When the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann excavated the site of Mykenai in the late 19th century, he found amid an extraordinary series of royal graves a magnificent gold mask of a man. Schliemann announced to the world that he had gazed upon the face of Agamemnon, the “lord of men.” Later scientific analyses proved that the mask predated Agamemnon by several generations, but nevertheless Schliemann’s discoveries brought Homer’s Iliad squarely into the real world. The historical reality of the Trojan War was established.

The thing that led Schliemann — as well as readers for several thousand years to believe that Mykenai really existed was the vividness of Homer’s descriptions.

The world of the Iliad is filled with minute details of life in the Bronze Age.

Even though most of Homer’s information must have been handed down through centuries of memorized refrains, the pictures he presents often have the accuracy of documentary film. His descriptions of the bronze-armored Achaians, with their horse-plumed helmets, long spears, and figure-eight shields, give a picture of ancient Greek battle gear, which has since been proven accurate by archaeologists’ discoveries. The detailed catalog of ships in Book II is practically a geography lesson, ranging over the entire Greek world. Today we still can walk around the foundations of the walled cities of Troy and Mykenai and see the remnants of the great-halled megarons and their battlements that Homer described. We can learn of weaving, hunting, and shipbuilding from Homer; of plowing and shepherding and how to make offerings to appease the gods. His battle scenes show a startling knowledge of human anatomy, and though they occur again and again — often in the same words — the episodes throw us right into the crunch of combat.

Greek tradition says that the Trojan War took place in the 12th century B.C., and archaeological and linguistic evidence supports the claim.

The Greeks: Homer refers to them at different times as Argives or Achaians or Danaans — were an alliance of small kingdoms, each with its own rulers, powerful clans, and legends. In the Trojan War, a federation of these Greek kingdoms mounted a great political expedition across the Aegean Sea. They sailed to Troy, on the west coast of Asia Minor, also known as Ilion (that’s where the name Iliad comes from).

The Iliad, for all its historical accuracies, is above all a work of poetry — we must take into account the legend of Helen of Troy and move into the world of myth that surrounds the Argive warriors.