Five Recommended Reads when Teaching the Iliad

So you’re teaching the biggest epic in the world of which all Western Literature is a footnote. Exciting! Everyone who’s anyone has written, read, memorized, analyzed, or commented on this poem since its earliest performances.

How can a teacher hope to do it justice? Maybe you even prefer The Odyssey—as the majority of Americans seem to—and feel guilty that you can’t get as excited about the Iliad. Perhaps you tire easily of minutely described deaths with detailed backstories of characters whose souls fled to Hades centuries ago. If you want to hone your approach to the first epic, then read on. Even if you struggle to see the greatness of The Iliad, or feel like you won’t teach it well until you reignite that spark, then these books are for you.

For Background

Bruno Snell’s Essay Homer’s View of Man

I posted about this essay in my etymology of dragon post (hint: it has to do with sight). Snell helps you see differently! To be more specific, he grabs a few verbs and a few nouns and from them unpacks the way Homeric man viewed the body, the soul, and some of his basic senses. I’ve re-read it many times and always find more to enjoy.

Lattimore’s Introduction to the Iliad preceding his own translation.

Lattimore definitely has spoilers, so you should read his introduction after having the Iliad under your belt for a while. This essay does two things well: first, it contextualizes a lot of important 20th-century scholarship and perspectives (though, yes, some of it is dated now) and it provides an intelligent perspective on the main characters of the epic. If you’ve always hated Diomedes or wondered why everyone doesn’t love Hector (most ancient Greeks did not), then his short thoughts on these characters may help you see them in a different light.

For Pithy Perspectives on seemingly small points

Eva Brann’s Homeric Moments.

In this collection of pithy essays, Eva Brann shares her deep experience with both epics in an approachable way. This is a book you can read cover to cover or just dip into for a three-page take on a particular issue. The cross-references to the other short essays in the book will keep you reading. Her thoughtful commentaries reward re-reading. I love her perspective on Penelope as a match for Odysseus and Achilles as the king of the dead both at the end of the Iliad and in the underworld of the Odyssey.

For a Reminder of an Important Theme

Simone Weil’s Essay The Iliad: A Poem of Force.

Simone Weil wrote this essay in the context of the clash of civilization and barbarism called World War II. Rather than turn it into a simple paean for the Allied Forces she shows some of the harshest lessons that even the Allies needed. tolearn about the horrors of war. She manages to do all of this without ever mentioning World War II.

For the Latest Scholarly Perspective

Gregory Nagy’s first 8 chapters of The Ancient Greek Hero in Twenty-Four Hours

the physical book you have to purchase, but the text is legally available for free here). So if you’ve read Lattimore and are wondering what current Homeric scholars still have to say about Homer, look no further than this book (which has an accompanying EdX class if you’re more of a listener than a reader). The bonus of this book and course is that it really tries to take you through the fifth century BC to understand exactly how Athenians in particular, and Greek generally, grappled with the ideas of a hero. This is also a better (and less expensive) introduction than something much denser, like the New Companion to Homer.

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