When the Iliad begins, the Trojan War has been going on for nine years. Achilles, the poem’s protagonist, has led one battle after another. He has met with great success–in fact, he is undefeated in battle–but the war itself has reached a stalemate.
Homer’s story focuses on a different conflict, however: the internecine quarrel between his hero and Agamemnon, the leader of the Achaean armies and Menelaus’ brother. In a battle that took place before the poem begins, Agamemnon had taken as a concubine a young Trojan woman named Chryseis. Chryseis’ father, a priest of the god Apollo, tried to buy his daughter’s freedom, but Agamemnon mocked his entreaties and refused to release the girl.
Enraged, Apollo punished the Greek armies by sending a plague to kill the soldiers one by one. As his ranks thinned, Agamemnon finally agreed to allow Chryseis to return to her father. However, he demanded a replacement concubine in exchange: Achilles’ wife, the Trojan princess Breseis.
Achilles did as his commander asked and relinquished his bride. Then, he announced that he would no longer fight on Agamemnon’s behalf. He gathered his belongings, including the armor Hephaestus had made, and refused to come out of his tent.
With the Greeks’ greatest warrior off the battlefield, the tide began to turn in favor of the Trojans. The Greeks lost one battle after another. Eventually, Achilles’ best friend, the soldier Patroclus, was able to wrangle a compromise: Achilles would not fight, but he would let Patroclus use his powerful armor as a disguise. That way, the Trojans would think that Achilles had returned to battle and would retreat in fear.
The plan was working until Apollo, still seething about Agamemnon’s treatment of Chryseis and her father, intervened on the Trojans’ behalf. He helped the Trojan prince Hector to find and kill Patroclus.
Furious, Achilles vowed to take revenge. He chased Hector back to Troy, slaughtering Trojans all the way. When they got to the city walls, Hector tried to reason with his pursuer, but Achilles was not interested. He stabbed Hector in the throat, killing him.
Hector had begged for an honorable burial in Troy, but Achilles was determined to humiliate his enemy even in death. He dragged Hector’s body behind his chariot all the way back to the Achaean camp and tossed it on the garbage heap. However, in the poem’s last section Achilles finally relents: He returns Hector’s body to his father for a proper burial.