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The Iliad

Although the broader details of the Trojan War gradually emerge during the course of the Iliad, the immediate story concerns the petulant hero Achilles. The plot hinges on his love of two people: Briseis, a beautiful girl awarded to him as a prize when he captures her town; and his friend Patroclus.

At the start of the Iliad the overall commander of the Greeks, Agamemnon, pulls rank to take Briseis from Achilles. The response of Achilles, the best fighter in the Greek army, is to sulk in his tent. Without his help, the Greek army suffers in the field. Agamemnon offers rich presents, including the return of Briseis. But Achilles still sulks.

The plight of the Greeks does, however, persuade him to let Patroclus return to the battlefield, wearing Achilles' own armour and leading his men. But Patroclus is killed by Hector, eldest son of king Priam of Troy and the greatest of the Trojan heroes.

The death of Patroclus finally diverts the wrath of Achilles against his real enemies, the Trojans. He makes his peace with Agamemnon (receiving back the lovely Briseis, untouched by the Greek king) and then kills Hector in a duel on the battlefield. Avenging Patroclus, he desecrates Hector's body by dragging it in the dust behind his chariot.

Achilles now devotes himself to preparing a magnificent funeral for Patroclus. On the funeral pyre he sacrifices sheep and cattle, two of the dead man's pet dogs and even - prompting a rare moral comment from Homer, who calls it 'an evil thing' - twelve young Trojan captives.

But this is the end of Achilles' barbaric ways. With his wrath assuaged, he relents from his plan of feeding Hector's body to the dogs. Instead he negotiates a lull in the fighting during which Priam can collect his son's body and arrange a suitable funeral. At that point, with Achilles at peace, the Iliad ends. But we know that his own fate has been foretold. He too will soon be killed - by Hector's brother, Paris.

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