The Iliad
Translation by Richmond Lattimore
Chicago 1951


Sample from the Opening of the Poem
[Taken from the Chicago Homer]


SING, goddess, the anger of Peleusson Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.

What god was it then set them together in bitter collision?
Zeus' son and Letos, Apollo, who in anger at the king drove
the foul pestilence along the host, and the people perished,
since Atreus son had dishonoured Chryses, priest of Apollo,
when he came beside the fast ships of the Achaians to ransom
back his daughter, carrying gifts beyond count and holding
in his hands wound on a staff of gold the ribbons of Apollo
who strikes from afar, and supplicated all the Achaians,
but above all Atreus two sons, the marshals of the people:
'Sons of Atreus and you other strong-greaved Achaians,
to you may the gods grant who have their homes on Olympos
Priams city to be plundered and a fair homecoming thereafter,
but may you give me back my own daughter and take the ransom,
giving honour to Zeus son who strikes from afar, Apollo.

Then all the rest of the Achaians cried out in favour
that the priest be respected and the shining ransom be taken;
yet this pleased no the heart of Atreus son Agamemnon,
but harshly he drove him away with strong order upon him:
'Never let me find you again, old sir, near our hollow
ships, neither lingering now nor coming again hereafter,
for fear your staff and the god's ribbons help you no longer.
The girl I will not give back; sooner will old age come upon her
in my own house, in Argos, far from her own land, going
up and down by the loom and being in my bed as my companion.
So go now, do not make me angry; so you will be safer.


So he spoke, and the old man in terror obeyed him
and went silently away beside the murmuring sea beach.
Over and over the old man prayed as he walked in solitude
to King Apollo, who Leto of the lovely hair bore: 'Hear me,
lord of the silver bow who set you power about Chryse
and Killa the sacrosanct, who are lord in strength over Tenedos,
Smintheus, if ever it pleased your heart that I built your temple,
if ever it pleased you that I burned all the rich thigh pieces
of bulls, of goats, then bring to pass this wish I pray for:
let your arrows make the Danaans pay for my tears shed.


So he spoke in prayer, and Phoibos Apollo heard him,
and strode down along the pinnacles of Olympos, angered
in his heart, carrying across his shoulders the bow and the hooded
quiver; and the shafts clashed on the shoulders of the god walking
angrily. He came as night comes down and knelt then
apart and opposite the ships and let go an arrow.
Terrible was the clash that rose from the bow of silver.
First he went after the mules and the circling hounds, then let go
a tearing arrow against the men themselves and struck them.
The corpse fires burned everywhere and did not stop burning.




The translation of the Iliad by Richmond Lattimore (1951) was greeted in many quarters with widespread praise, often bordering on hyperbole—the following comment, for example: “The feat is so decisive that it is reasonable to foresee a century or so in which nobody will try again the put the Iliad into English verse. Taste may change greatly, but it looks to me as if Mr. Lattimore’s version would survive at least as long as Pope’s, for in its way it is quite as solidly distinguished,” a remark, ironically enough, from Robert Fitzgerald, whose translation of the Iliad (which many people, myself included, believe superior to Lattimore’s) appeared in 1963.  And since its appearance, Lattimore’s Iliad has remained very popular (in a survey conducted in 1987, Lattimore’s translation was preferred by three quarters of the respondents).


 Lattimore’s translation uses a six-beat line with a flexible number of syllables and strives for a line-by-line fidelity to the Greek text, a habit which the first person to try it (T. S. Brandeth in 1846) described as having “no great merit,” an opinion with which I concur wholeheartedly.  Even the advantage of being able to reference the Greek text easily is unavailable in Lattimore’s text because his version does not number the lines.  His vocabulary is, for the most part, as he says, “my own ‘poetical language,’ which is mostly the plain English of today.”  The result earned praise for rescuing Homer from prose translations, which had outnumbered poetical renditions in the previous years.  And many readers obviously like the result—a “weighty” poem which keeps them moving through the text and living up to Lattimore’s eminently pragmatic answer to Arnold: “I do not think nobility is a quality to be directly striven for; you must write as well as you can, and then see, or let others see, whether or not the result is noble.”  Lattimore may also have put the rest the endless debates about the suitability of the hexameter for English verse (although, in fairness to the other debaters, one should note that his hexameter is much more flexible than they were prepared to admit).


Lattimore has also had his critics who complain about various things, including his syntax (in Knopff’s words: “misprints, mistranslations, obscurities, or outrages to the English language”). The plainness in the vocabulary is not matched by the clarity in the sentences, so that (as in many of Lattimore’s other translations—of Aeschylus, for example) there is a constant need to pause in order to sort out just what a particular phrase or  sentence means (“I, who am such as no other of the bronze-armoured Achaians,” “My mother bore me not utterly lacking in warcraft,” and so on).  Here’s a random sample, taken from a moment in Achilles’ response to Odysseus: “not if he gave me gifts as many as the sand or the dust is.”  Clear enough perhaps, but not idiomatic English, for sand cannot be “many” any more than “dust” can.  We have to supply the missing: “grains of . . .”  A small example but not untypical—and, in my view, very irritating.  Here, too, the rhythm maintains the hexameter but in the process ends up sounding awkward and forced, anything but an outburst from a passionate man who has worked himself up into a temper.  Reading Lattimore’s Iliad I’m always reminded of Dr. Leavis’ comment about how Milton’s verse “calls pervasively for a kind of attention … toward itself.”


 There no more could a man who was in that work make light of it,
one who still unhit and still unstabbed by the sharp bronze
spun in the midst of that fighting, with Pallas Athene’s hold on
his hand guiding him, driving back the volleying spears thrown.


 I cannot surrender myself to the narrative because I’m so often having to puzzle out the exact meaning, even in little details like the phrase “wine-blue” sea—a puzzling epithet (blue wine?) which obliterates the evocative ironic resonance of the more familiar “wine dark” sea.


 In fairness to Lattimore, one has to concede that many readers obviously settle into to the somewhat odd style and do not share the discomfort I experience. But any reader who gives clear, idiomatic English a high priority in selecting a poetic translation should have a very good look at the translations of Fagles, Fitzgerald, and Lombardo (to say nothing of my own) before subjecting themselves (and, more importantly, their students) to Lattimore’s translation.


 Lattimore’s translation is available on line in an interlinear Greek-English format at the following link: Chicago Homer.


 [List of Published English Translations of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey]