There are not many books which stand the test of time, however it's safe to say that the Iliad, which dates back beyond 1,000 BC, passes that test with flying colours. Having studied Keats at school I was vaguely aware that a certain Elizabethan gentleman, Mr George Chapman had translated the works of Homer and that Keats, who lived 200 years later, was quite impressed with the result (see "On First Reading Chapman's Homer").

He was right to be impressed.

The Iliad is the definitive book to read for a graphic depiction of war in the ancient world, with no punches pulled. Whenever javelins and darts are launched at the enemy one can be sure of some uncomfortable reading to follow soon after about the results, to the extent where it's probably more bearable to watch the watered down version of violence which makes it into modern films.

This is surprising as one would assume that in past ages war was glorified in a way that it is not in today's post-Second World War, post-Saving Private Ryan, more pacifist age. If anything the Iliad is more gory and more honest about the horrors of war.

In addition there are few heroes and there are many heroes in the Iliad. The book is filled with near superhuman figures, who can (and do sometimes) even challenge the gods in combat, Achilles, Hector, Agamemnon, and Diomed.

Yet by and large these heroes are ruthless and merciless. Agamemnon and others thinks nothing of slaying prisoners begging for their lives to be ransomed for money, after all when he takes Troy he can take their riches as well. Achilles and other heroes show similar vindictiveness, Achilles most famously so when he slays Hector and drags his body through the dirt behind is chariot with the intention of later feeding the body of the noble warrior to the dogs.

If anyone comes out with any credit it is Hector who is both noble and brave and refrains from many of the violent excesses of his fellows. He also berates his younger brother Paris for his cowardice.

As those familiar with the story will know it was Paris and his "rape" and abduction of Helen (it's ambiguous what her feelings on the matter were but the text suggests she rather likes him) that started the long and bloody war between the Greeks and the Trojans.

Despite putting the lives of his countrymen and brothers in constant danger through his abduction Paris is often reluctant to fight himself often preferring to stay to with Helen, much to the disgust of Hector who fights with great bravery to save his country from the wrath of the Greeks.

Chapman's translation of the text is a work of art (it rhymes for a start). The first two "books" are somewhat hard to get through and readers may benefit from reading a synopsis elsewhere as they get into the story (there's an adequate one on Wikipedia).

Once you are past the first couple of books it becomes much easier to follow the action and the need for synopses disappears and you will be enjoying one of the great works of western literature.

It might be hard going at first but you will be rewarded. After reading it I almost wanted to watch "Troy" but not quite.