Iliad of Homer

Course No. 301
Professor Elizabeth Vandiver, Ph.D.
Whitman College
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Course No. 301
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Course Overview

When John Keats first read Chapman's translation of the epics of "deep-brow'd Homer," he was so overwhelmed, so overcome with the joy of discovery, that he compared his experience to finding "a new planet." When you join Professor Elizabeth Vandiver for these lectures on the Iliad, you come to understand what enthralled Keats and has gripped so many readers of Homer.

Dr. Vandiver is a recipient of the American Philological Association's Excellence in Teaching Award—the most prestigious teaching award available to American classicists—and several other major honors for teaching excellence.

Her compelling look at this epic masterpiece—whether it is the work of many or indeed the "vision" of a blind poet who nevertheless saw more deeply into the human heart than almost anyone before or since—demonstrates why she is held in such immense regard.

Share Homer's Compelling Meditation on the Human Condition

Professor Vandiver makes it vividly clear why, after almost 3,000 years, the Iliad remains not only among the greatest adventure stories ever told, but also one of the most compelling meditations on the human condition ever written.

Indeed, it is probably true to say that only the Bible rivals Homer for sheer depth and scope of cultural and literary influence.

How is this so?

At first glance, the Iliad tells of a long-dead epoch that seems utterly alien to us. Indeed, the Bronze Age Aegean was a distant memory even to the original audience for this great work.

Yet the grandeur and immediacy of the Homeric world seem to defy time and space.

  • He depicts a legendary era in brilliant, unforgettable hues.
  • He peoples it with towering heroes who thirst for honor, fight shattering wars, and deal face-to-face with gods.
  • He acts out, in words memorized and passed on verbally long before they were ever set to paper, mankind's awesome passions for glory, love, and vengeance.

An Inquiry into Timeless Human Issues

Or perhaps age seems only to burnish the luster of the Iliad precisely because of its very strangeness and distance, which throw so sharply into focus the timeless human issues it raises.

These issues are evoked by the power of a single dramatic question: Why does Achilles rage?

Around these questions Homer weaves a narrative that makes us ask many questions:

  • What are the limits of our freedom?
  • Who or what shapes our actions and our ends?
  • Is there a common humanity that we share, or is life only "a constant seeking of power after power"?
  • What holds people together and keeps them going in extreme situations such as war?
  • Why do we love our own so strongly?
  • Where is the line between justice and revenge?
  • And above all, what does it mean to be alive?

Meticulous and Insightful

Professor Vandiver builds her analysis skillfully around meticulous, insightful examinations of the most important episodes in the Iliad.

  • She explains the cultural assumptions that lie behind Homer's lines, and you join her in weighing the basic critical and interpretive issues.
  • She probes the relationship of this great epic to the tradition of orally transmitted poetry and surveys the archaeological evidence for an actual conflict.
  • She repeatedly visits the Iliad's overriding theme of what it means to be human and what the Iliad has to say about the human condition.

She explains with passion and clarity why Homer remains our contemporary.

Moreover, with her skillful organization and way of looking at the events and intents of this great masterpiece, she gives you a key to heightened enjoyment and comprehension in all of your encounters with literature.

A Clearly Organized and Comprehensive Examination

Lecture 1 sets the stage for our reading of the Iliad by providing an introduction to the plan of the course and summarizing the mythological background assumed by both the Iliad and the Odyssey (also available as a course taught by Dr. Vandiver).

Lecture 2 addresses the question of the 400- to 500-year gap between the events described in the Iliad (and, subsequently, the Odyssey) and the time when they were first written down.

It describes the Iliad's relationship to traditional orally transmitted poetry, and considers the implications of that oral tradition for the question of who "Homer" was.

Lectures 3-12 address the plot, characters, and interpretations of the Iliad itself. Each focuses on a particular scene, character, or theme as we read through the Iliad.

Lecture 3 introduces the cultural concepts of kleos (glory) and timê (honor) and explains their significance for understanding the wrath of Achilles.

Lecture 4 moves inside the walls of Troy to discuss Homer's presentation of the Trojans as sympathetic characters, rather than stereotypical enemies.

Lecture 5 looks in detail at Book IX of the Iliad, where three of Achilles's comrades try to persuade him to return to battle, and discusses how the concepts of kleos and timê factor into his refusal to do so.

Lecture 6 is devoted to a fuller discussion of the concept of kleos, which demonstrates that it is one of the key elements in the Iliad 's examination of the human condition.

Lecture 7 turns to an examination of the gods in Homer, discussing what types of beings they are and what their presence in the narrative adds to the Iliad.

Lectures 8 and 9 give a detailed reading of the most important events of the day of Hektor's glory and Patroklos's death—the Iliad 's longest day, which lasts from Book XI through Book XVIII—with Lecture 8 focusing on Hektor and Lecture 9 on Patroklos.

Lecture 10 covers Achilles's return to battle, discussing the implications of his actions, his divinely made armor, and his refusal to bury the dead Patroklos.

Lecture 11 examines Hektor and Achilles together, highlighting the contrasting elements in their characters and the inevitability of their final encounter in battle.

Lecture 12 concludes the course with a discussion of the resolution of the Iliad, which is brought about by Achilles's encounter with his dead enemy, Hektor's aged father, King Priam.

The encounter of these two enemies offers one final opportunity to take from this great work a true understanding of the nature of mortality, the Iliad's constant underlying theme.

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12 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Introduction to Homeric Epic
    What is an epic? How should we go about reading such a work? What is the "back story" of the Trojan War with which Homer's listeners were familiar? x
  • 2
    The Homeric Question
    Here is one of the great literary debates of all time. For centuries, experts have been asking: How were the Homeric epics created? Is there really an individual genius named Homer behind these awesome works, or are we dealing with conglomerations of shorter poems from the hands of many bards? How, why, and by whom were these stories first written down? What role did they play in ancient Greek society? x
  • 3
    Glory, Honor, and the Wrath of Achilles
    What wider themes does the bard open up as he sings the wrath of Achilles? What is the cultural background against which we must understand Achilles's anger and its implications? What do timê (honor) and kleos (everlasting fame or glory) mean to Homeric heroes? x
  • 4
    Within the Walls of Troy
    Homer's portrayal of the Trojans is sympathetic and subtle. Trapped in an unsought war of annihilation, they fight not just for honor and fame, but for all they hold dear, and even their very lives. Here are some of the most deeply moving scenes in all of Homer. x
  • 5
    The Embassy to Achilles
    After Achilles's quarrel with Agamemnon and subsequent withdrawal from combat, the absence of their greatest captain becomes an ever-graver problem for the Greeks. This lecture examines the embassy and offer of vast gifts that Agamemnon sends to Achilles, and the latter's refusal in a remarkable speech that reveals much about his character even as it calls into question the entire ethos of his society. x
  • 6
    The Paradox of Glory
    Kleos is the only kind of immortality available to a Homeric hero. Every major warrior in The Iliad strives for it, often in a scene of conspicuous combat prowess called an aristeia. But as the character of Achilles reveals, a kind of paradox lies at the heart of the quest for kleos. x
  • 7
    The Role of the Gods
    The Olympians are actively present at every turn in the Homeric narratives. What sorts of divinities are they? How does their ageless, deathless nature serve as a device through which the bard can dramatize the human condition and its stakes? Finally, what is fate, and what does it mean for gods and humans alike? x
  • 8
    The Longest Day
    This lecture continues our comparison of gods and mortals by examining the dual narratives, divine and human, of Iliad XI-XV, the books which lead up to and feature Hektor's great display of martial prowess. x
  • 9
    The Death of Patroklos
    In this lecture we focus on Books XVI-XVII. The lecture begins by discussing Patroklos's character and his role as Achilles's substitute in battle. We then examine Patroklos's aristeia and death, the turning point of The Iliad. x
  • 10
    Achilles Returns to Battle
    We examine Achilles's reaction to Patroklos's death, his re-entry into the battle, his divinely forged armor, and his fixation on vengeance. Why does Homer use language and imagery that suggest Achilles is a god and that he is a dead man? x
  • 11
    Achilles and Hektor
    In this lecture, we examine the characters of Achilles and Hektor. The lecture addresses both the bard's characterization of the two champions and their interactions. What do their differences tell us? What do we learn from the scene in which Achilles kills Hektor? How is their conflict crucial for the final resolution of The Iliad? x
  • 12
    Enemies' Tears—Achilles and Priam
    This lecture focuses on the meeting of Achilles and Priam, and the closing of The Iliad. Priam seeks the return of his son's body, which Achilles has been trying to defile, but what does his visit do for Achilles? We look closely at the meeting between these two enemies and consider the impact of their encounter for an understanding of The Iliad's great underlying theme. x

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  • 80-page printed course guidebook
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Your professor

Elizabeth Vandiver

About Your Professor

Elizabeth Vandiver, Ph.D.
Whitman College
Dr. Elizabeth Vandiver is Professor of Classics and Clement Biddle Penrose Professor of Latin at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. She was formerly Director of the Honors Humanities program at the University of Maryland at College Park, where she also taught in the Department of Classics. She completed her undergraduate work at Shimer College and went on to earn her M.A. and Ph.D. from The University of Texas at...
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Iliad of Homer is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 136.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Story! The Iliad is a great story, and the kecturer's explanation was VERY useful! Bob
Date published: 2019-10-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent, esp. for beginners I’m new to Greek history and very new to the Iliad. I love this course, particularly because the professor explains everything very clearly, never assuming the “students” are knowledgeable of any aspect of the subject matter, which I certainly was not, making the course very informative and enjoyable. I’d also recommend the two excellent courses on ancient Greek history, as historians believe the Trojan War, which is involved with the Iliad, was connected with the collapse of the Aegean/Mediterranean Bronze Age.
Date published: 2019-07-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enthusiastic Professor I have listened to all of Professor Endiver's courses. She is an exceptional lecturer on the classical period. Sh is highly knowledgeable and easy to listen to. Her courses are recommended to anyone with an interest in classical studies.
Date published: 2019-05-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I was captivated. I had a week-long work trip ahead and was going to be doing a lot of driving. These lectures were just what the doctor ordered! The structure of the lectures was great. She starts out broad and narrows in on important episodes of Homer's epic. You can tell she is clearly a master of the material. I absolutely loved how she brought the material to life. I can't wait to check out her other lectures.
Date published: 2019-05-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent! The lectures were first-rate. I learned much to give me a deeper appreciation of the Iliad.
Date published: 2019-03-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Scholarly Look at the Iliad One can approach a course on the Iliad in various ways: as a professor of literature would critique a work of fiction; as an historian might analyze what one might glean about actual history; as a study in ancient Greek culture, etc. Professor Vandiver does not confine herself to any one perspective but has something to say about all of them. Don't expect some kind of audio-visual "Cliff Notes" on the story. She does spend time discussing specific events related which have an especially powerful impact, but generally sort of gives an overview from many perspectives: how old the story may be, the relation to actual history, the argument over whether or not there was a "Homer", reasons why it became the prototypical Greek mythology, what it tells us about their culture and mores, and so forth. I believe the course is best appreciated after reading the story itself (the English translation is the best I can do) but it would still work to view this course first and then read The Iliad after viewing the course.
Date published: 2019-01-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Highly Recommended Wonderful course. Superb Professor. Her Great Courses lectures on the Odyssey and Herodotus are terrific as well.
Date published: 2018-12-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Iliad, by Homer I read Iliad 50 years ago in college but I wanted to know ABOUT Iliad. Professor Vandiver knows her topic and gives to me ABOUT the Iliad that I wanted. I found my copy and the same highlighted passages from college were featured by Professor Vandiver. I had listened to her CDs on Greek Tragedy and ordered the same Greek Tragedy in DVD. I will watch her lectures on Tragedies next.
Date published: 2018-12-23
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