests how she sees herself. Helen passively watches the men fight for her--she has no real agency of her own during the war. The best Helen can do is observe and comment on the action. Thus, she's insightful enough to make a comparison between Aphrodite and herself: the word "slave" suggests that Helen sees herself as the helpless captive of Paris (Paris has, after all, abducted Helen from her homeland).

Book 6 Quotes

Why so much grief for me?
No man will hurl me down to Death, against my fate.
And fate? No one alive has ever escaped it,
neither brave man nor coward, I tell you—
it’s born with us the day that we are born.

Related Characters: Hector (speaker), Andromache
Page Number: 6.580-584
Explanation and Analysis:

In this tender scene, Hector tries to comfort his wife, Andromache. Hector is about to go into battle, and Andromache is frightened that she'll never see him again: there's a good chance Hector will be killed in the line of duty. Hector tries to reassure Andromache by pointing out that everybody dies in the end. the best Hector can do, as a great soldier, is to fight bravely while he still has the energy and the talent. In short, Hector believes that everybody dies, so he might as well die with dignity and honor.

Hector's speech illustrates the strengths and the limitations of the warlike philosophy of the Trojans. Hector is incredibly brave and noble--he's genuinely willing to die for Paris, someone he clearly doesn't even like--and yet he's so focused on war and fighting that he's forced to neglect the other half of life: the life of love, happiness, tenderness, and family.

Book 9 Quotes

Mother tells me,
the immortal goddess Thetis with her glistening feet,
that two fates bear me on to the day of death.
If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy,
my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies.
If I voyage back to the fatherland I love,
my pride, my glory dies . . .
true, but the life that’s left me will be long,
the stroke of death will not come on me quickly.

Related Characters: Achilles (speaker), Thetis
Page Number: 9.497-505
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Achilles lays out the two options before him: he can either fight in the Trojan War and die young, gaining glory and immortality in the process, or he can sail back home and live a long happy life, and be forgotten by history.

Achilles's choice illustrates the differences between honor and happiness. Happiness is personally satisfying, but short-lived: Achilles could enjoy the rest of his life, but his enjoyment wouldn't help anyone else (except perhaps the people back home). On the other hand, honor is selfless and immortal: Achilles would make a great sacrifice by dying on the battlefield, and he would be rewarded for his sacrifice by being remembered forever. Ultimately, the Iliad sees honor as the more important value (although many modern readers of the poem might argue that happiness and peace are better than war and immortality). Also note that the "immortality" Achilles discusses is partly realized by the Iliad itself: thanks to Homer, we're still talking about Achilles thousands of years later.

Book 13 Quotes

One man is a splendid fighter—a god has made him so—
one’s a dancer, another skilled at lyre and song,
and deep in the next man’s chest farseeing Zeus
plants the gift of judgment, good clear sense.

Related Characters: Zeus
Page Number: 13.844-847
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section of the poem, Zeus surveys the fighting between the Trojans and the Achaeans and praises the Trojans for their valor. Zeus decides to reward the Trojans with good sense and clever strategy.

It's important to keep in mind why Zeus is helping the Trojans in the war: he ultimately wants Achilles to achieve as much glory as possible, and therefore tries to make the Trojans the most dangerous enemies they can be. In short, Zeus's "methods" are rather hard to understand: even when he seems to favor one side, he really has the other side in mind.

The passage is also important because it shows the relationship between fate and free will in the poem. Zeus controls the fate of the universe, and yet Zeus himself seems to be influenced by the behavior of the Trojans and the Achaeans: their bravery encourages him to choose to alter the result of the battle. Furthermore, Zeus's observations suggest that the Trojans aren't just puppets, doing whatever Zeus tells them to do: Zeus is genuinely impressed with the Trojans' courage and talent. In short, the characters in the poem aren't just playing out their destinies: they're exercising free will, if only at times and within the larger designs of the gods and the Fates.

Book 16 Quotes

Do as you please, Zeus . . .
but none of the deathless gods will ever praise you…
if you send Sarpedon home, living still, beware!
Then surely some other god will want to sweep
his own son clear of the heavy fighting too.

Related Characters: Hera (speaker), Zeus, Sarpedon
Page Number: 16.526-531
Explanation and Analysis:

In this famous scene, Zeus surveys the Trojan War and sees that his own son, Sarpedon, is about to be killed. Zeus contemplates saving his son from the danger, but decides against it after Hera encourages him to refrain from interfering. Hera's argument is interesting: she claims that Zeus's interference is a "slippery slope," and will encourage the other gods to meddle in human affairs excessively.

The passage conveys the complicated nature of free will in the poem. Zeus has the choice to interfere in human affairs, but he clearly doesn't want the gods to meddle in human affairs excessively--that's why he ultimately allows Sarpedon to die. Zeus's actions suggest that even gods have to bow before to the power of fate and destiny sometimes. Furthermore, the scene suggests that Zeus, just like Agamemnon, is a leader: he has to balance his own desires with his duties to the other gods in Olympus.

Book 19 Quotes

Ruin, eldest daughter of Zeus, she blinds us all,
that fatal madness—she with those delicate feet of hers,
never touching the earth, gliding over the heads of men
to trap us all. She entangles one man, now another.
Why, she and her frenzy blinded Zeus one time,
highest, greatest of men and gods, they say

Related Characters: Agamemnon (speaker), Zeus
Page Number: 19.106-111
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, King Agamemnon speaks with Achilles for the last time. Agamemnon tries to apologize for his argument with Achilles, but without ever really apologizing. Instead, Agamemnon claims to have been manipulated by the goddess Ruin (Atë, the eldest daughter of Zeus, but whose mother is unknown)--a figure who was long ago cast out of Olympus, and who wanders among men, causing misery and argument between them.

For not the first time in the poem, Agamemnon is blaming the gods and destiny instead of taking individual responsibility for his actions. Agamemnon's refusal to accept responsibility seems particularly cowardly by modern standards: a good leader, we've been taught, doesn't "pass the buck" to some else, even if the "someone else" is a goddess. Perhaps Agamemnon's greater error is in making excuses of any kind. At this point in the poem, Achilles isn't expecting an apology of any kind from the king--he's totally indifferent to the argument with which the poem began. Agamemnon, not knowing this, babbles on about fate and Ruin, unaware that his explanations are pointless. Achilles is fighting for himself and his own glory, no matter what happens.

Book 21 Quotes

Come, friend, you too must die. Why moan about it so?
Even Patroclus died, a far, far better man than you.
And look, you see how handsome and powerful I am?
The son of a great man, the mother who gave me life
a deathless goddess. But even for me, I tell you,
death and the strong force of fate are waiting.

Related Characters: Achilles (speaker), Hector, Patroclus
Page Number: 21.119-124
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we see Achilles at his most nihilistic. Achilles has tracked down Lycaon, one of the sons of Priam (whom Achilles had previously captured and sold into slavery). Lycaon begs for his life, but Achilles mockingly tells Lycaon that better men than he have lost their lives during the war.

Achilles knows that he's going to die: therefore, he sees the world in the grimmest, most cynical terms. He has no mercy for his opponents in battle--they must die, the same as Achilles himself. Furthermore, Achilles is still furious over the death of Patroclus, and wants revenge at all costs. And yet Achilles' mockery of Lycaon simply isn't dignified: he's toying with his victim, savoring the act of murder instead of just getting it over with. For all his strength and skill, Achilles is often portrayed as an angry, cruel soldier.

Book 22 Quotes

Past the threshold of old age…
and Father Zeus will waste me with a hideous fate,
and after I’ve lived to look on so much horror!
My sons laid low, my daughters dragged away…
Ah for a young man
all looks fine and noble if he goes down in war,
hacked to pieces…When an old man’s killed
and the dogs go at the gray head and the gray beard…that is the cruelest sight
in all our wretched lives!

Related Characters: Priam (speaker), Zeus
Page Number: 22.70-89
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Priam begs Hector, his eldest and favorite son, to refrain from fighting a duel with Achilles-- a duel that Hector knows he's bound to lose. Priam mourns the loss of his other children in the Trojan War--his implication being that he couldn't stand to lose another child, especially one as noble as Hector.

And yet Priam's speech is full of contradiction. He complains that an old man's death is not an honorable thing: dying as an old man is proof that you weren't brave enough in combat as a younger man. When a young man dies on the battlefield, his death is treated as something to celebrate: it's assumed that the young man was a hero and a leader to other soldiers. In short, Priam's speech both implores Hector to stay with his aging father and also admits that Hector's best chance for glory is to fight Achilles and die a hero's death. In a way, Priam is mourning the unfairness of life itself: there's no way for the king to be a proud father and have living sons.