Iliad Summary 2: Casualties

My summary of The Iliad Books 13-24 is below this short discussion about the powers of the gods.

The Powers of the Gods in The Iliad

The bickering among the gods has a profound effect on the heroes down on the battlefield, and the fighting around Troy often feels like a proxy war for the gods’ grievances. They are certainly not all-powerful – much of The Iliad’s tension relies on their inability to get what they want. So what exactly can and can’t the gods do? They cannot die, but they possess bodies that can certainly be physically harmed. Zeus’s reign on Olympus seems to be built on raw physical strength: as by far the most powerful god, he threatens to inflict immense pain on the immortals who do not obey him. It is a basic, primal form of authority – in contrast to Agamemnon’s more conditional leadership. Aphrodite and Ares are both injured by the mortal Diomedes, though the humiliation seems worse than the wounds themselves.

Mysterious stone “altars” at the foot of the south tower, which guarded the main entranceway into Troy’s citadel. They probably served a religious function

The gods can shapeshift, revealing or hiding their identities from humans, though it is often the sign of a true hero that he realises he has spoken to an immortal. They are not omniscient, though they are often aware of what Fate has in store – which they sometimes try to alter, with only limited success. They can travel incredibly fast, but they cannot teleport; they can conjure up spectacular phenomena, and renew the strength of their chosen mortals or put thoughts into their heads, but they cannot change the inherent character of those mortals. And they do not directly harm anyone on the battlefield either. In Book 1, Apollo sends a plague against the Achaeans, and in Book 16, he knocks off Patroclus’s helmet; but really it is only mortals who injure and kill other mortals. The gods are constantly interfering, invisibly knocking spears off-target or coming in disguise to inspire or trick the warriors – but a taboo seems to hold them back from actually fighting. However unfair the gods make particular duels, the duels are fought by men who must bear the consequences.

The gods are squabbling because they seem to have nothing better to do than nurse grudges; privileged by their own immortality, they are ultimately callous even to the mortals they support, so that the heroes’ existences are precarious and often based on little more than a divine whim. This sense of instability is at the core of The Iliad: at any point, the gods might abandon a man they previously loved and let him die; a conversation among the immortals might cause a god to let even their own son perish; and if Zeus committed to supporting one side instead of struggling to make up his mind, he would be able to sweep aside one of the armies with ease. Against this harsh backdrop, all the heroes can do is strive their best, live honourable lives and hope that their names will live on. Pride and fatalism are the twin cores of The Iliad’s warrior ethos.

The grand entranceway beside the stone altars

The Iliad Summary Part II: Casualties

Day Three: The Longest Day, Continued

Book 13

When Zeus stops paying attention to the fighting around the Achaean defences, Poseidon takes the opportunity to break Zeus’s command not to interfere. He goes among the Achaeans, disguised, exhorting them to keep fighting, and renewing their strength. The major leaders who are still able to fight – Ajax, Teucer, Menelaus and Idomeneus – are all in the thick of it. The ageing Idomeneus and his right-hand man, Meriones, perform mighty deeds in a fierce skirmish against Aeneas and other leading Trojans, several of whom are killed. Hector, having established a foothold inside the Achaean wall, disengages from the fighting in order to consolidate his men.

Book 14

Nestor, hearing the fighting grow near his tent, leaves the wounded Machaon and goes to find Agamemnon. He finds Agamemnon with Odysseus and Diomedes, all three too wounded to fight. Agamemnon, despairing, suggests pushing their ships into the sea so as to abandon the war and escape home. Odysseus furiously disagrees. The four kings resolve to rejoin the battle, to urge the Achaeans on from the sidelines. Hera, seeing that Poseidon is helping the Trojans, decides to buy him time by distracting Zeus. Tricking Aphrodite into making her irresistible, and bribing the immortal personification of Sleep to help her, Hera seduces Zeus and sleeps with him. While Zeus is slumbering, Sleep tells Poseidon what Hera has done, and Poseidon takes the opportunity to rally the Achaeans more openly. He leads them in a charge against the Trojans, and Ajax concusses Hector with a stone.

A view from Troy over the plain outside the city

Book 15

As the Achaeans capitalise on Hector’s incapacity and push the Trojans back, Zeus wakes and is furious when he sees what’s going on. Hera, frightened, disingenuously swears that she didn’t collude with Poseidon. Zeus says he’s only helping the Trojans until his vow to Thetis is fulfilled; then, he assures Hera, Hector will die and Troy will fall. He orders her to summon Iris and Apollo from Olympus. He sends Iris to Poseidon to order him to withdraw from the fighting; Poseidon is furious and nearly refuses, but reluctantly gives way.

Zeus sends Apollo to heal Hector and rally the Trojans. The Achaean counterattack is pushed back by the rejuvenated Hector, and with Apollo’s help the Trojans sweep past the Achaean wall which has been the focus of the fighting for the past four books. Ajax does his best but cannot stem the tide on his own. Patroclus, hearing the battle growing closer, stops looking after Eurypylus and hurries to find Achilles. Hector and the Trojans reach the first Achaean ships and try to set fire to them, as Ajax stands on the decks and attempts to hold them off with a long spear.

The ruins of Mycenae’s mighty citadel, the home of Agamemnon

Book 16

An emotional Patroclus pleads with Achilles to take pity on the Achaeans, now that the Trojans are at the ships. If Achilles still can’t bring himself to fight in Agamemnon’s army, he says, echoing Nestor’s suggestion from Book 11, then he should at least let his soldiers, the Myrmidons, go to their comrades’ aid, with Patroclus wearing Achilles’s armour to dismay the Trojans. Achilles relents. He puts the Myrmidons under Patroclus’s command and prays that Zeus will grant Patroclus both success and safety.

Hector chops the head off Ajax’s long spear; Ajax, exhausted and now with a useless weapon, is driven off the first ship, which the Trojans set alight. But at that moment the Myrmidons pour into the combat, attacking the startled and weary Trojans, and turning the tide of the battle. Patroclus achieves his aristeia, slaying numerous Trojans as they are routed. Zeus watches, agonised, as his son Sarpedon rides against Patroclus, but Hera warns him it would be a terrible precedent for Zeus to rescue a mortal from fatal combat. Zeus chooses not to interfere, and Patroclus kills Sarpedon. With his dying words, Sarpedon urges his cousin and second-in-command, Glaucus, to prevent the Achaeans from seizing his corpse. Glaucus summons Hector and others to the fight, and there is a vicious battle over Sarpedon’s body. Patroclus, still in the midst of his finest hour, ignores Achilles’s warning not to go beyond the camp wall: he chases the Trojans all the way to the city. Zeus then sends Apollo to retrieve Sarpedon’s battered body, wash it, and carry it to his family in Lycia. Apollo then returns to where Hector and Patroclus are fighting one another, and he strikes a blow against Patroclus, knocking off the helmet of Achilles. As Patroclus is reeling, a Trojan called Euphorbus wounds him with a spear, and Hector finishes him off. As Patroclus lies dying, he prophecies that Hector will not long outlive him.

A Mycenaean bowl showing some rather unglamorous combat (Nafplio)

Book 17

Patroclus’s death changes the nature of the entire battle. Menelaus kills Euphorbus. There is a furious fight over Patroclus’s body: Menelaus and Ajax lead the Achaeans, while Hector, Glaucus and Aeneas lead the Trojans. Hector has put on Achilles’s armour, which he has taken from Patroclus’s corpse. The momentum shifts this way and that, as Zeus keeps changing his mind about what he wants to happen. He sends Apollo to aid the Trojans, then Athena to aid the Achaeans. Eventually Ajax, Menelaus and the others get hold of Patroclus’s body and start carrying it back to the camp. They send Antilochus, son of Nestor, to carry the news to Achilles.

Book 18

When Antilochus tells Achilles that Patroclus has fallen, the hero’s grief is overwhelming. His mother Thetis hears his cries of rage and pain, and emerges from the sea to console her son. He swears vengeance against Hector, which saddens Thetis as she knows Achilles is not destined to outlive Hector by very long. She tells him he cannot go into the fight until his armour has been replaced; and, promising to bring him new armour, she leaves him.

Meanwhile Ajax, Menelaus and the others are struggling to complete the return of Patroclus’s body, as the Trojans harass them. Achilles, divinely inspired, steps up onto the Achaean wall and lets out a shout that is magnified by the gods. The Trojans, seeing him, shrink back; the Achaeans disengage and get the body safely into the camp. The day’s fighting is over at last. Hector, his reason clouded by the gods, makes the rash decision to continue camping in the plain instead of falling back to Troy. Thetis goes to her foster-son, the Smith-God Hephaestus, and Hephaestus spends the night forging mighty new armour for Achilles. Most spectacular of all is an intricate golden shield, with detailed images representing the many facets of human society – agriculture, law, ceremony, warfare and so on.

The “Dendra Panoply,” a famous set of Mycenaean bronze armour (Nafplio). It is probably too early and too cumbersome to be what the Acheaeans wore in The Iliad

Day Four: The Vengeance of Achilles

Book 19

At dawn, Thetis returns and gives Achilles his wondrous new armour. She promises to preserve Patroclus’s body until Achilles is ready to hold a funeral. Achilles has no more interest in quarrels with the other Acheaeans while Hector lives. He gathers the Achaeans together and offers to reconcile with Agamemnon. Agamemnon, perhaps disingenuously, insists that he was deliberately led astray by the gods when he quarrelled with Achilles. He hastens to assure Achilles that he will still give him all the gifts he promised; but Achilles, eager for nothing but battle, isn’t interested either way. Odysseus says the army must grieve and eat before renewing the fight; Achilles would rather go straight into battle, but Odysseus insists.

Agamemnon sacrifices a boar, asking the gods to bear witness to the fact that he never slept with Briseis, who is now returned to Achilles, and who weeps over Patroclus’s body. Achilles, still showing no interest in material things – food, gifts or women – broods on Patroclus’s death. He is at peace with his own coming doom, which he senses is drawing near: grief and vengeance are all he has left to live for. Athena gives him strength to overcome the hardship of his fast, and he puts on his new armour.

Book 20

As the two armies march to face one another once more, Zeus summons all the immortals and revokes his ban on them interfering in the battle. Several gods join the Achaean side, several others join the Trojans, and the battlefield grows so cataclysmic that Hades fears the earth is going to crack right open and reveal the Underworld. The gods, rather than risk the carnage of a full-on battle among themselves, withdraw from the ranks and mostly watch from the sidelines.

Achilles is running rampant, and Apollo sends Aeneas to fight him. Aeneas’s spear is unable to pierce Achilles’s divine shield – but before Achilles can kill him, Poseidon rescues him. Poseidon has taken pity on Aeneas, even though he is fighting with the Trojans; and he knows Aeneas is fated to one day rule the Trojans and keep the Trojan royal line from extinction, after Priam’s family is wiped out. Furious, Achilles fights on, cutting his way through the Trojans. Apollo warns Hector not to fight Achilles – but when Hector sees Achilles kill his younger brother Polydorus, Priam’s favourite, he forgets this advice and comes to meet him. Achilles is delighted to encounter the man whose death he craves, and Hector is undaunted by Achilles’s unquestionably superior might; but Apollo whisks Hector away to safety.

The East Tower of Troy’s citadel, with its mighty fortifications

Book 21

Achilles drives a chunk of the fleeing Trojan army into the River Scamander. Plunging in, he sets about massacring them in the river. He encounters another son of Priam, whom Achilles once sold into slavery and who only made it back to Troy eleven days earlier. The prince pleads for mercy once more; but Achilles slays him, telling him that his days of mercy towards the Trojans are at an end. He will kill all who cross his path, just as – quite soon – one of the Trojans will kill him in his turn.

He continues to slaughter the Trojans in the river, until the river-God, appalled by his pollution of the waters, attacks him. Achilles is forced to flee across the battlefield with the river’s waters in pursuit, until Hephaestus conjures a great blaze that sweeps across the plain and scorches the riverbank, compelling the boiling river to yield. This escalates into a wider brawl among the gods. Athena, revisiting the conflicts of Diomedes from three days earlier, overpowers Ares and Aphrodite, while Hera thrashes Artemis. Apollo refuses to fight Poseidon, and the gods all return to Mt Olympus.

The Trojans, meanwhile, are pouring through the open gate and into Troy. A Trojan nobleman called Agenor bravely resolves to stand and fight Achilles, doubting he can outrun him. Achilles defeats him, but Apollo spirits him away. Then, so that Achilles does not gain entrance to the city, Apollo appears in the form of Agenor and leads him in a chase away from the gate.

A wide stone ramp inside Troy

Book 22

Having bought time for all the Trojans to get inside the city, Apollo reveals that he is an immortal, and Achilles furiously heads back to the gate. Only one Trojan remains outside: Hector. His parents frantically call to him from the wall, begging him to come in to safety. But Hector stays where he is, his mind in turmoil. He blames himself for the rout of the Trojans, since he now sees he should have withdrawn the previous evening inside the walls.

Determined to face Achilles come what may, he waits – but when Achilles reaches him, his nerve fails and he flees. Achilles chases him round the walls three times, shouting at the Achaeans not to interfere and rob him of any of the glory. Athena comes to Hector in the form of his brother Deiphobus, claiming to have come from the city to help him take on Achilles. Hector is delighted and touched by this show of solidarity, and stands to face Achilles head-on. Before they fight, Hector asks that the winner should treat the lover’s body honourably, but Achilles contemptuously rejects his request. They hurl spears at each other, and Athena returns Achilles’s spear to him. Hector turns to ask Deiphobus for his spear – but he has disappeared, and in dismay Hector realises that the gods have abandoned him.

Achilles mortally wounds him in the throat; as Hector dies, he foretells Achilles’s death at the hands of Alexandros. Achilles is scornful: he has accepted his fate. He reclaims his old armour, and other Achaeans cluster around gleefully, hacking at the corpse. Up on the walls, Priam and Hecuba lament their son, horrified. Andromache is preparing a bath for Hector; hearing the wails of grief, she comes to see what the matter is and is grief-stricken when she realises her beloved husband is dead and their son is fatherless. Achilles pokes holes through Hector’s heels, threads a cord through them, and ties him to the back of his chariot, dragging the body through the dust as he rides back to the Achaean camp.

A view from Mycenae, across the valley to Argos – the capital of Diomedes – and the sea

Days Five and Six: Mourning Rituals

Book 23

In the camp, Achilles leaves Hector’s body in the dust for the dogs, and he mourns Patroclus further. That night, the shade of Patroclus comes to him in a dream, urging him to hurry up with the funeral rites, and asking that their two bones should share the same urn, as Achilles will soon fall too. Achilles tries and fails to embrace the ghost. The next morning he oversees the funeral. He cuts off the lock of hair which his father had promised to give as an offering on the day of Achilles’s safe return: as Achilles is doomed, the vow is pointless. He puts it in Patroclus’s hand, and sacrifices four horses, two dogs and twelve Trojan captives to add to the grim bier. Answering a prayer, the wind gods help set the pyre alight. It burns through the night, with Achilles grieving beside it.

The next day, Achilles oversees funeral games in Patroclus’s honour. He officiates with good judgement, resolving potential disputes as tempers occasionally flare, and making the occasion one of Achaean togetherness. The first event, the chariot race, is a detailed and exciting chase, with a controversial outcome. Diomedes wins with Aeneas’s horses and Athena’s help, but three others – Menelaus, Antilochus and Eumelus – all have a claim on the second prize; Achilles successfully mediates, generously keeping everyone happy. The wrestling is a draw between Odysseus and Ajax; Odysseus wins the foot race; Diomedes and Ajax duel in the armed combat, which Achilles calls short when it gets dangerous, awarding Diomedes the prize. There is boxing and a throwing competition, and Meriones – with Apollo’s help – defeats Teucer in the archery. Achilles’s kingly behaviour is particularly striking when he awards Agamemnon first prize by default in the javelin-throwing, rather than let him be challenged by Meriones. In the context of their recent feud, the double irony is apparent: Achilles is giving Agamemnon a prize he has not earned; and he is doing a better job of overseeing the Achaeans than Agamemnon normally does.

fragments of pottery depicting chariots (Nafplio)

Several Days Later: Achilles’s Rage Subsides

Book 24

Achilles is still consumed by grief and fury, and in subsequent days he drags Hector’s corpse behind his chariot round Patroclus’s funeral pyre. The gods are displeased by this, preserving Hector’s body, and keeping it from being rotted by the sun or devoured by the camp dogs. Eventually Zeus decides that enough is enough. He sends Thetis to command Achilles that he must accept a ransom for the body. Then Zeus sends his messenger to Priam to tell him to go to Achilles and buy back Hector’s body. Priam must go under cover of night, with only one attendant. Hecuba, fearful of Achilles, fails to persuade Priam not to go.

When Priam and his attendant are alone with their wagonload of ransom in the darkness of the plain, Hermes comes in disguise and leads them to Achilles’s tent undetected. Priam enters Achilles’s tent, where he is having supper with two companions, and supplicates himself at Achilles’s feet. Kissing the hands that have killed so many of his sons, Priam appeals to Achilles’s humanity, urging him to think of his own aged father. The reminder of his own father is too much for Achilles: softening, he starts to cry, and the two men weep together. For the first time since Book 1, Achilles lets go of his rage. No longer angry, no longer reluctant about releasing Hector’s body, he thinks of his father’s mortality, the pain his own death will bring the old man, and the suffering and courage of Priam. The two men are bonded in the face of relentless war, both knowing that they and their loved ones are likely to soon die; they are still tense in one another’s company, but they share an understanding.

Achilles accepts the ransom and has Hector’s body prepared and placed on Priam’s wagon. The two men have supper together. Achilles kindly offers to hold off the Achaean army from battle for as long as the Trojans require in order to give Hector a proper funeral. Priam gratefully asks for an eleven-day truce, and goes to sleep outside Achilles’s tent. Hermes wakes Priam and urges him to make his escape before Agamemnon learns of his presence; so he and his attendant escape with the wagon while it is still dark. They return to Troy, where Andromache, Hecuba and Helen all mourn over Hector’s body. The poem ends with Hector’s funeral. His part in the war is over; but many more will soon join him in death.

The Warrior Vase from Mycenae, dating from about the time of the Trojan War, is the most famous depiction of Mycenaean soldiers (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

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