All you need to know about the books you meant to read. This week: Homer's Iliad By Mike Barfield

Click to follow
The book: The Iliad is considered the oldest and perhaps the greatest work of Western literature. It is certainly one of the few books to have done well on the sides of jugs. Nobody is sure when it was first written down; some time before 7000 B.C. seems likely. Experts are sure, however, that exactly one week later the world's first literary magazine was launched, simply to give it a sniffy review.

The author: The precise details of Homer's life are shrouded in mystery and open to debate - sadly the only similarities between this noble writer and Jeffrey Archer. Seven cities have claimed to be Homer's birthplace, including Argos, Athens, Rhodes, and Manchester, the latter in a fruitless attempt to impress the Olympic Committee. Traditionally, Homer is known as the Blind Poet - but so is Dylan Thomas, although in a different way.

The oeuvre: While Homer is also credited with The Odyssey (The Iliad's sequel), some literary historians have argued that both books are the work of several hands. Against this is the fact that each is stylistically constant. No less an authority than Macaulay thought of the Iliad as "Homer Alone" and the sequel as "Homer Alone 2". The plot: Fans of Sven Hassell and Alistair Maclean will be delighted to know that European history's first great work of fiction is a war story, complete with gratuitous sex ("Thus laid them upon their fretted couch. . .") and graphic violence (". . . the hard bronze cut through his tongue at the root and the point issued forth by the base of the chin."). There are also some recipes: "Take one bull, Cut its throat, flay it, spit the vitals, cook over a low flame.'' Now a kebab-shop standard.

The action takes place in the last few weeks of a war between the Trojans and the people of Achaea, the old name for Greece. (Not to be confused with Ikea, the new name for Sweden.) The war has been raging for ten years, and modern readers may be surprised to find that, for once, the Americans don't join in just before the end and claim all the credit for winning.

The Achaeans, under King Agamemnon, are trying to recapture Helen, a stunner born of the union of a human mother and a swan. Thus, in addition to being the world's most beautiful woman, Helen can break a man's nose with one flap of her arm. She also has a terrible urge to pester anglers for scraps of bread. Lots of people get killed because of her. It is your original Greek tragedy.

Literary status: The Iliad has contributed a number of famous phrases to the language: "Winged words''- now the title of Hellenic Airways' in- flight magazine; "Over the wine-dark sea'' - a prophetic allusion to future EU surpluses; and "Verily, these things lie on the knees of the Gods'' - or "kneecaps'', as we now know to call them.

The Iliad really is a classic Classic and to be compared to Homer - as have Shakespeare and Milton - is high praise indeed. Only, nowadays, check they don't mean the slob father of "The Simpsons" cartoon family.