Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, ©1990, Penguin 1998)
Book 14 line 408 to Book 17 line 50
For six months now I’ve started most days reading two pages – roughly 70 lines – of The Iliad.
I’ve been noticing how often I’m reminded of it in the rest of the day. For example, there was this clue in the Guardian cryptic crossword on 24 May:
26 Across Parliament, one about to give a long account (5)
Less explicitly but more substantially, there was the 17 May episode of the ABC’s Conversations in which Richard Fidler chatted with Historian Gwynne Dyer, who says, among other things:
The view of the world as a permanent battlefield … was almost universal until just about a hundred years ago. Everybody would have agreed with that view that winners win, losers go to the wall and everybody has to be prepared to fight to defend their turf, war is natural, recurrent, you have to be good at it if you want to survive. Everybody shared that view. It was institutionalised in our societies. One of the principle responsibilities of the state was to be good at fighting wars and to be good at fighting wars was glorious.You can hear the podcast at this link.
Dyer doesn’t actually mention The Iliad in the podcast, but I was gratified to see that the cover of his book, The Shortest History of War, features an image of the Trojan Horse.
Clearly, in recoiling from the violence in The Iliad I’m a product of my age: according to Dyer, the 75 years of my life have been the longest period in history in which there has been no war between great powers. (And with a lot of luck that happy circumstance may last for my whole life and beyond.)
This month’s reading began with sizzling sex between Zeus and Hera, and takes us through the bloodshed on the battlefield that resulted, both from Hera’s intervention and from Zeus’ response when he discovers her deception. Led by Hector, the Trojans reach the Greeks’ ships and set fire to one. But then the main narrative thread kicks in and, while Achilles is still sulking in his tent, he allows Patroclus to put on his armour and lead the Myrmidons into battle, like wasps whose nest has been disturbed one time too many by idle boys. (One of the first things I knew about Homer was that he used similes. Now I shake my head in awe of how brilliantly he used them!)
Then Patroclus is killed, stabbed in the back by Euphorbus then finished off – with a graphically described spear thrust – by Hector. Among so many violent deaths, the narrative pauses over this one for an exchange of oratory. Hector derides Patroclus as having foolishly done Achilles’ bidding, and then, unlike in any other Iliad death as far as I remember, Patroclus speaks to his killer:
Hector! Now is your time to glory to the skies …
now the victory is yours.
A gift of the son of Cronus, Zeus – Apollo too –
they brought me down with all their deathless ease,
they are the ones who tore the armour off my back.
Even if twenty Hectors had charged against me –
they’d all have died here, laid low by my spear.
No, deadly fate in league with Apollo killed me.
From the ranks of men, Euphorbus. You came third,
and all you could do was finish off my life …
One more thing – take it to heart, I urge you –
you too, you won’t live long yourself, I swear.
Already I see them looming up beside you – death
and the strong force of fate, to bring you down
at the hands of Aeacus’ great royal son …
That’s a pretty strong dying speech: ‘It was the gods who killed me, not you. And if we have to acknowledge I was killed by a man, let’s acknowledge the not-so-glorious Euphorbus. You came third. And You’d better watch yourself, because my pal Achilles will do you.’
That’s pretty much the end of Book 16, but as befits a major turning point, the narrative doesn’t move on in a hurry. Now Menelaus, who hasn’t exactly covered himself in glory so far, steps up and protects Patroclus’ body from the Trojans who try to strip its armour (armour, remember that was borrowed from Achilles). In the Iliad every death matters, but this one has matters enormously. Basically it matters because it’s the thing that brings Achilles back into the battle to turn the tide, but Homer has made sure we’re emotionally affected: we’ve seen Patroclus as a mild-mannered host, a close and affectionate friend, a healer and a man who weeps at others’ suffering. Only in his final movement we see that he is also a heroic warrior. That is to say, he’s a much more rounded character than most or even all the others in the story. And now he’s dead.
I expect Euphorbus will be killed in my next day’s reading, and I wouldn’t want to be in Hector’s shoes when Achilles hears what happened.
As a card-carrying pacifist I deplore the whole thing, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.