Mabel L. Lang (essay date 1983)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7430

SOURCE: Lang, Mabel L. “Reverberation and Mythology in the Iliad.” In Approaches to Homer, edited by Carl A. Rubino and Cynthia W. Shelmerdine, pp. 140-64. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983.

[In the following essay, Lang probes the interaction between the Iliad and external mythological stories of Greek gods and heroes, concluding that this relationship implies a process of “ongoing, non-static composition” in regard to both the epic and mythological exempla.]

The relationship between non-Trojan-War exempla and the Iliad episodes or situations which they illuminate has been defined in two opposite and apparently mutually exclusive ways. One view sees the exemplum as a model from which the Iliad episode was adapted; the other holds that the Iliad situation has priority, and that the exemplum was invented to fit it. In both these cases the relationship is viewed as it would be in a literary work which was composed once and for all by an individual poet. The Iliad, however, is presumed to be the end product of many re-creations, and in this case it is almost inevitable that both types of relationship operated. What we have to allow for then is a process of reverberation between inherited material influencing the Iliad narrative and also the Iliad narrative influencing inherited material. Imitation and innovation go hand in hand on a two-way street.

How reverberation would have operated may be illustrated with the first paradeigma in the Iliad (1.259ff.), by which Nestor urges the heroes to heed his words even as his old fighting comrades the Lapiths had done. First an assumption must be made about Nestor's presence at Troy: is it possible that at some early stage of the Trojan War story, or even of the Iliad itself, Nestor was added to the Greek warriors to provide a different, older-generation type (as Odysseus, Ajax, Agamemnon, and Diomedes were respectively types of resourcefulness, brute strength, authority-figure, and all-roundness)? Or was Nestor always part of the group and only gradually specialized into a type? It is easier to accept the former alternative and to think of him as imported into the Trojan War from another time and context. Only so does the unprecedented and elaborate introduction provided for him make sense (1.248ff.): it serves as an apology for including him in a generation which everyone knew was “after his time.” Only Calchas is similarly introduced, and that case has been properly explained as a necessary guarantee of his prophetic authority. In addition, it is clear that the arete of Nestor as the older-generation type was not his military prowess but his speech, or advice. Thus his reminiscences of pre-Trojan-War experiences could be used to defuse (or diffuse) quarrels among the heroes. Thus in some early version of the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon he was used to urge reconciliation; he gave authority to his words simply by reminding them that he had associated with far better men than they, to wit, the Lapiths, who had respected him, and together they had faced the most frightful enemy such as no present warrior could take on. That is pretty much the exemplum which appears in our text, except for the lines: “These listened to the counsels I gave and heeded my bidding. / Do you also obey, since to be persuaded is better.” (273-274, tr. Lattimore). Instead of these words the original version might have had the single line which is known from the Homeric Hymn to Apollo (line 486), with very close relatives in the Iliad (2.139; 9.26, 704; 12.75; etc.): ἀλλ' ἄγεθ', ὡs aν ἐγo εἴπω, πείθεσθε τάχιστα (But come...

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and quickly obey whatever I say).

In later re-creations of this scene the obedience which Nestor asks for in the Iliad narrative must gradually have found a place in the exemplum as well. That it did not originally belong there is suggested by the inherent improbability of battle-hardened Lapiths seeking advice from a young foreigner. Nevertheless, because the situations were similar enough, they must have exerted a mutual attraction on each other which increased the similarity, by adding to the exemplum a detail which really makes better sense in its Iliad context. The parallel was made more pointed thereby, and also the ring composition was extended. That is, the original, now the outer, ring started: “Yet be persuaded. Both of you are younger than I am,” and would have ended: “But come and quickly obey whatever I say.” The mid-part merely moved from Nestor's association with the Lapiths to their joint ventures against the Centaurs. But the present version makes an inner ring around the battle verses: thus, at the beginning, “Yes, and in my time I have dealt with better men than / you are, and never once did they disregard me,” and then the echo, “These listened to the counsels I gave and heeded my bidding.”

If a paradeigma is viewed in this fashion, not as the product of a single act of innovation but as part of the development that comes with successive re-creations, it is clear that the whole “chicken and egg” question of priority which has been so hotly argued (particularly with regard to the wrath-stories of Meleager and Achilles in Book 9) is unanswerable. The reverberation or echo-effect between the original tale, whichever it was, and its parallel would cause changes in both, bringing them closer together and hopelessly blurring priority.

Although this first paradeigma in the Iliad could well have been inherited material that established Nestor as a warrior among warriors, the end result of its association with the wrath-story is very much the same as that pointed out by Kakridis for the last paradeigma in the poem: “Niobe in book 24 eats for the simple reason that Priam must eat.”1 So here in Book 1 the Lapiths listen to Nestor because Achilles and Agamemnon ought to listen. And it is because Achilles and Agamemnon do not listen that the whole Iliad follows. Thus the epic comes full circle in this as in other ways: a paradeigma that fails to persuade opens up the wrath-story, which is finally brought to a close with a paradeigma that succeeds in persuading.

Can we discern the mechanics of reverberation at work in the Niobe paradeigma? And must we do so, or can the difficulties this episode presents all be met by assuming simple, one-way innovation? Here is the whole passage in Richmond Lattimore's translation:

                                                            Now you and I must remember our supper.
For even Niobe, she of the lovely tresses, remembered
to eat, whose twelve children were destroyed in her palace,
six daughters, and six sons in the pride of their youth, whom Apollo
killed with arrows from his silver bow, being angered
with Niobe, and shaft-showering Artemis killed the daughters;
because Niobe likened herself to Leto of the fair colouring
and said Leto had borne only two, she herself had borne many;
but the two, though they were only two, destroyed all those others.
Nine days long they lay in their blood, nor was there anyone
to bury them, for the son of Kronos made stones out of
the people; but on the tenth day the Uranian gods buried them.
But she remembered to eat when she was worn out with weeping.
And now somewhere among the rocks, and the lonely mountains,
in Sipylos, where they say is the resting place of the goddesses
who are nymphs, and dance beside the waters of Acheloios,
there, stone still, she broods on the sorrows that the gods gave her.
Come then, we also, aged magnificent sir, must remember
to eat, and afterwards you may take your beloved son back
to Ilion, and mourn for him; and he will be much lamented.


Some of the unlikely details in the Niobe story can be explained as simple innovations inspired by the main narrative and introduced in order to improve the parallel between Niobe and Priam: thus she eats because Priam must eat; her children must lie unburied because Hector so lies (the petrifaction of the populace may then have been introduced, by analogy with Niobe's petrifaction, to explain the lack of burial); and, finally, the otherwise unsuitable burial by the gods could have been invented to parallel the gods' concern in Book 24 for Hector's burial. But one difficulty cannot be explained as simple, one-way innovation; that is the inconcinnity between Niobe's remembering to eat when she tired of weeping and her subsequent petrifaction from grief. So awkwardly do the lines about her becoming stone fit that they were thought by Aristophanes and Aristarchus to be interpolated, and by some modern commentators as well. We can meet this final objection only by imagining that the Niobe story evolved, gradually becoming more parallel to Priam's situation, with both being changed in the process of mutual attraction and reverberation. How might this process have worked? Let us assume that in some original version the poet wished to make a transition from the difficult, because unique, ransoming scene to the familiar ground of a standard hospitality theme, and so had Achilles say: “Now you and I must remember our supper / For even Niobe, she of the lovely tresses, ceased to wail” (that is, “ceased to wail” instead of “remembered to eat” or lēge klauthmoio instead of emnēsato sitou). Achilles would then have continued as in the present text through the twin gods' slaughter of the Niobids and its cause in Niobe's attempt to rival Leto. Then, making no mention of the Niobids' unburied state, Achilles would have returned to his original statement not with the present line, that is, “but she remembered to eat when she was worn out with weeping” (ἡ δ' ἄρα σίτου μνήσατ', ἐπεὶ aάμε δάaρυ χἐουσα), but with this one: “But she ceased to wail when she was worn out with weeping” (ἡ δ' ἄρα λῆγε γόοιο, ἐπεὶ aάμε δάaρυ χἐουσα). The lines about her petrifaction then follow with perfect propriety, and Achilles' speech would conclude not with encouragement to eat, but with a plea to cease from grief: not ἀλλ' ἄγε δὴ aαὶ νῶϊ μεδώμεθα, δῖε γεραιἐ, / σίτου but ἀλλ' ἄγε δη aαὶ νῶ λήγωμεν, δῖε γεραιἐ, / aλαυθμοῦ (But come, aged sir, let us also cease our weeping).

Thus the original paradeigma would have given the usual Niobe story, and only in subsequent re-creations would the mutual attraction between the similar plights of Niobe and Priam have caused interaction and changes in both tales. The first effect may have been the inclusion in Achilles' earlier speech of the lines (530ff.) which remind us that Peleus had only one son who was bringing grief to Priam and his children. Simultaneously, Priam's earlier speech would have been expanded with the lines (495ff.) counting his fifty sons and mourning the many killed. At least the contrast between the two children of Leto and the twelve of Niobe has more point for that story than does the contrast between Peleus' one and Priam's fifty sons for the Iliad story; any influence therefore is more likely to have gone from the inherited material to the Iliad than in the other direction. The next change may have been the addition of Niobe's eating to the paradeigma. That is, the way in which the main narrative turned immediately to formulas of feasting combined with the pressure of ring-composition to make it seem natural for Niobe also to take up eating instead of merely ceasing to weep. The mere association of Niobe and Priam in re-creation after re-creation must have set up the kind of bond that prevented the addition of the eating detail from seeming to be a gratuitous invention. And because the original detail of her petrifaction was so generally accepted a part of her story, and had had its rightful place in the original exemplum, there would have been no impulse to remove it from the later version. Thus Niobe eats because Priam must eat, but she becomes stone because she had always done so. Still later, perhaps, continued reverberation between paradeigma and narrative resulted in the Niobids taking on Hector's unburied state and, like his body, attracting divine concern. The reason is clear in the Iliad why Hector lies unburied, but once this detail was added to the exemplum it required some explanation there. The poet's solution was one more addition to the Niobe story: potential buriers were all turned to stone, a detail obviously patterned on Niobe's own fate.

Thus there is no question that innovation has taken place, even as Kakridis and Willcock have indicated, but two things about it have not been sufficiently appreciated: 1) that it is not a one-time, or necessarily even a one-poet, operation but rather a function of re-creation; and 2) that it is a two-way street, with paradeigmata creating parallels in the narrative as well as the narrative demanding parallels in the paradeigmata. These two principles combine to answer the objection most often made to demonstrations of mythological innovation by Homer: that if the myth which is presented as a paradeigma has suffered very much in the way of innovation it will have lost its persuasive power as a precedent to be respected. But this is not a danger if, as suggested, the innovations occur in both main narrative and paradeigma, and if they evolve naturally and gradually out of the pressures of propinquity and from a desire to strengthen the parallel. In this case the tales will remain familiar through constant retelling, and there will be no suspension of belief.

In order to test whether the two principles stated above have any validity beyond these two exempla, it seems right and proper to examine other paradeigmata and their contexts, to see if we can find traces of reverberative innovation through successive re-creations. In order to make the examination more challenging and more revealing about the extent to which paradeigmata include inherited material, we shall limit ourselves here to the exempla which primarily concern divinities. These are more challenging because, given the largely human subject matter of the Iliad, there is less room for reverberation between such exempla and the main narrative; they may also be more revealing because most of them fit together in such a way as to suggest that each is not a self-contained episode, but part of a larger whole which might be reconstructed.

Perhaps the easiest illustration of the way several paradeigmata may be fitted together is the theme of conflict on Olympus.

1) Thetis freed Zeus when Hera, Poseidon, and Athena conspired to bind him


2) Poseidon and Apollo were punished by Zeus, who sent them to serve Laomedon, building the walls of Troy and herding his cattle


3) Zeus punished Hera by hanging her up and then hurled to earth any divinity who tried to free her


4) Hephaestus was hurled to earth by Zeus when he tried to help his mother Hera


In the binding of Zeus (no. 1) no punishment of Hera, Poseidon, and Athena is mentioned, and in the punishment of Poseidon and Apollo (no. 2) no crime is given, since in neither case is the omitted detail relevant; but the two tales complete each other, with Poseidon as the link. How Hera and Athena may have been punished we cannot know, since serving a mortal king by wall-building and cattle-herding is not appropriate for goddesses. Apollo, though punished in no. 2, is absent from the list of rebels in no. 1; this might suggest that the two passages are not part of the same tale. Further, the three rebels in no. 1 are also the three chief divine supporters of the Greeks; this equation has been taken as evidence that the revolt is an innovation to parallel the plot of the Iliad.2 But since both Zenodotus and others read Phoebus Apollo instead of Pallas Athena at the end of the rebel list, the reverse could as well be the case: Apollo as the original reading may have given way in later versions to Athena, because the mention of Hera and Poseidon recalled the traditional pro-Greek triad in the Iliad. In that case we would have a trace of the original story in no. 2, with the punishment of the two rebels who really mattered to Zeus. (We have his own word for the hopelessness of trying to discipline Hera: “Yet with Hera I am not so angry, neither indignant, / since it is ever her way to cross the commands that I give her,” 8.407f.)

The three rebels listed in no. 1 might also be only representatives or ringleaders of a far larger group, since if these three alone were involved the other divinities on Olympus could have freed Zeus, and there would have been no need for the intervention of a sea-goddess like Thetis. However that may be, the connection between these two paradeigmata is further strengthened by the way in which it is echoed in the second pair: again, no. 3 and no. 4 so complement each other that both are needed to tell the full story. In no. 3 we are not told what gods were hurled to earth for attempting to release Hera, and in no. 4 we do not hear why Hera needed the help which Hephaestus offered, and for which he was hurled to earch. This pair introduces still another pair which bring Heracles and Hypnos into the Olympian quarrel.

5) Hera's punishment was for the storm by which she drove Heracles off-course (15.26ff.).

6) So that Hera could thus vent her wrath on Heracles as he sailed from Troy Hypnos lulled Zeus to sleep and as a result would have suffered a fate like that of Hephaestus if he had not been protected by Night (14.247ff.).

Here again it takes two paradeigmata to tell one story since no. 6 omits all reference both to Zeus' rescue of Heracles after his awakening and to his punishment of Hera while no. 5 explains neither how Hera could have sent the storm without Zeus' knowledge nor what Heracles was doing at sea. That he was sailing from Troy brings in still another pair of paradeigmata (see below) that will take us back to the original revolt on Olympus and so make a complete story of Olympian strife. This story is presented in seven different passages; they make up four complementary pairs, appearing in six widely spaced books (1, 5, 14, 15, 20, and 21). Therefore it is highly unlikely that all these references were invented separately to illuminate particular situations in the Iliad. Even a writing poet might have difficulty in constructing such a consistent and organic whole out of parts which he was inventing on an ad hoc basis.

The fourth pair of paradeigmata concern Heracles at Troy.

7) His sack of the city when he was disappointed of the horses of Laomedon for which he had come (5.635ff.).

8) The wall which was built for him on the Trojan plain as security against the sea-monster (20.145ff.).

The story in Book 5 (no. 7) tells us that Heracles sacked Troy because as Laomedon's benefactor he was cheated of his reward—but there is no mention of the way in which he benefited Laomedon. In Book 20 (no. 8) we learn what was presumably the benefit he conferred on Laomedon, for there he met the attack of a sea-monster, apparently on behalf of the Trojans (who joined with Athena in building the wall for him)—a feat for which he might well have been promised the divine horses. Again the two episodes combine to tell the full story: the tale of the sack (no. 7) provides a sequel to the tale of benefaction (no. 8), while the sea-monster in no. 8 gives point to Heracles' disappointment and consequent sack in no. 7. The only loose end is then the origin or raison d'être of the sea-monster, and this is where a Homeric link is missing. But given Poseidon's anger at being cheated by Laomedon (21.441ff.) as a parallel to Heracles' vengeance for a similar disappointment at Laomedon's hands, it almost goes without Homer's saying so that the sea-monster of Book 20 is Poseidon's response to Laomedon's treatment of him and Apollo.

We have thus come full circle: the conflict on Olympus led to the enforced servitude of Poseidon and Apollo, Poseidon's dispatch of a sea-monster to punish Laomedon's failure to pay for their service, Laomedon's hiring of Heracles to dispose of the sea-monster, Heracles' sack of Troy to punish Laomedon's failure to pay up, Hera's bribing of Hypnos to distract Zeus so she could drive Heracles off course, Zeus' punishment of Hera and threat to hurl to earth anyone who tried to help her, and Hephaestus being thus hurled for trying. Are there other conflicts among the gods which are used in the Iliad for illustrative purposes? If so, are they tied in to those we have looked at; and how much interaction is there between such presumably inherited material and the Iliad narrative? Was there pre-Iliadic precedent for Hera's resentment of Zeus' power and of those whom he favors, which is so basic to the Iliad story (1.518ff., 540ff.; 4.25ff., 50ff.; 8.408; 16.440ff.)? Does their preexisting enmity explain their support of opposing forces in the Trojan War so that conflict on earth reverberates with conflict on Olympus?

The tales of earlier (that is, pre-Trojan-War) strife among the gods are so complex and so consistent that, as we have seen, the various episodes or parts of episodes are not likely to have been invented independently, to parallel details of the Iliad plot. The probability is rather that the divine strife of the Iliad story had its origin in such precedents as appear in the paradeigmata. This probability is strengthened by the fact that several of these paradeigmata do not at all parallel the episodes in which they appear, and so there is no reason to suppose that they were created for their particular contexts. Neither Thetis' rescue of Zeus from revolting gods (1.396ff.) nor Poseidon's reminder to Apollo of their suffering at the hands of Laomedon (21.441ff.) is in any way parallel to its context. Zeus' anger at Hera over her deceit and her treatment of Heracles does parallel his wrath over Hector's suffering by her wiles; yet even here the paradeigma clearly has priority. Hera's persecution of Heracles is many-faceted and essential to that tale, quite unlike the contingent and one-shot character of her hostility to Hector. Indeed, that the conflict over Heracles is basic is confirmed by another paradeigma which has only limited relevance to its Iliad context. Agamemnon apologizes (19.91ff.) for his treatment of Achilles, blaming Ate, the blindness that deceived even Zeus, who boasted that the one born of his line that day would be lord of all his neighbors, but then was lured by Hera into confirming his boast with an oath, while she arranged to delay Heracles' birth and hasten that of Eurystheus. Only in the action of Ate is the exemplum parallel to Agamemnon's situation, since no one had lured him into fulfilling his threat to take Briseis; Achilles may have provoked him to take action, but there is nothing to compare with Hera's elaborate machinations to thwart Zeus' will. Here again the Iliad uses as a parallel a conflict between Zeus and Hera over Heracles. This recurrence of the Heracles theme helps to confirm that there was a detailed tradition of Heracles as the object of divine favor and hostility, and, more important, that Zeus' and Hera's conflict over Hector was most likely modeled on that tradition. That the Zeus-Hera strife in the Iliad may indeed have been borrowed from the Heracles story is indicated by the fact that it is not so much an integral part of the Trojan War as it is a mechanism to make the wrath-story work: that is, it belongs not to the original Trojan War chronicle, but to the Wrath as encapsulating the War. For Zeus' support of Hector and the Trojans, which brings him into conflict with Hera, is the direct result of his favoring the Greek Achilles, whom Hera supports. Thus for the greater part of the Iliad Hector seems to inherit Hercles' uncomfortable situation as object of the divine quarrel, while it is Achilles who is supported by both Zeus and Hera. This is shown particularly by Athena, who serves as Hera's agent just as in the Heracles “model” she was Zeus' agent in helping Heracles. The Iliad makes bold use of this apparent switch when it makes Athena speak reproachfully (8.360ff.) of the way in which Zeus thwarts her and does not remember how he was always sending her to help Heracles. Thus in the very act of associating Athena (Heracles' helper) with Hera (Heracles' tormentor) in a pro-Greek alliance against a temporarily pro-Trojan Zeus, the poet is irresistibly reminded of the “pattern” alliance between Athena and Zeus in the Heracles story. It is presumably only his “early Greek capacity for viewing things separately”3 that allows him conveniently to ignore at the same time the irony of Athena's present alliance with Hera: it was Hera, after all, who caused the sufferings of Heracles which Athena was so often sent to relieve.

Only two of the exempla in the Iliad which deal with interrelations among divinities do not fit into the cycle of divine strife centered either on Olympus or on Heracles. Together they involve Hera in apparent contradiction. While in 1.586ff. it was for his attempt to help Hera that Hephaestus was hurled from Olympus by Zeus, in 18.395ff. it is Hera who caused his fall into the deep, where he was rescued by Thetis and Eurynome. It is often assumed that the latter version is a Homeric innovation to provide Hephaestus with a motive to do whatever Thetis wants, but in that case it is odd that Eurynome is given such prominence as a whole line to herself. It is perhaps easier to assume a doublet in the tradition, partly because Hephaestus' lameness marks him as accident-prone, and partly because both hurling out of heaven and rescues by Thetis seem to have been popular motifs which were useful in a variety of circumstances. The lameness of Hephaestus, essential in a smith-god, could be the cause of his hurling out of heaven, given Hera's likely reaction to a deformed offspring (cf. Book 18); but it could also be the effect of such hurling, given the strife between Zeus and Hera (cf. Book 1). And while story-tellers were exploring the possibilities inherent in the hurling motif, they might also have toyed with the alternatives of earth or sea landing, and have considered as appropriate refuges for a fallen smith-god both a volcanic island and a sea-goddess who made a specialty of rescue (witness her deliverance of Zeus in 1.396ff., and her rescue of Dionysus in 6.130ff.).

Indeed, the otherwise unmotivated hostility which Hera seems to display toward Thetis in Book 1, along with her regular resentment of any action taken by Zeus, almost requires that the tradition provided some instance in which Thetis had thwarted Hera's will. Completely different but perhaps relevant is the connection between Hera and Thetis as presented by Hera in 24.59ff.; there she reminds Apollo that he played at the wedding of Thetis, whom she herself had nurtured and given in marriage to Peleus. The usual explanation of this about-face on Hera's part is Homer's willingness to deal with one situation at a time and to ignore contradictions that might result. So now that Achilles is back fighting for the Greeks all the pro-Greek divinities are happy to welcome Thetis (24.100f.); and the present Iliadic situation colors the past so that these kindly feelings are allowed to flood back to earlier days in the paradeigma. A very similar backcasting is to be noted in 1.520f., where Zeus says to Thetis that Hera is always reproaching him for helping the Trojans, even though it is apparent that his support for the Trojans will stem from his agreement with Thetis' request to make the Greeks suffer, and will be a change from his usual pro-Greek policy. But is it possible that the original tradition about the revolt in heaven, noted in 1.396ff., incorporated details that might motivate an actual change in the relationship of Hera and Thetis? If indeed Thetis was brought up by Hera, as “a daughter of the house” she would have been in the most favorable position both to want and to be able to help Zeus when the other gods ganged up on him; she would also, as in the version from later poets, be in a position most likely to attract Zeus' attention and wandering eye. Both of these situations could reasonably be expected to turn Hera against her nursling out of frustration and jealousy. In that case she would have been happy to marry Thetis off to Peleus, even without any prophecy that Thetis would bear a son greater than his father. This is pure speculation and perhaps an overly ambitious attempt to historicize bits of myth, but surely we have a right to assume that cause and effect operated even in pre-Homeric tradition.

The other three exempla concerning divinities in the Iliad all have more to do with divine-human relations than with intramural activities on Olympus. Two of them represent a reversal of the Heracles episodes we have already considered in that they deal with mortals acting on divinities, instead of divinities on mortals. An exact reversal would involve one mortal harming and another helping one divinity, just as Hera harmed and Zeus helped Heracles. Instead, presumably because there is greater impiety in rescuing a god than in damaging him, the helper in these cases is another divinity. And yet the inclusion of a third party links these situations with those in which divinities act on mortals and suggests that they are variations on a single theme. For example, in 6.129ff. Diomedes backs up his reluctance to fight with a divinity by citing the example of Lycurgus, who did not survive long after he pursued Dionysus' nurses and frightened the god into the sea (where Thetis rescued him). The other case is 5.385ff., where Dione cites three examples in order to reconcile Aphrodite to the rough treatment she has received at Diomedes' hands: 1) Ares was imprisoned by Otus and Ephialtes and only released by Hermes; 2) Hera was wounded by Heracles; 3) Hades was shot by Heracles and only cured by Paieon. Surely it is significant that only Hera has no god to help her, as if to intimate that the untended wound rankled and justified her constant harassment of Heracles.

These further details of Heracles' adventures raise again the question whether the Iliad poet is inventing examples of gods suffering from mortals, or making use of already elaborated episodes. In the case of invention, we would expect the poet to create a better parallel to Aphrodite's situation in at least one of the examples Dione uses to console her. Yet no one of the three damaged divinities was wounded by a spear, nor was the afflicted part a hand; and for even loose parallelism the imprisonment of Ares is far-fetched. Given the relative inappropriateness of that tale and the way in which the two adventures of Heracles can be tied in with other episodes in the Iliad (like Nestor's account of Heracles' raid on Pylos in Book 11), it is easier to assume that the poet was drawing on pre-existing tales. It may be that the two lines in which Paieon applies drugs both to Hades' wound (5.401-402) and to Ares when he too is wounded by Diomedes (5.900-901) originally belonged to only one episode and were added to the other, but it is impossible to ascertain which was the prior use. Thus the effects of reverberation can be discerned even where the process cannot be followed.

The last of the divine paradeigmata is Zeus' urging of Hera (14.313ff.) to make love because he has never before in the course of his philanderings been so smitten. The list of females he has loved is most closely related to Dione's list in 5.385ff.: in both the one-line recommendation (“endure” in the one and “let's go to bed” in the other) is followed by two lines of generalized reason introduced by gar, and then by the items of the list. Dione's examples are only three, and take up respectively seven, three, and eight lines; whereas Zeus' list includes eight examples, no one of which exceeds two lines. Dione's speech concludes with a long section on Diomedes' rashness and a veiled threat concerning his fate. There is no return to the general reason for the recommendation to endure; perhaps this implies that the thought of vengeance to come will soothe Aphrodite more than a further reminder that she is not alone in her suffering. Zeus' list does come full circle not only back to his generalized reason but also, tactfully, to Hera herself, without however repeating his recommendation. Though little more than a bare list, it still acts as a hortatory paradeigma, and as has often been noted it probably presumes a catalogue of divine off-spring. Whether or not its inclusion here is meant to mock the god and his philanderings, it is likely that his reputation along those lines suggested Hera's ploy for distracting his attention from the battlefield. That is, whenever and wherever Hera first tricked Zeus, whether it was in some Ur-Iliad or in some scandalous popular tale, the inspiration likely came from his reputation as a great lover (with which he must have been saddled largely to provide divine paternity for heroes and godlings of all sorts).

What then of re-creation and reverberation can be identified in the various divine paradeigmata and the surrounding narrative? Proceeding as before from those which are primarily intramural on Olympus, let us take up first the binding and loosing of Zeus in 1.396ff., and the question whether the frequency of the motif is a matter of borrowing from several inherited anecdotes or of reverberation between such anecdotes and the action of the Iliad. The instances involving both divinities and men may be summarized as follows.



Other gods bind Zeus (Book 1)

Otus and Ephialtes bind Ares (5)

Laomedon threatens to bind Apollo and Poseidon (21)


Zeus binds Agamemnon with ate (2, 9)

Dolon asks to be bound (10) (regular way of taking captive [2])

Achilles binds Trojan youths (21) and Hector to be dragged (22, 24)


Thetis looses Zeus (1)

Hermes looses Ares (5)

Other gods loose Hera (15)

Except for the figurative binding with ate no Iliad action involves divine binding, unless we wish to see in the joint operation of Hera and Hypnos in Book 14 a figurative binding of Zeus that was inspired by his physical binding of Hera. Otherwise the theme of binding is so variously used in the inherited tales that it is difficult to find any common ground, except that for deathless beings it substitutes for death, whether the aim is usurpation (Book 1), punishment (15), or riddance (5, 21). It might be, then, that the use of binding in war as a fate next to death was the original source, and that divine binding in these anecdotes was an echo or reverberation from heroic epic. As far as loosing goes, there is a possible figurative reverberation if Zeus is thought of as “bound” by his oath to Thetis (1), and Hera and the other gods keep trying to free him from that oath. Certainly in a more general sense the inherited conflict of Zeus and Hera is invoked for the action of the Iliad at the same time that inherited instances illustrating it are used as exempla.

It was suggested that the revolt against Zeus was the act which he punished by sending Apollo and Poseidon to serve Laomedon (21.441ff.). This would link the exemplum used to motivate Zeus' decision to favor the Trojans with that used by Poseidon for an equal but opposite purpose, to undermine Apollo's allegiance to the Trojans. There is an obvious relationship between Laomedon's refusal to give the promised payment for the wall which the god built him (21) and Laomedon's refusal to give Heracles his promised payment (5.635ff.). The connection works in at least two ways. Not only do both episodes use the same motif, perhaps, as so often in doublets, in order to explore different outcomes (Heracles' sack of Troy and Poseidon's dispatch of a sea-monster), but they are also connected causally, with Laomedon hiring Heracles in one episode to dispose of the very sea-monster sent in the other. Furthermore, both these Laomedon exempla seem to be reflected in Paris' refusal (7.357ff.) to keep his promise that Helen go with the victor of the duel (3.69ff.). That is, the refusal to give up Helen which presumably brought on war in the first place exemplifies a motif that has many parallels as an explanation of conflict, but that cause has here not only been renewed but also converted into a failure to deliver on a promise which may well have been patterned on Laomedon's refusal to live up to his agreements about both horses and wages. Thus the duel between Paris and Menelaus which properly belongs to the first year of the war has been brought into the tenth year, and into the Iliad, both to give the illusion of the conflict's beginning and to make the Trojans' refusal to give up Helen into the same sort of breach of promise that had justified Heracles' sack of Troy and Poseidon's dispatch of the sea-monster. Thus justification for the new fall of Troy is provided both through the breaking of the truce in Book 4 and by Paris' refusal to keep his promise, a motif inherited from his grandfather and reverberating for the bard from the earlier traditions about Troy.

The next pair of paradeigmata involving divine crime and punishment concerns Hera's driving Heracles off course, Zeus' vengeance on her for this action, his punishment of those gods who tried to loose her, and Hephaestus as one who was so punished (15.16ff.; 1.586ff.). In both these passages the punishment is hurling from heaven, a feat in which Zeus indulges, in fact or intent, on three other occasions, and which Hera imitates for her own purposes in another paradeigma. Hurling from heaven, even more than binding, is a way of disposing of immortals, since at least in one case (8.13ff.) it involves descent to Tartarus and the underworld. And surely Zeus' habit of expressing his displeasure thus in the old stories that are quoted in the Iliad has rubbed off or reverberated on the Iliad narrative itself:


Zeus hurls Hephaestus (Book 1)

Zeus wished to hurl Hypnos (14)

Zeus hurls gods loosing Hera (15)

(Hera hurls Hephaestus [16])


Zeus threatens to hurl any god who interferes in the war (8)

Except in the case of Hera's hurling, the action is taken or threatened as a punishment, but each of the inherited cases has its own rationale and outcome. That is, the hurling motif is not simply repeated in the various tales; rather its possibilities are explored. If indeed the accounts in Books 15 and 1 refer to the same occasion, they still emphasize almost completely different aspects of the hurling. In 15 the emphasis is on the crime that is punished; in 1 the crime is passed over and it is the suffering and results that are emphasized. The threatened hurling of Hypnos in 14 shows a different twist: it is aborted by Zeus' respect for Night, to whom Hypnos flees. Still more different is the hurling of Ate in 19, since this is not only a punishment but also an explanation of the goddess' presence among men. It seems fair to say that the hurling motif has been worked for all it is worth in the inherited cases; so too in the Iliad narrative, where Zeus' threat is like the Book 14 version in not being fulfilled, and like the Book 19 version in using exclusion from Olympus. It nevertheless has its own differences too, in that the destination is neither land (as in Books 1 and 14) nor sea (as in 16) nor the heads of men (as in 19), but Tartarus. And whether Hera's hurling in 16 is an Iliadic innovation or an inherited variant, it exhibits still another way of handling the motif, as an unemphatic prelude to the Thetis-rescue motif. Thus two old motifs make a new combination to serve a specific purpose, to motivate Hephaestus' work on Achilles' armor.

One oddity concerning the hurling-motif has not been noted: that despite Hypnos' original worry in 14 that Zeus would again seek to punish him (forgotten when the bribe proves irresistible), Zeus completely ignores Hypnos' role in his deception and accurately zeroes in on Hera as the instigator. It is in this kind of omission that the Iliad poet shows true mastery of his craft. By having Hypnos cite Zeus' previous threat as a precedent he not only shows Hypnos successfully angling for a greater reward and foreshadows Zeus' coming anger, but also disposes of any need later to slow down the narrative with an account of Zeus' treatment of Hypnos. The paradeigma thus serves to prefigure the present situation, which can then be developed in its own way because the groundwork has already been laid in the precedent. We know that Hypnos will flee to Night and that Zeus will not touch him. Thus the poet uses the inherited motif both as a pattern or inspiration of an episode (the distraction of Zeus' attention so that Hector, like Heracles, can be persecuted) and as a precedent to prepare the ground. So the Hephaestus doublet of this episode in Book 1 serves a similar purpose: again it is a matter of 1) hurling from heaven, 2) Zeus, and 3) a helper of Hera. This time, however, the helper Hephaestus was actually hurled, and tells the story to persuade Hera not to pit herself against Zeus. He thereby provides a heavenly parallel and precedent for Achilles, who was similarly dissuaded from attacking Agamemnon. Achilles' withdrawal from battle is paralleled by Hera's withdrawal in Book 4, and in the divine arguments in both 1 and 4 Hera's resentment of Zeus' authority and privileges echoes almost every point made by Achilles in 1 and 9 against Agamemnon: she toils in vain; he pulls rank on her, has no regard for her honor and the people she loves, but does as he pleases; and his decision to support the Trojans means that she is deprived of Greek victory just as Achilles is deprived of his symbol of victory, Briseis. This kind of reverberation between past and present, heaven and earth, love and war, with mutual attraction and like calling to like, exemplifies the organic unity of the Iliad's complex structure. Such a complex whole could not have resulted from any single act of composition, but must be the result of repeated re-creations.

Lack of space prevents a similarly detailed examination of the other divine paradeigmata for evidence of reverberation. We may, however, point up the possibilities in this kind of speculation by a quick review of Iliadic themes and episodes which seem to echo these paradeigmata, but may also have influenced them in return:

the rivalry and hostility of Zeus and Hera, for which the ground is laid by the two paradeigmata in Book 1;

Hector as Zeus' protégé and Hera's victim, like Heracles, with Hypnos as Hera's helper and Athena as active agent;

Paris' refusal to honor a commitment, echoing Laomedon's double-dealing and used as justification (once again) for the sack of Troy;

the comparatively unmotivated wounding of Aphrodite and Ares, copying the understandable hostility to the gods on the part of Heracles and Otus and Ephialtes;

Athena as guardian angel for various heroes as for Tydeus and Heracles;

Zeus' sexual susceptibility, for which ground is laid by the list of former conquests.

Whether the “mothering” role which Thetis assumes in three different paradeigmata (for Zeus, Dionysus, and Hephaestus) is inspired by her relationship with Achilles in the Iliad or whether her care for her son there is an extension of an old role may be uncertain. Nevertheless, the interaction between the two shows once again the kind of two-way innovation to which only repeated reworkings and re-creations of a narrative would give rise. That is, whether an Iliad theme attracted old tales as exempla or an old tale inspired an Iliad episode for which the old tale was used as support, each would be liable over time to infiltration of details from the other. For if like attracts like in epic narrative, as the use of both similes and mythological paradeigmata suggests, it is probable that in a situation of ongoing, non-static composition this kind of attraction, like that between charged particles in the physical world, would be a force acting mutually between stories.


  1. Johannes Kakridis, Homeric Researches = Skrifter utg. av Hum. Vetenskapssamf. i Lund 15 (Lund: Gleerup, 1949), p. 99.

  2. M. M. Willcock, “Mythological Paradeigma in the Iliad,CQ [Classical Quarterly] 14 (1964), 141-154.

  3. Ben E. Perry, “The Early Greek Capacity for Viewing Things Separately,” TAPhA [Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Society] 68 (1937), 403-427.


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The Iliad by Homer

Circa eighth century b.c. Greek poem.

The following entry contains criticism on Homer's Iliad from 1983 to 2000. See also Homer Poetry Criticism.

A seminal epic widely accepted as one of the greatest literary artifacts of Western civilization, the Iliad has been admired for centuries for its artistry as well as for the profound influence it has exerted on European literature. Within its epic scope, set in the tenth year of a legendary war between Greeks and Trojans at Ilios (Troy), the Iliad depicts the heroic ethos of a mythic era personified in the figure of Achilles, a Greek hero of unrivaled martial excellence, who chooses undying fame won on the battlefield over the prospect of a long life. The epic's proper subject is the wrath of Achilles and its tragic consequences, but it also explores such themes as the workings of fate, honor, and the human urge toward immortality. Likewise, the Iliad delineates the heroic code—the thematic basis of all subsequent epic poetry. While theories regarding its author, the near-mythic Homer, continue to spur scholarly debate, the poem itself is renowned for its compelling narrative, vivid imagery, poetic technique, psychological scope, and stylistic clarity.

Biographical Information

Almost nothing is known about Homer, but scholars hypothesize that he was an Ionian Greek (probably from the coast of Asia Minor or one of the adjacent islands), that he was born sometime before 700 b.c., and that he lived in approximately the latter half of the eighth century b.c. According to legend, he was a blind itinerant poet (the Greek word homēros means blind man); historians note that singing bards in ancient Greece were often blind and that the legend, therefore, may be based on fact, but that it is also possible that Homer may have lost his sight only late in life, or that his purported blindness was meant to mask his illiteracy. Internal evidence from the two major works attributed to Homer suggests that the Iliad preceded the Odyssey and that both were composed in the eighth century b.c. in a dialect that was a mixture of Ionic and Aeolic Greek.

Biographies of Homer exist in the form of six early “lives” and assorted commentaries by ancient and Byzantine scholars, but the information they contain is considered unreliable and mostly mythical. Some commentators have even gone so far as to assert that no such individual as Homer ever lived. Due to the paucity of information regarding Homer, the manner of the composition of the Iliad has been one of determined critical speculation that has brought together the efforts of experts in such fields as archaeology, linguistics, and comparative literature. In the 1920s the critic Milman Parry proposed that both the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed orally. Parry established that Homeric verse is formulaic by nature, relying on generic epithets (such as “wine-dark sea” and “rosy-fingered dawn”), repetition of stock lines and half-lines, and scenes and themes typical of traditional folk poetry. Comparing Homer's poetry with ancient oral epics from other cultures, Parry deduced that Homer was most likely a rhapsode, or itinerant professional reciter, who improvised stories to be sung at Greek festivals. As a public performer, Homer probably learned to weave together standard epic story threads and descriptions in order to sustain his narrative, relying on mnemonic devices and phrases to fill the natural metrical units of poetic lines. Parry's theory stressed the derivative, evolutionary character of Homer's poetry but affirmed his individual genius as a shaper of traditional elements whose creations far exceeded the sum of their borrowed parts. Many contemporary critics accept Parry's analysis of the authorship question, although critical speculation about the subject continues.

Textual History

Scholarly consensus regarding the composition of the Iliad holds that the poem was most probably transmitted orally by local bards and first written down on papyri shortly after Homer's death. Although Homeric Greece did not yet have a system of writing appropriate for literary texts, records indicate that a Phoenician alphabet may have been adapted and used to record the poem in the eighth century b.c. Once set down in writing, the poem most likely became the exclusive property of the Homeridae, or sons of Homer, a bardic guild whose members performed and preserved the poem. Scholars conclude that in the second half of the sixth century b.c. the Athenian dictator Peisistratus, who ruled from 560 to 527 b.c., established a Commission of Editors of Homer to edit the text of the poems and remove any errors and interpolations that had accumulated in the process of transmission—thereby establishing a canon of Homer. The origin of the poem's current title, which means “the poem of Ilios” (the Homeric name for Troy), remains a matter of conjecture. Scholars are uncertain whether Homer ever used it, for the earliest mention of the title discovered was by Herodotus in the fifth century b.c. Fragments of papyri, a third-century codex, and two other partial manuscripts exist, but the oldest full surviving manuscript of the poem, probably transcribed by a Byzantine scholar, dates from the ninth century. The first printed edition of Homer's poetry appeared in Europe in 1488 and remained in use until the seventeenth century. Many translations, both prose and verse, of the Iliad have subsequently been published. Critics agree that the most influential of these have been by George Chapman, Alexander Pope, and the translation team consisting of Andrew Lang, Walter Leaf, and Ernest Myers; in the contemporary period the edition most highly regarded and frequently used is that of Richmond Lattimore.

Plot and Major Characters

Approximately 15,000 lines long and divided into twenty-four books (a structure that seems to date from the third century b.c. rather than from Homer's lifetime), the Iliad is composed in dactylic, or “heroic,” hexameter. The action of the poem occurs near the Hellespont, in northwest Asia Minor, during the Trojan War, which archaeologists estimate took place in the second half of the twelfth century b.c. The plot begins in medias res, recounting an episode near the end of the war between the besieged Trojans, under King Priam, and the attacking Greeks (or Achaeans as they are generally named in the poem), led by King Agamemnon of Mycenae and his brother Menelaus of Sparta. One of Priam's sons, the self-indulgent Paris, has abducted the fabled beauty, Helen, wife of Menelaus. After a massive naval assault, fighting has dragged on for nearly ten years. During that time the Greek armies, including the mighty Myrmidons commanded by Achilles, the bravest and most headstrong of Agamemnon's supporters, have managed to capture and loot a portion of Trojan territory, but have failed to breach the massive walls of Troy. Incidents in the first book of the epic draw Achilles and Agamemnon into a disastrous quarrel. Through his refusal to return Chryseis, a captured Trojan girl and the daughter of a priest of Apollo, Agamemnon invites a divine plague on the Greek army. In order to assuage Apollo's wrath and end the plague, Agamemnon later agrees to part with Chryseis, but demands Briseis, a Trojan concubine to Achilles, as compensation. In response to this dishonor, Achilles withdraws his troops in indignation, refusing to aid Agamemnon any further. Achilles prays that the Achaeans be defeated on the battlefield in his absence, a message his immortal mother, Thetis, conveys to Zeus, the ruler of the gods. Meanwhile, Agamemnon receives an enigmatic dream from the all-mighty Zeus, telling him he will soon defeat Troy. Armed with this knowledge, the Greek leader decides to test the resolve of his Achaean warriors. In a ruse to boost morale, Agamemnon proposes that his soldiers return to Greece, but his rhetorical trick backfires, leaving the quick-witted Ithacan king Odysseus to convince them to stay and fight. An unsuccessful truce between the Greeks and the Trojans follows, intended to provide the opportunity for Menelaus and Paris to settle their feud by single combat. The duel proves indecisive as Paris is whisked from the battlefield by the goddess Aphrodite before he can be defeated. When fighting resumes, the Greek hero Diomedes, under the divine protection of Athena, takes to the field. He attacks and wounds two immortals, Aphrodite and the war god Ares, both of whom fight for Troy. Thereafter, Zeus decides to set his plan for a reversal of Greek fortunes into motion. The Trojans swiftly gain the upper hand in combat, despite a successful night raid by Odysseus and Diomedes on their camp. The following morning the Trojans take the offensive. Led by Hector, another of Priam's sons and the finest of the Trojan warriors, they penetrate the Greek defenses. Only temporarily slowed by the formidable Achaean hero Ajax the Greater, Hector sets fire to one of the Greek ships. At this point, Achilles relents and sends the Myrmidons, commanded by his beloved friend Patroclus, to assist Agamemnon in defense of the ships. An outstanding warrior, Patroclus performs gloriously in battle while clad in Achilles's nearly-impenetrable armor. He slays a host of Trojans, including the hero Sarpedon, before being killed himself by Hector below the walls of Troy. In sorrow and rage, Achilles determines to rejoin the battle and obtain revenge on Hector. But first, his mother, Thetis, visits Hephaestus, blacksmith to the gods, and asks that he forge a new set of armor for Achilles. Hephaestus fulfills the request, creating an outstanding shield that symbolically depicts a city at peace and a city besieged in war. On the field of battle, Achilles's rage is unstoppable. He single-handedly repels the Trojan forces and kills Hector, dishonoring the noble warrior by mutilating his corpse by tying it to a chariot and dragging it around the city. King Priam, overtaken by grief for his son, visits Achilles in his camp and begs for the return of Hector's body so that the proper funeral rites can be performed. Moved by his passionate supplication, Achilles agrees and the work closes with a description of Hector's funeral.

Major Themes

As the principal focus of the Iliad, Achilles embodies many of the major themes in the work. Among these is his choice to intensely pursue timē (roughly meaning “honor” or “prestige”), kleos (“glory”), and aretē (“martial virtue”) in order to secure his immortality as a great warrior, even if it means his early death. Thus, Achilles personifies the dual Greek conception of the brevity of life and the eternity of fame. Through Achilles, Homer delineates the heroic code fundamental to Western literature: that the chief aim of a hero's life is to win renown for his aristeia (which denotes “excellence,” “courage,” and “prowess”) using all the resources given to him through his aristocratic birth, wealth, intelligence, and military and athletic abilities. Furthermore, he fiercely guards his honor and that of his companions, strives to fulfill his aidōs (“duty” or obligation to community), and accepts his moira (“fate”) despite his constant striving for success. That Achilles rejects his aidōs for the vast majority of the epic, instead showing himself to be vain, intemperate, and boastful while he stands aside from the battling Greeks, suggests Homer's balancing of noble, heroic behavior with human flaws and limitations. Only in the final book of the Iliad, with King Priam begging for his fallen son's corpse, does Achilles acknowledge his communal responsibilities, treating the defeated King with pity rather than wrath. To a degree, Homer also humanizes the divine figures in the epic, the pantheon of Olympian gods including Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Athena, and Apollo. Rather than depicting the immortals as paragons of virtue or restraint, Homer characterizes these figures, for all of their knowledge and power, as variously jealous, deceitful, manipulative, capricious, wrathful, or petty. Homer conveys an additional theme of great significance to the Iliad largely through the work's renowned similes, a number of which describe scenes of ordinary, peaceful life juxtaposed against the violent and bloody warfare that drives the narrative. Likewise, Homer highlights the stark contrast between peace and conflict in the scenes painted on Achilles's shield—a device singled out by many critics as the symbolic touchstone of the epic.

Critical Reception

As one of the best known literary works of the Western world, the Iliad has inspired much critical commentary and has wielded an enormous influence on later authors and readers. Over the centuries, critics have been nearly unanimous in praising Homer's handling of the narrative, imagery, structure, and themes of the Iliad. They commend his ability to intersperse lengthy descriptions of battle scenes with highly dramatic dialogue, whimsical fantasy about the gods of Olympus, and, at certain key moments, moving lyrical poetry. Homer's genius, scholars have asserted, is most evident in his masterful yet self-effacing storytelling technique. In a perfectly plain and direct manner, the narrator carries the action forward, examining the events in great detail and occasionally digressing from the main narrative, but always in such a manner that the course of the tale seems natural and entirely inevitable. In addition to praising Homer's seamless narrative technique, with its flawless manipulation of tightly woven incident, simple design, and panoramic scope, scholars have acknowledged the immediacy and crystalline clarity of the Iliad's imagery. Special consideration has been reserved for Homer's extended similes, said to enhance the realism and enlarge the range of the poem by bringing into its military world parallel images from domestic life, agriculture, and nature. Critics have also marveled at the degree of accuracy demonstrated by Homer in his portrayal of battle scenes; his knowledge of weapons, battle strategy, and even the medical treatment of wounds has proved uncannily thorough.

Although most commentators praise the narrative impact and brilliant imagery of the Iliad, there remains a great deal of debate regarding the structural and thematic unity of the poem. A number of contemporary scholars have examined the underlying complexities of work's narrative structure and thematic framework, highlighting Homer's use of misdirection, parallelism, and reversal. Some interpreters have suggested that Homer's portrayal of the Trojans is not adequately balanced with that of the Greeks, citing evidence that the poem is biased toward Achaean heroes, and finally withholds the glory due to the Trojans. Overall, however, critics have tended to cite the comprehensive and cohesive vision of life depicted in the Iliad as the poem's central unifying principle. Although Homer presents an extremely harsh world in which human beings appear destined to suffer as the mere playthings of the gods and fate, he simultaneously conveys the value of human ideals and the joy of pursuing heroic excellence. Late twentieth-century critics have continued to focus on such specialized topics as Homer's narrative technique, use of irony and humor, and development of individual characters, considering the poet's treatment of the gods in relation to mortals, or probing such minor themes as the guilt of Helen or Paris.

Exploring Homer's philosophical beliefs, scholars still grapple with his presentation of death, divine and human justice, and the role of the citizen and the state in society. The concepts of aidōs, aristeia, and other elements of the heroic code have also inspired considerable commentary. Homer's rich use of simile continues to elicit interest, with scholars considering his descriptions of heroes as wild beasts, as well as his lyric evocation of human gentleness, care, and nurturing in the brutal context of war. With the ongoing proliferation of critical attention to the Iliad, the oldest and in some ways the most formidable work of Western literature has remained fresh and intriguing for generation after generation of scholars and readers. It impresses as much by its thematic complexity as by its stylistic simplicity, as much by its depiction of tragedy as by its celebration of life, and as much by its harsh descriptions of warfare as by its tender lyric poetry.

Martin Mueller (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9601

SOURCE: Mueller, Martin. “The Plot of the Iliad.” In The Iliad, pp. 28-76. London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1984.

[In the following excerpt, Mueller analyzes the plot of the Iliad in the context of the poem's central figures, Achilles and Hector, and the warrior code they depict.]


The encounter of Achilles and Hektor depends upon the withdrawal of the former, which tempts Hektor beyond the safety of the walls. The withdrawal is the beginning of the plot, the duel its end. The protagonist is absent in the middle. That absence is a narrative fact of great and continuing significance. But its representation is a narrative problem. So is the difficulty of developing in adequate detail the character of the protagonist if the design of the plot severely limits the places of his appearance.

The Embassy is Homer's answer to both problems. A delegation of Achaeans implores Achilles to give up his anger, accept enormous damages from Agamemnon and rejoin the fighting. The attempt must fail since the absence of Achilles must continue, but the failure turns into a magnificent occasion for impressing his absent presence on the reader's mind. Moreover, the Embassy does for Achilles what the encounter with Andromache did for Hektor: it provides a setting in which he can speak freely and passionately about the conditions of his existence.

The decision to approach Achilles is made in a council of Achaean leaders. Nestor diplomatically but firmly points to the link between the desperate situation of the army and Agamemnon's treatment of Achilles. He urges Agamemnon to reconcile Achilles ‘with splendid gifts and gentle words’ (9.113). Agamemnon readily concedes his mistake (114), states his willingness to make amends and lists a long catalogue of gifts that are indeed splendid. He concludes with words that are deficient in gentleness but may be no more than an attempt to save a little face in a humiliating situation:

And let him yield place to me, inasmuch as I am the kinglier
and inasmuch as I can call myself born the elder.


Nestor is full of praise: ‘nobody could blame your gifts,’ he says, but then takes care to ensure that the proper words will be spoken as well. He picks the delegation to offer the settlement to Achilles, consisting of Phoinix, the former tutor of Achilles, Aias, the leading soldier after Achilles, and Odysseus, the shrewdest counsellor. Although Agamemnon's offer as he stated it was incomplete, what Achilles receives is a proper offer of ‘splendid gifts and gentle words’. The delegation is as high-ranking as Homeric protocol can imagine. It is out of the question that Agamemnon should go himself. The bitterness of their quarrel makes mediation imperative and socially acceptable. When Achilles later says ‘He wouldn't dare come here himself’ (9.373), the words cannot be taken as the poet's criticism of Agamemnon but reflect Achilles' disastrous refusal to acknowledge the change in circumstances. That Priam will in person reconcile an even more implacable Achilles serves not to call into question the propriety of the earlier occasion but to emphasise the unheard-of nature of Priam's visit. The propriety of the offer is also a major argument in Phoinix' speech (9.518).

The arrival of the ambassadors marks one of those Homeric epiphanies in which the poet looks back and forth to comprehend the entire action in one setting:

Now they came beside the shelters and ships of the Myrmidons
and they found Achilles delighting his heart in a lyre, clear-sounding,
splendid and carefully wrought, with a bridge of silver upon it,
which he won out of the spoils when he ruined Eëtion's city.
With this he was pleasuring his heart, and singing of men's fame,
as Patroklos was sitting over against him, alone, in silence,
watching Aiakides and the time he would leave off singing.


The lyre points back to the quarrel and forward to the fate of Andromache, Eëtion's daughter. Achilles is inactive, but his unquenchable thirst for glory finds temporary satisfaction in heroic poetry; his listener is Patroklos, the instrument and victim of his ultimate triumph.

As the delegates approach, Achilles leaps up with the same impulsiveness that will govern his response to Odysseus' speech; he does not even take the time to put aside his lyre (9.194). His strong and cordial welcome is in character: the first book had made a point of his courtesy in his treatment of the heralds who had come on the unpleasant task of claiming Briseis (1.334). But the emphasis on courtesy also establishes a background for the violence of the subsequent eruption. After the customary meal Odysseus turns to business. At the centre of his speech stands the verbatim repetition of Agamemnon's offer, minus the concluding insistence on his superiority. The arguments that frame it are from the speaker's perspective the most persuasive he can think of, but as the poet's words they are composed with a knowledge of the future and look forward to the consequences of Achilles' refusal. Odysseus describes in lurid detail how Hektor has become a threat to the Achaeans and how Achilles' prophecy in the first assembly has come true. The words are meant to gratify Achilles, but Odysseus attaches a warning, and the poet looks forward to the Patrokleia:

Up, then! if you are minded, late though it be, to rescue
the afflicted sons of the Achaians from the Trojan onslaught.
It will be an affliction to you hereafter, there will be no remedy
found to heal the evil thing when it has been done. No, beforehand
take thought to beat the evil day aside from the Danaans.


Encouraged by the courteous reception, Odysseus then strikes a tone of camaraderie (ō pepon, 9.252) and puts himself in the position of an older mentor, reminding him of his father's advice to control his temper in order to gain glory among the Achaians. This memory provides the link to the repetition of Agamemnon's lavish offer. At the end of his speech he returns to the theme of the raging Hektor. If Agamemnon is hateful to you, he says, think of the other Achaeans and the glory they will bestow on you:

For now you might kill Hektor, since he would come very close to you
with the wicked fury upon him, since he thinks there is not his equal
among the rest of the Danaans the ships carried hither.


The words project a non-tragic resolution and set the stage for Achilles' violent refusal through which such a resolution is ruled out for ever. Achilles' refusal is not, as Eichholz argued in an influential essay, a just response to an inadequate offer but an intensified repetition of his behaviour in Book 1. The Embassy continues the theme of vindictive intransigence that began with his prayer to Zeus and represents the repeated ‘no’ of Achilles as a decision for whose consequences he bears the responsibility.

Whereas Odysseus had dwelt emphatically on the change in the circumstances of the Achaeans, Achilles pretends that nothing has changed. His speech is a passionate repetition and extravagant elaboration of his earlier grievances about Agamemnon's rapacity. The six lines of the original complaint (1.163) are magnified as Achilles sees himself as a mother bird ceaselessly working on behalf of her young while Agamemnon sits back, dividing the spoils and keeping the lion's share. The iterative verb forms, lost in the translation, add colour to his language. His whole life is based on the premiss of distinction, but the war has proved a great leveller: ‘we are all held in a single honour, the brave with the weaklings’ (9.319). He has gained nothing from always risking his life (9.322). Why should he fight for other men's wives (9.339)? The rehearsal of grievances leads, as in the assembly, to a flirtation with the alternative of an unheroic life, also greatly intensified:

But, now I am unwilling to fight against brilliant Hektor,
tomorrow, when I have sacrificed to Zeus and to all gods,
and loaded well my ships, and rowed out on to the salt water,
you will see, if you have a mind to it and if it concerns you,
my ships in the dawn at sea on the Hellespont where the fish swarm
and my men manning them with good will to row. If the glorious
shaker of the earth should grant us a favouring passage
on the third day thereafter we might raise generous Phthia.


There is in the Iliad a rhetoric of the unreal, that is to say, a tendency to elaborate through special flights of language departures from reality as the poet and his reader know it. The suspicion aroused by such rhetoric is usually confirmed if we compare what the character says with what actually happens. Diomedes and Aias give the lie to Hektor's boasts. The gifts of Agamemnon are described in such lavish detail because they will be rejected. Achilles' elaboration of his plan to go home is similarly deflated by reality. When Achilles speaks of arriving in Phthia on the third day (or the day after tomorrow, as we would say) that prediction contrasts with the reality of the duel of Hektor and Achilles, which will take place on that day. It is a further ironic effect that Achilles' outburst occurs in the same night in which Hektor makes his decision to stay outside the walls (8.497).

Achilles' rejection of Agamemnon's gifts exceeds their description in its extravagance. He will have nothing to do with them even if they outnumber the sand on the beach, nor will he marry the daughters of Agamemnon even if they combine the beauty of Aphrodite with the skills of Athene. When in this context Achilles claims that Agamemnon will not persuade him ‘until he had made good to me all this heart-rending insolence’ (9.387) the words cannot be taken as referring to some inadequacy in Agamemnon's offer. Rather, they show that there is no conceivable settlement that Achilles would accept. Unreality also pervades Achilles' portrayal of the quiet life that awaits him on his return to Phthia, but the height of absurdity is reached when Achilles, the paragon of the risk-taking man, exalts survival as the highest value and argues that not even the treasures of Troy should lead a man to risk his life (9.400). At this point the motif of the choice appears in its explicit form:

For my mother Thetis the goddess of the silver feet tells me
I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day of my death. Either,
if I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans,
my return home is gone, but my glory shall be everlasting;
but if I return home to the beloved land of my fathers,
the excellence of my glory is gone, but there will be a long life
left for me, and my end in death will not come to me quickly.


Here is another Homeric ‘almost’; what will bring about the fulfilment of the original choice is precisely the mode in which Achilles seeks to cancel it.

Whereas Odysseus had dwelt on the opportunities for glory, Phoinix in the second plea turns to the consequences of intransigence. He ends with a warning: if you do not give up your anger now when you can cash it in for the reward of glory, you may have to give it up when you will get nothing for it. Achilles in his response dwells on the sufficient honour he is receiving from Zeus (9.608), without recognising that this honour will be purchased at the price of Patroklos' life. His misplaced confidence is the structural equivalent of Hektor's when he rejects the advice of Poulydamas. Yet there is an important tension between the beginning and the end of Achilles' response to Phoinix. While his confidence in Zeus is a sign of his continuing intransigence, the conclusion of his speech yields a little. To Odysseus he had said: Tomorrow I will sail. To Phoinix he says: Tomorrow we will deliberate whether to go home or stay. This partial yielding will happen again in the response to Aias (9.650) and at the opening of the Patrokleia (16.60), with results far worse than either a complete turn or continued intransigence.

Aias does not initially address Achilles at all but comments to Odysseus on the failure of the mission (9.624). The words of the plain soldier are particularly valuable because they show how much Achilles' behaviour breaks established norms. Men have been known to settle disputes over the death of a kinsman, he says, but you—and here he suddenly turns to Achilles—persist in a quarrel over nothing more than a girl (the emphatic enjambment heineka kourēs / oiēs makes his point very well, 9.637-8). Gradually the speech of Aias turns into a final appeal that recalls Achilles' welcoming words in which he had greeted the delegates as the dearest of the Achaeans:

          Yet now we offer you seven, surpassingly lovely,
and much beside these. Now make gracious the spirit within you.
Respect your own house; see, we are under the same roof with you,
from the multitude of the Danaans, we who desire beyond all
others to have your honour and love, out of all the Achaians.


If the words of Aias show his incomprehension of Achilles' behaviour, it seems that Achilles himself is puzzled by the resistance of his passion to conventional forms of treatment, for his response to the blunt Aias is unexpectedly conciliatory (9.644). He yields a little more. Gone is the flirtation with going home and, while he still refuses to fight, the future he now envisages is dominated by Hektor:

          I shall not think again of the bloody fighting
until such time as the son of wise Priam, Hektor the brilliant,
comes all the way to the ships of the Myrmidons, and their shelters,
slaughtering the Argives, and shall darken with fire our vessels.
But around my own shelter, I think, and beside my black ship
Hektor will be held, though he be very hungry for battle.


The progress of the Embassy repeats that of the first assembly. An original decision to go home is replaced by a decision to wait while Hektor inflicts damage. The moment of crisis, however, is more sharply defined: whereas in the assembly Achilles foresaw in general terms the savage work of Hektor, now he envisages more clearly the battle near the ships, and he states the point beyond which he will not allow Hektor to go. What changes the situation from the first book is the fact that the attitude of Achilles persists in the light of a serious attempt, fully adequate to the norms of the warrior code, to offer a just settlement. Achilles' refusal to accept the offer changes the mode of conflict resolution from negotiation to violence and greatly increases the cost to himself. Thus the Embassy does to the story of Achilles what the abortive duel of Menelaos and Paris and the broken truce do to the story of the war.


The plot of the Iliad is made possible by the blindness of the protagonists. Hektor and Achilles become mortal enemies through a sequence of errors. The first and most pregnant of these errors is Achilles' prayer to Zeus after his withdrawal from battle. It leads to Hektor's false security, and it sets Achilles on the path of blind intransigence. In the Embassy, Achilles compounds the initial error by rejecting an opportunity that would more than redress his grievance. But the Embassy also puts an end to the flirtation with the pleasures of the quiet life. When we next see Achilles he has become an active observer. As the battle rages and even Aias is forced to retreat, he stands in the bow of his ship ‘looking out over the sheer war work and the sorrowful onrush’ (11.600) and, we may confidently add, waiting for Hektor. Nestor drives by, carrying on his chariot the wounded Machaon, whom Achilles does not quite recognise. He summons Patroklos to find out:

At once he spoke to his own companion in arms, Patroklos,
calling from the ships, and he heard it from inside the shelter, and came out
like the war god, and this was the beginning of his evil.


Here is another instance of the poet's tracing of a causal chain to an act of Achilles. Whereas in the previous scenes Patroklos was present, now he is summoned to his fate. The poet honours him with the epithet isos Arēï, ‘like the war god’, but he dwells on his passive role as respondent. The beginning of his tragedy points forward to the circumstances of his death in which his status as victim finds its most pitiful expression.

Patroklos dutifully goes to Nestor's tent, where he sees Machaon. His task is done; it only remains for him to return to Achilles and tell him. Anxious to leave, he does not enter the tent nor does he accept an invitation to sit down, but Nestor detains him anyhow with a litany of Achaean woes that soon turns into an account of his first triumph as a young warrior. The rambling narrative implicitly contrasts the eagerness of the young Nestor with the reluctance of Achilles. In the final part of his speech Nestor's reminiscences turn to Achilles directly. We learn about the recruiting mission of Odysseus and Nestor, about Peleus' warnings about the consequences of yielding to anger, and about the counselling role Patroklos as the older friend is supposed to play. Returning to the present, Nestor suggests a compromise: if you cannot persuade him to fight, perhaps he will let you fight in his armour. Stirred by Nestor's words Patroklos hurries to Achilles' tent, no longer to confirm the identity of Machaon, but to try his skill at persuasion. This new intention is both blocked and advanced by yet another obstacle that prevents the speedy execution of his mission. On his way back he encounters Eurypylos

away from the battle, and the watery sweat was running
down his shoulders and face, and from the sore wound dark blood
continued to drip, and yet the will stayed steady within him


Like Machaon, Eurypylos is the victim of Paris' archery. The characters are doublets: the former motivates Patroklos' visit to Nestor, the latter delays his return until the fighting has taken an even more desperate turn. The narrative motivation has a thematic colouring. Despite his loyalty to Achilles, Patroklos does not hate the Achaeans. Nestor's words had moved him; in the figure of Eurypylos the suffering of the Achaeans confronts him in concrete form. Patroklos speaks to him in pity, and Eurypylos asks him to conduct him to his tent and look after his wounds. The request puts Patroklos in a bind: is not his goal to return to Achilles and act on Nestor's advice? But the immediacy of Eurypylos' suffering brooks no delay, and he goes with him. The loyal companion of Achilles has become the helper of the Achaeans and in the process has revealed much of his generous and cooperative nature.

When, after many delays, Patroklos reaches Achilles' tent and makes his plea, his friend yields, thereby setting in motion the chain of events that lead to the death of Patroklos and settle the fate not only of Hektor and Troy, but of Achilles as well. The yielding shows Achilles at the deepest point of delusion, and the poet takes care to portray his decision not as a change of heart but as a further development of the state of mind that had first manifested itself in the prayer to Zeus.

Patroklos' plea to Achilles is based on solidarity with the Achaeans, but Achilles responds to his friend's gentle nature rather than to his cause. The response appears in the affectionate banter with which he compares the tears of Patroklos to those of a little girl wanting to be picked up by her mother (16.7). But the woes of the Achaeans leave him untouched, as we learn from the tone of harsh self-righteousness with which he guesses the cause of his friend's tears (16.17) and from the hyperbolic wish that concludes his answer to Patroklos:

Father Zeus, Athene and Apollo, if only
not one of all the Trojans could escape destruction, not one
of the Argives, but you and I could emerge from the slaughter
so that we two alone could break Troy's hallowed coronal.


If we hold this conclusion against the image of the crying girl, we see that Achilles is swayed by two powerful emotions—the love of Patroklos and the hatred of the Achaeans—without any awareness of their contradiction. Under the sway of these emotions Achilles projects a vision of the future no less unreal than his flirtation with the pleasures of the unheroic choice. Patroklos is to join the fighting, but he is to stay within certain limits, so as not to threaten the supremacy of Achilles and to ensure his own safety as well. As a consequence the Achaeans will return Briseis and give many other presents besides. The vision concludes with the bizarre image of Patroklos and himself as sole survivors and conquerors of Troy. Reality will refute this vision at every point: Patroklos will not be circumscribed by the role Achilles assigns to him, Achilles will take no pleasure in gifts, and neither Achilles nor Patroklos will be present when Troy is taken.

The continuity of Achilles' behaviour at this point with his previous actions is the explicit subject of one of the most moving scenes in the Iliad. When Patroklos has left for battle, Achilles prays for his safe return. Elaborate preparations mark the solemnity of the occasion. From the bottom of a treasure chest given him by Thetis, Achilles fetches a goblet from which only he drinks, and only when sacrificing to Zeus. He cleans the goblet with sulphur and water, washes his hands, and begins his prayer with an invocation as unique as the circumstantiality of the preparatory narrative:

High Zeus, lord of Dodona, Pelasgian, living afar off,
brooding over wintry Dodona, your prophets about you
living, the Selloi who sleep on the ground with feet unwashed.
          Hear me.


The prayer itself begins with an acknowledgement to Zeus of his previous support and seeks support for the future as well:

As one time before when I prayed to you, you listened
and did me honour, and smote strongly the host of the Achaians,
so one more time bring to pass the wish that I pray for.


Specifically Achilles prays that Patroklos may win glory and a safe return:

          Let glory, Zeus of the wide brows, go forth with him.
Make brave the heart inside his breast, so that even Hektor
will find out whether our henchman knows how to fight his battles
by himself, or whether his hands rage invincible only
those times when I myself go into the grind of the war god.
But when he has beaten back from the ships their clamorous onset,
then let him come back to me and the running ships, unwounded,
with all his armour and with the companions who fight close beside him.


Zeus ‘granted him one prayer, and denied him the other’ (16.250). This supreme moment of Iliadic irony derives its power not merely from the tension between the symmetry of the phrasing and the inequality of what is granted and denied, but from its critical function in the central plot. The Zeus who denies half of Achilles' prayer is the same Zeus who granted the former request, but now he exacts its price. Through the death of Patroklos, Achilles will learn what it means to pray for the destruction of the Achaeans and what it means for such a prayer to be heard.

The blindness of Achilles comes to an abrupt end with the news of Patroklos' death, which is the turning-point of the epic. But, despite his significance, Patroklos does not achieve a fate of his own: rather, his role is to fail in the role of Achilles a failure foreshadowed by the spear of Achilles, which alone of all of his friend's arms he does not carry into battle (16.140). The life and death of Patroklos are primarily events in the life of Achilles. The poet's constant observance of this perspective accounts for the manner in which he represents the circumstances of his death.

In the famous scene in which Antilochos brings the news of Patroklos' death Achilles is represented as having anticipated the event already in his imagination (18.12). If we return from that scene to our last sight of Achilles, we find him putting the goblet back into its chest and following his friend with his eyes:

          When Achilles had poured the wine and prayed to Zeus father
he went back into the shelter, stowed the cup in the chest, and came out
to stand in front of the door, with the desire in his heart still
to watch the grim encounter of Achaians and Trojans.


The lines are a discreet reminder of Achilles' anxiety; they also guide the perspective of the reader, who follows Patroklos where Achilles leaves off. The peculiar horror and pathos of Patroklos' death are in good measure a result of the manipulation of the reader's response so that he stands in for Achilles and becomes the witness of the friend's death. From the pursuing glances to the moment of foreboding, Patroklos is never out of the eyes of the reader/Achilles.

In donning the arms of Achilles, Patroklos for a while assumes his invincible strength. He drives the Trojans away from the ships of Protesilaos, cuts off their escape to the city, and wreaks havoc among them. But after his victory over Sarpedon he disregards the explicit advice of Achilles, goes on the offensive, and in the subsequent attack on Troy loses his life. Patroklos' death is at one level a version of the death of Achilles. The Iliad presupposes and repeatedly alludes to the tradition according to which Achilles during an attempt to storm Troy suffered death at the hands of Paris and Apollo, the human and divine archers. The Iliad mirrors that tradition when Diomedes, the replacement for Achilles, suffers a non-lethal wound in the heel at the hands of Paris (11.377). Patroklos' death at the hands of Apollo and the brother of Paris is a more serious version of that tradition, a vicarious anticipation of the death of Achilles that permits the poet to incorporate into his epic an event that lies beyond its narrative scope. This procedure underscores the pivotal nature of Patroklos' death: he dies like Achilles because Achilles dies with him. Inseparable in life, their ashes united in a common urn (23.91), their virtual identity also manifests itself in the manner of their death.

While the death of Patroklos anticipates that of Achilles, it also has distinct features of its own, designed to impress on Achilles that Patroklos is the victim of his revenge on the Achaeans. The helpless agony of his last moments is a fitting and horrible conclusion to a heroic career that, despite its temporary glamour, lacks independence. The passive nature of Patroklos, which appeared in his silent listening (9.190) and in his response to Achilles' summons (11.604), manifests itself also in his final glory. The poet could have shown a warrior who in the exultation of victory wilfully and explicitly disregards advice and ventures into a more aggressive role. But Homer represents this transgression as a being drawn; and Patroklos' moment of exultation triggers a reflection on human impotence:

But Patroklos, with a shout to Automedon and his horses,
went after Trojans and Lykians in a huge blind fury.
Besotted: had he only kept the command of Peleiades
he might have got clear away from the evil spirit of black death.
But always the mind of Zeus is a stronger thing than a man's mind,
as now he drove on the fury in the heart of Patroklos.
Then who was it you slaughtered first, who was the last one,
Patroklos, as the gods called you to your death?


In his final assault Patroklos threatens the city itself, which would fall but for the intervention of Apollo. The god rebuffs his attack with words that both differentiate him from and identify him with his greater friend:

Give way, illustrious Patroklos: it is not destined
that the city of the proud Trojans shall fall before your spear
nor even at the hand of Achilleus, who is far better than you are.


From this rebuff the battle moves towards an encounter of Patroklos and Hektor. The former scores an initial success by killing Hektor's charioteer Kebriones, and a fierce battle ensues over the body of the fallen warrior. At the climactic point of this fight the narrative takes an unexpected turn from what had been a fairly conventional account of battle. Instead of making the defeat of Patroklos depend on an aggressive act by Hektor, the poet makes Apollo intervene directly. He strikes Patroklos from behind with his flat hand and stuns him:

Apollo now struck away from his head the helmet
four-horned and hollow-eyed, and under the feet of the horses
it rolled clattering, and the plumes above it were defiled
by blood and dust. Before this time it had not been permitted
to defile in the dust this great helmet crested in horse-hair;
rather it guarded the head and the gracious brow of a godlike
man, Achilleus; but now Zeus gave it over to Hektor
to wear on his head, Hektor whose own death was close to him.
And in his hands was splintered all the huge, great, heavy,
iron-shod, far-shadowing spear, and away from his shoulders
dropped to the ground the shield with its shield sling and its tassels.
The lord Apollo, son of Zeus, broke the corselet upon him.
Disaster caught his wits, and his shining body went nerveless.


The helpless terror of the stricken warrior has its only parallel in the Iliad in the much briefer account of the panic of Alkathoös, who becomes the victim of Poseidon and Idomeneus (13.436). But in the case of Patroklos it is not Hektor who, like Idomeneus, takes advantage of the opportunity created by the god. Homer introduces a new character, the young Euphorbos, who wounds Patroklos and then is so terrified even by the naked Patroklos that he immediately retreats to the safety of his comrades. Struck by the god and by Euphorbos, Patroklos finally becomes an easy prey for Hektor (16.818).

The incomprehension and helplessness of Patroklos at the point of death contrast sharply and deliberately with the death of his noblest victim. The function of Sarpedon in the Iliad is to provide the career of Patroklos with a suitably climactic achievement. To that purpose he is introduced earlier in the poem as an adversary whose nobility is manifest both in words and deeds. He anticipates Hektor's success in breaching the wall (12.397), and Homer gives to him the most celebrated and complete statement of the warrior's creed (12.310). Sarpedon is a textbook hero, and as such he is also a paradigm of heroic friendship. When he first appears, he kills Tlepolemos but is seriously injured in turn. Immediately his friends surround him; Hektor holds the Achaeans at bay while his friends carry him to an oak-tree where he faints and then recovers (5.663). His famous speech is addressed to his friend Glaukos, who is far more than a convenient addressee and turns out to be no less essential to the death than to the life of the hero.

Sarpedon attacks Patroklos and is mortally wounded by him. His fall is an important event, marked by two similes and a speech. Apart from Hektor and Patroklos, Sarpedon is the only character to whom the poet gives the power of speech at the moment of death. The most remarkable quality of Sarpedon's final words is their matter-of-factness. He does not express surprise or regret at his fate. He had acknowledged the risk of death in the conclusion of his creed:

But now, seeing that the spirits of death stand close about us
in their thousands, no man can turn aside nor escape them,
let us go on and win glory for ourselves, or yield it to others.


When death comes he is ready for it. His final words encourage his friend Glaukos to do what the warrior's code requires on such an occasion: rescue the body (16.492). Having said his piece, he dies, as he lived, by the book, but—and this is the crucial point—protected both in life and in death by his confidence in the presence and help of his friends. That Glaukos will follow the command of his friend goes without saying, but the poet none the less makes a fuss about his compliance. It turns out that Glaukos cannot help Sarpedon because he is still suffering from a hand-wound received earlier in the day. In his despair Glaukos turns to Apollo, who listens to his prayer and instantly heals his wound (16.508). It is not the poet's usual manner to worry about loose ends. Thus the serious thigh-wound of Sarpedon suffered in Book 5 is entirely forgotten in Book 12. Why twenty lines to draw attention to an inconsistency nobody would notice? The answer is surely that the episode serves to foreground the theme of heroic fellowship: if one has to die in battle, then it is best to die like Sarpedon in the company of a friend. The death of Sarpedon underscores the pathos of the death of Patroklos, who dies alone and unexpectedly, confronted with an experience of overwhelming terror. When Achilles blames himself later for not having been at the side of his friend (18.98), the poignancy of that self-accusation is greatly increased by the reader's experience of the contrasting deaths of Sarpedon and Patroklos.

With the death of Patroklos the careers of Hektor and Achilles reach their point of maximum delusion. To Achilles' attempt to prescribe the limits of Patroklos' action corresponds Hektor's boastful triumph over his dying victim:

Wretch! Achilleus, great as he was, could do nothing to help you.
When he stayed behind, and you went, he must have said much to you:
‘Patroklos, lord of horses, see that you do not come back to me
and the hollow ships, until you have torn in blood the tunic
of manslaughtering Hektor about his chest.’ In some such
manner he spoke to you, and persuaded the fool's heart in you.


Like Achilles before him, Hektor is wrong on every single point. Patroklos, who in his death regains his mental composure, points this out and predicts Hektor's death at the hands of Achilles (16.844). The words have a chastening effect on Hektor. He does not (how could he?) accept their truth, but neither does he reject them, answering instead with a question to which he pretends the answer is still open:

Patroklos, what is this prophecy of my headlong destruction?
Who knows if even Achilleus, son of lovely-haired Thetis,
might before this be struck by my spear, and his own life


He cannot know that the poet has provided an answer in advance when he describes the moment of Patroklos' death in three lines that he will later use for Hektor as well (16.855-7 = 22.361-3).

Although Achilles has anticipated the death of Patroklos in his imagination, the violence of his response is in no way diminished. He is so wild in the expression of his grief that his mother hears him in the depth of the sea. She comes to comfort him and undertakes to ask Hephaistos for a new armour to replace the one lost by Patroklos. This is the second visit she pays to Achilles. She will come a third time to bring the order of the gods that Hektor should be ransomed. The visits of Thetis articulate the turning-points of Achilles' career and establish relations between them. This is especially true of the second visit, in which Achilles recognises the death of his friend as the consequence of his prayer to Zeus. The theme of connection, to borrow E. M. Forster's phrase in Howards End, is sounded in Thetis' first words. Not only are her opening words the same as on the previous occasion (18.73-4 = 1.362-3), but she also refers explicitly to the fulfilment of Achilles' request, echoing with slight changes the original wording:

          These things are brought to accomplishment
through Zeus: in the way that you lifted your hands and prayed for,
that all the sons of the Achaians be pinned on their grounded vessels
by reason of your loss, and suffer things that are shameful.

(18.74-7; cf. 1.409)

As in the description of Zeus' response to Achilles' second prayer, formal identity points to substantive difference. But Achilles is no longer blind, and his response names the difference:

My mother, all these things the Olympian brought to accomplishment.
But what pleasure is this to me, since my dear companion has perished,
Patroklos, whom I loved beyond all other companions,
as well as my own life.


From the fact of Patroklos' death arises the need to avenge him even at the cost of his own life. For the first time, Achilles has a vision of his complete destiny, moving back in time to the wedding of his parents when the gods gave Peleus the arms that his greater son would bear (18.83), and looking forward to his death, which he accepts as the consequence of his revenge on Hektor:

I must die soon, then; since I was not to stand by my companion
when he was killed. And now, far away from the land of his fathers,
he has perished, and lacked my fighting strength to defend him.
Now, since I am not going back to the beloved land of my fathers,
since I was no light of safety to Patroklos, nor to my other
companions, who in their numbers went down before glorious Hektor,
but sit here beside my ships, a useless weight on the good land …


Here the poet reaps the reward of his strategy of emphasising the gentleness of Patroklos and the helpless terror of his death: Achilles' words would not resonate so strongly if we did not remember Patroklos tending to the injured Eurypylos and later naked and bewildered by the stroke of the god. The two images lend weight to the moment when Achilles recognises the implications of having asked for the suffering of the Achaeans, whom in retrospect he identifies, together with Patroklos, as his ‘companions’.

The death of Patroklos turns the blind into a seeing Achilles. For the rest of his brief life he will act in a state of clairvoyance that is given to other characters only at the point of death. The gain of this clairvoyance is the ultimate reason for the strategy of deferring the death of Achilles beyond the end of the narrative and refracting it in the death of Patroklos. Heroic action gains its value from the risk of death. But death stands in a paradoxical relation to experience. What we call human experience in the fullest sense requires two conditions: the event must be given immediately to its subject, and the subject must be capable of continuing reflection on it. The experience of death does not meet both conditions. One's own death puts an end to reflection, and that of another lacks immediacy. The literary convention of the death speech is clearly an attempt to bridge the gap between reflection and immediate sensation. The words of a dying character have a special authority because we pretend that they are spoken out of the immediate experience of death. But the convention has intrinsic limits. The death speech cannot be long, or its duration will undermine the fiction that makes the convention possible.

Homer uses the convention of the death speech for Sarpedon, Patroklos and Hektor. But for his protagonist he resorted to a fiction that provided him with richer opportunities to express the consciousness of death. Achilles witnesses and reflects on the death of Patroklos-as-Achilles. He experiences his own death as if it were that of another. The fiction depends on the reader's belief in the identity of Achilles and Patroklos. Once established, the fiction allows for a much wider range of representational devices, for it creates a hero who can be treated as if he were dead not only in his dying moments.

The death of Achilles begins with the news of Patroklos' death. One of the most attractive speculations about narrative sources of the Iliad holds that Achilles' initial response and Thetis' subsequent visit are modelled on an account of Achilles' death (Kakridis, 67-70). When Achilles hears the words of Antilochos he is prostrate with grief: autos d'en koniēisi megas megalōsti tanustheis / keito (‘and he himself, mightily in his might, in the dust lay at length’, 18.26-7). A slight rearrangement of that phrase, keito megas megalōsti (‘he lay mightily in his might’) occurs in the Patrokleia (16.776), where it refers to the body of Kebriones, and in the second underworld scene of the Odyssey, where it refers to the dead Achilles (24.40). When Thetis arrives she cradles her son's head in her hands in a gesture reminiscent of ritual mourning (18.71). Add to this Antilochos' fear that Achilles will kill himself (18.34), and you have fairly suggestive evidence that the scene in which Achilles learns about the death of his friend is modelled on a scene in which he is treated as a corpse.

Because Achilles has ‘already died’, prophecies do not disturb him. When his horses at Hera's command foretell his death he replies with weary indignation that he need not be told what he already knows (19.420). He foresees his own death in the Lykaon scene, and when the dying Hektor gives the most precise account of his imminent death at the hands of Paris and Apollo (22.359) he replies: So be it. Finally, Achilles always thinks of the funeral for Patroklos as a funeral for himself as well (23.141, 243).

As a result of Patroklos' death the heroic energy of Achilles is no longer turned inward against his own comrades as a mēnis oulomenē, but turns against Hektor, his destined enemy. The return is more than a restoration. Achilles' anger grew as it swerved from its proper object, and in its return it burns with even greater intensity. When Thetis brings the weapons of Hephaistos, their glare frightens the Myrmidons, who do not dare look at them:

                                                                                                              Only Achilleus
looked, and as he looked the anger came harder upon him
and his eyes glittered terribly under his lids, like sunflare.


He has found an answer to the question first asked in Book 1 and repeated in Book 9: What have the Trojans done to me? The war has acquired a cause that concerns him and only him. Yeats, who often used Greece as a metaphor for Ireland, said in ‘Easter 1916’: ‘A terrible beauty is born.’ The oxymoron is singularly appropriate to the status of Achilles once he re-enters battle. He stands in the shadow of death, and the poet surrounds him with an aura that marks him off from all others. But, although no human adversary can resist or escape Achilles, even his course of victory is not without obstacles, and it is precisely at the point at which he rages with an elemental force that he meets the most radical threat to his heroic destiny. In the most daring ‘almost’ of the poem he is confronted with the indignity of death by water.

The threat occurs at a morally significant point. Achilles has pursued the Trojans into the river that is reddened by the blood of his victims. There is no comparable image of carnage in the Iliad, but the slaughter is not the ultimate expression of Achilles' violence. He takes twelve prisoners alive to be sacrificed at the grave of Patroklos (21.26). More than even the most violent form of battle death, the stylised ritual of that sacrifice expresses the extremity to which Achilles has been driven by his grief. The very formlessness of death by water may be a response to that stylisation. The river pursues Achilles and undercuts his very being. He who is ‘swift of foot’ not only must use his feet in flight rather than pursuit, but the river attacks the source of his strength and makes him lose the ground under his feet (21.269). Never before has Achilles suffered such helplessness, and in his appeal to Zeus he envisages an unheroic end far worse than his fantasies about returning to Phthia:

But now this is a dismal death I am doomed to be caught in,
trapped in a big river as if I were boy and a swineherd
swept away by a torrent when he tries to cross in a rainstorm.


At this point the poem touches for a moment on the mythical and supernatural sphere. Achilles is not a monster-slayer like Beowulf. Heroes of that type are familiar to the Iliad, but they belong to a past from which the epic distances itself. Achilles' return to battle, however, involves a deliberate straining of natural limits. The hero's arms are made and brought to him by gods. His horses speak to him. And Achilles emanates a terror that is systematically associated with many forms of fire. Because Achilles is a kind of fire he is threatened most radically by water, and aid comes to him from the god of fire himself, not in his guise as master-craftsman but in his elemental shape. The river, though it comes close to extinguishing the fire of Achilles, is no match for the fire god himself and, as in the other instances of ‘almost’, the narrative rebounds from its false turn and moves towards its resolution with greater force. Will Hektor be a match for an Achilles whose fire has successfully defied the quenching power of water?


Whereas through much of the Iliad the courses of Achilles and Hektor converge on paths of error, Achilles' recognition changes the pattern of convergence. Hektor's confidence at the end of Book 8 corresponds to Achilles' rejection of Agamemnon's offer. Achilles' vision of himself and Patroklos as sole conquerors of Troy is mirrored in Hektor's deluded words to the dying Patroklos. But Hektor's recognition lags behind that of Achilles, which produces for a while the contrast between a seeing Achilles and a blind Hektor. The contrast appears most fully in the second assembly of the Trojans.

Night has fallen, and once more the Trojans assemble outside the walls of the city. But everything has changed. The mere appearance of Achilles has routed the Trojans and has caused them to abandon the body of Patroklos. No fires flare to express their confidence; instead we learn that they are too frightened to sit down (18.246). Poulydamas gives sound advice, as he had done in Book 12, and counsels retreat under the cover of night. Once again Hektor contemptuously rejects his cousin's advice, showing an intransigence in the face of changed circumstances very similar to Achilles' behaviour in the Embassy. If Achilles had indeed returned to battle—as if any doubt were possible about the apparition that routed them:

                                                  the worse for him if he tries it, since I for my part
will not run from him out of the sorrowful battle, but rather
stand fast, to see if he wins the great glory, or if I can win it.
The war god is impartial. Before now he has killed the killer.


This is less of a prediction of victory than his previous boast that he would kill Diomedes, but it is just as discrepant with the reality that gives the lie to it.

When the rout of the Trojans is complete, Hektor alone does not return to the safety of the city:

But his deadly fate held Hektor shackled, so that he stood fast
in front of Ilion and the Skaian gates.


This is exactly the same place where, according to Achilles' words to Odysseus, he had once before braved Achilles—and had barely escaped (9.354). Whereas on that occasion the Skaian gates had marked the farthest point of Hektor's courage, now they mark the closest point to safety and measure no longer his daring but his retreat from the open field of battle that in the exuberance of victory he had claimed as his true home (15.720). On the borderline between the security of the walls and the danger of the open field, Hektor must make a choice. His parents beg him in the strongest terms to return to the city and to think of his obligation as the protector of Troy (22.37). But he is unmoved. His subsequent soliloquy, the longest such speech in the Iliad, expresses the reasons why he cannot return to his former role (22.99-130). He does not at any point deal with the arguments raised by his parents, and his deafness to them may itself be a telling index of the degree to which he is trapped by his previous choices, which he now recognises as mistakes blocking his return. We may remember the Trojan women thronging Hektor upon his return to Troy asking anxiously about the fate of their sons, brothers and husbands. What is he to tell them now? Better to face Achilles in honourable defeat (110) than to live with the reproaches of his inferiors: ‘Hektor believed in his own strength and ruined his people’ (107). But Hektor's resolution is not very firm. Odysseus in a similar situation had considered flight only to reject it by reminding himself of the warrior code:

Yet still, why does the heart within me debate on these things?
Still I know that it is the cowards who walk out of the fighting,
but if one is to win honour in battle, he must by all means
stand his ground strongly, whether he be struck or strike down another.


Hektor, on the other hand, looks for ways out. It is only the impossibility of finding such a way that makes him stand. Thus his first decision to face Achilles (109) gives way to an imagined negotiation: should he take off his arms, promise to return Helen, and share the treasures of Troy with the Achaeans? To imagine the solution is to discover its impossibility:

I might go up to him, and he take no pity upon me
nor respect my position, but kill me naked so, as if I were
a woman, once I stripped my armour from me.


It is striking that Hektor does not refer to Patroklos at this point, although it is Patroklos rather than Helen who has become the casus belli for Achilles. But the poet may remember Patroklos: had not Hektor killed him naked and helpless (16.815)? For a second time Hektor resolves to confront Achilles, but in the face of his approach his resolution buckles and he runs away.

James Redfield [in Nature and Culture in the ‘Iliad’: The Tragedy of Hector (Chicago, 1975). p. 128] has interpreted Hektor's decision to await Achilles as his third and final error: having first decided to go on the offensive (Book 8), and having decided not to retreat after the death of Patroklos, Hektor now fails to return to the safety of the city. Redfield writes with great insight of the disjunction between heroic identity and social obligation that defeat creates for the warrior: while his defeat has proved him ‘not to be what he claimed to be’ (p. 154), his protective function still remains necessary to his community. But for some heroes, as for Hektor, the balancing act of weighing present loss against future usefulness becomes impossible. Redfield sees Hektor's decision to face Achilles as a sign of Hektor's inability to take the longer view of things that springs from greater self-assurance. But what obsesses Hektor's consciousness is less the fact of defeat than the recognition that defeat is the consequence of his folly. Not unlike Achilles, who discovers the connection between his anger and the death of Patroklos, he sees himself as the prisoner of his previous decisions. In both cases the acknowledgement of past error leads to the discovery of the single remaining path of action. Thus it does not seem right to speak of Hektor's choice as a new and additional error. He correctly recognises that his past actions have blocked his return to the city. The fact that this recognition takes place immediately outside the gate is deeply ironic. But the open gate does not, like the advice of Poulydamas, point to a road Hektor should have taken. For that it is too late.

Hektor's disillusionment, unlike that of Achilles, does not occur in a single moment of radical insight; it is a process that for a while even breeds new delusions. His recognition of past errors and their consequences does show him the only way that remains open, but his ability to go that way depends on the continuing delusion that he might be equal to Achilles. The two moments of resolution in his speech (22.109, 130) leave the outcome of their encounter in doubt, and this hope, rather than the decision to stay, represents Hektor's continuing error.

Hektor's flight, like that of Achilles from the river, tests the limits of the hero's existence. Achilles learns about a world of natural forces to which human heroism is irrelevant. Hektor's lesson is more obviously a moral one: in his flight he recognises the false premisses of the new role that he had claimed for himself outside the walls of Troy. Hektor does not justify his flight (as Menelaos justifies his retreat from the body of Patroklos). It overcomes him, and it is in a peculiar sense his first honest act. For this reason the poet's restoration of Hektor begins with what is on the surface an act of shameful cowardice. Homer does not blame Hektor for running away. Instead he transforms what might be an abject spectacle into a noble competition in which one competitor is worthy (esthlos), but the other far better (meg' ameinōn), and in which the trophy is far more valuable than the usual bull's hide or ritual beast, for it is the life of Hektor (22.158). The prestige of the competition is enhanced by the fact that the gods themselves—all of them—act as spectators (22.166).

The transition from race to fight recapitulates the delusion to which Hektor had been prone and lays the foundation for the final moment of recognition. In the terror of his isolation Hektor hears the voice of Deïphobos—the disguise Athene has adopted to carry out the resolution of the gods that Hektor should die. Deïphobos/Athene promises help in standing up to Achilles (22.229). It is a common tactic for one warrior to come to the help of another in confronting a superior enemy. Thus, Aeneas and Pandaros fight Diomedes (5.166), Diomedes and Nestor fight Hektor (8.99), Menelaos and Antilochos fight Aeneas (5.561). What makes this scene so special (and Athene's appeal so treacherous) is the fact that the offer of heroic fellowship comes to a warrior who has experienced the terror of isolation in the most excruciating form. When Deïphobos/Athene tells Hektor that he has ventured outside the walls despite the pleas of Priam and Hekabe, the words cannot fail to impress Hektor, who has just rejected similar pleas.

Athene's cruel lie makes the courage of Hektor possible and his death inevitable. Readers have often found difficulty with her role in the death of Hektor since it goes beyond the assistance that gods give to their favourites. There are, however, good reasons for Athene's extraordinary intervention. First, the fact that Hektor's final courage rests on a false premiss echoes and crystallises the condition of Hektor's career throughout the poem. This is an instance of the poetic justice that establishes a significant relationship between a character's life and the mode of his death. Second, the deluded courage of Hektor yields to true courage in the end. When his spear has failed to pierce Achilles' armour, Hektor asks Deïphobos for another spear. But he is gone. Now the poet could have plunged Hektor into a new panic, but instead he endows him with a knowledge that is instantaneous, comprehensive, and leads to a resolution that no longer requires the treacherous support of hope:

          No use. Here at last the gods have summoned me deathward.
I thought Deïphobos the hero was here close beside me,
but he is behind the wall and it was Athene cheating me,
and now evil death is close to me, and no longer far away,
and there is no way out. So it must long since have been pleasing
to Zeus, and Zeus' son who strikes from afar, this way; though before this
they defended me gladly. But now my death is upon me.
Let me at least not die without a struggle, inglorious,
but do some big thing first, that men to come shall know of it.


The words receive additional depth from a powerful verbal correspondence with the Patrokleia. When Homer introduces its last act he asks:

Then who was it you slaughtered first, who was the last one,
Patroklos, as the gods called you to your death?


What Homer says about Patroklos, Hektor says about himself. The simple change of pronoun distinguishes the pathos of Patroklos' end from the heroic defeat of Hektor. At this moment, and only at this moment, Hektor is equal to Achilles, and superior to all other Iliadic characters, in the depth and intensity of his consciousness of life as limited and valorised by the fact of death.

Principal Works

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The Iliads of Homer (translated by George Chapman) 1611

The Iliad of Homer (translated by Alexander Pope) 1715-20

Homer's Iliad and Odyssey (translated by William Cowper) 1791

The Iliad of Homer (translated by William Cullen Bryant) 1870

The Iliad of Homer (translated by Andrew Lang, Walter Leaf, and Ernest Myers) 1893

The Iliad of Homer (translated by Samuel Butler) 1898

The Iliad (translated by A. T. Murray) 1924-25

Iliad (translated by Emil V. Rieu) 1950

The Iliad (translated by Richmond Lattimore) 1951

Iliad (translated by William H. Rouse) 1954

The Anger of Achilles (translated by Robert Graves) 1959

The Iliad (translated by Ennis Rees) 1963

The Iliad (translated by Robert Fitzgerald) 1974

The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles) 1990

Pietro Pucci (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: Pucci, Pietro. “Textual Epiphanies in the Iliad.” In The Song of the Sirens: Essays on Homer, pp. 69-80. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1998.

[In the following essay, originally published in Italian in 1985, Pucci elucidates Athena's appearance to Achilles at Iliad 1.194ff, examining the manner in which Homer presents the revelation of gods to mortals in the epic.]

In Homeric narrative a god appears to a hero and, by virtue of his presence, determines or intensifies to the highest degree the action that the hero performs. Regardless of whether the god suggests a plan of action (Iliad 2.165ff., etc.), prevents the hero from performing a particular act (Iliad 1.199ff.) or simply encourages, watches over, and accompanies the hero, his presence—his being there (whether perceived both by hero and reader or only by the latter)—amplifies the action to a heroic scale and places it in an ampler, teleological perspective, directly intensifying its importance, effect, and force.

But this divine presence is characterized by contradictory, ambivalent, and disconcerting elements both from a formal and from a theological point of view. Formally, the appearance of the god is managed through a representation of his physical presence that is always weak and arbitrary. If we compare the epiphanies of Demeter and Aphrodite in the hymns devoted to them with the epiphany of Athena at Iliad 1.194ff. (one of the most explicit epiphanies in the poem) we find that the physical presence of Athena is not sketched or represented in any way. She remains a blank figure. In the Odyssey the same goddess is described through the rhetorical figure of a simile: “in appearance she was like a woman, beautiful, tall, and skilled at lovely works” ἐμαs δo ἤϊκτο γυναικὶ / καλῃ̑ τε μεγάλῃ τε καὶ ἀγλαὰ ἔργα ἰδυίῃ ·] (Od. [Odyssey] 13.288-89). Odysseus recognizes her, of course. But so arbitrary is the description of this figure that scholars still hunt in vain for an iconographical identification, undissuaded by the disconcerting verdict of the hero himself—that it is hard to recognize the goddess because she “makes herself like everything” [σὲ γὰρ αὐτὴν παντὶ ἐῒσκειs].

One has to conclude that, although the goddess is indeed present and recognizable, the narrative frames this self-revelation of the divine in an enunciative structure that attests to the arbitrary and surprising nature of her appearance. In general, both in the Iliad and in the Odyssey, such appearances are marked by rhetorical devices like synecdoche, conspicuous silence (“stonewalling”), and comparison (i.e. metaphor and metonymy). The god, in other words, is not seen in his true form. What goes on is a double or triple process of removal. First of all, the god must divest himself of his invisibility.1 Then he must reduce the force (luminous or otherwise) of his form—for “the gods are terrible when they appear clearly” [Iliad 20.131: χαλεποὶ δὲ θεοὶ φαίνεσθαι ἐναργει̑s]. Finally, the gods in Homeric epiphanies take normal human form and are never portrayed with the enormous, luminous, divinely fragrant figures described in the Homeric hymns (Hymn to Demeter 275-80, Hymn to Aphrodite 170ff.) and later to be represented in sculpture, but are depicted solely by means of the rhetorical figures described above.

From a formal point of view, it would also be worth examining the different ways in which the Homeric gods enable the heroes to perceive them (sometimes visibly, sometimes only audibly), as well as the specific dramatization of each individual scene. For the presence of the god is as diverse in its significance as the ways in which the self-revelation is performed. If, for example, the god appears first disguised as a human being before suddenly revealing himself for what he is, the epiphany generally signifies an attitude on the god's part that is hostile, critical, or ambiguous. Even where one would least expect it, in the appearance of Athena at Odyssey 13.221ff., 288-89, it remains clear that, however benevolent her motives, the goddess of mêtis is playing a trick on Odysseus.2

Examined from the point of view of content, the self-revelation of the god works on different levels. A god may simply wish to be recognized for what he or she is—as the goddess of mêtis, for example. The textual complicities in every epiphany are of the highest importance, and in this case they remind us of the mêtis of the Odyssean text itself.

But the difference that we are highlighting between the essence of the gods and the form they take indicates that the text implies a difference between essence and appearance, which—even if not formulated in a theoretical way—paves the way for an important philosophical statement.

Let us begin to disentangle these problems by looking more closely at a particular epiphany, that of Athena in the first book of the Iliad.3 The goddess appears suddenly to Achilles and is immediately defined as “visible to him alone” (οἴῳ φαινομἐνη, Il. 1.198). Such self-revelation of a god in visible form and without any sort of disguise is very rare in the Iliad, and with the explicit designation of the verb φαίνεσθαι it is practically unparalleled.4

As we know, Athena is sent by Hera to prevent Achilles from killing Agamemnon: the goddess “loved both men in her heart and was concerned for both” (195-96).5 Athena thus descends and presents herself to the hero as he is engaged in making a decision, a process expressed by the verb μερμερίζειν (1.189ff.) and developed formally in standard ways, as Arend has demonstrated (1975, 106-15). The hero wavers; should he draw his sword, charge forward to disperse the others and kill Agamemnon, or ought he to suppress his anger? As he slowly draws his sword, Athena arrives and without elaborate explanations exhorts him to replace it in its scabbard. The story of the mênis has begun.

As Mark Edwards has pointed out, the arrival of Athena is as surprising to the reader as the end of line 194, ἣλθε δo'Αθήνη, unexpectedly replacing the epithet ἀργυρόηλον, which accompanies ξίφοs at line-end seven times in the Iliad and four in the Odyssey. As Edwards notes, “The effect in the audience must have been striking” (1980, 13).

But another surprising detail follows immediately after: Athena arrives and positions herself behind Achilles (1.197 στη̑ δoὄπιθεν). This is a unique case; in no other epiphany does a deity materialize behind a hero in quite this way.

What does this unparalleled act imply? Edwards suggests that Athena wishes to attract the hero's attention in a dramatic fashion: “the poet uses a physical action to illustrate powerful emotions” (1980, 14). True enough. But perhaps we can categorize the meaning of the act more precisely.

We observe that Athena places herself behind the hero and from this position pulls him by the hair. In this moment of overpowering astonishment for the hero the goddess is not, as the text erroneously suggests, visible to him alone (οἴῳ φαινομἐνη, 198), or at least not yet. At this point she remains invisible to the hero. To assure ourselves of this we can appeal not only to common sense, but also to the conventions of the poem itself. When a god is at work behind a hero, he is regularly invisible to that hero. I offer the two most striking examples of this epic convention. In Il. 15.694-95 Zeus reinforces Hector as he charges:

τὸν δὲ Zεὺs oσεν ὄπισθε
χειρὶ μάλα μεγάλῃ, oτρυνε δὲ λαὸν ἅμ' αὐτἳ̑.

[Zeus thrust him forward from behind with his enormous hand, and stirred up all his army along with him.]

Naturally Zeus is invisible; some commentators even take the expression as purely metaphorical and assume the god is not in fact present on the battlefield at all.6

The most disconcerting example occurs when Apollo places himself behind Patroclus to begin the latter's butchery (Il. 16.791):

στη̑ δ' ὄπιθεν, πλη̑ξεν δὲ μετάφρενον εὐρἐε τ' Ὤμω
χειρὶ καταπρηνει̑, στρεφεδίνηθεν δἐ οἱ ὄσσε.

[He halted behind him and struck him across his back, on his broad shoulders, with the flat of his hand. And Patroclus's eyes whirled.]

This στη̑ δ' ὄπιθεν is the same formula we find in the epiphany of Athena: she too touches the hero on the back (at the nape of the neck, to be precise). There is a strange similarity between the two passages, in which one can initially discern no difference of intent. Yet Apollo is a god hostile to Achilles/Patroclus, and thus acts in opposition to him, invisibly, as the text makes explicit at line 789. Athena, by contrast, is the patron of Achilles; the reader can thus feel sure that despite the disconcerting ambiguity of her action, the goddess's initial intervention will nevertheless resolve itself in favor of the hero. It is perhaps to reassure the audience at once that the text hastens to add “visible to him alone” when the goddess is not, in fact, yet visible to Achilles.

We should recall at this point that epiphanies in which a god manifests himself only after an initial moment of impersonation or disguise all communicate an attitude or intention on the god's part that is at best playful and cautionary, but often critical, hostile, mocking, or even life-threatening.7

In our passage Athena is not disguised, but merely invisible. Yet the way in which she becomes visible only after having seized the hero by the hair is nonetheless parallel to the epiphanies in which the god initially appears disguised.

The intention of the text is disconcerting, perhaps even mocking. Athena seizes Achilles by the shoulders from behind, from that anterior space in which the future, for Homeric man, is symbolically situated (Il. [Iliad] 12.34, Od. 22.55, etc.). Already the future that Achilles does not know and would prevent if he could—the future of the Iliad—looms behind him.

While the text asserts that Athena is visible only to Achilles, in reality he cannot yet see her (198): οἴῳ φαινομἐνη · τω̑ν δ' ἄλλων οὔ τιs ὁρα̑το. No commentator (so far as I know) has noticed the text's inattention on this point.8 Ought we to take this inattention on the critics' part as proof of the complicity and blindness that the text knows how to create in its readers, ever eager for reassurances? For the staging of the epiphany is acted for the reader's benefit, while the text is torn between two conflicting goals: on the one hand to tell the reader that Athena has arrived with a disconcerting message for Achilles, and on the other to reassure him that she remains the hero's patron.

Returning to the text at 199-200: θάμβησεν δ' 'Αχιλεύs, μετὰ δ' ἐτράπετo αὐτίκα δ' ἔγνω / Παλλάδ' 'Αθηναίην · δεινo δo οἱ ὄσσε φάανθεν.

We note θάμβησεν, “he was amazed,” which, as noted above, carries a stronger charge than the normal surprise of recognition. Note also μετὰ δ' ἐτράπετο, “he turned”: this expression is unique in the Homeric corpus in this sense and certainly the form ἐτράπετο would have been sufficient on its own.9 I need not stress the possibility that μετατρἐπομαι refers to the change or transformation of Achilles himself (Hes. Erga 416), as if on seeing the goddess the hero himself alters, or that it indicates Achilles' transfer of his attention to the goddess.10 We turn instead to the moment at which Achilles sees the goddess or, more accurately, recognizes her. The text describes the blazing eyes of one of the two characters: δεινo δἐ οἱ ὄσσε φάανθεν. The impossibility of determining whether the οἱ refers to Achilles or Athena is a familiar problem. With this irritating grammatical imprecision, the text solicits our curiosity, tempting critics to decide whom these blazing eyes belong to. It would indeed be worth knowing whether this terrible blaze offers us a reflection of the goddess's splendor. But we cannot know; the ambiguity is irresolvable.11

Without the certainty that it is Athena who is described with those terribly flashing eyes, the goddess's presence remains for the reader a blank presence, with no imaginable form. She remains in the sphere of the unexpressed. She is visible, quite literally, only to Achilles. If we could be certain that the eyes described in the text are Athena's, then we would have a description in the form of a synecdoche—a spark at least of the entire luminous form of the goddess.

But the most important point remains this grammatical imprecision, this clumsy negligence on the part of the text. A tiny accident cuts us off from a vision of the divine. The Iliad's enunciation of the epiphany frames it amidst indecision, between silence and synecdoche.

But what is it that Achilles sees? The Athena promakhos with spear and Gorgon-emblazoned shield, as she is described at Il. 5.733ff.?

The text allows us to imagine so, if we wish, but it seems to me that the “not-said” in our passage signifies precisely that the poets of this text knew no more than they tell us about the form in which Athena appears. It is impossible, in other words, that the reader is here being invited to imagine the figure of the goddess as she is represented, for example, in her role as promakhos.12 To begin with, the epic text allows the reader to know and see more than the characters; in our case, the text tells the reader (1.208-9) what Achilles will learn only later. The text does not invite us to imagine that the characters see and know more than we do.

Secondly, there is some evidence that ancient readers found themselves faced with the same kind of perplexity as that outlined above. They must, in other words, have asked themselves what kind of physical presence, what physical actions are implied by a “reticent” epiphany. In Hesiod Theogony 22ff. the Muses instruct and inspire Hesiod. The text is perfectly silent as to the nature of their presence; does Hesiod see them or does he only hear their voices? At line 31, however, alternative readings indicate that ancient editors were moved to ask the question:

καί μοι σκη̑πτρον ἔδον δάφνηs ἐριθηλἐοs ὄζον
                              θηητόν ·

If we read δρἐψασαι, with the papyrus and the a family of Mss., the Muses themselves cut and give the laurel branch to the poet, whereas if we read δρἐψασθαι, with the remaining Mss., the Muses enable Hesiod himself to cut the laurel branch. Both readings are old,13 and in my view the reason for their existence is that with δρἐψασαι the Muses are conceived of as being physically present, whereas with δρἐψασθαι they may be thought of as present only through their voices. In other words, the double reading results from ancient readers' uncertainty about the way in which Hesiod wished to represent the Muses.

The textual crux here is emblematic of an uncertainty rooted in the epic tradition itself and unavoidable once the tradition introduces divine intervention without actually describing its appearance. There are numerous cases in the Iliad in which we are unable to be sure whether a god appears in visible form or allows himself to be perceived only through his voice. A case much like that of the Hesiodic Muses is that of Athena at Il. 22.214ff.; here the presentation of the scene would favor the idea that the goddess manifests herself to Achilles only audibly, were it not that at 276-77 Athena retrieves the spear vainly thrown by Achilles and brings it back to Achilles without being observed by Hector.14

That the text of the Theogony reflects uncertainty about our problem even in antiquity ought to give us pause. And although at Iliad 1.195ff. the problem we face is not that of Athena's visibility but of the way in which she appears, the uncertainty embedded in the text of Hesiod suggests that on this point too the tradition may know no more than it tells us.

The hypothesis, then, is that the physical figure of Athena appears to Achilles either with eyes flashing terribly (glaukôpis), thus implying her divine splendor through synecdoche, or as a figure without a clear iconography, which nonetheless—as also in the first case—acquires attributes and precise powers through her abrupt appearance and tremendous, authoritative gesturality. To this must be added the force and recognizable sound of her divine voice.15

What matters, of course, is what the reader sees, since the epiphany does not take place in order to shock Achilles alone, but with him, the reader, who identifies himself with Achilles. Herein lies the importance of the epiphany; it presents not the imaginary and superhuman world of the invisible gods, but the divine as it manifests itself to men. The epiphany carries with it the experience of or desire for the divine which is legitimate or possible for the reader.

The disconcerting textual ambiguity in the description of Athena's self-revelation has a narrative and theological counterpart that has not, so far as I am aware, been discussed. Epic convention in such μερμερίζειν scenes can follow two paths: the dilemma in which the hero finds himself can be resolved either by the character's own decision (in this case the character can even be a god, e.g. Il. 2.2ff.) or by the sudden appearance of a god who resolves the hero's doubt. In either case the solution is positive, advantageous, and rational for the character. In the first case, the decision is in fact signaled by phrases like δοάσσατο κἐρδιον εῒναι (Il. 13.458; 16.652; Od. 6.145, etc.), or ἀρίστη φαίνετο βουλή (Il. 2.5; 14.161, etc.), or δοκἐει δἐ μοι εῒναι ἄριστον (Od. 5.360) which express the characters' conviction that they are making the most advantageous choice. In the second case, the god who unexpectedly appears to offer a solution to the dilemma is the hero's patron or patroness, and though the god's appearance and advice may sometimes be unexpected, they never threaten the hero. Rather, they work to protect his life, honor, and booty.16

In the scene we have been examining (Il. 1.188ff.) the epic conventions of μερμερίζειν passages (dilemma, divine intervention and advice) are respected, with a single exception. The goddess intervenes to save Agamemnon at the expense of Achilles' booty, honor, and—ultimately—life. Advice of this kind, in this kind of scene, is unparalleled. How can Athena say that Hera has sent her because she loves both heroes equally? For undeniably she forces Achilles to accept a loss of honor and an offense with no immediate compensation, while when the compensation that she promises is finally offered, intervening events have rendered it worthless to the hero.17 From an objective standpoint, then, Athena risks appearing to give Achilles fraudulent advice, advice that does not help the hero or salvage his timê. Such behavior is exceptional, even aberrant, for a divine patron.

Looking at the matter subjectively, we must ask whether Athena when she appears does no more than suggest the solution that the hero himself would view as advantageous and rational if he were able to resolve his dilemma with his own decision. This is the view taken by critics who, like Snell and Dodds, consider this epiphany to be an external image of Achilles' own decision. Yet in this case too the scene would be an aberration. In cases where a god intervenes to suggest a solution to a hero's dilemma, the suggestion is so obvious, or so appropriate to the situation, that the hero scarcely needs to respond. Here Achilles does respond. But his response by no means assures us that he finds Athena's suggestion rational and advantageous; he says rather that men must obey the gods, and that advantage comes of this obedience (Il. 1.218). The advantage thus resides not in the decision proposed by the goddess, but in the power of the goddess who imposes the decision. The goddess and her advice do not represent the hero's mental processes, but the authority of a decision genuinely external to the hero.

If we ask, in fact, who gains from the solution that the goddess offers to Achilles' dilemma, we will have to respond that the gain is the reader's and the reader's only. For from the goddess's solution arises the wrath of Achilles, that is, the poem itself. It is only by condemning Achilles to impotent rage that the Iliad fulfills itself as a poem; the poem as immortal monument is founded upon the future death of its hero. In the poem's own terms, Athena forces Achilles to sacrifice his timê so that he may later choose kleos; in modern terms one would say that the text reveals not the divine but the inscription of the decision Athena makes for Achilles in the metaphysics of its own textuality.

These considerations should help to put in perspective the view of Snell and Dodds that the scene is exemplary of the way in which the problem of the Homeric hero's free will is formulated. In fact the scene is clearly aberrant in both form and content. The ironic, mocking appearance of the goddess at Achilles' shoulder and her message (fraudulent on any objective view, a piece of coercion on a subjective one) together form a structure that, as a whole, is ambivalent and ironic.

The scene, then, is scarcely exemplary. Moreover, in order to weigh it as evidence of a world in which the divine and the human combine in heroic decision-making, the scene must be compared with all the other μερμερίζειν scenes, as well as the other scenes in which a hero chooses “freely,” e.g. the heroic scenes of prohairesis at Il. 18.98ff. (Achilles), Il. 22.98ff. (Hector), and Il. 12.310ff. (Sarpedon).

Achilles does of course resolve to spare Agamemnon following the advice of Athena, and it is clear that this method of making decisions “with the help of” the goddess surely appeared wholly persuasive to the poet and his public. The problem, in other words, revolves around the blindness of the reader before what I have shown to be the aberrant character of the scene. This question can only be answered in the broadest of terms: it is the text and its readers that are the main beneficiaries of Athena's advice. Hence the complicity that ties the reader to the intervention of the goddess. But if we are to respond to recent critics, we must define more precisely what they have to gain from such complicity, and from being less attentive to the discontinuities and ironies of the text.

In Snell's case, the scene responds enticingly to the Hegelian interpretation of the Greek genius that the author offers in his Discovery of the Mind. Demonstrating through this scene that Homeric man does not yet consider himself to be the “source [Urheber] of his own decisions” (1948, 31), Snell was able to sketch the movement of the Greek mind, beginning with Homer, from a minimal consciousness of subjectivity, thus satisfying not only the Hegelian view of philosophy as a development or as the history of consciousness in the making, but also, perhaps at a deeper level, the Hegelian claim that subjectivity as such was always foreign to the Greeks.18

In accord with this Hegelian attitude, Snell's interpretation suggests that there is no real rupture between the goddess's decision and Achilles' acceptance of it, because the goddess's appearance and advice are in a sense the external image of Achilles' own mental processes.19 This explanation naturally reassures the reader that the relationship between deity and hero is a familiar, rational, and comfortable one, and that the decisions that the hero makes follow naturally from that relationship. The reader's blindness to the disconcerting moments of Athena's appearance and to the aberrant aspects of her advice has the evident advantage of permitting the reader to believe in a comforting and rational Iliadic theology.

That conclusion, of course, is one to which the entire poetics of the Iliad does its best to lead us, with notably successful results. The world of the heroes and that of the gods duplicate one another. Naturally they differ in occupying the divergent levels of mortality and immortality, but in other respects they are fully parallel, without gaps or discontinuities, guaranteeing to one another the sublime virtues of beauty and nobility, attesting to each other's reality (and, I am tempted to add, historicity) and to the wondrous and perfect manner in which both exist and function. Theology, history, and story become a seamless whole.

Yet the observations made here about Homeric epiphanies generally and the analysis of Athena's epiphany at Il. 1.188ff. in particular threaten the simplicity of these conclusions. I hasten to add that I am not concerned here with formulating a novel interpretation to replace one so profoundly rooted in the text and developed to such a degree by later critics; my aim is rather to raise questions—questions of a textual, psychological, and theological nature. We will never know what Achilles would have decided if left to his own devices, nor what he would have done or demanded had he chosen to spare Agamemnon. The goddess's intervention obscures forever the decision making process that the text's μερμερίζειν sets in motion. The elements of form and content that appeared to us exceptional and disconcerting conspire to undermine any notion that this scene of decision-making is exemplary or paradigmatic. It goes through protocols that elsewhere signal a reflexive and rational relationship between god and man, and this is why it does not arouse suspicion in the reader.

Yet the epiphany is the condition that gives to the poem the specific plot it has. And this too helps to explain the complicity of the reader with the goddess, who appears essentially to ensure that the story of Achilles' wrath will be told. The text could not show us an Achilles who decides to become the hero of the Iliad, for that decision is a textual one, a condition of the composition of the text as such, and is not determined by any rationality or historicity. Hence the necessity for the text to use and simultaneously to subvert the forms and protocols that in general assure a clear and effective representation of an advantageous, rational relationship between a divine patron and a hero. By using such forms, the text attempts to maintain Achilles' decision as a natural consequence of that representation, and correspondingly to conceal the textual character of it. Yet since this is not in fact the case, this representation turns against itself, contradicts itself, subverts itself. For here we are not dealing with a trivial decision, whether to fight or to await another day, but with the wrath of Achilles. He must arrive at the paradox of withdrawing from the battle, losing his timê, and emerging vainly, after Patroclus's death, so that he can finally embrace “freely”(!) his own belle mort.20

On the theological plane one may reasonably ask whether the aspects of divine epiphanies in Homer and specifically of Athena's appearance at Il. 1.188ff. pointed out above can be explained only by attributing them to a textual strategy. Certain details in these Iliadic epiphanies, like the reticence with which the deities are represented, might lead one to attribute to Homer a sense of the divine that is far deeper and more profound than the usual claim that the poet need not tell us what the gods look like because we already know. Similarly, in the epiphany in question the tremendous surprise of the appearance of Athena, the disconcerting ways in which she makes herself present and perceptible to Achilles, when measured against the canons of other epiphanies, may suggest that the divine has forces in reserve, powers and intentions that escape the control of even the most favored mortal.

This would correspond in turn to the poets' consciousness that their own text creates effects not entirely within their control, and that the Muses, whatever power or function they represent, have a power that surpasses the control of even the most favored θεράπων.

Clearly the solution to these problems, the possibility of breaking through to a level of profundity and complexity at which the theology and its metaphysics are firmly based in the text, is not in sight. The interplay between the deeper and more superficial levels is obvious. What we can insist upon is that the text betrays its own textuality—the fact that it is always a text, a fiction, and not a cross-section of truth or reality.


  1. Several scenes will serve to show something of the power that the figures of the gods have when they act without being recognized: the footprint of Poseidon reveals his divine nature (Il. 13.71-72); Athena descends onto the plain of battle, swift and luminous in the eyes of the two armies as a shooting star (Iliad 4.73-83); the presence of Athena in the house of Odysseus reveals itself through a fiery light that pervades the entire room, etc.

  2. On this and other epiphanies in the Odyssey, see Pucci (1986, 7-28).

  3. By “epiphany” I mean the unexpected self-revelation of a god by means of shapes and signs that are recognizable and identifiable to a human being who is wide awake. I thus exclude dreams, oracles, divine manifestations such as thunder, any divine presence or companionship that is constant or potentially constant (as when Circe becomes the lover of Odysseus), and miraculous or magical visions of gods (like that which Athena makes possible for Diomedes) that are not self-revelations.

  4. φαίνεσθαι for the actual appearance of a god is very rare in Homer: Il. 1.198; Od. 16.159 (with reciprocal allusion between the two texts); Od. 24.448 (and cf. Od. 19.37-40).

    In Il. 5.864-67 the verb is used of Ares appearing to Diomedes, but, as mentioned above, this is not an epiphany, properly speaking. The verb is used with enargês to speak of epiphanies in Il. 20.131; Od. 16.161 (these two passages may also be a case of reciprocal allusion); Od. 7.201 (cf. 3.218-24 ἀναφανδόν).

    Outside Homer, cf. Hesiod fr. 165.5 (Merkelbach-West); Homeric Hymn 7.2; 33.12.

    Conversely, even without the verb φαίνεσθαι it is rare for the god to appear in visible form without disguise, e.g., Il. 24.169ff. (cf. 223-24) etc.; Od. 20.30ff., etc.

    In a number of cases it is hard to decide whether the god presents himself visibly or lets himself be recognized solely by his voice: Il. 18.165ff.; Il. 22.214ff.; 15.243ff., etc.; Od. 17.360ff., where Ameis, Hentze, and Cauer believe, without firm evidence, that the goddess is visible to Odysseus; it does appear to be the case that epiphanies by means of voice alone do not appear in the Odyssey, whereas they are frequent in the Iliad.

    Finally, the god may reveal himself visibly or audibly only after divesting himself of a disguise: Il. 3.380ff.; Il. 22.7-20; 17.333-34, etc.; Od. 13.221ff. etc.; Homeric Hymn 7.2, Hymn to Demeter 275ff., Hymn to Aphrodite 81ff. and 170ff.

  5. I ought at this point to draw attention to the similarities with the epiphany of Athena, in the second book, to Odysseus (2.165ff.) In this case too it is Hera who sends Athena; the ancient commentators were already dubious about Athena's vicarious role here and about the repetition, cf. von der Mühll 1952, 40.

    The difference to which I draw the reader's attention is that at Il. 2.165ff. Athena reveals herself to Odysseus and makes herself recognizable to the hero immediately, without any preliminary disguise, but she does so only “by means of her voice” (Il. 2.183).

  6. Ares at Il. 5.595 “comes and goes, now before Hector and now behind him” invisibly.

  7. For this reason I divide textual epiphanies into two overarching categories, those in which the god reveals himself from the start as he actually appears or by means of his own voice, and those in which the god reveals himself only after casting aside an initial disguise.

    The problematical aspects of this type of epiphany derive from the strategy of the mise-en-scène. The god who presents himself in disguise declares a double proposition, a deception, a piece of cunning. Even in dreams, Artemidorus (Onirocritus. 2.40; 4.72) informs us, a god who appears with an erroneous iconography will not tell the truth.

    Given the clarity of the Homeric examples (Il. 22.7-20; 3.398ff., etc.), there is no need to underline at what critical moments such epiphanies take place, nor to cite still more explicit examples in which the god wishes to be recognized as such, e.g., Dionysus in Homeric Hymn 7, Euripides Bacchae etc.

  8. When I presented an earlier version of this chapter at the Centre de Recherches Comparées sur les Sociétés Anciennes in Paris, Professor H. Wisman informed me that Karl Reinhardt had brought up this problem in an unpublished seminar presentation and argued that φαινομἐνη must be taken in the broad sense of “perceptible.” But this is unsatisfactory; the remainder of the line (τω̑ν δ' ἄλλων οὔ τιs ὁρα̑το) clearly indicates that φαινομἐνη must mean “visible.”

  9. Chantraine (1963, 116) explains the meta as “aboutissement de l'action.”

  10. Il. 1.160; Il. 12.238; Il. 9.630.

  11. Most recently Nicole Loraux (1983, 99ff.) has collected the evidence and arguments, among them the recurrent epithets γλαυκω̑πιs or ὀξυδερκήs, to argue that the eyes are Athena's. But however forceful, these arguments cannot explain away Il. 19.16-17 where the eyes of Achilles are described as blazing at the sight of arms in terms reminiscent of our passage: ἐν δἐ οἱ ὄσσε/ δεινὸν ὑπὸ βλεφάρων ὡs εἰ σἐλαs ἐξεφάανθεν. One can certainly maintain that these two lines (19.16-17) contain nontraditional elements, such as the expression ὑπὸ βλεφάρων, normally used only with ὕπνοs or δάκρυα, and here totally out of context. These lines are perhaps modeled on Il. 15.607-8 where Hector's eyes flash ὑπ' ὀφρύσιν rather than under the eyelids, as here. But even if we admit that these elements point to a late date for this passage, it would still be a possible evidence that the expression at Il. 1.200 was understood in antiquity as applying to Achilles.

  12. As described at Il. 5.733ff. and Od. 22.297.

  13. According to the most recent editor of the Theogony, West (1966, 165). Though the majority of modern critics and editors read δρἐψασθαι, West prefers δρἐψασαι, arguing from the rarity of the construction ἔδον … δρἐψασθαι.

  14. λάθε δ' ‘′Εκτορα, ποιμἐνα λαω̑ν. This would seem to favor the idea that she is seen by Achilles. Moreover, the return of the lance would be less fantastic if it remained visible at least to Achilles.

    But the visible presence of the goddess here causes difficulties on other grounds: (1) the image of the goddess running shoulder to shoulder with Achilles as she reveals her plan to him (22.215-23) would be ridiculous, and (2) it would be disturbing to have to imagine her visible as Athena at 214ff., and then visible as Deiphobus at 226ff. The best solution is perhaps to imagine that as Deiphobus she is visible only to Hector. She would thus be thought of as visible only in disguise, not in her true form.

  15. The voice of the gods has a special quality: Odysseus and Diomedes recognize Athena by ear alone (Il. 2.182; 10.512).

  16. A typical example is the scene at Il. 10.503ff., where Diomedes is torn between continuing his plundering and killing more Thracians. At this point Athena appears and advises him to return, thus ensuring the safety of his booty and life.

  17. As J. Redfield (1975, 103) correctly states: “To attempt a reconciliation is in effect to choose Agamemnon, for a reconciliation would leave the king in place, unpunished for his unfairness to the greatest of the princes.”

  18. On this point cf. Heidegger 1976, 427ff.

  19. Or to put it in Snell's terms, all that is said or done by men, even under the impact of divine intervention, is entirely natural and human.

    This same thesis is substantially that of Dodds: the epiphany of Athena is the outward and visible representation of an “inward divine monition” which Achilles feels within himself, and to which he attributes his decision—an unexpected decision, certainly, but nonetheless his own.

    The claim is still more explicit in the recent work of W. Thomas McCary (1982, 7ff.), who eloquently restates the position of Hegel and Snell. Athena appears as an external image of Achilles' own mental processes. As an image she indicates those processes just as the images of dreams do; as a symbol of the hero's decision she represents (as Snell also held) the hero's wisdom and rationality.

  20. On the theme of the belle mort, cf. J. P. Vernant (1979, 1367-74); “La belle mort et le cadavre outragé,” in G. Gnoli and J. P. Vernant, La mort, les morts dans les sociétés anciennes, (Cambridge and Paris, 1982), 45-76; N. Loraux, “Mourir devant Troie,” in the same collection, 27-43; P. Vidal Naquet, Préface to Hélène Monsacré, Les Larmes d'Achille (Paris, 1984) 23; Monsacré, op. cit., 51ff.

Reference List

Ameis, Karl F., Carl Hentze, and Paul Cauer. 1920. Homers 'Odyssee.'”

Chantraine, Pierre. 1963. La grammaire Homerique. Vol. 2, Syntaxe. Paris: Klincksieck.

Gnoli, G., and J.-P. Vernant. 1982. La Mort, les morts dans les societes anciennes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Paris: Maison des Sciences de l'Homme.

Heidegger, Martin. 1976. “Hegel und die Griechen.” Wegmarken: Gesamtausgabe Band 9. Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann.

Loraux, Nicole. 1983. L'Ecrits du Temps 2.

MacCary, Thomas W. 1982. Childlike Achilles. Ontogeny and Philogeny in the “Iliad.” New York: Columbia University Press

Pucci, Pietro. 1986. “Les ‘figures’ de la metis dans l'OdysséeMetis 1.7-28.

Redfield, James. 1975. Nature and Culture in the “Iliad.” Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Vernant, J.-P. 1979. “Panta Kala d'Homère à Simonide.” Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, 3d. ser. 3, 9.

Vidal-Naquet, P. 1984. Preface to Hélène Monascré's Les Larmes d'Achille. Paris: Albin Michel.

von der Mühll, Peter. 1952. Kritisches Hypomnema zur “Ilias.” Basel: Reinhardt.

West, L. M. 1966. Hesiod. Theogony. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Further Reading

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Baldick, Julian. “The Iliad.” In Homer and the Indo-Europeans: Comparing Mythologies, pp. 46-98. London: I. B. Tauris Publishers, 1994.

Traces extensive narrative and thematic resemblances between the Iliad and a selection of Indo-European mythological texts, especially the Sanskrit epic the Ramayana.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Homer's The Iliad, New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987, 160 p.

Collection of nine essays by various contributors on such subjects as Homeric fantasy, characterization, and style.

Clark, Matthew. “Chryses's Supplication: Speech Act and Mythological Allusion.” Classical Antiquity 17, no. 1 (April 1998): 5-32.

Elucidates the opening scene of the Iliad involving Chryses and his request that the Greeks release his daughter, drawing parallels with Priam's supplication to Achilles at the close of the epic.

Davies, Malcolm. “Agamemnon's Apology and the Unity of the Iliad.Classical Quarterly 45, no. 1 (January-June 1995): 1-8.

Studies Agamemnon's speech in the Iliad (at 19.95ff), noting a range of stylistic traits that point toward the tragic unity of the epic and its theme of human suffering.

Due, Casey. “Achilles's Golden Amphora in Aeschines's against Timarchus: Afterlife of Oral Tradition.” Classical Philology 96, no. 1 (January 2001): 33-47.

Comments on the fluidity of the Iliad's textual tradition and on the possibilities of creating a “multitext” of the poem.

Friedman, Rachel. “Divine Dissension and the Narrative of the Iliad.Helios 28, no. 2 (fall 2001): 99-119.

Highlights the polyphonic narrative quality of the Iliad by focusing on its central portion, Books 13 to 15, and explores the analogous and sometimes conflicting roles of Zeus and the poem's author.

Hopkins, Lisa. “The Iliad and the Henriad: Epics and Brothers.” Classical and Modern Literature 19, no. 2 (winter 1999): 149-71.

Considers the near-epic mode of Shakespeare's Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V, based on the relationship of these dramas to the Iliad.

Lynn-George, M. “Structures of Care in the Iliad.Classical Quarterly 46, no. 1 (January-June 1996): 1-26.

Probes the cultural dynamics of care and kindness expressed in the world of the Iliad, especially in various similes Homer juxtaposed to the cruelty and violence of epic warfare.

MacCary, W. Thomas. Childlike Achilles: Ontology and Phylogeny in the Iliad. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982, 276 p.

Applies Freudian and Hegelian ontological principles to produce a largely psychoanalytical understanding of Achilles and his struggle toward self-conception in the Iliad.

Olson, S. Douglas. “Equivalent Speech-Introduction Formulae in the Iliad.Mnemosyne 47, no. 2 (April 1994): 145-51.

Questions the critical contention that Homer employed a pattern in his use of introductory formulae and epithets in the Iliad, arguing that the poet's choices appear to be random.

Papaioannou, Sophia. “Vergilian Diomedes Revisited: The Reevaluation of the Iliad.Mnemosyne 53, no. 2 (April 2000): 193-217.

Underscores the parallelism between Diomedes and Aeneas in the Homeric and post-Homeric traditions before examining Vergil's depiction of Diomedes in the Aeneid.

Saunders, K. B. “The Wounds in Iliad 13-16.” Classical Quarterly 49, no. 2 (July-December 1999): 345-63.

Analyzes fourteen anatomically inexplicable or potentially “miraculous” wounds described in the Iliad.

Silk, M. S. “The Poem.” In Homer: The Iliad, pp. 32–105. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Examines stylization and immediacy in the poem, as well as Homer's thematic contrasting of glory and suffering in war.

Staten, Henry. “The Circulation of Bodies in the Iliad.New Literary History 24, no. 2 (spring 1993): 339-61.

Focuses on the socio-sexual interaction of glory, grief, and mourning as depicted in the Iliad.

Toohey, Peter. “Homer, Iliad.” In Reading Epic: An Introduction to the Ancient Narratives, pp. 2043. London: Routledge, 1992.

Surveys the background, structure, principal themes, and major characters of the Iliad.

Van Duzer, Chet A. “Three Missions in the Iliad.” In Duality and Structure in the Iliad and Odyssey, pp. 93-142. New York: Peter Lang, 1996.

Documents parallelism and structural duality in the night mission of Odysseus and Diomedes (Iliad Book 10), Hera's seduction of Zeus (Book 14), and Priam's attempt to recover the corpse of Hector (Book 24).

Zellner, H. M. “Skepticism in Homer?” Classical Quarterly 44, no. 2 (July-December 1994): 308-15.

Suggests that a critical tradition of attributing Lockean skepticism to Homer, particularly in regard to his Muse Prayer in Book 2 of the Iliad, is unwarranted.

Additional coverage of Homer's life and works is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism, Vol. 1, 16; Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, Vol. 1; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 176; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-Studied Authors and Poets; Epics for Students, Vol. 1; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 23; Reference Guide to World Literature, Ed. 2; World Literature Criticism Supplement, Ed. 1.

Ronald Knox and Joseph Russo (essay date October 1989)

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SOURCE: Knox, Ronald, and Joseph Russo. “Agamemnon's Test: Iliad 2.73-75.” Classical Antiquity 8, no. 2 (October 1989): 351-58.

[In the following essay, Knox and Russo argue for the cogency of Agamemnon's deception of his own troops in Book 2 of the Iliad, despite its unintended failure.]

πϱω̑τα δ' ἐγoν ἔπεσιν πειϱήσομαι, ἣ θὔἐμιs ἐστί,
aαὶ φεύγειν σὺν νηυσὶ πολυaλήϊσι aελεύσω.
ὑμει̑s δ' ἄλλοθεν ἄλλοs ἐϱητύειν ἐπἐεσσιν.

(Iliad, 2.73-75)

In his recent commentary G. S. Kirk writes a long note to try to make sense of Agamemnon's announcement, quoted above, that he will “first test [the troops] with words” before initiating the battle in which he expects to capture Troy that day (ἤματι aείνo, 37).1 Agamemnon has received a dream from Zeus the night before (Διὸs δἐ τοι ἄγγελόs εἰμι, 26 = 63) telling him to arm the men and begin the attack, for now finally all Olympus is united on his side (11-13 = 28-30 = 65-67). In the morning he holds a closed meeting of his general staff, to whom he reports verbatim the message of the dream and then adds lines 73-75, the statement about first applying a test.

This passage has never been satisfactorily explained, and Professor Kirk calls the proposed test “quite unexpected.”2 Yet we hear Nestor, speaking in reply to Agamemnon, express considerable astonishment at the message of the dream (80-81), but none whatsoever at the further proposal of testing the men first—about which, as Kirk observes, the dream itself had said nothing. The possibility Kirk holds out, that Agamemnon's test may be understood in connection with Odysseus's famous and seemingly gratuitous testing of his father on returning to Ithaca (Od. 24.239ff.), is of no use. This latter episode is, of course, a peculiar and intimate expression of Odysseus's character, whereas Agamemnon's testing is, as he indicates, a matter here of fixed public rule—which is presumably why the proposal causes no surprise to Nestor or the other high counselors.

Agamemnon's testing is not quite as absurd as Kirk supposes. Agamemnon does not, in the hour before what he understands will be the decisive, victorious battle of the war, simply “order” (Kirk's word) his army to sail home. He “urges” or “bids” (aελεύσω, 74) the men to go, bidding them be “persuaded” that they cannot win (πειθώμεθα πάντεs, 139), and that they should give up and take the coward's way out (φεύγωμεν, 140). If Agamemnon's maneuver appears inexplicable, it is because Homer, assuming we already understand, does not trouble to underscore the setting of this test or make explicit the themis on which it is based.

Readers of the Bible will sense what institution and setting have come into play here: it is the dismissal of cowards from the assembled ranks of the army immediately prior to engagement in Holy War. We see the rule at work in the famous story of Gideon in the Book of Judges, chapter 7, and it is given legislative form in Deuteronomy 20:8.3 Classicists will doubtless be reluctant to apply the notion of “Holy War” to the well-greaved Achaeans, but the Holy Wars of ancient Israel are not to be anachronistically confused with medieval crusades or the Thirty Years' War: they did not necessarily entail war against the religion of the enemy.4 The definition of Holy War did not require infidels. It required simply that the summons to war—and thus the assurance of victory—come from God Himself. This is precisely what has occurred in Agamemnon's dream.

It is Agamemnon's dream that creates the new circumstance for the battle he is now ordered to initiate, different from the previous nine years of intermittent engagement. At this moment it becomes Holy War, and a fundamental rule of Holy War imposes itself: the dismissal in shame of any cowards, of any who have no heart for the battle or no faith in the god commanding it.5 Agamemnon's decision to test the men first is not the impulse of erratic generalissimo, but compulsory themis.6

At the end of a subtle examination of the story in Judges of Gideon's test of his forces before battle with the Midianites, Professor David Daube notes, “We must remember that oracles often fell in with the plans of him in charge.”7 What we have in Homer in the passage under notice is the clear-sighted observation of how Agamemnon seeks to make his way around the rule that, being commanded by Zeus to attack in reliance on the united support of Olympus, he must first dismiss any cowards, any unwilling warriors, from the ranks of his army. The event is comic; Agamemnon is made a fool of, and the poet allows us to see far more of the human chicanery that can go on in the application of the high rules of war and religion than Judges or Deuteronomy would grant us. The scene reaches its climax in what can almost be called cartoon comedy, with Agamemnon left presiding before a cloud of suspended dust as the men have all instantly rushed off to the boats to go home; and the “cry that reaches heaven” is in this case not a blood-curdling war cry against Troy, but the joy of the Achaeans under the impression that they are being allowed to call the whole thing off (149-54).

Uplifted as he is by the message from Zeus, Agamemnon is nonetheless loath to risk losing a single man in the required dismissal of cowards. In the closed session with his chief counselors Agamemnon had reported the divine message, announced that he would apply the consequent test in the form of a public speech, and then ordered that they, his captains in the know, should position themselves in the assembly to make sure no one actually left (75). Agamemnon is the commander of an invasionary force that for nine years has been virtually confined to its initial beachhead. He will now go into battle without Achilles, and he means not to lose another man. His sense of weakness insufficiently relieved by religion, he hatches an unmitigated deception.

We know from having heard the dream message three times that Agamemnon's grand address is a brazen lie from top to bottom. He formally gives out to the men as their commander's considered assessment of Zeus' will in this war precisely the opposite of what the dream messenger had said (114-15). It is a classic case of manipulation, for he is really trying to stir the men to do the opposite of what he is ostensibly proposing. He underscores with all due clarity consistent with the fraud that he himself approves of this step, that in going home now he and they will be disgraced in the eyes of their women, children, and future generations (119-22). The height of Agamemnon's eloquence is attained in the elaborate, imaginative, circumstantial way he conveys to the troops that, as far as the Trojans proper are concerned, exclusive of allies, the Achaeans outnumber them ten to one (123-30). In fact, alluding to the original omens at the departure of the expedition, Agamemnon's claim that it is evident now that what Zeus had then promised and “nodded assent to” (aατἐνευσεν, 112) was only a “cheat” (ἀπάτην, 114) is patently meant to be so offensive, so flagrantly contradictory to religious axiom8 as to provoke indignation and protest. With his culminating exhortation, πειθώμεθα πάντεs (139), “let us all be persuaded” to decamp and go home, Agamemnon is directly soliciting a response from the men—namely, outraged rejection of his invitation to shame. (Perhaps his captains sprinkled in the assembly were to have been of better help here, but things moved too quickly.)

Agamemnon's scheme is to turn the required dismissal of cowards into the proposition that the entire army take dismissal in this way. He could, of course, have proudly broadcast to all the men the great summons and promise from Zeus he actually received, and then parenthetically have bid anyone craven enough among them to slink off in shame even in the eyes of children and grandchildren: such soldiers are not needed when all Olympus is on our side! Doing so, however, Agamemnon would be tipping off the men that at this point by religious law they do in fact individually have the choice whether to leave or to stay.9 In proposing instead, “let us all slink off in disgrace, we can never prevail against the Trojans, Zeus has abandoned us,” he is sticking to the letter of the law, inviting cowards to leave; but by withholding from the men the premise of the offer of dismissal (Zeus's command to battle and assurance of victory) he expects he is withholding the possibility of the offer's being accepted. Not only can the men not recognize application here of the themis in question, but the arguments Agamemnon presents make it only sensible for the whole army to give up the fight. He does this with the calculation that, since it is inconceivable, of course, that the entire army should admit failure and accept disgrace, therefore every man in the army—the dismissal of cowards having been offered and rebuffed en masse—will be consequently bound to persevere. It is a magnificent instance of twisting the law without breaking it. To evade the legal consequence of the principle that gods do not want or need unwilling warriors in their armies, Agamemnon has translated the promise of victory he received from Olympus into the public announcement “Zeus has forsaken us.”

The climax of the episode is the men's response to Agamemnon's grand deception. Naturally, therefore, Homer delays revealing just what that response is for seven lines, during which we are given similes of the winds rippling the sea or a field of ripe corn to describe the army's taking in what Agamemnon has propounded (142-49). These similies might signify as well the intake of breath for the resounding “No” Agamemnon is counting on. But then Homer does indicate that the mass assembly has heard just what it wanted to hear, and Agamemnon's machination backfires in a cloud of dust.

Forty lines later, as the work of putting the war back on track is just getting under way, Odysseus is collaring soldiers left and right.10 We may laugh again as he must stiffly explain to one departing officer who he knows is no coward, “You have not yet clearly perceived the mind of the son of Atreus” (192). The lord of men will be angry that the sons of the Achaeans have taken him at his word. The debacle is only resolved three hundred lines after the dust cloud by means of the more magical dashing around of Athene, who pours into each Achaean warrior's heart (ἑaάστo … aαϱδίη, 451) the inspiration that it is sweeter to fight the war than to sail back to his own fatherland. Agamemnon's manipulation to make the divine message fall in with his own interest has led to the perfect disintegration of the broad army of the Achaeans. (The mordant backtalk of Thersites exemplifies the disintegration.) It must be reconstituted piecemeal, man by man. The Catalogue of Ships is a fitting coda to this work of repair, so that at the beginning of Book 3 things are back to the state they were in before Zeus sent Agamemnon the dream.

Agamemnon's test, then, is the complicating incident of a rich and long delaying episode in the tale of the war, and we carry away from it impressions that should color what is to come. Zeus had calculated how to fulfill his thunderous, firm promise to Thetis (1.505ff.) and sent false assurances and a direct order to Agamemnon to attack the Trojans: Agamemnon, calculating for his part how even better to assure the success of the attack, then delivered his address to the troops with the consequence that the calculations of both failed. Indeed, when battle finally is joined—not, in fact, until the end of Book 1—it is, of course, not at all at the signal of Agamemnon at the command of Zeus, but at the “thoughtless” (ἄφϱονι, 4.104) and misguided (4.129-30) bowshot of the Trojan archer Pandarus. Although Homer reminds us even as Agamemnon's army is dissolving that this war is fated to be fought to its well-known conclusion (2.155-56), he has had us observe, by way of introduction before we see fighting, that the war nevertheless escapes the control and calculation of even the most supreme commanders.

But quite apart from the early light this episode sheds on the story as a whole, and quite apart from the larger issues that the episode introduces—the extent, for instance, to which Agamemnon is being inadvertently truthful in deviously proposing that Zeus is a cheat, or the irony of the chief god's deception failing because of the chief king's lack of faith—what we have on the simplest level is an extended political exposé. Consider the splendid formality of the convocation (96-98), and the magnificent scepter that commands the attention of the audience for ten lines (100-109). Then consider the enormity of solemn deceit, on the highest authority and in the name of religion, that the poet lays bare for us in this primordial public assembly.

To conclude: it is our contention that the themis in line 73 refers to a rule very similar to Dt. 20:8, because this hypothesis makes clear sense of the episode in all detail. The existence of such a rule in both Homer and the Bible may be explained perhaps by the impingement of a common third cultural force (see n. 3) or by the inherent theological and anthropological cogency of the rule in question. (Gods tend to require willing subjection from their protégés: an impasse in warfare—which might occasion a god to step in and take command—may well require the tradeoff of sheer numbers of soldiers for the heightened courage or fanaticism of a self-selecting élite.) As we could expect, the treatment of the rule is radically different in the Bible and in Homer. Nevertheless, the hypothesis that it is essentially the same rule makes clear and direct sense of the entire episode of Agamemnon's Test in all detail. We therefore reject the standard explanation toward which Professor Kirk inclines in a further note,11 that the test follows the dream only because of the awkward, illogical conflation of variant versions available in the epic tradition.12


  1. A Commentary to Homer's Iliad, I-IV (Cambridge, 1985) 122-23.

  2. Ibid. M. M. Willcock (A Companion to the Iliad [Chicago, 1976] 18) says, “There is some confusion here.” Cf. further Cedric Whitman: “The troops do not know what [Agamemnon] is up to—and neither do most of the commentators” (The Heroic Paradox, ed. C. Segal [Ithaca, N.Y., 1982] 73). J. T. Sheppard (The Pattern of the Iliad [London, 1922] 26) saw Agamemnon's conduct as the “sign of a disturbed mind. … He is in the grip of Ate.” Richmond Lattimore thinks he has “believed his own falsehoods” (The Iliad of Homer [Chicago, 1959] 49). Other critics have appreciated the irony inherent in the fact that Agamemnon's test turns into a testing of his own leadership (e.g., C. R. Beye, The Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Epic Tradition [Garden City, N.Y., 1966] 123), but find his maneuver “totally implausible, awkwardly worked in” (ibid.; cf. J. C. Hogan, A Guide to the Iliad [Garden City, N.Y., 1979] 92): “Why Agamemnon adds this proposal is hard to say”). E. T. Owen (The Story of the Iliad [Ann Arbor, 1966] 21) looks for a motive grounded in narrative impact on the audience: Homer “wishes to surprise his audience, to give them something to wonder at, and want to hear the outcome of.” The most sophisticated explanation in terms of Homeric narrative strategy is that of Cedric Whitman, Homer and the Heroic Tradition (Cambridge, Mass., 1958) 58 with n. 13: Agamemnon states “the opposite of what he hopes and believes to be true, to see if the gods will intervene,” a kind of divination by opposites, of which Whitman claims Odyssey 15.521 to be the closest example (Telemachus calls Eurymachus the man most likely to succeed his father as king in order to solicit the omen that follows and points to the contrary). Whitman is right to say that Agamemnon means the opposite of what he proposes in the speech to his men. But there is no further omen for the king to solicit, since he has just been sent a complete and clear verbal message from Zeus (as we have thrice heard: 11-13 = 28-30 = 65-67). Telemachus, who has heard nothing and feels forsaken and forgotten, is making a sad last appeal. In short, the theological situation (not to mention the religious disposition) of Agamemnon is diametrically opposite that of Telemachus. Agamemnon's test is directed at the men, not at heaven. He characterizes the test as θἐμιs, and this is what has to be explained. Cf. W. Donlan, “Homer's Agamemnon,” CW [Classical World] 65 (1971) 111-12; and Eric Vogelin, Order and History II, The World of the Polis (Baton Rouge, La., 1957) 80-81.

  3. In Deuteronomy and Homer the test and dismissal of cowards is administered by way of public address. In Judges 7 we have as well the arcane command to bring the men down to the river to see how they drink: vide David Daube, “Gideon's Few,” Journal of Jewish Studies (1956) 155-61. The fundamental book on Holy War in the Bible is Gerhard von Rad. Der heilige Krieg im alten Israel (Zurich, 1951). F. Schwally, Semitische Kriegsaltertümer I (Leipzig, 1901) 96-98, is an early attempt to point to the anthropological setting. Manfred Weippert. “‘Heiliger Krieg’ in Israel und Assyrien: Kritische Anmerkungen zu Gerhard von Rads Konzept. …” Zeitschrift für Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft (1972) 460-93) is in search of extra-Biblical parallels, and though he cites nothing specific to Dt. 20:8 and no Homeric verse, his sweeping conclusion (p. 485) may be heard: “wer also von ‘Jahwekrieg’ spricht, muss ebenso von Assurkrieg oder Istarkrieg reden, und man braucht nur an die homerischen Epen oder römische Kriegspraktiken zu denken, um noch weitere Termini dieser Art hinzubilden zu können. In Wirklichkeit reden wir hier von gemeinorientalischer, ja gemeinantiker Kriegspraxis und -ideologie.” Unfortunately, there is no discussion of Hittite material in this connection. We must hope for scholars of Hittite languages and sources to look for instances where a great god summons soldiers to victory. Fritz Stolz (Jahwes und Israels Kriege, Abhandlungen zur Theologie des Alten und Neuen Testaments 60 [Zurich, 1972] 27. cf. 119) is undecided whether to regard the rule in Dt. 20:8 as a literary invention of Deuteronomy or a reformation of more ancient traditional practice. The first view is unambiguously held by Alexander Rofé. “The Laws of War in Deuteronomy: Their Origin, Intention and Positivity.” Zion 39 (1974) 143-56 (in Hebrew with English summary). Rad's caveat (op. cit. 72) applies here: “Indessen ist zu fragen, ob etwas, das literarisch sekundär ist, auch in der Geschichte eine zweitrangige oder problematische Existenz haben muss. Sind doch schon die literarkritischen Urteile von den Formgeschichtlichen zu trennen, denn selbst hinter späten und ausgesprochen theoretisierenden Texten sind wirklich geübte kultische Bräuche zum Vorschein gekommen.” Indeed, the question of what is ideal construct and what is actual practice is just as tricky when put to “the Trojan War.”

  4. Rad (supra n. 3) 32.

  5. Ibid. 47: “Am alten heiligen Krieg konnten nur Gläubige teilnehmen. Mit ihren Glauben trugen sie von Anfang bis zum Ende das Geschehen.” David Daube (“The Culture of Deuteronomy,” Orita 3 [Ibadan, 1969] 29) alerts us to the rule's efficacy as an appeal to the sense of shame. The permission for cowards to be dismissed is preceded by the divine assurance of victory (Dt. 20:8 is preceded by the assurance of Dt. 20:3-4). “After this, it is surely evident that disgrace awaits whoever slips away from faintheartedness and fear. Conversely, glory will be in store for those who, though offered the opportunity of opting out, do stay to fight: acceptance, favour, honour are the great rewards in a shame culture.” As we shall see, Agamemnon's speech to the men is an extremely subtle (in the event, oversubtle) attempt to exploit the “shame-cultural” nature of the rule against its theological premise of full confidence in the divinity.

  6. The same themis is probably alluded to again in the grand digression by which Nestor insinuates his fateful proposal to Patroclus in Book 11. Reminiscing on his part long ago in the wars between the Epeians and his own Pylians, he tells how the enemy was massing against the frontier town of Thryoessa, but Athens herself came to summon up a Pylian army to the rescue (11.714-17):

    ἄμμι δ' 'Αθήνη
    ἄγγελοs ἣλθε θἐουσ' ἀπ' 'Ολύμπου θωϱήσσεσθαι
    ἔννυχοs, οὐδ' ἀἐ aοντα Πύλον aάτα λαὸν ἄγειϱεν,
    ἀλλὰ μάλ' ἐσσυμἐνουs πολεμίζειν.

    Athena acts as a “nocturnal messenger” of her own and Zeus's summons; we are presumably to understand that she came to Neleus in a dream, like the dream sent to Agamemnon. Nothing is said of a test, but the emphasis over the two lines that Athena's summons “gathered from across Pylos” what is “not an unwilling army, but men eager to fight,” certainly leaves ample room for the exclusion or dismissal of the unwilling.

  7. “Gideon's Few” (supra n. 3) 160.

  8. Cf. Zeus's words at 1.526-27:

    οὐ γὰϱ ἐμὸν παλινάγϱετον οὐδ' ἀπατηλὸν
    οὐδ' ἀτελεύτητον, ὅ τί aεν aεϕαλ[η] aατανεύσω.
  9. The men's confidence in the deity summoning them to battle is inextricable from their confidence in the veracity of the leader reporting the deity's will, and in this regard it was noticeable (79) that not even Agamemnon's best supporter, Nestor, believed easily in his dream.

  10. A preliminary reader for this journal points to Odysseus's ringing aphorism: οὐa ἀγαθὸν πολυaοιϱανίη· εἱs aοίϱανοs ἔστω (204), and the light hand with which Homer indicates that it is in fact only Odysseus (on behalf of Agamemnon, to be sure) who is the one exercising command in his effort to roll back the anarchy caused by the one high commander's grand address: os ὅ γε aοιϱανἐων δίεπε στϱατόν (207). Odysseus's aphorism had an important subsequent history. Placed on the crest of an impassioned summation against dualism in Book 12 of Aristotle's Metaphysics, it further became an elegant feature of Jewish and Christian vindications of monotheism (Erik Peterson, “Der Monotheismus als Politisches Problem,” Theologische Traktate [Munich, 1950] 49, 65. We thank Prof. Gerard Casparty for the reference and discussion). This subsequent history of the line reinforces the likelihood of its having had a considerable prehistory, for it is precisely as an aphorism or proverb that it has its effect in Homer's tale. The desirability of one ruler rather than many is clearly not a perception to which Odysseus has just attained at this moment while actually observing Agamemnon at work. It is a preexisting argument he seizes upon in the crisis, and only therefore can it have its amusing, ironic, secondary effect. David Daube has noted that a very similar adage is voiced in Judges 9:2 at the end of the saga of Gideon, in which we first observed dismissal of cowards (Sons and Strangers [Boston, 1984) 5). In his polygamous time Gideon has had seventy sons, who now inherit his tremendous authority and esteem. He has also left one illegitimate son, Abimelek, by a Canaanite concubine. Abimelek persuades the Shechemites (Canaanites) to join in a massacre of the seventy and make him king: mah tov lakem hamashol bakem shiv ‘im 'ish kol bene Yerubaal 'im meshol bakem 'ish 'ehad (“What good for you is the rule of seventy men, all the sons of [Gideon] over you, if ruling by one man over you [is available]?”). The nearness of this line to Iliad 2.204, not only in content but in phrasing, is astonishing. Odysseus has in fact supplied the proverbial answer to Abimelek's rhetorical question: “What good [mah tov]?” “No good [οὐa ἀγαθόν]!”

  11. Commentary (supra n. 1) 124-25, note to line 86.

  12. See Walter Leaf, ed., The Iliad I (London, 1900) 46-47; and E. R. Dodds, “Homer,” in Fifty Years of Classical Scholarship, ed. M. Platnauer (Oxford, 1954), 16.

Bernard Knox (essay date spring 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8094

SOURCE: Knox, Bernard. “Achilles.” Grand Street 9, no. 3 (spring 1990): 129-50.

[In the following essay, Knox studies the thematic course of the Iliad embodied by Achilles, observing that the hero traces a path from “godlike self-absorption” driven by honor and rage to his recognition of pity and the values of human community.]

There are in the Iliad two human beings who are godlike, Achilles and Helen. One of them has already come to a bitter recognition of human stature and moral responsibility when the poem begins. Helen, the cause of the war, is so preeminent in her sphere, so far beyond competition in her beauty, her power to enchant men, that she is a sort of human Aphrodite. In her own element, she is irresistible. Every king in Greece was ready to fight for her hand in marriage, but she chose Menelaus, King of Sparta. When Paris, the Prince of Troy, came to visit, she ran off with him, leaving husband and daughter, without a thought of the consequences for others. Her willful action is the cause of all the deaths at Troy, those past and those to come. When she left with Paris she acted like a god, with no thought of anything but the fullfillment of her own desire, the exercise of her own power, the demands of her own nature.

But when the Iliad opens, she has already come to realize the meaning for others of her actions, to recognize that she is a human being. She criticizes herself harshly as she speaks to Priam:

if only death had pleased me then, grim death,
that day I followed your son to Troy, forsaking
my marriage-bed, my kinsmen and my child …(1)

She feels responsible for the human misery she sees all around her; something the gods never do. When Zeus and Hera, for example, settle their quarrel about the fate of Troy, Zeus gives way to Hera but claims her acquiescence whenever he in his turn wishes to destroy a city. Not only does she accept, she actually offers him three cities, those she loves best: Argos, Sparta and Mycenae. That is how the fate of nations is decided. Human suffering counts for nothing in the settlement of divine differences. The gods feel no responsibility for the human victims of their private wars. But Helen has come at last to a full realization of the suffering she has caused; too late to undo it, but at least she can see herself in the context of humankind and shudder at her own responsibility. “My dear brother,” she says to Hector,

dear to me, bitch that I am—vicious, scheming
a horror to freeze the heart! Oh how I wish
that first day my mother brought me into the light
some black whirlwind had rushed me out to the mountains
or into the surf where the roaring breakers crash and drag,
where the waves had swept me off before all this had happened!

This realization of her responsibility explains why she had resisted the goddess Aphrodite, who urged her to go to bed with Paris; in that scene she fell below the level of divine indifference—as from the human point of view she rose above it. She had ceased to be a mere existence, an unchanging blind self. She has become human and can feel the sorrow, the regret that no human being escapes.

At the beginning of the Iliad, Helen has already broken out of the prison of self-absorption, but this is the point at which Achilles enters it. The Iliad shows us the origin, course and consequences of his wrath, his imprisonment in a godlike, lonely, heroic fury from which all the rest of the world is excluded, and also his return to human stature. The road to this final release is long and grim, strewn with the corpses of many a Greek and Trojan, and it leads finally to his own death.


There are, of course, objections that may be made to such a view of Achilles as a tragic hero, a fully created character whose motives and actions form an intelligible unity. Prominent among them are the contradictions and inconsistencies in Achilles' reactions to events that many critics claim to detect in the text of the poem. These are telltale signs, according to one school, of oral improvisation under the pressure of performance, the result, according to another, of later editorial activity. It may be, however, that the critics have underestimated the elegance and sophistication of Homer's narrative technique (a constant danger for those who persist in thinking of him purely in terms of oral composition). In his creation of character, Homer spares us the rich, sometimes superfluous, detail we have come to associate with that word in modern fiction; he gives us only what is necessary to his purpose. Similarly, in his presentation of motivation, he is economical in the extreme. In those sections of the poem where personal relationships and motives are important—the debate in Book 1, the embassy in Book 9, the meeting of Achilles and Priam in Book 24—Homer's method is dramatic rather than epic. The proportion of direct speech to narrative is such that these scenes, the embassy in particular, could be performed by actors, and, as is clear from Plato's dialogue Ion, the later rhapsodes who gave Homeric recitations exploited the dramatic potential of Homer's text to the full. Like a dramatist, Homer shows us character and motivation not by editorial explanation but through speech and action. And he also invokes the response of an audience familiar with heroic poetry and formulaic diction, counting on their capacity to recognize significant omissions, contrasts, variations and juxtapositions. We are not told what is going on in the mind of his characters, we are shown. Homer, like the god Apollo at Delphi in Heraclitus' famous phrase, does not say, nor does he conceal—he indicates.

Achilles plays no part in the events described in Books 2-8; he sits by his ships on the shore, waiting for the fulfillment of his mother's promise. And by the end of Book 8, the supplication of Thetis and the will of Zeus have begun to produce results. The Greeks are in retreat, penned up in their hastily fortified camp at nightfall, awaiting the Trojan assault which will come with daybreak. And Agamemnon yields to Nestor's advice to send an embassy to Achilles, urging him to return to the battleline. Agamemnon admits that he was wrong and proposes to make amends:

                                                                                                                        Mad, blind I was!
Not even I would deny it …
But since I was blinded, abandoned to such inhuman rage,
now, at last, I am bent on setting things to rights:
I'll give a priceless ransom paid for friendship.

In a bravura passage, he details the priceless ransom. Not only will he return Briseis and swear an oath that he has never touched her; he will give Achilles lavish gifts—gold, horses and women among them. He will also offer him the hand of one of his three daughters, with seven cities as her dowry.

It is a magnificent offer but there is one thing missing: Agamemnon offers no apology to Achilles, no admission that he was in the wrong. Quite the contrary. His confession that he was mad, at the beginning of his speech, is effectively canceled out by the way he ends it.

“Let him submit to me!
Let him bow down to me! I am the greater king,
I am the elderborn, I claim—the greater man.”

This is a harsh summons to obedience. The word translated “bow down” is a passive form, dmetheto, of a verb damno which means: “tame,” “subdue.” It is a word the Homeric poems use for the taming of wild asses, the taming of a bride by a man, the subjection of a people to a ruler, of a beaten warrior to the victor. Agamemnon will still not recognize Achilles' claim to honor as predominant in battle; in fact, these words reveal that the splendid gifts reflect honor on Agamemnon rather than on Achilles. They are the enormous bounty a ruler can, if he wishes, bestow on a subject, and will do so only if the subject recognizes his place.

Once the ambassadors arrive, Odysseus describes the plight of the Achaeans, begs Achilles to relent and then launches into the recital of the magnificent gifts Agamemnon offers in recompense. The whole of the long recital, rich in detail and rising in intensity throughout, is repeated almost verbatim from Agamemnon's speech; the audience relished a repeat of such a virtuoso passage—this is one of the pleasures of oral poetry in performance. But this is no mere oral poet repeating mechanically, no mere servant of the tradition. We are suddenly reminded that Odysseus' speech is not just a welcome reprise of Agamemnon's brilliant catalogue of gifts—it is a speech of a wily ambassador in a delicate situation. Odysseus cuts short the repetition of Agamemnon's speech at the line “All this / I would extend to him if he will end his anger.” And we remember what came next, what Odysseus has suppressed: “Let him submit to me!”

Achilles' reply is a long, passionate outburst; he pours out all the resentment stored up so long in his heart. He rejects out of hand this embassy and any other that may be sent; he wants to hear no more speeches. Not for Agamemnon, nor for the Achaeans either, will he fight again. He is going home, with all his men and ships. As for Agamemnon's gifts …

His gifts, I loathe his gifts …
I wouldn't give you a splinter for that man!
Not if he gave me ten times as much, twenty times over, all
he possesses now, and all that could pour in from the world's end—
not all the wealth that's freighted into Orchomenus, even into Thebes,
Egyptian Thebes where the houses overflow with the greatest troves of treasure …
no, not if his gifts outnumbered all the grains of sand
and dust in the earth—no, not even then could Agamemnon
bring my fighting spirit round until he pays me back,
pays full measure for all his heart-breaking outrage!

“Pays full measure / for all his heart-breaking outrage”—this is the point. Achilles is a killer, the personification of martial violence, but there is one area in which his sensibilities are more finely attuned than the antennae of a radar scanner—that of honor among men. And he senses the truth. Odysseus did not report Agamemnon's insulting demand for submission, but Achilles is not deceived. In all Odysseus did say there was no hint that Agamemnon regretted his action, no semblance of an apology, nothing that “pays full measure / for all his heart-breaking outrage.” Seen in this context, the gifts are no gifts, they are an insult. Gold, horses, women—he has no need of such bribes. And the offer of Agamemnon's daughter is that of an overlord to a subject; without an apology, an admission of equal status, it is one more symbol of subordination. His father will find him a bride at home; he will live there in peace, live out his life, choose the other destiny his goddess mother told him he carried towards the day of his death:

if I make it back to the fatherland I love,
my pride, my glory dies …
true, but the life that's left me will be long …

This speech of Achilles is sometimes seen as a repudiation of the heroic ideal, a realization that the life and death of glory is a game not worth the candle.

Cattle and fat sheep can all be had for the raiding,
tripods all for the trading, and tawny heads of stallions.
Ah, but a man's life breath cannot come back again—
no raiders in force, no trading brings it back,
once it slips through a man's clenched teeth.

These are indeed strange words for Achilles, but in the context of the speech as a whole they are not inconsistent with his devotion to honor. It is the loss of that honor, of that recognition as the supreme arbiter of the war, which has driven him to these formulations and reflections. He would still be ready to choose the other destiny, a short life with glory, if that glory had not been taken away from him by Agamemnon, and were not even now, in the absence of an apology, withheld.

In the face of this passionate rejection there is nothing Odysseus can say. It is Phoenix who now takes up the burden, Achilles' tutor and guardian from the days of his boyhood. In the name of that relationship he asks Achilles to relent. Even the gods, he says, can be moved, by prayer and supplication. He goes on to describe the spirits of Prayer. Litai is the Greek word and prayer is not an exact translation, for the English word has lost some of its original sense of “supplication”—the root sense of the Greek. These “Prayers for forgiveness” are humble and embarrassed—“they limp and halt … can't look you in the eyes.” Their attitude represents the embarrassment of the man who must apologize for his former insolence; it is hard for him to humble himself, it affects even his outward semblance. But he makes the effort, and the Prayers, the entreaties, come after the Spirit of Ruin to repair the damage done; they must not be refused.

But this appeal too will fall on deaf ears. And with some justice. Apollo relented in Book 1 but only after full restitution was made and a handsome apology, “Prayers for forgiveness.” And where are the prayers, the embarrassed, lame pleas of Agamemnon? The Spirit of Ruin, Agamemnon's Ate, is all too plain, but Achilles has seen no prayers from him—only from Odysseus, and now from Phoenix. Who now tries again, with an example of another hero, Meleager, who relented, but too late—a prophetic paradigm in the framework of the poem. He too withdrew from the fighting in anger, endangered his city, refused entreaties of his fellow citizens and even of his father, refused the gifts they offered him, and finally when the enemy had set fire to the city, yielded to the entreaties of his wife and returned to the battle. But the gifts he had spurned were not offered again. You too, Phoenix is saying, will someday relent, if Hector drives the Achaeans back on their ships, but if so, you will fight without the gifts that are the visible symbols of honor, the concrete expression of the army's appreciation of valor. Phoenix is talking Achilles' language now, and it has its effect: Achilles admits that he finds Phoenix's appeal disturbing—“Stop confusing / my fixed resolve with this, this weeping and wailing.” And he speaks now not of leaving the next day but of remaining by the ships and ends by announcing that the decision, to stay or to leave, will be taken on the morrow.

Ajax, the last to speak, does not mention Agamemnon, but dwells on the army's respect and affection for Achilles. It is the plea of a great, if simple, man and again Achilles is moved. He still feels nothing but hate for Agamemnon, but he now decides that he will stay at Troy. But he will not fight until

                    the son of wise King Priam, dazzling Hector
batters all the way to the Myrmidon ships and shelters,
slaughtering Argives, gutting the hulls with fire.

Since his ships, as we have been told, are drawn up on the far flank of the beachhead, this is small comfort for Agamemnon; the embassy is a failure.

The battle resumes and Zeus fulfills his promise to Thetis: Hector and the Trojans drive the Achaeans back on their ships. The main Achaean fighters, Agamemnon, Diomedes and Odysseus are wounded and retire from the mêlée. Achilles, watching all this from his tent, sends Patroclus off to inquire about another wounded man who has been brought back to the ships, Machaon, the physician of the Greek army. And he revels in the setbacks of the Achaeans. “Now,” he says, “I think they will grovel at my knees, / our Achaean comrades begging for their lives.” This passage is of course one of the mainstays of those who wish to attribute Book 9 to a later poet: it seems to them to show ignorance of the embassy to Achilles. But this is because they take it that Agamemnon's offer of gifts was a fully adequate satisfaction; Grote (the most eloquent champion of this view) even speaks of “the outpouring of profound humiliation” by the Greeks and from Agamemnon especially. But as we have seen, Odysseus' speech to Achilles contained not the slightest hint of apology on Agamemnon's part, and certainly nothing like what Achilles demands—that Agamemnon “pay full measure for his heart-breaking outrage.” There was no supplication made on behalf of Agamemnon; Phoenix's mention of the Litai that come humbly and embarrassed to beg favor only underscored the point. Now, says Achilles, now they are beginning to feel the pinch, they will come to their knees, to the suppliant position of abject prostration, confession of utter weakness and dependence.

Patroclus comes back from the tents of the Achaeans with news of Machaon's wound and with a purpose: Nestor has primed him to ask Achilles, if he will not fight himself, to send Patroclus out in his armor. What Achilles now hears from Patroclus is the kind of balm for his wounded pride that he had hardly dared to hope for. Not only is Hector at the ships but

there's powerful Diomedes brought down by an archer,
Odysseus wounded, and Agamemnon too, the famous spearman,
and Eurypylus took an arrow-shot in the thigh …

This should be enough to satisfy even Achilles: no more dramatic proof of his superiority in battle could be imagined. And he begins to relent. He is still resentful of Agamemnon's treatment of him but “Let bygones be bygones now. Done is done / How on earth can a man rage on forever?” He is willing to save the Achaeans, now that they are suitably punished for the wrong they did him. Why, then, does he not go into battle himself? He tells us.

Still by god, I said I would not relax my anger,
not till the cries and carnage reached my own ships.
So you, you strap my splendid armor on your back,
you lead our battle-hungry Myrmidons into action!

But Patroclus is not to go too far. He is to drive the Trojans back from the ships, no more: above all, he is not to assault Troy. He is to win glory for Achilles by beating off the Trojan attack, and then—“they'll send her back, my lithe and lovely girl / and top it off with troves of glittering gifts.” Unlike the Meleager of Phoenix's cautionary tale, he will receive the gifts once offered and refused, even though he does not join the fighting himself.

All through this speech confused emotions are at war within him. What does he really want? He talks of the restitution of Briseis and gifts, the compensation offered and refused before. He talks of “the beloved day of our return.” Perhaps he does not know himself at this moment. But at the end of the speech there comes out of him the true expression of the godlike self-absorption in which he is still imprisoned.

Oh would to god—Father Zeus, Athena and
          Lord Apollo—
not one of all these Trojans could flee his death, not one,
no Argive either, but we could stride from the slaughter,
so we could bring Troy's hallowed crown of towers
toppling down around us—you and I alone!

Clearly what he really wishes for is a world containing nothing but himself and his own glory, for Patroclus, whom he now sends out in his own armor, he regards as a part of himself. This solipsistic dream of glory—“every body dead but us two,” as a scandalized ancient commentator summarized it—so offended the great Alexandrian scholar Zenodotus that he condemned the lines as the work of an interpolator who wished to inject into the Iliad the later Greek idea (for which the text gives no warrant) that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers.

All too soon the news comes from the battlefield: Patroclus is dead and the armies are fighting over his corpse. Achilles will return to the battle now, to avenge his friend; he sees the death of Patroclus as the fatal consequence of his quarrel with Agamemnon and wishes that “strife could die from the lives of gods and men.” He will make peace with Agamemnon. “Enough. Let bygones be bygones. Done is done.” But this is not regret or self-criticism: he is still angry. “Despite my anguish I will beat it down / the fury mounting inside me, down by force.” But he is angrier still with Hector. “Now I will go and overtake that murderer, / that Hector who destroyed my dearest friend.” His mother has just told him that his death is fated to come soon after Hector's, and though deeply disturbed by this news, he accepts his fate. Not to avenge Patroclus by killing Hector would be a renunciation of all that he stands for and has lived by, the attainment of glory, of the universal recognition that there is “no man my equal among the bronze-armed Achaeans.”

He cannot go into battle at once for he has no armor; his father's panoply has been stripped off the corpse of Patroclus. Hector wears it now. Thetis goes off to have the god Hephaestus make new armor for her son, and when she brings it he summons an assembly of the Achaeans, as he had done at the very beginning of the poem. The wounded kings, Odysseus, Diomedes, Agamemnon, their wounds testimony to Achilles' supremacy in combat, come to hear him. His address is short. He regrets the quarrel with Agamemnon and its results. He is still angry—that emerges clearly from his words—but he will curb his anger: he has a greater cause for anger now. He calls for an immediate general attack on the Trojan ranks, which are still marshaled outside the city walls, on the level ground.

Agamemnon's reply to Achilles' short, impatient speech is long and elaborate. It is, in fact, an excuse. Achilles has come as close as he ever could to saying that he was wrong, but Agamemnon, even now, tries to justify himself as he addresses not only Achilles but also the army as a whole, which, as he is fully aware, blames him for the Achaean losses. In fact his opening lines are an extraordinary appeal to the assembly for an orderly reception of his speech. “When a man stands up to speak, it's well to listen. / Not to interrupt him, the only courteous thing.” He disclaims responsibility for his action.

                                                                                                                                  I am not to blame!
Zeus and Fate and the Fury stalking through the night.
They are the ones who drove that savage madness in my heart …

He is the victim, he claims, of Ate, a word that means both the madness of self-delusion and the ruin it produces. “I was blinded,” he says, “and Zeus stole my wits.” He is talking now to a full assembly of the Achaeans, which includes

Even those who'd kept to the beached ships till now,
the helmsmen who handled the heavy steering-oars
and stewards left on board to deal out rations—

At the council of the kings, when the embassy to Achilles was decided on, he had spoken more frankly: “Mad, blind I was! / Not even I would deny it.” He does not make so honest an admission here. And now he promises to deliver the gifts that were offered and refused, to restore Briseis and to swear a great oath that he has not touched her.

To all this, Achilles is utterly indifferent. He shows no interest in Agamemnon's excuses or in the gifts: clearly he feels that this is all a waste of time. He has only one thing on his mind: Hector. And he urges immediate resumption of the fighting. He is talking of sending back into combat men who are many of them wounded, all of them tired, hungry, thirsty; Odysseus reminds him of the facts of life. “No soldier can battle all day, cut-and-thrust / till the sun goes down, if he is starved for food.” Odysseus suggests not only time for the army to rest and feed, but also a public ceremony of reconciliation: the acceptance of Agamemnon's gifts, the swearing of the oath about Briseis. Agamemnon approves the advice and gives orders to prepare a feast. But Achilles' reply is brusque and uncompromising. He is not interested in ceremonies of reconciliation which will serve to restore Agamemnon's prestige, he is not interested in Agamemnon's apology, still less in food; he thinks of one thing and one thing only: Hector. He is for battle now, and food at sunset, after the day's work. The corpse of Patroclus makes it impossible for him to take food or drink before his death is avenged. Only Hector's death can avenge Patroclus and reestablish Achilles' identity as the unchallengeable, unconquerable violence of war in person.

                                                                                                              You talk of food?
I have no taste for food—no, no, gorge Achilles
on slaughter and blood and the choking groans of men!

It is inhuman, godlike in fact. But the others are men, and Odysseus reminds him what it is to be human.

We must steel our hearts. Bury our dead,
with tears for the day they die, not one day more.
And all those left alive, after the hateful carnage,
remember food and drink

Human beings must put limits to their sorrow, their passions; they must recognize the animal need for food and drink. But not Achilles. He will not eat while Hector still lives. And, as if to point up the godlike nature of his passionate intensity, Homer has Athena sustain him, without his knowledge, on nectar and ambrosia, the food of the gods.

When he does go into battle, the Trojans turn and run for the gates; only Hector remains outside. And the two champions come face to face at last. Hector offers a pact to Achilles, the same pact he has made before another fight long ago, the formal duel with Ajax in Book 7—the winner to take his opponent's armor, but give his body to his fellow-soldiers for burial. The offer is harshly refused. This is no formal duel and Achilles is no Ajax, he is hardly even human, he is godlike, both greater and lesser than a man. The contrast between the raw self-absorbed fury of Achilles and the civilized responsibility and restraint of Hector is maintained to the end. It is of his people, the Trojans, that Hector is thinking as he throws his spear at Achilles: “How much lighter the war would be for Trojans then / if you, their greatest scourge, were dead and gone!” But it is Hector who dies, and as Achilles exults over his fallen enemy, his words bring home again the fact that he is fighting for himself alone; this is the satisfaction of a personal hatred. The reconciliation with Agamemnon and the Greeks was a mere formality to him, he is still cut off from humanity, a prisoner of his self-esteem, his obsession with honor—the imposition of his identity on all men and all things.

Hector!—surely you thought when you stripped Patroclus' armor
that you, you would be safe! Never a fear of me,
far from the fighting as I was—you fool!
Left behind there, down by the beaked ships
his great avenger waited, a greater man by far
that man was I …

He taunts Hector with the fate of his body. “The dogs and birds will maul you, shame your corpse / while Achaeans bury my dear friend in glory!” And in answer to Hector's plea and offer of ransom for his corpse, he reveals the extreme of inhuman hatred and fury he has reached:

Beg no more, you fawning dog—begging me by my parents!
Would to god my rage, my fury would drive me now
to hack your flesh away and eat you raw—

This is how the gods hate. His words recall those of Zeus to Hera in Book 4.

                                                                                                              Only if you could breach
their gates and their long walls and devour Priam
and Priam's sons and the Trojan armies raw—
then you just might cure your rage at last.

And as Achilles goes on, we recognize the tone, the words, the phrases:

No man alive could keep the dog-packs off you,
not if they haul in ten, twenty times that ransom
and pile it here before me and promise fortunes more,
no, not even if Dardan Priam should offer to weigh out
your bulk in gold! Not even then …

We have heard this before, when he refused the gifts of Agamemnon:

Not if he gave me ten times as much, twenty times over, all
he possesses now, all that could pour in from the world's end …
no, not if his gifts outnumbered all the grains of sand
and dust in the world, no, not even then …

It is the same wrath now as then, implacable, unappeasable, like the wrath of Hera and Athena—only its object has changed.

Achilles lashes Hector's body to his chariot and drags it in full view of the Trojans on the walls, to his tent, where he organizes a magnificent funeral for Patroclus. After the burning of the pyre, the hero's memory is celebrated with funeral games—contests, simulated combat, in honor of a fallen warrior. Such was the origin, the Greeks believed, of all the great games—the Olympian, the Pythian, the Isthmian, the Nemean games, and in Homer himself we hear of funeral games for Amarynceus of Elis and for Oedipus of Thebes. The honor paid to the dead man is marked by the richness of the prizes and the efforts of the contestants. Here the prizes are offered by Achilles, so he himself does not compete. There are to be many contests: a chariot race (which earns the longest and most elaborate description), a boxing match, wrestling, a foot race; after that a fight in full armor, discus throwing, and an archery contest. As the events are described, we see all the great Achaean heroes familiar to us from battle scenes, locked not now in combat but in the fierce effort of peaceful contest. Homer takes our minds away from the grim work of war and the horror of Achilles' degradation of Hector's corpse to show us a series of brilliant characterizations of his heroes in new situations. But the most striking feature of this account of the games is the behavior of Achilles. This seems to be a different man. It is the great Achilles of the later aristocratic tradition, the man of princely courtesy and innate nobility visible in every aspect of his bearing and conduct, the Achilles who was raised by the centaur Chiron. It is a vision of what Achilles might have been in peace, if peace had been a possibility in the heroic world, or, for that matter, in Homer's world. “The man,” says Aristotle in the Politics, “who is incapable of working in common, or who in his self-sufficiency has no need of others, is no part of the community, like a beast, or a god.” As far as his fellow Achaeans are concerned, Achilles has broken out of the self-imposed prison of godlike unrelenting fury, reintegrated himself in society, returned to something like human feeling; he is part of the community again.

All through the games he acts with a tact, diplomacy and generosity that seem to signal the end of his desperate isolation, his godlike self-absorption; we almost forget that Hector's corpse is still lying in the dust, tied to his chariot. But if we had forgotten we are soon reminded. Once the games are over, Achilles, weeping whenever he remembers Patroclus—“his gallant heart—/ what rough campaigns they'd fought to an end together …”—drags Hector's corpse three times round Patroclus' tomb. But Apollo wards off corruption from the body and on Olympus the gods are filled with compassion for Hector, all the gods, that is, except Hera, Athena and Poseidon—a formidable combination. Apollo (the champion of Troy as the other three are its enemies) speaks up for action to rescue Hector's body. For him, Achilles is the lower extreme of Aristotle's alternatives—a beast: he is

                                                                                                    like some lion
going his own barbaric way, giving in to his power
his brute force and wild pride …

Hera, on the other hand, sees him as closer to the other alternative—a god: “Achilles sprang from a goddess—one I reared myself.” So Zeus makes a decision designed to satisfy both sides: Thetis is to tell Achilles to surrender Hector's body to Priam, but Priam is to come as suppliant to Achilles' tents, bringing a sign of honor, a rich ransom.

When Thetis conveys to Achilles the will of Zeus, his attitude is exactly the same as his reaction to Agamemnon's renewed offer of gifts after the death of Patroclus—cold indifference. He agrees to accept the ransom, but his speech shows no relenting; his heart is still of iron. What is needed to break the walls down, to restore him to full humanity, is the arrival in his tent not of the heralds whom he evidently expected to bring the ransom, but of Priam himself, alone, a suppliant in the night. And that unforeseen confrontation is what Zeus now moves to bring about.

The god Hermes brings Priam safely through the Achaean sentries and through the gate that bars the entrance to Achilles' courtyard; Priam takes Achilles by surprise as he sits at table, his meal just finished. His appearance, unannounced, is a mystery, a thing unprecedented, and Achilles is astonished. Homer expresses that astonishment by means of a simile, one of the most disconcerting of the whole poem:

                    as when the grip of madness seizes one
who murders a man in his own fatherland and flees
abroad to foreign shores, to a wealthy noble host
and a sense of marvel runs through all who see him …

It seems to reverse the situation, as if Priam, not Achilles, were the killer. And yet it is carefully chosen. For Achilles, a child of the quarrelsome, violent society of the Achaeans we know so well from the bitter feuds of the camp, from old Nestor's tales of cattle raids, ambush and border war, from the tales of Achaean suppliants fleeing their homeland with blood on their hands, for Achilles the appearance of a distinguished stranger and his gesture of supplication evoke the familiar context of the man of violence seeking shelter. Achilles cannot imagine the truth. And now Priam tells him who he is—but not at once. First he invokes the memory of Achilles' father—pining at home for a son he may never see again. And then he reveals his identity and makes his plea. It ends with the tragic and famous lines, “I have endured what no one on earth has ever done before / I put my lips to the hands of the man who killed my son.”

And Achilles begins to break out at last from the prison of self-absorbed, godlike passion: “like the gods,” Priam called him, but that is the last time this line-end formula (exclusive to Achilles) appears. He will move now to man's central position between beast and god. But the change is not sudden. The stages in his return to feelings are presented with masterly psychological insight. Achilles took the old man's hands and pushed him “gently,” says Homer, away, and wept. Not for Priam but for his own aged father, to whose memory Priam has appealed and who will soon, like Priam, lose a son. He raises Priam to his feet and sits him in a chair, and speaks to him in awed admiration: “What daring,” he asks, “brought you down to the ships, all alone … ?” It was indeed an action calling for the kind of extraordinary courage that is Achilles' own preeminent quality. He comforts the old man, with what small comfort mortals can take for their lot. From his two urns of good and evil, Zeus dispenses now evil, now evil mixed with good. So it was with Peleus, Achilles' own father, who had great honor and possessions. But then,

only a single son he fathered, doomed at birth
cut off in the spring of life—
and I, I give the man no care as he grows old
since here I sit in Troy, far from my fatherland,
a grief to you, a grief to all your children.

That last phrase is a new view of the war; he sees it now from Priam's point of view. And moves on from pity for his own father to pity for the bereaved king of Troy.

And you too, old man, we hear you prospered once …
But then the gods of heaven brought this agony on you …

This is a new way of thinking for Achilles; he sees himself as another man must see him, in this case, as he must appear to the father of his enemy, Hector.

He tells Priam to bear up and endure, but the old man, his moment of danger past, his end accomplished, grows impatient and asks for Hector's body at once. Suddenly we are shown that the new-found emotions have only a precarious existence in Achilles' heart; at any moment they may be overwhelmed by a return of his anger, his self-centered rage. He knows this himself, and warns Priam not to go too fast; he knows how tenuous a hold his new mood has:

No more, old man, don't tempt my wrath, not now! …
                                        Don't stir my raging heart still more.
Or under my own roof I may not spare your life, old man—
suppliant that you are …

Achilles goes to collect the ransom, and when he orders Hector's body to be washed and anointed, he gives orders to have it done out of Priam's sight:

he feared that, overwhelmed by the sight of Hector,
wild with grief, Priam might let his anger flare
and Achilles might fly into fresh rage himself,
cut the old man down …

He knows himself. This is a new Achilles, who can feel pity for others, see deep into their hearts and into his own. For the first time he shows self-knowledge and acts to prevent the calamity his violent temper might bring about. It is as near to self-criticism as he ever gets, but it marks the point at which he ceases to be godlike Achilles and becomes a human being in the full sense of the word.

He tells Priam Hector's body is ready. And offers him food. It will be Priam's first meal since his son's death. And he speaks to Priam as Odysseus had spoken to him before the battle; there must be a limit to mourning for the dead, men must eat and go on with their lives.

Now, at last, let us turn our thoughts to supper.
Even Niobe with her lustrous hair remembered food,
though she saw a dozen children killed in her own halls …
Nine days, they lay in their blood …
then on the tenth the gods of heaven interred them.
                    And Niobe, gaunt, worn to the bone with weeping
turned her thoughts to food.

It is an admission of mortality, of limitations, of the bond which unites him to Priam, and all men.

He has a bed made for Priam outside the tent, for any Achaean coming into the tent and seeing Priam would tell Agamemnon. Achilles assumes the role of the old king's protector; even in his new-found humanity, he is still a man alone—his sense of honor will not allow him to let Priam fall into the Achaeans' hands. And he promises to hold off the fighting for the twelve days Priam needs for the funeral of Hector. He has come at last to the level of humanity, and humanity at its best; he has forgotten himself and his wrongs in his sympathy for another man. It is late, only just in time, for when the fighting resumes, he will fall in his turn as his mother told him and as Hector prophesied with his dying breath. The poem ends with the funeral of Hector. But this is the signal for the resumption of the fighting. The first line of the poem gave us the name of Achilles and its last line reminds us of him, for his death will come soon, as the fighting resumes. The poem ends, as it began, on the eve of battle.


The tragic course of Achilles' rage, his final recognition of human values, this is the guiding theme of the poem, and it is developed against a background of violence and death. But the grim progress of the war is interrupted by scenes which remind us that the destruction of war, though an integral part of human life, is only part of it. Except for Achilles, whose worship of violence falters only in the final moment of pity for Priam, the yearning for peace and its creative possibilities is never far below the surface of the warriors' minds. This is most poignantly expressed by the scenes which take place in Troy, especially the farewell scene between Hector and Andromache, but the warriors' dream of peace is projected over and over again in the elaborate similes, those comparisons with which Homer varies the grim details of the bloodletting, and which achieve the paradoxical effect of making the particulars of destructive violence familiar by drawing for illustration on the peaceful, ordinary activities of everyday life. Dead men and armor are trampled under the wheels of Achilles' chariot as white barley is crushed under the feet of oxen on a threshing-floor. Hostile forces advancing against each other are like two lines of reapers in the wheat or barley field of a rich man, cutting their way forward; the two fronts in tense deadlock at the Achaean wall hold even like the scales held by a widow, working for a pitiful wage, as she weighs out her wool; the combatants fighting for possession of Sarpedon's corpse swarm over it like flies over the brimming milk buckets in spring. Menelaus bestrides the body of Patroclus, as a lowing cow stands protectively over its first-born calf; Ajax is forced back step by step like a stubborn donkey driven out of a cornfield by boys who beat him with sticks; the pain that suddenly assails Agamemnon as his flesh wound in the arm contracts is like the sharp sorrow of pain that descends on a woman in labor. These vivid pictures of normal life, drawn with consummate skill and inserted in a relentless series of gruesome killings, have a special poignancy; they are one of the features of Homer's evocation of battle which make it unique: an exquisite balance between the celebration of war's tragic, heroic values and those creative values of civilized life which war destroys.

These two poles of the human condition, war and peace, with their corresponding aspects of human nature, the destructive and creative, are implicit in every situation and statement of the poem, and they are put before us, in something approaching abstract form, on the shield which the god Hephaestus makes for Achilles. Its emblem is an image of human life as a whole. Here are two cities, one at peace and one at war. In one a marriage is celebrated and a quarrel settled by process of law; the other is besieged by a hostile army and fights for its existence. Scenes of violence—peaceful shepherds slaughtered in an ambush, Death dragging away a corpse by its foot—are balanced by scenes of plowing, harvesting, work in the vineyard and on the pasture, a green on which youths and maidens dance. War has its place on the shield, but it is the lesser one; most of the surface is covered with scenes of peaceful life—the pride of the tilled land, wide and triple-plowed, the laborers reaping with the sharp sickles in their hands, a great vineyard heavy with clusters, young girls and young men carrying the sweet fruit away in baskets, a large meadow in a lovely valley for the sheep flocks and above all, the dance, the formal symbol of the precise and ordered relations of people in peaceful society.

Here young boys and girls, beauties courted
with costly gifts of oxen, danced and danced,
linking their arms, gripping each other's wrists.
And the girls wore robes of linen light and flowing,
the boys wore finespun tunics rubbed with a gloss of oil,
the girls were crowned with a bloom of fresh garlands,
the boys swung golden daggers hung on silver belts.
And now they'd run in rings on their skilled feet,
lightly, quick as a crouching potter spins his wheel,
palming it smoothly, giving it practice twirls
to see it run, and now they would run in rows,
in rows crisscrossing rows—rapturous dancing.
A breathless crowd stood round them struck with joy
and through them a pair of tumblers dashed and sprang,
whirling in leaping handsprings, leading out the dance.

And all around the outermost rim of the shield the god who made it set the great stream of the river Oceanus, a river which is at once the frontier of the known and imagined world and the barrier between the quick and the dead.

The imbalance of these scenes on the shield of Achilles shows us the total background of the carnage of the war; it provides a frame which gives the rage of Achilles and the death of Hector a true perspective. But it is not enough. The Iliad remains a terrifying poem. Achilles, just before his death, is redeemed as a human being, but there is no consolation for the death of Hector. We are left with a sense of waste, which is not adequately balanced even by the greatness of the heroic figures and the action; the scale descends towards loss. The Iliad remains not only the greatest epic poem in literature, but also the most tragic.

Homer's Achilles is clearly the model for the tragic hero of the Sophoclean stage; his stubborn, passionate devotion to an ideal image of self is the same force that drives Antigone, Oedipus, Ajax and Philoctetes to the fulfillment of their destinies. Homer's Achilles is also, for archaic Greek society, the essence of the aristocratic ideal, the paragon of male beauty, courage, and patrician manners—“the splendor running in the blood,” says Pindar, in a passage describing Achilles' education in the cave of the centaur Chiron. And this too strikes a tragic note, for Pindar sang his praise of aristocratic values in the century which saw them go down to extinction, replaced by the new spirit of Athenian democracy. But it seems at first surprising that one of the most famous citizens of that democracy, a man whose life and thought would seem to place him at the opposite extreme pole from the Homeric hero, who was so far removed from Achilles' blind instinctive reactions that he could declare the unexamined life unlivable, that Socrates, on trial for his life, should invoke the name of Achilles. Explaining to his judges why he feels no shame or regret for a course of action which has brought him face to face with a death sentence, and rejecting all thought of a compromise which might save his life (and which his fellow citizens would have been glad to offer) he cites as his example Achilles, the Achilles who, told by his mother that his own death would come soon after Hector's, replied: “Then let me die at once …” rather than “sit by the ships / a useless dead weight on the good, green earth …”

And yet, on consideration, it is not so surprising. Like Achilles, he was defying the community, hewing to a solitary line, in loyalty to a private ideal of conduct, of honor. In the last analysis the blood-stained warrior and the gentle philosopher live and die in the same heroic, and tragic, pattern.


  1. All the translations from the Iliad are by Robert Fagles.

David A. Traill (essay date October 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2568

SOURCE: Traill, David A. “Unfair to Hector?” Classical Philology 85, no. 4 (October 1990): 299-303.

[In the following essay, Traill contends that Homer does not allow the Trojan hero Hector the full glory he deserves in the Iliad, and instead presents him in a less favorable manner than lesser Greek figures.]

It is one of the puzzling features of the Iliad that while Homer undoubtedly depicts Trojan heroes, notably Hector and Priam, in a favorable light in domestic scenes, Trojans in general, and Hector in particular, are not allowed to shine on the battlefield with the luster one expects. Thus, though most modern readers readily admire Priam for the wisdom and compassion he shows in his delicate scene with Helen in Book 3, and Hector for his love and concern for Andromache and Astyanax in the beautiful scene at the Scaean Gate, they experience a certain sense of disappointment when Hector fares so poorly in his single combat with Ajax and in his fighting against other Greek heroes. This reaction, I suggest, is not inappropriate and “modern,” for the logic of the Iliad's plot requires that Hector should rank second only to Achilles in prowess: otherwise, what is all the fuss about when Achilles withdraws? We are therefore entitled to ask why Homer does not allow Hector to defeat Ajax and why he makes it clear that not only Achilles and Ajax but also Diomedes and Agamemnon are better warriors than Hector.1 This paper, in exploring these questions, will argue that Homer is more concerned with safeguarding the reputation of his Greek heroes than with being fair to Hector or scrupulously observing the needs of the plot. M. van der Valk, whose studies these findings confirm and refine, has referred to this phenomenon as Homeric “nationalism,” though “philhellenism,” as the scholiasts call it, is perhaps a more appropriate term.2 More particularly, I will try to show how Homer is careful to compensate his Greek heroes when he puts them in situations that could be seen as detrimental to their τιμή.3

Let us consider first the encounter between Hector and Diomedes in 11. 349-67. Diomedes resolves to stand firm before Hector's onslaught. Throwing his spear, he strikes Hector's helmet and stuns him. Hector falls back, drops to one knee, and remains dazed for a while. When he recovers, he leaps into his chariot and drives back from the front. Diomedes taunts him, saying that once again Apollo has intervened to save him. This episode clearly depicts Diomedes as the superior warrior.

Book 11 opens with the aristeia of Agamemnon (lines 15-247). In the course of the aristeia Zeus becomes concerned for the safety of Hector. He sends Iris to advise Hector to keep out of the fighting until Agamemnon is wounded; Hector promptly complies (181-94). The withdrawal of Hector in effect forms the climax to Agamemnon's aristeia: so formidable a fighter is Agamemnon that even Hector has to keep out of his way. The reader is left to infer that as a warrior Hector is inferior to Agamemnon.

Why does Homer go out of his way in these passages to imply that Hector is no match for either Diomedes or Agamemnon? The tactic is all the more surprising because at this point in the Iliad, shortly after the failed embassy to Achilles, the plot seems to require that Hector be seen as posing a formidable threat to the Greeks—and indeed, that is the theme of Book 11 as a whole. But there is another, clearly related problem. In Book 11 Diomedes and Agamemnon are wounded along with other Greek heroes, notably Odysseus and Machaon. They are not wounded by Hector, however, as we might have expected, but by minor Trojan warriors—Paris, Coön, and Socus. Why is this? Clearly, Homer is reluctant to let Hector shine in battle at the expense of major Greek heroes. But can we be more specific? Let us consider how Diomedes and Agamemnon are wounded.

Diomedes is wounded (368-95) just a few lines after he stuns Hector and forces him to retreat. Particularly interesting are the lengths to which Homer goes to ensure that the τιμή earned by the Trojans is minimal. Diomedes is wounded while stripping the armor from a Trojan he has just killed. He is struck in the foot by an arrow shot by Paris. Bows have low status in the Iliad,4 and Homer has already made it clear that Paris is noted for his prowess in the bedroom rather than on the battlefield. Moreover, the shot is fired from the vantage-point of Ilus' tomb, where Paris is hiding behind a stele, out of harm's way. Given Diomedes' preoccupation and Paris' reputation, location, and weapon, the shot is clearly a cowardly one. Besides, the wound is not serious. Accordingly, no one can infer from this incident that Paris is a better warrior than Diomedes. To make the situation abundantly clear Homer has Diomedes mock Paris as follows (389-90):

οὐκ ἀλἐγω, ἐs εἴ με γυνὴ βάλοι e πάιs ἄφρων·
κωφὸν γὰρ βἐλοs ἀνδρὸs ἀνάλκιδοs οὐτιδανοῖο.

A similar pattern is found in the wounding of Agamemnon. The Trojan hero, Coön, comes from the side, unobserved, and stabs Agamemnon in the forearm (251-52). Again, the wound is not serious, the Trojan hero insignificant, and the blow cowardly. No one would infer that Coön is a better fighter than Agamemnon. To make assurance doubly sure, Homer has Agamemnon turn around, stab Coön with his spear, and lop off his head (256-61).

The scenes in which Diomedes and Agamemnon are wounded are therefore rather similar. Homer takes considerable pains to ensure that the Trojans derive little glory from them. Why does he do this? The answer is readily seen if we imagine for a moment how we would react if it were Hector who wounded either of these two heroes in a face-to-face encounter. We would naturally conclude that he was the better warrior. Such a conclusion, though virtually indispensable to his plot, Homer takes great care to exclude. His motive is, to my mind, unmistakable. He is anxious to protect the reputation of the Greek leaders. It is this same sensitivity that leads him to indicate—just before he sets them up to be wounded—that both Agamemnon and Diomedes are better warriors than Hector. The τιμή they earn from this distinction compensates for the loss of τιμή that inevitably ensues from their being wounded.

The duel between Ajax and Hector (7. 200-312), which seems to be a doublet of the duel between Menelaus and Hector, has long troubled commentators. With dry humor Leaf outlines the problem: “It is in itself somewhat surprising that two duels should be fought on the same day; but when we remember the very remarkable manner in which the first had ended, by an unpardonable violation of a truce made with all possible solemnities, and then find that the second is entered upon by the two parties without apology or reproach, the difficulty is one which can hardly be explained.”5 C. M. Bowra attempts a rather lame explanation for the two duels: “The answer is surely that the theme was so popular that it deserved to be treated more than once, and of course simple audiences have no objection to repetitions of this kind.”6 The solution becomes clear, I think, once we see the duel between Hector and Ajax in the light of Hector's scenes with Diomedes and Agamemnon in Book 11.

The plot of the Iliad is particularly unflattering to Ajax. Given his high status as a warrior, he might be expected to step in after Achilles' withdrawal and save the Greeks. The plot, however, will not allow this. At the beginning of Book 8, when Zeus gives the advantage to the Trojans, Ajax is forced to retreat along with the rest of the Greeks (79). Accordingly, in preparation for this, Homer contrives the duel with Hector in order to protect Ajax' reputation. Although the outcome of the fight is officially a draw, it is painfully clear (e.g., at 262, 271, 312) that Ajax is the superior warrior. The pattern we have noted in Book 11 is therefore followed here. Homer puts his Greek hero in a position where he can demonstrate his superiority over Hector just before he is to be subjected to a significant humiliation. These humiliations cannot be avoided, for they are woven into the plot. Zeus must grant temporary victory to the Trojans, to comply with Thetis' request; and the Greek heroes must be wounded, to precipitate Patroclus' return to battle. In each case Homer compensates for the blow to the Greek hero's τιμή by providing him with a victory over Hector.

If this view of Homer as a philhellene is correct, one might well expect to find that in those situations where Hector is allowed victories over significant Greek heroes, these victories prove to be somehow compromised. Let us therefore examine his victories over Patroclus and Teucer. It is, of course, in the death of Patroclus (16. 788-867) that Hector achieves his greatest victory.7 The modern reader is therefore surprised and somewhat disappointed to find that he is not allowed to win it without assistance. Before Hector confronts Patroclus, Apollo first stuns the Greek hero and strips him of his armor, and Euphorbus stabs him in the back with his spear. The reader's instinctive reaction that these interventions detract from Hector's glory finds confirmation in the speech of the dying Patroclus, who pointedly observes that Hector is only his third killer (850).8 Presumably, Homer was free to compose an encounter in which Hector slew Patroclus unaided. That he did not do so shows that here, too, Homer's interest is focused on the Greek hero and his τιμή rather than on Hector.

Hector's only other victory over a significant Greek hero occurs in Book 8. At the beginning of the book Zeus gives the advantage to the Trojans. All the Greek heroes retreat in confusion until they are rallied by Agamemnon (217-65). At this point the only Greek who has much success is Teucer, the half-brother of Ajax. Teucer is an archer, who darts out from behind his brother's shield, shoots, and then quickly retires behind the shield again. In his efforts to shoot Hector he kills Hector's brother Gergythion and charioteer Archeptolemus. Hector becomes so enraged that he hurls a great stone at Teucer, wounding him in the collar-bone. Ajax rushes forward to protect his brother and the wounded hero is promptly carried back to the ships (266-334).

Hector's victory over Teucer is his most significant encounter in the course of his successful advance against the Greeks. Immediately after this episode Hector forces the Greeks back across the ditch, hemming them in between the ditch and their ships (338-49). It is this crisis that prompts the embassy to Achilles in Book 9. It seems clear that Homer chose to underline Hector's success by giving him a victory over a significant Greek hero at this critical juncture. Since he did not wish to compromise the reputation of any of the heroes of the first rank—Agamemnon, Ajax, or Diomedes—Teucer was selected. It can be no accident that Teucer, like Paris, is an archer. Like Paris, too, he hides out of harm's way between shots (269-70):

αὐτὰρ ὁ αὔτιs ἰών, πάιs os ὑπὸ μητἐρα, δύσκεν
εἰs Αἴανθ'· ὁ δἐ μιν σάκεϊ κρύπτασκε φαεινo.

This is scarcely a flattering picture. Another unfortunate detail about Teucer is his birth. As Agamemnon rather tactlessly reminds him when he urges Teucer on to shoot Hector, Teucer is a bastard (284). It is difficult to understand the point of these unflattering elements in the characterization of Teucer if they are not to be seen as diminishing his heroic status in preparation for Hector's victory over him.

Generations of readers have rightly admired the Iliad for the remarkably generous way in which the Trojans, who are after all the enemy, are portrayed. This deserved reputation for “fairness,” however, should not blind us to the inescapable fact that Homer does not permit Hector to demonstrate his prowess against the leading Greek heroes to the degree we would expect and as the logic of the plot seems to require. Though allowed to wreak general havoc on the Greeks and to kill numbers of insignificant individuals, he is granted victories over only two significant heroes, Patroclus and Teucer, and both these victories are, as we have seen, deliberately tainted. Conversely, Homer uses Hector as a kind of whipping-boy for Ajax, Agamemnon, and Diomedes when the requirements of the plot risk compromising their reputations. Victories over Hector compensate for the loss of τιμή they are forced to incur.

Homer did not compose the Iliad with a disinterested, international, twentieth-century audience in mind. He composed and performed for a contemporary Greek audience, for whom the Greek heroes were vital figures of awe and veneration. It seems clear that this audience had certain expectations about how their great heroes would fare on the battlefield, and that these expectations did not include defeat by an enemy hero, no matter how distinguished.9 It would be foolish to criticize Homer for bending his plot a little in order to respect these expectations. It would be surprising if he did not share them himself.10


  1. The second question is raised by M. M. Willcock, The “Iliad” of Homer I-XII (London, 1978), p. 303, and A Companion to the “Iliad” (Chicago, 1976), p. 128.

  2. “Homer's Nationalistic Attitude,” A Class 22 (1953): 5-26, and “Homer's Nationalism, Again,” Mnemosyne 38 (1985): 373-76; though van der Valk's thesis seems to me irrefutable, the examples he has chosen to illustrate it are not the most convincing. For an answer to van der Valk, see J. Kakridis, “Homer, ein Philhellene?” WS [Wort und Sinn] 69 (1956): 26-32. For the scholiasts' frequent references to Homer's philhellenism, see the index entry in H. Erbse, ed., Scholia Graeca in Homeri “Iliadem,” vol. 6 (Berlin, 1983), p. 520.

  3. On Homer's concern for compensating his heroes for loss of τιμή, see now D. A. Traill, “Gold Armor for Bronze and Homer's Use of Compensatory TIMH,” CP [Classical Philology] 84 (1989): 301-5.

  4. This is clear from: the association of the bow with warriors of low standing, such as Paris and Pandarus, and its absence from the armor of warriors of high standing; Pandarus' words of regret that he had not heeded his father's advice to take a chariot and horses to Troy rather than his bow (5. 192-205); Diomedes' scornful words to Paris (quoted below) when Paris wounds him.

  5. Homer: The “Iliad,” vol. 1 (London, 1900), p. 406.

  6. “Composition,” in A Companion to Homer, ed. A. J. B. Wace and F. H. Stubbings (London, 1962), p. 54. See also the discussion in G. Kirk, The Songs of Homer (Cambridge, 1962), p. 217.

  7. For a helpful discussion of this passage, see M. W. Edwards, Homer: Poet of the “Iliad” (Baltimore, 1987), pp. 263-65. Richard Janko very kindly let me see an advance copy of his excellent commentary on Il. 13-16, for which I am extremely grateful.

  8. Cf. Edwards, Homer, p. 265: “it seems clear that Apollo's intervention against Patroclus, besides his prior wounding by Euphorbus, deprives Hector of much of the glory of his slaying, for Patroclus's last words draw attention to the point.” Similarly Janko and other commentators.

  9. Patroclus is, of course, a special case. It is perhaps significant, however, that he seems not to have a tradition independent of Homer. Some scholars believe that he is Homer's invention.

  10. An earlier version of this paper was given at the annual meeting of the American Philological Association in December 1989 in Boston. It has been improved by the informed discussion of the participants at the session and by the suggestions of Richard Janko and the Editor, to all of whom I express my thanks.

Laura M. Slatkin (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8412

SOURCE: Slatkin, Laura M. “The Helplessness of Thetis.” In The Power of Thetis: Allusion and Interpretation in the Iliad, pp. 17-52. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

[In the following excerpt, Slatkin concentrates on the integral role of Thetis in the development of themes of mortality, protection, and the discovery of identity in the Iliad.]

In a key passage in Book 1 of the Iliad Achilles, in order to obtain from Zeus the favor that will determine the trajectory of the plot, invokes not Athena or Hera, those powerful, inveterate pro-Greeks, but his mother. The Iliad's presentation of Thetis … is of a subsidiary deity who is characterized by helplessness and by impotent grief. Her presentation of herself is as the epitome of sorrow and vulnerability in the face of her son's mortality. Consider her lament to her Nereid sisters at 18.54-62.

Ὤ μοι ἐγo δειλή, Ὤ μοι δυσαριστοτόκεια,
η τ' ἐπεὶ ἂρ τἐκον υἱὸν ἀμύμονά τε κρατερόν τε,
ἔξοχον ἡρώων· ὁ δ' ἀνἐδραμεν ἔρνεϊ ἐσοs·
τὸν μὲν ἐγo θρἣψασα, ϕυτὸν os γουνἳ̑ ἀλωη̑s,
νηυσὶν ἐπιπροἐηκα κορωνίσιν '′Ιλιον εἴσω
Τρωσὶ μαχησόμενον· τὸν δ' οὐχ ὑποδἐξομαι αὔτιs
οἴκαδε νοστήσαντα δόμον Πηλήϊον εἴσω.
ὄϕρα δἐ μοι ζώει καὶ ὁρa ϕάοs ἠελίοιο
ἄχνυται, οὐδἐτί οἱ δύναμαι χραισμη̑σαι ἰου̑σα.
Alas for my sorrow, alas for my wretched-best-childbearing,
since I bore a child faultless and powerful,
preeminent among heroes; and he grew like a young shoot,
I nourished him like a tree on an orchard's slope,
I sent him forth with the curved ships to Ilion
to fight the Trojans. But never again shall I welcome him
returning home to the house of Peleus.
Still, while he lives and looks on the sunlight
he grieves, and I, going to him, am all unable to help him.

We can hardly fail to question, then, why a figure of evidently minor stature—whose appearances in the poem are few—serves such a crucial function in its plot. Why, that is, does the poem assign to Thetis the awesome role of persuading Zeus to set in motion the events of the Iliad, to invert the inevitable course of the fall of Troy? Our initial answer to this might be, because Achilles is her son, and this poem is his story; but a methodologically more fruitful way of posing the question is, why has the Iliad taken as its hero the son of Thetis?

Let us begin by recalling the specific terms of Achilles' appeal to his mother in Book 1. He asks Thetis to make his request of Zeus, reminding her of how she saved Zeus when the other Olympians wished to bind him:

ἀλλὰ σύ, εἰ δύνασαί γε, περίσχεο παιδὸs ἑη̑οs·
ἐλθου̑σ' Οὔλυμπόνδε Δία λίσαι, εἴ ποτε δή τι
e ἔπει Ὤνησαs κραδίην Διὸs ἠὲ καὶ ἔργῳ.
πολλάκι γάρ σεο πατρὸs ἐνὶ μεγάροισιν ἄκουσα
εὐχομἐνηs, ὅτ' ἔϕησθα κελαινεϕἐϊ Κρονίωνι
οἴη ἐν ἀθανάτοισιν ἀεικἐα λοιγὸν ἀμυ̑ναι,
ὁππότε μιν ξυνδη̑σαι 'Ολύμπιοι ἤθελον ἄλλοι,
‘′Ηρη τ' ἠδὲ Ποσειδάων καὶ Παλλὰs 'Αθήνη·
ἀλλὰ σὺ τόν γ' ἐλθου̑σα, θεά, ὑπελύσαο δεσμω̑ν,
[o]χ' ἑκατόγχειρον καλἐσασ' ἐs μακρὸν '′Ολυμπον,
ὅν Βριάρεων καλ[ἐ]ουσι θεοί, ἄνδρεs δἐτε πάντεs
Αἰγαίων'—ὁ γὰρ α[ὔ]τε βίην οὔπατρὸs ἀμείνων—
ὅs ῥα παρὰ Κρονίωνι καθἐζετο κύδεϊ γαίων·
τὸν καὶ ὑπ[ἐ]δεισαν μάκαρεs θεοὶ οὐδ' ἔτ' ἔδησαν.
τω̑ν νυ̑ν μιν μνήσασα παρἐζεο καὶ λαβὲ γούνων,
αἴ κἐν πωs ἐθἐλῃσιν ἐπὶ Τρώεσσιν ἀρη̑ξαι,
τοὺs δὲ κατὰ πρύμναs τε καὶ ἀμϕ' ἅλα ἔλσαι 'Αχαιοὺs
κτεινομἐνουs, ἵνα πάντεs ἐπαύρωνται βασιλη̑οs,
γνἳ̑ δὲ καὶ 'Ατρεῒδηs εὐρὺ κρείων 'Αγαμ[ἐ]μνων
ἣν ἄτην, ὅ τ' ἄριστον 'Αχαιω̑ν οὐδὲν ἔτεισεν.


But you, if you are able to, protect your own son:
going to Olympos, pray to Zeus, if in fact you ever
aided the heart of Zeus by word or action.
For I have often heard you in my father's halls
avowing it, when you declared that from Kronos' son of the dark clouds
you alone among the immortals warded off unseemly destruction
at the time when the other Olympians wanted to bind him,
Hera and Poseidon and Pallas Athena;
but you went, goddess, and set him free from his bonds,
quickly summoning the hundred-handed one to high Olympos,
the one whom the gods call Briareos, but all men call
Aigaion—for he is greater in strength than his father—
who, rejoicing in his glory, sat beside the son of Kronos.
And the blessed gods feared him, and ceased binding Zeus.
Reminding him of these things now sit beside him and take his knees,
in the hope that he may somehow be willing to help the Trojans
and the others—the Achaeans—to force against the ships' sterns and around the sea
as they are slaughtered, so that they may all benefit from their king,
and so that the son of Atreus, wide-ruling Agamemnon, may realize
his disastrous folly, that he did not honor the best of the Achaeans.

Here we see the Iliad alluding to aspects of Thetis's mythology that it does not elaborate and that do not overtly reflect the subject matter of heroic poetry. Why does it do so? The question is twofold: why does it allude to Thetis's power, and why does its reference remain only an allusion? Why does it, moreover, present us with an apparent contradiction: if the mother of Achilles is so helpless, why was she able to rescue Zeus; and if she rescued Zeus, why is she now so helpless? Why does the Iliad remind us of Thetis's efficacious power in another context while it presents her to us in an attitude of lamentation and grief without recourse?

In order to establish the proper framework for answering these questions, we begin our poetic archaeology. If we can set the Homeric use of Thetis into the perspective of her mythology, we may be led, as suggested earlier, to a deeper comprehension of Homeric poetics as well as to a richer appreciation of the specific themes associated with Achilles' divine origin. Our best initial index of comparison with the Iliad's Thetis is afforded by Thetis's role in another epic treatment, the Cycle's Aethiopis, where we are presented not only with Thetis and Achilles but with a strikingly similar relationship, namely that of the divine Dawn Eos and her son Memnon.

The heroic identity of the Trojan ally Memnon was established in the Aethiopis, whose now-lost five books related his single combat against Achilles, among other events.1 In the Aethiopis, the confrontation between Achilles and Memnon seems to have made use of the same narrative features that characterize the climactic duel of Iliad 22: the contest followed upon the death of Achilles' close friend at the hands of his chief Trojan adversary and was preceded by Thetis's prophecy of the outcome.

In the Aethiopis Achilles avenged the killing of Nestor's son Antilokhos, whose death at the hands of Memnon is referred to at Odyssey 4.187-88. Proclus's summary of this section goes as follows:

Μἐμνων δὲ ὁ 'Ηου̑s υἱὸs ἔχων ἡϕαιστότευκτον πανοπλίαν παραγίνεται τοι̑s Τρωσὶ βοηθήσων· καὶ Tἐτιs τἳ̑ παιδὶ τὰ κατὰ τὸν Μἐμνονα προλἐγει. καὶ συμβολη̑s γενομἐηs 'Αντίλοχοs ὑπὸ Μἐμνονοs ἀναιρει̑ται, ἔπειτα 'Αχιλλεὺs Μἐμνονα κτείνει· καὶ τούτῳ μὲν 'Ηos παρὰ Διὸs αἰτησαμἐνη ἀθανασίαν δίδωσι.2

So Memnon, the son of Eos, wearing armor made by Hephaistos, arrives to aid the Trojans; and Thetis prophesies to her son things about Memnon. In the encounter that takes place Antilokhos is killed by Memnon, whereupon Achilles kills Memnon. Then Eos, having asked Zeus for immortality for Memnon, bestows it on him.

Memnon, although functioning in a role like Hector's, is a mirror image of the Iliadic Achilles. The association of these two heroes, not principally as adversaries but as parallel figures, is reflected in the poetry of Pindar, who more than once describes Memnon in terms appropriate to Achilles in the Iliad—singularly so, as they are the terms Achilles uses of himself—calling him Μἐμνονοs οὐκ ἀπονοστήσαντοs (“Memnon who did not return home again”).3 Preeminent among his allies, bearing armor made by Hephaistos, Memnon is the child of a divine mother, Eos, and a mortal father, Tithonos. This last feature was apparently given emphasis by the narrative shape of the Aethiopis: the actual presence of the two goddesses Eos and Thetis on the field of battle, contrasting the mortal vulnerability of the opponents with their equal heritage from the mother's immortal line, may have generated the poem's narrative tension.4 What the Iliad treats as a unique and isolating phenomenon, the Aethiopis developed along alternative traditional lines, giving prominence to the theme of mortal-immortal duality by doubling its embodiment, in the two heroes Memnon and Achilles.

Iconographic evidence supplements the version of the myth given by the Aethiopis. The symmetry of the two heroes is reflected in numerous examples of archaic pictorial art.5 Vase paintings illustrating the monomachia of Memnon and Achilles significantly portray Eos and Thetis facing each other, each at her son's side.6 The parallelism persists even in the outcome of the duel, although ultimately one hero will win and the other will lose. Vase painting corroborates the existence, in the tradition also shared by the Aethiopis, of a kērostasia in which Hermes weighs the kēres of Memnon and Achilles in the presence of Eos and Thetis.7 In the Aethiopis, the paired mothers are equated in their involvement in the struggle, each present to protect her son.

The efforts of Thetis and Eos in the Aethiopis are essentially identical. In only one respect are Thetis and Eos distinguished in Proclus's summary of the Aethiopis. Unlike Eos, Thetis communicates to Achilles some foreknowledge about his adversary: τὰ κατὰ τὸν Μἐμνονα προλἐγει (“Thetis prophesies to her son about Memnon”). In the reconstruction of the “Memnonis” proposed by neoanalytic studies, Thetis here foretells Achilles' imminent death, which is to follow upon his slaying of Memnon. According to this hypothesis, Thetis's prophetic warning here is the cause of Achilles' abstention from battle, which he will reenter only after the death of his friend Antilokhos.8 This cannot be a conclusive reading, of course; nevertheless, we can appreciate what prompted it: the certain existence of a scene in the Aethiopis in which, at the very least, Thetis intervened with her divine foresight and maternal solicitude on behalf of her son's safety.

Eos requests of Zeus, and obtains, immortality for Memnon. Thetis does not actually ask Zeus for immortality for Achilles; but she herself “having snatched her son away from the pyre, transports him to the White Island.”9 Like Elysion, the White Island represents the refuge of immortality for heroes, where they live on once they have not avoided but—even better—transcended death.10 The Aethiopis, then, emphasized the hero's divine heritage as a way of separating him from ordinary human existence and his access to communication with the gods as a way of resolving the conflict between heroic stature and mortal limitation.

The tradition represented by the Aethiopis and by our iconographic examples thus posits an identity not only between Achilles and Memnon but between Thetis and Eos, based on their roles as immortal guardians and protectors of their mortal children. From a narrative standpoint this parallelism is more than an instance of the Cycle's fondness for repetition or doublets.11 The Aethiopis shows us not a recapitulation of a prior situation by a subsequent one, but a rendering of the mythological equation between the two figures as a simultaneous juxtaposition, a mirroring, in which each reflects, and must assume the dimensions of, her counterpart.

The virtual identity of the two mothers asserted by the tradition transmitted by the Aethiopis as well as by pictorial representations reinforces the uniqueness of Thetis in the Iliad, the incomparable singularity of her position, to which the poem explicitly calls attention at 18.429-34:

‘′Ηϕαιστ’, [η] ἄρα δή τιs, ὅσαι θεαί εἰσ' ἐν 'Ολύμπῳ,
τοσσάδ' ἐνὶ ϕρεσὶν ησιν ἀνησχετο κήδεα λυγρά,
ὅσσ' ἐμοὶ ἐκ πασἐων Κρονίδηs Zεὺs ἄλγε' ἔδωκεν;
ἐκ μ[ἐ]ν μ' ἀλλάων ἁλιάων ἀνδρὶ δάμασσεν,
Αἰακίδῃ Πηλη̑ϊ, καὶ ἔτλην ἀν[ἐ]ροs εὐνὴν
πολλὰ μάλ' οὐκ ἐθἐλουσα.
Hephaistos, is there anyone, of all the goddesses on Olympos,
who has endured so many baneful sorrows in her heart,
as many as the griefs Zeus the son of Kronos has given me beyond all others?
Of all the daughters of the sea he forced on me a mortal man
Aiakos' son Peleus, and I endured the bed of a mortal man
Utterly unwilling though I was.

But if the Iliad treats Thetis's position as unparalleled, then an examination of its treatment in the light of the sources of the Thetis-Eos equation can serve as an introduction to the Iliad's process of interpreting and selectively shaping its mythology, preserving for us aspects of Thetis that elucidate her role in the Iliad even when Eos is not present to help evoke them.

Comparative evidence indicates the connection of several female deities who are notable in Greek and Indic mythologies to the prototype of an Indo-European Dawn goddess, Ausos.12 The representatives of this important Indo-European figure who most closely assume her functions in their respective poetic traditions are Indic Uṣas and Greek Eos. The shared attributes of these Greek and Indic Dawn goddesses, which link them to their prototype, yield a still more productive legacy in Greek epic, however, where they are inherited by Aphrodite, among others.

In analyzing the elements that Aphrodite and Eos share and that identify them (with Uṣas) as descendants of the Indo-European Dawn goddess, we recognize motifs that are significant in the story of Thetis.13 Chief among these is the association of the immortal goddess with a mortal lover.14 Like Uṣas in the Vedic hymns, Eos unites with various lovers, among whom Tithonos is prominent in epic; Aphrodite has union with several, notably Anchises; and Thetis is joined to Peleus. Although the outcome of a love relationship between immortal and mortal may be benign, the potential for extraordinary pathos in such a story is clear. In these instances the inherent tension resulting from the juxtaposition of immortal and mortal is involved with a specific and fundamental connection between the timeless goddesses and time itself.

The function of the Dawn goddess in Indo-European religious traditions, and hence the inherited function of Eos, is the model for this connection. Eos brings the day into being: in a sense she creates time, as at Odyssey 5.390:

ἀλλ' ὅτε δὴ τρίτον ἐμαρ ἐὔπλόκαμοs τἐλεσ' 'Ηώs
but when beautiful-haired Dawn had accomplished the third day.

As she brings the day into existence and, in effect, controls time, time controls the lives of men, by aging them; yet the goddess herself is unaging, ever-renewed.15 Eos's epithet ἠριγἐνεια (ērigeneia, “early-born”) expresses the contrast between the consequences for men of her activity, and her own freedom from those consequences. From the human point of view, she is not simply immortal; she is the agent of the process by which the meaning of mortality is fulfilled.

Eos and her lovers serve as the model for goddess-mortal relationships, with their essential antithesis between the timelessness of the goddess and the temporality of her lover.16 Eos and her lovers are even cited by characters within epic as exemplary of such relationships. Aphrodite herself tells Eos's story (Hymn. Hom. Aphr. 218-38); Kalypso knows it as well, even though, as the Odyssey points out, she lives very far away (Od. [Odyssey] 5.121); and both compare it to their own stories. The marriage of Thetis to Peleus exhibits the same antithetical pattern. Because Eos typifies such goddess-mortal relationships, Thetis is perceived synchronically as being connected with her, as in the Aethiopis, and thus shares dictional features associated with her—although Thetis cannot definitively be shown, as Eos has been, to be a direct descendant, or hypostasis, of the Indo-European Dawn goddess; their relationship is structurally homologous, rather than historical.

In Greek epic, the themes attached to the goddess and her mortal lover are recapitulated, with much greater emphasis, in the relationship between the goddess and her son, the offspring of her union with her mortal lover. Eos and Memnon, as an instance of this, reinforce the Eos-Thetis paralle. But in the case of Eos, the pattern of whose relationship with Tithonos is repeated in part with Memnon—when she requests and obtains his immortality—the erotic aspect of her mythology dominates. Thetis's erotic aspect, discernible (as we shall see) in the tradition followed by Pindar and Aeschylus, where both mortal and immortal partners woo her, is subordinated to her maternal aspect, as she appears in the Iliad.

In the Iliad, the collocation of Thetis's activities with early morning may reflect the association with Eos and her time-related function, inherited from Indo-European tradition. At 18.136, Thetis tells Achilles that she will seek armor from Hephaistos for him at dawn: ἠω̑θεν γὰρ νευ̑μαι ἅμ' ἠελίῳ ἀνιόντι (“for I shall return at dawn, with the sun's rising”).17 At 1.497, when Thetis travels to Olympos to ask Zeus for the favor on behalf of Achilles, the adjective ἠερίη (ēeriē) is used to describe her:

                                                            ἦ γ' ἀνεδύσετο κυ̑μα θαλάσσηs,
ἠερίη δ' ἀνἐβη μἐγαν οὐρανὸν Οὔλυμπόν τε.


                                                            she rose from the sea's wave
and early in the morning ascended to the great sky and Olympos.

Later, Hera rebukes Zeus for conferring with Thetis at the latter's request, saying:

νυ̑ν δ' αἰνω̑s δείδοικα κατὰ ϕρἐνα μή σε παρείπῃ
ἀργυρόπεζα Tἐτιs θυγάτηρ ἁλίοιο γἐροντοs·
ἠερίη γὰρ σοί γε παρἐζετο καὶ λάβε γούνων.


But now I fear dreadfully that she won you over,
silver-footed Thetis, daughter of the old man of the sea,
for early in the morning she sat with you and clasped your knees.

Apart from being used of Thetis, ἠερίη occurs in the Iliad only once (3.7). Like Eos's epithet ἠριγἐνεια (ērigeneia, “early-born”), it may be related to ἐρι (ēri).18 The use of ἠερίη and Thetis's early morning travels may evoke her ties to Eōs ērigeneia and the connection of their power with time, the defining fact of human life.

The reason that such diction and the motifs to which it is attached have worked their way into the narrative is to be found in the themes of the epic as a whole.19 A preeminent concern of our Iliad is the problem of mortality. While it is characteristic of epic not to confine its thematic expression to its principal character, the Iliad centers definitively in the monumental figure of Achilles, whose life represents the fullest embodiment of this theme.20 In our Iliad, the mainspring of Achilles' developing sense of values is his consciousness of the brevity of human life, and especially the extreme brevity that the war enforces. He finds the meaning of any situation by measuring it against the irreducible fact of the brevity of life. In the course of the poem, the value that he assigns to such meaning will be transformed. Because his life will be short, his dishonor at the hands of Agamemnon is initially seen to be all the more important; later, with Achilles' increased perspective on what it means to have a short life, honor from Agamemnon will have no value for him.

From the outset, the Iliad presents Achilles as possessing a powerful, personal sense of his own mortality. His first assertion of this is to Thetis, when he originally invokes her assistance at 1.352:

μη̑τερ, ἐπεί μ' ἔτεκἐs γε μινυνθάδιόν περ ἐόντα
Mother, since you did bear me to be short-lived.

That the adjective μινυνθάδιοs (minunthadios, “short-lived”) is not just a neutral term for describing anyone mortal but is highly charged and refers pointedly to Achilles' own imminent death is evident from its other occurrences in the poem. Elsewhere only Lykaon calls himself minunthadios (21.84), when he is about to die at Achilles' hands. At 15.612, Hektor is said to be “about to be” minunthadios, which the subsequent lines make explicit:21

                                                            μινυνθάδιοs γὰρ ἔμελλεν
ἔσσεσθ'· ἤδη γάρ οἱ ἐπόρνυε μόρσιμον ημαρ
Παλλὰs 'Αθηναίη ὑπὸ Πηλεῒδαο βίηϕιν.


                                                            So Hektor was to be minunthadios;
for now Pallas Athena was already driving his death day
upon him, beneath the strength of the son of Peleus.

Thetis's reply in Book 1 more than confirms the insight that ultimately, in Book 24, enables Achilles to place his brief existence in the context of others' lives—but through which, initially, he is isolated as epic poetry isolates no other single hero. His role and his self-perception converge, whereby the plot of the Iliad is multiply determined. Thetis's response at 1.416,

ἐπεί νύ τοι αῒσα μίνυνθά περ, οὔ τι μάλα δήν
since now your destiny is brief, of no length,

uniquely then speaks of an αῒσα (aisa, “destiny, allotment”) that is brief, as though Achilles' aisa—his final goal, that which is destined for him in the end—were precisely identical with the process by which it is attained. Elsewhere, aisa is either the literal end of life (as at 24.428, 750) or it is the principle of destiny, the index of whether one's actions are appropriate to one's nature. A hero can act either kata or huper aisan—“according to” or “beyond, in contravention of” aisa—or he can have an evil aisa, but only Achilles has a brief aisa—a destiny that is nothing other than the span of his life.22

Equally remarkable is Thetis's use of the compound ὠκύμοροs (ōkumoros), as her lament continues:

νυ̑ν δ' ἅμα τ' ὠκύμοροs καὶ ὀϊζυρὸs περὶ πάντων ἔπλεο·


For now you are swift in fate and wretched beyond all men.

Like aisa, the word ōkumoros acquires a new meaning when used of Achilles. Its principal meaning appears at 15.441, where Ajax uses it of the arrows belonging to the archer Teucer:

                                                                                                                                  που̑ νύ τοι ἰοὶ
ὠκύμοροι καὶ τόξον, ὅ τοι πόρε Φοι̑βοs 'Απόλλων;


                                                                                          Where now are your arrows
of quick death and the bow that Phoibos Apollo gave you?

Here the original meaning, “bringing swift death,” is evident.23 But elsewhere in the poem this adjective is applied only to Achilles and only by Thetis, who repeats it at 18.95, replying or prophesying in response to Achilles' declaration to avenge Patroklos's death:

ὠκύμοροs δή μοι, τἐκοs, ἔσσεαι, οῒ' ἀγορεύειs·
Then you will be swift in fate, my child, from what you say.

Later in Book 18, requesting the aid of Hephaistos, she says:

                                                                                                    αἴ κ' ἐθἐλησθα
υἱει̑ ἐμἳ̑ ὠκυμόρἐ δόμεν ἀσπίδα


if you are willing to give a shield to my son swift in fate.

Used of Achilles, the word describes not the agent but the victim of moros. In effect both functions are joined in Achilles, who participates in bringing about his own swift death. Because moros can mean destiny as well as death, ōkumoros characterizing Achilles could be said to mean “swiftly fated” and to denote the same idea expressed by aisa minuntha, namely, that for Achilles destiny is a synonym for life span.

Achilles, then, has special diction that distinguishes his experience as the limiting case of the experience of mortality. Its use by Thetis lays great stress on this; it is the essence of her appeal to Zeus:

τίμησόν μοι υἱόν, ὅs ὠκυμορώτατοs ἄλλων ἔπλετ'·


Honor my son who is swiftest in death of all mortals.

The poem uses Thetis to view Achilles' life from a cosmic perspective that enhances its stature as it throws into relief its brevity. Her close connection with Achilles' recognition of his mortal condition—and with all the most human aspects of his nature—contrasts sharply with the role shared by Eos and Thetis in the Aethiopis, which emphasized their sons' access to divinity. It shows as well how Achilles has been developed in the Iliad beyond the stage in which he and Memnon were correspondingly parallel and minimally differentiated from each other.

The Iliad establishes Achilles as the limiting case of human brevity and thus insists on the disparity between his situation and the timelessness of Thetis.24 Unlike the Aethiopis, however, the Iliad does so not in order to value more highly the acquisition of immortality, but to define the boundaries of human life that it accepts as final. Thetis and her mythology are put to radically different use in the Iliad. Through her the Iliad offers not the immortality of the Aethiopis, but a conception of heroic stature as inseparable from human limitation and of heroic experience as a metaphor for the condition of mortality, with all its contradictions. No hero in the Iliad is given immortality, which would be utterly incompatible with such a perspective; the possibility is entirely absent. The premise of the poem, as conveyed through the characters' own perceptions, is that the idea of immortality expresses only the extreme of imagination against which the reality of human potential and limitation is measured and comprehended.25

Achilles' discovery of identity—of values, of morality—is inseparable from the apprehension of mortality; that discovery becomes necessary and has meaning only if immortality is precluded. The battle as a context for events to be celebrated in epic may well have originated as a setting for descriptions of extraordinary exploits involving physical prowess and designating a hierarchy of heroes. But where the life-and-death import of the action may in other epic treatments have been only a framework, in the Iliad it becomes the subject itself. The heroism of Achilles emerges not so much because his exploits distinguish him as because the battle serves as a setting in which every choice, every action, becomes all-important—an arena where one's life is most closely bound to the lives of others and where, for that reason, the definition of the self comes urgently into question. Prowess becomes peripheral to the crisis of the self relative to one's own expectations and the lives of others.

To speak of the evolution of the Iliad, therefore, is to speak of the growth of the idea of the hero. The very story the poem tells embodies that evolution, describing the coming into being of the new hero. It tells the story of the making of its own subject matter. This is what Thetis's request to Zeus in Iliad 1 signifies, in contrast to Eos's in the Aethiopis. For in this sense, what Thetis asks Zeus to give Achilles is the opportunity to become the hero of the Iliad, to create the terms by which heroism will be redefined.

The Iliad explores the theme of mortality precisely by evoking and transforming an important traditional motif in such a way that the transformation expresses the premise of the poem. Placed in the context of the tradition the Iliad evokes, the equation of Thetis and Eos seeking immortality for their sons, Thetis's appeals to Zeus and later to Hephaistos on behalf of Achilles' vulnerability can be understood as significant examples of how the poem develops its major theme.

Certain elements in the constellation of motifs common to the divinities sharing the mythology of the Dawn goddess are preserved by the Iliad; others are significantly reworked. The motif of the goddess's protection of the mortal hero she loves is a central traditional feature shared by the immortal mothers (and lovers) who inherit, or are assimilated to, the mythology of the Dawn goddess.26 Its variations, apart from Eos and Thetis in the Aethiopis, include Kalypso in the Odyssey and Aphrodite in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite as well as in the Iliad.27 This tradition is well known to the Iliad, where in two dramatic episodes Aphrodite acts to protect her favorites from imminent danger, snatching them away from battle at the crucial moment. In Book 3 she rescues Paris as he is about to be overpowered by Menelaos:

                                                                                          τὸν δ' ἐξήρπαξ' 'Αϕροδίτη
ῥει̑α μάλ' ὅs τε θεόs, ἐκάλυψε δ' ἄρ' ἠἐρι πολλῃ̑,
κὰδ δ' εῒσ' ἐν θαλάμῳ εὐώδεϊ κηώεντι.


                                                            But Aphrodite snatched him up
easily as a god may, and enclosed him in a dense mist
and put him down in his fragrant bedchamber.

In Book 5 it is Aeneas whom she saves, from the onslaught of Diomedes:

ἀμϕὶ δ' ἑὸν ϕίλον υἱὸν ἐχεύατο πήχεε λευκώ,
πρόσθε δἐ οἱ πἐπλοιο ϕαεινου̑ πτύγμ' ἐκάλυψεν,
ἐρκοs ἐμεν βελἐων, μή τιs Δαναω̑ν ταχυπώλων
χαλκὸν ἐνὶ στήθεσσι βαλoν ἐκ θυμὸν ἐλοιτο.
‘Η μὲν ἑὸν ϕίλον υἱὸν ὑπεξἐϕερεν πολἐμοιο·


and around her dear son she threw her white arms,
and in front of him she wrapped a fold of her shining robe,
to be a shield against weapons, lest any of the Danaans with quick horses
should take his life from him, striking bronze into his chest.
So she bore her dear son away from the battle.

To snatch a hero from danger, to protect him from death, however, offers a paradox of which the Iliad and Odyssey are conscious: that preserving a hero from death means denying him a heroic life.28 Thus Kalypso, who compares her intention toward Odysseus with Eos's abduction of Orion,29 wants by sequestering Odysseus to offer him immortality; but this would inevitably mean the loss of his goal, the impossibility of completing the travels, the denial of his identity. From a perspective that is as intrinsic to the Odyssey as to the Iliad, it would mean the extinction of heroic subject matter, the negation of epic. Kalypso, “the concealer,” uses persuasive arguments in her attempt to hide Odysseus from mortality. Her ultimate failure measures the hero's commitment to his mortal existence—not, as she believes, the Olympian gods' jealousy, but their participation in human values.

Aphrodite, on the other hand, is a successful concealer, shielding her favorites by hiding them, Paris in the cloud of mist and Aeneas in her flowing robe.30 She enters the battle swiftly at the critical moment to save the life of her son, or, in the case of Paris, her protégé:

Καί νύ κεν ἐνθ' ἀπόλοιτο ἄναξ ἀνδρω̑ν Αἰνείαs,
εἰ μὴ ἄρ' ὀξὺ νόησε Διὸs θυγάτηρ 'Αϕροδίτη,
μήτηρ, ἥ μιν ὑπ' 'Αγχίση τἐκε βουκολῒοντι·


And now Aeneas lord of men would have perished there
if the daughter of Zeus, Aphrodite, had not quickly noticed him,
his mother, who bore him to Anchises the oxherd.

She is expressly credited with protecting Aeneas from death, just as earlier she contrives Paris's escape from Menelaos at the fatal instant:

καί νύ κεν εἴρυσσἐν τε καὶ ἄσπετον ἤρατο κυ̑δοs,
εἰ μὴ ἄρ' ὀξὺ νόησε Διὸs θυγάτηρ 'Αϕροδίτη,
ἥ οἱ ῥη̑ξεν ἱμάντα βοὸs ῒϕι κταμἐνοιο·


And now [Menelaos] would have dragged him off and won an indelible triumph,
if the daughter of Zeus, Aphrodite, had not quickly noticed him.
She broke for him the oxhide chinstrap.

Thetis, like Kalypso and Aphrodite, is associated by the Iliad with impenetrable clouds and with veils and with concealment. But the Iliad does not pursue the parallelism of this aspect of their mythology. Thetis never spirits Achilles away from danger, and she never tempts him with immortality. On the contrary, it is she who states the human limits of his choice. Repeatedly, the absoluteness of the Iliad's rejection of the idea of immortality emerges from its treatment, in relation to Achilles, of this protection motif, which figures so importantly in the immortal goddess-mortal lover or son stories and which has a preeminent place in Thetis's mythology.

Thetis acts on behalf of Achilles in the Iliad only after asserting repeatedly the knowledge that he must die and finally, in Book 18, the certainty that it is to happen soon. It is only then, after establishing her awareness of Achilles' vulnerability, her understanding that he cannot be saved, that she makes her gesture toward protecting him. She asks Hephaistos to create new armor for him, to replace the old armor worn by Patroklos and lost to Hektor. In contrast to the rescue efforts by which Aphrodite removes her man from danger, Thetis “protects” Achilles by providing him with the means to reenter the battle from which he will not return. The shield, supreme implement of “safety,” becomes the instrument of his fatality. In its implications, this favor from Hephaistos corresponds to the initial one requested of Zeus: much as Zeus's acquiescence to Thetis commits Achilles to his death at Troy, so Hephaistos's repayment of what he owes Thetis equips her son for destruction and brings him closer to it.31

The Iliad's treatment of the hoplopoiia is underscored by the evident existence of a similar scene in the Aethiopis, in which Memnon entered the battle wearing ἡϕαιστότευκτον πανοπλίαν, prior to Eos's successful plea for his immortality. In the Aethiopis, apparently, Memnon's divine armor anticipated the successful intervention of divinity and was emblematic of its redemptive patronage. It confirmed Memnon's special relationship with the gods, which would make immortality possible for him.32

In the Iliad, the implement of protection made by Hephaistos at Thetis's request is the shield, which only Achilles can endure to look at when Thetis brings it to him. But it precisely does not fulfill for Achilles, as it did for Memnon, the promise of ultimate divine preservation through the agency of his mother.33 The Iliad's rejection of this outcome for Achilles, and hence for its conception of heroism, is expressly stated. Thetis prefaces her request of Hephaistos with a summary of the Iliad up to that juncture; the Iliad recapitulates itself here from Thetis's viewpoint, so that it represents itself as a mother's narrative about her son:

κούρην ἥν ἄρα οἱ γἐραs ἔξελον υῒεs 'Αχαιω̑ν,
τὴν ἄψ ἐκ χειρω̑ν ἐλετο κρείων 'Αγαμἐμνων.
ἔτοι ὁ τη̑s ἀχἐων ϕρἐναs ἔϕθιεν· αὐτὰρ 'Αχαιοὺs
Τρω̑εs ἐπὶ πρύμνῃσιν ἐείλεον, οὐδὲ θύραζε
εἴων ἐξιἐναι· τὸν δὲ λίσσοντο γἐροντεs
'Αργείων, καὶ πολλὰ περικλυτὰ δω̑ρ' ὀνόμαζον.
ἔνθ' αὐτὸs μὲν ἔπειτ' ἠναίνετο λοιγὸν ἀμυ̑ναι,
αὐτὰρ ὁ Πάτροκλον περὶ μὲν τὰ ἅ τεύχεα ἐσσε,
πἐμπε δἐ μιν πόλεμόνδε, πολὺν δ' ἅμα λαὸν ὄπασσε.
πα̑ν δ' ἐμαρ μάρναντο περὶ σκαιῃ̑σι πύλῃσι·
καί νύ κεν αὐτη̑μαρ πόλιν ἔπραθον, εἰ μὴ 'Απόλλων
πολλὰ κακὰ ῥἐαντα Μενοιτίου ἄλκιμον υἱὸν
ἔκταν' ἐνὶ προμάχοισι καὶ ‘′Εκτορι κυ̑δοs ἔδωκε.


The girl whom the sons of the Achaeans picked out for him as a prize,
the ruler Agamemnon took back from his hands.
Grieving for her he was wearing away his heart; but
the Trojans hemmed in the Achaeans by the ships' sterns
and were not allowing them to go beyond; and the Achaean elders
beseeched him, and named many splendid gifts.
He himself then refused to ward off destruction,
but he dressed Patroklos in his armor
and sent him into battle, and supplied many people with him.
All day they fought around the Skaian gates,
and on that same day would have sacked the city, if Apollo had not
killed the powerful son of Menoitios when he had caused much harm,
in the front ranks, and given the victory to Hektor.

The Olympian reply, however compassionate, reconfirms the inevitability of Achilles' imminent death; divine collaboration on his behalf may honor him and enhance his stature, but it cannot save him and does not propose to. Hephaistos replies:

θάρσει· μή τοι ταυ̑τα μετὰ ϕρεσὶ σῃ̑σι μελόντων.
αἴ γάρ μιν θανάτοιο δυσηχἐοs rδε δυναίμην
νόσϕιν ἀποκρύψαι, ὅτε μιν μόροs αἰνὸs ἱκάνοι,
ὥs οἱ τεύχεα καλὰ παρἐσσεται, οῒά τιs αἐτε
ἀνθρώπων ποληων θαυμάσσεται, ὅs κεν ἴδηται.


Take heart; do not let these things distress your thoughts.
If only I were able to hide him away
from grievous death, when dire fate overtakes him,
as surely as there will be beautiful armor for him, such as
anyone among many mortal men will marvel at, whoever sees it.

Through Thetis the Iliad evokes this constellation of traditional elements—the divine armor, the protection motif—in order to violate conventional expectations of their potency, and it does so for the sake of the primacy of the theme of mortality, as Thetis's lament to the Nereids at 18.54-64 explicitly and deliberately reminds us:

ὥ μοι ἐγo δειλή, ὥ μοι δνσαριστοτόκεια,
ἤ τ' ἐπεὶ ἂρ τἐκον υἱὸν ἀμύμονά τε κρατερόν τε,
ἔξοχον ἡρώων· ὁ δ' ἀνἐδραμεν ἔρνεϊ ῒσοs·
τὸν μὲν ἐγo θρἐψασα, ϕυτὸν os γουνἳ̑ ἀλωη̑s,
νηυσὶν ἐπιπρο[ἐ]ηκα κορωνίσιν '′ιλιον εἴσω
Τρωσὶ μαχησόμενον· τὸν δ' οὐχ ὑποδἐξομαι αἐτιs
οἴκαδε νοστήσαντα δόμον Πηλήϊον εἴσω.
ὄϕρα δἐμοι ζώει καὶ ὁρa ϕάοs ἠελίοιο
ἅχνυται, οὐδἐ τί οἱ δύναμαι χραισμη̑σαι ἰου̑σα.
ἀλλ' εἐμ', ὄϕρα ἴδωμι ϕίλον τἐκοs, ἠδ' ἐπακούσω
ὄττι μιν ἵκετο πἐνθοs ἀπὸ πτολἣμοιο μἐνοντα.
Alas for my sorrow, alas for my wretched-best-childbearing,
since I bore a child faultless and powerful,
preeminent among heroes; and he grew like a young shoot,
I nourished him like a tree on an orchard's slope,
I sent him forth with the curved ships to Ilion
to fight the Trojans. But never again shall I welcome him
returning home to the house of Peleus.
Still, while he lives and looks on the sunlight
he grieves, and I, going to him, am all unable to help him.
But I shall go, so that I may see my dear child, and may hear
what grief has come to him as he waits out the battle.

The semidivine hero is inextricably associated with nonhuman perfection and scope, but instead of conceiving of him as elevated by this into the realm of divinity, the Iliad's vision is of an exacting mortal aspect that exerts its leveling effect on the immortal affiliations and expectations of the hero. These retain their authenticity, but no longer their overriding authority as guarantors of immortal stature.

There is thus an additional dimension to the poem's evocation and adaptation of the aspects of Thetis's mythology and attendant motifs discussed above. The “violation of expectations,” which is so effective on a formal level, provides the material of Achilles' own experience, as the poem represents it. In the Iliad's characterization, Achilles lives the violation of expectations, of the assumption of what it means to be the goddess's son: to be beyond compromise. Achilles' expectations, which this assumption underlies—of the inevitable success of Thetis's intervention with Zeus, of the unambiguous privilege of being τετιμη̑σθαι Διὸs αἴσῃ (9.608), of the possibility of taking Troy with Patroklos alone—come to be understood as illusions, and the course of the Iliad describes their transformation. The poem uses Thetis to underscore our recognition of this, as she replies to Achilles' lament for Patroklos in Book 18 with an echo of their initial exchange in Book 1:

τἐκνον, τί κλαίειs; τί δἐ] σε ϕρἐαs ἵκετο πἐνθοs;
ἐξαύδα, μὴ κευ̑θε· τὰ μὲν δή τοι τετἐλεσται
ἐκ Διόs, ὡs ἄρα δὴ πρίν γ' εὔχεο χει̑ραs ἀνασχών


Child, why are you crying? What grief has come to your heart?
Speak it, do not conceal it. Indeed, these things have been accomplished for you
by Zeus, just as you prayed for earlier, lifting up your hands

To which Achilles responds:

μη̑τερ ἐμή, τὰ μὲν ἄρ μοι 'Ολύμπιοs ἐξετἐλεσσεν·
ἀλλὰ τί μοι τω̑ν ηδοs, ἐπεὶ ϕίλοs Ὤλεθ' ἑται̑ροs


My mother, these things the Olympian brought to fulfillment;
but what good is there in them for me, since my dear companion is dead

The dislocation of which Achilles speaks here—and which constitutes his portion of suffering and of moral challenge—corresponds to the larger experience of the poem itself, in which individuals are compelled to revise drastically their formulations of their values and actions. Not only are the heroic code and the rationale of the war called into question, but central characters are repeatedly displayed in those moments of crisis that come to be recognized as typically Iliadic: the crisis of identity undermined by adamant revision of the expected and the familiar, a revision that assaults old roles and dissolves the continuity of the future. Helen on the walls of Troy or Hektor before them, Andromache preparing the bath, Patroklos storming the city: these figures are stamped with the poem's overriding theme. Achilles is preeminent among them, and his relation to this theme is both the most profound and the most fully documented of the poem. In its action the Iliad objectifies this preoccupation with inexorable events as a test of value, but the structure of the epic is studded with inner mirrors of this thematic concern. We read this larger question in every strategic violation of a “set” motif, as in the displaced outcome of the apparently traditional episode of the divine armoring.34 The character of the particular altered expectation gives us its meaning, as the Iliad's themes enforce it; the device of dislocation itself gives that meaning strength. Finally, the accumulation of characteristic incidents—sharing this revisionary quality of form and of theme—gradually establishes a distinctive tone that is yet another manifestation of the pervasive and unifying power of the determining themes. But the Iliad draws on tradition in order to assert as well as to alter convention, initiating its audience into an epic world at once familiar and unprecedented.

Thus the Iliad's rejection of the possibility of Achilles' salvation through Thetis results in its emphasis on her helpless status, which is put into relief as a radical contrast to her part in the tradition of divine protectresses—one might even say, to her role as protectress par excellence; for the Iliad, in such provocative allusions as Achilles' speech at 1. 394-412, depicts Thetis as the efficacious protectress not of heroes but of gods.35


  1. See Proclus's summary in Allen, Homeri opera, vol. 5, 106. For a discussion of the range of its contents, see Severyns, Cycle épique, 313-27; also G. L. Huxley, Greek Epic Poetry: From Eumelos to Panyassis (London, 1969), 144-49. On the structure and style of the Cycle, see Kullmann, Quellen der Ilias, 204ff., esp. 212-14.

  2. See Allen, Homeri Opera, vol. 5, 106.

  3. Nem. 6.50. See also Ol. 2.83 and Nem. 3.63. References are to the Oxford edition of Pindar by C. M. Bowra (1947; reprint, 1961).

  4. To precisely what effect the Aethiopis used this traditional parallelism is of course a matter for speculation; in any case, as the iconographic evidence indicates (see note 6 below), the poem very likely transmitted this inherited confrontation without special innovation. W. Burkert, Greek Religion (Cambridge, Mass., 1985), 121, observes, “When Achilles fights with Memnon, the two divine mothers, Thetis and Eos, rush to the scene—this was probably the subject of a pre-Iliad epic song.”

  5. Pausanias (3.18.12) reports that their confrontation in single combat was depicted on the decorated throne in the sanctuary at Amyklae in Laconia. See the discussion in A. Schneider, Der troische Sagenkreis in der ältesten griechischen Kunst (Leipzig, 1886), 143ff; also Pestalozzi, Achilleis als Quelle der Ilias, 11.

  6. In his important study The Iliad in Early Greek Art (Copenhagen, 1967), K. Friis Johansen, referring to “a well-known type of picture that was very popular in early Greek art, a conventional monomachy framed by two standing female figures,” points out that “there can be no doubt that this type was originally invented for the fight between Achilles and Memnon in the presence of their mothers Thetis and Eos” (200-201). According to Pausanias (5.19.2), the scene was also represented on the relief-decorated chest of Kypselos at Olympia: the two heroes duel, each with his mother at his side. M. E. Clark and W. D. E. Coulson discuss the iconography of the Aethiopis and its adaptations in painting, as well as the poem's relation to the Iliad, in “Memnon and Sarpedon,” MH [Museum Helveticum] 35 (1978): 65-73. See also K. Schefold, Myth and Legend in Early Greek Art (London, 1966), 45, together with plate 10 (Athens National Museum 3961.911).

  7. On the iconography of this subject, see RE [Real–Encyclopaedie der Klassischen Alterumswissenschaft] 23.2 (1959), 1442, s.v. “Psychostasie” (E. Wust); G. E. Lung, “Memnon: Archäologische Studien zur Aethiopis” (Diss., Bonn, 1912), 14-19; and the discussion in Johansen, Iliad in Early Greek Art, 261. The weighing of the fates of Memnon and Achilles is not specifically mentioned by Proclus in his summary, although it provided the subject for Aeschylus's lost play Psychostasia, as we learn from schol. A ad 8.70 and Eust. 8. 73.699.31, among others. For views in support of its existence in the Aethiopis, see Clark and Coulson, “Memnon and Sarpedon”; B. C. Dietrich, “The Judgment of Zeus,” RhM [Rheinisches Museum] 107 (1964): 97-125, esp. 112-14; Severyns, Cycle épique, 318-19.

  8. Schoeck, Ilias und Aethiopis, 38-48, contributes the interesting observation that the Iliad makes reference to a prophecy from Thetis precisely at those junctures where the question of Achilles' return to battle arises, e.g., 11.790ff.; 16.36-50. He argues that the Iliad in this way adverts to a “Memnonis” prototype, in which Thetis's prophecy was the specific cause of Achilles' absence from battle; that is, Achilles absented himself from battle at his mother's request.

  9. See Allen, Homeri opera, vol. 5, 106.

  10. The use of the White Island motif, like that of Elysion at Odyssey 4.563, is an acknowledgment of the religious and social phenomenon of the hero-cult, which is generally excluded from direct reference in epic. E. Rohde, Psyche: Seelencult und Unsterblichkeitsglaube der Griechen, vol. 2, 4th ed. (Freiburg, 1898; Tübingen, 1907), 371, calls Leuke a “Sonderelysion” for Achilles. Rohde offers a discussion of the thematic equivalence of Leuke, Elysion, and the Isles of the Blessed on pp. 365-78. On Elysion as a cult concept, see W. Burkert, “Elysion,” Glotta 39 (1961): 208-13; and Th. Hadzisteliou Price, “Hero-Cult and Homer,” Historia 22 (1973): 133-34. On the traditional poetic diction of “snatching,” or abducting, used (at least by Proclus) to describe Thetis's action here, see note 28 below.

  11. E. Howald examines doubling as a feature of the evolution and transmission of myth in Der Mythos als Dichtung (Zurich, 1937); on doublets in the Cycle in particular, see Howald's Der Dichter der Ilias (Erlenbach-Zurich, 1946), 125.

  12. On the etymology of Attic ‘′Εωs (= Ionic 'Ηώs), see P. Chantraine, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque (Paris, 1968), 394-95.

  13. The evidence for the Indo-European origins of Aphrodite, Eos, and Uṣas is presented in D. D. Boedeker, Aphrodite's Entry into Greek Epic (Leiden, 1974), whose subject is Greek epic's integration of Aphrodite's inherited features, through diction and theme, into its development of her character and role. See also the observations in P. Friedrich, The Meaning of Aphrodite (Chicago, 1978), who holds that “the Proto-Indo-European goddess of dawn was one of several main sources for the Greek Aphrodite” (31).

  14. Boedeker, Aphrodite's Entry, 67, notes: “The tradition of the mortal lover of the Dawn-goddess is an old one; in Greek epic it is surely the most obvious aspect of Eos' mythology. Comparative evidence from the Rg-Veda indicates that this feature of solar mythology dates back to common Indo-European, although in Greek myth it may have been amplified beyond its original importance.” See also C. P. Segal, “The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite: A Structuralist Approach,” CW [Classical World] 67 (1974): 205-12.

  15. On the similarly ambivalent nature of the Indic Dawn Uṣas, see A. K. Coomaraswamy, “The Darker Side of Dawn,” Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections 94.1 (1935): 1-18, esp. 4-6.

  16. See Boedeker, Aphrodite's Entry, 69.

  17. This association is recalled by Apollonius (Argon. 4.841).

  18. See the discussion in Chantraine, Dictionnaire étymologique, 407. Chantraine observes that the usage of ἠὔριοs reflects alternative etymologies, both of which are susceptible to this morphology: aer and awer. These would yield separate meanings, either “early in the morning” or “mistlike.” Both are appropriate to Thetis. She does much of her traveling at dawn, but she also rises from the sea ἠἐτ' ὀμίχλη (“like a mist”) at 1.359. In its epic usage in association with Thetis, ἠερίη has the resonance of both meanings, not as ambiguous but as surcharged with meaning: its association with her conflates the two possibilities. Schoeck, Ilias und Aethiopis, 41, comments, “Schon im Altertum war es strittig, ob ἠερίη hier [1.497] ‘in der Morgenfrühe’ oder ‘wie Luft’ heisse. Es ist denkbar, daß Homer selber mit den zwei Bedeutungen spielt.” On the connection of these motifs with Okeanos, see Boedeker, Aphrodite's Entry, 69ff.

  19. On the relationship between the words ἦρωs (“hero”) and ὥρα (“season, seasonality”), see W. Pötscher, “Hera und Heros,” RhM 104 (1961): 302-55; on the association of the hero and ὥρα as a fundamental theme in Greek myth, see Sinos, Meaning of Philos, 13-26.

  20. Just as the Odyssey is concerned with many variations on the theme of return to home and self—including the “homecomings” of Penelope, Agamemnon, Menelaos, Nestor, and Odysseus's companions—yet focuses on the nostos of Odysseus, so the Iliad presents numerous individual histories to illustrate the encompassing view expressed at 6.146-49:

    οἵη περ ϕύλλων γενεή, τοίη δὲ καὶ ἀνδρω̑ν.
    ϕύλλα τὰ μἐν τ' ἄνεμοs χαμάδιs χἐει, ἄλλα δἐ θ' ὕλη
    τηλεθόωσα ϕύει, ἔαροs δ' ἐπιγίγνεται ὥρη·
    os ἀνδρω̑ν γενεὴ ἡ μὲν ϕύει ἡ δ' ἀπολήγει.
    As is the generation of leaves, so is that of men.
    The wind showers the leaves to the ground,
    but the budding wood blossoms, and the season of Spring arrives.
    So one generation of men flourishes and the other fades away.
  21. Hektor and Lykaon are the two characters to whom Achilles expresses the necessity of recognizing and accepting death; as he himself has done it, so they must do it as well. The adjective is used otherwise only of two Trojan warriors, Simoeisios and Hippothoos, at the precise point at which each meets his death (4.478 = 17.302).

  22. See page 104 [Slatkin, Laura M., The Power of Thetis, 1991].

  23. This meaning is confirmed by the Odyssey's use of the adjective at 22.75, where it is used of the arrows aimed against the suitors by Odysseus.

  24. At 17.446ff. Zeus pities the horses of Peleus because although immortal they are yoked to the lives of men who, being mortal, are especially given over to suffering (ὀϊζυρώτεροι). But it is Achilles who has been called ὠκύμοροs καί ὀϊζυρὸs περὶ πάντων, at 1.417; so that what mortals are by nature, Achilles is most.

  25. As expressed, for instance, in the famous speech of Sarpedon to Glaukos at 12.309-28. On this subject, see the penetrating discussion of Whitman, Homer and the Heroic Tradition, 181-220; see as well the insights in S. L. Schein, The Mortal Hero: An Introduction to Homer's Iliad (Berkeley, 1984), 67-84.

  26. Sinos, Meaning of Philos, has shown in detail that the kourotrophos or nurturing function of the goddess, revealed in the diction of vegetal growth, as, for example, at Iliad 18.437-38, is apparent in the relationship in cult between the kourotrophos goddess and the kouros. The protection motif is a correlate of this function in myth. See also R. Merkelbach, “ΚΟΡΟΣ,” ZPE [Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik] 8 (1971): 80; and P. Vidal-Naquet, “Le chasseur noir et l'origine de l'éphébie athénienne,” Économies-sociétés-civilisations 23 (1968): 947-49.

  27. On the related attributes of these goddesses, see Boedeker, Aphrodite's Entry, 64-84. Apart from the Dawn goddess hypostases, Demeter in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter appears in the role of kourotrophos to Demophon; see the commentary ad 231-55 (esp. 237ff. with remarks on Achilles and Thetis) in N. J. Richardson, ed., The Homeric Hymn to Demeter (Oxford, 1974; reprint, 1979), 231ff.

  28. For an analysis of the structure and diction of similar episodes of abduction and “preservation,” especially the ambivalence inherent in such episodes' use of the particular terminology of snatching, kidnapping, and concealing, see Nagy, Greek Mythology and Poetics, 223-62, esp. 242-57. This same terminology (as transmitted by Proclus, at any rate) is used to designate Thetis's action in the Aethiopis in snatching Achilles from the pyre (N.B. the use of anarpasasa), after which she “preserves” him on the White Island.

  29. Od. 5.121-24.

  30. It is perhaps significant, however, that while both Aphrodite's beneficiaries do escape destruction and survive the Iliad, their individual heroism, from an epic standpoint, has been permanently compromised.

  31. As we shall see below, Thetis is similarly owed a favor by Dionysos, whom she is said to have rescued as she did Hephaistos. Strikingly, his antidōron equally does nothing other than attest to Achilles' mortality: it is the golden urn in which Achilles' bones will lie with those of Patroklos.

  32. See Griffin, “Epic Cycle and Uniqueness of Homer,” 39-53, esp. 42-43 on immortality as a feature of the Cycle poems.

  33. Much has been written on the importance of a hero's armor as an emblem of his warrior identity; see Ph. J. Kakridis, “Achilleus Rüstung,” Hermes 89 (1961): 288-97, esp. 292-93; on the shield in particular, see W. Leaf, ed., The Iliad, vol. 1, 2d ed. (London, 1902), 470. In The Arms of Achilles and Homeric Compositional Technique (Leiden, 1975), R. Shannon makes these connections: “Peleus' spear links Achilles with his mortal ancestry; his new armor links him with his immortal parent and, through her, with Hephaistos, its forger, and his attribute, fire” (31).

  34. See the analysis of J. I. Armstrong, “The Arming Motif in the Iliad,AJP [American Journal of Philology] 79 (1958): 337-54.

  35. M. Lang, “Reverberation and Mythology in the Iliad,Approaches to Homer, ed. C. A. Rubino and C. W. Shelmerdine (Austin, 1983), 153-54, suggests that “hurlings out of heaven and rescues by Thetis seem to have been popular motifs,” noting that Thetis “made a specialty of rescue (witness her deliverance of Zeus in 1.396ff., and her rescue of Dionysus in 6.130ff.).”


Allen, T. W., ed. Odyssey. Vols. 3 and 4 of Homeri opera. 2d ed. Oxford, 1917, 1919.

Armstrong, J. I. “The Arming Motif in the Iliad.AJP 79 (1958): 337-54.

Boedeker, D. D. Aphrodite's Entry into Greek Epic. Leiden, 1974.

Bowra, C. M. Pindari Carmina cum fragmentis. 2d ed. Oxford, 1947; reprint 1961.

Burkert, W. “Elysion.” Glotta 39 (1961): 208-13.

———. Greek Religion. Cambridge, Mass., 1985.

Chantraine, P. Histoire des mots. Vols. 1-4 of Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque. Paris, 1968-80.

Clark, M. E., and W. D. E. Coulson. “Memnon and Sarpedon.” MH [Mediaevalia et Humanistica] 35 (1978): 65-73.

Coomaraswamy, A. K. “The Darker Side of Dawn.” Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collection 94.1 (1935): 1-18.

Dietrich, B. C. “The Judgment of Zeus.” RhM 107 (1964): 97-125.

Friedrich, P. The Meaning of Aphrodite. Chicago, 1978.

Griffin, J. “The Epic Cycle and the Uniqueness of Homer.” JHS [Journal of Hellenic Studies] 97 (1977): 39-53.

Howald, E. Der Mythos als Dichtung. Zurich, 1937.

Huxley, G. L. Greek Epic Poetry: From Eumelos to Panyassis. London, 1969.

Johansen, K. F. The Iliad in Early Greek Art. Copenhagen, 1967.

Kakridis, Ph. J. “Achilleus Rüstung.” Hermes 89 (1961): 288-97.

Kullmann, W. Die Quellen der Ilias (Troischer Sagenkreis). Hermes Einzelschriften 14. Wiesbaden, 1960.

Lang, M. L. “Reverberations and Mythology in the Iliad.” In Approaches to Homer, edited by C. A. Rubino and C. W. Shelmerdine, 140-64. Austin, 1983.

Leaf, W., ed. The Iliad. 2 vols. 2d ed. London, 1900, 1902.

Lung, G. E. “Memnon: Archäologische Studien zur Aethiopis.” Diss., Bonn, 1912.

Merkelbach, R. “ΚΟΡΟσ.” ZPE [Zeirschrfit fuer Philosophische und Epigraphik] 8 (1971): 80.

Nagy, G. Greek Mythology and Poetics. Ithaca, N.Y., 1990.

Pestalozzi, H. Die Achilleis als Quelle der Ilias. Erlenbach-Zurich, 1945.

Pötscher, W. “Hera und Heros.” RhM 104 (1961): 302-55.

Price, Th. Hadzisteliou. “Hero-Cult and Homer.” Historia 22 (1973): 129-44.

Richardson, N. J., ed. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Oxford, 1974; reprint, 1979.

Rohde, E. Psyche: Seelencult und Unsterblichkeitsglaube der Griechen. 2 vols. Freiburg, 1898; 4th ed., Tübingen, 1907. Translated by W. B. Hillis. New York, 1925; reprint, 1966.

Schefold, K. Myth and Legend in Early Greek Art. London, 1966.

Schein, S. L. The Mortal Hero: An Introduction to Homer's Iliad. Berkeley, 1984.

Schoeck, G. Ilias und Aethiopis: Kyklische Motive in homerischer Brechung. Zurich, 1961.

Segal, C. P. “The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite: A Structuralist Approach.” CW [Classical World] 67 (1974): 205-12.

Severyns, A. Le cycle épique dans l'école d'Aristarque. Liège, 1928.

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James V. Morrison (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10184

SOURCE: Morrison, James V. “Misdirection 3: Thematic Misdirection.” In Homeric Misdirection: False Predictions in the Iliad, pp. 73-93. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Morrison discusses narrative misdirection brought about by prophesies and threats in the Iliad.]

This [essay] examines thematic misdirection, which is brought about by false authoritative predictions. In contrast to false anticipation, where the presentation of an expected event is merely postponed, with thematic misdirection authoritative predictions anticipate events that do not take place. The substance of the prediction—not merely the apparent time of fulfillment—is false or exceedingly misleading. The themes of a Trojan victory and burial for a fallen hero are subject to thematic misdirection.1 These both play a central role in the narrative, developing throughout the epic. Regarding the threat of Trojan victory, authoritative predictions support the false picture of the Greek fleet in flames before the Myrmidons' intervention. The predictions by Zeus and Achilles concerning the extent of this victory imply destruction of most of the Greek fleet before Hector is stopped. This puts into doubt an eventual Greek homecoming, even if the Greeks eventually rally to sack Troy. Once again, misdirection challenges the audience's assumption that the traditional story line will be respected. The second theme of burial—or its denial—reaches a climax when Achilles threatens to throw Hector's body to scavenging birds and dogs. Although he does ransom Hector's body in book 24, until then it appears that Achilles will mutilate Hector's corpse. This is evidently supported by the narrator's comments. Zeus' predictions are not invariably reliable, and Achilles often belies his predictions by his own action—or inaction. Yet regarding the Trojan victory and the burial of Hector, an apparently consistent network of predictions points the audience in the wrong direction, and the narrator refrains from correcting such false persuasive predictions.


Our first instance of thematic misdirection concerns the predictions anticipating the Trojan victory. As we shall see, the audience is misled regarding its extent. Let us begin by surveying the sequence of events on the four days of battle and the audience's expectations. In book 1, Zeus promises to honor Achilles' request for a Greek defeat. When battle begins in book 4, the Trojans do not immediately drive back the Greeks. The Trojan victory is left in abeyance during the first day of battle. On the second day of battle (book 8), Zeus prohibits divine interference, and the Trojans take the upper hand. On the third day, as we have seen, Zeus promises Hector a victory until sundown. Hector breaks through the Greek wall, burns the ship of Protesilaus, kills Patroclus, and wins the armor of Achilles. On the final day of fighting, Achilles drives the Trojans back to their city and slays Hector before the walls of Troy. The audience receives much accurate information about this sequence of events. [T]he audience not only foresees the Trojan victory but knows that beyond it lies Achilles' return to battle and eventually the sack of Troy. The narrator makes it very clear that the Greek setback will be temporary.

The limits of Trojan success are spoken of in several ways. Zeus originally assures Thetis that the Greeks will suffer defeat until the Greeks honor Achilles (1.508-30). In book 8, Zeus announces that Hector will not be stopped until Achilles acts (8.470-77). The god's promise in book 11 is for a single day: at sunset Hector presumably will lose Zeus' support (11.191-94 a 11.206-9). This network of predictions leads the audience to expect that Achilles will stop Hector at the end of the day. Although Hector ignores the qualification of Zeus' promise, Polydamas foresees the aftermath of the Trojan assault. Both Agamemnon and Nestor ask the gods that the Greeks not be utterly destroyed, and their wishes are acknowledged.2 The audience is misled, however, regarding how much damage Hector will do before the Greeks drive him back. Although Achilles' return at sunset marks the end of Hector's day of glory, the audience never learns precisely what Hector will accomplish before then. Because some authoritative predictions about Hector's success are vaguely worded while others are factually incorrect, the narrator encourages the expectation that Hector will do considerable damage to the Greek fleet before any aid comes from the Myrmidons. The audience is led to anticipate mistakenly the burning of much of the Greek fleet, as Zeus' predictions—which normally are quite reliable—reinforce the hopes and fears of mortal characters. The entire network of predictions is misleading, for the narrator never qualifies or corrects such false predictions.

The predictions of mortal characters partially constitute a set of predictions anticipating the threat to the Greek camp. Previously in the Iliad, the Greek camp—situated at the ships—was not in danger. Hera says that, as long as Achilles was fighting, the Trojans never ventured far from the city (5.788-91).3 Yet without his services, Achilles predicts that Agamemnon will not keep the Greeks “safe by their ships” (1.338-44). After the Greek wall is built, the ships become the focus of Trojan boast and Greek concern. Hector vows to cross the wall and burn the ships (8.178-83). Although diverted on the second day of battle, that night he presents a strategy.4 The Trojans will set watch fires to prevent the Greeks from escaping at night; in the morning, the Trojans will battle the Greeks at their ships (8.526-41). Corresponding to the Trojan threat is the anxiety of the Greeks. In the embassy to Achilles, Odysseus appeals for help in saving the ships (9.230-46). Phoenix' opening and closing words emphasize his fear for the fleet threatened with fire (9.434-38, 9.601-2). Agamemnon's first question to the returning ambassadors concerns the danger to the ships (9.673-75). The Trojan threat against the ships recurs as a leitmotiv throughout the third day of battle.5 Schadewaldt calls the ships a catchword for the coming disaster.6

Why does the narrator choose to emphasize the ships? What makes them so important? There are two answers: one in purely military terms, the other with respect to the tradition. In purely strategic terms, the ships define an area of control and safety for the Greeks. Defending the ships means protecting men and supplies in the camp. But in addition the ships function as vessels of transport.7 The catalog of ships in book 2 reminds the audience that this expedition began as a naval operation. The narrator surveys the Greek forces by naming the number of ships and the leaders of each contingent (2.493-760). Elsewhere the ships are described in ominous terms. They have brought war to Troy, as Idomeneus grimly tells Deiphobus:8

                                                                                “νυ̑ν δ' ἐνθάδε νη̑εs ἔνεικαν
σοί τε κακὸν καὶ πατρὶ καὶ ἄλλοισι Τρώεσσιν.”
“And now the ships have brought evil to this place
for you and your father and the rest of the Trojans.”


Conversely, these ships furnish the means for accomplishing the journey from Troy back to Greece. After sacking Troy, according to the tradition, the Greeks will sail home in triumph.9 This latter capacity of the ships is endangered by Zeus' promise of Trojan victory. For the Greeks to accomplish a homecoming after the war, the ships must survive the war intact. The narrator highlights the danger to the ships, because any threat to the ships jeopardizes the Greeks' nostos. Odysseus puts it most bluntly:

“ταυ̑τ' αἰνω̑s δείδοικα κατὰ φρἐνα, μή οἱ ἀπειλὰs
ἐκτελἐσωσι θεοί, ἡμι̑ν δὲ δὴ αἴσιμον εἴη
φθίσθαι ἐνὶ Τροίῃ ἑκὰs '′Αργεοs ἱπποβότοιο.”
“All this I fear terribly in my heart, lest the gods
accomplish all these threats, and lest for us it be destiny
to die here in Troy, far away from horse-pasturing Argos.”


While Odysseus is painting the worst possible picture, the fear that the ships' destruction will leave the Greeks to die far from their homeland is shared by Idomeneus and Agamemnon (13.225-27, 14.69-70; cf. 15.504-5, 15.699-700). The idea of dying away from home also bears on Achilles' rationale for leaving (9.412-13; cf. 9.434, 9.622).10

A coherent network of predictions—either authoritative or without authoritative correction—suggests that the ships will not be successfully defended. Although the audience is assured that the Greeks will eventually rally, it appears that this reversal will come too late. The audience's expectation that the Greeks will return home (in accordance with the tradition) is undermined by predictions that Achilles will not act until Hector has destroyed much of the fleet. Of course if the Greeks lose only their ships, can protect the lives of the men in the army, and can later sack Troy, it would be possible to build more ships. The fleet's destruction, however, implies the loss of much of their military force. As the narrator highlights the importance of defending the ships, the audience seizes upon predictions regarding the extent of the damage Hector will inflict before he is driven back. Let us consider the most emphatic announcements.

In book 9, Odysseus, Phoenix, and Ajax each attempt to persuade Achilles to return to help the Greeks in battle. Achilles' final word to the ambassadors is that he will not return to battle until the Greek ships are in flames and the Trojans reach his ships.

“οὐ γὰρ πρὶν πολἐμοιο μεδήσομαι αἱματόεντοs,
πρίν γ' υἱὸν Πριάμοιο δαίφρονοs, ‘′Εκτορα δι̑ον,
Μυρμιδόνων ἐπί τε κλισίαs καὶ νη̑αs ἱκἐσθαι
κτείνοντ' 'Αργείουs, κατά τε σμυ̑ξαι πυρὶ νη̑αs.
ἀμφὶ δἐ τοι τῃ̑ ἐμῃ̑ κλισίῃ καὶ νηὶ μελαίνῃ
‘′Εκτορα καὶ μεμαω̑τα μάχηs σχήσεσθαι ὀίω.”
“For I will not think of bloody war again,
until the son of wise Priam, godlike Hector,
reaches the huts and ships of the Myrmidons
slaughtering the Argives, and the [other] ships are consumed with fire.
But around my hut and my black ship
I think Hector will be stopped for all his desire for battle.”


The Myrmidons' ships are at the extreme end of the Greek camp (8.222-26 = 11.5-9).11 Achilles' threat implies that Hector will destroy most of the fleet before reaching Achilles' camp to force his return. In fact, Achilles changes his mind in book 16, when Patroclus' appeal succeeds. As Achilles tells his friend:

“ἀλλὰ τὰ μὲν προτετύχθαι ἐάσομεν· οὐδ' ἄρα πωs ἣν
ἀσπερχὲs κεχολω̑σθαι ἐνὶ φρεσίν· ἤτοι ἔφην γε
οὐ πρὶν μηνιθμὸν καταπαυσἐμεν, ἀλλ' ὁπότ' ἂν δὴ
νη̑αs ἐμὰs ἀφίκηται ἀυτή τε πτόλεμόs τε.”
“Still we will let all this be a thing of the past; and it was not
in my heart to be angry forever; and yet I have said
I would not give over my anger until that time came
when the fighting with all its clamour reached my own ships.”


Achilles had planned to wait for Hector's arrival at his own camp, yet Patroclus' appeal is effective. Long before Hector reaches Achilles' ships, Achilles sends Patroclus and the Myrmidons to stop the Trojans. Hector throws fire on only one ship in book 16—that of Protesilaus. It is remarkable, however, that in books 8-15 authoritative predictions reinforce, rather than correct, Achilles' vow that no aid will come until Hector reaches his own ships: this leads the audience to expect the Greek fleet to suffer more damage than it actually does in book 16.

This misleading network of predictions consists of threats and worries by the Trojans and Greeks respectively, Achilles' final response to the ambassadors, and authoritative predictions by Zeus and the narrator. While the predictions of mortal characters are often suspect, the audience relies upon Zeus and the narrator for trustworthy guidance. First let us consider Zeus' prophecies. Regarding the limit of Hector's victory, Zeus predicts that Hector will not be stopped until Achilles “rises” (ὄρθαι) as they fight over the dead Patroclus “in the most terrible straits” (στείνει ἐν αἰνοτάτῳ) by the ships (8.475-76). This is false. Patroclus does not lie by the Greek ships after he is killed. He is killed on the battlefield, where the struggle over his corpse takes place.12 This inaccurate prediction implies that Hector will be at the ships when Achilles finally returns to battle, while the Greeks continue to defend their camp. This is Zeus' first significant false prediction.

Awakening after Hera's seduction in book 15, Zeus is determined to fulfill his promise to Thetis by championing Hector's efforts. He announces that Hector will drive the Greeks to their ships; after killing Sarpedon, Patroclus will be killed by Hector; then Achilles will kill Hector, and Troy eventually will be sacked (15.53-77). Zeus' prophecy is accurate in many respects. Except for the sack of Troy, all this takes place in the next eight books. But Zeus' statement regarding Patroclus' appearance is false:

                                                                                                    “αὐτὰρ 'Αχαιοὺs
αὔτιs ἀποστρἐψῃσιν ἀνάλκιδα φύζαν ἐνόρσαs,
φεύγοντεs δ' ἐν νηυσὶ πολυκλήισι πἐσωσι
Πηλείδεω 'Αχιλη̑οs· ὁ δ' ἀνστήσει ὃν ἑται̑ρον
                                                                                                    “But let [Hector] drive strengthless
panic into the Achaeans, and turn them back once more;
let [the Greeks] be driven in flight and tumble back onto the benched ships
of Achilles, Peleus' son. And he shall rouse up Patroclus his companion.”


Given the sequence of this prophecy, Zeus appears to be saying that the Greeks will fall back to the ships of Achilles, and that only then will Achilles send Patroclus to battle. If the Greeks rally at this point, their homecoming would be seriously at risk, for if Hector reaches the extreme end of the Greek camp, the rest of the fleet would presumably be destroyed.14 Zeus' predictions in books 8 and 15 apparently support Achilles' predictions that no one will help the Greeks until Hector reaches the ships of the Myrmidons.

In general, the narrator's comments are very reliable and helpful in anticipating events. Yet with respect to the limits of Hector's victory and the safety of the Greek fleet, he never corrects Achilles' proclamation or the anticipations of the Greeks and Trojans, as he frequently does elsewhere (cf., e.g., 18.310-13). Not only does he let Zeus' false predictions stand, but his own misleading (if not false) comment in book 15 again reinforces the network as a whole:

‘′Εκτορι γάρ οἱ θυμὸs ἐβούλετο κυ̑δοs ὀρἐ ξαι
Πριαμίδῃ, ἵνα νηυσὶ κορωνίσι θεσπιδαὲs πυ̑ρ
ἐμβάλοι ἀκάματον, Tἐτιδοs δ' ἐξαίσιον ἀρὴν
πα̑σαν ἐπικρήνειε· τὸ γὰρ μἐνε μητίετα Zεύs,
νηὸs καιομἐνηs σἐλαs ὀφθαλμοι̑σιν ἰδἐσθαι.
Zeus' desire was to give glory to the son of Priam,
Hector, that he might throw inhuman weariless
fire on the curved ships, and so make completely accomplished
the prayer of Thetis. Therefore Zeus of the counsels awaited
the sight before his eyes of the flare of a burning ship.


The narrator mentions Hector's glory, the burning of the ships, and Thetis' wish. Nowhere in the narrator's comment is there any indication that Achilles is about to change his mind to save the fleet. Until Achilles reverses himself in book 16, the audience must entertain the possibility of a fleet in flames—and a homecoming at risk.15

Various theories have tried to account for the discrepancies between the predictions in books 8-15 and the events of book 16. These entail examining Achilles' character, altering the text, or minimizing the importance of the discrepancies. First let us consider Achilles' character. From the audience's perspective, Achilles has previously made rash predictions and threats in the epic. His vow to return home during the quarrel with Agamemnon was not realized (1.169-71). He changes his mind several times in response to the embassy. First he vows to leave in the morning; then he says he will wait until morning to decide; and finally he reverses himself and says he will wait for Hector at his ships (cf. 9.356-63, 9.618-19, 9.650-55). How much faith can the audience have in a hero who has previously acted contrary to his word? Still the audience's response to Achilles' announcements is normally guided by other predictions that reinforce or correct his expressed intentions. Certainly many of his unfulfilled threats are not persuasive to the audience. Early in the epic, the audience knows that Achilles is not going home, for authoritative predictions make it clear that Achilles is speaking rashly. In book 1, Thetis tells Achilles to remain in anger by his ships (1.421-22; cf. 1.212-14); Achilles' return to battle is then mentioned in the catalog (2.694, 2.859-61, 2.873-75). Although Odysseus reports his threat to leave at the Greek council (9.677-92), Achilles is still watching the battle in book 11, and of course Zeus has foretold his return (8.473-77). When the audience hears Achilles' threats, it generally knows whether or not they will be realized, due to authoritative predictions that offer a truer picture of the future.16 As demonstrated above, however, Achilles' threat regarding Hector's attack is not corrected; rather, authoritative predictions reinforce his vow that he will wait until the Myrmidon camp is threatened. Certainly Achilles' temperament is mercurial, but in the case of stopping Hector, his anticipations are corroborated by other persuasive predictions.

A second approach, advocated by both ancient and modern scholars, is to achieve consistency between prediction and outcome by removing the offending lines of Zeus' prophecies. Zeus' description of Patroclus “lying by the ships” (8.475-76) was athetized in antiquity on the grounds that it was false.17 Aristarchus and Aristophanes athetized Zeus' entire second prophecy (15.56-77); Zenodotus deleted most of it (15.64-77). Two reasons were explicitly advanced for removing these lines: the first is repetition. The ancient critics often objected to repetition in the Iliad: in Zeus' prophecy in book 15, Patroclus' death is unnecessarily reiterated (according to this argument) and the sack of Troy has already been referred to.18 Although it is true that the narrator often avoids repetition, this is not a fixed rule of Homeric narrative.19 Passages containing summary and recapitulation are found elsewhere in the Iliad and do more than just summarize.20 New information is almost always introduced, raising new and more detailed expectations. Zeus' prophecy in book 15 contains the first explicit prediction that Hector will kill Patroclus and that Achilles will kill Hector. And each time Hector is in the midst of success, the audience is reminded that his victory will be short-lived, and that his death and the sack of Troy impend.21 Zeus' prophecy just precedes Hector's attack upon the Greek ships: his day of glory is reaching its climax. Yet here the audience learns of his death at the hands of Achilles, as the narrator shifts its expectations to these later events involving Hector. Such “summaries” as Zeus' prophecy either represent a regular type of interpolation or are a regular stylistic feature of Homeric narrative.22

The second reason for removing these lines is their falsity, or inaccuracy.23 The Greeks do not retreat to Achilles' ships; Achilles sends Patroclus to battle when Hector is still fighting at the ship of Protesilaus. How can we explain Zeus getting it wrong? … [T]he narrator has manipulated the audience's expectations in a variety of ways. Fulfillment is postponed, and untraditional episodes challenge the traditional story line. Regarding the extent of Hector's victory, we have misdirection of another sort: the entire network of predictions—formed by Zeus' prophecies, Achilles' threat, and other mortals' predictions—generates the consistent (but false) expectation that Hector will drive the Greeks to Achilles' ships at the extreme end of the Greek camp. The Greek fleet will suffer great damage, as Hector gains the opportunity to burn the abandoned fleet. Only then will Achilles send Patroclus to battle. The audience may see Zeus' prophecy as adding more detail to what was said in earlier predictions: Achilles will send Patroclus (he will not go himself), but not until the Greeks flee to the Myrmidon camp. While a scholarly desire for consistency advocates removal, this study argues for retaining the lines with their full import: in books 8 and 15, the narrator uses Zeus' remarks to mislead his audience.

A hypothesis formulated by Schadewaldt offers a third explanation of Zeus' false predictions: the “principle of inexactitude.”24 Schadewaldt argues that the narrator has little regard for precise details; the audience is concerned only with the general movement and would not notice slight discrepancies. Since Homer is an oral poet, his original audience heard the Iliad performed. If the performance took days or perhaps weeks, surely no one would remember such details. Is it legitimate then to ground an argument for misdirection upon such close attention to the actual verbal formulation? Admittedly, my analysis has given great emphasis to the precise phrasing found in the narrative. Achilles will “rise” when Patroclus lies “in the most terrible straits” by the ships. Achilles will send Patroclus “when the Greeks fall back to Achilles' camp.” If the audience notes these false leads, it will have trouble reconciling Hector's attack on the ships with the larger tradition of the Greeks sailing home. While I have emphasized the telling effect of false predictions, Schadewaldt prefers to diminish the importance of such discrepancies.

I think the principle of inexactitude helps to explain certain inconcinnities. Athene, for example, intervenes in book 1 to prevent Achilles' murder of Agamemnon, yet Thetis tells Achilles that the gods are away in Ethiopia (1.423-27). There are two middays on the third day of battle (11.84-91, 16.777-80).25 Regarding these cases, I think, Schadewaldt is correct: the audience is not bothered by the contradiction in either case, for it is of a trivial nature. Concerning the Trojan victory, however, I maintain that the narrator is choosing his words carefully and expects his audience to pay attention. The traditional story tells of a Greek sack of Troy. The narrator of the Iliad has chosen to present a Greek defeat, all the while making the audience aware that a reversal is coming. This major theme has been developed with great care. The audience has become sensitive to the limits of Trojan success, suspecting that the Greeks will rally before the fleet is lost. A central issue for the Greeks—and the audience—is the timing of Achilles' return. Any relevant predictions will be carefully attended to. When predictions raise the possibility that the Greek fleet will be destroyed—calling into question the Greek homecoming—this will surely attract the audience's attention. I think the principle of inexactitude does not apply in the case of the Trojan victory.

The audience may not always fix its attention on the finer details. Yet in the proem, the narrator evokes a picture of great destruction as the result of Achilles' intransigence. Later, more detailed predictions reinforce this scenario. While the audience may not retain all the details in connection with Hector's attack, the narrator has manipulated the audience's expectations regarding the limits of Trojan success. The narrator could easily have corrected Achilles' rash threat, yet he does not. Zeus' false predictions and the narrator's vague comments increase, rather than reduce, the audience's worry that Hector will accomplish his threats against the Greek fleet. … When Zeus confers a temporary invincibility upon Hector and when the narrator emphasizes the danger to the fleet and then does nothing to reassure the audience about the Greek defense, the audience is left to wonder once again if part of the traditional story line may be abandoned.


We now turn to the case of Hector's burial, a second important example of thematic misdirection. When Achilles finally returns to battle and avenges the death of Patroclus by killing Hector, the central focus of the epic turns to the fate of Hector's corpse. Achilles' threats to mutilate the body of Hector are nowhere contradicted, and in fact, comments by the narrator appear to confirm this plan of vengeance. In book 24, Achilles ransoms Hector's body to Priam, but the audience is given little indication ahead of time that he will do so; instead the audience is led to expect that Achilles will continue his savage treatment of Hector's corpse. While the tradition itself is not seriously challenged, the audience is misled regarding the plot of the final portion of the epic.

An articulated sequence of the death and burial of fallen heroes provides a basic structure to the final third of the Iliad. The sequence of deaths builds to a climax: in book 16, Patroclus kills Sarpedon but then is killed by Hector; finally, in book 22, Achilles slays Hector. The consequences are evident: while Zeus loses his son Sarpedon, Hector's slaying of Patroclus brings Achilles himself back to battle; the loss of Hector spells imminent destruction for Troy. The narrator normally prepares the audience far in advance for a hero's death. Care for the heroes' corpses is not as decisive for the outcome of the Trojan War, yet it too is given great emphasis in the narrative. The burial of Sarpedon occurs soon after his death in book 16, as the gods Death and Sleep escort him to his home in Lycia. The poem as a whole culminates in two burials. The celebration of Patroclus' funeral games comes in book 23; and the entire epic closes with Hector's burial in Troy. Predictions of burial, however, are not introduced as readily as those for the deaths of heroes. The theme of mutilating a corpse—or denial of burial—is developed throughout the epic and reaches a climax with Achilles' threats against Hector. The work of Bassett, Segal, and Griffin has made clear the centrality of this issue to the narrative.26 Without reiterating the insightful analysis of these critics, I would like to sketch out briefly how the treatment of fallen heroes evolves in the Iliad.

On the first day of battle (books 2-7), there are few instances of threat or concern about the fate of a hero's corpse; no acts of mutilation take place.27 To the contrary, great respect and care is given to the dead. Before his duel with Ajax in book 7, Hector announces the terms concerning the vanquished warrior: if Hector is slain, his killer may strip his arms but must return the body for the pyre; if Hector kills his opponent, he will dedicate the spoils to Apollo but will return his opponent's body to the Greeks for burial (7.76-91). Although the duel—interrupted by darkness—is called a draw, burial would have been assured to the potential loser. That night, both Nestor and Priam propose a truce so that both armies may bury the dead from the first day of battle. War ceases for a day; only after the funeral rites of burning pyres, gathering bones, and setting up markers does battle recommence (cf. 7.324-436).28 Early in the epic—outside the proem—there is no expectation of the savagery to follow.

On the second day of battle (book 8), only a single threat of mutilation is made,29 yet that night the atmosphere is wholly altered. The agreement concerning burial is not renewed. The plain is evidently littered with dead warriors, for the Trojans and the Greeks must each find a space clear of bodies to set up camp or council.30 On their night mission, Diomedes and Odysseus make their way through the slaughter of that day's fighting:

βάν ῥ' ἴμεν ὥs τε λἐοντε δύω διἀ νύκτα μλαιναν,
ἂμ φόνον, ἂν νἐκυαs, διά τ' ἔντεα καὶ μἐλαν αῒμα.
They went on their way like two lions into the black night
through the carnage, the corpses, the war gear, and dark blood.


When these Greek spies confront Dolon, the first decapitation of the epic takes place (10.454-57). The third day of battle begins not only with the threat and worry of mutilation but with two acts of mutilation presented (11.146-47, 11.261).31 Zeus worries about the fate of Sarpedon's corpse. After Hector slays Patroclus, the Trojan attack on the ships is utterly forgotten as the armies fight an extended battle over the body of Patroclus. The threat of mutilation recurs as a leitmotiv in books 16-18.

The final day of battle includes several acts of mutilation (including a beheading) by Achilles.32 The theme of mutilation thus recurs and intensifies in the Iliad, with special prominence after the deaths of Sarpedon and Patroclus and surrounding Achilles' meeting with Hector.33 Segal calls book 22 the climax of the theme of the mutilation of the corpse. Hecuba worries that Hector's corpse will be fed to the dogs (22.86-89). Hector twice attempts to negotiate with Achilles for burial—once when they first meet, and again after he is mortally wounded. Both times he is unsuccessful (22.250-72, 22.338-60). Weeping at the sight of her dead husband being dragged around the city, Andromache assumes he will never be buried (22.508-14). The heroes and their families evidently place great value upon burial; in narrative terms, this issue is also of central importance to the course of the epic, as the audience becomes sensitive to this shift toward savagery.34 First there are relatively civilized dealings between the armies, but in the final third of the epic, we find desperate responses to the threat of ignominious violation.

Let us now consider the audience's expectations regarding such episodes. I begin by contrasting the anticipation of a hero's death with the absence of narrative preparation regarding burial. The narrator uses his own comments and those of the gods (primarily Zeus) to prepare the audience for the deaths of Sarpedon, Patroclus, and Hector.35 Zeus is the first to predict Sarpedon's death—1,200 lines before it occurs. Zeus, Hera, and the narrator reiterate the inevitable outcome of Sarpedon's duel with Patroclus, just before it takes place.36 Zeus also foresees Patroclus' death—first mentioned eight books and over 5,000 lines before he dies. In books 15 and 16, numerous authoritative predictions remind the audience that Patroclus will die at the hands of Hector.37 Zeus predicts Hector's death seven books (again almost 5,000 lines) before he dies. Divine and narratorial comments keep this outcome before the audience's attention, while the Trojans, the dying Patroclus, and Achilles all foresee it.38 For each hero's death, we find extensive preparation far in advance of the event and continuing up to its presentation. The audience is reliably prepared for the killing of each major hero.

In contrast to the foreshadowing of death in battle is the narrative situation regarding burial. Although the threat and act of mutilation gain in ferocity, there is a remarkable silence preceding the burial of these heroes. The exception is Sarpedon, whose burial is planned before he dies. When Zeus agonizes over Sarpedon's imminent death, Hera suggests that he should have Sarpedon's body conveyed to Lycia for burial rites performed by the family (16.450-57). When Patroclus attempts to mutilate the corpse and Glaucus urges Hector to prevent it, the audience realizes that Sarpedon's body is not in danger of mutilation: Zeus has already planned Sarpedon's funeral.39 Yet the case of Sarpedon is unique. After Patroclus dies, an extended battle takes place over the corpse. Hector continues to threaten mutilation, yet the first clear indication that Patroclus' body will be saved occurs almost 1,000 lines after his death—just before Achilles' appearance at the trench. Hector dies in book 22, but Achilles agrees to his burial over 1,000 lines later.40 All three heroes are threatened with mutilation, but burial is assured ahead of time only for Sarpedon. The narrator does not introduce authoritative predictions concerning the fate of the bodies of Patroclus or Hector until long after their deaths.41

The audience anticipates the death of each hero but is left in suspense regarding burial for Patroclus and Hector. Let us now examine the predictions that anticipate mutilation rather than burial. To what extent is the audience persuaded that Hector or Achilles will actually carry out their threats? Hector tells the dying Patroclus that his body will be fed to the birds (16.836). In the ensuing battle over the corpse, Hector's intention is obvious:

‘′Εκτωρ μὲν Πάτροκλον ἐπεὶ κλυτὰ τεύχε' ἀπηύρα,
ἐλχ', ἵν' ἀπ' Ὤμοιιν κεφαλὴν τάμοι ὀξἐι χαλχἳ̑,
τὸν δὲ νἐκυν Τρῳῃ̑σιν ἐρυσσάμενοs κυσὶ δοίη.
But Hector, when he had stripped from Patroclus the glorious armour,
dragged at him, meaning to cut his head from his shoulders with the sharp bronze,
to haul off the body and give it to the dogs of Troy.


Zeus grants Hector victory until sundown. Hector has broken through the wall, burned a ship, killed Patroclus, and won Achilles' armor. He now seeks the further “triumph” of insulting Patroclus' body. Despite his hope that Patroclus will not be given to the dogs (cf. 17.268-73),42 Zeus does not intervene as he did for Sarpedon. The burden of defending Patroclus' body falls to the Greeks, as Menelaus realizes that even Achilles cannot help without his armor (17.711-14). When they fail to save Patroclus (18.151-68), only Iris' swift message to Achilles secures burial for Patroclus' body:

καί νύ κεν εἴρυσσἐν τε καὶ ἄσπετον ἤρατο κυ̑δοs,
εἰ μὴ Πηλείωνι ποδήνεμοs ὠκἐα Ιριs
ἄγγελοs ἣλθε θἐουσ' ἀπ' 'Ολύμπου θωρήσσεσθαι,
κρύβδα Διὸs ἄλλων τε θεω̑ν· πρὸ γὰρ ἣκἐ μιν ‘′Ηρη.
And now [Hector] would have dragged [the corpse] away and won glory forever
had not swift wind-footed Iris come running from Olympus
with a message for Peleus' son to arm. She came secretly
from Zeus and the other gods, since it was Hera who sent her.


With Achilles' supernatural appearance at the trench, the Greeks succeed in rescuing the body of Patroclus (18.203-33). Until this scene, however, the audience has witnessed only the concern of the Greeks and the threats of the Trojans. Without divine intervention and Achilles' last minute appearance, the likely outcome appears to be that Hector would have indeed carried out his threats. No authoritative predictions actually anticipate Patroclus' mutilation, but the audience is never assured in advance that Patroclus will gain burial until the actual rescue: until then, the fate of Patroclus' corpse is left open.

Hector makes his threats against Patroclus' body on the battlefield, but Achilles' threats against Hector are of a different sort. Achilles plans his vengeance in a more calculated manner—before his return to battle—and he gains the opportunity to fulfill his threat, when Hector's body is brought to the Greek camp. Achilles makes numerous threats of mutilation in books 18-24. Against the corpse of Lycaon, only Achilles' words are presented (21.122-25), but in the next scene, the narrator presents him feeding Asteropaeus to fish and eels (21.200-204). Achilles plans to decapitate twelve Trojans (this is carried out at Patroclus' funeral), and he repeatedly threatens to feed Hector's body to the birds and dogs.44 In order to assess the audience's expectations as to whether Achilles will actually deny Hector burial, let us consider two aspects of Achilles' character, both of which evolve over the course of the epic: his treatment of the enemy, and his ability to anticipate the future.

When Achilles returns to battle in book 20, he has changed in terms of how he treats the Trojans. Although he has not yet been shown fighting, the audience learns of his earlier deeds in several retrospective scenes. Andromache recalls the sack of Thebe, when her father, Eetion, was killed by Achilles. At that time, Achilles honored him with burial and ransomed Andromache's mother (6.414-28). We learn that Antiphus and Lycaon had previously been ransomed by Achilles (11.104-6, 21.40-43; cf. 24.751-53). These flashbacks paint a uniform picture of Achilles: he was willing to ransom rather than kill the enemy—even in the heat of battle. He evidently respected the dead: there is no mention of savagery.45 When Achilles learns of Patroclus' death, he undergoes a transformation. Contemplating vengeance, he plans not only to kill Hector, but delays the burial of Patroclus so that he may “carry Hector's head.” Part of his reprisal entails the sacrifice of twelve Trojans. Such are his intentions before entering battle (18.334-37).

On his single day of combat, Achilles fights in a rage. He corners the Trojans at the river and chooses twelve for human sacrifice (21.26-32). In his encounter with Lycaon, he eloquently rejects any possibility of ransom, kills him, and vaunts over his corpse. He describes vividly how fish will eat Lycaon's flesh; Lycaon's mother will never mourn her son (21.122-25). In his next encounter, he leaves Asteropaeus' body by the side of the river:

τὸν δὲ κατ' αὐτόθι λει̑πεν, ἐπεὶ φίλον ἣτορ ἀπηύρα,
κείμενον ἐν ψαμάθοισι, δίαινε δἐ μιν μἐλαν ὕδωρ.
τὸν μὲν ἄρ' ἐγχἐλυἐs τε καὶ ἰχθύεs ἀμφεπἐνοντο,
δημὸν ἐρεπτόμενοι ἐπινεφρίδιον κείροντεs.
[Achilles] left him there, when he had snatched his spirit away from him,
sprawled in the sands and drenched in the dark water.
And about [Asteropaeus] the eels and fish were busy
tearing him and nibbling the fat that lay by his kidneys.


This is the only scene in the Iliad where the narrator presents animals feeding upon a slain warrior's body.46 Schadewaldt notes that Achilles' actions here show us what he is capable of: he is the only hero to carry out a stated threat of mutilation.47 In book 22, Achilles refuses to consider an agreement to return Hector's body for burial. He repeats his threat to feed Hector to birds and dogs (22.335-36) and denies a dying request. No ransom will be enough, not even Hector's weight in gold:

                                                                                “οὐδ' os σἐ γε πότνια μήτηρ
ἐνθεμἐ νη λεχἐ εσσι γοήσεται, ὃν τἐκεν αὐτή,
ἀλλὰ κύνεs τε καὶ οἰωνοὶ κατὰ πάντα δάσονται.”
                                                                                          “Not even shall the lady your mother,
who herself bore you, lay you on the death-bed and mourn you:
no, the dogs and the birds will have you all for their feasting.”


Achilles then pierces Hector's ankles and drags him around the city.48

Ignoring the more gruesome aspects of Achilles' threats, I now consider their persuasiveness. One might suppose that Achilles' plans of mutilation were conceived in anger, and that, although some were carried out in the heat of battle, he would not continue such acts after he returned to camp.49 This is plausible given his earlier behavior toward the enemy. Yet after battle, he still wishes to feed Hector to the dogs, and his promise to sacrifice the twelve youths is carried out. Although Aphrodite and Apollo offer temporary protection, the fate of Hector's corpse is undecided when the funeral games begin in book 23.50 At the beginning of book 24, Achilles still habitually drags Hector's body (24.15-18). At this point the gods intervene more forcefully. Zeus sends Thetis with an order for Achilles; the hero then agrees to ransom Hector (24.139-40).51 The predictions of mortal characters are usually not persuasive to the audience. Yet as we have seen, the narrator often corrects or reinforces such predictions. In the case of Hector's burial, however, he introduces no authoritative predictions contradicting Achilles' threats against Hector; Hector's burial is never mentioned in Zeus' prophecies.52 Achilles' threats of human sacrifice and mutilation are partially accomplished in books 21-23. The audience may be cautious about accepting Achilles' pronouncements as reliable, but until Thetis' final conference with her son in book 24, Achilles appears eager and capable of fulfilling his threats.

Achilles undergoes another change: he is able to foresee the future. After he learns of Patroclus' death, Achilles comes to see his own fate without illusion. Earlier he acted contrary to his vows—threatening to leave Troy, vowing no assistance until the Greek fleet was in flames. Now, with the loss of his friend, Achilles immediately realizes he will never return to Greece and resolutely accepts his fate to die soon after Hector.53 Indeed, Achilles is unique among the heroes in the Iliad, because he foresees his own death well before it occurs. Unlike his outbursts in the early books, which led to inaction, Achilles' vision—including his plans of vengeance—is now unclouded. Achilles succeeds in killing Hector. After he leaves battle, his ire does not subside. Achilles sacrifices twelve youths on his friend's pyre and promises the ghost of Patroclus that he will feed Hector to the dogs (23.179-83).54 His manner may be frightening, but his foresight is clear. After battle, the only intention Achilles fails to realize is his threat to feed Hector to the dogs and birds.

The opening to the entire epic sets a tone that is consistent with Achilles' threats. In the proem, the narrator anticipates the wrath of Achilles and its consequences. Not only will trouble come to the Greeks, but the bodies of heroes will be eaten by birds and dogs:55

Μη̑νιν ἄειδε, θεά, Πηληιάδεω 'Αχιλη̑οs
οὐλομἐνην, ἣ μυρί' 'Αχαιοι̑s ἄλγε' ἐθηκε,
πολλὰs δ' ἰφθίμουs ψυχὰs '′Αιδι προίαψεν
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺs δὲ ἑλώρια τευ̑χε κύνεσσιν
οἰωνοι̑σί τε δαι̑τα, Διὸs δ' ἐτελείετο βουλή.
Sing, goddess, the wrath of Peleus' son Achilles
and its devastation, which put pains thousanfold upon the Achaeans;
it hurled the strong souls of heroes in their multitudes to the house of Hades,
but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs and birds; so the will of Zeus was accomplished.


According to Griffin, the wrath of Achilles is “accursed” (οὐλομἐνην) because “its result was that mighty heroes became food for scavenging dogs and birds.”56 In spite of the many threats concerning mutilation by birds and dogs, such a scene is never presented in the Iliad. This is the only instance in which an authoritative suggestion that a specific scene will be presented is never followed up. Every other event anticipated in the proem is presented in the Iliad.57 This is the narrator's usual practice.58 The proem misleads the audience to this extent: in other invocations, the events anticipated are always presented in the narrative. The announcement here signals a theme that will be developed throughout the epic; the audience may well expect a scene in which dogs and birds feed upon a corpse. While no authoritative predictions anticipate an actual scene of Hector's body fed to scavengers, Achilles' threats—in the absence of correction by the narrator—acquire compelling power. In a sense, tacit acceptance by the narrator raises Achilles' threats to the status of authoritative predictions.

I am stressing a single passage found at the epic's beginning as support for the threats of Achilles. Would the audience retain this suggestion throughout the entire epic? I believe it would because the narrator introduces this theme and continues to make it central to the epic.59 From the start, the audience is made aware of the possibly savage consequences of Achilles' anger. Of all the verses in a poem, the proem would be most carefully attended. While hearing Achilles' plans and witnessing his other actions, the audience receives no assurance of funeral rites for Hector. Achilles appears as capable of feeding Hector to the dogs out of battle, as he is of leaving Asteropaeus for fish to feed on in the heat of battle. My conclusion is that the audience is led to expect such a scene of mutilation.

Against this, many have seen Hector's burial as a fitting conclusion to the Iliad. Segal calls it “a natural close to a poem dwelling upon the mutilation of the corpse.”60 Yet a work of literature that treats the theme of caring for the dead need not end with burial. However satisfying this final scene may appear in retrospect, the question still remains of the first-time audience's expectations. The narrator provokes the audience's attention, yet until book 24, there is no clear indication that Hector's body will receive burial. All other ransoms in the epic are denied; Achilles' decision to ransom Hector is unique. Achilles himself suggests that Agamemnon and the other Greeks will not view it with favor (24.650-55).

Other endings to this narrative are possible. Macleod says that Hector's dying prediction of Achilles' death in book 22 could indicate the narrator's intention to depict Achilles' own fateful attack on Troy. J. A. K. Thomson speculated that in the “original” story Achilles cuts off the head of Hector.61 A comparison with Roman literature supports this point. The epic modeled most closely upon the Iliad and Odyssey, Vergil's Aeneid, closes on a jarring note of violence. The madness (furor) that pervades the epic is not softened at the end but consumes Aeneas in the final chilling scene (Aeneid 12.940-52).62 The Iliad could have had another ending. Although Achilles achieves a reconciliation with the Greeks in book 23, he may not yield on the burial of his friend's slayer.63 In fact, he continues to violate Hector's corpse after he makes his peace with the Greeks. For the sake of argument, we might consider another narrative, in which Asteropaeus is fed to fish and eels in battle but the mutilation of Hector's corpse by dogs and birds is reserved for a later scene by the ships. Griffin suggests that the fate of Asteropaeus—mutilated in the river by scavengers of the watery element—may be seen as a member in a sequence. The final climactic scene would be Hector's mutilation by land scavengers after battle.64

In this [essay], I have argued that the narrator introduces persuasive predictions that turn out to be false. Zeus is generally reliable, yet his predictions mislead the audience regarding the extent of Hector's success at the ships. Achilles' predictions are not always persuasive, yet I have argued that the audience has good reason to expect the foul mutilation of Hector's corpse—chief among the factors is the narrator's silence regarding the fulfillment of such threats. I oppose the view that the audience knows in advance the action of this epic in some detail. While some events are unambiguously predicted, other events of considerable importance are left to the audience's imagination. Thematic misdirection goes further than deceptive timing or suspense: the audience is encouraged to believe that the Greek fleet will be in flames when the Myrmidons return to battle and that Achilles will mutilate—not ransom—Hector's body.

Achilles' anger is the key to the Iliad's plot. It manifests itself in various ways that the audience may not always anticipate. These two examples of thematic misdirection bear divergent relations to the epic tradition. The Trojan victory must be only temporary if the prediction of Achilles' return and Troy's sack are to be realized. If the plot and tradition are to be respected, the Greek army and ships must be saved. Yet the predictions concerning Hector's attack on the ships appear to put the homecoming of the Greeks in jeopardy. An audience that expects the Greeks to return home must confront this disturbing set of predictions. The sequence of death and burial, however, appears in a different light. It is likely that the death of particular heroes was part of the tradition: Antilochus, Achilles, and Ajax die at Troy; Agamemnon on his return to Mycenae; Odysseus and Menelaus live long enough to enjoy the spoils of victory, such as they are. In the Iliad, death in battle is usually foreshadowed, and such predictions not only stimulate the audience's anticipation but may tally with the tradition. In the case of burial (or conversely mutilation), we can only speculate about the tradition, but the narrator may well have enjoyed more freedom.65 In any case, a hero's burial is not anticipated with the same clarity as his death. The narrator presents a suspenseful fight over the corpse of Patroclus and arouses the audience's concern that Achilles will accomplish his threats. Even the Iliad's proem appears to signal that something other than respect for the Trojan dead will bring this poem to an end.


  1. By theme I mean a recurrent issue or conflict that is developed throughout much of the work. This is different from the theme discussed by Lord (1960, 68-98).

  2. On these limitations to Hector's success, see 1.508-10, 8.470-77, 11.191-94, 15.53-70. Contrast the immediate limits (8.236-52, 12.216-29, 15.370-78) with the Greeks' ultimate conquest (7.459-63, 12.10-16, 13.810-13). See Fenik 1968, 223-24.

  3. Cf. Achilles' words at 9.352-55.

  4. Hector is almost successful on the second day: 8.217-19, 8.498-501.

  5. Trojan threat: 12.69-70, 12.245-46, 12.440-41, 13.778, 13.831-32, 15.347-51, 15.487-94, 15.693-95 (cf. the narrator's comments: 12.197-98, 12.417-20, 13.41-42, 15.603-4). The Greeks' concern: 10.43-45, 11.276-79, 11.314-15, 11.664-68, 11.823-24, 13.317-20, 13.628-29, 13.813-14, 14.44-47, 14.65-68, 15.295, 15.502-7, 15.370-78 (cf. the narrator's comments: 11.556-57, 11.569, 12.106-7, 12.122-26, 15.686-88, 15.699-700, 17.637-39).

  6. Schadewaldt (1938, 68) notes that the threat to the ships (“das Stichwort” for the threatening disaster) becomes prominent before the ships are in immediate danger. See Whitman 1958, 132-37, on fire as a threat to the ships.

  7. For the ships as an area of sovereignty, see, e.g., 1.26-28; for the ships as a harbor of safety, see 1.88-89, and Od. 4.253-55. The twofold capacity of the ships—locating a stationary camp and functioning as sea-going vessels—is brought out in book 2, where the ships' timbers are rotting, so long has it been since they sailed on the seas (2.135).

  8. Other passages describe the peace at Troy before the Greeks came (9.401-3, 22.147-56, 24.543-48).

  9. As Zeus predicts: 7.459-63 (cf. 15.70-71). Cf. 2.297-98, where Odysseus says it would be shameful to return home empty-handed.

  10. The idea of dying far from home is first introduced by Agamemnon, when he thinks his brother is fatally wounded: Agamemnon would be the object of utter reproach (ἐλἐγχιστοs) if he were forced to leave Menelaus' bones behind (4.169-82). Cf. the similar fear of the Trojans' allies (4.101-3, 4.119-21, 5.212-26, 5.685-88); see discussion in Griffin 1976, 164-66.

  11. See also 11.805-8. The ship of Protesilaus appears to be somewhere in the middle of the extended line (16.284-86).

  12. Achilles must go to the trench beyond the wall in order to be seen by the armies (18.215-16; cf. 18.198).

  13. 15.69-71 imply that the ships will not be safe until Achilles kills Hector. These lines are not so clearly false as 15.61-65. Although Patroclus appears to save the ships in book 16, Hector is promised success until sunset. See Reinhardt 1961, 217-18.

  14. See Scodel 1989, 96.

  15. For a full discussion of Achilles' decision in book 16, see Scodel 1989. In her view, Achilles sends Patroclus as a means of keeping his word that he will not return until his own camp is threatened. From the audience's perspective, the possibility of a surrogate has already been raised by Nestor (11.794-803). Zeus also notes that he will send a surrogate (15.61-65). The question remains: How long will Achilles wait to send the Myrmidons? Zeus' prophecy appears to supply the answer.

  16. Kirk (1985, 78) calls 1.240-44 a “riddling oath,” for there is no mention of Achilles' not sailing. Of course, there is a difference between what the audience knows and what the Greeks realize. When Athene promises that Achilles will be compensated for Agamemnon's hybris (1.212-14), she appears to him alone (1.197-98); he is far from his men when he speaks with Thetis (1.348-50). Only the audience learns of these promises.

  17. Sch. A 8.475-76: τό τε ἐπιφερόμενον ψευ̑δόs τι ἔχει. οὐ γὰρ ἐν τἳ̑ στείνει αἰνοτάτῳ (“This contains a degree of falsity, for he is not in ‘the most terrible straits’”). See Leaf 1900-1902, 1:363.

  18. Sch. A 15.56: ἀθετου̑νται στίχοι εἴκοσι δύο, ὅτι οὐκ ἀναγκαίωs παλιλλογει̑ται περὶ τω̑ν ἑξη̑s ἐπεισαχθησομἐνων καὶ κατὰ τὴν σύνθεσίν εἰσιν εὐτελει̑s “[The editors] have athetized 22 lines, because this recapitulates unnecessarily what has already been introduced; also the lines are of little value with respect to composition”).

  19. E.g., Thetis does not retell the story of Briareus to Zeus after it has been told by Achilles (1.393-407; cf. 1.508-528).

  20. Other similar passages: 5.503-11, 11.73-83, 15.592-604, 15.610-14, and 16.685-91. It is worth comparing the recapitulation (ripetizione) of eighteenth-century Italian improvized poetry, as described by Gentili (1988, 9): “Its primary function was to impress firmly on the memory of those present the context of what they had heard, forcing them to look beyond the variety of themes to the subtle connecting thread that underlay them.”

  21. Even as Zeus honors Hector, the audience learns that he will soon die (15.611-14). Hector's moment of breaking through the wall at the end of book 12 is preceded by the prediction that the best of the Trojans will die and that Troy will be sacked (12.10-33). After Patroclus' death, Zeus guarantees a final period of success to Hector (17.201-8). Patroclus' aristeia is also filled with reminders that he will soon die. See Duckworth 1933, 78.

  22. See Fenik's argument (1968, 54-55, 130).

  23. Sch. A int. 15.63: ὅτι ψευ̑δοs. (“[The line is athetized] because it is false”). Cf. Eustathius 1006.1-3, and see the discussion in van der Valk 1964, 2:426; Kraut 1863, 17 n. 1; Wilamowitz 1918, 233 n. 1; Schadewaldt 1938, 111 n. 2.

  24. See Schadewaldt 1938, 110 n. 3, 140, on the Ungenauigkeitprinzip. Lesky (1963, 33) labels the lines in book 15 an inconsistency. Wilamowitz (1918, 42) considers the god's prophecy to be only a general prediction. See also Rothe 1910, 226; Reinhardt 1961, 168.

  25. On two middays, see Schadewaldt 1938, 44 n. 2. On inconsistency arising from this method of composition, see Fenik 1968, 69-72, 94, 103, et passim, and Willcock 1977.

  26. Basset 1933; Segal 1971; Griffin 1976. See also Redfield 1975.

  27. Agamemnon threatens his own troops and the Trojans (2.391-93, 4.235-37, 6.57-60); Sarpedon worries about himself (5.684-85).

  28. In addition, Diomedes and Glaucus recognize their family ties and exchange armor (6.212-36); Ajax and Hector part in friendship (7.299-305).

  29. Zeus prevents Athene, who has made this threat, from entering battle (8.397-437).

  30. 8.491, 10.198-200. Bassett (1933, 46) sees the breaking of the truce in book 4 as the turning point, but this ignores the agreement before Hector's duel and the negotiations on the next day. The scholiast notes these two stages (bT 1.4d): ἐν μὲν τῃ̑ πρώτῃ μάχῃ, ἐν ἣΤρώων ἐκράτουν, θάπτουσι τοὺs πεσόνταs, τῃ̑ δὲ μετ' αὐτὴν ἡττώμενοι, διὰ τὴν Διὸs βούλησιν, ἐπαυλιζομἐνων ται̑s ναυσὶ τω̑ν βαρβάρων, οὐκἐτι περὶ του̑ θάψαι τοὺs τεθνεω̑ταs, ἀλλὰ περὶ τη̑s σφω̑ν αὐτω̑ν σωτηρίαs φροντίζουσιν (“In the first battle, where the Greeks bested the Trojans, they buried those who had fallen. But in the next battle, they were defeated because of the will of Zeus. As the Trojans set up camp by the ships, [the Greeks] no longer thought of burying the dead, but rather of their own safety”).

  31. Threat and worry: 11.394-95, 11.452-55, 11.817-18 (cf. 11.161-62).

  32. 20.481-83, 21.201-4, 22.395-404.

  33. 16.544-47, 16.559-61, 16.836, 17.39-40, 17.125-27, 17.240-41, 17.254-55, 17.556-58, 17.666-67, 18.176-80, 18.270-72, 18.283; cf. 16.339-41, 17.268-73. In the battle over Patroclus' body, Hector and the Trojans are likened to dogs in similes: 17.110, 17.287, 17.658, and 17.722-26. See Faust 1970, 22-23.

  34. See Segal 1971, 13, 27-28; Griffin 1976, 169-71; Griffin 1980, 44-49.

  35. It is a common Homeric practice to predict the death of minor heroes as well: 2.859-61, 2.873-75, 10.336-37, 12.113-15, 21.47-48. See Kraut 1863, 19-20.

  36. Sarpedon's death is first predicted at 15.64-67; it occurs at 16.502-3. His fate is reiterated by Zeus (16.433-34), Hera (15.450-52), and the narrator (16.458-61). Although Zeus contemplates saving Sarpedon, he yields when Hera objects (16.435-61).

  37. Patroclus' death is first predicted at 8.476; it occurs at 16.855-57. Other predictions come from Zeus (15.64-67—specifying that Hector will be his slayer), Apollo (16.724-25), and the narrator (16.46-47, 16.247-52, 16.644-51, 16.684-93, 16.787). Apollo's later role is suggested in Achilles' warning to Patroclus that the gods—especially Apollo—love the Trojans (16.87-94).

  38. Hector's death is first predicted at 15.68; it occurs at 22.361. Predictions are given by Zeus (15.68, 17.201-8), Thetis (18.96, 18.132-34), Poseidon (21.297; by inference 20.300-308), and Athene (22.216-23; cf. 12.10-18, 22.325). Mortal predictions come from the dying Patroclus (16.852-54), Achilles (18.91-93, 18.114-15, 18.334-35, 21.224-26), Priam (22.38-41, 22.54-58), and Hecuba (22.86-89). Even after recognizing Athene's trick, Hector goes to meet Achilles (22.299-311).

  39. Patroclus (16.559-61); Glaucus (16.544-47). Segal (1971, 19) speaks of Zeus' calm certainty.

  40. It first becomes clear that Patroclus will be buried at 18.165; for Hector at 24.139-40. Euphorbus, a Trojan casualty in danger of mutilation by the Greeks, serves a parallel function in book 17.

  41. See Fenik 1968, 203. We might note that Achilles' death is first foretold in book 18, that is, seven books (4,012 lines) before the Iliad's close. The most striking feature of the anticipation of Achilles' death is that he himself realizes that his death is near (18.120-21, 21.110-13, 22.365-66). He acknowledges he will die far from home (18.89-90, 18.101, 18.329-32, 19.421-22, 23.150, 24.538-42). Further detail is found in the predictions of Thetis (18.59-60, 18.96, 18.440-41, 24.131-32), the divine horse Xanthus (19.416-17), the dying Hector (22.358-60), and the ghost of Patroclus (23.80-81). Renehan (1987, 113-14) notes that Achilles' death is always anticipated in speech, not in narrative: it is not mentioned by Zeus or the narrator (cf. 15.68-71, 12.10-18). Achilles' funeral is anticipated as well (23.82-92, 23.243-48).

  42. The scholiast read this remark more optimistically (T 17.272): πιθανὴ ἡ προαναφώνησιs, ἵνα μαθόντεs τὸ πἐραs ἀνεχώμεθα τω̑ν κινδύνων (“This announcement is persuasive; in learning the outcome, we are able to tolerate the danger”).

  43. Hera's secret act (18.168) may not oppose the sensibilities of Zeus, who has no desire for Patroclus' mutilation (cf. 17.268-73), yet until sundown, Zeus' promise of success to Hector still holds.

  44. Achilles' threat against the twelve Trojans: 18.336-37, 23.22-23; his action: 23.175-76. Against Hector: 22.335-36, 22.352-54, 23.19-23, 23.182-83; cf. 18.334-35.

  45. Even Achilles recognizes the change in himself (21.100-105). Bassett (1933, 47) notes that Achilles is the only one to bury a dead enemy. Cf. Odysseus' treatment of the suitors in the Odyssey: they are clearly not buried at 24.417-19.

  46. See Segal's discussion of this passage (1971, 31).

  47. Schadewaldt 1965, 332-34. Besides Achilles', four threats of violating a corpse are made in battle: Euphorbus (17.39-40), Patroclus (16.559-61), and Hector (13.828-32, 16.836; cf. 17.125-27, 18.175-80); none of them is fulfilled. Threats often are not carried out, and—except for Achilles—threats of mutilation never are. Duckworth (1933, 23 n. 63) finds that eleven threats in the Iliad and seven in the Odyssey fail to be realized. Wieniewski (1924, 125) puts the figure lower.

  48. Of course, it is an act of mutilation to repeatedly stab Hector (22.369-75) and drag him around Troy. The issue I am addressing concerns the ultimate fate of the corpse. Will he receive burial rites or not? See Priam's concern and Achilles' response at 24.406-23.

  49. Bassett (1933, 57) examines the motivations for Achilles' actions.

  50. Apollo and Aphrodite protect Hector's body only provisionally (23.184-91). Zeus has already allowed mutilation (22.403-4), as Achilles' actions are described: ἀεικἐα μήδετο ἔργα (“he planned shameful treatment”—22.395).

  51. Priam first mentions ransom at 22.416-20, but this appears unlikely after Achilles' clear rejection of such an idea.

  52. Rutherford (1982, 153) notes that there is no mention of Achilles' relenting in Zeus' prophecy in book 15. Zeus emphasizes Troy's sack, not the issue of burial.

  53. Whitman (1958, 209-10) says that in book 18 we find the “confrontation of [Hector's] delirious hope and [Achilles'] true tragic foresight.” Schadewaldt (1965, 255-60) discusses Achilles' “prophetic certainty.” Kullman (1968, 32-34) says that Achilles is free from mortal illusion by the end. Macleod (1982, 10) compares Achilles' reaction at 19.420-21 with Hector's response to Patroclus' dying words.

  54. Bassett (1933, 57) says that the sacrifice of the twelve Trojans is more ruthless because, after letting them live for a day, it is more deliberate. McFarland (1955-56, 191-92) considers the slaying of Lycaon more savage due to Achilles' calm deliberation when he speaks to Lycaon.

  55. See Redfield 1979, 109 n. 48.

  56. Griffin 1976, 171. Although the proems of the Iliad and the Odyssey do not offer complete plot summaries, all the other events anticipated are later presented. Redfield (1979, 101 n. 18) notes that, while mutilation by birds and dogs is often threatened, it is never enacted. I follow Pfeiffer (1968, 111) and Redfield (1979, 95-110) in their reading of δαι̑τα, but the important point for my argument is the prediction that bodies will be eaten by birds and dogs. (As Redfield argues, δαι̑s is always used of human meals except here; we can understand the change to πα̑σι, but the reverse is harder to explain.)

  57. Renehan (1987, 115) notes that the anger of Achilles is said to bring death to many of his friends and countrymen, but there is no mention of Hector and the Trojans. Bassett (1923, 347) remarks that the climax in each epic (the slaying and burial of Hector, and Odysseus' revenge upon the suitors) is not found in the proems. The Odyssey's proem (1.1-9) anticipates only books 1-13. See Duckworth 1933, 6-7; Wieniewski 1924, 115.

  58. The invocation preceding the catalog of ships anticipates the naming of the leaders and numbers of ships (2.484-759; cf. 2.761-62, 11.218-47, 14.508-22, 16.112-24).

  59. Redfield (1979, 103) says that we are prepared to learn about the fate of dead bodies. See Griffin 1976, 171. I will not enter the dispute about whether Homer or his audience found Achilles' threats outrageous, cruel, and savage. See Bassett 1933; Segal 1971; Redfield 1975.

  60. Segal 1971, 71.

  61. Macleod (1982, 28) sees further war and death implied in Hector's dying words. He calls the two burials that follow a “planned surprise.” Thomson's speculations are recorded by Murray ([1907] 1961, 128-29).

  62. Although the Aeneid does not highlight the theme of mutilation, reconciliation is absent in the final scene. The war is over—Turnus concedes victory to Aeneas—yet Aeneas slays his enemy as he lies wounded. Whatever the degree of completion of this epic, I believe this is the final scene Vergil intended for the Aeneid.

  63. Although Achilles renounces his wrath in book 19, his energy is directed toward avenging Patroclus' death; after Hector is slain, Achilles has no interest in sacking Troy—the Greeks' ultimate objective. In book 23, however, he appears more fully reconciled with Agamemnon and even entrusts his burial to the king of Mycenae (23.236-48; cf. 23.884-97).

  64. Griffin 1976, 170.

  65. The burials of Patroclus and Hector may not have been as central to earlier epics. We must also consider the alternative tradition of immortal heroes, found at Odyssey 4.561-69, at Hesiod Works and Days, 167-71, and in the epic cycle (see Griffin 1977, 40-43). Kullmann (1985, 16-17) considers the tragic death of heroes to be a Homeric invention. For further discussion, see West 1978, 192-94; Burkert 1977, 198; Nagy 1983, 204-6. However, Segal (1971, 2) believes that the mutilation of the corpse was “doubtless well-imbedded in epic tradition,” as a way of intensifying battle scenes.


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———. 1985. “Gods and Men in the Iliad and Odyssey.HSCP 89:1-23.

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Lesky, A. 1963. A History of Greek Literature. Tans. J. Willis and C. de Heer. 2d ed. London.

Lord, A. B. 1948. 1960. Singer of Tales. Cambridge, Mass.

Macleod, C. W. 1982. Homer “Iliad” Book XXIV. Cambridge.

McFarland, T. 1955-56. “Lycaon and Achilles.” Yale Review, n.s., 45:191-213.

Murray, G. [1907] 1961. The Rise of the Greek Epic. 4th ed. Oxford.

Nagy, G. 1983. “On the Death of Sarpedon.” In Approaches to Homer [ed. by C. A. Rubino and C. W. Shelmerdine], 189-217 [Austin, 1983].

Pfeiffer, R. 1968. History of Classical Scholarship. Oxford.

Redfield, J. M. 1975. Nature and Culture in the “Iliad”: The Tragedy of Hector. Chicago.

———. 1979. “The Proem of the Iliad: Homer's Art.” CP [Classical Philology] 74:95-110.

Reinhardt, K. 1961. Die Ilias und ihr Dichter. Göttingen.

Renehan, R. 1987. “The Heldentod in Homer: One Heroic Ideal.” CP 82:99-116.

Rothe, C. 1910. Die Ilias als Dichtung. Paderborn.

Rutherford, R. B. 1982. “Tragic Form and Feeling in the Iliad.JHS 102:145-60.

Schadewaldt, W. 1938. Iliasstudien. Abh. Sachs. Ak. d. Wiss., vol. 43.6. Leipzig.

———. 1965. Von Homers Welt und Werk. Stuttgart.

Scodel, R. 1989. “The Word of Achilles.” CP 84:91-99.

Segal, C. 1971. “The Theme of the Mutilation of the Corpse in the Iliad.Mnemosyne, suppl. 17. Leiden.

van der Valk, M. H. A. L. H. 1964. Researches on the Text and Scholia of the “Iliad.” Vols. 1-2. Leiden.

West, M. L., ed. 1978. Hesiod: “Works and Days.” Oxford.

Whitman, C. 1958. Homer and the Heroic Tradition. New York.

Wieniewski, I. 1924. “La technique d'annoncer les événements futurs chez Homère.” Eos 27:113-33.

Wilamowitz, U. 1918. Die Ilias und Homer. Berlin.

Willcock, M.M. 1977. “Ad Hoc Invention in the Iliad.HSCP [81:41-53.

Oliver Taplin (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9663

SOURCE: Taplin, Oliver. “The Past beneath the Present.” In Homeric Soundings: The Shaping of the Iliad, pp. 83-109. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.

[In the following excerpt, Taplin examines broad ethical issues in the Iliad and the epic's narrative form, focusing specifically on temporality, and the guilt of Helen and Paris.]


… ‘Child, why are you crying? What pain has touched your heart? Tell me, do not hide it inside you, so that both of us can know.’

With a heavy groan swift-footed Achilleus said to her: ‘You know. What need for me to tell you all when you know it? We had gone to Thebe, Eëtion's sacred city. We sacked it, and brought all the spoils here. The sons of the Achaians made proper division of all the rest among themselves, and chose for the son of Atreus as his gift of honour the beautiful Chryseïs.’

(1. 362-9)1

The Iliad is much too good to begin at the beginning (or to end at the end). It begins at an exact time, the day that Chryses comes to the ships; but an extraordinary amount about the past is filled in by piecemeal reconstruction, especially during the first three and a half books. It is not, of course, blocked out in chronological order; and it is conveyed by a wide variety of narrative techniques, ranging from direct narration, to symbolic re-enactment, to passing allusions fitting the ‘jig-saw’ as it has been pieced together so far. Always the poet controls the sequence and the developing picture perceived by his hearers.

Thus, as has often been observed—and sometimes complained of—the teichoskopia in book 3 ‘belongs’ at the beginning of the siege, not in the tenth year. Priam should know by now who the leading Achaians are, and Helen should at least know whether or not her celebrated brothers are at Troy. Leaf (p. 117) catches the point of the narrative technique with admirable concision: ‘it is enough perhaps to say that for the hearer or reader this is the opening of the war’.

Similarly the great catalogue of ships would come more ‘logically’ at the start of the expedition—and may well have been adapted from such a context. This would explain why it is a catalogue of ships, rather than of contingents; and its opening with the ships from Aulis and surrounding towns (494 ff.) may well point to the original setting. The catalogue not only enumerates the scale and personnel of the Achaian expedition; by naming and sometimes describing or evoking their homelands, it reaches back to their departures from their families, and indirectly to the years that those families have awaited the return of their men.2

Not all background information is conveyed in this kind of enumeration—it would become tedious in excess. Details of what has been going on for the nine long years since the Achaians arrived at Troy, for instance, are let slip here and there in passing, with very little direct narrative. They add up to a strikingly coherent picture, especially of the sacking and looting of cities in the area of Troy.3

The first reference is indefinite—ὁππότ' 'Αχαιοὶ Τρώων ἐκπέρσωσ' εὔ ναιόμενον πτολίεθρον (whenever the Achaians sack some well-founded Trojan town) (1. 163-4). The elaboration that Achilleus has sacked twelve by sea and eleven overland comes at 9. 325-33. In scattered allusions you can learn that the former included Tenedos, source of Hekamede, the fine woman allotted to Nestor (11. 624-7), and Lesbos, source of seven outstandingly beautiful women offered and eventually given by Agamemnon to their captor (9. 128-30, 19. 215-16). The latter included Thebe, where Achilleus destroyed Eëtion and the rest of Andromache's family … and where he captured many fine spoils, including Chryseïs, as revealed in this first reference to the place. Near to Thebe was Lyrnessos, where Achilleus captured Briseïs (2. 688-93, 19. 59-60, 291-9). Aineias had taken refuge there, but escaped (20. 89-93, 187-9 ff.).

It is never explained why Chryseïs was at Thebe and not at her native city of Chryse. This has worried scholars since Antiquity—indeed explanation seems to go all the way back to the cyclic epic Cypria.4 Yet there is a perfectly good explanation supplied within Homeric ‘anthropology’, which is, I suggest, taken for granted. Briseïs was captured from Lyrnessos, not her native Lesbos (see 19. 246), because that was the home of her husband (19. 291 ff.). Chryseïs was likewise married to a man of Thebe.5 Just as Andromache's mother's father ransomed her after she was captured and her marital family killed (6. 425-8), so Chryseïs' father comes to ransom her.

The city of Chryse has remained unsacked, unlike another of Apollo's local cult-sites, Tenedos. The whereabouts of Chryse was disputed in Antiquity—it may have been near the famous and rich cult of Apollo Smintheus near Hamaxitos in the south-west Troad.6 It is important that it is intact because it is the only place in the human world outside the immediate area of the Trojan plain that the Iliad visits at any length (the next longest is the gathering of wood on Mount Ida in 23. 110-24). The ‘interlude’ at 1. 430-87 has a ceremonial atmosphere;7 and the pleasant scenes of reunion and feasting are a reminder, near the start of the poem, of the families the Achaians have left at home and of their hopes of return—cf. Chryses in line 19—εσ δ' οἴκαδ' ἱκέἐθαι (and a safe return to your homes).

If there was some story about why Chryse has remained unsacked, as reported by a scholion on 1. 366, it was a local and little-known story, unlike that of the sacrifice of Iphigeneia at Aulis.8 This is never directly alluded to in Homer, and at 9. 145 Agamemnon has a live daughter called Iphianassa. Nevertheless she provides an intriguing test-case for the extent of inexplicit allusion in Homer, and raises the question of how far audiences brought with them their familiarity with other tales.

After Kalchas has spoken out at the first agorē, Agamemnon turns on him with personal fury: …

‘Prophet of evil, you have never told me anything to my liking. Always your heart's delight is to prophesy evil, and you have never spoken or brought to fulfilment any word of good.’

(1. 106-8)

His rancour is explicable without recourse to the Iphigeneia story: he is characterized as easily upset, and Kalchas has foreseen an angry response (78 ff.; see above, p. 54 [in Oliver Taplin, Homeric Soundings, 1992]). None the less Homer has gone out of hiσ way to emphasize already that Kalchas has done the expedition good service (69-72); furthermore οὐ πώ ποτέ … αὔεί … οὔτε τί πω … (‘never … always … never any …’) suggest a past history of antagonism. If experienced hearers take this as an enriching allusion, they may then sense that this is not the first time that Kalchas has had to explain the anger of a god in a way that is not agreeable for Agamemnon.9

The presence of Kalchas at Aulis is explicitly recalled in a later scene, not for the sacrifice of Iphigeneia, but for his interpretation of the omen given there by Zeus. Reasserting some authority, after Agamemnon's disruption of the agorē in book 2, Odysseus admits (2. 291-7) that their lack of success has been wearisome. But he then takes memories vividly back to Aulis. He tells of the omen and of Kalchas' interpretation so fully in order to raise hope that the waiting will be crowned with success—τὰ δη νυ̑ν πάντα τελει̑ται (all is now coming to fulfilment) (330). Kalchas provided an important ratification of the whole expedition. That is why, when Diomedes contradicts Agamemnon's later and serious proposal to give up, he insists that he and Sthenelos will stay until Troy falls, ὺν γὰρ θεω̑ι εἰλήλουθμεν (since god is with us in our mission here) (9. 49).

The reconstruction of the past reaches forward to the present and even into the future. The prophecy of Kalchas at Aulis in effect supplies the Dios boulē for the fate of Troy. For an audience with an ear for the larger narrative, its fulfilment goes beyond the immediate context of Odysseus' application, to include the shaping of the sympathies of the whole Iliad.10

In the narrative of the omen there is emotive colouring: …

‘Then the snake ate the chicks as they screamed pitifully, and their mother fluttered round it crying for her dear children: but the snake coiled out and caught her by the wing as she shrieked above it.’

(2. 314-16)

This presages the way that in the Iliad both the doomed women and children of Troy and their brave defenders will be treated with sympathy and pathos. That is the attitude of the poem, but not of Odysseus and the Achaian attackers. They are the equivalent of the terrifying snake, and like the snake they will be ruthless in their conquest.

The fate of the snake as well as of the birds is part of the omen. …

‘Then when it had eaten her children and the sparrow herself, the god who had brought the snake to light made it a miracle, plain for all to see—it was turned into stone by the son of devious-minded Kronos, and we stood there in amazement at what had happened.’

(2. 317-20)11

In his interpretation Kalchas gives this marvel the phrase which he uses of the equivalent of the eventual sack of Troy—ὅου κλέοσ οὔ ποτ' ὀλει̑ται (whose fame will never perish) (325). The fulfilment of this prophecy of kleos is epic poetry. Narrative song is man's nearest equivalent—at least for Homer and his audience—of Zeus' ability to create permanent landmarks. Kalchas is right about the sack of Troy: the Iliad, even as any one hears or reads it, is fulfilling his prediction. We (you or I) satisfy this self-referential prediction no less than Homer's own audiences.12 So Homer makes himself and his poem part of the past at Aulis, and part of the Dios boulē.


… ‘Nine years now have passed from mighty Zeus' store, and our ships' timbers have rotted and their rigging decayed. And our wives and young children are sitting in our homes, waiting for us: while the task which brought us here stands quite without completion. No, come, let us all do as I say—let us away with our ships to our own dear native land. We shall never now take the broad streets of Troy.’

So he spoke, and his words lifted the hearts of all in the mass of the army, all those who were not privy to his purpose: and the assembly was stirred like the great waves of the sea, in the deep water by Ikaria, when the east wind and the south wind rush down from father Zeus' storm-clouds and raise them high. As when the west wind stirs a deep cornfield with its coming, and the standing crop bows its ears in the fury of the blast, so the whole assembly was stirred to movement. The men swarmed cheering to the ships, and under their feet the dust rose high in a cloud. They urged each other to lay hands to the ships and drag them down to the holy sea, and they set to clearing the slipways. Their shouts reached heaven as they surged for home: and they began to pull the props from under the ships.

(2. 134-54)

The setting of the Achaian ships and temporary encampments (κλισίαι, klisiai) along the shore is made so familiar by ubiquitous formulae, starting with θοὰσ ἐπὶ νη̑ασ (‘to the fast ships’) in 1. 12, that even a hearer new to Homer would soon come to take it for granted.13 At Od. [Odyssey] 1. 61 the whole enterprise can be referred to by 'Αργείων παρὰ νηυσί (‘by the ships of the Argives’). Amid such frequent and subliminal references it comes as something of a shock to be reminded—by a leap of poetic imagination—how strange the reality of such a setting would be, and how, over nine years, the timbers and equipment will have deteriorated and the launching-ramps become obscured.

Homer envisages the camp in remarkable detail. Scattered references even allow the reconstruction of a consistent ‘map’ of where along the line the leading Achaians are encamped. It is particularly stressed that Aias and Achilleus are at the danger points of the two wings and Odysseus in the middle (8. 222-6 = 11. 5-9); but with more or less precision a dozen or so basilēes can be placed. From left to right, which was taken to be from east to west, they are: greater Aias, Idomeneus, Menelaos, Agamemnon, Nestor, Odysseus, Eurypylos, Diomedes, lesser Aias, Meges, (Protesilaos replaced by Podarkes), Achilleus.14 With the exception of Podarkes, and perhaps, Meges, these are in fact leading Achaian basilēes in the Iliad. Their standing is established early in the poem by a variety of means.

Two—apart from Achilleus and Agamemnon—are given special portrayal early, before the troops are even armed and marshalled. Odysseus is selected for the diplomatic task of returning Chryseïs.15 Then, when Agamemnon has so disastrously disbanded the agorē in book 2, it is Odysseus who is chosen by Athene to reunite it (2. 169 ff.). He takes over Agamemnon's sceptre and uses it assertively; he rallies everyone with socially appropriate sentiments; he silences Thersites16 to the approval of all, ἀχνύμενοι (disaffected) (270) though they may be. His speech which includes the omen at Aulis (284-332) meets with great approval.

Nestor is perhaps not such an unqualified success. Though introduced as venerable, well-intentioned, and eloquent (1. 248-52),17 he utterly fails to heal the dispute because he defers too much to Agamemnon. The false dream takes his form—τόν ῥα μάλιστα γερόντων τι̑' 'Αγαμέμνων (whom Agamemnon honoured most of all the elders) (2. 21). He is the only elder to speak in the boulē (76 ff.), and there he once again fails to prevent a difficult development by allowing Agamemnon too much respect. After Odysseus' calm, cogent speech, Nestor supplies emotive bluster at 336-68, and Agamemnon lavishes praise on it.

After the agorē, while the rest of the army breakfasts, Agamemnon has along the seven γέροντασ ἀριἐτη̑ασ Παναχαιω̑ν (the leading elders of the Panachaians) for roast beef (2. 404-8). This gathering of the eight leading Achaians (barring Achilleus of course) illustrates the Iliad's clear and consistent grasp on ‘prosopography’ and on the ‘pecking order’ of the leading heroes. Nestor comes πρώτιἐτα (first of all); Odysseus comes sixth but is given a whole line. So is Menelaos, who has yet to speak or otherwise contribute to the Iliad—he comes αὐτόματοs (without need for summons).18 Idomeneus and the greater Aias have been named before (1. 138, 148); and Aias will be singled out as the best warrior, in the absence of Achilleus, in a sort of appendix to the catalogue at 2. 760 ff. This is the first mention of Diomedes and of the other Aias (whether this is Teukros or the Locrian Aias). The only person in this eight who might be ‘lucky’ to be included is the other Aias—Eurypylos might dispute his ranking.

In the opening kills of the first great battle, at 4. 457-5. 8—an obvious place for a roll of honour—these eight are all there except the other Aias, and of course old Nestor. Antilochos is, in fact, put first, then come Aias and Odysseus, then Thoas, then Diomedes, Agamemnon, Idomeneus and Menelaos, Meges and Eurypylos. Similarly five of our eight are the first to volunteer for single combat, at 7. 161 ff. (Nestor and Menelaos are ruled out); then come Meriones, Eurypylos, Thoas, and last Odysseus. When there is an Achaian resurgence at 8. 253 ff., apart from Nestor and Odysseus, who are off the field, the other six are there, followed by Meriones and Eurypylos, and perhaps for the first time in such company Teukros, who has a brief moment of glory. And so on through the Iliad.

Agamemnon himself is always there among the front fighters, though seldom outstanding. The passages where the narrative gives him most prominence and respect are probably the marshalling of the host at 2. 441 ff. (cf. 579-80) and the teichoskopia (3. 166 ff.). I have argued, however, that the opening scenes put him in a poor light (above, § 2.2). It seems to me that he comes across as a highly ambivalent figure in the opening scenes of book 2 as well, especially for the way he misjudges the spirit of the lāos. After their communal passivity in book 1, it is Agamemnon who spurs them into activity. Through that miscalculation the poet reveals to the audience the state that their morale has reached after all these years at Troy.

It is clearly not a regular or easy task to arm the Achaians for battle. The dream that advises Agamemnon to do this (θωρη̑ξαι (arm) 2. 11, cf. 28, 65, 72, 83) is in any case a false one—νήπιοἐ, οὐδἐ τὰ ἤιδη ἅ ῥα Zεὺἐμήδετο ἐργα (poor fool, he knew nothing of Zeus' design) (38). Despite this, he adds a proposal of his own, which is highlighted by the triple repetition of the ‘proper’ message before he appends it in 73-5.19

… ‘But first, as is the proper way, I shall test them with an address, and tell them to make for home with their many-benched ships: and you must try to restrain them with your orders, each from his own position.’

(2. 73-5)

When he puts this to the army, they enthusiastically set about departure for home without hesitation or contradiction.

One reason why Agamemnon's speech in 110-41 reveals the low morale of the army all too effectively and counter-productively is that, while it is meant to be deceitful, it contains much that is true. Some of these truths are known to Agamemnon, some are ironically unintended. For instance, Zeus has indeed bound him with ātē (111), more than he knows: by the time of 9. 115-20 he will be admitting that his treatment of Achilleus was ātē from Zeus. Zeus has, as he says, devised a κακὴν ἀπάτην (vile deception) (114): Agamemnon thinks that he is himself devising one, without realizing that the dream was false. When he admits “πολὺν Ὤλεἐα λαόν” (‘I have lost many of my people’) (115), this is a truth which would better have been left untrumpeted. So too with the numerical inferiority of the Trojans and the great help they have had from their epikouroi (130-3)—both these demoralizing truths are confirmed later in the poem.

At this stage, while he does not realize the folly of his treatment of Achilleus, Agamemnon feigns despair with sentiments unworthy of the great sceptre on which he leans. But by the time of his speech in 9. 17-28 he is in earnest. His lines there are made up of partial repetition of the speech in book 2.20 Both speeches gravely miscalculate the mood of the men. The earlier false speech is met with enthusiastic acceptance: the true speech in 9 is met with silence and grief (29-30), and is eventually contradicted by Diomedes to general approval. There will even be a third occasion where Agamemnon counsels despair, though this time in front of only Nestor, Odysseus, and Diomedes, not the whole agorē (14. 65-81).21 This time he also includes practical proposals for hasty escape, and concludes with highly unheroic clichés. That is perhaps Agamemnon's lowest low point in the poem. His proposals, which would be strategically disastrous, are perfunctorily dismissed by Odysseus (82-102), and it is Diomedes again who gives encouragement (109-34).

So we see early what is confirmed later: Agamemnon does not himself have the good judgement or determination to keep his expedition at Troy. He needs Odysseus and others to repair the confusions and demoralizations he inspires. After the troops have been restored to order by Odysseus and Nestor, and Agamemnon is put in a better light, he is still credulously overconfident. He prays to Zeus that he may kill Hektor and sack Troy on this very day.

… So he spoke, but the son of Kronos would not yet grant his prayer—he took the sacrifice, but heaped higher their joyless hardship.

(2. 419-20)

By the time night falls on this day in book 7, Troy is still intact, there will have been heavy casualties, and Hektor will be on the eve of two days of triumphant attack.

Of all the things in Agamemnon's speech which are disturbing for his audience, the collocation of the deteriorating condition of their ships with the reminder of their families at home is the most painful. The ships are their only means of returning home. The fact that they are no longer in good trim makes the men all the more eager to get them launched.


… So she spoke: Hektor did not fail to hear the goddess speaking, and immediately broke up the assembly. They rushed to their arms. All the gates were opened and the army streamed out, foot-soldiers and horsemen, and the din rose loud.

In front of the city there is a steep mound, standing alone in the plain with open space around it on all sides: men's name for it is Batieia, but the immortals call it the barrow of dancing Myrine. It was here that the Trojans and their allies then formed into their divisions.

(2. 807-15)

Troy is a great stone-built city, many generations old, with many well-known permanent features and landmarks. The Achaian camp could hardly be in greater contrast. It is an improvised, wooden world, peopled by soldiers and their captured women. The camp does not even have a wall (and that built later in the poem will be obliterated after the war). It has no temples, no long-term landmarks or formalized social spaces. It is not a proper place.

Moreover, the Achaian camp is highly inflammable. If the ships were to burn, the Achaians would be trapped. The very idea of setting fire to the ships has never occurred to anyone during the nine years of siege so far. Until now the Trojans have scarcely ventured outside their gates, as is pointed out by Athene at 5. 788-91 and Achilleus at 9. 352-4. This fiery ambition comes to Hektor as a kind of inspiration at 8. 180-3, and is eventually achieved at the height of his day of glory.

The wooden camp and the stone city are the two bases between which the armies fight. They will fight until one or the other goes up in flames. As Hektor sees, Zeus will prolong the fighting

… ‘until either you capture the strong walls of Troy or are yourselves beaten down beside your seafaring ships.’

(7. 71-2)

Aias defies Hektor with his opposing hopes:

… ‘I suppose your heart must be hoping to destroy our ships. But we have hands too, ready at a moment to defend them. Much sooner than that our hands will have taken and sacked your well-founded city.’

(13. 813-16)22

The crucial imbalance is that Troy is the proper home for many people, men and women, young and old. There are constant reminders, both through particular allusions and through the subliminal effect of formulae, of the broad paved streets, fine ashlar buildings, furniture, clothing. Around all are the mightly defences, built by Poseidon and Apollo, and in them the great symbol of defence and vulnerability, the Skaian gate.23 Inside, as well as houses, there are, for example, the meeting-place before Priam's house and the Pergamos where Athene and Apollo have temples.

Outside the city there are the great local features such as the rivers Skamandros and Simoeis and Mount Ida, whose peak is associated with Zeus. There are also landmarks on a smaller, human scale, the kind of fixed points which help to articulate the doings of everyday life. One example out of many is the oak tree.24 When the Achaians need a turning-point for the chariot race, it is telling that they have to use a Trojan landmark which they cannot identify (23. 326-33, 358-61).

The Iliad is 1,400 lines old (over two hours) when it moves rather abruptly, at 2. 786, to be in the presence of the Trojans for the first time. As with the Achaians, they are stimulated by a message from Zeus to hold an agorē, and to move on to an armed muster. But in their case the message is more straightforward and more honest (cf. 2. 807).

It is no mere epic padding that there are two named landmarks in this brief scene. At 793 there is a reference to the tomb of Aisyëtes; and then at 811 ff. the troops gather at a particular place before the city, one which is a ση̑μα (sēma) even for the gods. Troy is established as a place that has been lived in and died in for many generations. Here people have gone about their business of life, and they have named the features of their familiar landscape. These landmarks are, then, one of many ways to which Troy, far from being merely ‘the enemy’, becomes a place that the audience care about.


… That is what they said, but Priam called out to Helen: ‘Come here, dear child, and sit in front of me, so you can see your former husband and your relatives and friends. It is not you I blame—I blame the gods, who brought on me the misery of war with the Achaians. Sit here, so you can tell me the name of that huge man there—who is he, this tall and manly Achaian? There are others of greater stature, but I have never yet set eyes on a man so fine-looking or so dignified: he has the look of a king.’

Helen, queen among women, answered him with these words: ‘Dear father-in-law, you are a man I honour and revere. Oh, if only vile death had been my choice when I came here with your son, leaving behind the house of my marriage, and my family and my darling child and the sweet company of friends!’

(3. 161-75)

The armies have been marshalled and are advancing to meet each other by 3. 15 ff.; yet it is another 900 lines before they actually clash and the slaughter begins. First a kind of primal story-pattern urges that a duel should be fought in the presence of the beautiful princess whose hand is to be the prize. “τω̑ι δέ κε νικήσαντι ϕίλη κεκλήσηι ἄκοιτισ” (‘and you will be called the dear wife of the man who wins’), as Iris tells Helen (3. 138). But in this case the contenders are already competing husbands. Which should win? Both sides pray to Zeus to strike down ὁππότεροσ τάδε ἐργα μετ' ἀμϕοτέροιἐιν ἐηκε (whichever of the two it was that brought these troubles on our peoples) (321): but is that the wife-stealer or the warmonger? This part of the Iliad is much concerned with apportioning blame, and with denying it. Who started it? Is Helen the cause of the war?

From her very first participation Helen is established as an exceptional person, far more than merely a sex-object or a femme fatale.25 She belongs to both sides, yet to neither; she is μέσσωι ἀμϕοτέρων (in the middle of both sides) in Aphrodite's phrase (3. 416). She is at the centre of the war, yet she has the detachment to be its observer. She belongs both to the present, and to the future long after they are all dead. So Iris finds her—and the poem first finds her—

… Iris found Helen in her room, working at a great web of purple cloth for a double cloak, and in it she was weaving many scenes of the conflict between the horse-taming Trojans and the bronze-clad Achaians, which they were enduring for her sake at the hands of Ares.

(3. 125-8)26

This gives her a special affinity with the poet and his audience. She shows the same kind of self-awareness when she explains to Hector that she and Paris have brought suffering

… ‘so that in time to come we can be themes of song for men of future generations.’

(6. 357-8)

The war that Helen weaves is being fought ἐθεν εἵνεκα (for her sake). Does this imply that she is to blame for it? Although the matter has been controversial, it seems to me clear beyond dispute that the characters of the Iliad and Odyssey are much concerned with responsibility. This makes such issues of interest to the audience also, though they will not necessarily concur with the assessments of the participants. The Odyssey's concern with such issues is, indeed, established at the very start by Zeus' socalled ‘programme’:

… ‘O the way these mortals blame the gods! They say that their troubles come from us, and yet they also bring excessive sorrow upon themselves through their own wrongheaded will.’

(Od. 1. 32-4)

In the Iliad such questions surface most openly in the scenes surrounding the duel of Paris and Menelaos, a good context to start up the whole question of the rights and wrongs of the Trojan war. Homer is too fine an observer of the complexities of human affairs to make the issue black and white. The question of the guilt—or innocence—of Helen is so posed that it has had an enduring fascination for the ancient Greeks and ever since.

This calls for a more general discussion of blame and innocence and responsibility in Homer and of how such issues usually involve the extrapolation of the past. Within the range of language for disputing blame ἐνεκα with the genitive (‘for the sake of’) is at the weaker end, and much depends on its context. The implication is clear in, for instance, Achilleus' exoneration of the Trojans:

… ‘It was not the spearmen of Troy who caused me to come here and fight—I have no quarrel with them.’

(1. 152-3)

But there is little or no acknowledgement of blame in Hector's description of Paris, του̑ εἵνεκα νει̑κοσ ὄρωρεν (the man who gave rise to our quarrel) (3. 87). Naturally Menelaos is less neutral: both sides have suffered, he says, εἵνεκ' ἐμη̑σ ἐριδοσ καὶ 'Αλεξάνδρου ἐνεκ' ἀρχη̑ἐ (because of my quarrel and Alexandros who began it) (3. 100). ἀρχη̑ἐ (‘beginning’) here clearly attributes blame.27 In the same way, it is crucial to establish which side, if the oath is broken, broke it πρότεροσ—see 3. 299, 351; 4. 72, 271, and further below.

The clearest blame/innocence language has been surprisingly neglected by scholars: the use of αἴτιοσ (aitios), αἰτιάομαι, and related words.28 Two clear examples will be enough. Achilleus says that the Trojans are not aitioi as far as he is concerned (as opposed to Menelaos)—see 1. 153, quoted above. And when the heralds come for Briseïs, he reassures them,

… ‘It is not you I blame, but Agamemnon, who has sent you here for the girl Briseïs.’

(1. 335-6)

The most direct way to clear one party is to blame another—in that case Agamemnon. But the most ready-to-hand third party tends to be the gods—they are, after all, inscrutable and powerful, and they are known to bring suffering to humans. Thus, for example, Idomeneus protests at 13. 222 ff. that no man is aitios for the Achaian defeat, it must be Zeus; at Od. 1. 346 ff. Telemachos defends Phemios on the grounds that it is Zeus not the bard who is aitios for the suffering of mortals.

The trouble with such excuses is that they attempt to override the ‘double motivation’ or ‘over-determination’ which is the standard model in Homer (see below on Pandaros).29 To give two relatively straightforward illustrations: at 9. 701-3 Diomedes predicts that Achilleus will fight ὁππότε κέν μιν θυμὸσ ἐνὶ στήθεσσιν ἀνώγηι καὶ θεὸσ ὄρἐηι (when the heart in his breast urges him and god sets him to it); and at Od. 14. 389 Eumaios tells the stranger that he will look after him Δία ξένιον δείσασ αὐτόν τ' ἐλεαίρων (because I reverence the patron of strangers, Zeus, and because I pity you for your own sake). According to this model, then, there is divine prompting and collaboration, but at the same time the human acts for himself or herself. By the same token the human is entitled to at least some credit, or liable for at least some blame. So putting all the blame on the gods is, in effect, an attempt to reduce the double motivation to single. Those well-disposed may be inclined to go along with this, those ill-disposed disinclined.

All this bears on Helen and Priam. He is kindly disposed to her—ἑκυρὸσ δἐ πατὴρ oσ eπιοσ αἰεί (though your father was always kind to me as a real father), as she acknowledges at 24. 770 (a notable consistency). It is characteristic of Helen, however, that she does not accept his well-intentioned palliation. Her response in 173-5 (cf. 3. 180, 242) is a clear acceptance of her side of any double determination. She should have chosen death rather than have chosen to desert her marriage-home.

Instead of leaving the issue there, Homer actually narrates a scene between Helen and Aphrodite after the battle which fascinatingly explores the extent of her self-motivation. It is clear without statement that the two of them are intimate: Helen recognizes Aphrodite easily (396-8); the goodess carries a footstool for the mortal (424-6—ἀπρεπέσ (improper) in the eyes of Zenodotos). Helen's language in 399-412 is bold and shrewish, more like that bandied about among the immortals on Olympos. A comparison with Diomedes to Aphrodite at 5. 348-51 or Achilleus to Apollo at 22. 15-20 brings out its courage—or effrontery—as she attempts to assert independent human will. Her extraordinary lines

… ‘… and sit by him yourself—abandon the paths of the gods, never again turn your feet back to Olympos: no, stay with him, for ever whimpering round him and watching over him, until he makes you his wife—or else his slave’

(3. 406-9)

are a challenge to the god to imagine what it is like to be mortal, shamed and abused by fellow-mortals. Aphrodite in response sharply reminds Helen that she can make life hell for her. She gives in in silence, follows (420), and is sat down in obedience (425).

It is part of the subtlety of the scene—and part of the reason for its enduring fascination—that it is impossible to pin down definitively the degree to which Aphrodite is an outside compulsion and the degree to which she is an externalization of Helen's own mixed feelings. Consider her words to Paris:

… ‘Well, go now, challenge the warrior Menelaos to fight you again face to face. No, I would advise you to stop now, and not pit yourself against fair-haired Menelaos in warfare or combat without thinking—you might well be brought down by his spear.’

(3. 432-6)

Some audiences may hear this as straight sarcastic hostility (thus Kirk, for example), but others may detect her love despite herself for Paris. I find myself, like Helen herself perhaps, caught between hearing a wish for his death and a desire to have him alive. Paris' following words are full of sweet seduction, and when he goes to the bed ἅμα δ' εἵπετ' ἄκοιτισ (his wife followed) (447). So despite Iris' line 138 (quoted on p. 97) she remains the ἄκοιτισ (wife) of the loser—or rather of the military loser. Paris has been none the less the conqueror over her shame and self-respect.

With her powerful sexuality and her keen self-reproach, Helen remains a deeply ambivalent and mysterious figure (one who can sustain the role of delivering the final lament for Hektor. Paris on the other hand has no regrets. Many have seen him as a mere dandy or libertine. But he can fight effectively on occasion;30 and, when set against the earnestness, however admirable, of Hektor or Menelaos, he has, some may feel, an attractive panache and fluency, typified by his leopard-skin as he cavorts out in front at 3. 15 ff. He is not a coward: he accepts Hektor's rebukes with bravado (3. 59=6. 333); and he himself proposes the single combat without frivolity or evasion (3. 67 ff.). This will put him in serious danger—he was, as Zeus observes, ὀιόμενον θανέεσ θαι (he thought his death had come) (4. 12).

Menelaos is the superior warrior. He also has a strong sense of holding the ethical higher ground. He will not trust the sons of Priam to solemnize the oath, since they are ὑπερϕίαλοι καὶ ἄπιἐτοι (violent men and not to be trusted) (3. 106). Paris makes no prayer before he casts: Menelaos is full of righteous indignation:

… ‘Zeus, lord, grant me vengeance on the man who did me first wrong, godlike Alexandros, and bring him low under my hands, so that even among generations yet to be born a man may shrink from doing wrong to a host who gives him hospitality.’

(3. 351-4)

He sees the issue as black and white, and is impatient with Zeus for not settling the war more quickly. His sense of injury is forthright at 3. 365-8, and at 13. 620 ff. where he cannot understand “οι̑ον δὴ ἄνδρεσσι χαρίζεαι ὑβριστη̑ισι” (the way you [Zeus] favour these men of violence) (633).

But for all Menelaos' ‘moral victory’, it is Paris who keeps and enjoys Helen. Hektor may rebuke him that, if he loses,

… ‘There would be no help then in your lyre-playing and the gifts of Aphrodite, your long hair and your looks, when you have your union with the dust.’

(3. 54-5)31

But Paris stands up to him:

… ‘… but do not charge against me golden Aphrodite's lovely gifts: there is no discarding the glorious gifts that come of the gods' own giving, though a man would not take them of his choice.’

(3. 64-6)

And he is right: as he says to Helen, πάρα γὰρ θεοί εἰσι καὶ ἡμι̑ν (there are gods on our side too) (3. 440). Aphrodite has rescued him ῥει̑α μάλ' ὥσ τε θεόσ (with the ease of a god) (381), instantly refreshed and clothed him, and fetched Helen, all while no one else knows what on earth is going on (420 ff., 448 ff.)

Their palace is fine, with a scented, high thalamos, where Paris lies on the bed in fresh clothes. All this is in stark contrast with the plain outside the walls.

… They then lay down together on the fretted bed. But the son of Atreus went ranging up and down the mass of troops like a wild beast, looking for a sight of godlike Alexandros. But none of the Trojans or their famous allies could then point out Alexandros to the warrior Menelaos: certainly they were not trying to conceal him out of friendship, if any were to have seen him—he was hated by all of them like black death.

(3. 448-54)

The Trojans are no more pleased than Menelaos. Yet the word ϕιλότητι (‘out of friendship/love’) in 453 reminds us that Paris has the better of them all: just before in lines 441 and 445, and in fifteen out of sixteen other occurrences in the Iliad, this dative form refers to sexual intercourse.

And this is how it has been for the past nine years. Paris has kept Helen, and all the other Trojans, for all their distaste, have not prevented him. Meanwhile the Achaians have been frustrated of success. Menelaos has been outside in the plain in his armour, while Paris has been inside his palace on his double-bed. Menelaos may have ‘won’ the dispute (3. 457, cf. 439, 4. 13), but Paris possesses Helen's lovely body. With a nice touch of humour this moment encapsulates the war so far.


… ‘Do something now that I tell you, warlike son of Lykaon. You could bring yourself to shoot a quick-flying arrow at Menelaos, and then you would gain gratitude and glory among all the Trojans, and most of all with prince Alexandros. From him before all others you would win splendid gifts, if he sees Menelaos, Atreus' warrior son, brought down by your arrow and set on the pyre of sorrow. Come then, shoot at glorious Menelaos: and vow to Apollo the Lycian-born, the archer, to make him a splendid sacrifice of first-born lambs on your return home to the town of holy Zeleia.’

So Athene spoke, and persuaded his foolish mind.

(4. 93-104)

For the time being, then, Paris is ‘sitting pretty’. But there follows immediately a kind of re-enactment of his original outrage, and this is followed in due course by the death of the culprit. I offer this sequence of crime and punishment as a prime example of the way that the Iliad prefers implicit rather than explicit ethical colouring. It is also a nice illustration of subtle narrative technique in sequence and linkage.

Pandaros,32 like Paris, offends against one of Zeus' most basic protectorates: oaths look above all to Zeus for sanction. Like Paris, he has the encouragement of a god—but that does not exculpate him. Hera proposes, and Zeus agrees, that Athene should renew the strife

… ‘and try to make the Trojans first to break the oaths and do harm to the triumphant Achaians.’

(4. 66-7 = 71-2)

Taking the form of Laodokos she finds the right man to do it—the gods ‘tend to work on what they find in the human heart, impulses or plans or scruples’.33 As well as offering fame and wealth, especially from Paris, she flatters his bowmanship and his hope for the favour of Apollo.34 It is important, however, that Athene does not coerce him, she does not manipulate his muscles or interfere with his nervous system. She simply says the right kind of thing to the right kind of man—τω̑ι δἐ ϕρένασ ἄϕρονι πει̑θεν (and she persuaded his foolish mind).

αὐτίκα δ' ἐρρεεν αἐμα κελαινεϕσσ ἐξ ὠτειλη̑σ (and immediately dark blood trickled from the wound) (4. 140): 2,089 lines (well over 3 hours) into the poem this is the first blood to flow in the Iliad. It is the blood of the man who has been wronged by Paris, wronged again by one who acted πρότεροσ (first). Menelaos' blood draws from Agamemnon a powerful speech in 155-82, which is both bitter and triumphant as it tries to say two things at once. On the one hand he is righteously confident that Troy must be doomed for breaking the truce:

… ‘One thing I know well in my heart and in my mind. The day will come when sacred Ilios shall be destroyed, and Priam, and the people of Priam of the fine ash spear, and Zeus the son of Kronos who sits on high and dwells in heaven shall himself shake the darkness of his aegis against them all, in anger for this betrayal. These things shall not fail of fulfilment.’

(4. 163-8)35

On the other hand the war is for the tīmē of Menelaos: so if he dies, as Agamemnon fears, the whole expedition will have to disband ignominiously.

The audience knows from the interventions of Athene at 129 ff. and 151 ff. that the wound is not fatal. So they can share Agamemnon's belief that the crime of Pandaros has reconfirmed the doom on Troy. He goes on to stress the sureness of divine punishment when he encourages the troops at 234 ff.—“οἵ περ πρότεροι ὑπἐρ ὅρκια δηλήἐαντο” (‘they were the first to break the oaths and do us harm’). Idomeneus reflects the same righteous optimism (4. 268-71). On the other side, Hektor at 7. 69 ff. will make light of the oath-breaking as simply ‘the will of Zeus’.36 But at the Trojan assembly at the end of the day Antenor advocates the surrender of Helen:

… ‘We are fighting now with our sworn oaths broken: so I can see no good coming for us, unless we act as I say.’

(7. 351-3)

Antenor is overruled by Paris, and the agorē confirms the protection of Paris and his continued possession of Helen. Homer leaves the constitutional position here obscure, deliberately no doubt.37 What matters is that Paris is able to overturn a proposal couched in the first-person plural by a contradiction in the first-person singular (7. 362). Priam tamely ratifies this, latching on to the compromise that Paris is willing to make material compensation. The upshot is that Troy's guilty association is publicly renewed.

This is the context for the Achaian rejection of the Trojan terms in book 7. They respond to Diomedes' confidence:

… ‘Let no-one now accept possessions from Alexandros, nor Helen either. Even a very fool can see that now the threads of death are fastened on the Trojans.’

(7. 400-2)

Analyst complaints about this coming so soon after the Achaian despondency the previous evening (7. 323 ff.) fail to take proper account of the narrative sequence and its effect on the audience.38

To return to the earlier narrative, battle is finally joined at 4. 446 ff., and is more or less continuous until 6. 72, dominated, though not throughout (see above), by Diomedes. Much blood is shed, yet there are only two really important deaths: Adrestos at the hands of the Atreidai and Pandaros at the hands of Diomedes at 5. 310. This is some 700 lines (over an hour) after his perfidious arrow-shot at Menelaos. No explicit link is made between the two events. Homer's narrative technique is far above the kind of prosaic and heavy underlining that many critics seem to require.

First, at 5. 95 ff., Pandaros shoots an arrow at Diomedes from a safe distance. As with Menelaos, he hits him but does not wound him seriously. Diomedes prays to Athene

… ‘Grant that I may kill this man, that he comes within my spear's throw, the man who shot me before I saw him and is now triumphing over me …’

(5. 118-19)

She responds and promises him special powers. Homer is too good a poet to have her spell out in so many words ‘I will help you to kill the treacherous Pandaros’—the audience must infer that.

Next, at 166 ff. Aineias finds Pandaros and asks him why he does not shoot at the unidentified Achaian who is doing so much damage—

… ‘unless it is some god working his fury on the Trojans, in anger at sacrifice missed, and a god's anger lies hard on us.’

(5. 177-8)39

Pandaros identifies Diomedes and comes very close to making a connection between Diomedes' likely divine aid and the failure of his own bowmanship:

… ‘But if he is the man I think, Tydeus' warrior son, then this rampage of his cannot be without a god's help, but one of the immortals is standing by him, with mist wrapped round his shoulders, and turned aside the sharp arrow that was finding its mark in him—I have already let fly an arrow at him, and struck him in the right shoulder, straight through the corselet's front-piece. And I thought that I would send him on his way to Hades, but for all that I did not bring him down—so this must be some god in anger.’

(5. 184-91)

He goes on to regret having left his chariot at home, coming to Troy with his bow instead:

… ‘So I left them, and came on foot to Ilios, relying on my bow, which it seems was to do me no good. I have already shot at two leading fighters, the son of Tydeus and the son of Atreus, and I set the blood running from both with a plain hit, but only roused them to greater fury. So it was under a cross fate that I took my curved bow from its peg on that day when I led my Trojans to lovely Ilios, as a service of friendship to godlike Hektor.’

(5. 204-11)

An alert audience will apprecite the irony.

Diomedes has yet, however, to get Pandaros in his clutches, as he prayed in line 118. Pandaros fulfils this voluntarily and characteristically in a carefully plotted sequence. Aineias asks Pandaros to take over his horses so that he can confront Diomedes (217 ff.); Pandaros replies that he will himself fight while Aineias controls the horses (229 ff.); Diomedes resolves to take on both of them (241 ff.). Now that they are within hearing distance, Pandaros proclaims (276 ff.) that he was the unidentified bowman; then he throws and prematurely boasts. Now at last Athene guides Diomedes' spear to the fulfilment of his prayer.40

None of the Trojans even criticizes Pandaros for truce-breaking, let alone attempts to disown or punish him. He continues to fight among them, and Aineias positively encourages and helps him. Aineias is also, I suggest, caught up in the implicit sequence of crime and punishment. This is not directly through his wound, which is quickly cured, but through the opportunity that this gives Sthenelos and Diomedes, in the meantime, to capture his horses. Diomedes had foreseen this possibility, and told Sthenelos at length how exceptionally fine these horses are, thanks to their pedigree from a stallion given to Tros by Zeus (259-73). This reputation is twice confirmed in practice later in the poem. At 8. 80 ff. Nestor is in some trouble when Diomedes rescues him and offers him a ‘ride’ with these horses captured from Aineias (note 8. 105-7 = 5. 221-3). And these are the very horses which will take Diomedes to victory in the main event of the funeral games of Patroklos. When he rises to the challenge, their history is recalled:

… and brought under the yoke those horses of Tros' stock which he had taken that time from Aineias, though Apollo rescued their master.

(23. 291-2)

Aineias loses these wonderful beasts as a result of pairing up with Pandaros. The narrative connection is direct; the ethical connection is left implicit.

As Pandaros' crime is a kind of re-enactment of the hospitality-breaking deed of Paris, so Aineias is the equivalent of the Trojans in the larger story. They go on with Paris in their midst, and they fail to renounce him. They are guilty by association; and in due course they will pay for it.


  1. For narratological approaches to this speech, see I. J. F. de Jong, Arethusa, 18 (1985), 5 ff.; W. F. Wyatt Jr., CJ [Classical Journal] 83 (1988), 289-97; also Rabel, 475-7; and Robbins, passim.

  2. On the catalogue, see Kirk i. 168-247. It is worth noting how in two of the three entries which are adapted to fit developments since the departure from Aulis (the third is Protesilaos at 2. 895-710), the poet takes the opportunity to slip in a prediction for the future. Achilleus (681 ff.) will return to the war τάχα (soon) (674), and Philoktetes will be needed and recalled τάχα (soon) (724).

  3. See Taplin, Chios, with bibliog.; add Robbins, 9-13.

  4. Fr. xix Allen = 28 Bernabé = 22 Davies. This seems a clear indication that the Cypria was composed as a kind of supplement to the Iliad, and even addressing ‘Homeric problems’.

  5. It is no objection that she is referred to as κούρη (young woman) since Briseïs is also. So Kirk on 1. 366-92 is mistaken to assume that Chryseïs was only visiting Thebe; but that is not as wrong as his statement that Andromache was captured at Thebe (presumably there is some confusion with Andromache's mother).

  6. See Cook, 228-35. The title of Smintheus comes after the ‘local’ invocation of Apollo in 1. 37-8 (= 1. 451-2, when Chryses calls the plague off). (Compare the ‘local’ Trojan invocation of Zeus at 24. 290-1). These lines associate Chryse, Tenedos, and Killa (site also unknown). For Chryse and Chryseïs in later myth, see Pearson's introduction to the fragments of Sophocles' Chryses (ii. 327-8).

  7. For example the four lines of disembarkation beginning ἐκ δἐ (‘and out …’) (436-9), or the hieratic calling-off of the plague in 450 ff. On the scene see Reinhardt, ID 83-95; Edwards, ‘CI’ 19-23.

  8. The long delay at Aulis was already well known to Hesiod: see WD 651-3.

  9. This might possibly be relevant to Poseidon's taking the form of Kalchas at 13. 95 ff., when he rallies the Achaians in terms that do Agamemnon no credit.

  10. For two other examples of narratives which I claim to have a wider reflexive significance for the poem they form part of, see below on Aineias in book 5 (p. 109) and the fate of Eumelos in 23 (p. 257). Cf. Anderson.

  11. Contra Aristarchos, supported by Kirk, I am reading ἀρίζηλον (‘conspicuous’) rather than ἀίζηλον (‘invisible’), and retaining line 319. Kirk says of Aulis ‘there is no reason for believing that Homer's description was based on special local knowledge’: I would be very surprised if the stone snake was not something visible in Homer's day, and known to at least some of his audience. This is a kind of aetiology for it.

  12. For other such self-referential predictions, see below p. 243.

  13. On the setting at the ships, see Schadewaldt, IS 67-8; Hellwig, 25-6. In general on the setting of the Iliad, see Elliger, 29 ff. For comparative material on the topographical setting of epic, see Hatto, ii. 215 ff.

  14. A scheme, modified from that of Cuillandre, is set out by Willcock, Comm. ii. 225 (cf. Comp. 116f.). In later times the Greeks envisaged the camp along the shore of the Dardanelles from ‘the tomb of Achilleus’ at Sigeion to ‘the tomb of Aias’ at Rhoiteion. Any real expedition, whether in the late Bronze Age or at any other pre-modern era, is far more likely to have camped at Beşik Bay on the Aegean coast to the south-west. This would put Achilleus at the north end, where the Lesbians founded Achilleion at Beşik Tepe. Homer himself more likely envisages this landscape as his basis in reality. This is well argued by M. Korfmann in M. J. Mellink (ed.), Troy and the Trojan War (Bryn Mawr, 1986), 1-28; cf. J. Latacz, Berytus 34 (1984), 97 ff.

  15. Perhaps it is not coincidence that he is connected with the one and only nostos (that of Chryseïs) in the Iliad? On Odysseus in the Iliad, see the inaugural lecture of K. Borthwick, Odyssean Elements in the Iliad (Edinburgh, 1985); also Martin, 120-4.

  16. What Thersites says is far from despicable; but Odysseus takes the opportunity to stop an unsuitable person from saying it at an unsuitable time. For an interesting recent study of Thersites, see W. G. Thalmann in TAPA [Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Society] 11 (1988), 1-28.

  17. This introduction is honorific—it is out of the question that Nestor might have been an unfamiliar figure. About half the occurrences of the formula ὅ ἐϕιν σϋϕρονέων ἀγορήσατο (‘in all good will he spoke to them’) (first at 1. 253) are applied to him. On Nestor the speaker, see Martin, 101 ff.

  18. Line 409 is very likely an interpolation.

  19. This used to be one of the analyst complaints against the scene; but the use of large-scale repetition to bring out an important variation can be seen elsewhere, e.g. Odysseus' omission of Agamemnon's four lines of message in 9. 158-61—see p. 70 above. For a powerful and wide-ranging defence of this whole scene against analytical attacks see Reinhardt, ID 107-20.

  20. 9. 17-25, 26-8 = 2. 110-19, 139-41.

  21. 14. 69 and 14. 74 are repeated yet again (= 2. 116, 9. 23, and = 2. 139, 9. 26).

  22. Note ἐξαλαπάξειν νη̑αἐ (‘to destroy our ships’). All eight other occurrences of the verb are used of the sack of a city (all except 4. 40 of Troy).

  23. On the question of whether this is the same as the Dardanian gate see Kirk on 3. 145.

  24. Refs. at 6. 237, 9. 359, 11. 170; also probably 5. 693, 7. 22, 7. 60, 21. 549.

  25. There is a fine study of Helen in Kakridis, H. Rev. 25 ff. Her special perspective is marked by the self-referentiality of her weaving: cf. A. Bergren, Helios, 7 (1979-80), 19 ff.; Thalmann, 153; Collins, 42-3.

  26. Line 127 is used of the ‘real’ war almost immediately at 131 and again at 251.

  27. For ἀρχη̑σ (‘beginning’) here rather than ἄτησ (‘madness’), see Macleod on 24. 27 contra Kirk on 3. 100. For the importance of establishing who began the trouble, and of revenge, see J. Gould, Herodotus (London, 1989), esp. Chs. 3 and 4 (42-85). At 5. 63 the narrator calls Paris' ships ἀρχεκάκουσ, a memorable formation echoed by Herodotus' description of the ships sent to help the Ionian revolt as ἀρχὴ κακω̑ν (the beginning of trouble) (5. 97).

  28. For interesting examples, see Il. 13. 111, 13. 222, 13. 775, 19. 410, 20. 297, 21. 275; Od. 1. 348, 11. 559, 20. 131, 22. 48, 22. 356; see further pp. 207-9. (I am grateful to Dr C. Pelling for drawing my attention to some of these passages.)

  29. Fundamental contributions on this subject were provided by Lesky, ‘Motivation’, and Dodds.

  30. Esp. in books 11 and 13; cf. Fenik, TBS 96.

  31. μιγείησ (‘you have your union’) (55) bitterly echoes the sexual μιχθείσ (‘mingled with’) in 48.

  32. He is the fifth to be named in the catalogue of Trojans at 2. 824-7.

  33. Macleod, 22.

  34. At 2. 827 the bow is reported to have been the gift of Apollo. Since the armour of Peleus and the new armour of Achilleus are literally gifts of the gods, I do not go along with the standard view (e.g. Schein, 56-7) that gifts like this should be taken figuratively.

  35. On the repetition of 163-5 in the mouth of Hektor in book 6, see p. 123.

  36. Leaf (291) objects to this as ‘almost cynical’. But in the context Hektor is in an assertive and optimistic mood.

  37. Cf. Schadewaldt, IS 155. Note that no mention whatsoever of Hektor is made in this scene.

  38. The Trojan herald Idaios virtually admits their guilt (7. 388, 390, 393). They know that Paris is in the wrong; yet they have done nothing about him.

  39. Is Aineias obliquely referring to the breaking of the truce? That would be like the technique suggested for 1. 62 on p. 54 above.

  40. There may be poetic justice in the (physiologically impossible) death-wound which chops out the oath-breaker's tongue.



Ameis-Hentze K. F. Ameis and C. Hentze, latest edns. (Leipzig and Berlin, 1894-1900).
Kirk G. S. Kirk, i. Books 1-4 (Cambridge, 1985); ii. Books 5-8 (Cambridge, 1990).
Leaf W. Leaf, 2nd end. (London, 1900).
Macleod C. M. Macleod, Book XXIV (Cambridge, 1982).
Willcock, Comm. M. M. Willcock, (London, 1978, 1984).
Willcock, Comp. M. M. Willcock, A Companion to the Iliad (Chicago, 1976).

Hesiod: M. L. West's editions with commentary of the Theogony (Oxford, 1966) and the Works and Days [WD] (Oxford, 1978).

Books and Articles

Andersen Ø. Andersen, ‘Myth, Paradigm and “Spatial Form” in the Iliad’, in BOP 1-14.
BOP J. M. Bremer, I. de Jong, and J. Kalff (edd.), Homer: Beyond Oral Poetry (Amsterdam, 1987).
Collins L. Collins, Studies in Characterisation in the Iliad (Beitr. zur klassischen Philologie, 189) (Frankfurt, 1988).
Cook J. M. Cook, The Troad: An Archaeological and Topographical Study (Oxford, 1973).
de Jong I. J. F. de Jong, Narrators and Focalizers: The Presentation of the Story in the Iliad (Amsterdam, 1987).
Dodds E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley, Calif., 1951).
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R. M. Frazer (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Frazer, R. M. Introduction to A Reading of the Iliad, pp. 1-26. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1993.

[In the following excerpt from his study of the Iliad, Frazer investigates the work's narrative structure and parallelism, the character of Achilles, pro-Achaean bias, representation of the Olympian gods, and use of simile.]


In the first part of the present century Milman Parry (for his collected essays see Parry 1971) proved that the Iliad was composed in accordance with the techniques of oral poetry. It thus consists largely of formulas such as “swift-footed Achilles” and of type-scenes such as the assembly scene, and it strings one thought to another and one scene to another paratactically. Lord 1960.92, who uses the term “theme” instead of “type-scene,” well describes how an oral poet—in this case in modern Yugoslavia—creates the elements in a type-scene.

He knows where he is going. As in the adding of one line to another, so in the adding of one element in a theme to another, the singer can stop and fondly dwell upon any single item without losing a sense of the whole … Moreover, he usually signals the end of a theme by a significant or culminating point. The description of an assembly moves inexorably to focus on the chief hero of the song; … the larger assembly theme proceeds onward to the decision which will itself lead to further action. The singer's mind is orderly.

Homer uses many different type-scenes, which he expands or contracts according to whether he wants to emphasize or de-emphasize their importance and therefore the importance of the episodes in which they appear. For instance, one of the longest sacrifice scenes in the Iliad is that in which Chryses propitiates Apollo in Book 1, and this occurs at the very important point where the wrath of Apollo is giving way to the wrath of Achilles.

Another type-scene is the assembly, for which (following Arend 1933.116) we can list the following elements: the assembly is called; the participants take their seats; the king or leader who called the assembly stands up to speak. Assemblies, in which decisions and programmatic statements are made about coming events, occur at the beginning and end of a day's fighting. The longest, most elaborate assemblies in the Iliad are the two called by Achilles. The first, in Book 1, culminates in his announcing his wrath; the second, in Book 19, shows him publicly renouncing his wrath.

The assemblies of the gods are similar to those of men. One thinks especially of the councils of the gods called by Zeus at the beginnings of Books 8 and 20. The first, in which he forbids the gods to take part in the battle during the period of Achilles' wrath, is programmatic for Books 8 through 18; the second, in which he lifts this prohibition, is programmatic for Books 20 through 22.

The arming of the hero, when he is usually inspired by a god with new fighting spirit, is also a type-scene with definite elements in a set order (Arend 1933.92-97; cf. Edwards 1987.72-74). First the hero puts on his greaves, then his breastplate, and finally his helmet; then he takes up one or two spears. At the end of an arming scene we are often told that the hero's armor gleamed brightly, and this portends his success in the coming battle. In the case of Patroclus the omission of this motif apparently portends his death, which is also foreshadowed by the fact that, after putting on Achilles' armor, he is unable to take up Achilles' spear.

The arming of the hero often introduces a series of scenes called the aristeia, the great deeds of a hero. Krischer 1971.23-24 (cf. Edwards 1987.79) has described the elements (they might be called type-scenes too) of a normal aristeia—no example fully realizes the norm—as follows. First is the arming scene; the gleaming of the armor is usually mentioned. Second are a number of brief encounters in battle ending with the hero and his side putting the enemy to flight. Third is the wounding of the hero and his healing by a god. Fourth is the single combat in which the hero slays his main opponent. Fifth is the battle over the dead body. The first three scenes move forward to the decisive single combat, and then comes the fight over the body.

Often there are two or more instances of the same type-scene with the last of them being the most important, and this produces what I shall call a climactic parallel. For example, a Thetis-Achilles scene—apparently Homer's elaboration on the divine-visitation type-scene—is found both in Book 1, where she agrees to go to Zeus to gain support for his wrath, and in Book 24, where she urges him at the behest of Zeus to give up his vengeance, thus creating a sense of closure and climax. The most striking instances of such parallel narratives consist of type scenes which seem to be the peculiar creations of the poet of the Iliad.

Four other examples of climatic parallelism are especially worth noting. First, there are the three meetings of Hector with the women in his life in Book 6, the third of which is the culminating farewell conversation between him and his wife Andromache. Second, there are the similar confrontations (elaborations on the scene in which the hero meets his opponent) of Achilles with Agenor in Book 21 and of Achilles with Hector in Book 22, of which the second is the climactic encounter in Achilles' aristeia. Third, there are the similarly complex narratives describing Achilles' two great decisions, first to send Patroclus into battle in Book 16, then to return himself in Book 18. Finally, and most important, there are the parallels between Achilles' wrath over the loss of Briseis and his vengeance against Hector for slaying Patroclus (surely a climactic event, for it entails Achilles' death and the fall of Troy): both begin in grief and are stubbornly carried too far, rejecting all supplications, and both end in pity. On this climactic parallelism the whole structure of the Iliad depends.

We shall be emphasizing how one scene is connected with another to create a unified story. Some scholars have seen mirroring or ring composition as the most important method of structuring the narrative. For instance, the similarities between Books 1 and 24 can be thought of as forming the outermost of a series of compositional rings (so Whitman 1958.249-84). I agree with Hainsworth 1972.188, however, that climax is a more valid aesthetic principle than mirroring. The poet is always looking and planning ahead to bring his narrative to a dramatic conclusion.


West 1980.16 has written: “It is a feature of epic composition that the poet prepares for every important turn of events in advance by means of prophecies, portents, debates, proposals, decisions of the gods.” That is, it is a prominent feature of epic composition to foretell or foreshadow the future (see Duckworth 1931 and 1933, and also Edwards 1987. 29-41). The term foreshadowing can be used to cover both clear predictions and more or less vague adumbrations of the future, and also scenes which, because of their similarity to future scenes, apparently look forward to them. The programmatic statement is the clearest and most frequent method of announcing the future. It appears in many other circumstances besides human and divine assemblies. One thinks, for instance, of the prophecies of Calchas and Helenus, of the warnings of Polydamas, and of Zeus' commands delivered by Iris. An example of the vaguer kind of foreshadowing already mentioned is the gleaming of the hero's armor at the beginning of his aristeia. This is a kind of omen, of which there are many in the Iliad. Sometimes it is difficult to be sure that a foreshadowing occurs, as in the similes comparing Hector and Patroclus (12.41ff. and 16. 752ff.) to a lion at bay whose courage causes its death. I think it very likely that these similes foreshadow the deaths of these heroes.

Often the poet looks to the future by making a comment in his own voice, as when he says of Patroclus answering the call of Achilles, “this was the beginning of evil for him” (11.604). Such comments frequently contain a “not yet” or a “still.” For instance, at 2.419, after Agamemnon has prayed to destroy Troy, we are told that Zeus is “not yet” granting this; and at 5.662, when Sarpedon is wounded but not fatally, we are told that Zeus is “still” protecting him from death, that is, Sarpedon is going to die later. Another important type of foreshadowing comment is introduced by the word nepios, “fool”; a fool is a man of false expectations. For instance, at 16.46, when Patroclus begs Achilles to send him into battle, the poet, calling him mega nepios, “great fool,” says that he is asking for his own death.

Duckworth 1931.323-24, following the ancient scholia, has distinguished foreshadowing from prooikonomia, which we shall usually translate “preparation.” The term prooikonomia can be thought of as covering passages which later are able to be seen to have prepared us for coming events, though they in themselves do not point to the future, not even vaguely, nor do they describe scenes similar to coming scenes. For instance, in Book 4 Pandarus is said first (89-91) to be among his shield-bearers and then (113-14) to be protected by them when he shoots an arrow at Menelaus. Schol. (=scholia) bT remark that the first mention of shield-bearers is an example of prooikonomia. We shall cite many other examples noted in the scholia, and point out others ourselves. Again it is a question of how the poet is planning ahead.

We are rarely left in suspense about where the narrative is headed. The sending out of Patroclus leads to his death, his death to the fight over his body, the fight over his body to Achilles' learning about it, Achilles' learning about it to his giving up his wrath, and his giving up his wrath to his vengeance against Hector. Episode after episode ends with new goal after new goal in view. But often, within the framework of an expected event, the unexpected happens. This adds a feeling of real life and rouses suspense. Unexpected retardations are a regular feature of epic composition. For instance, we know that on the great day of battle Hector is going to be successful in breaking through the Achaean wall and firing one of the Achaean ships, but this does not happen all at once in a straight line. There are many retardations.

Homer favors the suspense of anticipation over the suspense of uncertainty. The important events of the future are always foretold, thus preventing the suspense of uncertainty and causing the unexpected merely to increase our anticipation of the expected. Why has the poet followed this method? We can give two reasons, which are not mutually exclusive. First, as Duckworth 1931.337, following the scholia, notes, the purpose of foreshadowing may be “to give to the Homeric audience a pleasing anticipation of a fulfillment that is desired rather than to leave any uncertainty concerning the outcome of the future action.” This fits in with the view of the scholia (with which I largely agree) that the poet is sometimes eager to soothe the pro-Achaean feelings of his audience. Thus during the period of Achilles' wrath when the Achaeans are being defeated we are several times assured that Troy is destined to fall (outside the action of the Iliad). Second, and more important, foreshadowing seems to be a technique of early Greek oral epic poetry. Later literate epic poets, such as Apollonius of Rhodes and Virgil, use it much less frequently than Homer (Duckworth 1933.116-22). The oral poet apparently felt constrained by his method of composition constantly to anticipate himself and point out the direction in which he was guiding his narrative. This should become clearer after the discussion in the next section on the cataloguing style.


Krischer 1971 has argued persuasively that Homer often creates his narratives in a cataloguing style, that is, as a list of scenes methodically arranged. We are first given a general view of what is to come, say two different but connected actions, and then there follows in an orderly way detailed descriptions of each.

The Iliad contains many catalogues. The most famous is the Achaean Catalogue in Book 2. Other examples are Agamemnon's Review of the Troops at the end of Book 4, the Shield of Achilles in Book 18, and the contests at the funeral games in Book 23. In some of these catalogues it is clear that the poet has not simply added one item to another as he went along but planned the whole analytically beforehand, for he gives his audience at the beginning a general prospect of what to expect. For instance, he begins the description of the Shield by saying that Hephaestus put on it the earth, the sky, and the sea, thus leading us to expect a picture of the world, which he then proceeds to describe. Also, the longest section of the Shield, which is devoted to the cities of peace and of war, is preceded by another general prospect, the statement that Hephaestus created two cities. Similarly, the Review of the Troops is introduced by a general description, with sample speeches, of how Agamemnon blames and praises his men, before we are given a catalogue of his specific encounters with certain leaders in which he makes speeches blaming or praising them.

After citing the above passages as examples of the cataloguing style, Krischer 1971.132-33 goes on to discuss how the poet uses this method in aristeia and in narratives created in accordance with Zielinski's law. Zielinski 1902 (cf. Whitman and Scodel 1981) observed that Homer describes simultaneous events consecutively and as if they happened consecutively. A good example occurs in Book 15 when Zeus, on the top of Mount Ida, awakes to discover that he has been beguiled by Hera. He sends her to Olympus to summon Iris and Apollo to him, for, as he tells her, thus informing us of his purpose beforehand (the general prospect), he will have Iris order Poseidon off the battlefield, and Apollo heal Hector and exhort him to battle. When Hera has obeyed and the two divinities have appeared before him, Zeus first sends Iris to Poseidon (the first item or strand in the catalogue). She goes off, meets with Poseidon, and persuades him to withdraw. Then we return to Zeus, who now gives Apollo his orders (the second strand), with the remark that Poseidon has returned to the sea; thus the Iris strand of the narrative is thought of as already completed. Apollo accordingly goes off and heals Hector and exhorts him to battle. It seems likely that the poet, on a realistic level, considered the Apollo and Iris strands to be contemporaneous but that he described them consecutively and as if they happened consecutively because thus he was able to construct his narrative in an orderly way by taking one event at a time to its conclusion. By cataloguing events and keeping them separate it was easy for him to remember what he had already said and what he still wanted to say.

Zielinski explained his law on the supposition that the poet is always describing events as if he were seeing them. Thus, since it is impossible to see more than one scene at a time, we are given a succession of scenes. Somewhat similarly, Fränkel 1931 suggested that the poet lacked an abstract idea of time. Krischer, however, rightly rejects both of these explanations. Homer was not concerned with time as such. Rather, knowing he wanted to described two or more parallel happenings, he handled them consecutively so as not to confuse himself or his audience. Accordingly, Zielinski's law is simply another example of the cataloguing style and was probably, like the description of battles in terms of aristeiai, a traditional technique of early Greek oral poetry.

Sometimes it is clear without any announcement beforehand that two events are parallel happenings. This is the case, for instance, with the Achaean and Trojan assemblies at the end of the first day of battle. On a realistic level they occur at the same time, at the end of the day, but they are described consecutively. First, at the end of Book 8, comes the Trojan assembly which ends with the picture of the Trojans lighting their watchfires. Then, at the beginning of Book 9, comes the Achaean assembly in which Nestor mentions the Trojan watchfires, as if the Trojan assembly were already completed (which for the audience of course is true, however false it may be when we analyze it realistically).

We have noted above that the aristeia of a hero is constructed according to a set sequence of scenes. This in itself gives the poet a system for cataloguing the description of long battles. Moreover, usually the hero's chief opponent in his aristeia has already had his own aristeia; for instance, Hector, Achilles' opponent, has earlier slain Patroclus, and Patroclus has earlier slain Sarpedon. There is clearly a classifying system at work here, but we must beware of taking it too far. Krischer 1971.80 suggests that the poet uses the aristeiai to rank the heroes as follows: first Achilles, second Hector, third Patroclus, fourth Sarpedon, and fifth Ajax. It is hard, however, to believe that Hector is really a match for Ajax or even Patroclus whom he has a great deal of help in slaying.

The cataloguing style enabled the audience to follow the story. They knew what to expect, often from the beginning. Catalogues like the Shield begin with a prospect of the ensuing narrative. At the beginning of a hero's aristeia, his armor typically gleams portending his victory. The programmatic statements at the beginning of parallel actions give us an outline of what is to come. Thus foreshadowing and the suspense of anticipation are features of the cataloguing style.


Jebb 1886.5-6 made the following comment on the overall structure of the Iliad: “As a help to the memory, the story of the Iliad may be divided into three parts. The first ends with Book IX, when the Greeks sue to Achilles, and are repulsed. The second ends with Book XVIII, the last in which he remains aloof from the war.” Thus the second part begins with Book 10, the night adventure in which the Trojan spy Dolon is slain, and ends with the Shield in Book 18. Book 10 and the Shield are points at which scholars who support a threefold division of the Iliad tend to disagree.

Sheppard 1922.82-83, 182 offers much the same scheme as Jebb, but he speaks of movements instead of parts and has the first movement end with what he calls the interlude of Book 10, which he sees as comparable to the Shield as the interlude at the end of the second movement. Owen 1946.106-7 again has the same three parts as Jebb; although, like Sheppard, he treats Book 10 and the Shield as interludes, he would, with Jebb, put Book 10 at the beginning of the second day's recitation. Wade-Gery 1952.14-16 agrees with the threefold division, but suggests that the second performance, which he would begin with Book 10, should end at 18.353; thus the dialogue between Zeus and Hera and the description of the Shield are put at the beginning of the last performance. Taplin 1992.25 and 201-2 has the same scheme except that he rejects Book 10 as non-Homeric. Whitman 1958.346, in agreement with Sheppard and Jebb, puts the Shield at the end of the second day's recitation, and apparently follows Wade-Gery and Jebb in putting Book 10 at its beginning. For Schadewaldt 1959.485 the first day's recitation ends with Book 9, and Book 10 is treated as a later addition; the second day's recitation ends with Book 18, “very peacefully with the description of the Shield.” He makes the following sensitive remark: “When a day of recitation came to an end, it had also become evening in the poem. When they began again the next morning, the sun was also rising in the poem.”

Following Sheppard, we shall divide the Iliad into three Parts, the first ending with Book 10, the second with Book 18. Among the above scholars only Wade-Gery and Taplin, who note that the dividing of our text into twenty-four books probably occurred long after Homer, recommend that the break between Parts 2 and 3 be put within Book 18; they would have Part 3 begin at 18.354 with the dialogue between Zeus and Hera and the description of the Shield. Assuming, however, that the poem was recited during the day, it seems much better to begin Part 3 with Book 19 (line 1) at the beginning of a new day; Hephaestus makes the shield during the previous night. Moreover, the dialogue between Zeus and Hera, in which Zeus apparently acquiesces in the fall of Troy and so in the death of Hector, a main event of Part 3, is paralleled by the dialogue they have in Book 8 at the end of the second day of battle, in which Zeus predicts the main events of Part 2. Taplin 1992.292 rightly says that, in line 3 of Book 19, the Greek word he, “she,” which refers to Thetis, “signals the continuity” with the end of Book 18 where there is the unforgettable picture of Thetis coming through the night with the new armor for Achilles, but this is a continuity which, in my opinion, we can imagine being easily maintained during an over-night break between these books.

Scholars have debated since antiquity whether Book 10 is a later addition to the Iliad, for it is the one book which might be omitted without being noticed. But once it was added, it seems likely that the break between the first two recitations came after it, for it tells an adventure that takes place on the same night as the embassy in Book 9, and surely Shadewaldt is right in thinking sunset a better time than sunrise for reciting such poetry.

Was the Iliad composed for a special occasion? Kirk 1962.280-81 (so also Wade-Gery 1952.69), who is understandably skeptical about our ability to determine the setting for the earliest production, suggests that the poet may have created the occasion. The fame of the Iliad may have attracted an audience and made them willing to listen to it patiently through long hours of recitation.

A related question is whether the Iliad was performed during the day or night. There is no way of being certain, but with most scholars, against Thornton 1984.29-31 (so also Notopoulos 1964.15-16 and Taplin 1992.29-30), I prefer the day. I like (admittedly a subjective argument) having the recitations coincide in time with the fact that day begins and night ends each of our three main parts. Xenophon (Symposium 3.6) supports performance during the day in the fifth century B.C., for he has someone say, at the end of the Great Panathenaea, that he has been listening to the rhapsodes (that is, reciters of epic poetry) “almost every day” (oligou an hekasten hemeran). Also, it seems worth remarking that three successive nights of listening to the Iliad (are there really any clear, well-documented modern parallels?) would no doubt have required a drastic change in the sleeping habits of the audience. The fact that Odysseus tells his adventures to the Phaeacians after supper at night and that modern oral poets often sing their songs under similar circumstances is no evidence for when the Iliad was performed.

The argument most frequently brought against our threefold division is that the resulting parts are very unequal. Part 1 consists of ten books, Part 2 of eight books, Part 3 of six books. The audience had much more listening to do on the first day than on the second, and on the second than on the third. But might not the great poet who had created the occasion also have created the terms on which he used it? He may have liked the dramatic acceleration: the slow beginning of the long exposition of the first day, the lengthy but well directed battle of the second day, and the relatively swift aristeia of Achilles ending in the ransoming of Hector's body on the third day. Moreover, it is possible to imagine that the second and third days were filled out with other entertainments. We simply do not know.

The Iliad can be recited in three days (see Thornton 1984.47). If we figure about eleven lines a minute (so Davison 1965.24; Notopoulos 1964.12 figured about ten lines a minute), it takes about nine and a half hours to recite Part 1, less than nine hours to recite Part 2, and less than six hours to recite Part 3. But could Homer have done it all? I think it likely that there was a team of singers led and instructed by him, and that he created the Iliad with this audience of fellow poets especially in mind, and often with their help.

The inequality in our division is no doubt a reason why some scholars have put Book 10 at the beginning of Part 2, and the Shield at the beginning of Part 3. It is clearly the main reason for the alternative division proposed by Davison 1965.23-25 and Thornton 1984.46-63. They suggest that the Iliad was composed in six four-book groups, two of which were recited at each of three successive recitations, first Books 1-8, then Books 9-16, finally Books 17-24. This is mathematically very neat, but one wonders how an audience liked having the complementary night assemblies of Books 8 and 9 split between the first and second recitations, or ending the second recitation with the death of Patroclus. The fact that four-book divisions work well for the Odyssey is no reason for thinking they were used for the Iliad.

The division we have adopted offers a much better presentation of the story of the Iliad. It is strikingly dramatic for Part 1 to end with Achilles' refusal to return to battle (followed by the interlude of Book 10) and for Part 2 to end with his decision to give up his wrath and return to battle (followed by the interlude of the Shield); the Iliad after all is a poem about Achilles. Moreover, in our comments and summaries we shall try to point out similarities in structure between the three Parts: the fact, for instance, that in each an expected goal is delayed by a long retardation. But admittedly this is an aesthetic and therefore subjective matter. Again the reader must be the judge.


Homer has often been praised for his lifelike characters. On the Trojan side there is Hector, the foremost warrior and main defender of Troy, a man who loves his wife and son; Paris, by contrast, though a good enough fighter, would rather enjoy his power to charm women than look after the best interests of his people. On the Achaean side there are Agamemnon, the king and commander-in-chief, a good soldier but a somewhat nasty person, cruel and bullying; Diomedes, a great fighter, young and impetuous (a stand-in, as it were, for Achilles during his absence in Part 1); Nestor, the garrulous old man, an embodiment of wisdom; the big Ajax, a great defensive fighter, a man of few words; Odysseus, brave but practical. There are many others, of course, whose mere names, such as Priam, Hecuba, Andromache, Helen, Menelaus, and Patroclus, immediately call to mind vividly drawn characters. But none of them is nearly so complex as Achilles.

Many people find Achilles to be a very unsympathetic character. It is easy to caricature him as a petulant youth given to fits of anger who runs weeping to his mother for comfort whenever he is disappointed. But the Greeks in the main thought otherwise. The great medieval commentator Eustathius put it well when, on Odyssey 11.505, he said that the poet is “altogether a lover of Achilles” (panu philachilleus). We might compare Achilles with Antigone or Socrates, who, in their readiness to die in pursuit of their goals, are very much in his mold.

Achilles, the greatest of the Achaeans, towers above all the other characters of the Iliad (see King 1987.2-3). He is the handsomest, swiftest, and strongest; his beautiful and powerful youth (only Diomedes and Antilochus are so young) is like that of the gods. But, though the son of the goddess Thetis, he is not himself a god; he is a mortal who can be fatally wounded. Certainly Homer, if he knew it (as he well may have done; see Janko 1992.409), rejected the story that Thetis by dipping the baby Achilles in the river Styx made him invulnerable except in the place on his heel where she held him. Achilles is the “most swift-doomed/short-lived of all men,” okumoros peri panton (1.417, 505; 18.95, 458). These words are used only of him and only by Thetis. As King 1987.5 says, Achilles' knowledge that he is destined to die young at Troy and Thetis' “tender, mournful, and immortal motherhood accentuate the shortness of his life.”

He is not a god, and not a beast either in spite of the fact that he rages like a lion and is blamed for descending to the level of a brute in his vengeance against Hector. But King 1987.28 rightly speaks of the bestial in him as well as the divine. Apparently the poet by showing his nearness to both wanted to define what it means to be human.

Achilles was given (9.412-16) a choice between a long but inglorious life if he remained at home and a short but glorious life if he went to fight at Troy. Being the man he was, he of course chose to win honor and glory, and thus we can understand his deep hurt and anger at being dishonored by Agamemnon. This dishonor threatened to invalidate his choice of lives, the whole meaning of his life. His choice presupposed the horrible reality of death, to which his soul in the Underworld, at Odyssey 11.489-91, refers: I would rather live in dishonor than be king of the dead. Since he had to die, he preferred a short life with honor to a long one without it.

We are sometimes made aware of a gentle side to his nature. He is naturally kind and polite, and always obeys the gods. When a god gives him advice, as Athena does in Book 1 or Thetis in Book 24, he promptly obeys. He shows concern for the feelings of the heralds when in Book 1 they come at Agamemnon's command to take Briseis from him; and in Book 9 he hospitably receives the envoys from Agamemnon. His reception of Priam in Book 24 shows him in a conflict of emotions as he tries to check his grief and anger over the slaying of Patroclus: he has deep sympathy for the old king but insists, even to the point of threatening to kill him, that he accept his hospitality before being given the body of Hector. Moreover, we are told that the centaur Chiron had taught Achilles to play the lyre, which he does in Book 9, and to practice the art of medicine, which he in turn taught Patroclus. Finally, we should mention Achilles' love for Briseis and Patroclus and the Achaeans in general. Briseis is more than a prize of war and a symbol of honor; he loves her like a wife. Patroclus, his charioteer, a somewhat older man (cf. 11.787), is like another self, his dearest friend; he represents his gentler side during the period of his wrath and moves him by tearful exhortation and, finally, by his death to pity the Achaeans. Achilles' concern for the Achaeans is shown in Book 1 when he calls the assembly to find out the cause of the plague. Although he later blames them for siding with Agamemnon, the death of Patroclus causes him to return to the action to be their leader and protector.

Nagy 1979.69-83 has argued for the derivation, proposed by Palmer 1963.79, of the name Achilles from *Achi-laos, which he interprets to mean “he whose army (laos) has grief (achos).” This makes sense when we think of how Achilles gives grief to his own people by withdrawing from battle and later (outside the Iliad) by being killed himself. An alternative interpretation would translate “he who gives grief to the enemy's army,” that is, for instance, by his slaughter of the Trojans during his aristeia.

Homer, however, emphasizes another connection between Achilles and achos. As again Nagy 1979.79-81 points out, the poet uses this word to describe Achilles as a man of griefs. At 18.429-61, when Thetis is summarizing the action of the Iliad in Parts 1 and 2, she says that Achilles was born to achos, first because of his grief (or grievance) against Agamemnon and then because of his grief at the death of Patroclus. Both griefs result in angers, the first in the wrath, the second in the vengeance. Achilles is angry during most of the Iliad, and he is pictured as a young man easily given to anger, but we should not dismiss him as a continuously angry man. We must distinguish his two angers as having arisen out of two very different griefs, and understand that grief often gives rise to anger. One is naturally angered at being dishonored or at having one's best friend killed. Often of course in the Iliad the deaths of their comrades spur men to avenge them.

Homer clearly distinguishes the wrath from the vengeance. They are caused by different griefs; the first, in contrast to the second, is especially supported by Zeus; and they end in different kinds of pity: the first in pity for one's own people, the second in pity for one's enemy. Nevertheless, this summary of differences also makes clear the similarities between the wrath and the vengeance. Menis, menithmos, “wrath,” and menio, “to be wrathful,” are used only of the first god-supported anger, but cholos, “anger,” and choloumai, “to be angry,” are used of both. And eleos, “pity,” and eleeo, oikteiro, “to pity,” are used of both pities.

Thus the vengeance (described in Part 3) creates a climactic parallelism with the wrath (described in Parts 1 and 2). This, as we have already said, is the most overarching structure of the poem. Although the vengeance, unlike the wrath, is not especially supported by Zeus, it brings Achilles into the fulfillment of his chosen destiny and makes him an instrument in the destruction of Troy, to which Zeus has agreed. Moreover, Achilles' grief over the death of Patroclus is a more powerful emotion than his sorrow at the loss of Briseis; and the pity for his enemy, with which the vengeance ends, is a loftier and more difficult emotion to attain than the pity for his fellow Achaeans.


Plutarch in his treatise How a Young Man Should Listen to Poems frequently cites passages from the Iliad that show Homer as a moral teacher. He concentrates on the heroes, whom he sees as models created by the poet to teach his fellow countrymen how to live. Achilles, for instance, a young man who is tested in his relations with friends and enemies and gods, has much to teach the later young men of Greece. The gods, however, are often unworthy of imitation until the stories about them have been allegorized.

For Plutarch there is no conflict between Homer's being a moral teacher and his having pro-Achaean sympathies. In fact, one of the ways Homer teaches is by comparing the Achaeans with the Trojans to the disadvantage of the latter. For instance, many of the Trojans are captured alive, but none of the Achaeans; and sometimes Trojans—Adrestus, the sons of Antimachus, Tros, Lycaon, and Hector—beg for mercy, but never the Achaeans, for “it is a trait of barbarian peoples to make supplication and to fall at the enemy's feet in combat, but of Greeks to conquer or die fighting” (Babbitt 1969.159). Other evidence Plutarch might have used has been noted by modern scholars; for instance, that of the five major aristeiai in the Iliad four are by Achaeans (Achilles, Patroclus, Diomedes, and Agamemnon), only one by a Trojan (Hector). The same attitude is found in the scholia. For instance, in schol. bT on 7.89-90,192, 226-27, 284, and 289 Ajax is praised as a level-headed warrior while Hector is blamed for being tyrannical and boastful. And in schol. bT on 10.14-16 there is the sweeping generalization aei philellen ho poietes, “the poet is always a philhellene.”

Among modern scholars who are in general agreement with Plutarch and the scholia, though not without criticism of their excesses, are Lattimore, van der Valk, and Griffin. Lattimore 1951.31 writes as follows: “… the Iliad was composed for a Hellenic audience, of the upper class, among which many claimed to trace their ancestry back to the heroes of the Trojan War. The pro-Hellenic bias is plain, though not crude, though tempered by a considerate sympathy for the Trojans; and the pro-Hellenic bias involves the reputation of the Achaean heroes.”

Van der Valk 1953.5-26 has pointed out that Hector, though favorably viewed in his relations with his family, comes off badly in his encounters with the Achaean heroes; and that when the story requires the defeat of the Achaeans, the poet has Zeus, at 15.561 and 599-602, assure his audience that this will be only temporary. Moreover, Paris, and not Hector, is pictured as the typical Trojan. Toward the beginning of the poem, in Book 3, his vainglorious, cowardly, voluptuous character is emphasized to show his responsibility in the crime of carrying off Helen.

Griffin 1980.3-6 notes that when the two armies clash for the first time in the poem, at the beginning of Book 3, Paris, dressed in a panther skin, challenges the Achaeans to fight but that, “beautiful as a god,” he leaps back in fear when Menelaus comes to meet him. He is thus a typical Trojan like the Trojan ally Nastes earlier (2.872) and Euphorbus later (17.51). This picture of Paris and the contrast between how the Trojans and Achaeans advance against each other at the beginning of Book 3 show us that the Trojans are “gorgeous, frivolous, noisy,” the Achaeans “serious and grim.” Paris must be shamed by Hector into the duel with Menelaus, and later Hector himself, though he has boasted of his readiness to fight Achilles, will flee when he sees him approaching. “This pattern,” Griffin 1980.5 concludes, “is vital to the Iliad, it is no mere Greek chauvinism. The Achaeans win the war because their discipline is better, as we are told explicitly; their silence and obedience to their commanders go with this. The Trojans lose because they are the sort of people they are—glamorous, reckless, frivolous, undisciplined. And the archetypal Trojan is Paris.”

This view of Homer and the Iliad is rejected by Kakridis 1971.54-67 (=1956.61-32 revised; cf. de Jonge 1987.8-12 and Taplin 1992.110-15). He suggests, in criticism of van der Valk, that the poet is motivated by artistic reasons rather than nationalistic sympathies when he delays the defeat of the Achaeans during the great day of battle. It is unnecessary, however, to see a conflict between these two motivations. Moreover, Kakridis does not adequately explain why the Iliad does at times favor the Achaeans; for instance, why the ratio of Achaeans to Trojans slain in battle is 53 to 189. He believes that Homer was influenced by earlier poetry about the Trojan War, which, so far as we can tell, dealt almost exclusively with Achaean victories. In other words, pre-Homeric poetry was pro-Achaean. But Homer, according to Kakridis, with his story of a defeat of the Achaeans due to the wrath of Achilles departed radically from this tradition. This may well be true, as I like to think, but it is hard to accept that the poet has retained the pro-Achaean elements in the Iliad against his own better inclinations.

It is certainly one of the great glories of the Iliad that it asks us to look at the Trojan War with sympathy for both sides, “with a compassion for the common fate of man” (Kakridis 1971.64). One thinks of the many similes which raise us above the battle and ask us to view it in the broad perspective of human suffering. (Even here, however, preference is shown for the Achaeans in that they are compared to strong animals like lions rather than weak ones like deer much more frequently than the Trojans.) One also thinks of the death of Hector and the ransoming of his body by his old father—moving scenes of sorrow. Homer can be magnificently impartial, but it is not necessary to see this impartiality as being in conflict with his sympathy for his own people His sympathy for mankind can be thought of as rising out of his sympathy for his own people. “I am a Greek,” he might have said, “and therefore nothing human is foreign to me.”

Plutarch is very conscious of the poet's impartiality, and often asks the young man who is studying the Iliad to learn from the faults of Achaean as well as Trojan heroes, especially Achilles. He is thus being true to the Iliad which makes us feel the most severe disapproval of Achilles, whom we can believe to be the poet's favorite character.

In the first sentence of the Iliad (the proem) Homer describes the wrath of Achilles, which brings countless Achaeans to death, as oulomenen, “accursed”; and, at 1.223, he introduces Achilles' final angry speech to Agamemnon by saying that it was spoken “with baneful words.” Later, at 15. 598, he tells us that Zeus, when about to bring about the defeat of the Achaeans at the ships, was fulfilling the exaision aren, “unreasonable prayer,” of Thetis to support the wrath. (I think it unlikely that, as de Jonge 1987.139 suggests, the poet is here giving, not his own opinion, but only that of Zeus.) Moreover, Achilles' rejection of the embassy in Book 9 and his refusal to return to battle in Book 16, where he admits that Zeus has fulfilled his promise, must have dismayed the Greek audience. They must have been greatly relieved and delighted when he cursed his wrath in Book 18, saying that it was wrong from the beginning, and chose to return and fight for his own people.

This feeling of elation probably lasted for some time, but with increasing misgivings. The capture, at 21.26-32, of twelve Trojan youths to be sacrificed on Patroclus' pyre seems horrible; and the poet comments on their sacrifice, at 23.176, that Achilles “devised bad deeds in his mind.” Moreover, Achilles' relentless pursuit of the Trojans, in which no suppliant is spared, seems non-human—godlike perhaps, but also brutal.

With the slaying of Hector Achilles attains his goal, and the audience must have cheered him, although the poet makes us feel great sympathy for the dying Hector. But then Achilles goes too far by dishonoring and mutilating the dead body. Homer introduces the mistreatment of Hector's body by saying that Achilles was “devising unseemly deeds” (22.395=23.24). This may refer only to the ugly way in which the body is treated, but it seems likely to be also a criticism of Achilles. At any rate, it is hard not to agree with the gods, at 24.22-76, when they show their displeasure and decide that he must give up the body for proper burial. We can thus believe that the Greek audience must have been increasingly displeased with Achilles' vengeance and so were greatly relieved when he rose above it in pity for Priam. For all their nationalism, they wanted that sublime view of what it means to be a human being which Homer finally gives them.


The gods of the Iliad are feared, worshiped with prayer and sacrifice, and asked for omens, but they are also pictured fighting with each other, being in undignified, laughable situations, and encouraging humans in immoral acts. This unflattering picture has been explained in several ways. Later Greeks, long before Plutarch, resorted to allegory. Modern scholars have emphasize that the carefree and unaging blessed immortals are being viewed as foils to poor human beings who are subject to old age and death and beset by numerous cares. Moreover, the gods have a knowledge of the future—they know what will be the result of their actions—whereas we, who are ruled by deceptive expectations, can only hope (elpomai). Man never is but always to be blessed.

There is also the fact that the gods in general and Zeus in particular are often equated with the amoral power of fate (moira). This equation is vividly expressed by Achilles at 24.525-33 when he tells Priam about the jars of Zeus. The gods have spun (epeklosanto, connected with the noun Klotho, “Spinster,” one of the Moirai) for wretched mortals to live in grief while they are free from care; for Zeus has two jars in his storeroom, one of good things, the other of bad things, from which he apportions to humans at birth: to some he gives a mixture, to others only from the jar of evils, to no one only from the jar of goods, and so no one has an all-blessed life like that of the gods.

Often Zeus' actions can be seen as an expression of fate. When he weighs the fates of two heroes or of the two armies in his scales, he is showing what he knows and sometimes has told us beforehand is fated to happen. Although he allows Sarpedon to die, Hera implies that he might go against fate and make him immortal. Zeus never goes against fate, but usually represents it. One feels that he is very much in charge of what happens on earth. Throughout the Iliad he is in control of the plot, which he announces in his predictions and commands step by step. It is his will that the Trojans should be victorious during the period of Achilles' wrath (Part 1), and without his backing this could not have happened (Part 2); and it his will that Troy should not fall before its fated time and that therefore Achilles should not take it on the day of his aristeia (Part 3).

The conference Zeus has with Hera and Athena at the beginning of Book 4 shows a sublime unconcern with questions of right and wrong. Zeus tells Hera that she may destroy Troy, one of his favorite cities (which she hates, probably because of the Judgment of Paris though Homer never says so), but that she must not oppose him when he wants to destroy one of her favorite cities; and she answers that he may destroy Argos, Sparta, and Mycenae in return. Then he orders Athena to go down to the battlefield and see to it that the Trojans attack the Achaeans and so break the treaty they have just solemnly sworn to uphold. Athena obeys and successfully urges Pandarus to wound Menelaus by shooting him with an arrow. How can we explain these immoral, or at least amoral, divine actions? Only, I think, by considering the gods as representatives of what is fated. Troy did fall, and the cities of Argos, Sparta, and Mycenae were destroyed. These were therefore fated happenings, like the death of a hero, for the poet and his audience. Since Troy was fated to fall, the war had to be continued and therefore the treaty had to be broken. We should note, however, that Homer is capable of having it both ways; the religion of the Iliad, like many religions, has its inconsistencies. The breach of the truce is wrong, and Paris' later refusal to honor it is a reaffirmation of his original crime in carrying off Helen and offers moral justification for the destruction of Troy. Moreover, Athena's role in the treachery of Pandarus does not lessen his guilt, for he was already predisposed so to act.

We should think of the gods in terms of their powers. Each of them has a certain sphere of influence and honor. Zeus has the greatest power, for he is king of the gods and father of gods and men. The word “father” here means paterfamilias, not begetter; it is a synonym for king. Zeus presides over the world of the gods. In Book 5 he tells Aphrodite that she as a goddess of love has had no business trying to act like a goddess of war. In Book 15 he has Poseidon ordered off the battlefield in spite of the fact that Poseidon can claim a right to be on the earth as well as in the sea.

Zeus' governance of men is somewhat different. Human kingship is a reflection of his, and he supports the rights of human kings. Kings on earth resemble him and are often called Zeus-born or Zeus-nurtured; some, like Sarpedon, are actually his sons. Of even greater importance, however, is the fact that Zeus and the other gods require humans to worship them and to obey certain moral principles in their relations with each other. Zeus sends omens, forbids men to swear falsely or to commit adultery, and commands them to spare suppliants. The Trojans put themselves in the wrong as perjurers by breaking the truce in Book 4, Paris is guilty of adultery for carrying off Helen from the house of Menelaus where he had been received as a guest (Zeus is the god of guest-friendship), and the theme of supplication is a leitmotif of the Iliad (see Thornton 1984). We think of the priest of Apollo who supplicates the Achaeans to give him back his daughter in Book 1, of the Trojans on the battlefield who plead for their lives or at least for a proper burial, and of the series of supplications of Achilles, by the embassy in Part 1, by Patroclus in Part 2, and by Priam in Part 3.

The morality of the Iliad is centered on the cry of the suppliant for pity: reverence the gods and have pity. We are asked to raise our consciousness of human suffering. This makes a contrast but is not inconsistent with the moral theme of the Odyssey expressed in the saying, “Evil deeds do not succeed” (Odyssey 8.329).

Burkert 1955.76 has pointed out that pity is not only the motivating force in the supplications of humans by humans but also the spark that for brief moments creates a link between the easy-living gods and human need. In Book 8 Hera, seeing the Achaeans being defeated, pities them (idous' eleese, 350), and she and Athena start in their chariot to come onto the battlefield but are turned back by the command of Zeus. In Book 13 Poseidon, who is keeping no blind lookout (alaoskopien, 10), pities (eleaire, 15) the Achaeans being defeated and comes in his chariot to their aid. In Book 15 Zeus, when he awakes from his beguilement by Hera, sees Poseidon leading the Achaeans in a successful counterattack and Hector lying wounded on the ground; seeing Hector he pities him (idon eleese, 12) and has Hera summon Apollo and Iris in order that he may have them go onto the battlefield to remedy the situation. In Book 16 Zeus, seeing Sarpedon and Patroclus about to fight, has pity (idon eleese, 431), for he knows that now Sarpedon, his son, is destined to die; he wants to save him and sheds tears of blood but is persuaded by Hera not to go against fate but, instead, to send Sleep and Death to carry the dead body to its native land for proper burial. In Book 17 Zeus, seeing the immortal horses of Achilles standing immobile and weeping for their dead charioteer Patroclus, pities them (idon eleese, 441) and gives them the spirit—Hector will not be permitted to catch them—to race over the battlefield at full speed in spite of their grief. In Book 19 Zeus, seeing Achilles refusing to eat because of his grief and weeping over Patroclus while Agamemnon and other leaders of the Achaeans grieve with him, has pity (idon eleese, 340) and sends Athena to instill ambrosia and nectar into his chest to prevent him from being hungry. In Book 24 all the gods except Hera, Poseidon, and Athena, seeing the dead Hector being mistreated by Achilles, pity him (eleaireskon … eisoroontes, 23), and Zeus finally decides that Priam should ransom the body; then, when Zeus sees Priam with the ransom coming onto the plain to go to Achilles, he pities the old man (idon eleese, 332) and sends Hermes to be his guide. (The verb olophuromai, “to bewail,” “to pity,” is sometimes used like eleairo and eleeo in the above examples; cf. 8.245 and 22.169.) Pitying, naturally and so formulaically, goes with seeing a pitiable sight. We are reminded of how in the Bible God is called upon to behold the plight of his worshipers and not turn his face away.

The involvement of the Olympians with humans threatens their peaceful, carefree life as deities. They suffer and rejoice because of their attachment to men, ephemeral creatures who are destined to wither and die like the leaves. As if in response to this danger, the immortals often show a cold indifference to human suffering. They look at the battle like uninvolved spectators or turn their shining eyes to happier scenes (Griffin 1980.178-204 has some good remarks on the divine audience of the Iliad). Their indifference can be thought of as an expression of the gulf between them and men and fits with the picture of them as foils to poor mortals.

The intervention of the gods in the affairs of men is sometimes difficult for us to understand. We have already said that Pandarus is not absolved from responsibility by the fact that Athena urges him to break the truce. He is both god- and self-motivated and so gives us an example of what Lesky has explained as double motivation. Lesky 1966.72 notes among other examples two very important ones concerned with Achilles. When Achilles puts up his sword in Book 1, he does it both on the advice of Athena and in his own right; and when he returns the body of Hector to Priam in Book 24, he acts both in obedience to the gods and as the winner of “his last and greatest victory, victory over his own passionate heart.”

But there are times when this psychological explanation is insufficient because the gods make a physical difference. In Book 23 Athena actually (a miracle) returns his whip to Diomedes in order that he may win the chariot race. Willcock 1970 has persuasively explained that Athena favors winners and that Diomedes is to be placed among those Achaean mortals, like Achilles and Odysseus, who are natural winners. Thus her aid to Diomedes simply adds to the glory he was going to win on his own.

A more troublesome instance of her intervention occurs in Book 22 where she helps Achilles slay Hector. She dupes Hector into making a stand and then, when the two men have thrown their spears without harming each other, returns his spear to Achilles, leaving Hector with only his sword. Surely Achilles, who is certainly the much stronger man, does not need this aid. It makes us feel sorry for Hector. The glory that the presence of Athena confers on Achilles is a cold, cruel, and frightening thing. She is there because Achilles, a natural winner, is one of her favorites, yes, but also as a supporter of the Achaean cause and as an embodiment of fate. She is one of those deities (Hera and Poseidon are the most important others) who will see to it that Troy falls as it is destined to do, and this means that Hector, the defender of Troy, must die.

There are also gods who favor the Trojans. In Book 3 Aphrodite intervenes to save Paris, swooping him off the battlefield, when he is about to be slain by Menelaus, into his bedroom with Helen. In Book 16 Apollo, during the single combat between Patroclus and Hector, knocks Patroclus silly, disarming him completely, after which the foppish young Euphorbus and then Hector finish him off. We feel sorry for Patroclus, and here it seems very doubtful that Hector is the natural winner. Apollo, a pro-Trojan god, has favored Hector because he is the leader of the Trojans and has come against Patroclus as an embodiment of fate, for, as Zeus has told us, now Patroclus is destined to die.

Although some gods are pro-Achaean and some pro-Trojan, both peoples have the same Olympian religion. For instance, both pray to Athena, Apollo, and Zeus. Moreover, Zeus, who feels pity for both Achilles and Hector and who can make all the other gods act according to his will, is impartial. The fact of a common religion underlines the common humanity of Trojans and Achaeans.

The same can be said with regard to the various peoples who go to make up the Achaean side. They come from all over Greece, as the Achaean Catalogue at the end of Book 2 shows, and no doubt in actual, historical fact had slightly different cults—for instance, the worship of Athena tended to dominate in Athens, that of Hera in Argos—but the Iliad pictures them all with the same religion. The Iliad is a Panhellenic poem, and its Olympian religion is Panhellenic and universal.


The similes can be studied from many different points of view. We shall concentrate here and in our later comments on simile sequences and types of similes used in battle scenes. Moulton 1977 has made a valuable study of simile sequences, how pairs or series of similes are used to articulate the narrative. An example of a simile pair occurs in Book 11 where Hector first (297-98) enters the battle like a stormwind stirring up the sea and then (305-8) wreaks havoc among the Achaeans like Zephyrus driving together the clouds of Notus in a deep stormwind, causing the waves to rise and roll with scattering foam. The second simile is longer, more detailed, and intensifies the action of the first one. In the list below of simile types occurring in battle scenes we shall point out several other examples of simile sequences.

There are five times as many similes in the battle scenes of the Iliad as in other parts of the poem. A reason often given for this is that the battle scenes are especially in need of the relief and variety that similes offer. Moreover, the everyday life pictured in the similes makes a nice contrast with the fighting; this explains why the Odyssey has fewer similes than the Iliad: its world is too much like the one that they depict. But, as Krischer 1971 has pointed out, similes are connected especially with aristeiai and not with just any fighting. Following him, we can classify the aristeia similes into nine types according to the different features of the narrative they describe, and note that some of these types are also applied to the army as a whole.

1. The arming of the hero and army, and the marshaling of the troops; the gleaming of the armor. A simile often foreshadows the victory of the hero by comparing the brightness of his armor with fire, lightning, the shining of a star. This gleaming is absent when Patroclus and Hector put on Achilles' armor, for they are destined to die. A sequence of four similes of this type are used of Achilles. When he appears without any armor at the trench, Athena causes a fiery golden cloud to shine around his head like that arising from a city on fire (18.207-13); when Priam sees him advancing, he is like Sirius, the brightest star (22.26); when he comes against Hector, his armor shines like a great fire or the rising sun (22.134-35); and when he is about to kill Hector, the point of his spear shines like the evening star (20.317). As Krischer 1971.38 says, “The great victory is thus announced each time a new stage is reached: before the beginning of the aristeia, before the beginning of the encounter with Hector, before the decisive spear-cast.” This series of similes shows that the theme of gleaming occurs not only under type 1 but at other points in our classification as well. At 19. 357-58 the armor of the Achaeans being marshaled under the command of Achilles is said to have the brightness of thickly falling snow.

2. The advance into battle. The image of a wounded lion is used of Diomedes at 5.136-42 and of Achilles at 20.164-73; the two similes, however, are quite different. At 11.297-98 (which, as we have seen, is paired with 11.305-8, a type 3 simile) Hector is compared to a stormwind, at 15.263-68 to a proud stallion; the latter simile is also used of Paris at 6.506-11. At 12.299-306 Sarpedon advances against the Achaean wall like a lion against a sheepfold. At 13.298-300 Idomeneus, in his brief aristeia, is compared to Ares. Associated with this group of similes are those describing the whole army advancing to attack. These are especially frequent in Books 2 through 4, that is, in the march-out to the first battle in the Iliad, where they sometimes contrast the Achaeans with the Trojans. The noise of the advancing army is like that of birds, a storm, bleating sheep; their ranks are like waves rolling over the sea; they are like a coming cloud, a swarm of wasps.

3. The attack. The hero is like a force of nature, a stormwind on the sea, a river in flood, or a wild animal. Of the five major aristeiai only that of Patroclus lacks this element, whereas that of Hector has it four times because of frequent retardations of his advance: he attacks like a stormwind causing the sea to foam (11.305-8, making a pair with 11.297-98, a type 2 simile), like a wild boar or a lion (12.41-48), like a boulder that rolling down a hill comes to a halt on the plain (13.137-42), like a wave falling into a ship (15.624-28).

4. Flight and pursuit. The pursuer is like a lion, a dog, a falcon; the pursued like cattle, deer, hares, smaller birds. The pictures of the wind driving the clouds, and of locusts fleeing a fire, also occur. In Patroclus' aristeia in Book 16 there is a series of these similes, called by Moulton 1977.33-36 a dispersed sequence. In lines 278-83, when Patroclus has first driven the Trojans back from the ship of Protesilaus, it is as if Zeus has driven the clouds away (seen from the Achaean point of view). In lines 364-65, when the Trojans flee in disorder over the trench, it is as if Zeus has sent a storm into the blue sky (seen from the Trojan point of view). In lines 384-92, when the Trojan horses groan as they flee, it is as if the earth were burdened under a storm sent by Zeus to punish men for their injustice. Notice the role of Zeus in all three similes and the fact that in the third the storm, which is coming on in the second, lets go its water. From whose point of view is the third simile composed? Perhaps (so Krischer), as in the second, that of the Trojans. But perhaps the poet is only addressing his audience. At any rate, we are being told that Zeus, now that he has fulfilled his promise to Thetis, will punish the Trojans. Similes of this type also appear outside of aristeiai. At 8.338-40 Hector, like a hunting dog pursuing a lion or boar but on guard against its turning round, chases the Achaeans into the safety of their camp at the end of the second day of battle. At 17.755-57, immediately before the scene shifts to Achilles at the beginning of Book 18, the Achaeans flee before Hector and Aeneas like starlings or cranes before a hawk, crying in fear of death, which they see coming on, though still at some distance, for the Ajaxes are protecting their retreat. Both these similes emphasize climactic points in the narrative. Notice also that the first, by showing how Hector fears a sudden Achaean counterattack, puts the retreat of the Achaeans in a favorable light, and that the situation in which the second appears, though desperate, is not a complete rout of the Achaeans. In Book 22 there is a series of similes (compare Moulton 1977.83-84) describing Achilles' pursuit of Hector; this is a major turning point in the poem. In lines 139-42 Achilles is like a falcon chasing a dove; in lines 162-64 he and Hector are compared to two race horses; in lines 189-92 Achilles is like a dog chasing a fawn; and in lines 199-200 they are compared to the pursuer and the pursued in a dream: the pursuer is unable to catch the pursued (seen from Achilles' point of view), and the pursued is unable to escape the pursuer (seen from Hector's point of view).

5. The victor and his victim. The hero is compared to a beast of prey, his opponent to a helpless animal. At 15.690-92 Hector springs upon the defenders of Protesilaus' ship (his victim) like an eagle diving upon a flock of birds. At 21.22-24 Achilles drives the Trojans into the Scamander, killing them, like a dolphin attacking smaller fish. In 22.308-10 Hector rushes upon Achilles like an eagle against a lamb or a hare. This is the only instance in which such a simile does not describe a victor—a pathetic touch, no doubt. We admire Hector's bravery, but Achilles, who as victor is not given a simile of this type (would it seem too trite?), kills him with that spear whose point shines like the evening star, the most beautiful of all the stars in heaven (317-18). There is one place, 16.352-55, where this type of simile is used of the whole army, that of the victorious Achaeans: they fall upon the Trojans like wolves killing lambs and kids.

6. Even or indecisive battle. These similes often appear in battles over a dead body and often introduce a break in the narrative; they are used to describe both individual heroes and the armies in general. In Book 4, at the beginning of the first day of battle, the armies rush together like two raging rivers (452-56) and like wolves fighting each other (471). In Book 16, in Patroclus' aristeia, there are the even battles over the bodies of Sarpedon and Cebriones. Patroclus and Hector, as they clash over Sarpedon, are compared (428-29) to two shrieking vultures fighting on a high rock; the noise of the general battle is (633-34) like that of woodsmen cutting down oaks in the mountains, and the men of both armies (641-43) swarm over the body like flies around a milk pail in spring. During the battle over Cebriones, Patroclus and Hector are said (756-58) to fight like hungry lions over a slain deer, and the two armies are compared (765-79) to two howling winds struggling with each other in a mountain hollow, causing the trees to crash. Book 17 tells of the battle over Patroclus' body, which is the longest and most important such battle in the Iliad; in lines 737-39 the fighting is compared to a roaring, city-destroying fire. In Book 12 the object of contention is the Achaean wall, and a series of similes belonging to this group is used to describe it (compare Moulton 1977.64-67). First, Asius' attack on the left ends in an even battle with a simile (156) in which the rocks thrown by both sides are compared to snowflakes. Second, Hector's attack in the center ends in the same way, an even battle with another snow simile (278-86). Third, Sarpedon's attack near the center ends in even battle with the comparison (421-23) of two farmers fighting over the boundary line between their properties. Finally, before Hector breaks through the central gate of the wall, the even battle along the whole front is made vivid by the image of a woman weighing wool in a balance (433-35).

7. Resistance. During the second, great day of battle, in Books 11-18 (Part 2), similes of resistance are used of the Achaeans. The wild boar, which unlike the lion typically fights only when attacked, is a favorite image. At 11.414-18 the encircled Odysseus resists like a wild boar come from its lair to face the hunters and dogs. In Book 12 the two Lapiths resist Asius like mountain oaks against a storm (132-34) and a wild boar against hunters and dogs (145-50), and Asius compares them to wasps or bees protecting their young from hunters (167-70). At 13.471-75 Idomeneus is like a wild boar as he awaits Aeneas' attack. At 15.618-21 the Achaeans withstand the Trojans like a rock in the surf. At 17.747-51 the Ajaxes protect the Achaean withdrawal like a hill that causes streams to change their course. During the aristeia of Achilles, in Books 19-24 (Part 3), similes of this type are used of the two Trojans Agenor and Hector. At 21.573-78 Agenor prepares to withstand Achilles like a panther come from its lair to attack the hunters and dogs, and at 22.93-95 Hector prepares to withstand Achilles like a snake circling its hole to protect it against an oncoming man; but in the event both Agenor and Hector flee.

8. Retreat. At 3.33-35 Paris withdraws in fear at the sight of Menelaus like a man who has seen a snake; this is a prelude to their duel. At 5.597 Diomedes withdraws with a shudder before Ares like a traveler stopped by a mighty river. He has been told by Athena not to fight with any deity but Aphrodite; later Athena comes and helps him defeat Ares. During the great day of battle (Part 2), when Zeus is giving the victory to Hector, the Achaeans are frequently forced to withdraw. At 15.586-88 Antilochus retreats before Hector and the Trojans like a wild animal who, having killed a dog or a shepherd, goes off before other men arrive. At 17.109-12 Menelaus, who is withdrawing before Hector to call for Ajax's help in protecting Patroclus' body, is compared to a lion that, turning again and again, is driven from a fold by shepherds and their dogs. At 17.657-65 Menelaus, when at the urging of Ajax he is going to find Antilochus to tell him to try to gain the help of Achilles in protecting Patroclus' body, is compared to a lion that, having broken into a fold, fights all night before withdrawing exhausted. The same simile, at 11.548-55, is the first of a pair used of Ajax when he is forced by Zeus to withdraw; the second, at 11.558-62, compares Ajax to an ass which, cudgelled by weaker boys, finally, after he is satisfied with eating, leaves a field. As Krischer 1971.70 remarks, “Ajax must withdraw because Zeus wills it, not because the Trojans are stronger.” Similes of retreat are used predominantly of Achaeans, as those of flight are of Trojans.

9. The warrior falls. He is compared to a tree being felled, a sacrificial animal being slaughtered, an animal falling into the mouth of a lion, and once, at 8.306-7, as having his head sink like a flower heavy with dew. This type of simile occurs at several different places in the aristeia, and in fact wherever there is fighting. Of the more than fifteen examples listed by Krischer only two describe Achaeans: at 5.554-60 two young Achaeans are overcome by Aeneas like young lions killed by men protecting their steading, and they fall like lofty fir trees; at 16.823-28 Patroclus falls to Hector like a wild boar overcome by a lion when they are fighting over a spring.

Two other groups of similes that seem especially worth mentioning are those concerned with the journeying of a god and those describing emotions or states of mind. Similes are used to make vivid the emotions of grief, anger, and pity, and the mental state of indecisiveness (compare type 6 similes above on even battle). Gods are usually said to come swiftly like a bird or a shooting star; many other comparisons serve this purpose.

Moulton 1977.88-116 has also shown how similes are used to characterize the heroes, especially Achilles. Achilles receives more and speaks more similes than any other character in the Iliad. He is compared to fire, a lion, and a deity, and describes himself as a mother bird to the Achaeans (9.23-25) and as a mother to Patroclus (16.7-90). The image of him as fire predominates during his aristeia (Part 3).

The simile is one of the most important devices of composition, but, as we have seen, there are many others that are also very useful in describing a scene and suggesting how we should feel about it. In our account of the Iliad when we mention the presence of a device, we are not simply enumerating phenomena but rather, it is hoped, focusing the attention of the reader on how the poet wants us to view his narrative. Homer is a protean creator, and no one passage of his poem can be equated exactly with another. Our purpose is always to summon the reader to a closer reading of the text. There is no better interpreter of Homer than Homer.


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The following abbreviations are used:

AJP: American Journal of Philology

CQ: Classical Quarterly

G&R: Greece and Rome

HSCP: Harvard Studies in Classical Philology

TAPA: Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association

James V. Morrison (essay date autumn 1994)

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SOURCE: Morrison, James V. “Thematic Inversion in the Iliad: The Greeks under Siege.” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 35, no. 3 (autumn 1994): 209-27.

[In the following essay, Morrison stresses the thematic significance of role reversal in the middle portion of the Iliad, in which the Greek camp is depicted as a city under Trojan siege.]

In the central books of Homer's Iliad, the Greeks come under Trojan attack. In Book 12 the Greek camp is assaulted; in Books 15 and 16 Hector threatens to burn the Greek fleet. With its walls and defenses, the Greek camp is in many ways like a city (polis), as previous commentators have noted.1 I would like to make the stronger claim that the poet of the Iliad deliberately promotes the idea that the Greek camp—once under attack—should be thought of as a city under siege. The effect is to reverse the rôles traditionally assigned to Greeks and Trojans. The Trojans, who have been defending their city for ten years, go on the attack, while the Greeks are put into the position conventionally associated with the Trojans, that of defending a city.

This paper has two goals. First, I gather evidence suggesting that Homer consciously draws attention to this reversal in a number of ways: by giving an elaborate description of the Greek wall and its defense (echoing defenses of Troy), by introducing terms referring to the Greek camp that are specifically applicable to a polis, and by implicit comparisons (e.g. the story of Meleager). Some of this work has already been done elsewhere; but in collecting this material, I introduce some passages not previously noticed or sufficiently emphasized. The key point here is that for nearly half the Iliad (11 of the 24 books) the Greeks, not the Trojans, are subject to impending destruction. Second, I consider the significance of depicting the Greek camp as a besieged city, especially with respect to the historical circumstances of the Iliad's composition. The historical context helps us to see the the point behind Homer's description of the Greeks on the defensive rather than the offensive, ultimately providing a distinctive view of not only the Trojan War but also the phenomenon of war as it affects his contemporary Greeks in the eighth century.


The epic falls into three ‘movements’ that reflect this transformation into a besieged city:2

I. No wall; the Greeks are safe (1.1-7.337).

Transition: Building the wall (7.337-482).

II. The Greeks are under attack behind the wall (8.1-18.368).

Transtion: Shield of Achilles (18.369-617).

III. Achilles' vengeance (19.1-24.804).

For the first seven books, the Greek camp is secure and unchallenged. Although Troy is never assaulted, the Greeks are continually anticipating its sack.3 In the second movement, following the Greek decision to build a wall in Book 7, the Greek camp comes under attack. Their thoughts are no longer bent on victory over Troy; instead, the Greeks put all their energy into defending themselves, for survival is at stake. What triggers this, of course, is that Zeus begins to fulfill his promise that the Trojans will gain the upper hand in battle. The third movement begins in Book 19, after the description of the shield of Achilles changes the focus of the narrative. The Greeks are no longer preoccupied with defense of their own camp; and Achilles' vengeance, not the sack of Troy, takes center stage. Still the city of Troy is not threatened: the death of Hector is Achilles' goal. Through all three movements, Homer never shows the city of Troy in flames, yet he anticipates the destruction of the city in mirror imagery, as fire threatens to consume the Greeks' previously unchallenged realm of sovereignty.

Initially the camp represents an area of control for the Greeks. Any approach by an outsider entails some risk. In the first scene of the epic, the priest Chryses comes to the Greek camp to ransom his daughter from Agamemnon. He carries the fillets of Apollo on a golden sceptre as a means of protection (1.14f). In rejecting his offer, Agamemnon tells the priest that if he returns to the Greek ships (=camp),4 he will no longer be safe (1.26ff). A plague follows, and when the seer Calchas hesitates to reveal the reason, Achilles vows to protect Calchas, whatever he may say (1.88-91): so long as Calchas remains in the camp, he will have nothing to fear. The Greek camp thus becomes an area of sovereignty and safety.

This early confidence of the Greeks leads them to articulate time and again their goal of destroying Troy. Achilles refers to that time when they will divide the spoils of the city (1.127ff).5 On occasion, that success appears to be in doubt—the duel between Paris and Menelaus may lead to a negotiated settlement (3.281-87), the death of Menelaus may cause the Greeks to return home without success (4.169-82)—but the Greeks are never seen as vulnerable and give little thought to defense.6 The destruction of Troy recurs as a leitmotif, as all eyes look upon the ultimate prize of sacking the city. Although Achilles' request lies in the background, no threat of a Greek defeat comes about until Book 8.7 In fact, we learn that in the previous nine years of battle the camp had never been threatened. Before Achilles' withdrawal from battle, the Trojans never ventured far from the city of Troy (5.789ff; cf. 9.352-55). The picture of the Greek camp in the first seven books is consistent: this territory by the sea falls under Greek control; the Greeks feel safe there.8

A new development occurs near the end of Book 7. The previously secure camp at this point takes on aspects of a besieged city, in both its physical structure and the terms in which it is spoken of by the Greeks. It is worth pursuing this transformation in some detail, and then turn to its importance for interpreting the poem as a whole.

We begin with the physical structures of the Greek defense. After the first day of fighting, Nestor suggests building towers, a wall, and a surrounding ditch (7.337-43),9i.e., he describes a structure that would defend a city. The Greek camp is not precisely a city: there are no permanent buildings, such as the palace or temples found in Troy, but there are certain key features of a city. In addition to the wall designed to protect the entire community, the Greek camp also contains an agora for assemblies and altars set up to the gods (8.249, 11.805-08). Guards are needed by night after the initial defeat in Book 8 (9.66f, 80-88; cf. 10.96-101, 180ff).10

When the Greek wall is attacked in Book 12, we find further detail. Besides the towers, the wall has projecting battlements and bolted double doors.11 A corresponding structure at Troy echoes each of the numerous terms describing this bulwark. These include the wall (τει̑χοs),12 towers (πύργοι),13 gates (πύλαι),14 battlements (ἐπάλξειs),15 door leaves (σάνιδεs),16 and bolts (ὀχη̑εs).17 The Greeks on the towers throw down rocks like snowflakes (12.154-60); a Trojan attacker drops from the wall like a diver (12.378-86). Then Sarpedon breaks off a projecting battlement (12.397ff; cf. the failed attempt at 12.256-64). With such vivid similes (see also 12.421-24, 433-36), the narrative of Book 12 is couched in terms of a song about the sack of a city.

At 12.436ff Zeus grants glory to Hector as the first to leap within the Greek wall:18

ὥs μὲν τω̑ν ἐπὶ ἴσα μάχη τἐτατο πτόλεμόs τε,
πρίν γ' ὅτε δὴ Zεὺs κυ̑δοs ὑπἐρτερον ‘′Εκτορι δω̑κε
Πριαμίδῃ, ὅs πρω̑τοs ἐσήλατο τει̑χοs 'Αχαιω̑ν.(19)

Hector then picks up a mighty stone, and Homer vividly describes his success in breaking through the wall (12.459-71):

Hector smashed the hinges (θαιρούs) at either side, and the stone crashed
ponderously in, and the gates (πύλαι) groaned deep, and the door-bars (ὀχη̑εs)
could not hold, but the leaves (σάνιδεs) were smashed to a wreckage of splinters
under the stone's impact. Then glorious Hector burst in
with dark face like sudden night, but he shone with the ghastly
glitter of bronze that girded his skin, and carried two spears
in his hands. No one could have stood up against him and stopped him
except the gods, when he burst in the gates; and his eyes flashed fire.
Whirling, he called out across the battle to the Trojans
to climb over the wall, and they obeyed his urgency.
Immediately some swarmed over the wall, while others swept in
through the wrought gateways (ποιητὰs … πύλαs), and the Danaans scattered in
terror among their hollow ships, and clamour incessant rose up.

The shift from the first to the second movement reinforces the fluidity of the situation as the Greeks abandon hope of taking Troy and seek their own survival.20 Homer highlights the transformation by describing the Greek defensive structures in specific, concrete terms. As Schein puts it, “strong walls, with wide and numerous gates, are the sign par excellence of a major city in the Iliad and in the poetic tradition generally.”21 Once the Greeks are under attack, the defense of their wall evokes images of a city under siege.22

In addition to the structures and the narrative that revolves around the battle at the wall, the Greeks' language to describe the camp—once its wall is built—is quite striking. Although the Greek camp is never explicitly called a polis, heroes going off to battle speak of their return to camp as a homecoming—to come back to the ships is to achieve a nostos. During their noctural mission Odysseus halts Diomedes' slaughter of the Thracians with these words (10.509f):

νόστου δὴ μνη̑σαι, μεγαθύμου Τυδἐοs υἱἐ,
νη̑αs ἔπι γλαφυράs.(23)

Although the enjambment at 10.510 makes the reference clear, nostos is a highly charged word in epic poetry: it refers to a hero's return to his home in Greece after accomplishing some great deed. Significantly, in the Iliad's second movement the term is applied to returning to camp, as though the camp were the Greeks' homeland.24

Achilles also twice utters a key phrase. When he describes his treatment from Agamemnon, he says that he has been treated as a “dishonored exile” (9.646ff, cf. 16.58f):

ἀλλά μοι οἰδάνεται κραδίη χόλῳ, ὁππότε κείνων
μνήσομαι, ὥs μ' ἀσύφηλον ἐν 'Αργείοισιν ἔρεξεν
'Ατρείδηs, ὡs εἴ τιν' ἀτίμητον μετανάστην.(25)

In the phrase ἀτίμητον μετανάστημν, μετανάστηs refers to someone from a foreign land; ἀτίμητοs indicates that this immigrant has no share in the τιμή (or honor) of the place in which he settles. The closest equivalent for the phrase in English is “resident alien.” Even while Achilles was a part of the Greek community, he implies, he was treated like an alien without rights. For ten years the Greek camp had become his homeland, yet he never enjoyed the rights accorded to a full citizen. In this instance he describes their wartime community as though it were a political body.26

We also find a conventional speech in an unusual setting. With the Greeks under attack, Nestor addresses the troops with words clearly suited to rallying the defense of a city (15.661-66):

o φίλοι, ἀνἐρεs ἔστε, καὔ αἰδὐ θἐθ' ἐνὔ θυμἳ̑
ἄλλων ἀνθρώπων, ἐπὔ δὲ μνήσασθε ἐκαστοs
παίδων ἠδ' ἀλόχων καὶ κτήσιοs ἠδὲ τοκήων,
ἠμὲν ὅτεῳ ζώουσι καὶ oκατατεθνήκασι·
τω̑ν ὕπερ ἐνθάδ' ἐγo γουνάζομαι οὐ παρεόντων
ἑστάμεναι κρατερω̑s, μηδἐ τρωπα̑σθε φόβονδε.(27)

In this exhortation, a leader tells the army that it must defend its wives, parents, children, and property (cf. Trojan sentiments at 8.56f, 15.497ff, 17.221-24). In a sense, this speech is strangely out of context—the Greeks are not defending a city—yet it fits the picture Homer is offering us. Apart from the adjustment to circumstances at the end of line 665 (οὐ παρεόντων), Homer has transferred to the Greeks the sort of inspiring speech that the Trojans might have used when their city was under attack.

Now, a sceptic might ask: how else could Homer describe the camp under attack? Would it not be natural for the poet to adopt such conventional language in this somewhat unusual context? And it is true that each phrase or passage on its own may not evoke the conception of a besieged city. My argument rests in large part upon the cumulative evidence, as, I think, does Homer's picture. There is a dynamic involved: the camp was previously safe, Achilles withdraws, a wall is built, then the Greeks are attacked. Language not previously used is now introduced. We find consistency in the middle books of the epic: whether it is warriors in battle, Achilles remembering his treatment from Agamemnon, or Nestor exhorting the troops, the Greeks speak of their camp as a homeland or a city. Foley's idea of “metonymic referentiality” is worth introducing here.28 Homer undoubtedly builds upon traditional expressions for describing defenders of a city to characterize the Greek camp, which an audience familiar with the epic tradition would recognize as such. In terms of metonymy, the wall of the Greeks (part) implies the city (whole). To attack a wall has its reference then not only within the Iliad but to the epic tradition as a whole. When Homer uses nostos in an epic poem, he knows that it chiefly signifies one idea. μετανάστηs is quite unusual—Achilles' language is often remarkable, and this time it is especially noteworthy.29 The way in which the Greeks speak of their camp taken together with the physical description of its defense (especially Book 12) leads to the conclusion that Homer is drawing attention to this transformation of the camp, and that his audience should think of it in such terms. Confirmation of this interpretation is found in the story of Meleager from Book 9, which anticipates the Greeks' defensive position on the long day of battle (Books 11-18).

In Book 9 the Greeks approach Achilles' camp seeking his return to battle.30 Odysseus conveys an offer of gifts from Agamemnon that Achilles rejects. Phoenix then attempts to change Achilles' mind by telling the story of Meleager. Phoenix recounts how Meleager also withdrew from battle in anger. Meleager's city, Calydon, was under siege, but when he was approached by townsmen, relatives, and friends offering gifts, Meleager rejected their pleas for help. Finally he responded to his wife's appeal and returned to battle to save the city. But the gifts that had previously been offered were no longer Meleager's for the taking. The moral for Achilles is that he should return to battle now, while Agamemnon's offer is still good (9.524-605).

This episode is a pivotal one for the epic. In Book 1 Achilles sought the defeat of the Greeks; in Book 8 the Greeks begin to lose; in 9 they bring an offer of compensation for Achilles. Yet even Phoenix is unsuccessful: Achilles will not return to battle. On the next day the Trojans drive the Greeks to their ships, and Patroclus is sent to face Hector with tragic consequences. The similarities between Meleager's situation and that of Achilles are of course evident. So long as Meleager fought, we learn, there was safety for his city (9.550ff). The same was true for the Greek camp, so long as Achilles fought. Both Achilles and Meleager withdraw from battle in anger, both are offered compensation for returning. Most notably, from our point of view, Phoenix has chosen to approximate the Greeks' dire circumstances by describing a city under siege. The crisis in the exemplum is meant to correspond to the Greeks' situation at Troy.31 Just as the Calydonians are facing a siege and desperately need Meleager's help, so the Greeks—driven behind their wall—are in need of the services of Achilles. The story of Meleager makes such a powerful point: because of the Greeks' defensive position, they, too, see themselves as besieged.

The picture of the Greeks under attack is consistent. We are meant to view the Greek camp as a city under siege. In Book 7 the wall is built, in Book 8 the Greeks begin to lose, in Book 9 the story of Meleager recapitulates the Greek predicament; in Book 12 the wall is attacked, in Book 15 Nestor's speech echoes a cry for a final defense.32 The Greek defeat following the request of Achilles makes up the central third of the Iliad;33i.e., the effect of Achilles' leaving not only turns the Greeks toward defeat, but according to this reading the Greeks must suffer what the Trojans were destined to suffer. Homer highlights this reversal by evoking the image of a besieged city, a traditional theme in epic poetry.


Steven Scully has recently argued that the focus of the Iliad is Troy, the sacred city.34 Yet, as we have seen, in Books 8-18 the Trojans are attacking the Greek camp, the only ‘city’ attacked in the Iliad.35 In the second part of this paper, I wish to build upon this reading and explore the significance of the poet's transformation of the Greek camp into a city in its historical context.

The Iliad was most likely composed in the second half of the eighth century. This date is important for a number reasons. Scully argues that the idea of a city under siege would have resonated powerfully in the early archaic period when Homer was singing. In fact, Scully thinks that the emergence of walled cities on the Ionian coast in this era provided a timely inspiration for the Iliad.36 I am in basic agreement with this thesis: the Iliad cannot be understood outside the context of an emerging urban culture.

But beyond the phenomenon of walled cities in the Aegean, the eighth century was a period of many changes. Following a significant rise in population, there is an upsurge of colonization and trade.37 As the Greeks spread around the Mediterranean and the Black Sea encountering many non-Greek peoples, they came to recognize their own ‘Greekness’. For all their political disunity, the Greeks shared a common heritage. They thought of themselves as Greek not only linguistically, but also in terms of a shared culture. They celebrated their kinship by worshipping together and competing at such shrines as Delphi and Olympia. Homer was composing the Iliad in a period of increasingly self-conscious Panhellenism.38

Homer—whether he was from Chios, Smyrna, or Colophon—was most likely an Ionian. He would have come into contact with Lydians, Phoenicians, Phrygians, Carians, and other non-Greek peoples.39 Given the rise of Panhellenism, it would have been natural for such a poet to glorify the heroic deeds of Greek warriors. A ‘patriotic’ rendering of the story of the Trojan War might have highlighted the valor of Greeks united in battle against the Trojans, as a faceless enemy. Yet in the Iliad Homer paints a far different picture. He chooses not to celebrate the glorious deeds of men by telling of the Greeks sacking a city. The poet of the Iliad never shows the city of Troy in flames, or even under attack; the crowning achievement of the Greeks is never told. Homer not only avoids showing the sack of Troy; there are few scenes of the Greek army at the walls of Troy. Instead he has given us a tragic perspective: he emphasizes that for every victory and city sacked, there will be an Andromache led off to slavery or an Astyanax hurled from a tower to his death (6.450-65, 24.732-39).40 That is, Homer offers us a view of war where death and tragedy afflict both Greeks and Trojans—that is, Greeks and non-Greeks.

Homer's distinctive perspective on the war is brought out most powerfully in the final book of the Iliad. Achilles finally relinquishes his wrath not through reconciliation with the Greeks but rather in meeting with Priam, the king of the Trojans, who seeks the corpse of Hector for burial. Priam begs for his son's body, and when Achilles looks at the old man, he sees not the face of an enemy: he sees the face of his own father Peleus (24.507-12):41

Priam spoke and stirred in the other a passion of grieving
for his own father. Achilles took the old man's hand and
pushed him gently away, and the two remembered. Priam sat huddled
at the feet of Achilles and wept on and on for manslaughtering Hector
and Achilles wept now for his own father, now again for Patroclus. …

And in his myth of the two jars of Zeus, Achilles articulates his realization that all men receive a share from both: evils have come from Zeus to both Priam and Peleus. As the epic closes, the audience knows that after the burial of Hector the war will go on. Troy will be sacked. Yet Homer does not end on a note of triumph, and by the end of the epic no one in his audience is induced to cheer this glorious deed of the Greeks. The Iliad is in a sense a national epic, yet Homer does not address his Panhellenic audience with a boast of superiority. Rather he calls for the recognition of the humanity of non-Greeks as well, and by implication of the non-Greeks in his own time. This point is driven home by putting the Greeks into the position of victim, as they fear destruction within their own walls. In this epic the dominant experience of the Greeks—whose perspective Homer's audience would be likely to share—is military defeat and fear of annihilation.

The significance of transforming the Greek camp into a besieged city should be understood in such a context. It is not enough to have the Trojans enjoy success and the Greeks to suffer defeat. Earlier poets sang of the Trojan War and the sacking of cities.42 Some undoubtedly sang of setbacks for the Greeks, yet Homer appears to have turned the story upside down by putting the Greeks into the rôle traditionally assigned to the Trojans—that of defending a city. Hector is now the attacker, who gains glory by being the first to leap within the Greek wall. Attacking a city's walls was undoubtedly a scene sung by Homer's predecessors, but I think it likely that in other versions such scenes were set at the walls of Troy with a Greek as the attacking hero. In the Iliad we find an inversion of the rôles of attacker and defender of a city. Thematic inversion consists of displacement (the ‘city’ under attack is now the Greek camp) and rôle reversal (the Greeks are now the besieged).

Although the only city placed under attack in the narrative of the Iliad is the Greek camp, one other city is assaulted: the city at war depicted on the shield of Achilles. In Homer's account of the marvelous shield Thetis obtains from Hephaestus, with the entire universe upon it, two cities are prominent: one is at peace, the other at war (18.490-540). The description comes at a pause in the epic, taking us away from the action on the battlefield. For eleven books the Greek camp has been under attack, its wall breached, its people threatened. In the books that follow Thetis' errand—the third movement of the epic—the focus will shift once again to Troy.43 The description of the two cities on the shield helps us redirect our attention from the Greek camp to Achilles' confrontation with Hector and its consequences for Troy. Yet the dual image of peace and war is presented only after we have witnessed the Greeks, who will ultimately be victorious, in the desperate position of enduring a Trojan attack. As on the shield, the two possibilities of peace and war are universal and come to all peoples. The two cities of the shield are of course anonymous; neither is designated as Greek or Trojan. But like them, both the Greeks and, inevitably, the Trojans suffer the fear of annihilation within city walls.44

If Homer was not a pacifist, he does offer a realistic picture of the experience of war. Glory is won, but there is corresponding suffering. In deciding to return to battle, Achilles expresses this balance (18.121-25):

                                                                                                    Now I must win excellent glory,
and drive some one of the women of Troy, or some deep-gridled
Dardanian woman to lift both hands to her soft cheeks
and wipe away her tears of lamentation,
as she learns that I stayed too long out of the fighting.

The glory Achilles wins, as he recognizes, will bring grief to the families in Troy.45 Throughout the second movement of the epic, however, it is the Greeks who fear dying and bringing grief to their families.

Recent works have emphasized the capacity of the singer to revise and reshape traditional material.46 Schein goes so far as to call the plot of the Iliad a “digression in the story of the entire war.”47 Throughout, my own analysis assumes that the reversal of rôles and engineering of a Greek defeat underlies Homer's innovation. Speculation about Homeric invention, of course, is a tantalizing enterpise. The question whether the Trojan assault upon the Greek wall is new with the Iliad is unlikely to receive a conclusive answer.48 Clearly the Greek defeat is fully integrated into the Iliad as we have it. In fact, the main effect of Achilles' anger is to drive the Greeks within their walls and to suffer what the Trojans will suffer. The suggestion that the Greeks are in a besieged city only accentuates that this experience is shared by both sides. Another aspect of the Greek defeat appears to support the idea that Homer deliberately inverted elements of the epic story. I would like to consider briefly this possibility of a second reversal.

The means of denoting the Greek camp bears on the problem of innovating traditional material. Homer uses traditional formulae, “the ships” or “the ships of the Achaeans” to locate the Greek camp.49 In fact, Parry calls the system of formulae for ships not only sufficient in extension to prove it is traditional in its entirety, but speculates that “the importance of ships in epic poetry is responsible for the formation of what is without doubt the most complex of all formulary systems created for common nouns.”50 Regarding the broad epic tradition, we think of the sailing adventures of Odysseus or Jason and the Argonauts. Indeed, the lengthy catalogue of ships reminds the audience that this began as a naval operation (2.493-760). The natural function of ships as vessels of transportation takes on ominous tones in the Iliad. Ships interrupt peace, they bring war and death to cities, and are the means of leading women into slavery. This is epitomized in the words of Idomeneus (13.453f):51

                                                                      νυ̑ν δ' ἐνθάδε νη̑εs ἔνεικαν
σοί τε κακὸν καὶ πατρὶ καὶ ἄλλοισι Τρώεσσιν.(52)

In the Iliad, however, the ships of the Greeks serve a very different function: they are stationary (the only trip is to Chryse in Book 1) and serve by metonymy to designate the Greek camp.53 In the central books the ships become the object of destruction for the Trojans. Hector seeks to destroy the fleet by fire, yet to destroy the Greek camp (=ships) is to destroy the Greek homecoming.54 Homer calls attention to the natural function of the ships at the very moment of their likely destruction with similes describing Hector at the ships. The Trojans resemble a wave crashing over the side of a ship (15.379-84).55 Later Hector leaps about with fire like a wave onto a ship of panicked sailors (15.623-29). All this indicates that Homer may be making a further inversion. The ships, which have brought trouble to Troy, have been marked for attack and annihilation in the Iliad; this in turn would destroy the homecoming of the Greeks. Although ships—both in epic song and in the eighth-century Aegean—may more commonly signal a threat to peoples living by the sea, in this narrative they are transformed into the target of an invading army.56

In another age of scholarship, the Iliad was dissected into early and late layers; certain episodes were the work of poet A, others of poet B or C. The building of the Greek wall and its defense were invariably classified as late and certainly “un-Homeric.” The fight at the wall was seen as an intrusion, originally deriving from a separate poem.57 Even now, there is a residual anxiety concerning these middle books.58 Edwards, for example, omits discussion of Books 7 and 12 in his more detailed commentary, which is limited to “the most important books of the Iliad.59

What do these central books have to do with the story of Achilles' anger? My argument is that the picture of the Greek camp under siege is critical to the plot. The effect of Achilles' anger is that the Greeks experience what the Trojans are destined to suffer. The withdrawal of Achilles brings about an inversion of the rôles played by Greeks and Trojans. Homer depicts the trauma of undergoing a siege by showing his audience that experience, but he does so from the Greek point of view. Rather than exult in the glory of sacking a city, Homer offers an alternative perspective in the Iliad, as the besiegers of Troy have become the besieged in their own city.


  1. See Steiner's remarks in G. Steiner and R. Fagles, edd., Homer: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1962) 3f, and S. Scully, Homer and the Sacred City (Ithaca 1990: hereafter ‘Scully’) 26f, with reservations. Further references are given below, nn.21, 22, 26.

  2. These three movements do not necessarily imply three days of performance. For this argument (with slightly different divisions), see O. Taplin, Homeric Soundings: The Shaping of the Iliad (Oxford 1992) 11-31; cf. K. Stanley, The Shield of Homer: Narrative Structure in the Iliad (Princeton 1993; hereafter “Stanley”), who argues for a division between Books 17 and 18).

  3. In fact, scenes at the walls of Troy generally have little to do with the danger of attack: the elders look out over the battlefield, Andromache seeks Hector, or Priam and Hecuba appeal to Hector (e.g. 3.146-244, 6.388f, 22.33-91; cf. 21.526f).

  4. The use of “ships” and “ships and huts” to designate the Greek camp is discussed in n.48 below.

  5. On the Greek sack of Troy, see also the words of Odysseus, Nestor, and Agamemnon (2.286-332, 350-56; 4.163ff, 290f, 415ff). Even Hector admits the inevitable (6.447ff).

  6. Cf. Hector's words before the duel with Ajax: either the Greeks will take Troy or they will sail home (7.71f). There is still no threat to the Greeks. The shift comes in Book 8 after the wall has been built and Zeus begins to help the Trojans. The only mention of Greek vulnerability is made sarcastically by Agamemnon (4.247ff).

  7. Homer reminds his audience of the coming defeat: see e.g. 1.240-44, 340-44, 409-12, 558f; 2.3f, 35-40.

  8. The only approach is by herald (e.g. 7.372-84). In the Odyssey Helen tells the story of Odysseus' entering the city in disguise. She realizes who it is, but Odysseus forces her to swear not to reveal his identity until he returns “to the swift ships” (Od. 4.252-55).

  9. Although the building of the wall is unmotivated at this point, it becomes an immediate necessity on the next day of battle when the Trojans gain the upper hand. See A. Thornton, Homer's Iliad: Its Composition and the Motif of Supplication (Göttingen 1984) 51f. This is to say nothing of Thucydides' remark (1.11) that the Greeks must have put up the wall soon after arrival. In response it should be said that Homer goes out of his way to show that there was no need for the wall until Achilles withdrew. The internally consistent picture given is that for nine years the Greeks are never threatened. On this controversy see D. Page, History and the Homeric Iliad (Berkeley 1972) 315-24; M. L. West, “The Achaean Wall,” CR [Classical Review] 19 (1969) 255-60; O. Tsagarakis, “The Achaean Wall and the Homeric Question,” Hermes 97 (1969) 129-35.

  10. Homer describes the arrangement of the camp constituted by ships and huts: the ships are stretched out along the beach with the ships of Achilles at one end and those of Ajax at the other. The ships of Odysseus are in the middle (8.220-26, 11.5-9; cf. 16.284ff). For the Greek agora see e.g. 1.54, 490; cf. the Trojan gathering at 7.345. Scully (26f) points out that the Greek wall is not sacred: no hecatombs have been made to the gods (emphasized by Poseidon at 7.448ff). The destruction of the Greek wall appears to be linked with the fall of Troy (12.10ff; cf. 7.459-63). See the discussion by A. Ford, Homer: The Poetry of the Past (Ithaca 1992: hereafter ‘Ford’) 147-57. For the mythical importance of the wall, see R. Scodel, “The Achaean Wall and the Myth of Destruction,” HSCP 86 (1982) 33-50.

  11. There is of course a patent contradiction between the need to put up the wall quickly in a single day and its elaborate description in Book 12.

  12. Wall (τει̑χοs)—Greek camp: 7.436, 449, 461; 8.177, 533; 12.3-9, 12; 18.215; Troy: 6.327, 388, 434; 11.181; 16.702; 17.404; 21.536; 22.99.

  13. Towers (πύργοι)—Greek camp: 7.337f, 436f; 12.154, 258, 265, 332, 386, 430; Troy: 3.153f; 6.386, 431; 8.164ff, 518f; 16.700; 18.274; 21.526; 22.195.

  14. Gates (πύλαι): 7.339, 438; 10.126f; 12.120, 175, 223, 454; Troy: 3.145; 6.237, 307, 392; 8.58; 9.354; 16.712; 18.275; 21.537; 22.99.

  15. Battlements (ἐπάλξειs): 12.258, 263, 308, 375, 381, 397ff, 406, 424, 430; Troy: 22.3.

  16. Door leaves (σάνιδεs): 12.121, 453, 461; Troy: 18.275; 21.535.

  17. Bolts (ὀχη̑εs): 12.121, 291, 455, 460; 13.124; Troy: 21.537. The Greeks also have a ditch with stakes in it (τάφροs, σκόλοπεs): 7.341, 440f; 8.336; 15.343ff.

  18. Yet Patroclus speaks of Sarpedon in these terms (16.558f).

  19. “The battles fought by both sides were pulled fast and even
    until that time when Zeus gave the greater glory to Hector,
    Priam's son, who was the first to break into the wall of the Achaeans.”

    All translations, with slight modifications, are from R. Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer (Chicago 1951).

  20. It is possible to find a motive for the poet delaying the enactment of Zeus' promise to Achilles until Bk 8. Although the divine guarantee comes in Bk 1, it appears that Homer wishes to emphasize the invulnerability of the Greeks, so long as Achilles fought on their side. For two books (13-14) the defense is put on hold, but in 15 and 16 the Greeks are once again desperate. After a portion of the wall is demolished by Apollo (15.360-66), the ships and then Patroclus' corpse become the focal point (Bks 15-18). The illusion of the Greek camp as a city may be broken with the words of Ajax that the Greeks have no wall or city with towers to defend them (15.735-41).

  21. S. Schein, The Mortal Hero: An Introduction to Homer's Iliad (Berkeley 1984: hereafter ‘Schein’) 192 n.5. See σbT 12.175-81 for the ancient controversy on the number of gates.

  22. T. B. L. Webster, From Mycenae to Homer (London 1958) 253, speculates: “I suggest that the Trojan storming of the Achaean Wall is a substitute for this [the capture of Troy] and that Homer remodelled it on an earlier story of the siege of Troy.” The same verb ἐπιβαίνω is used both for assaulting the towers of Troy (8.165) and for climbing upon the Greek ships (8.197; cf. 12.468, ὑπερβαίνειν, 13.86f, ὑπερκατἐβησαν). Taplin (supra n.2: 95 n.22) points out that the verb ἐξαλαπάξω, used for destruction of the ships (13.813), is generally applied to the sack of Troy. Cf. also the verb σμύχω, which is only used twice, indicating the fire that may consume both the Greek ships and Troy. (9.653, 22.411).

  23. “Think now, son of great-hearted Tydeus, of return
    to the hollow ships.”
  24. In choosing Odysseus as a companion for his night mission, Diomedes says (10.246f):

    τούτου γ' ἑσπομἐνοιο καὶ ἐκ πυρὸs αἰθομἐνοιο
    ἄμφω νοστήσαιμεν, ἐπεὶ περίοιδε νοη̑σαι.
    (“Were [Odysseus] to go with me, both of us could return
    even from blazing fire, since his mind is best at devices.”)

    The verb νοστἐω is used elsewhere of Greeks returning from battle to the Greek camp: see 17.239, 636; 18.238; cf. especially the phrase ἐδἐ ξατο νοστήσαντα at 18.238 used for Patroclus' return from battle and its echo at 18.329-32 (cf. 18.440f), concerning Achilles' actual homecoming to Phthia. Poseidon uses the verb to mean simply “return” (13.38). Of course, νόστοs and νοστἐω are most commonly used of a true homecoming, by Pandarus (4.103, 121; 5.212), Sarpedon (5.687), Hector (17.207, 22.444, 24.704ff), and Achilles (e.g. 9.413, 16.82; cf. 2.251ff, 8.499, 9.434, 13.232).

  25. “Yet still the heart swells up in anger, when I remember
    the disgrace that he wrought upon me before the Argives,
    the son of Atreus, as if I were some dishonored exile.”
  26. μετανάστηs brings to mind Phoenix's departure from home after his mother was dishonored (9.478-83; cf. 9.450) and the simile describing Priam (24.480-83; cf. 13.695ff, 23.84-88). J. A. Arieti, “Achilles' Alienation in Iliad 9,” CJ [Classical Journal] 82 (1986) 1-27, translates μετανάστηs as “one who has changed his dwelling” (23), “an alien who has been given no rights to τιμή by the society he has moved to” (24). For the history of the word, see his 23 n.31. Arieti goes on to say that Achilles “conceives of the Greek army as being a kind of polis” (24). Rights of citizens, an anachronism for Bronze Age Greece, may, as we shall see, have relevance for Homer's own time.

  27. “Dear friends, be men; let shame be in your hearts, maintain your pride
    in the sight of other men. Let each of you remember
    his children and his wife, his property and his parents,
    whether a man's father and mother live or have died. Here now
    I supplicate your knees for the sake of those who are absent
    to stand strongly and not be turned to the terror of panic.”
  28. J. M. Foley, Immanent Art. From Structure to Meaning in Traditional Oral Epic (Bloomington 1991), esp. 6-13, 22-29, 38-60.

  29. See J. A. Arieti, “Achilles' Guilt,” CJ 80 (1985) 193-203.

  30. Achilles' withdrawal in Book 1 divides the Greek camp, sundering the area under the control of Agamemnon from Achilles' camp. When Briseis is taken from Achilles' ships, Homer highlights this split by saying they brought her “back to the ships of the Achaeans” (1.347; cf. 1.298-303, 328; 9.185). Whenever the Greeks approach Achilles' camp, heralds always take the lead. Achilles has seceded from the Greek community with no apparent concern for his former allies. In Book 9 when Odysseus and others attempt to persuade Achilles to return to battle, Achilles' final answer is that he will not rejoin battle until the Greek ships are fired and his own camp is in danger. When Hector gets here, Achilles says, he will then be stopped (9.649-55). Following Achilles' withdrawal then it is possible to distinguish the camp of the Myrmidons from the Greek camp dominated by Agamemnon.

  31. In common with Troy and Homer's description of the Greek defenses, Calydon under siege has the essential attributes of a city: wall (9.551f), gates (9.573), and towers (9.574, 588). It is interesting to note that the trouble for the Calydonians stemmed from a failure to sacrifice, echoing the Greeks' omission when building their wall (9.533-37; cf. 7.448ff). On the interplay between narrative and paradigm, see M. L. Lang, “Reverberation and Mythology in the Iliad,” in C. A. Rubino and C. W. Shelmerdine, edd., Approaches to Homer (Austin 1983) 140-64. Bibliography on the Meleager story is immense: for the parallels see J. Rosner, “The Speech of Phoenix. Iliad 9.434-605,” Phoenix 30 (1976) 314-27.

  32. The recurring idea of a city under siege appears in Nestor's story to Patroclus (11.711-62; cf. 10.336).

  33. Without giving undue weight to this episode in the middle of the work as a whole, Ford (149) rightly says that the building and defense of the wall “acutely symbolizes Greek losses,” which constitute the substance of Achilles' original plea to Zeus. An illuminating parallel between the structure of epic and artwork may be not only Geometric design (on which see C. Whitman, Homer and the Heroic Tradition [Cambridge (Mass.) 1958] but also pedimental sculpture, which focuses on the center, not the left or right (the ‘beginning’ or ‘end’ of the narrative). For discussion and bibliography of the form of the Iliad, see Stanley 29ff and 320f nn.83-96.

  34. Scully 116f: “The Iliad's true center is Troy, the point where the threads of events crisscross and the metaphysical place upon which the fiction turns.”

  35. The only exceptions are the brief assaults upon Troy by Patroclus and Achilles (16.698-711, 21.515-49) and the previous attack recollected by Andromache (6.433-39). Voltaire (Candide ch. 25) rightly characterizes Troy as “the city that is always besieged but never taken.”

  36. Scully 96: “The reemergence of walled cities might well have provided the context, and indeed the inspiration, in which Dark Age episodic poetry could be reinterpreted, and rewoven, around themes familiar to the old Mycenaeans. For the Ionian audiences in particular, such themes would again have had a genuine immediacy, or vividness, in their concrete detail.”

  37. See A. M. Snodgrass, Archaic Greece: The Age of Experiment (Berkeley 1980) 15-84, esp. 32-47 on fortification walls and the polis.

  38. The Iliad may well have been performed on one of these religious occasions. On the eighth-century date see I. Morris, “The Use and Abuse of Homer,” ClAnt [Classical Antiquity] 5 (1986) 81-138, esp. 94-115; R. Janko, Homer, Hesiod and the Hymns: Diachronic Development in the Epic Diction (Cambridge 1982) 228-31, dates the Iliad to 750-725. On Panhellenism in Homeric epic see G. Nagy, The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry (Baltimore 1979) 7ff and passim. Features of the eighth century are found in both the Iliad and the Odyssey. The joint expedition of Greeks is glorified in the catalogue of ships; the competition at Olympia may lie behind the funeral games for Patroclus in Bk 23; Odysseus' journeys on the seas may well reflect the tales of Greek sailors who explored the Black Sea and the western Mediterranean.

  39. In his Chrestomathy Proclus mentions Colophon, Chios, Smyrna, Iete, and Cyme as cities claiming Homer as a native son. On the importance of Greek contacts (both from Ionia and Euboea) with Asia Minor and the eastern Mediterranean, see M. L. West, “The Rise of the Greek Epic,” JHS [Journal of Hellenic Studies] 108 (1988) 151-72; W. Burkert, “Oriental Myth and Literature in the Iliad, in R. Hägg, ed., The Greek Renaissance of the Eighth Centuryb.c.: Tradition and Innovation (Stockholm 1983) 51-56.

  40. O. Taplin, “The Shield of Achilles within the Iliad,G&R [Greece & Rome] 27 (1980) 1-21, puts it this way (16): Homer “shows how for every victory there is a defeat, how for every triumphant killing there is another human being killed.”

  41. Priam succeeds in getting Achilles to recall his father, whereas Odysseus earlier had failed: see 9.252-59, 24.486-92; cf. Nestor's success with Patroclus at 11.765-90.

  42. Artistic renditions of an attack by sea upon a city go back to the fifteenth century: S. P. Morris, “A Tale of Two Cities: The Miniature Frescoes from Thera and the Origins of Greek Poetry,” AJA [American Journal of Archaeology] 93 (1989) 511-35.

  43. For the shield as a turning point see T. K. Hubbard, “Nature and Art in the Shield of Achilles,” Arion Ser. 3 2.1 (1992) 16-41, esp. 19-24. Of course the shield indicates that war is only a part of human experience, thus putting the importance of the events at Troy in some sort of perspective, on which see Taplin (supra n.40) 11-18; Stanley 3f, 189f.

  44. Taplin argues (supra n.40: 6) that the city at war is Troy (“Here we have the Iliad and its belligerent deities”), but later says (7) says that “The city on the shield stands for every threatened homeland.” Hubbard (supra n.43 30) remarks that “This city is clearly the model for Troy.” The idea of reversal is contained in the Aeneid (Book 9) as well, when the Trojans (previously besieged at Troy) attack the city of Latinus and find their camp under siege by the troops of Turnus.

  45. Cf. the simile at Od. 8.521-31, where the sacker of Troy, Odysseus, weeps like a woman who laments over the body of her dying husband and is led off into slavery. For the view that poets in the oral tradition before Homer had depicted the Trojans as arrogant, warlike, and uncivilized, but that Homer (or his near contemporaries) has given them a sympathetic portrayal, see W. M. Sale, “The Trojans, Statistics, and Milman Parry,” GRBS [Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies] 30 (1989) 431-410, and “The Government of Troy: Politics in the Iliad,GRBS 35 (1994) 5-102.

  46. L. Slatkin, The Power of Thetis: Allusion and Interpretation in the Iliad (Berkeley 1991) 1-6, emphasizes the elements of interpretation, selection, and revision on the part of the poet. For other approaches to the question of Homeric invention, see e.g. J. Griffin, “The Epic Cycle and the Uniqueness of Homer,” JHS 97 (1977) 39-53; M. M. Willcock, “Mythological Paradeigma in the Iliad,CQ [Classical Quarterly] n.s. 14 (1964) 141-54; on the motivation for such innovation, see M. Griffith, “Contrast and Contradiction in Early Greek Poetry,” in M. Griffith and D. Mastronarde, edd., Cabinet of the Muses: Essays on Classical and Comparative Literature in Honor of Thomas G. Rosenmeyer (Atlanta 1990) 185-207.

  47. Schein 19; Ford (152) says that the wall “mark[s] a great ritardando in the larger story of the sack of Troy.”

  48. This idea goes back to antiquity: see Arist. fr. 162 Rose (=Strab. 13.1.36), ὁ πλάσαs ποιητὴs ἠφάνισεν, and σ bT 12.3-35, ἀνἐπλασε τὴν τειχοποιίαν ὁ ποιητήs.

  49. W. M. Sale, “The Formularity of Place-Phrases in the Iliad,TAPA 117 (1987) 21-50, remarks (24 n.11) that “νηυ̑s denotes a ship, but in the plural, in context, and (usually) with a preposition, it connotes the camp. The reference of νηυ̑s is the ship, the sense of the phrase is ‘the Greek camp’.” By studying the formularity, which measures the relative frequency of Homer's use of formulae in a particular situation to express a certain idea, Sale suggests that we can get a rough sense of when a given essential idea was taken up by the epic tradition. In looking at the ways in which Homer says “in Troy” or “from Troy,” however, Sale finds very low formularity (32٪ and 0٪): thus few or no formulae were available to say “in Troy” or “from Troy” when Homer was composing the Iliad. Sale hypothesizes that presumably earlier poets had little interest in presenting scenes in Troy and goes on to attribute the bulk of the Iliad's Trojan scenes (33 in all) to Homer's invention.

  50. M Parry, “The Traditional Epithet in Homer,” in A. Parry, ed., The Making of Homeric Verse (Oxford 1971) 109; on extension see 105, for his discussion of ships, 26-29, 109-13; see also B. Alexanderson, “Homeric Formulae for Ships,” Eranos 68 (1970) 1-46.

  51. See also 2.303f, 351f; cf. 4.237ff; 8.164ff, 528; 16.830ff, 24.731f, 9.401ff; see also the ships of Paris (5.62ff, 22.115f). Achilles describes twelve cities the Greek sacked by ships and eleven taken by land (9.328f). For the earlier peace at Troy see esp. 22.147-56, 24.543-48.

  52.                                                                                           “But now the ships have brought
    evil here to you and your father and the other Trojans.”
  53. Even as the Greeks are dragging their ships to sea in a premature departure (2.151-54), the phrase “the ships of the Achaeans” is still used to designate the Greek camp (2.168, 187).

  54. Odysseus and Phoenix among others express this fear: e.g. 9.244ff, 434-38; 11.817f; 16.80ff

  55. See σ bT 15.381.

  56. This inversion in the second movement may be echoed in the phrase ὡs νυ̑ν ἡμἐρα ἥδε κακὸν φἐρει 'Αργείοισι (13.828).

  57. For a quick survey of stratification theories perpetrated upon Homer (and an alternative metaphor), see C. G. Thomas, “The Homeric Epics: Strata or a Spectrum?” Colby Quarterly 29 (1993) 273-82.

  58. Taplin (supra n.2: 162) comments that the section from 11.1-16.112 is “not the part of the Iliad which appeals most obviously to modern taste.”

  59. M. W. Edwards, Homer Poet of the Iliad (Baltimore 1987) xi.

Kevin Crotty (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8456

SOURCE: Crotty, Kevin. “Memory and Supplication.” In The Poetics of Supplication: Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, pp. 70-88. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994.

[In the following excerpt, Crotty illustrates the pivotal shift in Achilles's character achieved by Priam's supplication of the hero in Book 24 of the Iliad.]


No act of supplication in the Iliad is so elaborately prepared as Priam's supplication of Achilles in the final book. The ceremony is the means decreed by Zeus himself to effect the return of Hector's corpse to the Trojans for burial. That the supplication of Achilles by Priam is decreed and overseen by the gods raises its dignity and lends it a monumental quality that befits the conclusion of an epic poem. The lively interest of the gods in human affairs—the pity that the gods feel for Hector and their anger at Achilles (see 24.22-54)—makes these events larger than life: more exhilarating and more exciting, because of the gods' attentive participation, than anything else in the world.

There is an unmistakable, Odyssey-like element of fantasy in the gods' oversight of these final moments in the poem. The counsel of gods that opens the last book of the Iliad, the subsequent flight of Iris to Troy, the companionship of Hermes leading Priam to Achilles' tent—all these recall the opening scenes of the Odyssey almost point-for-point: specifically, the council of the gods, Hermes' resultant visit to Calypso, and the disguised Athena's escort of Telemachus. Indeed, the purpose of the gods' plans in the Iliad—to restore the son's dead body to the father—seems like a tragic mirror of the gods' plan in the Odyssey to restore the living father to the son.1 Zeus provides for the supplication of Achilles by Priam as a way of honoring Achilles (see 24.65-76), as elsewhere suppliants honor warriors by acknowledging the victor's preeminence and offering him wealth. Yet Zeus affords Achilles a hitherto unheard-of honor: the king of the Trojans himself will come and kiss his hands to plead for the return of his son's body. There could scarcely be a more extravagant proof of the greatness of Achilles' victory.

This honoring, however, is far different from the recognition that Achilles had sought and in which he once had such confidence. It has the peculiar property of reflecting both good and evil fortunes and it expressively conveys the glory and the vulnerability of human existence. Achilles had originally sought to obtain a proof that Zeus honored him, to be demonstrated by the deaths of his fellow Achaeans at the Trojans' hands. (See 1.352-56, 407-12, and 503-10; cf. 9.607-10). The death of his dearest companion Patroclus, however, demonstrated in a grimly ironic way that Zeus does not honor Achilles, at least not in the sense that he dependably carries out Achilles' wishes for unrivalled prestige. Priam's supplication truly honors Achilles for his excellence but at the same time reflects Achilles' inability to keep those he most cherishes alive and happy. The goodness of victory is both recognized and circumscribed.

Even before Priam arrives, it is clear that Achilles will agree to return Hector's body. When Thetis tells him of the gods' plan, Achilles accedes immediately:

So be it. Let him bring ransom and take the body,
If Zeus himself wishes it so strongly.


The very terseness of Achilles' response suggests that he is already predisposed to do what the gods command. Nonetheless, Priam's appeal and its effect on Achilles are the crucial part of the supplication—the means by which the frustration of Achilles' stubborn grief for Patroclus becomes insight into his grief and that of others. Although the gods elaborately prepare Priam's secret visit to Achilles, what actually happens between the two men after Priam arrives in the enemy camp flows from each one's own experience and memories. Hence, notwithstanding the gods' broad role in breaking the impasse, the action in Book 24 is not imposed artificially on the preceding action but emerges from it.

In this [essay] I argue that Achilles ultimately resolves the searing memory of Patroclus' death—not by “forgetting” it, as Odysseus had urged, but by coming to understand it. In other words, the action of the Iliad reaches its climax when its hero achieves insight into experience and confers significance upon it. Achilles' understanding of his loss is a forming or trans-forming of blind emotions to a cognitive end. The poem's climax grows from the preceding action in a way that is surprising yet coherent: Achilles never forgets but he discovers a new way of remembering. This mode of remembering is finally impossible within the warrior society and requires a different kind of community, a philotēs that is established by Priam's act of supplication.


Priam's first words upon entering Achilles' tent are an invocation of memory: mnēsai patros soio, “remember your father” (24.486). Priam's appeal is immediately distinguished from Odysseus' more practical advice, for the old king expressly urges Achilles to fill his mind with all the thoughts that have most deeply distressed him. The Iliad is in large part the story of Achilles' memory. Thus, he cannot be reconciled to the Achaeans even after Agamemnon has offered gifts because, as he tells Ajax, “my heart swells in anger whenever I remember (mnēsomai) how Agamemnon insulted me as though I were some migrant of no account” (9.646-48). Later, Achilles clings to the memory of Patroclus, and vows that he will never forget him: “Even if they forget the dead in Hades, yet even there shall I always remember my dear companion” (22.389-90).

As Richard Martin has pointed out, characters in the Iliad do not, by and large, remember simply for the pleasure of it; remembering typically has an exterior goal.2 The warrior's memory on the battlefield has an almost physical nature: to “remember strength” is to gather one's powers and to renew one's effort. (Cf. such phrases as “they remembered battle” and “remember strength,” mnēsanto de kharmēs, and mnēsasthe de thouridos alkēs.)3 Through his memory, the warrior feels with a new intensity the importance of what he does and the value it has for him. Thus, in defending the body of Patroclus, Menelaus calls upon his comrades “to remember the wretched Patroclus, for he knew, while alive, how to be gentle to all; and now death and fate have overwhelmed him” (17.669-71). Menelaus invokes memory as a means of leading the warriors to fight with fiercer determination and greater success.

Memory is also closely associated with mourning and grief at the loss of those dear to one. So, for example, Achilles vows: “I will never forget (epilēsomai) [Patroclus], as long as I dwell among the living and my legs can move me” (22.387-88). It is precisely in order to nurse his memory that the mourner starves himself of bodily necessities. Thus, Achilles goes sleepless in order to “remember” (memnēmenos, 24.4) Patroclus:

                                                                      … Nor did sleep
That quells all take him, but aimlessly he strayed
Yearning for Patroclus' manhood and noble might
And all the things he accomplished at his side, and all the troubles endured—
Traversing the wars of men and the troubled waves:
Remembering these things, he wept a hot tear;
Now lying on his side, now again
On his back, now on his belly.


Andromache, too, in grieving for Hector, regrets the absence of any detail about his final moments that would enable her to keep her memory of him fresh and continually painful:

To me especially dire griefs are left;
In death you did not lift your hands from your bed
To tell me some wise word, which always
I might remember (memnēimēn), as I wept day and night.


As described in the Iliad, the mourner's memory, like the warrior's on the battlefield, has an almost physical force. Rather than being simply a tribute to the deceased, it is a means to keep him present and so to deny the death. Indeed, the power and vehemence of the mourner's grief suggests that mourning serves to repress the thought of his own impotence—that is, his inability to revive the one he loves. Thus, the mourner's grief-stricken recollection is passionate, insistent, and adamant. It excludes other influences and rejects others' counsel.

So, when Achilles first learns of Patroclus' death, “a black cloud of grief cover[s] him” (18.22), he pours dust on his hair, and “disfigure[s] his lovely countenance.” Achilles tears his hair and wails in a way terrible to hear; he appears to bystanders to be on the verge of suicide (18.23-35). He refuses to bathe, goes sleepless, and abstains from sex (see, e.g., 23.38-48 and 24.4-5, 128-32). Similarly, after Hector has been killed, Hecuba shrieks and tears her hair (22.405-07) and Priam filthies himself by rolling in a pile of dung (22.414; see also 24.159-65).4

Finally, memory is a vital component of eleos; indeed, the significance of memory in eleos is one of the features that most likens it to mourning. As we have seen, Andromache and Cleopatra seek to inspire eleos in their husbands by awakening a passionate memory of the grief that threatens. So Hecuba, pleading with Hector not to face Achilles in battle, appeals expressly to his memory: “Remember (mnēsai) these things, and ward off the enemy from within the walls” (22.84-85). The memory that Hecuba seeks to provoke in her son bears the same features as the mourner's memory. She asks Hector to “remember,” essentially, how he will be mourned should he die: her exposed breast suggests the vehemence of the bereaved mother's grief. Hector will be stirred to feel eleos if he bears in mind not only the way Hecuba nursed him as a baby, but how she will be unable to bury him properly if he dies at Achilles' hands (see 22.82-89). This memory is less a recollection of the past than a lively sense of the intimate and inextricable ties between them. In bidding Hector to remember “the breast that brought forgetfulness of care” (lathikēdea mazon, 22.83) Hecuba invites her son to identify with her as closely as possible. The memory that Hecuba invites does not offer intellectual perspective on the past, but an intimate rapport. This emotional identification of the son with his mother is to issue in eleos.


So far, we have seen memory as a faculty that reignites emotions in all their consuming power. The memory characteristic of the person who feels eleos for a suppliant differs, however, from the mourner's memory. The suppliant cannot hope to inspire the passionate intensity that a wife or a mother or father can. Rather, the suppliant asks the other to call that passionate intensity to mind and to reflect on it. The eleos elicited by the suppliant is a “memory of grief,” but not one in which the person feeling it is immersed in the immediate experience of loss. In supplication, the one feeling eleos necessarily remembers his griefs from a distance. The suppliant implicitly asks the victorious warrior to generalize from his own experience to another's similar experience of loss. As invoked by the suppliant, then, memory represents a disengagement from the immediate experience of sorrow. The very intensity of grief, which had blinded the mourner to anything else, becomes a powerful means of insight into another's life when it is recalled. Achilles' grief over Patroclus, and the lengths to which it had driven him, enable him to sense vividly the pain that has driven Priam to kiss the hands of his son's killer.

Engagement in the experience of grief is essential to the memory evoked by the suppliant, but so is a disengagement from that experience. It is only by being engaged in his loss and feeling it intensely that the person can know what the experience is like, but to be aware of the feeling—to compare it to other things and to be able to say what it is like—the person must stand back from the immediate throes of the experience. To understand a grief one must be close enough to feel the pain in the experience of sorrow, yet sufficiently distanced that one is not overwhelmed by it (as the mourner, for example, is). This distinctive disengagement enables the pitier to reflect on the experience and to extrapolate from his own to another's.

Achilles has, indeed, often “remembered” his father, especially in the latter half of the poem, in connection with Patroclus' death and his own misery, and such memories partly fueled his savagery in killing Hector and refusing him burial. The memory that Priam encourages, however, is different from Achilles' unaided or self-initiated memories of Peleus. Priam invites Achilles to remember Peleus while looking upon another old man—Priam himself. The memory that Priam envisions is one that sees Peleus less in the special terms of his relationship with Achilles, and more in terms of his similarities to other old men:

Remember your father, godlike Achilles,
Old as I, on the baneful threshold of old age;
Perhaps the neighbors surrounding him
Besiege him, and he has no one to ward off battle and destruction.


To remember the father, in the sense intended by Priam, requires a step back from and out of whatever limits the son's perspective on his relationship with him. Achilles, that is, is asked not simply to feel his father's grief but to use such feelings as a means of understanding the emotions that characterize the relationship between other fathers and sons as well. The objective memory to which Priam invites Achilles consists in transferring the feelings he has for Peleus to the feelings that exist between other fathers and sons. The memory Priam evokes in Achilles is deeply emotional but is described in such a way as to bring out its similarities to Priam's own grief. For after Priam has finished speaking, the two men are said to remember (mnēsamenō), each one his own sorrows:

The two of them remembering: Priam, fallen before Achilles' feet,
Keenly wept for man-slaying Hector;
Achilles wept for his father, and sometimes then


The use of the dual number in mnēsamenō binds together the different and contrary subjects of Priam's and Achilles' griefs under a single head. Patroclus and Hector were mortal enemies and no less so are the men who weep for them, but the common act of memory (mnēsamenō) brings out the deep similarity of the experience, notwithstanding the antagonism of the persons whose deaths brought it about. Indeed, the very hostility between the objects of Priam's and Achilles' grief sharpens the likeness between the mental and emotional experience of those who remember.

Remembering emerges as a reconciling force, something that exists apart from historical circumstances and the hostilities that arise in such conditions. To the extent that memory is merely a mode of access to painful events of the past, it serves to perpetuate hostilities: because of his passionate remembering of Patroclus, for example, Achilles' enmity toward the Trojans took on a deeper dye and became an implacable hatred for them. As it emerges in this scene, however, the act of memory is important in its own right, apart from the particular objects recalled. It does not serve either Achilles or Priam merely as a tool for recalling past events, but rather reflects each man's sense of the importance of those events—the toll they took on him and the sorrow they cost him. Insofar as it flows from Achilles' sense of the significance of the very experiencing of events, memory lets him feel sympathy even for those furthest removed from his affection, since the experience of death, separation, and loss is everywhere much the same. Eleos, then, as felt by Achilles for Priam, partly rests upon an appreciation of the importance of memory apart from the past emotions and experiences to which it allows access.

The memory evoked by the suppliant—based as it is on the similarity of one's own to another's experience—has a cognitive element, for by likening one's own griefs to others' experience of them, one recognizes that griefs are a necessary constituent of a mortal's life. So Achilles, in feeling pity for Priam, tells him of the jars of good and evil gifts beside Zeus's throne, which determine the shape of the person's life.

Two jars sit by Zeus's door
Of evil gifts he gives, and one of good.
The man to whom Zeus, who delights in thunder, gives a mixture,
Now happens on evil, and now on good. …
So, the god gave Peleus shining gifts
From his birth: for he surpassed all men
In happiness and wealth; he ruled the Myrmidons;
They gave to him—a mortal—a goddess for his wife.
But god gave him, too, an evil: for him,
No issue of hearty children in his halls,
But one son he sired, destined for an early death. For I do not
Tend him in his old age, but far from home
I sit in Troy, bringing griefs to you and to your sons.

(24.527-30; 534-42)

Achilles' parable of the jars serves in several ways to make the experience of grief into something intelligible. First, the subjective experience of sorrow is explained by deriving it from something wholly different—a divine process of selection and mingling. The grief felt at the loss of a son or beloved, because it is bewildering in its intensity, can be understood only by being referred to something outside itself, that is, to something unemotional. Elsewhere in the Iliad, too, the gods plan out the largest outlines of human affairs without regard to the human misery that will result. The point is not the malice or even the cruel indifference of the gods. Rather, it is a comfort to the distressed to refer the painfulness of emotions to a source having little to do with the emotion.5 The intelligibility of the explanation is a means of quelling the pain of the experience. Second, the parable of the jars places the experience of grief within a rhythmic pattern of mingled good and evil gifts. The very intelligibility of grief, conceived as part of a rhythm, counsels against an excess of emotions, for it is part of the understanding of grief (at least in the case of Peleus and Priam, and others who have received a mingling of gifts) that any sorrow is but part of a cycle of good and evil things sent by Zeus. More somberly, the understanding of grief counsels moderation because the rhythm is not to be stopped: an evil gives on to yet another evil. The continuousness of the rhythm must prevent the mourner from trying to stop time at the point of some unbearable grief. “Bear up,” Achilles concludes his address to Priam, “and do not grieve adamantly in your heart. Your grief will accomplish nothing, nor will you raise up your son before suffering another evil” (24.549-51).

More fundamentally, however, griefs become intelligible by being acknowledged as a necessary part—a constitutive element—of the person's life. In the earlier parts of the poem, Achilles had been far from such a view of his sufferings. Although aware from the very beginning of the shortness of his allotted life, Achilles had not looked upon his early death as in any deep way a frustration of his desires, which reposed, rather, in his prestige among his fellows and in his expectation that Patroclus would care for Achilles' son and father (see 19.321-37). When these desires are frustrated, Achilles' response is blind fury at those who were the causes of his pain. To speak of evils as gifts from Zeus's jars, however, is to view the ills of one's life as a part of its fabric. On this view, evils are not simply, or even primarily, pains inflicted from without by particular enemies; considered more deeply, they are woven into mortal life itself. The parable of the jars, then, clearly reflects Achilles' sense of himself as a kind of being—one who is exposed to harms by his very nature.

In generalizing or extrapolating from his experience to conjure up another's, Achilles re-forms or restructures his sense of himself. It requires only the most rudimentary sense of self to respond angrily to attacks: the warrior needs only a sense of self-love or the desire to preserve himself, and a sense of something outside and hostile to that self. Such is Achilles' sense of self in the earlier parts of the poem. Achilles possesses a confident sense of his own preeminence and when this sense is offended he responds immediately and recklessly in order to vindicate his claims to superiority.6 Achilles' ultimate ability to appreciate the similarity of another's experience to his own, however, reflects a more complex self. In appreciating his resemblance to another, Achilles no longer confines his reactions to the immediate stimulus but can see in another's distress the kind of danger to which he is in general, or as a kind of being, exposed. In this new awareness, Achilles attains a more complex appreciation of the other person, as well, for he understands Priam in his own right, apart from the pain Priam's son has inflicted on him. Achilles finds in the old man a compelling image of the mortal lot, which he now understands to be his lot.

Eleos, as Achilles feels it for the suppliant Priam, is complex. It is deeply connected with elemental emotions and, in particular, is inseparable from the pitier's feelings about his own death. Yet Achilles' eleos gives such feelings a memory and an expectancy. It reflects an awareness of himself as a kind of being with much to fear and an appreciation that his own experiences of fear, grief, and hope resemble the experiences of others. As an emotion thoroughly imbued with elemental feelings, eleos is scarcely altruistic but it does represent a sublimation of the immediate throes of grief. When he feels it for a stranger, Achilles is able to re-experience his own sorrows in a more distanced way through another's experience.

Because memory can be objectified, eleos can be something other than the primal feeling Schadewaldt described. The eleos Achilles feels for Priam, which grows from the very passions he had previously felt in an unreflecting and emotional way, comes to constitute an insight into his grief and an understanding of it. The Iliad tells the story, in other words, of a hero's attainment of perspective on himself and appreciation of himself as a kind of being—the very ground, according to Pohlenz, from which eleos grows and which it presupposes. Eleos finally takes on an ethical significance in the Iliad, in the sense that it contributes to and reflects Achilles' vision of himself as a being like others. The eleos that Achilles feels toward Priam comes close to our notion of pity. The Iliad dramatizes the emergence of pity (a reflective sense of sorrow and its role in human life) from fear, understood broadly as an unreflecting and passionate response to one's own vulnerability.

Thus, Achilles' advice to Priam “to let the griefs in [his] heart rest” is fundamentally different in tone and spirit from Odysseus' advice to Achilles in Book 19, notwithstanding the surface similarity of the two passages. Odysseus had urged on Achilles the impossibility of perpetual mourning and begged him to eat. Achilles does the same with Priam, but where Odysseus had urged Achilles to eschew pity and so give up grief (cf. nēlea thumon ekhontas, 19.229) Achilles urges Priam to do so precisely from a sense of pity. Odysseus had wanted Achilles to participate in a meal as a sign that he joined once again whole-heartedly with the Achaeans—sharing their values, their enemies, and their friends. The meal and, by extension, the friendship to which Achilles invites Priam is of a markedly different kind, for it is clear that Achilles and Priam remain enemies and their mutual hostility lurks just below the surface. Achilles even threatens to kill Priam when the old man tries to refuse Achilles' invitation to eat (see 24.552-70). Later on, in hoisting Hector's body onto Priam's cart, Achilles' attendants take care to keep the body out of the old king's sight, for fear he cry out and stir Achilles to violence (24.582-86). The bitter hatred between the two men thus underlies their whole encounter.

It would be a mistake, therefore, to see Achilles' hatred for Priam as a vestige of his savagery that persists once he has returned to a more “humane” self. The eleos he feels for Priam does not spring from kindliness, nor does it evince the friendly-mindedness that Odysseus had urged on him. Rather, his eleos reflects Achilles' tragic sense of himself as the kind of a being that is exposed to evils and it does not at all entail forgiveness of the person who has inflicted the evils. The pity Achilles feels is instilled with the sense of bereavement that made him savage: his eleos is not a forswearing of the feelings roused by bereavement so much as an understanding of them.


In the parable of the jars, Achilles obviously sees himself as like Priam—a being whose life comprises goods and evils. Yet, perhaps more remarkably, he also sees himself as resembling his father Peleus, and Achilles' orientation toward Peleus in the parable of the jars is subtly but significantly different from what it has been. For in earlier parts of the poem, Peleus was little more than a function of Achilles' grief for himself—as such, tenderly remembered, but not finally distinguishable from Achilles. So Achilles had conjured up his father most vividly as mourning for none other than Achilles himself. Even in yearning for Peleus, Achilles bolstered his sense of being uniquely and preeminently important.

As remembered by Achilles at Priam's behest, however, Peleus is a being separate from Achilles, with his own life history of joys and sorrows (see 24.534-42). While Achilles still understands his absence as one of Peleus' great sorrows, this sorrow is now seen primarily as an evil gift sent from Zeus. Peleus is no longer merely a reflex of Achilles' immediate emotional state. As now remembered or imagined, he is comparable to Achilles, to be sure, but ultimately a distinct person with a distinct history. The father is now clearly demarcated from the son, and the two are understood as subject alike to the same laws and experiencing the same pattern of Zeus-sent joys and sorrows.7

From this new perspective, Achilles is finally able to act in regard to Peleus. Up until now, however much Achilles might mourn his father's lonely old age, there was nothing he could, or would, do to comfort it. Action was impossible, since the father's commands that the son obey the dictates of shame conflicted with his implicit appeals to the son's pity: the father at once commanded the son to stay on the battlefield and pleaded with him to return home. Priam's supplication at last affords Achilles the opportunity to act in accord with shame and pity alike: indeed, this is precisely what Priam asks Achilles to do (see 24.503).

In returning Hector's body to Priam, Achilles at last finds a means of expressing his relationship to his own father. As the spectacle of Priam begging for the return of his son makes clear, the son, in the world of the Iliad, is restored to the father only in death. The sight of the shattered relation between Priam and Hector sets Achilles' relationship to his own father in a broader context of generations severed and the peaceful continuity of life from father to son violently interrupted. The final scene of the Iliad implicitly corrects Glaucus' assertion that the generations rise and fall with a leaflike regularity (see 6.145-49). The rhythmic pulse of the generations' growth and decay, as described by Glaucus, conveyed the inevitability of the mortal's death but missed the impassioned grief that the warrior's fall inflicts on those who love him.

The spectacle of the old father gathering the son's remains captures precisely this sense of the ardor of intimate relations and the grief aroused by the passage from generation to generation. It expresses the inherent and irresolvable conflict in the son's relationship to the father—a relationship in which the son's pity prompts him to return to his father, while his shame demands that he not. The restoration of Hector's corpse to Priam, then, conveys Achilles' feelings about the unbridgeable distance between himself and his own father. Achilles' understanding of his experience does not, however, make of him an essentially private character, whose existence in a traditional poem such as the Iliad would be implausible. Achilles' attainment of understanding finds expression, above all, in an emotion felt for another—pity—and action undertaken on the prompting of the emotion. Achilles' self-understanding is, at bottom, really his sense of his resemblance to others.

Indeed, Achilles' progress in the Iliad could be described as a movement from the private to the public. Only in the last book does Achilles whole-heartedly accept the gifts that are offered to him, no longer considering them inadequate (as he did in Book 9) or of no importance (as in Book 19). Not until the poem's conclusion, therefore, does Achilles become a willing participant in the system of gifts and exchange that are the public currency of his society. Furthermore, Achilles' self-understanding reflects his emergence from a state of intensely passionate feelings. Such feelings are necessarily private, because they cannot be shared by others, nor can they be adequately expressed in all their intensity, as Achilles learns from his frustrated attempts to abuse Hector's body.8 It is only in responding to Priam's supplication and so achieving a new understanding of his own experience, that Achilles attains to that balanced sense of the perennial sadness of life that captures both his own and Priam's experience. His meal with the old king and his restoring of Hector's body grow from his sense of himself as a creature largely constituted by sorrows.

In short, having exiled himself from a society and public life whose compromises were finally too constraining, Achilles ultimately emerges into a new public sense of himself and discovers words and gestures—essentially, those of supplication9—adequate to this sense. He cannot, however, return to a contented life as a soldier under Agamemnon's command. Achilles remains inescapably alienated from the warrior society and its demands that offenses be overlooked or that sorrow for the loss of one's dearest should be pragmatically placed aside. Rather, his attainment of self-understanding seeks expression in forming a friendship or philotēs with Priam—again, the first time in the poem that Achilles actively seeks out such a relationship. The friendship Achilles inaugurates with Priam suggests that mortals are not simply confined to recognizing passively the indifference of the world. They can come to understand it and can find ways of responding and of expressing their response. The friendship to which Achilles invites Priam is just such an expressive vehicle.

This philotēs or fellowship is of a distinctive kind, for it is based on a Achilles' sense of himself as a kind of being. In offering him food, Achilles tells Priam the story of Niobe, who lost all her children and, in her distress, mourned and fasted for nine days. Then she ate and afterward was transformed from a woman immersed in passionate mourning for her slain children to a rocky cliff—a part of the landscape—that “ruminates upon the griefs sent by the gods” (theōn ek kēdea pessei, 24.617). Niobe's mourning for the loss of her children passes from the hectic grief that rejects everything into something more perennial and less passionate. The sadness of the transformed Niobe, like the sadness of the one who has achieved an understanding of his griefs, is a kind of settled awareness.10 Niobe's metamorphosis provides a useful image of what happens in Book 24. For Achilles does not “give up” his grief, as Odysseus had urged; rather, by seeing the similarity between his own and another's experience, he transforms it into something less spectacular than his passionate laments, but deeper and wiser. His pity is a metamorphosis of his savagery.

The meal affords Achilles a means of expressing this transformed sense of grief. Throughout the society Homer describes, the meal is a token of fellowship,11 but Achilles invents or discovers in it a more profound meaning, expressing the resemblance of the person who feels eleos to the one who elicits it. The meal, which elsewhere serves to honor the banqueters and to single out those most worthy of reward, here conveys their similarity as the kind of beings whose lives are distinguished by suffering. Unlike the Achaean warrior society, the philotēs of Achilles and Priam is not founded on a common project or on cooperative effort, nor does it involve the partners' having common friends and common enemies. It is based on pity, not on shame, and enables its participants only the better to understand what each has experienced.

The friendship that issues from Priam's supplication of Achilles in the final book of the Iliad climaxes a series of supplications by Priam's sons, in which the suppliant uses the rhetoric of philotēs in hopes of winning over the other.12 Thus Priam's son Lycaon pleads with Achilles to remember the philotēs they shared as joint participants in a common banquet (21.64-135). While Achilles rejects Lycaon's supplication, it is significant that he does not turn a deaf ear to it. He in fact accepts Lycaon's claim and calls him “friend” (21.106). Achilles, however, draws a conclusion from the tie of “friendship” different from what Lycaon had sought. Lycaon had hoped to avoid death, but the only basis on which Achilles is willing to recognize a friendship with this man is that the two of them—the preeminent warrior Achilles and the hapless and cowardly Lycaon—must alike die:

Now, friend, you shall die too. Why weep so?
Patroclus died, who was far better than you.
Do you see the kind of man I am—how beautiful and large?
I come from a good father; my mother is a goddess:
Yet, even so, death and mighty fate hang over me.


Lycaon looks for friendship in hopes of escaping the destiny common to all. To grant what he asks would be, for Achilles, to belie the only basis on which any conceivable friendship with him could exist. The philotēs Achilles articulates in response to Lycaon's plea looks forward to the kind of friendship he shares later with Priam. Both are based on what Walter Burkert has called the “community of death,” in which each one expresses for the other the constitutive role of evils and mortality in his life.13

Hector, too, had briefly imagined commencing a friendship with Achilles by supplicating him. Having rejected his parents' frantic pleas that he return to safety inside the city walls, Hector momentarily entertains the desperate thought of throwing himself on Achilles' mercy (see 22.111-30). By rendering himself completely helpless and hence womanlike, Hector seems to hope for the kind of intimacy shared by “a maiden and a youth.”

But what if I should throw down my knobbed shield,
And mighty helmet, lay my spear against the wall,
And go up to blameless Achilles, face to face,
And promise him Helen and wealth besides—
All that Paris brought in hollow ships
To Troy—since she was the cause of the war:
Give all these back to the Atreids, and among the Achaeans
To distribute all that the city holds inside …
But why does my spirit say such things!
I mustn't approach him; he would not pity me
Nor feel shame, but kill me, in my defenseless state,
As though I were a woman, once I took my armor off.
He was born from oak or rock: there is no way
To speak fondly with him, as a maiden and youth,
A maiden and youth speak fondly—the two of them together.

(22.111-18, 122-28)

Hector entertains the possibility of deliberately making himself helpless by giving up progressively more lavish ransom: his armor, Helen, his own property, the wealth of Troy. This munificence suggests, at least, that Hector wants Achilles to give him an end to war, but Hector's supplication is notable for its lack of a clear purpose. It is significant that he never articulates precisely what he hopes to accomplish by all his renunciation. Rather, Hector seems to have a vague wish to make Achilles all-powerful by becoming powerless himself: if Achilles were entirely in command of goods and evils, perhaps he would give Hector everything he most deeply wishes.

Hector paradoxically imagines using his power as the most important warrior among the Trojans in order to make himself like a woman to Achilles. So, for example, he rejects the idea of supplication, since Achilles would remain unmoved and kill Hector as though he were a defenseless woman (22.124-25). More strikingly, what Hector hopes is to have the same kind of intimate conversation with Achilles as “a maiden and youth” share (22.127-28). Hector lingers on the picture of their conversation, repeating, almost as if in a ballad, “the maiden and youth, the maiden and youth.” His use of the dual number to describe their conversation (oarizeton, 128) underscores the intimacy of their talk as a couple.

Hector's inner soliloquy catches the ambiguity of feminine helplessness in the Iliad. Women are powerless before the onslaughts of war, but their very powerlessness seems to open the possibility of an intimacy with the warrior that other males, themselves engaged in securing prestige and renown among their fellows, cannot enjoy. The woman does not offer the warrior competition. More fundamentally, however, she becomes a part of the warrior's tragic conception of himself, his point of vulnerability. So, as we have seen, Hector agonizes at the thought of losing Andromache, and Meleager is stirred to reenter the wars by Cleopatra's anguished description of the horrors threatening them. Hector's talk with Andromache in Book 6 and Meleager's with Cleopatra in Book 9 represent just the kind of intimate conversation that Hector here seems to imagine between himself and Achilles.

The intimacy Hector hopes for is impossible, but it resembles the intimacy that Priam and Achilles ultimately share. As we have seen, a suppliant seeks to arouse in the victor's mind vivid memories of those dearest to him, and to direct the emotional charge of such memories back to the supplication. As the contrast between Hector's imagined supplication and that of Priam makes clear, however, the relationship between the victor and the suppliant is not itself an intimate relationship, but arises from the joint memory of other such ties and from the common experience of their painful severance. The philotēs between Achilles and Priam does not possess the immediacy that characterizes the relationship between a warrior and those he most loves. It is not itself an intimate relationship but, rather, is based on the memory of such relations. Indeed, it is precisely through their philotēs that Achilles and Priam each transforms the passionate memory of his deepest ties into a more seasoned or objective awareness of their importance and their tragic destiny.

Hector's imagined supplication suggests the powerful emotions attaching to the warrior's intimate loves that provide, so to speak, the raw material for Priam's and Achilles' philotēs. Yet in seeking the kind of fond conversation enjoyed by maidens and youths—the immediacy and continuity of the warrior's deepest emotional ties—Hector madly hopes for more than supplication can possibly give. Unlike the intimacy Hector briefly imagines, the philotēs between victor and suppliant, resting as it does on pity and the understanding of grief, has little or no practical use. There is no benefit (prēxis, 24.524) to be had from “chilly laments,” says Achilles, nor can there be much use or benefit, he might have added, from the friendship that replaces passionate grief. Because of pity, it is true, Priam obtains the body of his son; yet this climactic supplication seems to suggest, by the very modesty of what is asked for and obtained, the essential uselessness of pity and of the understanding on which pity rests. In his imagined supplication, Hector had hoped to achieve impossible goods through impossible means—to use exchange magically, so to speak, to obtain everything he most deeply wished simply by disgorging extravagant wealth. In the final book, however, Priam's request for the dead body of his son contrasts with all the things one might want—an end to war, the chance to live in peace with one's family and loved ones—but which pity cannot give.

The essential uselessness of this friendship for anything other than the joint contemplation of human destiny likens it to the friendship between the Achaeans and Chryses that concludes the story of Chryses' fateful supplication in the first book of the Iliad. After Apollo has sent the plague on the Achaean army and Agamemnon has relented, an embassy of Achaeans travels to Chryses to return his daughter. There Chryses and the Achaeans sacrifice a hecatomb to Apollo, and after Chryses asks that Apollo “ward off destruction from the Achaeans” (1.456), the priest and the Achaeans join in a common banquet (1.457-68). The meal concludes with paeans sung by the Achaean youths in honor of Apollo, which the god delights to hear (1.472-74).

The friendship between Chryses and the Achaeans that finds expression in the meal they share is different from that existing among the Achaeans within the warrior society. For this reconciliatory friendship and the meal inaugurating it take place under the sign of the gods' power over men. Agamemnon had thought to exercise his prerogatives as king and as victor in refusing the old priest's request for the return of his daughter. The sequel, however, has shown only too powerfully the limits confining the victor's prerogatives and the relative nature of any mortal's victory. In place of a hierarchy distinguishing victor and loser, we find in the meal shared by Chryses and the Achaeans a hierarchy distinguishing mortals, on the one hand, from the gods who easily undo the pretensions of the victorious, on the other. The fellowship of the table that Chryses and the Achaeans share is a fellowship based on the common mortal subjection to the gods.

Such too is the friendship between Achilles and Priam. The meal they share, following the example of Niobe, is a recognition of the place of evils in men's lives. It expresses their understanding that sorrows are “gifts” allotted by Zeus from the jars beside his throne, and that they are part of the very fabric of mortal existence. The climactic philotēs between Achilles and Priam that resolves the action of the entire poem, therefore, is implicit and inchoate in the Iliad's opening sequence, which describes Agamemnon's refusal of Chryses' supplication and the ultimate reconciliation between the Achaeans and the priest of Apollo. The opening sequence contains the motifs of the father's supplication for the return of his child, as well as the distinctive friendship that ultimately arises between the suppliant and the victor—a friendship arising from each one's recognition of the circumscribed nature of the distinctions dividing them. The climactic scene, which alludes to and resolves the action in the rest of the poem, returns to the opening motifs of the father's supplication and the philotēs between suppliant and supplicated, but now with incomparably greater emotional effect.

The coincidence of the beginning and the conclusion of the Iliad points not to a formal symmetry governing the design of the poem but, rather, to a powerful concentration of subject matter. The Iliad could be read as a meditation on the ceremony of supplication: in it, the connections between supplication and the values governing the society and the lives of its characters—their shame, their capacity for eleos, their penchant for memory—are explored and the significance of supplication concomitantly deepened. Supplication emerges as at once a ceremony expressing the predominant values of the warrior society and as a critique of those values. Ultimately, it makes possible what in the Iliadic world is the only possible resolution of the wrath (mēnis) which is the announced subject of the poem. The poem's opening and the close—not to mention the supplication scenes that recur at the major junctures in the Iliad's story—suggest that the notable concentration of the narrative, notwithstanding the monumental size of the poem, derives from its being an evocation, from start to finish, of a single ceremony. …


  1. I do not make any claim concerning the relative date of the poems, or suggest that Iliad 24 contains allusions to our Odyssey or that it was composed after the Odyssey. It seems likelier that the similarities between the two poems spring from a shared tradition. The “mirroring” of the two scenes may be a function of the complementarity of the two poems: the Iliad, as the story of the hero who does not return home, and the Odyssey, as the story of the hero who does. On the parallels between Iliad 24 and the Odyssey, see Nicholas Richardson, The “Iliad”: A Commentary, Vol. VI: Books 21-24 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 21-24. On the Iliad and Odyssey as “parallel products of parallel evolution,” see Nagy, Best of the Achaeans, pp. 26-41. See also the “Conclusion” below.

  2. Richard P. Martin, The Language of Heroes: Speech and Performance in theIliad” (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), p. 80. On memory as “mindfulness,” see Jean-Pierre Vernant, “Aspects mythique de la mémoire,” in Mythe et pensée chez les Grecs (Paris: Maspéro, 1965); and Ford, Homer: The Poetry of the Past, pp. 53-54.

  3. See, e.g., 4.222, 8.252, 14.441, and 15.380; 6.112, 8.174, 11.287, 16.270, and 17.185; cf. 13.721-2. See Martin, Language of Heroes, pp. 77-88.

  4. Compare the remarks of John Peradotto, Man in the Middle Voice: Name and Narration in theOdyssey” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), p. 134, who stresses the experience of emotion as enveloping the subject: “Our way of understanding or at least of expressing emotion—as something emanating from a subject toward an object, like a missile thrown by someone at someone else, or as something exchanged between two parties—is essentially itself highly metaphoric, and may blind us to a way of experiencing and expressing the emotion that concentrates on the activity as a kind of envelope embracing those involved with little apparent interest in distinguishing what we would call ‘agent’ and ‘patient.’” Peradotto's metaphor of emotion as “enveloping” the person captures the way the Iliadic mourners seem to experience their grief.

  5. On the “gifts of the gods” as a motif in archaic Greek poetry, see W. G. Thalmann, Conventions of Form and Thought in Early Greek Epic Poetry (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), chap. 3, especially pp. 84-85.

  6. It is this quality of immediate response to external stimuli that Fränkel sees as generally characteristic of Homeric man. See Fränkel, Early Greek Poetry, pp. 77-79.

  7. Achilles himself takes on a Peleus-like role in the latter part of the poem. Thus, his grief for Patroclus is expressly compared to the grief a father feels for his son's death (23.222-25). Furthermore, when Priam appears suddenly in Achilles' tent, the amazement (thambos) felt by the onlookers is compared to that felt when a homicide arrives seeking the protection of the wealthy host (24.480-83). The simile implicitly likens Achilles to Peleus, who received Patroclus as a suppliant and extended protection to him. (See 23.84-90; cf. 9.444-84; 16.570-76.) See Robin R. Schlunk, “The Theme of the Suppliant-Exile in the Iliad,American Journal of Philology 97 (1976): 199-209.

  8. In a well-known study, Adam Parry argued that Achilles' great speech to the embassy in Book 9 reveals a language inadequate to the expression of his passionate anger. See Adam Parry, “The Language of Achilles,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 87 (1956): 1-7. I do not agree with Parry that Achilles' language in Book 9 is incoherent, or that the Dichtersprache cannot express sentiments at odds with the code of the warrior society. See David B. Claus, “Aidōs in the Language of Achilles,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 105 (1975): 13-28. Nonetheless, Parry's argument is suggestive for Achilles' inability to discharge or fully express his grief for Patroclus, either by word or deed, before Priam's supplication.

  9. On the significance of supplication in this final scene, see Chapter 5.

  10. On the expressiveness and “legibility” of landscapes, see Ford, Homer: The Poetry of the Past, pp. 141-42. Ford's observations seem especially relevant to Niobe.

  11. On the dais and its significance for communal life, see M. I. Finley, The World of Odysseus (New York: Viking Press, 1977), pp. 123-26; Nagy, Best of the Achaeans, pp. 127-28; Suzanne Saïd, “Les crimes des pretendants, la maison d'Ulysse, et les festins de l'Odyssée,” in Etudes de littérature ancienne (Paris: Presses de l'Ecole Normale Supérieure, 1979), pp. 14-21; Griffin, Homer on Life and Death, pp. 14-16; and A. L. Motto and J. R. Clark, “Isē Dais: The Honor of Achilles,” Arethusa 2 (1969):109-25.

  12. See 20.463-72 (supplication by Trōs); 21.64-135 (supplication by Lycaon); and 22.111-28 (Hector's imaginary supplication of Achilles).

  13. See Burkert, “Mitleidsbegriff,” p. 97.


Burkert, Walter. “Zum Altgriechischen Mitleidsbegriff.” Inaugural diss., Friedrich-Alexander-Universität, Erlangen, 1955.

Claus, David B. “Aidōs in the Language of Achilles.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 105 (1975): 13-28.

Finley, M. I. The World of Odysseus. Rev. ed. New York: Viking Press, 1977.

Ford, Andrew. Homer: The Poetry of the Past. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992.

Fränkel, Hermann. Early Greek Poetry and Philosophy. Translated by Moses Hadas and James Willis. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.

Griffin, Jasper. Homer on Life and Death. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.

Martin, Richard P. The Language of Heroes: Speech and Performance in the “Iliad.” Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989.

Motto, A. L., and J. R. Clark. “Isē Dais: The Honor of Achilles.” Arethusa 2 (1969): 109-25.

Nagy, Gregory. The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.

Parry, Adam. “The Language of Achilles.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 87 (1956): 1-7. Reprinted in The Language and Background of Homer, edited by G. S. Kirk. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964.

Peradotto, John. Man in the Middle Voice: Name and Narration in the “Odyssey.” Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Richardson, Nicholas. The “Iliad”: A Commentary. Volume VI: Books 21-24. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Saïd, Suzanne. “Les crimes des pretendants, la maison d'Ulysse et les festins de l'Odyssée.” In Etudes de littérature ancienne, 9-49. Paris: Presses de l'Ecole Normale Supérieure, 1979.

Schadewaldt, Wolfgang. “Furcht und Mitleid?” Hermes 83 (1955): 129-71.

Schlunk, Robin R. “The Theme of the Suppliant-Exile in the Iliad.American Journal of Philology 97 (1976): 199-209.

Thalmann, W. G. Conventions of Form and Thought in Early Greek Epic Poetry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.

Michael Clarke (essay date summer 1995)

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SOURCE: Clarke, Michael. “Between Lions and Men: Images of the Hero in the Iliad,Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 36, no. 2 (summer 1995): 137-59.

[In the following essay, Clarke follows the implications of Homer's beast similes in the Iliad, highlighting their contribution to the poem's theme of extreme heroism that culminates in self-destruction.]

If the beast-similes of the Iliad appear easy to understand, this is because they correspond formally to one of the simplest types of comparison found in poetry of the modern European tradition. As a rule our own culture encourages us only to contrast the human world with that of animals, so that an image drawing them together seems trivial: we know we are dealing in tropes when Shakespeare calls the Black Prince a “lion's whelp” or when Byron says that “the Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold.”1 As such things are not taken as expressions of deep ideas, the habit of analogy makes it easy to assume that the beast-similes of the Iliad are likewise an external ornament rather than a serious part of Homer's evocation of the heroic age. In the past this prejudice led even to the strange belief that they are designed to relieve the monotony of repeated battles;2 and although more recent years have seen many fruitful studies of the similes' rôle in amplifying the narrative,3 there is room for further inquiry into their deeper meaning in relation to the central themes of the epic.4 My aim here is to work from a single example to suggest that the symbolism of aggressive wild animals is much more than a matter of style, and that they play a major part in Homer's portrayal of the ethical and psychological problems of heroism. The argument will mostly concern lions, the subject of the most prominent similes in the group, but it will also draw on similes of leopards, wolves, and boars. Although these latter species—especially wolves—have different associations in other areas of Greek lore, in the similes they are portrayed in such similar ways that it makes sense to take them together with lions as a group with a single poetic rôle.5


In past generations of scholarship much effort was spent on trying to understand similes by isolating the precise point of comparison (Vergleichspunkt, tertium comparationis) at the centre of each.6 Still very useful is G. P. Shipp's classification (supra n.2) into three types of simile: simple or undeveloped images, those that are an extended parallel to the scene in the narrative, and those that that are extended independently or in contrast to it. As different beast-similes can easily be found that belong to all three types, however, it will be better to begin by treating every simile alike as an organic growth that can develop in varying directions from a more basic association of ideas.7 Whether the simile is a long and detailed scene or a single glancing comparison such as λἐων ὥs, the primary subject of this study should not be the mechanics of the comparison but the symbolic or aesthetic consonance that causes this particular image to be drawn in at this moment in the path of the story.

From this angle we can begin by assigning beast-similes to one of two distinct varieties of Homeric simile-making. At one extreme lie similes that emerge from their contexts in unique and unexpected ways, setting the scene of the narrative in sharp relief: as when a warrior jumping between the prows of ships is compared to an acrobat leaping from horse to horse (15.679-86), or blood dripping from a wound is compared to purple dye when a woman stains a piece of ivory (4.141-47), or a god demolishes a stockade like a child knocking down a sandcastle (15.361-66). The effect—what we might call the virtuosity—lies in the slenderness of the link between the simile image and the thing to which it is compared, which deepens the contrast between the world of the narrative and that of familiar or non-heroic life.8 Quite different, and requiring a different kind of reading, are groups of similes that repeat similar images under different forms, ringing the changes on a single abiding association of ideas. The effect is most obvious when a long stretch of the narrative is punctuated by a succession of thematically linked similes: here, as C. Moulton has shown,9 the cumulative effect can be to draw together the depictions in narrative and similes in a way that transcends the formal points of comparison in their individual images.10 When we move to a broader level of analysis, it is worth asking whether a still deeper and more traditional association of ideas may be expressed when a system of kindred similes is scattered across the entire epic. On this level what we face is not simply an example of Homer's art but part of the overall view of man and the world that informs his storytelling. On the strengh of their numbers alone, the beast-similes make an excellent candidate for such a system: so many are they, and so varied in the links that they forge, that their combined effect may be not only to amplify the narrative but even to assimilate aspects of the appearance and personality of the warrior to those of the animal.11

Let me cite one example to illustrate the implications of this distinction between an isolated simile and one that belongs in a system. Three times during the battle over the dead Patroclus an Achaean warrior is compared to an animal: first Menelaus stands over him like a cow protecting her calf (17.3-6), later the same hero is like a lion standing over a cow that it has killed (17.61-69), and again Ajax defends the corpse like a lioness guarding her cubs (17.132-37). The first is one of those that work by deft comparison and overall contrast: there is an exact parallel between the two examples of protection of the powerless by the strong, but Menelaus is diametrically different from a cow in every other way. In the latter two examples, however, the potential for meaning runs far deeper, because the image of the lion can resonate with countless other beast-similes articulated in other contexts. It may be helpful to express the contrast in the vocabulary that has been applied in Silk's study of associative imagery.12 Silk distinguishes the image in the narrative (the tenor) from the extraneous image in the simile (the vehicle), relating both to the neutral ground of shared meaning uniting them. When Homer strikingly and unexpectedly compares Menelaus to a cow, the neutral ground is narrowed down to the ideas of helplessness and protection, and the effect is perhaps nothing more than a startling moment of vivid focalisation; but every time the image of a lion is deployed, the neutral ground is not merely the ostensible point of comparison but the full range of potential points of contact between the images of beast and warrior. In effect, the context from which the simile takes its meaning is not only its immediate environment in the poem, but the whole field of association between lions and men throughout the Iliad—or, indeed, in the wider tradition of martial epic that lies behind it.

By the same token, such a simile must be read in a different way from one appearing in a story where the themes of the battlefield do not belong—as in the Odyssey, for example, when Odysseus is startingly compared to a hungry lion when he emerges naked to confront Nausicaa (Od. [Odyssey] 6.130-36). There the juxtaposition of man and beast seems to have a dislocating or even comic effect.13 In the Iliad, on the contrary, as different realisations of the same comparison can be seen as assimilated into a single system, they can be taken together as expressing a fundamental correspondence between the identities of warriors and beasts. This means that we should ask not only how they arise from the narrative but also how they reflect back upon it and deepen its significance in ways that cannot be done in the plainer language of straightforward description. Our approach, then, will be to regard these similes not as isolated creations but as instances of a single item, or group of items, in Homer's symbolic repertoire.

Before going any further, however, it must be said that there is a danger in treating a set of related images as a co-ordinated whole. To take a famous example, Whitman14 showed that throughout the Iliad war and the warrior are associated with fire on many different levels of figured language and narrative, of which similes are only the most explicit. Warriors struggle like blazing fire, δἐμαs πυρὸs αἰθομἐνοιο (11.596=13.673=18.1; similarly 17.366); a hero in full career is compared to a forest fire (11.155-59); Hector surges into the fray like a flame, φλογὶ εἴκελοs ‘Ηφαίστοιο (17.88); a tongue of flame rises from Achilles' head when he stands on the trench defying the Trojans (18.205-14); it is a sign of dangerous fury when eyes or even armour flash like fire (e.g. 1.104, 19.16f)); and in an extended simile describing Hector in battle, raging fire and the presence of Ares are still more closely linked (15.605-08):

μαίνετο δ' ὡs ὅτ' '′Αρηs ἐγχησπαλοs e ὀλοὸν πυ̑ρ
οὔρεσι μαίνηται, βαθἐηs ἐν τάρφεσιν ὕληs,
ἀφλοισμὸs δὲ περὶ στόμα γίγνετο, τo δἐ οἱ ὄσσε
λαμπἐσθην βλοσυρη̑ισιν ὑπ' ὀφρύσιν. …(15)

Clearly it makes good sense to stress the single association of ideas that underlies these scattered examples, and to use it as part of an analysis of what both war and fire mean in the poetic landscape;16 but at the same time the analysis can become vague or whimsical if it is pushed too far.17 It is not hard to find images relating to fire that do not seem to partake of this connexion at all—as, for example, when Rumour personified is said to “burn” ('′Οσσα δεδήει, 2.93);18 and by the same token it is not guaranteed that all the warlike associations of fire must be present in the same way every time that the two are associated explicitly.

In short, there is no universal meaning in the symbol, no simple equation between Homeric war and Homeric fire, and we would go astray if we read one or other mention of fire in the light of other passages with which it has no real link. Nonetheless it remains clear that some symbolic unity does underlie the first set of passages we cited, and that we can gain a real insight into this unity by comparing its scattered manifestations. The lesson is that what we have seen is not part of a fixed vocabulary of signs with accepted and unambiguous values: instead, it is a potential association whose every manifestation makes sense only on its own terms, by suggestion and not by statement. The symbol cannot be defined in straightforward terms, and in our own analysis a meaning that is discernible in one passage must not be forced willy-nilly onto others: so that in the present discussion the cumulative effect of the system of beast-similes must be balanced against the organic independence of every member of it. This means that the best way to proceed will be to pinpoint our investigation on a single simile by trying to evoke its full depth of meaning in the light of others in the system. After doing this we will finally be able to explore how the symbolism deployed in that simile plays a vital part in Homer's portrayal of a single character, namely Achilles.


The simile on which we will rest our argument is one that Achilles himself expresses at a high point in the episode of his final duel with Hector. The narrative has hitherto been especially rich in similes of birds and beasts, crystallising images both of Achilles' glamour and his lust for vengeance, but at this point it is not in the narrative proper but in the hero's words that the beasts appear. Hector, turning at least to face his foe, has asked for an agreement that the victor in the combat will give back the body of the slain to his family for burial. Such an arrangement is elsewhere (7.76-91) treated as customary before single combat, but Achilles now refuses (22.261-66):

‘′Εκτορ, μή μοι, ἄλαστε, συνημοσύναs ἀγόρευε·
ὡs οὐκ ἔστι λἐουσι καὶ ἄνδράσιν ὅρκια πιστά,
οὐδὲ λύκοι τε καὶ ἄρνεs ὁμόφρονα θυμὸν ἔχουσιν,
ἀλλὰ κακὰ φρονἐουσι διαμπερὲs ἀλλήλοισιν,
ὡs οὐκ ἔστ' ἐμὲ καί σε φιλήμεναι, οὐδἐ τι νω̑ϊν
ὅρκια ἔσσονται. …(19)

Achilles equates his implacable hostility towards Hector with two paradigms of enmity that immediately recall beast-similes of the kind seen throughout the Iliad. Here in the hero's high rhetoric the parallel is extended almost to the level of a parable, and its emphatic and negative structure is peculiar: where a similar comparison in the narrative might serve only to juxtapose the images of beasts and humans with each other, here Achilles pushes the association to mark out three examples of the absurd or the impossible. The anaphora with ὥs suggests that the beasts' antagonism is being brought into especially close parallel with his and Hector's situation, with an exact correspondence between the three pairs of opponents: lions and men, wolves and sheep, Achilles and Hector. This encourages us to read the simile with the view that the lion and the wolf correspond to Achilles and the man and the sheep to Hector.20 Crucially, this means that the point of comparison is pinned on psychology and social mores as well as action: wolves and lions do not feel affection or make contracts in the way that normal people do, and this is the relationship in which Achilles stands to the man at this feet.

The speech can be compared with others where a warrior cuts short an idle conversation before a fight and uses a simile to express his impatience. In the heat of battle Meriones wants to borrow a spear from Idomeneus, and when the two start to brag Idomeneus breaks off impatiently, “Let us no longer stand around talking like fools” (νηπύτιοι ὥs, 13.292); similarly, during Aeneas' aristeia he and Achilles boast of their ancestry and prowess, and Aeneas ends in the same way, “Let us not ramble on like fools” (again νηπύτιοι, 20.244), comparing their exchange to an idle women's squabble (20.251-55) and urging that the fight begin; and Hector addresses Achilles in the same vein as they boast before their first abortive duel (20.431-37). But Achilles' image of beasts and men cuts deeper than any of these others. If he had said only (for example) that Hector was as terrified of him as a hind would be of a lion, then the implications of the simile would be less striking: the contrast between predator and prey is a standard one in speeches, where a warrior compares those he fights, or those he sees, to brave or cowardly beasts (e.g. 11.383, 13.101-06, 17.20-23). In Achilles' case, however, the refusal is made in terms of his own personality rather than the fixed codes of warrior society. His words do not merely characterize the immediate situation or the addressee: instead, they present the speaker in a startlingly new aspect.

As such the simile is peculiarly characteristic of Achilles, who of all characters in the Iliad is the one who deploys language in the most figured and creative way. He is the speaker par excellence as well as the greatest fighter (μύθων τε ῥητη̑ρα … πρηκτη̑ρά τε ἔργων, 9.443). Here, extending a traditional image to reveal something about his own personality and his attitude to human relationships, he is using rhetoric in his characteristic fashion, making heightened language the servant of heightened self-awareness and self-exposition.21 As a rule other characters do not use similes about their own feelings, but Achilles does so repeatedly. In his great speech of self-pity to the Embassy, Achilles likens himself fighting and suffering for Agamemnon to a mother bird suffering in the search for titbits for her chicks (9.323-27; see Moulton 100f). As he joins in his mother's lament over his own approaching death, he cries out equally vividly against strife and against the bitter rage (χόλοs) that “rises up in the breasts of men like smoke, sweeter than dripping honey” (18.107-11). Fighting Scamander he fears that he will be killed not by Hector—a death worthy of himself—nor by Paris, as his mother had foretold, but drowned like a wretched swineherd swept away by a river in spate (21.273-83). If the beast-simile belongs with this introspective group, we have added reason to expect that it may be markedly significant as an indication of Achilles' state of mind, and as such that it may be bringing out the most profound depth of meaning associated with the imagery of beasts. To understand him fully, then, we must first set his words against the full range of possible associations exhibited in beast-similes throughout the Iliad, returning finally to consider the place of this image in his progress from the beginning of the Wrath to the killing of Hector and its aftermath.


First, we must do away with any assumption that men and beasts belong in different departments of creation, or that a resemblance between the two must be vague and superficial. The association between them begins with physical appearance: in particular the demeanour of the warrior recalls that of the beast, as for example Ajax “gazing like a beast” (παπτήναs … θηρὶ ἐοικώs, 11.546-57), as he proudly withdraws from the fray, and the lion's eyes are blazing (γλαυκιόων, 20.172), like those of a fell warrior. Menelaus looks or turns in different directions like a lion (ἐντροπαλιζόμενοs ὥs τε λὶs ἠϋγἐνειοs, 17.109). But for our purposes it is more significant that Homer's beasts have the same emotional and cognitive apparatus as men.22 The beasts have κραδίη, ἣτορ, θυμόs, and φρἐνεs, and they carry on their psychological life just as men would do. The lion's heart or mind “bears itself with strength” (θυμὸs ἐνὶ στήθεσσι περὶ σθἐνεϊ βλεμεαίνει, 17.22)23 and a lion can be ordered to an act of bravery by its heart (κἐλεται δἐ ἑ θυμὸs ἀγήνωρ, 12.300). The range of emotions given to them and to animals in general is wide, however unsophisticated: courage, rejoicing, desire, fear.24 The beast has a mind full of dominating force (κρατερόφρων, 10.184); it goes into combat thinking proud thoughts (μἐγα φρονἐων, 11.325, 16.824), or with dire or destructive thoughts (ὀλοόφρων, 15.630, 17.21); like the warrior it is proud or manly in spirit (ἀγήνορι θυμω̑ι, 24.42);25 and conversely an especially formidable hero such as Heracles or Achilles has a lion's heart (θυμολἐοντα, 5.639, 7.228).

The implication is that for Homer the mental and emotional state of the fighting animal can be assimilated to that of the fighting man more closely than would ever be possible in a culture like our own. A particularly revealing simile describes Menelaus' lust for battle before his duel with Paris (3.23-28):

ὥs τε λἐων ἐχάρη μεγάλωι ἐπὶ σώματι κύρσαs,
εὑρoν e ἔλαφον κεραὸν e ἄγριον αῒγα
πεινάων· μάλα γάρ τε κατεσθίει, εἴ περ ἂν αὐτὸν
σεύωνται ταχἐ εs τε κύνεs θαλεροί τ' αἰζηοί·
os ἐχάρη Μενἐλαοs 'Αλεξανδρον θεοειδἐα
ὀφθαλμοι̑σιν ἰδών. …(26)

Here the innermost similarity between man and beast is the emotion named by χαίρομαι, and hence it amounts to what Homer calls χάρμη,27 the exultation of the rush to combat or of battle. In this way the lion stands for the warrior's most violent and warlike mood—in other words, for his state of mind when he behaves in the way that defines him as a hero.

This leads us to another, more subtle aspect of the link between beasts and warriors. This is the quality of ἀλκή, fearlessness coupled with physical strength, which is the kernel of battle-virtue. It is ἀλκή that makes one a true man, as in the repeated exhortation to hard-pressed comrades: ἀνἐρεs ἔστε, φίλοι, μνήσασθε δὲ θούριδοs ἀλκη̑s.28 In the same way it is the source of the beast's relentless aggression: so that when a fighter is compared to a beast the turning-point can be that each is ἀλκὶ πεποιθώs (“trusting in valour”: see 5.299, 13.471, 17.61, 17.728).29 Crucially, ἀλκή is the quality that makes man or beast willing to risk death in battle. For example, when Agenor's heart, his ἣτορ ἄλκιμον (21.571f), prompts him to pit himself against Achilles in defiance of the odds, his state of mind is likened to that of a leopard confronting an armed huntsman (21.576-80):

εἴ περ γὰρ φθάμενόs μιν e οὐτάσηι ἠὲ βάληισιν,
ἀλλά τε καὶ περὶ δουρὶ πεπαρμἐνη οὐκ ἀπολήγει
ἀλκη̑s, πρίν γ' ἠὲ ξυμβλήμεναι ἠὲ δαμη̑ναι·
os 'Αντήνοροs υἱὸs ἀγαυου̑ δι̑οs 'Αγήνωρ,
οὐκ ἔθελεν φεύγειν, πρὶν πειρήσαιτ' 'Αχιλη̑οs. …(30)

Man and beast are alike in deciding to court death in the exercise of valour. In the same way, when Sarpedon's θυμόs orders him to advance across the stockade in peril of his life, he is compared to a lion whose θυμόs orders it to risk death in quest of food in the sheepfolds (12.299-308). Here it is especially significant that he explains his act on the grounds that there is no escape from death, so that it must be better to seek glory than to shrink from the fray (12.322-28). The beast-simile becomes a symbol of the psychological trait on which the tragedy of the Iliad hinges: the heroic temperament and the pursuit of glory lead inevitably towards death. From here our argument can begin to take a more definite shape: and we must explore this theme further before we can pin down the form it takes in the rhetorical simile with which we began, where Achilles dares to identify his own state with that of a lion or a wolf.

Underlying ἀλκή is μἐνοs, the force of personality that makes the hero fight in defiance of the odds.31 It is the source of his virtue, but it is also dangerous, and this inherent ambiguity is a deep-seated theme in the epic.32 μἐνοs can drive the warrior to such an extreme of passion that it shades into μανία, uncontrolled frenzy:33 the etymological closeness between the two words underlies a thematic connexion that reappears in the disasters that face those who push their battle-fury too far—notably Diomedes, Patroclus, and Hector, as well as Achilles.34 In this context it is especially ominous that the beast is an eater of raw flesh, ὠμοφάγοs, something that civilised Homeric man must not be.35 At the beginning of the Doloneia, an episode where Diomedes and Odysseus will behave with unusual brutality, there is a strange simile in which the bloodthirsty savagery of lions spills over into the narrative scene (10.297f):

βάν ῥ' ἴμεν ὥs τε λἐοντε δύω διὰ νύκτα μἐλαιναν
ἂμ φόνον, ἂν νἐκυαs, διά τ' ἔντεα καὶ μἐλαν αῒμα.(36)

Pursuing this image, is there something bestial or inhuman about a slaughtering warrior whose hands and feet are bloody as a lion, αἱματόειs ὥs τίs τε λἐων (17.541f)? Simply to assert that might be to go beyond what Homer actually says. Evidence in a broadly similar direction, however, can be adduced from another passage, where a lion-simile is deployed negatively to symbolise overweening arrogance. Like Achilles' simile, it appears in the rhetoric of an emphatic speech. In the battle over the dead Patroclus, the young Euphorbus orders Menelaus to fall back before him, and the older man mocks this rash insolence:

Zευ̑ πάτερ, οὐ μὲν καλὸν ὑπἐρβιον εὐχετάασθαι·
οὔτὔν παρδάλιοs τόσσον μἐνοs οὔτε λῒοντοs
οὔτε συὸs κάπρου ὀλοόφρονοs, οἐ τε μἐγιστοs
θυμὸs ἐνὶ στήθεσσι περὶ σθἐνεϊ βλεμεαίνει,
ὅσσον Πάνθου υῒεs ἐϋμμελίαι φρονἐουσιν.(37)

Menelaus suggests that there is something sinister or even hubristic in being like a lion or a boar: the beasts are symbols of the excess of μἐνοs that characterises the young and the reckless. Here we can begin to isolate the essential ambiguity of the wild animal's personality: he has the strength and power that characterise the hero, but he lacks the circumspection and restraint that should make a mortal man aware of his limitations.

This suggests that wide thematic resonances may be brought into play in all the many places where we find a beast-simile applied to a warrior who has taken on extraordinary μἐνοs.38 Where this marks a change in his mood that will eventually lead to folly, it must be worth asking whether the image of the lion, boar, or wolf indicates that he is imperilling himself through excessive violence. For example, a strikingly extended lion-simile marks the moment when Athene gives Diomedes the rush of supernatural μἐνοs (5.121-32) that will eventually lead him to overstep the mark by pitting himself against the gods, and the fury itself is the pivot (5.136-43):

δὴ τότε μιν τρὶs τόσσον ἐλεν μἐνοs, ὥs τε λῒοντα,
ὅν ῥά τε ποιμὴν ἀγρω̑ι ἐπ' εἰροπόκοιs ὀῒεσσι
χραύσηι μἐν τ' αὺλη̑s ὑπεράλμενον οὐδὲ δαμάσσηι …
os μεμαos Τρώεσσι μίγη κρατερὸs Διομήδηs.(39)

Here, however, we face the problem of the inherent ambiguity of symbols that we touched on earlier: nothing in the way this simile is expressed suggests that the lion-like quality of his μἐνοs is precisely what will lead to the excessive aggression of his assault on Aphrodite and Ares. Similarly Agamemnon's aristeia in Book 11 is an episode full of unusually extreme violence, but among the five lion-similes that punctuate it (11.113-21, 129f, 172-78, 238ff, 292-95) there is only one (11.238ff) that mentions the beast's μἐνοs at all, and nothing in the similes or the narrative proper suggests hubris or inhumanity in the king's demeanour. In themselves, these examples allow us only to infer that the image of the beast encapsulates the same ambiguity as does the word μἐνοs, ranging from heroic violence to something we can almost call madness.

There are two crucial similes, however, which identify the beast's mental state with the self-destructive recklessness of a warrior who has gone beyond the bounds of mortal self-restraint. The first comes at the climactic moment when Hector is about to break through the Achaean stockade and lead his men to burn the ships.40 He is in full career, fighting like a storm (ἐμάρνατο ῒσοs ἀἐλληι, 12.40), as he urges his horses across and bids his men follow (12.41-46):

ὥs δ' ὅτ' ἄν ἐν τε κύνεσσι καὶ ἀνδράσι θηρευτη̑ισι
κάπριοs ἠὲ λἐων στρἐφεται σθἐνεϊ βλεμεαίνων·
οἱ δἐ τε πυργηδὸν σφἐαs αὐτοὺs ἀρτύναντεs
ἀντίον ἵστανται καὶ ἀκοντίζουσι θαμειὰs
αἰχμὰs ἐκ χειρω̑ν· του̑ δ' οὔ ποτε κυδάλιμον κη̑ρ
ταρβει̑ οὐδὲ φοβει̑ται, ἀγηνορίη δἐ μιν ἔκτα. …(41)

The crossing of the trench will eventually lead to Patroclus' foray to drive the Trojans back, and his death will make it inevitable that Hector will be killed in turn by Achilles. Later, after he has crossed the trench, Hector glories in his brief success without realising that according to Zeus' plan he will eventually be discomfited: Zeus gives him his hour of glory because he is short-lived (μινυνθάδιοs) and Athene is already preparing his destruction (15.605-14). In this light the moment of the crossing can be seen as the fatal mistake that brings about Hector's ruin.42 The narrative moment and the image in the simile mirror each other exactly, both physically and psychologically. Hector goes up and down the Trojan ranks, just as the beast moves up and down along the press of men; they are terrified by his mood; and Hector is being led into mortal danger by his overweening confidence, just as the boar or lion's fury will destroy it when it hurls itself at the armed huntsmen. The key words linking the two scenes are ἀγηνορίη δἐ μιν ἔκτα: it is because the beast is excessively proud or heroic (ἀγήνωρ) that its ferocity will lead to its death.43 The psychological point, and even the form of words that expresses it, correspond exactly to Andromache's earlier warning to her husband at their parting: δαιμόνιε, φθίσει σε τὸ σὸν μἐνοs (6.407: “your own fury will destroy you”).

A parallel simile appears when Patroclus' success against the Trojans has brought him into similar folly, so that he has forgotten Achilles' warning that he must not push the fight too far or try to storm Troy alone, lest he usurp the other's glory or arouse divine anger (16.87-96). He has now killed Hector's charioteer, with overweening taunts, and he is about to face Hector over the corpse (16.751-54):

os εἰπoν ἐπὶ Κεβριόνηι ἥρωϊ βεβήκει
οῒμα λἐοντοs ἔχων, ὅs τε σταθμοὺs κεραἐζων
ἔβλητο πρὸs στη̑θοs, ἑὴ δἐ μιν ἔλεσεν ἀλκή,
os ἐπὶ Κεβριόνηι, Πατρόκλεεs, ἐλσο μεμαώs.(44)

Patroclus' valour has led him to face an enemy beyond the measure of his strength, just as the courage that makes the lion brave enough to risk death is here what brings about his ruin (ἑὴ δἐ μιν Ὤλεσεν ἀλκή). The fatal flaw in beast or hero is that his defining strength, passion, and courage is something that threatens to destroy him. In short, these similes sum up the link between glory and death.


With this in mind we return to our starting-point, the simile where Achilles equates himself with a lion or a wolf, implacably cut off from Hector as the beast is cut off from men or sheep. By now it will be clear that in this image Achilles is associating himself not merely with strength and courage but also with a state of extreme mental ferocity that implies a tendency towards self-destruction. So far we have seen this theme either suggested or made explicit in the poet's voice or in the way Homer's characters describe each other: what makes Achilles' simile uniquely ominous is that he is describing himself through an image with such dark associations. In effect he is glorying in an extreme of heroism—μἐνοs, ἀλκή, ἀγηνορίη—that approaches the suicidal. A patriotic hero might accept death as the necessary price of saving his country—“it is no shame for him to die defending his country, for his wife and children are saved, and his home and farm unharmed,” as Hector declares (15.497ff)—but Achilles embraces death in his lion-like mood with no object beyond the sating of his own passion. To understand the full significance of this, we must see it as part of the inner transformation that he has undergone in the course of the Wrath,45 as he moves towards the inexorable prospect of his own death.46

In the course of the Wrath Achilles has become ever more deeply isolated. In the quarrel with Agamemnon we saw him in pride and anger; in his speeches to the Embassy we saw this mood developed into pity for himself and his mortal soul, ψυχή (9.321f, 408f); now with the death of Patroclus his pride demands that Hector should die and his fate, equally, demands that his own death will follow, as his mother reveals to him: αὐτίκα γάρ τοι ἔπειτα μεθ' ‘′Εκτορα πότμοs ἑτοι̑μοs (18.96: “Death is ready for you, immediately after Hector”). In the earlier episodes Achilles had already known that he would die at Troy,47 but only since the death of Patroclus has he seen the inevitable link between the three deaths;48 so it is that in mourning Patroclus he laments his own end,49 and in seeking Hector's death he also hastens his own.50 Not only is he brave enought to suffer death, he accepts it gladly in return for the satisfaction of his own anger: αὐτίκα τεθναίην, ἐπεὶ οὐκ ἄρ' ἔμελλον ἑταίρωι / κτεινομἐνωι ἐπαμυ̑ναι (18.98f: “Let me die at once, since I could not defend my friend when he was killed”). This embracing of death is the key to his alienation from human society throughout his onslaught on the Trojans. He makes this link himself when Lycaon begs to be ransomed: he refuses to spare him not merely as part of his vengeance for Patroclus but also because his own approaching end makes life meaningless (21.106-13):

ἀλλά, φίλοs, θάνε καὶ σύ· τίη ὀλοφύρεαι οὕτωs;
κάτθανε καὶ Πάτροκλοs, ὅ περ σῒο πολλὸν ἀμείνων.
οὐκ ὁράαιs οἐοs καὶ ἐγo καλόs τε μἐγαs τε;
πατρὸs δ' εἴμ' ἀγαθοι̑ο, θεὰ δἣ με γείνατο μι̑τηρ,
ἀλλ' ἔπι τοι καὶ ἐμοὶ θανατὸs καὶ μοι̑ρα κραταίη.
ἔσσεται e ἠos e δείλη e μἐσον ἐμαρ,
ὁππότε τιs καὶ ἐμεήο '′Αρηι ἐκ θυμὸν ἔληται,
e ὅ γε δουρὶ βαλoν e ἀπὸ νευρœφιν ὀϊστω̑ι.(51)

It is this certain prospect of death that makes Achilles wild (μάλ' ἐμμεμαώs, 20.468) and cuts him off from the kind of men that make truces and civilised pacts. His present μἐνοs is bound up with the χόλοs that caused the Wrath, and the proud isolation of his withdrawal has given place to a still more proud rejection of the restraint that tempers violence in battle.

In this way Achilles is separated from other men by the qualities that we have already seen linking heroes and beasts throughout the poem. In his rhetorical simile he expresses the darkest implications of his isolation: by counting himself among lions and wolves he announces that he is abandoning human values and human society and choosing death in preference to life. Ultimately, the image of the beast expresses the fact that those two decisions imply each other. In this way the simile plumbs the depths of the state of mind to which he has been led by the extreme of passionate heroism that characterises him: so that he explores the poetic, ‘Homeric’ meaning of the symbol on a level of rhetorical skill that no other character in the poem achieves.

Our simile can be further characterised as the high-point in a sequence of beast-similes punctuating Achilles' movement towards Hector's death and his own. The first of the series is especially striking because the immediate point of comparison is psychologically precise, but in a more intimate way than in any of the similes we observed earlier. Achilles begins his lament over Patroclus like a lion grieving the loss of its cubs (18.318-22):

πυκνὰ μάλα στενάχων ὥs τε λὶs ἠϋγἐνειοs,
oι ῥά θ' ὑπὸ σκύμνουs ἐλαφηβόλοs ἁρπάσηι ἀνὴρ
ὕληs ἐκ πυκινη̑s· ὁ δἐ τ' ἄχνυται ὕστεροs ἐλθών,
πολλὰ δἐ τ' ἄγκε' ἐπη̑λθε μετ' ἀνἐροs ἴχνι' ἐρευνω̑ν,
εἴ ποθεν ἐξεύροι· μάλα γὰρ δριμὺs χόλοs αἱρει̑.(52)

Here the correspondence turns on χόλοs, the destructive emotion that turned the Wrath to disaster. When Achilles revealed himself to the Embassy, he spoke of the χόλοs that had swollen in his breast (9.646f); when he refused to help the Achaeans in their need, his followers railed against him that his mother had reared him on χόλοs instead of milk (16.203; cf. 16.30f); now he tells his mother that he loathes it (18.107-11), but it deepens in him as his battle-fury gathers. The mood that now holds him is bitterness transformed into violent aggression. The clearest sign of this ominous move comes when Thetis brings his armour, and he alone among the Myrmidons is seized not with awe but with bitterness and pleasure together: αὐτὰρ 'Αχιλλεύs / ὡs εῒδ', ὥs μιν μα̑λλον ἔδυ χόλοs, ἐν δἐ οἱ ὄσσε/ δεινὸν ὑπὸ βλεφάρων ὡs εἰ σἐλαs ἐξεφάανθεν (19.15ff: “But when Achilles saw, still greater rage entered him, and his eyes shone out terribly under his eyebrows like a blazing fire”). The passion that now seems lion-like is what has forbidden him to “conquer his mighty spirit” (δάμασον θυμὑν μἐ]γαν, 9.496) either in sulking or now in his final, fatal career. In this first simile of the sequence Achilles' movement towards unbridled violence is expressed through an image that links the lion to the emotion that has carried him from the beginning of the Wrath.

The prospect of the lion's self-destruction comes more exlicitly to the fore in the next simile in the sequence, when Achilles' onslaught begins and he faces Aeneas. Here the co-ordinated description of appearance and emotion is finely detailed (20.164-75):

Πηλεῒδηs δ' ἑτἐωθεν ἐναντίον ἐρτο λἐ]ων ὥs,
σίντηs, ὅν τε καὶ ἄνδρεs ἀποκτάμεναι μεμάασιν
ἀγρόμενοι πα̑s δη̑μοs· ὁ δὲ πρω̑τον μὲν ἀτίζων
ἔρχεται, ἀλλ' ὅτε κἐ]ν τιs ἀρηϊθόων αἰζηω̑ν
δουρὶ βάληι, ἐάλη τε χανών, περί τ' ἀφρὸs ὀδόνταs
γίγνεται, ἐν δἐ τἐ οἱ κραδίηι στἐνει ἄλκιμον ἐτορ,
οὐρη̑ι δὲ πλευράs τε καὶ ἰσχία ἀμφοτἐ]ρωθεν
μαστίεται, ἑὲ δ' αὐτὸν ἐποτρύνει μαχἐσασθαι,
γλαυκιόων δ' ἰθὺs φἐρεται μἐνει, ἤν τινα πἐφνηι
ἀνδρω̑ν, e αὐτύs φθίεται πρώτωι ἐν ὁμίλωι,
os 'Αχιλη̑' Ὤτρυνε μἐνοs καὶ θυμὸs ἀγήνωρ
ἀντίον ἐλθἐμεναι μεγαλήτοροs Αἰνείαο.(53)

At every point the description of the lion corresponds to something in our image of the hero at his most fey and dangerous: mouth yawning to cry out, foaming jaws, blazing eyes.54 Here the risk of self-destruction is expressed as an even balance of possibilities, as in some of the less highly-charged similes that we have examined from elsewhere, but the prospect is given still darker significance by its place in Achilles' fatal progress. The closer the thematic correspondences, the deeper the resonances of the simile will be; here, consequently, the psychological as well as visual assimilation of hero to beast is at its most evocative.

The next stage of the sequence is our rhetorical image of Achilles standing over Hector like a lion or a wolf and refusing to make pacts. At this point he is about to fulfil a decision of momentous import: not only to kill Hector but also to defile his corpse and to slaughter Trojan captives over Patroclus' body (see 18.334-37; Segal [supra n.45] 33-47). In the past he had been prepared to return prisoners for ransom (11.104ff, 21.34-48), and once at the very start of the Wrath we even hear him described as μεθήμων (“gentle”) and without χόλοs (2.241), just as when he killed Eëtion in the sack of Thebe he honoured him after death out of a sense of respect (σεβάσσατο γὰρ τό γε θημω̑ι, 6.417). Now, however, he refuses to curb the urge to violence, and in this sense above all his mood is ὠμόs (“savage”). A little later Hector, now on his knees, renews his plea that his body be returned for burial, and Achilles replies with the same wildness as before (22.345-47):

μή με, κύον, γουνω̑ν γουνάζεο μηδὲ τοκήων·
αi γάρ πωs αὐτόν με μἐνοs καὶ θυμὸs ἀνείη
Ὤμ' ἀποταμνόμενον κρἐα ἔδμεναι, οῒα ἔοργαs.(55)

Achilles' rhetoric expresses in human terms what he had impied in the simile of his previous speech:56 he stands outside the pale of human behaviour, and he has become like the beast that battens on the flesh of its victims.57

Inhumanity offends the gods, and when it comes to their notice we see the implications of the lion-pattern at its most dangerous. Achilles is letting the dead Hector rot, and Apollo complains to Zeus through a closely detailed simile that again equates Achilles with a marauding lion (24.39-45):

ἀλλ' ὀλοω̑ι 'Αχιλη̑ϊ, θεοί, βούλεσθ' ἐπαρήγειν,
oι οὔτ' ἄρ τε φρἐνεs εἰσὶν ἐναἐσιμοι οὔτε νόημα
γναμπτὸν ἐνὶ στήθεσσι, λἐων δ' os ἄγρια οἐδεν,
ὅs τ' ἐπεὶ aρ μεγάληι τε βίηι καὶ ἀγήνορι θυμω̑ι
εἴξαs εῒσ' ἐπὶ μη̑λα βροτω̑ν, ἵνα δαι̑τα λάβηισιν,
os 'Αχιλεὺs ἔλεον μὲν ἀπώλεσεν, οὐδἐ οἱ αἰδos

Both man and beast are savage, they yield to their swelling passion and reject αἰδώs, the law of communal restraint. “Yielding to the θυμόs,” as the lion does here, is exactly what Phoenix warned Achilles against in vain (9.597-601). Similarly, it was because of his proud spirit (ἀγηνορίη) that Achilles refused to accept Agamemnon's offer from the Embassy (see 9.699f), just as now he is behaving like a lion whose θυμὸs ἀγήνωρ turns him away from pity. According to Apollo his savagery brings defilement on him: κωφὴν γι̑ρ δὴ γαι̑αν ἀεικίζει μενεαίνων (24.54: “In his fury he is doing outrage to dumb earth”). By mistreating one who cannot defend himself, Achilles has defied the laws of human nature and the order of things.59 This is the act of one with frenzied thoughts (φρεσὶ μαινομἐνηισιν, 24.135). These thoughts appear to have passed when Achilles receives Priam into his tent, but they show themselves again when Priam tries to hurry him towards handing over the body. His rage overcomes him once more, he threatens to break Zeus' command and kill the suppliant visitor, and as he does so the image of the lion flashes out again (24.568-72):

“… τω̑ νυ̑ν μή μοι μα̑λλον ἐν ἄλγεσι θυμὸν ὀρίνηιs,
μή σε, γἐρον, οὐδ' αὄτὸν ἐνὶ κλισίηισιν ἐάσω
καὶ ἱκἐτην περ ἐόντα, Διὸs δ' ἀλίτωμαι ἐφετμάs.”
os ἔφατ', ἔδεισεν δ' ὁ γἐρων καὶ ἐπείθετο μύθωι,
Πηλεῒδηs δ' οἴκοιο λἐων os ἐλτο θύραζε.(60)

The two words λἐων ὥs remind us, as nothing else could do so succinctly, that Achilles' anger has been cloaked but not conquered.61

It is in the light of Apollo's judgment that we can sum up our reading of the simile in which Achilles identifies his state of mind with that of a beast. Read through the deeper associations of the beasts in Homer's symbolic language, to be like a lion in the most profound sense is to defy Zeus and sanity and to welcome the death that such defiance can bring. When Achilles likens himself to a lion, he is revelling not only in being a hero but in being a madman. In that extraordinary speech the symbolic vocabulary of the simile tradition enables him to express an idea that could not otherwise have been put into words without straining the resources of poetic language or making the hero himself seem grotesque.


  1. Shakespeare, Henry V i.2.109; Byron, “The Destruction of Sennacherib” (1815) 1.

  2. See e.g. C. M. Bowra in A. J. B. Wace and F. H. Stubbings, edd., A Companion to Homer (London 1963) 70; G. P. Shipp, “General Remarks on Similes,” in his Studies in the Language of Homer (Cambridge 1972) 208-22, esp. 212 on “Homer's love of pictorial effect, of the picturesque scene”; cf. W. C. Scott, The Oral Nature of the Homeric Simile (=Mnemosyne Suppl. 28 [Leiden 1974: hereafter ‘Scott’]) 4-7, 31ff.

  3. For thorough treatments of beast-similes with regard primarily to their form and decorative function, see esp. H. Fränkel, Die homerischen Gleichnisse (Göttingen 1921: hereafter ‘Fränkel’) 71-86; C. Moulton, Similes in the Homeric Poems (=Hypomnemata 49 [Göttingen 1979: ‘Moulton’]) esp. 139ff; Scott 58-62; S. Lonsdale, Lion, Hunting and Herding Similes in the Iliad (Stuttgart 1990: ‘Lonsdale’) passim.

  4. For the approach to similes taken in this paper cf. esp. M. Coffey, “The Function of the Homeric Simile,” AJP [American Journal of Philology] 78 (1957) 113-32; M. W. Edwards, Homer, Poet of the Iliad (Baltimore 1977) 102-10; and on beast-similes in particular note the structuralist approach by A. Schnapp-Gourbeillon, Lions, héros, masques: les représentations de l'animal chez Homère (Paris 1981). Of great interest also is G. P. Rose's study of a kindred but distinct theme in the Odyssey: “Odysseus' Barking Heart,” TAPA [Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association] 109 (1979) 215-30.

  5. Obviously there are important differences in real life between these species and their different kinds of enmity with men, but in Homeric practice there is no discernible contrast in the way they are described and the qualities they embody. Two or more species are often co-ordinated as the subject of a single simile, so that the emphasis seems to be on the strength, courage, and aggression that all of them share (lion and boar: 5.782f=7.256f, 11.292-95, 12.41f; lion, boar, and leopard: 17.20-23; wolf, leopard, and jackal: 13.103). As wolves hunt in packs, they alone prompt similes for large groups of warriors (4.471f; 13.101-06; 16.156-66, 352-57), just as a pack of jackals (θω̑εs) is contrasted with a solitary lion (11.473-84). Otherwise, however, Homeric wolves are described in terms of the same qualities as the other predatory beasts. Elsewhere in Greek lore the wolf can function as a symbol of the alienation of a young hero from society in something like a rite of passage into manhood, but I can find no sign of this association in the Homeric similes. On wolf and outlaw see most recently C. Sourvinou-Inwood, ‘Reading’ Greek Culture (Oxford 1991) 244-84, on the story of Lycophron at Herodotus 3.50-53; also J. Bremmer, “Heroes, Rituals and the Trojan War,” StStorRelig [Studi Storico–Religioso] 2 (1978) 5-38.

  6. The most supple of the early approaches is that of Fränkel 4 and passim, contenting himself with the distinction between Wiestück and Sostück.

  7. Cf. Fränkel 106; Scott 7.

  8. See D. H. Porter, “Violent Juxtaposition in the Similes of the Iliad,CJ 68 (1972) 11-21; Moulton esp. 51, 86f; for a comparative approach to this aspect of the poetics of simile-making, see S. Wofford, The Choice of Achilles (Palo Alto 1992) Ch. 1.

  9. See esp. 18-49, making the point that “the simile itself assumes the function of auxesis” (32, of 2.479).

  10. For sequences of lion-similes studied in this light see Moulton 76-86, 96-99; Lonsdale 49-70; Schnapp-Gourbeillon (supra n.4) 95-131; cf. Scott 56f.

  11. Cf. W. Schadewaldt, Von Homers Welt und Werk2 (Stuttgart 1951) 144-51; B. Snell, The Discovery of the Mind (Oxford 1948) 202: “The animals in Homer are not only symbols, but the particular embodiments of universal vital forces.” For a working-out of the same hunch (as it seems to be) in structuralist terms see Schnapp-Gourbeillon (supra n.4) 1-27.

  12. M. Silk, Interaction in Poetic Imagery (Cambridge 1974) 3-26, adopting the terms of I. A. Richards, The Philosophy of Rhetoric (Oxford 1936).

  13. Compare the even more startling simile where Penelope, turning in thought from one desperate prospect to another, is compared to a lion looking for a way to escape from a massed party of hunters (Od. 4.787-94); see further W. T. Magrath, “The Progression of the Lion-Simile in the Odyssey,CJ 77 (1981-82) 205-12.

  14. C. Whitman, Homer and the Heroic Tradition (Cambridge [Mass.] 1958: hereafter ‘Whitman’) 128-53.

  15. “He raged, like when spear-brandishing Ares or destroying fire rages in the hills, in the glades of a deep wood, and froth appeared around his mouth, and his eyes blazed under his shaggy eyebrows.”

  16. Cf. M. N. Nagler's highly abstract theory of the “preverbal Gestalt” in his Spontaneity and Tradition: A Study in the Oral Art of Homer (Berkeley 1974) 64-130; W. G. Thalmann, Conventions of Form and Thought in Early Greek Epic Poetry (Baltimore 1984) esp. 75ff, 113-56.

  17. This danger is suggested by Whitman 153; see also Silk (supra n.12) 63-70.

  18. Cited by Whitman (336 n.4) as a problematic exception.

  19. “Hector, you wretch, do not speak to me of compacts: just as there are no oaths to be trusted between lions and men, nor do wolves and sheep have like-thinking minds, but always have hostile intent against each other—even so there can be no friendly treatment between me and you, and we will make no oaths.”

  20. Cf. Eust. Il. 1269a: ὅρα ὡs μεγαλοφρόνωs ἑαυτὸν 'Αχιλλεὺs εἰκάζει ὡs λἐοντα πρὸs ἄνδρα καὶ ὡs λύκον πρὸs ἄρνα.

  21. R. P. Martin, The Language of Heroes (Ithaca 1989) 146-230, esp. 225ff; J. Griffin, “Homeric Words and Speakers,” JHS [Journal of Hellenic Studies] 106 (1986) 50-57; P. Friedrich and J. Redfield, “Speech as a Personality Symbol: The Case of Achilles,” Language 54 (1978) 263-88, esp. 277ff.

  22. For full lists see Lonsdale 33-38, 42-46, and the tables at 133ff; also H. Rahn, “Das Tier in der homerischen Dichtung,” Studium Generale 20 (1967) 97-105.

  23. βλεμεαίνω must be translated vaguely, as here, because neither context nor etymology allows us to pin down its meaning. What matters in the present discussion is that the verb is used exclusively of beasts (see also 12.42, 17.135) and of warriors in battle (8.337, 9.237; extended to Hephaestus engaging in the fray, 20.36).

  24. For negative emotions as the pivot of beast-similes note esp. Ajax withdrawing from battle, “grieving in heart” (τετιημἐνοs [ῒτορ) like a lion with τετιηότι θυμω̑ι (11.555f); similarly Menelaus withdraws from Patroclus' corpse like a lion whose “heart coagulates as frost” (ἐτορ παχνου̑ται, 17.109-13; cf. Hes. Op. 360); and Antilochus fears (τρἐσε) like a predatory animal driven away from a farmstead (15.585-90).

  25. On the meaning of ἀγήνωρ see n.43 infra.

  26. “As when a lion rejoices after coming upon a great carcass, when it has found a horned deer or a wild goat, and it is ravenous; and the lion devours it greatly even if nimble dogs and flourishing young men try to drive it off: so Menelaus rejoiced when with his eyes he saw godlike Paris.”

  27. Note also the fighting lion who attacks with χάρμη (16.823) in a simile describing Hector as he attacks Patroclus; compare a description of warriors rejoicing in high fury (13.82): χάρμηι γηθόσυνοι, τήν σφιν θεὸs ἔμβαλε θυμω̑ι. It does not affect our discussion that the noun can also refer to the event of battle rather than to a psychological state. On χάρμη see J. Latacz, Zum Wortfeld ‘Freude’ in der Sprache Homers (Heidelberg 1966) 30-38.

  28. “Be men, my friends, and call to mind your surging valour”: 6.112=8.174=11.287=15.487, 734=16.270=17.185.

  29. Other references for the ἀλκή or ἄλκιμον ἐτορ of beasts: 4.253; 16.157, 753; 17.111, 281; 20.169.

  30. “Even if the huntsman is first to strike or thrust at the leopard, although it be transfixed by a spear it does not abandon its valour, before it either joins combat with him or is overcome itself: just so wonderful Antenor's son, bright Agenor, refused to flee before pitting himself against Achilles.” On this simile see Lonsdale 36ff.

  31. In what follows I assume that the meaning of the verb μἐμονα, with the participle μεμαώs, is co-ordinated with that of the noun μἐνοs.

  32. On the antiquity of μἐνοs as defining a theme in the prehistory of Greek epic, see R. Schmitt, Dichtung und Dichtersprache in indogermanischer Zeit (Wiesbaden 1967) 103-22, with extensive Vedic parallels.

  33. μαίνομαι is built on the zero-grade of the root *men-, as *mn-i-o/e › μαιν-: see P. Chantraine, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque (Paris 1960-80) s.v.; H. Frisk, Griechisches etymologisches Wörterbuch (Heidelberg 1960-70) s.v. Semantically, the crux is that cognates in other languages refer simply to thought in the broadest sense (e.g. Latin mens), but in Homeric Greek the family represented by μἐνοs, μἐμονα, and μαίνομαι clusters around aggressive or furious mental activity in different degrees.

    It could be argued, of course, that the etymological link between μἐνοs and μαίνομαι is irrelevant to the Homeric realities. The best answer to this is that Helenus the prophet acknowledges the connexion in meaning explicitly when he describes Diomedes' dangerous extreme of passion in his onslaught on the Trojans:

                                                                                                                                      … ἀλλ ' ὅδε λίην
    μαίνεται, οὐδἐ τίs οἱ δύναται μἐνοs ἰσοφαρίζειν

    (6.100f, cited by Chantraine s.v.)

  34. This is not the place to discuss the fascinating possibility that μη̑νιs, the name of the vengeful anger at the centre of the Iliad, may belong both thematically and etymologically to the μἐνοs family. See most recently L. C. Muellner, “Étymologie et sémantique de ΜΗNΙσ,” in F. Létoublon, ed., La langue et les textes en Grèce ancien (Paris 1992) 122-35.

  35. See 5.782, 7.256, 11.479, 15.592, 16.156f; similarly in the Odyssey Polyphemus is like a lion when he devours Odysseus' men (9.292f).

  36. “They stepped out to go like a pair of lions through the black night, through the slaughter, through the corpses, through the weaponry and black blood.”

  37. “Father Zeus, it is disgraceful to boast excessively. Not even the leopard or the lion or the dire-minded boar, whose heart in its breast bears itself with most strength of all—not even they have as much fury as is in the minds of the sons of Panthus with their fine ash spears.”

  38. See 5.136-43, 161-64; 5.299-302; 10.482-88; 13.198-202; 15.275-78 (with 262), 592-95, 630-36 (with 603-10; see n.54 infra); 18.161-64 with 155f.

  39. “Then three times as much fury seized him: like a lion which a shepherd attacks in the field among the woolly-fleeced sheep, after it has leapt over the enclosing wall, but he cannot overcome it … with just such fury did conquering Diomedes surge among the Trojans.”

  40. Note the perceptive reading of this simile by Moulton 47 n.54.

  41. “Like when a boar or a lion turns back and forth in the midst of hounds and huntsmen, bearing itself with strength, and they stand against it in wall-like array, supporting each other; and they thrust out thronging spears from their hands; and its glorious heart does not fear or feel terror, and its own heroism kills it. …”

  42. See J. M. Redfield, Nature and Culture in the Iliad (Chicago 1975: hereafter ‘Redfield’) 143-53.

  43. Whatever the original etymological basis of ἀγήνωρ, in Homeric usage it seems to be treated as if it were the intensive ἀγα- prefixed to the stem seen in ἠνορἐη (“manhood” or “manly courage”): see Chantraine (supra n.33) s.v.). Literally, then, to be ἀγήνωρ is to abound in that quality, potentially to the point of excess. This is well illustrated when Diomedes expresses the idea that Achilles' pride and anger are implacable: he is “especially ἀνήνωρ” and has been now “driven to greater ἀγηνορίη” (9.699f).

  44. “So saying he stepped over the warrior Cebriones, with the bearing of a lion, which has been wounded in the breast while ravaging the farmsteads, and its own valour destroys it: so, Patroclus, did you leap onto Cebriones in fury.”

  45. This is not the place to enlarge on the problems of the “hamartia of Achilles” and his supposed “purification” in the later books: see esp. O. Taplin, Homeric Soundings (Oxford 1990) 194-201; Redfield 203-23; C. Segal, The Theme of the Mutilation of the Corpse in the Iliad (=Mnemosyne Suppl. 17 [Leiden 1971]) 9-17; Whitman 181-220.

  46. The clearest synoptic statement of the early part of this causal chain is by Zeus to Hera, 15.53-77, echoed in the poet's voice at 15.592-614. On the prophecies that punctuate it see M. W. Edwards in The Iliad: A Commentary V (Cambridge 1991) ad 17.404-11 and 18.85f, with further references. On the general theme of heroes facing their own deaths see R. Renehan, “The Heldentod in Homer: One Heroic Ideal,” CP [Classical Philology] 82 (1987) 99-116.

  47. μινυνθάδιοs is the key word: 1.352 (Achilles to Thetis), 414-18 (Thetis to Achilles). On this theme and Achilles' choice of a glorious life and an early death see esp. Schadewaldt (supra n. 11) 234-67.

  48. Homer is ambiguous on the prediction of Patroclus' death: cf. 16.50-54, 249f; 17.401-11; and 19.328-33, where Achilles implies he had no knowledge of Patroclus' coming disaster, with 18.8-14, where he says that Thetis had told him that “the best of the Myrmidons” would die before him.

  49. 19.315-37; cf. Thetis' lamentation in anticipation of his death (18.54-64) with 18.440f.

  50. Dialogue of Thetis and Achilles (18.52-137; cf. his reaction to the prophecy of the horse Xanthus (19.404-23).

  51. “Die, my friend, you also: why do you wail so? Patroclus also died, who was a much better man than you. Do you not see how tall and handsome I am? I am the son of a noble father, and the mother who bore me is a goddess, but death and conquering Fate stand over both you and me. There will be a dawn or an evening or a noonday, when someone will take the breath of life from me in battle, striking me with a spear or with an arrow from a bowstring.”

  52. “… moaning constantly like a well-maned lion, whose cubs have been snatched by a deerhunter from a dense wood: and the lion grieves as it goes behind, and it passes on through many valleys searching after the man's tracks, in the hope of discovering him, for very bitter anger holds it.”

  53. “Achilles surged against him from the other side like a lion, a marauder, whom men are rushing forward to kill, the whole community gathered together: the lion goes in first unheeding: but then one of the battle-swift youths strikes it with a spear, and its crouches gaping-jawed, and froth appears around its fangs, and its proud spirit groans in its heart, and it lashes its ribs and flanks on both sides with its tail, and urges itself on to fight, and with blazing eyes it is hurled forward by its fury, either to kill one of the men or to be destroyed itself in the front of the throng: just so did Achilles' fury and his proud heart urge him on to go against great-hearted Aeneas.”

  54. Cf. Hector's berserk fury (15.605-14), which we have already cited in a different context (supra 142). Lonsdale (68f) points out the close correspondence between the description of Hector in this passage and that of wild beasts in similes like the one cited here.

  55. “You dog, do not beg me by my knees or my parents: I wish my fury and my proud spirit would let me cut off your flesh and eat it raw, for what you have done.”

  56. Cf. K. Stanley, The Shield of Homer (Princeton 1993) 217f.

  57. The threat to eat human flesh is voiced elsewhere by others, but in contexts where it looks like mere hyperbole: as when Zeus mocks Hera's hatred of the Trojans (4.30-36), or when Hecuba vents her impotent hatred of Achilles (24.209-16).

  58. “Gods, you are willing to help ferocious Achilles, whose mind is not held in reasonable measure, nor are his intentions held curbed in his breast: he has savagery in his thoughts, like a lion who yields to his great violence and his proud heart, and goes against the flocks of mortals to seize his prey: just so has Achilles abandoned pity, and there is no restraint in him.”

  59. This line is difficult, as it is ambiguous whether γαι̑α / Γαι̑α refers to the dead Hector or the divine earth, who could be seen as guardian of the θἐμιs violated by Achilles. The former interpretation is strongly suggested by the use of the verb ἀεικίζει (cf. esp. 22.256, 404; 24.22); and see further C. Macleod, Homer: Iliad Book 24 (Cambridge 1982) ad loc.

  60. “‘… Do not torment my heart any more in its grief, old man, lest I cease to restrain myself from you, suppliant though you are, and break Zeus' commands’. So he spoke; and the old man feared and obeyed his words; and Achilles sprang out of the door like a lion.”

  61. Cf. N. Richardson's perceptive comment on this passage: The Iliad: A Commentary VI (Cambridge 1993) ad 24.552-95.

Michael Naas (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6645

SOURCE: Naas, Michael. “Persuasion in the Eyes of the Other.” In Turning: From Persuasion to Philosophy, A Reading of Homer's Iliad, pp. 182-93. Atlantic Highlands N.J.: Humanities Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Naas appraises the concepts of valor, shame, honor, and supplication as they relate to community relations that mediate between the Self and the Other in the Iliad.]

In a society of face to face relations, a culture of shame and honor where competition for glory leaves little room for a sense of duty and knows nothing of sin, the existence of each is constantly placed beneath the gaze of the other. It is in the eye of the one facing you, in the mirror that he presents you, that a self-image takes shape.

—Jean-Pierre Vernant1

If the relation of man with man ceases to be that of the Same with the Same, but rather introduces the Other as irreducible and—given the equality between them—always in a situation of dissymmetry in relation to the one looking at that Other, then a completely different relationship imposes itself and imposes another form of society which one would hardly dare call a “community.”

—Maurice Blanchot2

Throughout the Iliad, persuasion and turning are associated with a series of practices and relations that make mortals accountable to each other, answerable to each other even before themselves. Though it would be impossible to do justice here to the complexity and diversity of these practices, a brief analysis of them is essential to understanding the significance of Achilles' yielding to Priam in Book 24. In the Homeric world, social relations are not the result of separate, independent individuals coming together to form bonds with one another but, rather, the means by which members of a community first become who they are, the means by which they may see others in themselves and themselves in others. In a society where relations are based not on an internal harmony, not on blame and forgiveness, but on an exchange wherein the unexchangeable, impossible moment is both inscribed and indefinitely deferred, all sorts of rites and practices must be called on to renew these relations. In such a society, gift-giving, supplication, and prayer lend continuity and balance to relations between armies, friends, and mortals and the gods. Only in such a society can a gift that is exchanged or a prayer that is offered be conceived not as an object of value or as an expression of piety but as the foundation of value itself, the inscription of turning.


In Homer, courage and valor are not internal character traits but the practice of acting well in the eyes of others. They are the result of reverencing others and feeling shame or having aidōs [αἰδω̑s] before them.3 Reproached by Agamemnon, Diomedes “had respect [αἰδεσθεὶs] to the reproof of the king revered [αἰδοὶοιο]” (4.402), and so fought even more valiantly. When Aias wishes to inspire the Achaean troops he asks them not to reach down inside themselves for valor and might but to find these qualities in their own reflection in the other:

“My friends, be men, and take ye shame [αἰδω̑] in your hearts, and have shame [αἰδει̑σθε] each of the other in the fierce conflict. Of men that have shame more are saved than are slain; but from them that flee springeth neither glory [κλἐοs] nor any avail.”

(15.561, 562-64 = 5.530-32; cf. 5.529)4

To see one's own reflection in the other and the other's in oneself, one must constantly speak and be spoken to. In apostrophizing the other, one will oneself be apostrophized. So the Achaeans stayed,

all in one body [ἀθρόοι], and scattered not throughout the camp; for shame [αἰδos] withheld them and fear; and unceasingly they called aloud one to the other.


As Derrida says, “I am inside of responsibility just as I am inside of language.”5 To have shame before the other is to turn toward them, to call upon and remember them—even if, especially if, they are absent or dead. Only shame before the eyes of those still at home, or those now dead or yet to be born, can elevate individual courage to the level of narrative, turning the individual away from himself and the present toward the “will have been” of the community.

[Nestor], the warder of the Achaeans, besought [λίσσεθ'] each man, adjuring him by them that begat him, saying: “My friends, play the man, and take in your hearts shame of other men, and be ye mindful [μνήσασθε] each man of you, of children and wife, of possessions and of his parents, whether in the case of any they be living or be dead. For the sake of them that are not here with us do I now beseech [γουνάζομαι] you to stand firm, and turn not back [τρωπα̑σθε] in flight.”


What makes the Trojans not savage beasts or heartless barbarians but worthy opponents for the Achaeans is, in a word, their acceptance of shame. More than any of the Achaeans, it seems, Hector lives and dies in the eyes of his community.6 He says to Andromache:

“Wondrously have I shame [αἰδἐομαι] of the Trojans, and the Trojans' wives, with trailing robes, if like a coward I skulk apart [νόσφιν] from the battle. Nor doth mine own heart suffer it, seeing I have learnt to be valiant always and to fight amid the foremost Trojans, striving to win my father's great glory [κλἐοs] and mine own. For of a surety know I this in heart and soul: the day shall come when sacred Ilios shall be laid low.”


Even the knowledge that Troy will fall is not enough to turn Hector away from his community. On the contrary, this knowledge only strengthens his resolve to fight in and for the memory of his and his community's destruction. By living in the eyes of others, Hector lives already in the “will have been” of song, already in the memory of his own death.


Shame allows individuals to turn toward and identify themselves with their community, at the same time as it allows communities to compare and differentiate themselves from each other. For the bonds of shame and reverence cannot always reach all the way to the enemy camp. Just as the shame that binds warriors together is threatened by fear, madness, and hubris, so the reverence of one side for the other is threatened by wrath and vengeance. By reverencing one's own comrades too much, one may seek vengeance against one's enemies and commit outrages against them. Nemesis [νἐμεσιs] is the name given to this indignation before another's shameful deed—whether the deed be done by a member of one's own community or another. As Gilbert Murray succinctly puts it, “Aidōs is what you feel about an act of your own: Nemesis is what you feel for the act of another.”7Aidōs is what one feels for having done a shameful deed, or else that which keeps one from doing such a deed—a deed for which others would feel nemesis.

Shameful, then, is cowardice. When Nestor sees the Achaeans in retreat he speaks of a “deed of shame [ἔργον ἀεικἐs]” (14.13), while Agamemnon must defend his proposal to leave Troy by saying that it is not “shame [νἐμεσιs] to flee from ruin, nay, not though it be by night” (14.80). Shameful, too, is the stripping and spoiling of the dead. Glaucus, a Lykian ally of the Trojans, says to Hector:

“Friends, take your stand beside him, and have indignation [νεμεσσήθητε] in heart, lest the Myrmidons strip him of his armor and work shame [ἀεικίσσωσι] upon his corpse.”

(16.544-46; cf. 17.254-55)8

Though shameful for both the perpetrator and all those who behold it, this outrageous deed does not, interestingly, destroy the glory of the one who suffers it. To be stripped in the prime of life by one's vanquisher on the battlefield is the fate often reserved for the fallen hero, for a Sarpedon, a Patroclus, or a Hector. Truly shameful, however, is the old man spoiled by animals in the city.

“A young man it beseemeth [ἐπἐοικεν] wholly, when he is slain in battle, that he lie mangled by the sharp bronze; dead though he be, all is honorable whatsoever be seen. But when dogs work shame [αἰσχύνωσι] upon the hoary head and hoary beard and on the nakedness [αἰδω̑] of an old man slain, lo, this is the most piteous thing that cometh upon wretched mortals.”

(22.71-76; see Priam's words to Hector at 22.58-61, 66-70)

Whereas the youthful body slain in combat is beautiful, and therefore glorious, the old body devoured by animals is ugly and therefore shameful. Only beautiful things should be brought to the light of day; all else should remain concealed, hidden beneath the earth, covered by clothes and veils. Shameful is the exposure of “privy parts [αἰδοίων]” (13.568), the revelation of private affairs in public settings. Thetis says that she has “shame [αἰδἐομαι] to mingle in the company of the immortals” because she has “measureless griefs at heart,” and so she dons “a dark-hued veil” (24.90-93) before going to Zeus.

Shameful is the disruption of order, the destruction of human beauty. Even harsh words, those that are not usually spoken, are ugly and therefore shameful. Hector speaks to Paris with “words of shame [αἰσχροι̑s]” (13.768). Shameful is irreverence for elders, suppliants, and kin—the disruption of order between generations and relations. So Apollo

turned him back [πάλιν ἐτράπετ'], for he had shame [αἴδετο] to deal in blows with his father's brother [Poseidon].


While the hero's glory is not ruined by his being stripped and spoiled in battle, the spoiling itself is a savagery that must be condemned, for it disrupts the economy of life and death, light and darkness, revelation and concealment. Andromache says that Achilles slew her father but “despoiled him not, for his thymos had awe [σεβάσσατο] of that” (6.417). Killing in battle is necessary, but insulting the living or dead body is not. Such savagery prematurely begins the work of the flies, dogs, vultures, and worms that will infiltrate the corpse and destroy all that was once beautiful in it. While a body pierced by a sword or spear is a glorious sight, one torn apart by animals is abhorrent.

Achilles' “foul entreatment [ἀεικἐα … ἔργα]” of Hector (22.395 = 23.24), his dragging him about behind his chariot, is all the more outrageous in that it is done in full view of Hector's countrymen, parents, and wife; it is all the more abhorrent in that Zeus had “given him over to his foes to suffer foul entreatment [ἀεικίσσασθαι] in his own native land” (22.403-04).

Shame is not having sinful intentions but working harm, making something ugly and unseemly, abetting the processes that undo human beauty. Achilles tells Thetis that he fears that flies and worms “work shame [ἀεικίσσωσι] upon [Patroclus'] corpse—for the life is slain out of him—and so all his flesh shall rot” (19.26-27). Once life is gone from the body, the shame of corruption begins. In his foul treatment of Hector, Achilles adds corruption to corruption, as if he could squeeze yet more life out of Hector's senseless clay, as if he could expose the ravages and ugliness of death itself to the light of day. Apollo complains:

“Lo, it may be that a man hath lost one dearer [φίλτερον] even than was this—a brother, that the selfsame mother bare, or haply a son; yet verily when he hath wept and wailed for him he maketh an end; for an enduring soul have the Fates given unto men. But this man, when he hath reft goodly Hector of life [φίλον [ἐ]τορ], bindeth him behind his chariot and draggeth him about the barrow of his dear comrade; in sooth neither honor nor profit shall he have therefrom. Let him beware lest we wax wroth with him, good man though he be; for lo, in his fury he doth foul despite [ἀεικίζει] unto senseless clay [κωφὴν γαι̑αν].”



The correlate of shame is honor or reverence. One honors those in front of whom one would feel shame for committing certain acts; one feels shame in front of those one reverences. But honor for the other is not divorced from dread and fear of them. Relations of kinship and marriage are honored (Hera is called the “revered wife [αἰδοοίη παράκοιτιs] of Zeus,” 21.479), as are relations of friendship (Hephaestus calls Thetis “a dread [δεινή] and honored [αἰδοίη] goddess,” 18.394),10 camaraderie (Achilles calls Patroclus “the comrade I honored [τετιμἐνον],” 20.426),11 and might (Agamemnon's heralds are “seized with dread, and [are] in awe [αἰδομἐνω]” of Achilles, 1.331).

The Iliad begins, in fact, over a struggle for honor. Achilles says that Agamemnon will regret having done “dishonor” “through his own arrogant act” (1.356), through “his blindness,” to “the best of the Achaeans” (1.412). The dispute between Agamemnon and Achilles is itself precipitated by Agamemnon's dishonoring and rejecting of Chryses, Apollo's priest (1.11), an act that prompts Apollo to send a pestilence among the Achaeans (1.94). Like shame, honor is not an internal quality but a relation. As Braudel says, such a conception of honor was quickly forgotten in the West:

Our European societies have adopted the aristocratic model of honor conceived as a relation of the self with itself more than with the other, as a moral value that is by definition unattackable from the outside, and they have accepted that it in fact be reserved for the superior classes.12

In Homer, honor is determined through the self's relation not to itself but to the other—be this a mortal or a god. Hera complains that “like honor [ὁμὴν … τιμήν]” (24.57) should not be given to Achilles and Hector, since the latter

“is but mortal and was suckled at a woman's breast, but Achilles is the child of a goddess that I mine own self fostered and reared, and gave to a warrior to be his wife, even to Peleus, who was heartily dear [κη̑ρι φίλοs] to the immortals.”


All relations of shame, reverence, honor, and supplication are based on likenesses: one feels shame before others like oneself, one reverences and honors those like or superior to oneself, and one seeks supplication by trying to reveal or create a likeness between oneself and the one to whom one prays. The qualities upon which likenesses are determined are not, therefore, enduring, interior qualities but supple, fragile determinations that must be constantly renewed and rejustified in and through the eyes of the other.

In the Homeric world, birth is important in determining honor but it is not all-important. As Diomedes is about to choose a partner for the night raid, Agamemnon, thinking that Diomedes might choose Menelaus just to honor him, counsels that he not take a man that is worse by “yielding to reverence [αἰδόϊ εἴκων]” and “looking to birth” (10.238-39). The glory of one's birth is not simply given but must be rewon through heroic deeds, a glorious death, or a short life immortalized by song. When Sarpedon is killed in battle—the place “where men win glory [κυδιανείρῃ]” (24.392)—Zeus “shed[s] bloody rain-drops on the earth, shewing honor [τιμω̑ν] to his dear son” (16.459-60), the honor that is the result of his glorious death.

In his dispute with Agamemnon, Achilles says that he should be honored because Zeus has given him a short life (1.352-53). In effect, Achilles says that he should be honored for what he will have done in battle, for having been fated to be slain while doing glorious deeds.

One initially gains glory and honor by slaying someone else of honor; by slaying a hero, one becomes oneself a hero, one of like honor. Patroclus' death is all the more glorious for his having slain Sarpedon. As Sheppard writes, “Take away Sarpedon's beauty, and you rob Patroclus of his tragic greatness” (53).13 Take away Patroclus' greatness, and you rob Euphorbus of the kleos he claims to have won among the Trojans for having had a hand in killing Patroclus (17.16). Patroclus' deeds even transform his armor and body into a great glory [κλἐοs] and point of honor for the Trojans (17.131), so much, in fact, that Hector says of the man who will drag Patroclus back to the Trojan camp, “his glory [κλἐοs] shall be even as mine own” (17.232).

In order for there not to be perpetual strife and war, likenesses among comrades must be expanded to likenesses among enemies. Through relations of hospitality and supplication, what is foreign becomes familiar, what is different, like. Just as the Iliad begins with a disruption of likeness and a division among allies, so the Trojan War begins with a breach in guest-friend relations. Menelaus prays to avenge himself on Paris so “that many a one even of men yet to be may shudder to work evil to his host [ξεινοδόκον], that hath shown him friendship [φιλότητα]” (3.353-54). Paris' transgression of the rites of hospitality is not a present sin that entails future condemnation but a transgression of the likeness between guest-friends—a transgression that is damnable on the plane of the “will have been.” It is abhorrent for those in the present because it is a transgression; but it is a transgression in the first place because it will have been abhorrent in the eyes of past and future generations.


In Homer, all laws or rites inscribe likenesses rather than identities—ways of turning rather than rules or prescriptions to follow. All transgressions, then, are transgressions of likenesses, attempts to put oneself above or beyond measure and comparison, beyond all likeness with others. Because likenesses are determined not by essences or qualities that inhere in the individual but by ways or manners of turning, disruptions of these likenesses transgress the “law” of presencing. Indeed, only when the law of turning or presencing has been forgotten can there be human or sacred laws and, thus, transgressions of those laws. Human and sacred laws are, therefore, already transgressions of the law of turning, though certain laws, the laws of the suppliant for example, realize their own inevitable injustice better than others.

Like valor, shame, and honor, respect for the suppliant is based not on some purely subjective feeling of pity or remorse but on the possibility of seeing oneself in the other and the other in oneself. Supplication depends upon a certain analogy being drawn between mortals, even though this analogy may prove ineffective or fall on deaf ears. Such is the case of the unfortunate Tros, who tried to persuade Achilles to spare him because of their likeness in age.

[Tros] came to clasp his knees, if so be he would spare him, by taking him captive, and let him go alive, and slay him not, having pity on one of like age, fool that he was [νήπιοs]! Nor knew he this, that with him was to be no hearkening [πείσεσθαι]; for nowise soft of heart [γλυκύθυμοs] or gentle of mind [ἀγανόφρων] was the man, but exceedingly fierce—he sought to clasp Achilles' knees with his hands, fain to make his prayer [λίσσεσθ']; but he smote him upon the liver with his sword.


Unbending, closed to analogy, Achilles refuses the pleas of the suppliant. This scene already foreshadows Hector's death in Book 22, for just as Achilles refuses to consider the likeness of Tros' age, so he will refuse to consider the likeness of Hector's fate. He will refuse to see that by killing another he is in some way killing himself. In the midst of his aristeia, Achilles denies every suppliant.

But again, the Iliad is not the story of some savage who learns only at the end to have reverence for the other. Achilles had in the past captured sons of Priam and sold them off to foreign lands rather than slay them (11.106). Such was the good fortune of Lycaon, who was sold at Lemnos but was then bought by a guest-friend and sent to Arisbe, whence he escaped and returned to Troy. For eleven days he feasted at home, but on the twelfth a god cast him back into the hands of Achilles. Nowhere else in the poem is the difference between Achilles before and after the death of Patroclus more poignantly marked. Seeing Lycaon unarmed, Achilles calls his appearance a “great marvel [θαυ̑μα]” (21.54) and asks mockingly how his old suppliant has returned from exile. But then he adds:

“Nay, but come, of the point of our spear also shall he taste, that I may see and know in heart whether in like [ὁμω̑s] manner he will come back even from beneath, or whether the life-giving earth will hold him fast, she that holdeth even him that is strong.”


Drawing his own gruesome analogy, Achilles asks whether Lycaon will return from death just as he returned from exile. Again, Achilles sees no common measure between life and death. While differences in the light of the living may be measured and compared, death absorbs and holds all differences in itself. And yet, while Achilles mocks Lycaon, he is also astonished by him, just as he will be astonished and fascinated by the ghost of Patroclus in Book 23. He does not, therefore, slay him immediately.

So pondered he [ὥρμαινε], and abode; but the other drew nigh him, dazed [τεθηπώs], eager to touch his knees, and exceedingly fain of heart was he to escape from evil death and black fate.


Having gained a moment's reprieve, Lycaon attempts to minimize the great event separating this capture from the last—the death of Patroclus. He beseeches Achilles as before and recalls his past kindness but then denies any likeness between himself and Hector—the one who, in killing Patroclus, changed everything.

Then Lycaon besought [ἐλλίσσετο] him, with the one hand clasping his knees while with the other he held the sharp spear, and would not let it go. … “I beseech thee by thy knees, Achilles, and do thou respect me [αἵδεο] and have pity [ἐλἐησον]; in thine eyes, O thou nurtured of Zeus, am I even as a sacred suppliant [ἐκἐταο … αἰδοίοιο] … slay me not; since I am not sprung from the same womb [ὁμογάστριοs] as Hector, who slew thy comrade the kindly and valiant.”

(21.71-72, 74-75, 94-96)

But Achilles is unable or unwilling either to draw an analogy between past and present or to dissociate Lycaon from his dearest friend's killer. He himself is perfectly lucid on this point:

[So Lycaon spake] with words of entreaty [λισσόμενοs], but all ungentle [ἀμείλικτον] was the voice he heard: “Fool [νήπιε], tender not ransom to me, neither make harangue. Until Patroclus met his day of fate, even till then was it more pleasing to me to spare the Trojans, and full many I took alive and sold oversea; but now there is not one that shall escape death, whomsoever before the walls of Ilios God shall deliver into my hands—aye, not one among all the Trojans, and least of all among the sons of Priam. Nay, friend [φίλοs], do thou too die; why lamentest thou thus? Patroclus also died, who was better far than thou. And seest thou not what manner of man am I, how comely and tall? A good man was my father, and a goddess the mother that bare me; yet over me too hang death and mighty fate. There shall come a dawn or eve or mid-day, when my life too shall some man take in battle.”


The only analogy now open to Achilles is the perverse analogy of death. Because Patroclus died, because he himself must die, there is no reason to spare Lycaon. Unpersuaded by promises of gifts or ransom, Achilles levels all things in death.

In his vengeance, Achilles has neither pity nor respect. The sign of his obstinate dwelling in and with himself is his rejection of speech and persuasion. In Homer, the turning of speech is exemplary of the turning of all present beings, and so the rejection of speech is an exemplary rejection of turning. As long as Achilles remains open to the powers of speech, to turning and persuasion, the ordering of mortals and gods remains intact. By becoming unpersuadable, unbendable by prayers and gifts, by closing himself off to speech, by making of himself a perduring present rather than an inscription of turning, Achilles puts the forces of the cosmos, of mortals and gods, temporarily out of whack.

This turning toward perdurance is not an individual action that then has repercussions among the gods but the unfolding of the difference between mortals and gods. Once unfolded, the difference is distributed throughout the various levels of the narrative. The (un)persuadability of Achilles is the same as that of the gods, of Zeus, and of necessity. Because these differences are distributed horizontally and not vertically, there is no hierarchy of power; the difference between Achilles and himself is the same as that between Zeus and himself, Zeus and necessity.

In the end, not even the death of Hector will be sufficient to appease Achilles' wrath. When in Book 22 Hector accepts his inevitable death and asks only that his body be returned to Troy, Achilles refuses even this request, as if by insulting the body and working shame upon it he could multiply the disorder and add death to death.

Hector: “I implore [λίσσομ'] thee by thy life [ψυχη̑s] and knees and parents, suffer me not to be devoured of dogs by the ships … nay, take thou store of bronze and gold, gifts that my father and queenly mother shall give thee, but my body [σω̑μα] give thou back to my home, that the Trojans … may give me my due meed of fire in my death.”


Achilles: “Implore me not, dog, by knees or parents. Would that in any wise wrath and fury might bid me carve thy flesh and myself eat it raw, because of what thou hast wrought, as surely as there lives no man that shall ward off the dogs from thy head; nay, not though they should bring hither and weigh out ranson ten-fold, aye, twenty-fold, and should promise more.”


Though one learns in the following book that Patroclus himself came as a suppliant to Peleus for slaying a kinsman in his youth (23.88), Achilles has no ears for his friend's slayer.16 Indeed, he even dreams, in the end, of devouring him, as if only incorporation could appease the vengeance, as if the distance between himself and Patroclus could be breached only by becoming one with his friend's slayer.17 Because not even death is enough, Achilles will make Hector pay more than the ultimate price.

“Now shalt thou pay back [ἀποτίσειs] the full price of all my sorrows for my comrades, whom thou didst slay when raging with thy spear.”


Having already chosen twelve Trojans as “blood-price [ποινὴν] for dead Patroclus” (21.28),18 Achilles can find no price great enough for Patroclus' death. Not death, not even the utter humiliation and destruction of Hector's body will do; only the incorporation of the other would be sufficient, the incorporation of all that is other and different. The only adequate price for Patroclus' death at this stage of Achilles' grief would be the annihilation of difference itself.

Hence a messenger from the gods must come to Achilles to command him to give back Hector's body. Through the intercession of Thetis, Zeus tells Achilles that the gods are angry with him for holding Hector, and that he hopes Achilles will “be seized with fear of [him] and give Hector back [λύση]” (24.114-16; 113-15 = 134-36). Acceptance of the suppliant is thus not totally divorced from threats of force. Yet, Zeus wishes that a solution may be found not in overt force or covert deception but in supplication. Knowing that he must respond to the other gods' request that Hector's body be stolen away, Zeus invents a way both to appease the gods and honor Achilles (24.71-76). Claiming that Achilles would notice the body being stolen away, Zeus plans for Priam to ransom it with gifts.19 He says to Thetis:

“Herein do I accord honor [κυ̑δοs] unto Achilles; for I would fain keep in time to come thy worship [αἰδω̑] and thy love [φιλότητα].”


While the Iliad begins with the rejection of Chryses' ransom by Agamemnon, it ends with the acceptance of Priam's ransom by Achilles. While the rest of the Achaeans in Book 1 would have accepted Chryses' ransom out of “reverence [αἰδει̑σθαί]” for the priest of Apollo, this “pleased [ἥνδανε] not the heart of Agamemnon” (1.24). But, in Book 24, the ransom is finally accepted, setting back in order the social relations temporarily disrupted by strife and discord. The difference between the rejection and the acceptance of this—the same?—ransom is the difference between life and death, the living daughter of Chryses and the dead son of Priam. Thetis asks Achilles to “take ransom [ἅποινα] for the dead” (24.137), and Achilles responds:

“So let it be; whoso bringeth ransom, let him bear away the dead, if verily with full purpose of heart the Olympian himself so biddeth.”


Obedience has come full circle. While Zeus answered the prayers of Achilles in Book 1—the prayers that brought Achilles glory as well as pain—Achilles yields to Zeus' wishes in Book 24.

As for Priam, he had already in the midst of his “frenzy” (22.412) found the magic formula that would make Achilles turn toward and accept him.20 Priam says that he will go to the ships and make

“prayer [λίσσωμ'] to yon ruthless man, yon worker of violence [ὀβριμοεργόν], if so be he may have shame before his fellows [ἡλικίην αἰδἐσσεται] and have pity on my old age. He too, I ween, hath a father such as I am, even Peleus.”


Achilles will turn at this invocation of his father—an invocation that will coincide with the threats of Zeus, his mother's prayers, the ending of his vengeful wrath, and a renewed openness to death. Indeed Achilles must, in the end, accept Priam as a suppliant. Zeus, the god of suppliants, tells Iris to reassure Priam, who must go to the ships attended only by a herald, that the gods will not abandon him.

“Let not death be in his thoughts, neither any fear; such a guide will we give him, even Argeïphontes. … And when he shall have led him into the hut, neither shall Achilles himself slay him nor suffer any other to slay; for not without wisdom [ἄφρων] is he, neither without purpose [ἄσκοποs], nor yet hardened in sin [ἀλιτήμων]; nay, with all kindliness [μάλ' ἐνδυκἐωs] will he spare a suppliant [ἱκἐτεω] man.”

(24.149-58; cf. 179-87)

Zeus knows that “the hearts of the good may be turned” (15.203)—be it by persuasion or threat or both. For even if Zeus must threaten Achilles to accept Priam as his suppliant, Achilles will have already turned of his own accord to accept him. And even if he will have turned of his own accord, his turning will have already been in response to a certain threat of force.

In Book 15, an exemplary scene reveals the ambivalence at the heart of persuasion and obedience, and demonstrates how the ambivalent turning disrupts the opposition between force and persuasion. Having just awakened from the slumber into which he fell after being seduced by Hera, Zeus sees Poseidon helping the Achaeans in battle and says to Hera:21

“If … thy thought hereafter were to be one with my thoughts [ῒσον ἐμοὶ φρονἐουσα] as thou sittest among the immortals, then would Poseidon, how contrary soever his wish might be [καὶ εἰ μάλα βούλεται ἄλλῃ], forthwith bend [μεταστρἐψειε] his mind [νόον] to follow thy heart and mine.”


Through Iris, Zeus then threatens Poseidon, revealing that the turning of persuasion is not divorced from the turning of force.

“And if so be he will not obey [ἐπιπείσεται] my words, but shall set them at naught, let him bethink him then in mind and heart … for I avow me to be better far than he in might [βίῃ], and the elder born. Yet his heart counteth it but a little thing to declare himself the peer [ῒσον] of me of whom even the other gods are adread.”

(15.162-63, 165-67)

Poseidon will ultimately be persuaded by these words because Zeus has the power to back them up. Poseidon's yielding to persuasion is thus not a purely internal accord untainted by physical threats or external constraints. The good turn not because they are virtuous but because they have learned to live under the sway of the other. Just as Athene persuaded Ares not to rebell against Zeus, so Iris persuades Poseidon to yield to Zeus. Iris says to Poseidon:

“unyielding and harsh, or wilt thou anywise turn thee [μεταστρἐψειs]; for the hearts of the good may be turned [στρεπταὶ μἐν τε φρἐνεs ἐσθλω̑ν]? Thou knowest how the Erinys ever follow to aid the elderborn.”


The hearts of the good may be turned because the heart is itself a turning. In Book 24, Achilles comes to see that his heart, too, is a turning, a circuit that marks identity with alterity and death. In the final book of the Iliad, Achilles and Priam have a heart to heart, and, through it, come to the astonishing realization that they share, in effect, the same heart.


  1. Jean-Pierre Vernant, ‘L'individu, la mort, l'amour (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1989), ii (my translation).

  2. Maurice Blanchot, The Unavowable Community, trans. Pierre Joris (Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 1988), 3.

  3. Like Plato in the Laches, Aristotle argues in the Eudemian Ethics that many men are called “brave” even when they are motivated by passion or ignorance: “But among all such causes, it is when shame [αἰδω̑] makes men face what is alarming that they would appear [φανει̑εν] to be bravest, as Homer says Hector faced the danger of encountering Achilles: ‘And shame on Hector seized [‘′Εκτορα δ'αἰδos εἰλε]’ and ‘Polydamas will be the first to taunt me.’ Civic courage is this kind. But true courage is neither this nor any of the others, though it resembles them, as does the courage of wild animals, which are led by passion to rush to meet the blow” (1230a17-23; Il. 22.100, the first phrase is not in our Homer). Cf. Magna Moralia 1191a, 5-14, and Oeconomica.

  4. Sarpedon boasts at 5.472-92 that he and his men are fighting bravely in spite of the fact that, as allies, their friends and families are far away. It is easier to fight, Sarpedon implies, when those for whom one is fighting, those in front of whom one would feel shame, are present. Cf. 16.422, 498-500; 17.336-37, 556-58; 21.436-43, 585-88.

  5. Jacques Derrida, Ecole Normale Supérieure, January 25, 1989. My translation of “Je suis dans la responsabilité comme je suis dans le langage.”

  6. Richmond Lattimore writes in his introduction to the Iliad (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 46, “Not bloodthirsty enough to be a natural warrior, [Hector] fights finely from a sense of duty and a respect for the opinions of others, a respect which Paris notoriously lacks (3.43-45; 56-57). … Some hidden weakness, not cowardice but perhaps the fear of being called a coward, prevents him from liquidating a war which he knows perfectly well is unjust. This weakness, which is not remote from his boasting, nor from his valor (6.407), is what kills him.”

    Hecabe says that Hector was killed not “playing the dastard [κακιζόμενόν]” but defending Troy, “with no thought of shelter or of flight” (24.214, 216).

  7. Gilbert Murray, The Rise of the Greek Epic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 4th ed., 1934), 83.

  8. Hermes leads Priam to Achilles' tent but says that he will not enter for “good cause for wrath [νεμεσσητὸν] would it be that an immortal god should thus openly be entertained [ἀγαπαζἐμεν] of mortals” (24.463-64). Who would be indignant, that is, have nemesis—men or gods? Hera tells Hephaestus to stop attacking Xanthus with fire since “it is nowise seemly [ἔοικεν] thus to smite an immortal god for mortals' sake” (21.379-80). Other examples of shameful deeds: 16.559, 18.176-80, 21.220-21.

  9. Hera boasts to Artemis—and not unlike Zeus: “Howbeit if thou wilt, learn thou of war, that thou mayest know full well how much mightier am I, seeing thou matchest [ἀντιφερίζειs] thy strength with mine” (21.487-88). Hera calls Artemis “shameless [ἀδδεἐs]” (21.481) for facing her in battle. A few lines later, Hermes sees Artemis so easily beaten by Hera and so says that he will not fight with Leto: “A hard thing were it to bandy blows with the wives of Zeus, the cloud-gatherer; nay, with a ready heart boast thou among the immortal gods that thou didst vanquish me with thy great might [βίηφιν]” (21.498-501).

  10. As for the reverence and honor of women, when Priam is told by Iris to ransom Hector, he goes down into the treasure vault, which appears to be Hecabe's domain, and asks for Hecabe's advice about the mission (24.197-98). On the relationship between men, women, and mourning in the Iliad, see Hélène Monsacré's Les larmes d'Achille (Paris: Albin Michel, 1984).

  11. Other passages related to honor: 13.176, 461; 24.574-75.

  12. La Méditerranée: l'espace et l'histoire, directed by Fernand Braudel (Paris: Flammarion, 1985), 212 (my translation).

  13. J. T. Sheppard, The Pattern of the Iliad (New York: Haskell House, 1966), 53.

  14. When Lycaon hears Achilles' ungentle response, his “knees were loosened where he was and his heart was melted [λύτο γούνατα καὶ φίλον ἠτορ]” (21.114). He crouches with both hands outstretched as he is slain.

  15. In Book 2, Hera asks Athene to restrain the Achaeans with “gentle [ἀγανοι̑s] words” from taking to the sea (2.164). Just lines later, Athene offers the very same advice to Odysseus, urging him to get his comrades to return to the assembly (2.180).

    Agamemnon encourages his troops with “gentle [μειλιχίοισιν]” words (4.256). Helen speaks “gentle words” (6.343) to Hector when she tries to persuade him to sit, stay, and rest. The sons of Antimachus plead with Agamemnon to spare them, weeping and promising ransom “with gentle [μειλιχίοιs] words, but all ungentle [ἀμείλικτον] was the voice they heard” (11.136-37). Because Antimachus had once suggested slaying Menelaus and Odysseus when they were on an embassy to Troy, Agamemnon makes them “pay the price of [their] father's foul outrage [ἀεικἐα τίσετε λώβην]” (11.142). Odysseus and Diomedes are welcomed back to the ships with “hand-clasps and with gentle [μειλιχίοισι]” words (10.542). Tydeus went on his embassy to the Cadmeians with a “gentle word [μειλίχιον μυ̑θον]” (10.288). Gentle words, linked to greetings and hospitality, are thus the opposite of what is required in war. Aias says, “in the might of our hands is the light of deliverance, and not in slackness [μειλιχίῃ] in fight” (15.740-41). When Meleager's mother prayed to Hades, Persephone, and the Erinys for the death of her brothers at the hand of her son, the Erinys heard her “of the ungentle heart [ἀμείλιχον ἣτορ]” (9.571-72).

  16. Patroclus says that he slew a kinsman “in my folly [νήπιοs], though I willed it not [οὐκ ἐθἐλων], in wrath over dice” (23.88). But “Peleus received me into his house and reared me with kindly care [ἐνδυκἐωs] and named me thy squire” (23.89-90). When Epeigeus “had slain a goodly man of his kin, to Peleus he came as a suppliant [ἱκἐτευσε]” (16.573-74).

  17. As Pierre Vidal-Naquet writes in The Black Hunter (trans. Andrew Szegedy-Maszak [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986], 33 n46), “In the Iliad, when Achilles and Hecabe reach extremes of grief and anger, they fantasize about eating their enemies: 22.347; 24.212.”

  18. Patroclus is said to gain “vengeance [ποινήν] for many a slain comrade” (16.398; cf. 13.659).

  19. Zeus sends Iris to tell Priam to “ransom his dear son [λύσασθαι φίλον υἱόν], and to bear gifts unto Achilles which shall make glad his heart” (24.118-19). Ransom is called “splendid gifts [ἀγλαὰ δω̑ρ']” (24.447), “glorious gifts [κλυτὰ δω̑ρα]” (24.458)—a “ransom past counting [ἀπερείσι' ἄποινα]” (24.502). Achilles and his squires take “the countless ransom for Hector's head [κεφαλη̑s ἀπερείσι' ἄποινα]” (24.579 = 276), leaving two robes and a tunic for the body. The ransom (24.228-35) includes a gift from the Thracians, a great treasure, since “not even this did the old man spare in his halls, for he was exceedingly fain to ransom his dear son [φίλον υἵον]” (24.235-37). Other passages related to ransom: 18.408; 22.50, 53; 24.686-88.

  20. “To all [Priam] made prayer [λιτάνευε], grovelling [κυλινδόμενοs] the while in the filth, and calling on each man by name: ‘Withhold, my friends, and suffer me for all your love [κηδόμενοι] to go forth from the city alone’” (22.414-17). Like a madman, Priam drives out with his staff all those before his portico (24.239) and reviles his nine remaining sons: “Haste ye, base children [κακὰ τἐκνα] that are my shame [κατηφόνεs]” (24.253ff.).

  21. Hera bids Apollo and Iris to go to Zeus and follow his command. When Zeus, “wreathed [ἐστεφάνωτο]” in a fragrant cloud, sees them, “his heart waxed nowise wroth, for that they had speedily obeyed [πιθἐσθην] the words of his dear wife” (15.153, 155-56).

P. V. Jones (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8216

SOURCE: Jones, P. V. “The Independent Heroes of the Iliad.Journal of Hellenic Studies 116 (1996): 108-18.

[In the following essay, Jones analyzes the balance between human and divine responsibility in the Iliad, describing Homer's narrative treatment of the gods and fate vis-à-vis the mortal perspectives of his heroes.]

My objective in this paper is to consider the question of the mysteriousness or numinosity of the gods in the Iliad by examining first how heroes talk about and react to the gods, and second how Homer handles fate. My aim is to integrate the findings into a wider thesis about the Iliad's narrative strategy.1

Griffin (1980) 152 discusses the mysteriousness and numinosity of Homeric gods, and cites Il. [Iliad] i 43-52, Od. iii 371-82, xix 33-42, saying ‘It is perhaps worth emphasising that in each of these … episodes, we see not only the god behaving like a real god, mysteriously, but also the characters who are present at the moment of revelation responding to it in what can only be called a religious way: adoration or reverent silence’. My point is very simple. This is not how the heroes themselves talk about the gods, nor (in the Iliad at any rate, I believe) is it how they react to them. To summarise my broad conclusions: when heroes talk about the gods, they talk of their power and their unpredictability. When they react to the gods, they do so as if they were reacting to very powerful humans, who may be friends or enemies. I see no indication anywhere in the Iliad of the heroes either talking about or reacting to the gods reverently, as if they regarded them as mysterious, numinous, venerable beings.2 This, of course, is not to deny that when Homer as narrator describes the gods, he may invest them with these glamorous qualities.3 But it is not the way his humans talk about them.

At the same time, I would like to raise a general question mark (no more) over the application of such terms as ‘whim’, ‘the irrational’, ‘the inexplicable’ to the heroes understanding of (that is, what the heroes say about) the gods. While the heroes are always saying the gods are unpredictable, I do not think it is nit-picking to assert that that is not the same as saying that they are whimsical or irrational.4 The National Lottery and football pools are unpredictable, but they are not irrational, even if one fails to understand how they work.


At the start of the Iliad, Apollo inflicts a plague on the Greek camp for the insult done to his priest Chryses. Achilles knows plagues come from Apollo (i 64) and proposes action. Calchas confirms Apollo is angry and says Chryses' daughter must be returned (i 93-100). She is, with appropriate sacrifices (i 430-49), and Apollo is appeased (i 456-7). As a rational sequence of events in the eyes of those engaged in them, this is unimpeachable.5 Everyone knows why the plague has happened. Appropriate action is taken and it ends. The god is seen as one who acts not randomly or mysteriously, but rationally. Humans therefore can analyse the problem correctly and come up with the solution. Indeed, we are close to magic here—‘the art of influencing the course of events by compelling the agency of spiritual beings’ (SOED)—only Homer suppresses the magical, and emphasises the rational. There is divine grandeur here, of course—Apollo's descent like night, the scenes of sacrifice, and so on. But such grandeur is evident in narrative, not speech.6

At i 188-222, Athena comes down from heaven at Hera's behest to prevent Achilles killing Agamemnon (i 195-6). As he is drawing his sword, she seizes him by the hair from behind (no one else sees this, Homer tells us—i 198). Achilles is amazed (he has just felt his hair pulled),7 turns round and recognises the goddess by her glowing eyes (she is, after all, γλαυκω̑πιs)8 (i 199-200). They discuss the situation, Achilles agrees to restrain himself in return for eventual compensation, replaces his sword, and Athena goes back to Olympus. Achilles' opening words to Athena hardly express reverent adoration: ‘You see what Agamemnon has done to me? He'll pay for it’. He may have been amazed when he felt his hair being pulled, but no such feeling registers when he sees the goddess. He sheathes his sword only when Athena has given him a firm promise of compensation for Agamemnon's insult. This is not the attitude of a man who is overwhelmed by the divine presence. Nor does Athena speak like someone who is used to commanding men's unquestioning obedience: observe her polite αἴ κε πίθηαι (207) and πείθεο δ' ἡμι̑ν (214). As Willcock (1978) on i 207 remarks ‘The goddess can advise but she does not compel: the decision and the responsibility remain with Achilles’.9

This scene is unquestionably impressive and thoroughly divine in character (those shining eyes at i 200). Griffin is surely right to reject the argument that the passage is ‘little more than a figure of speech’ for a change of heart in Achilles (Griffin [1980] 158-60). But what numinosity there is in the passage lies in the narrator's scene-setting, not in what his characters say.

It is remarkable, in fact, how characters respond when they come, or think they might have come, face-to-face with divinities: they might as well be facing very powerful humans. At iii 399-412 Helen with a passionate outburst refuses to do what Aphrodite has asked of her—even, surely ironically, addressing Aphrodite as δαιμονίη at 399 (see Kirk [1985] ad loc.). She has to be threatened into obeying (414-17). At v 180-91, Pandarus wonders whether it really is Diomedes he has been shooting at (181), or whether it is Diomedes protected by a god (185-6), or a god (183). From the way he talks, it seems all the same to him: his only reaction is to vow to smash his bow if ever he gets home (212-16). At v 433 Diomedes sees clearly that Apollo is protecting Aeneas, but still attacks him: he desists only when Apollo calls on him to retreat, which he does—a little (τυτθὸν ὀπίσσω—v 440-3). Griffin (1980) 155 is right to remark on the grandeur of Apollo's rebuke: my interest is in Diomedes' cool reaction. He is not even afraid of the god, merely careful to avoid (ἀλευόμενοs) his wrath (cf. Silk [1987] 87). In v 596-606, Diomedes observes that Hector has Ares with him. He shivers and stops, baffled, like a man unable to cross a seething river, and then calls on the Greeks to retreat in orderly fashion—there is no taking on the gods in combat.10 At v 800-824, Athena rebukes Diomedes for not being as good as his father Tydeus. Diomedes answers that he is merely following her instructions. See, for further examples, vii 43-53, xi 195-213, xiv 361-87, xv 236-62, xvi 513-31 (where Glaucus at least has the grace to recognise the god and rejoice [γήθησεν] when Apollo hears his prayer and heals his wound), xvii 326-431, xviii 169-201, xxi 284-300. Had these encounters not been with gods but with humans, there would have been nothing remarkable about the exchange of views expressed.11


(i) iii 369-447: Aphrodite rescues Paris from death at Menelaus' hands, and carries him off to deposit him in Helen's bedroom. Aphrodite then summons Helen to join him. Menelaus searches in vain for his vanished opponent. The breaking of Paris's chin strap (iii 375) is assigned by the poet to Aphrodite but it is capable of a natural explanation and Menelaus is not surprised by it. He nonchalantly lobs the empty helmet into the crowd (iii 377-8), and turns to finish off his enemy (iii 379-80). It is at this moment that the miracle happens and Aphrodite wraps Paris in mist and whisks him away (iii 380-2).

Homer has described to us, his audience, a supernatural event. The question is: how do his characters respond to it? Paris makes no response at all. To judge from his words, no miracle has taken place. This is strange, since he was its beneficiary, and it was something to boast about when a god openly helped a hero (cf. e.g. xxii 270-1). Does the rather cryptic παρὰ γὰρ θεοί εἰσι καὶ ἡμι̑ν (440) constitute his reaction? Menelaus too expresses no surprise and makes no attempt to explain what has happened. Hector does not enlarge on the matter either at vi 326-31. In other words, the characters treat what is presented to us as a transparent miracle as if it were a given, a datum of human experience. They certainly do not speculate on the irrational or the inexplicable.

(ii) xx 321-52: Poseidon blinds Achilles, thoughtfully extracts Achilles' spear from Aeneas' shield and returns it to him (Achilles, of course, will need it when he meets Hector), and then hoists Aeneas up and away across the ranks to the edge of the fighting. Achilles angrily (ὀχθήσαs) exclaims that he sees a μἐγα θαυ̑μα because the spear lies on the ground but there is no Aeneas, but, unlike Menelaus, draws the right conclusion: the gods have intervened to save his opponent. ‘What the hell’, he concludes (ἐρρἐτω): he won't be back in a hurry. One cannot say there is much ‘adoration or reverent silence’ here. Achilles is equally brusque with Apollo at xxii 20. Apollo has disguised himself as Agenor and led Achilles a merry dance. Apollo mockingly reveals himself and the furious Achilles says he would take his revenge on him, if he were able. This is the way a hero can, admittedly in extremis, address a god in the Iliad.12

(iii) xvi 786-867: Patroclus charges for the fourth time, and Apollo hits him. He knocks off his helmet, shatters his spear and breaks his corselet. Euphorbus stabs Patroclus as he tries to retreat, and Hector finishes Patroclus off. They exchange words before Patroclus dies.

As Griffin rightly says (Griffin [1980] 153), ‘The combination of mystery, power, and effortlessness, marks this as a divine intervention’: it is surely a scene unmatched in intensity, pathos and potency in the Iliad. Yet this transformation elicits no comment from any human actor. It might all be a mystery to us, but it is not to them. It is left to Patroclus to point out that (though he did not see them) divine agencies were involved: first, Zeus and Apollo, both of whom (he seems to think) stripped him of his armour (xvi 843-6); then fate and Apollo ‘killed’ me, he says (xvi 849, as do Achilles' horses at xix 411-14), and of men Euphorbus. That this is not what in fact happened (to be pedantic) is interesting. But then, how could Patroclus know? He was attacked from behind (xvi 79, cf. Athena's approach to Achilles from behind at i 197). But he has put two and two together (he had, after all, been warned that Apollo would attack him if he went too far—xvi 91-4, 288), and got it almost right: and by throwing in ‘fate’ and ‘Zeus’ too, he incidentally removes yet more glory from Hector.

Patroclus, in other words, like any good historian, has given a rational account of what some might see as an irrational event. Indeed, as far as the humans' response goes, Apollo's intervention might never have happened. The whole episode is neither inexplicable nor mysterious nor irrational, to judge from the words of the speakers. Mueller (1984) 127, points out here that the ‘violation of divine causality is emphasised’. By Homer, yes, but not by the characters.

For further miracles, see e.g. v 311-516, xv 355-66, xviii 205-6, xix 1-18,13 38-9, 352-4, 404-24, xx 441-6, xxi 221-382, 597, xxii 276-7, xxiii 184-191, xxiv 18-21, 416-23. It is superfluous to work through them all. These miracles are negotiated by the human actors without comment or with an offhandedness that would (one imagines) better characterise encounters between humans. It is almost as if the heroes expect the gods to intervene. We, of course, may feel the gods are using their superior force irrationally. It never crosses the heroes' minds to say that.


I cannot find any speech by any human being in the Iliad which talks of the gods as mysterious beings. Humans talk in terms only of the gods' power—almost exclusively, their power to help them or hinder them, for which gods can be praised or blamed. For humans, gods are either on their side or against them. This increases the instability of human life, but it does not make it irrational or mysterious. There is nothing necessarily irrational or mysterious about superior force.

So, at viii 139-44, Nestor points out to Diomedes that Zeus gives victory to one man on one day, to another on another. Today, they are losing—so retreat (cf. xi 316- 19). At iv 160-8 and 235, Agamemnon is full of confidence that Zeus will help him to take Troy; but at ix 17-25, Agamemnon points out Zeus's power to do what he will: Zeus had agreed to let him take Troy, but he had deceived him (cf. Achilles at xix 270-5, blaming Zeus in similar terms). At xiv 69-73, Agamemnon contrasts the present, when Zeus helps the Trojans, with the past, when he helped the Greeks (cf. Ajax at xvi 119-21). At xv 490-3, Hector observes that Zeus can increase and diminish people's strength—and now he is diminishing the Greeks' (cf. Ajax at xvii 629-33 and Aeneas at xx 242-3). At xvii 176-8, Hector says that Zeus can drive a man into battle and on other occasions terrify him witless. At xxiii 546-7 Antilochus, thinking he is to be robbed of second prize in the chariot race, says Eumelus should have prayed to the gods (sc. to win). These sentiments could be duplicated many times.

Consider the evidence for prayer to the gods in the Iliad. I count thirty-four direct prayers for help.14 All of them are utterly self-interested; all of them make specific requests for specific action; most of them arise from life-or-death situations. None of them expresses to me any sense of adoration, reverence, numinosity, or mystery.15

While it is true that merely counting examples does not tell one much about the weight of importance an author attaches to any episode (there was, after all, only one Embassy to Achilles), it still strikes me as surprising that the heroes offer so few prayers to the gods in the course of the Iliad. There is so much they could seek divine aid for, but they never do unless life and death are at stake (or victory and defeat in games, virtually the same thing for these heroes), and they never express gratitude and rarely even acknowledge help received.16 What is even more surprising, by contrast, is the number of times that the gods intervene on behalf of heroes without being invoked. This occurs far more frequently than the heroes' prayers to the gods. Consider, for example, the incessant uncalled-for interventions of Apollo, Athena, Poseidon and Zeus in v, xi-xv, and xvii in particular, as they intervene to support their favourites or advance their cause.

I have asserted that the heroes in the Iliad never talk in terms of divine mystery and numinosity. One cannot prove a negative. All one can do is to ask for counter examples. There are, for example, the three moral allegories of the Iliad. First, there is Phoenix's theological discussion of the Λιταί at ix 497-512. This says nothing more than that the gods respond to those who sacrifice to and supplicate them (as the Greeks well know—cf. the Chryses' episode in Book 1 already discussed). Far from wrapping the gods in mystery, Phoenix's aim is to explain graphically and with the utmost clarity how they work. Second, Agamemnon discusses ἄτη at great length at xix 86-138. His purpose is to move the blame for his clash with Achilles from his own shoulders onto Zeus's. This is a very practical argument, which does nothing to enhance our impression of the Greek leader. The ‘mystery’ of the gods is the last thing Agamemnon has in mind: his whole purpose, like Phoenix's, is to demonstrate the way they work, and why the quarrel with Achilles is not his fault. Third, Achilles reflects on Zeus's dispensation of good and evil at xxiv 525-33: to some he gives mixed good and evil, to others unmixed evil. This is part of Achilles' consolatio to Priam. Achilles uses it to show Priam that he has not (as he averred) lived a life of unmixed evil (xxiv 494-5), but one of mixed good and evil (543-9), just like Peleus (534-42). What strikes me is the clarity of Achilles' analysis. It does not read to me like the insight of a man who finds life an irrational mystery, lived at the mercy of numinous gods.17

Nor does Achilles have anything more interesting to say about the relations of men and gods in his great speech in reply to Odysseus during the Embassy at ix 308-429. Here surely was the chance for a poet who was impressed by the mystery of the gods to raise the issues involved—after all, it is the Iliad's greatest human dilemma. He does not take it: for it is, indeed, a human dilemma, related to human τιμή. So Achilles talks exclusively in human terms, with cursory references to sacrifice and gods' general oversight (357, 392) and nods in the direction of Zeus's power at ix 377 and 419-20 (I discuss Achilles' fate later on in this paper).

Finally, a general sweep through the poem. At various points in the Iliad, characters exclaim how much the gods help, love or honour someone. At others they pray warmly to them (e.g. x 277-95, xi 363-4). Paris praises the gifts of Aphrodite at iii 64. At iv 235 Agamemnon asserts Zeus will not give help to liars. At xiii 631-9, Menelaus acknowledges that Zeus is renowned for wisdom, but wonders whether this can be true since he is favouring the Trojans, and at xiii 730-4 the gods are credited by Poulydamas with giving men different gifts (cf. Diomedes at ix 37-9 on Zeus's gifts to Agamemnon—honour superior to anyone else's because he holds the σκη̑πτρον, but no ἀλκή). The superiority of Zeus over men is acknowledged at e.g. xvii 176-8. I can do no better. If we are looking for signs of humans' belief in the mystery of the gods, they look pretty thin pickings to me.18

To summarise: the characters fully acknowledge the power of the gods and their extreme predictability in some cases, but unpredictability in others, but have nothing to say about numinosity, mysteriousness or reverence (cf. de Jong [1987] 228 ‘human characters … see what their human nature allows them to see’). These characteristics are reserved for the narrative. By the same token, I am not persuaded that the heroes have any problems with ‘irrational’ or ‘inexplicable’ gods. They simply find them more powerful, and willing to wield that power in any way they want to.


What, however, of fate? Here surely is a dark and numinous area, where humans grope for understanding in the face of an arbitrary and meaningless universe.

The facts about ‘fate’ in the Iliad can be briefly stated. Of the four most important words used to express the idea of fate in Homer, πότμοs is always a synonym for death, μόροs always refers to death except in the phrase ὑπὲρ μόρον, μοι̑ρα (the most common word) always refers to death except in the phrases ὑπὲρ / κατὰ μοι̑ραν, and in a few places where it means ‘share, portion, part’ (x 253, xv 195, xvi 68, xix 256).19 Only αῒσα (which also means ‘share, portion’ like μοι̑ρα) takes on any broader connotations of generalised ‘fate’ (e.g. v 209, xv 209, xvi 707). That said, the places where αῒσα is associated with ‘death’ easily outweigh the exceptions. As for the actual working of ‘fate’, it is made clear at xx 127-8 and xxiv 209 that it marks ‘at a man's birth the circumstances, and especially the moment, of his death’ (Hainsworth [1988] on Od. vii 196-8, which, however generalising it may look, must also be included if the analysis of ‘fate’ is correct; cf. Janko [1992] 5-6).20 Even so, one's fate (i.e. moment of death) is not necessarily invariable. It can be conditional on other circumstances, and consequently in those circumstances a man can even be said to be in control of his ‘fate’ (see Jones [1991] on Od. i 34).

Heroes in Homer acknowledge the existence of fate—since it effectively means ‘death’ they have little option—but do not live their lives oppressed by that knowledge. Thus Hector at vi 487-89 says that since everyone is born with an inescapable μοι̑ρα, he cannot die before his time comes.

In Achilles, however, Homer chooses to create a character who has, through his mother, unique and privileged access to the will of Zeus (xvii 409) and knows his fate from the very start of the Iliad. As early as i 352, he tells us that he will be short-lived (μινυνθάδιοs). Further, his mother Thetis also informs him when he will die—shortly after he has killed Hector (xviii 96). Yet what is interesting about this is the lengths to which Homer goes to disguise the facts about Achilles' fate—or at least, to confuse them. Thus Thetis repeats her prophecy about Achilles' short life at i 417-18, and again at i 505-6. But this is contradicted by Achilles himself at ix 410-16, where he states unambiguously that Thetis told him he has two possible fates awaiting him: either he fights at Troy and dies young, or he goes home and lives to a ripe old age. Now, we know that he will return to the fighting, because Zeus prophesies it at viii 473-7: Hector, says Zeus, will not stop fighting till he has roused Achilles back into battle, when Patroclus is dead. But Achilles, (as far as we know by ix), does not know this: and it would be unthinkable for Achilles in ix to be lying, especially after what he says about liars (ix 312-4). It is, in fact, only in xviii that it is unambiguously revealed that Achilles' death will follow immediately he has killed Hector, and it is Thetis who reveals it (xviii 96, cf. xviii 98-9, xviii 329-32, xxi 110-13 etc.).

This lack of precise clarity about, indeed, often outright ignorance of, Achilles' fate is in fact a permanent feature of the narrative. At xvii 408-9, Homer reports that Achilles had often heard Thetis telling him of Zeus's will that he would not sack Troy either with Patroclus or without him (cf. Apollo at xvi 707-9). At xix 328-30, Achilles says that earlier he had hoped that he alone would die at Troy and Patroclus would return safe and sound to Phthia—as if he had known even before the Trojan War started that he would die at Troy. This sits oddly with xvii, and directly contradicts ix. At xxi 275-8, Achilles says his mother had told him he would die under Apollo's shafts at Troy. This is the first time we have heard this detail or that it was Thetis who told him. Or is this another of the things about the will of Zeus that Achilles says his mother used to tell him before he ever left for Troy (xvii 409)? At xxii 359-60, Hector adds further detail: Achilles will die at the Scaean gates and Paris as well as Apollo will be involved. The picture becomes finalised not through the mouth of Thetis, but of Achilles' dying enemy, to be further confirmed by the dead Patroclus in a dream at xxiii 80.

But this does not exhaust the cunning of Homer's method of dealing with fate, the future, or even the will of the gods (as Edwards [1987] 136 says: ‘Fate is the will of the poet’). An inspection of the text reveals that the gods' knowledge too about fate can be as qualified and provisional as that of the humans. I take the fall of Troy and the death of Achilles as my examples.21

First, the fall of Troy. It is not surprising that, despite the omens (for omens are slippery things), humans should wax optimistic (ii 330, iv 164-5, 237-9, vi 476-81), pessimistic (v 489, vi 447-9, ix 417-20) and uncertain (ii 252-3, 348-9, iii 92-4, iv 415-17, vi 526-9) about whether Troy will fall or not.22 But that gods should do so comes as something of a surprise. Hera seems to envisage the possibility of the Greeks losing (ii 157-62, v 714-8). Zeus wonders whether to encourage friendship between the Greeks and Trojans (iv 16). Poseidon thinks Zeus might spare Troy (xv 212-17), while Zeus thinks Achilles may storm it ὑπἐρμορον (xx 30) and Apollo is afraid it will be stormed that very day (xxi 516-17).

The certainty of the death of Achilles is also strangely elided in places. On the one hand, Thetis tells Hephaestus of it at xviii 440-1, and he responds sympathetically at xviii 464-7. At xix 408-17, Achilles' horses foresee his death. At xx 337 Poseidon says to Aeneas that he must keep clear of Achilles for the moment: only when Achilles is dead should he fight among the leaders again. At xxi 588-9, the Trojan Agenor foretells his death, and at xxii 359-60, on the point of his death, so does Hector.

Yet neither Zeus nor Hera says anything about Achilles' death at xviii 356-67, when the success of Hera's plan to ensure Greek victory is specifically under discussion. At xix 344-5, when Achilles has been grieving for Patroclus and thinking about his own death at Troy, Zeus suggests Athena comfort him for his grief but omits to say anything about his death. At xxi 216-17, the river god Scamander seems to think there is a possibility that Zeus has granted Achilles the power to take Troy, and at xxi 316-23 he says Achilles will be buried under sand and silt. At xxiii 150 and 244-8, where it seems that Achilles is announcing his death to everyone, no one responds.

I do not wish to make more of this than there actually is.23 But the fact is that even on such an issue as the death of Achilles, Homer seems to go out of his way to muddy the waters, sometimes revealing the fact that it is fated and the gods know all about it, sometimes suppressing it or revealing that even the gods' knowledge is imperfect.


In this paper I have tried to develop two propositions. First, when Iliadic heroes talk about the gods, they do so as if they regarded the gods as no more than very powerful humans. They are forces that have to be taken into account, there are tried and tested methods of winning them to your side, and when they are appealed to, they can be both predictable and unpredictable in their responses. In heroes' eyes, gods are not mysterious or numinous or inexplicable or awesome. They pray to them in hard-nosed, self-interested terms. They express fear of gods far less frequently than they do of humans. Miracles are accepted almost as a datum of everyday human experience: life, after all, is full of surprises, some human, some divine.

Second, while there is no doubt that Troy is fated to fall and Achilles to die, the idea of fate is muffled by the poet. It looms large in certain contexts, only to be swept under the carpet in others. Even gods appear at times to be ignorant of its existence.

Homer is not a theologian. He is an epic poet. Gods and heroes are the engine of his poem, and he must develop a narrative strategy for their effective deployment. What, then, is the overall narrative strategy which Homer serves by articulating this picture of men, gods and fate? Broadly, it is a world which maintains a balance between free human activity and all-powerful divinities imposing their will on and constantly intervening in the cosmos, a world in which there is some sense of balance of forces between man, fate and the gods, where it is possible for men to play a full and free part.24 Strictly, this world-view is irrational, of course. If gods are all-knowing and all-powerful, men cannot be free. But the conceit allows Homer to compose epic, and to have his cake and eat it, by juxtaposing the two worlds and focusing now on one, now on the other.25

This is not a new thesis, of course: Homer's rationalising tendency and the balance he maintains between human and divine responsibility are well recognised (see e.g. G. S. Kirk, The songs of Homer [Cambridge 1962] 380, Edwards [1987] 137, Silk [1987] 82, Kirk [1990] 1-14, Janko [1992] 1-7, Taplin [1992] 96 ff, 207 ff). But it is, I think, strengthened by this analysis which points up the strong sense of the independence of the human heroes. They feel no fear in front of gods. They summon the gods to help as little as possible. They are happy to accept divine assistance when it is offered, but give no sign of craving for it. Heroes, in other words, see gods as powers to be negotiated with only in extremis. Otherwise they see no reason to turn to them. Everyday issues of, for example, battle strategy and tactics and human management are never submitted to the gods for their involvement (only the Embassy to Achilles is—ix 172, 183-4—but that is not an everyday issue: it is one of life and death). These are matters for human discussion, for the Nestors, Odysseuses, Poulydamases and Hectors of this world, not the gods. When things go against them, it is accepted that this is the divine will and that is the end of the matter. Here we see that deep pessimism that runs through Greek literature as a whole, but also that desire to be free of divine control so characteristic of Ionian rationalism and later Greek thought (of which Homer is a more than merely temporal forerunner).

Now we can understand why Homer handles fate in the way that he does. As we have seen, Homer chose to elide and obscure it. His purpose surely was to heighten the sense that his heroes were independent human beings, making their own decisions.26 This is why the prophecies of Thetis were revealed in the piecemeal and rather inconsistent way they were. Achilles must be seen to be acting as a free agent, otherwise the epic and Achilles' story would become mere melodrama: mere Cyclic epic. As it is, it becomes tragic.27

Hector's speech at xxii 296-305 just about summarises everything this paper has been trying to say about men's responses to the gods. To Achilles' great delight (224), Athena has intervened to deceive Hector into standing and fighting (226-47); and she even returns Achilles' spear to him (276). Battle is joined, and Hector eventually realises he has been ruthlessly tricked. He analyses the situation perfectly (the gods are summoning me to death, 297), identifies the responsible god (Athena, 299), concludes that neither Zeus nor Apollo who once supported him continues to do so (correct, 301-3), says his μοι̑ρα now awaits him (it does, 303), and expresses the wish to die gloriously and do something for men in the future to hear about (304-5). Gods whimsical? Mysterious? Numinous? Inexplicable? Irrational? Not in Hector's book.28


  1. Two referees have acutely pointed out problems with the method. First, the work of Irene de Jong (1987) has blurred the crude distinction I wish to maintain between ‘what humans say’ and ‘what the poet says’. Second, (here I quote the other referee) ‘I would wish that the.. distinction between what “Homer” says and what “his heroes” say was qualified with reference to the variables of emphasis and projection … sometimes it does not matter “who is talking” (because it hardly impinges on us). At other times it does impinge and it does matter’. To the first, I think I must say that if de Jong's work invalidates my thesis, so be it. I cannot see myself that it does. To the second, I think the weight of evidence for what I am arguing is so overwhelming as to override the ‘variables of emphasis and projection’ (which do, of course, exist). In other words, the heroes' view of the gods is so consistent throughout the poem that such variables, in this case, do not add up to enough to disturb the general thesis.

    I refer to the following works by name and date: J. S. Clay, The wrath of Athena (Princeton 1983); I.J.F. de Jong, Narrators and focalizers: the presentation of the story in the Iliad (Amsterdam 1987); M.W. Edwards, Homer, poet of the Iliad (Johns Hopkins 1987); J. Griffin, Homer on life and death (Oxford 1980); A. Heubeck, S. West and J. B. Hainsworth, A commentary on Homer's Odyssey vol. 1 introduction and books i-viii (Clarendon 1988); J. B. Hainsworth, The Iliad: a commentary vol. iii books 9-12 (Cambridge 1993); R. Janko, The Iliad: a commentary vol. iv books 13-16 (Cambridge 1992); P. V. Jones, Homer: Odyssey 1 and 2 (Aris and Phillips 1991); O. Jørgensen, ‘Das Auftreten der Götter in den Büchern ι-μ der Odyssee’, Hermes xxxix (1904) 357-82; G. S. Kirk, The Iliad: a commentary vol. i books 1-4 (Cambridge 1985); G. S. Kirk, The Iliad: a commentary vol. ii books 5-8 (Cambridge 1990); J.V. Morrison, Homeric misdirection (Ann Arbor 1992); M. Mueller, The Iliad (London 1984); S. Richardson, The Homeric narrator (Nashville 1990); T. Rihll, ‘The power of the Homeric βασιλει̑s’, in J. Pinsent and H. V. Hurt (eds), Homer 1987 (Papers of the Third Greenbank Colloquium April 1987, Liverpool Classical Papers no.2), (Liverpool 1992) 39-50; R. B. Rutherford, ‘Tragic form and feeling in the Iliad’, JHS [Journal of Hellenic Studies] cii (1982) 145-60; A. E. Samuel, The promise of the west (Routledge 1988); S. L. Schein, The mortal hero (Berkeley 1984); M. S. Silk, Homer: the Iliad (Cambridge 1987); O. P. Taplin, Homeric soundings (Oxford 1992); W. G. Thalmann, Conventions of form and thought in early Greek epic poetry (Baltimore 1984); M. M. Willcock, The Iliad of Homer books 1-12 (Macmillan 1978). All otherwise unmarked references are to the Oxford text of the Iliad. I am extremely grateful to Professor Alan Sommerstein and the JHS referees for their help, as I am to M. M. Willcock (University College London) and David West (University of Newcastle upon Tyne), who submitted an early draft of this paper to a searching ἔλεγχοs, from which it emerged battered but considerably improved.

  2. The distinction that Homer maintains between his full, privileged understanding of events (expressed in the narrative) and human, partial understanding (expressed in what characters say) has been investigated by Jørgensen (1904), cf. Clay (1983) 1-25, Richardson (1990) 123-39, R. B. Rutherford, ‘The philosophy of the Odyssey’, JHS cvi (1986) 153 n. 43, M. Winterbottom, ‘Speaking of the gods’, G&R [Greece & Rome] xxxvi no. 1 (1989) 33-41. Cf. the well-known phenomenon of human and divine proper names for the same thing (see e.g. Kirk [1985] on Il. i 403-4). de Jong (1987) 214 puts the case for the sort of analysis I wish to make as follows: ‘when analysing divine interventions in the Il. one should distinguish systematically between the presentation and interpretation of NF1 [i.e. the poet] and of the speaking characters. Differences between the two versions should not be ascribed, I think, to differences in religious belief or concepts between NF1 and characters, but to a difference in narrative competence (the NF1 is omniscient and knows more than the characters) or rhetorical situation’ (here de Jong gives the example of Paris wishing to excuse his defeat vis-à-vis Helen). Taplin (1992) 129 says ‘The Iliadic gods are a mixture of awesome power and quarrelsome pettiness, reflected in ethics by their mixture of roles as guarantors of justice and as amoral self-seekers’. The question I wish to clarify is ‘in whose eyes?’

  3. Compare, for example, v 719-52, viii 41-77, xiii 17-31, xiv 346-51, xvi 431-61, 644-93, xvii 441-55, xviii 478-613 (and cf. Schein [1984] 51-2). See also e.g. oaths and sacrifice at n. 6, and the miracles on p.111. One may argue about the precise extent to which these passages demonstrate divine glamour and majesty (as a referee pointed out); but that humans never talk in these terms goes without saying.

  4. So, e.g. ‘In the context of a society over which the Olympian gods rule, Achilles is pursuing an almost hopeless task … human success or failure can only be attributed to the whims or wills of the gods, fate, or both’ (Samuel [1988] 45). ‘[The gods] function as a higher power, and provide an explanation of otherwise inexplicable events’ (Edwards [1987] 125). ‘For the human characters in the Il., irrational evil comes from the gods’ (Edwards [1987] 128, though he goes on to point out that for the poet, these evils are not irrational ‘if one believe in gods like these’). I stress that these quotations are selected to serve my purpose: they are not supposed to characterise the whole picture of divine activity discussed in these works, which are extremely valuable and on which I shall draw in the course of this paper. I am obviously more in sympathy with e.g. Silk (1987) 30 and Mueller (1984) 125-33.

  5. Mueller (1984) 126 is aware of the reasonableness of the interaction between men and gods: when a god intervenes, ‘the outcome is always an action that is perfectly intelligible in human terms.’

  6. Other sacrifices and oath-ceremonies are referred to with more or less elaboration at e.g. ii 305-7, 402-31, iii 268-301, iv 44-9, viii 548, ix 357, xi 726, 771, xxiv 33, 65-70. If I were to argue against my thesis, I would concentrate on passages like these, especially where the heroes call on the gods to witness oaths and curses. It is only here that I, at any rate, get any sense of the gods' numinous majesty expressed in a human's words, e.g. ii 402-18, iii 267-301, ix 453-7, 561-72, xix 257-68. Nevertheless, the ritual context of such passages is very strongly marked. This is special language for special events (cf. M. Leumann, Homerische Wörter [Basel 1950] 22-23). In Homer, such language is restricted to ritual occasions.

  7. A referee points out that Achilles' amazement may not be due to this, comparing e.g. iii 398 and iv 97 where the way the divinity looks to the human is enough to create θάμβοs (cf. N. J. Richardson, Homeric hymn to Demeter [Oxford 1974] 188-90, though he does not deal with this passage). But at i 199, as the poet makes crystal clear, Achilles has not yet seen Athena because she approached him from behind. All he has done is felt her tugging his hair.

  8. If this is what γλαυκω̑πιs means: cf. e.g. Kirk (1985) on i 200.

  9. A referee draws my attention to Zeus's ‘compulsion’ of Achilles at xxiv 116, expressed in the same way. This is how gods and humans frequently interact in the Il.. Rihll (1992) 46 argues strongly that power is negotiable in the Il.: ‘neither Zeus nor Agamemnon have an unchallenged right to command’ and need to adopt different tactics (from bluster to persuasion) to get their way.

  10. A referee adds v 407, where Dione tells Aphrodite how foolish Diomedes is to fight the gods—that man does not live long—and vi 128-41, where Diomedes informs Glaucus that he will not fight with him if he is a god.

  11. Even this analogy has its weaknesses. I can find, for example, only seven places where humans fear the gods (iii 418, v 827, 863, ix 244, xx 380, xxi 248, xxiv 170) and four where they fear Zeus's thunderbolt (vii 479, viii 77, 138, xvii 594-96). I discount xiii 624, xxiv 358, 689. As for humans fearing humans, I gave up counting when I reached fifty examples. Again, the heroes rarely acknowledge the gods even when their prayers are answered. They sometimes rejoice, like Glaucus at xvi 530-1 or Achilles at xxii 224 (though note that at xxii 393 Achilles claims the victory was all his doing), but more often than not they carry on without any acknowledgement at all, e.g. Ajax at xvii 645-55. A notable exception is x 570-1.

  12. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Enkidu makes the same sort of comment to the goddess Ishtar after he has slapped her in the face with the shoulder of the Bull of Heaven: ‘If only I could get at you as that does, I would do the same to you myself’ (VII v in Myths from Mesopotamia, tr. by S. Dalley [Oxford 1989]).

  13. A referee rightly points out that the Myrmidons are afraid of the armour (xix 15). Here it is only Achilles who looks at it with pleasure. The referee adds xviii 205-6, but this is different. As far as Achilles is concerned, nothing miraculous is happening. Again, however dramatic the Trojan response to his appearance and shout, they do not acknowledge it as a miracle either.

  14. i 37 (Chryses to Apollo to punish the Greeks), i 407 (Achilles via Thetis to Zeus for glory), i 451 (Chryses to Apollo to end the plague), ii 412 (Agamemnon to Zeus to destroy Troy and Hector), iii 320 (the armies to Zeus over the outcome of the duel), iii 351 (Menelaus to Zeus to have revenge on Hector), iv 119 (Pandarus to Apollo to kill Menelaus), v 115 (Diomedes to Athena to kill Pandarus), vi 305 (Theano to Athena to kill Diomedes), vi 240 (Hector tells the women to pray to the immortals), vi 476 (Hector to Zeus concerning his son), vii 179 (Greek troops to Zeus, about the winner of the draw to fight Hector), vii 202 (Greek troops to Zeus that Ajax win), viii 242 (Agamemnon to Zeus that the Greeks be not destroyed), viii 346-7 (Greeks to all the gods under Hector's onslaught), viii 526 (Hector to Zeus and the other gods that he will rout the Greeks), ix 170 (Nestor to Zeus for his mercy), xi 183 (the embassy to Achilles, to Poseidon), xi 454 (Phoenix's father to the furies), xi 568 (Meleager's mother to Hades and Persephone), x 278 (Odysseus to Athena for glory), x 284 (Diomedes to Athena for protection), x 462 (Odysseus to Athena for guidance to the Thracian camp), xi 735 (Nestor and his men before battle, to Zeus and Athena), xv 372 (Nestor to Zeus that the Greeks be not destroyed), xvi 233 (Achilles to Zeus for Patroclus' safety), xvi 514 (Glaucus to Apollo to heal his wound), xvii 45-6 (Menelaus to Zeus before attacking Euphorbus), xvii 498 (Automedon to Zeus for courage (?)), xvii 645 (Ajax to Zeus to shed light on the battlefield), xxiii 194 (Achilles to the winds to set Patroclus' pyre alight), xxiii 770 (Odysseus to Athena to give him speed), xxiii 871 (Meriones to Apollo to hit the target), xxiv 308 (Priam to Zeus to grant him an omen for a safe journey to Achilles).

  15. The same holds for prayers offered to Zeus to witness events or seal oaths (iii 276, 298, vii 76, 411, xix 259); ‘statement’ prayers, where a god is invoked, though not asked directly for help (e.g. iii 365, xii 164); and wishes (ii 371, iv 288, vii 132, x 329, xii 275, xvi 97, xvii 561, xviii 8, xxiii 650). See also n. 6 and Bremer (n. 16) on how comparatively ungrateful the heroes seem to be for the gods' help.

  16. See J. N. Bremer, Greek religion (Oxford 1994) 39.

  17. In n. 4, I disagreed with Edwards (1987) who suggested that the gods acted irrationally in men's eyes (though cf. Edwards (1987) 136, where he rightly says ‘the poet needs to satisfy his audience's desire to find an order and rationality in human experience’). Achilles' speech here seems to me to support my disagreement. The rationality of the gods' intervention in human life, expressed in terms of (e.g.) quid pro quo, just deserts, or however it might otherwise be expressed, is simply not raised. Life, says Achilles, is not irrational. It is simply lived under divine control. In human eyes, then, the gods' acts may seem capricious or unpredictable—but that is not the same as irrational. Interestingly, the only time that the issue of human deserts is raised is in relation to τιμή, and there, of course, we are talking about human deserts in human eyes—a very different, and deeply contested, issue (as Taplin [1992] 50-1 rightly emphasises).

  18. Janet Watson points out to me by letter that only major Greek heroes (Achilles, Odysseus and Diomedes) converse with undisguised gods. Lesser heroes, she goes on, like the Aiantes, ‘may be aware that a god has addressed them in the likeness of a mortal but do not know which one’ (and she cites xiii 68-72). This observation seems to me at one with the general argument of this paper.

  19. The exceptions are xix 87 where Μοι̑ρα is associated with Zeus and the Erinyes, and xxvi 49 where Μοι̑ραι are said to give men an enduring heart. In these places it is clearly personified as a god. My analysis is rather different from that of Schein (1984) 62-63.

  20. A referee astutely points out that all these references are put in the mouths of the characters.

  21. See further S. West (1988) on Od. iv 379-81, who shows (with examples) that ‘Homer's gods are omniscient in a rather limited sense’. Greek tragedy also manipulates fate inconsistently for, I would argue, a similar literary effect: cf. e.g. the oracles in Sophocles' Trachiniae and Philoctetes (see M. Davies, Sophocles' Trachiniae [Oxford 1991] 268-9). Homer deals with Patroclus' fate more consistently. At viii 477 Zeus announces it is ordained (θἐσϕατον) for him to die, and at xvii 268-73 movingly helps to protect him: he had not hated him while he was alive, comments Homer, impressing on us the needlessness of Patroclus' death. At xviii 9-11 Achilles tells us that he knew all along from his mother that ‘the best of the Myrmidons’ would die at Troy, which he now sees meant Patroclus. At xix 328-33, Achilles says he had hoped he alone would die at Troy and Patroclus would return.

  22. Hainsworth (1993) on xii 237-43 points out that epic takes a rational view of omens, regarding them as confirmation or discouragement of decisions already taken, rather than allowing them to determine the action.

  23. On Homeric ‘misdirection,’ see Morrison (1992), cf. de Jong (1987) 68-81. Taplin (1992) 198 describes the changing revelations as ‘the Homeric technique of increasing precision’.

  24. The efforts made by the gods constantly to thwart the will of Zeus (cf. viii 5-12) and divert the course of action so clearly predicted in places such as viii 473-7, xv 72-7 and xvii 596-614, and Zeus's own desire to change fate (e.g. xvi 431-61—admittedly fruitless, cf. xxii 167-85) add to this effect (in the readers' view) of the negotiability of existence. If the gods can play like this with the will of Zeus, and Zeus himself seems in theory able to change fate (cf. xvi 443=xxii 181), what price inevitable fate? How helpless are humans in its grasp? For the fluctuation of events in Homer, see Morrison (1992) 95.

  25. And, I would argue, accords with human experience. Many people feel that the decisions they take are entirely their own; but many of the same people at the same time look back over their lives and have the sense that God was guiding them. We are no nearer than Homer to solving the problem of divine omnipotence, free will and responsibility for action. In fact, Homer's solution (that both men and gods are 100٪ responsible) is remarkably appealing. Cf. Schein (1984) 58, Thalmann (1984) 85-6. R.Gaskin, ‘Do Homeric heroes make real decisions?’, CQ [Classical Quarterly] xl (1990) 1-15 (especially 6-7) is an excellent analysis of that particular problem, demonstrating conclusively that they do. This has important implications for the arguments about heroic freedom and independence in this paper.

    In this respect, it is worth saying how useful a multiplicity of gods is to the poet (see further Edwards [1987] 121-42). This is the means of creating conflict in Olympus, which can be used to make sense of the swinging fortunes of men on earth (a device as old as Gilgamesh). The gods can contest among themselves the issue of their favourites (e.g. i 493-567, xiii 345-60, xv 89-238, xvi 444-9, xvi 354-67, xxiv 23-76 and the battle among the gods in xxi), and can deceive one another as they go about their business (cf. e.g. Apollo, learning late of Athena's schemes at x 515, and Poseidon's interventions and the deception of Zeus in xiii-xiv): see how dejected they are when they cannot intervene (xii 179-180). Men, in other words, have a chance. As they often say, the gods' favours constantly shift. Life would be intolerable if they did not.

  26. W. Schadewaldt in ‘Die Entscheidung des Achilles’ (Von Homers Welt und Werk [Leipzig 1965]) argues that in Achilles Homer created the first image of human freedom in the West. Cf. Rihll (1992) 50 ‘[Achilles] seeks his own freedom; freedom of action and freedom to live’, and Gaskin (n. 25) 15. For the Il.'s human dimension, cf. de Jong (1987) 228: ‘I submit that the Il. mainly presents a human vision of the events around Troy’.

  27. Janko (1992) 4 points out that Homer's handling has the effect of ‘leaving an undefined area between free will and natural forces … Homer's characters are seen to suffer for their choices, which is clearly tragic, and yet the whole outcome seems to be beyond their individual control or even preordained, which is tragic in another way’. Exactly. Cf. Rutherford (1982), a richly rewarding article on tragic elements in the Il.. J. Griffin, ‘The epic cycle and the uniqueness of Homer’, JHS xcvii (1977) 39-53 and M. Davies, The epic cycle (Bristol 1989) between them draw out the contrasts between Homer and the Cyclic poets.

  28. In the light of this analysis, it is perhaps necessary to reassess some of the bolder generalisations about men and gods. Thalmann (1984), for example, talks of man being ‘ultimately insignificant’ (90), as does Schein (1984) 62. That is not the impression I get from the Il., let alone from the Od., and is certainly not the way the heroes view matters. Likewise, it is common to talk of the gods' combined triviality and grandeur (see e.g. Schein [1984] 52-3, Taplin n. 2 above). Since the heroes themselves never talk in these terms, the generalisation, I think, needs some refining.

Robert J. Rabel (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4668

SOURCE: Rabel, Robert J. “Plot and Point of View in the Iliad.” In Plot and Point of View in the Iliad, pp.1-32. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.

[In the following excerpt, Rabel differentiates between the author of the Iliad and the epic's narrator, commenting on shifting modes of perception in the poem, particularly in relation to its treatment of the heroic code.]

[T]he term point of view refers most directly to visual perspective, the place from which an object is viewed. In the most literal sense of the term, only the Muse(s)-narrator and the characters of the poem have points of view. The poet lacks visual perspectives, as Homer himself acknowledges in his second prooemium in the Iliad, the invocation of the Muses preceding the so-called Catalog of Ships in book 2:

ὑμει̑s γὰρ θεαί ἐστε, πάρεστἐ τε, ἴστἐ τε πάντα,
ἡμει̑s δὲ κλἐοs οῒον ἀκούομεν οὐδἐ τι ἴδμεν.


[you are gods, and attend all things and know all things, but we hear only the report and have no knowledge.]1

Visual point of view requires physical presence in the world of the story.2 Thus the Muse(s)-narrator has personally witnessed and transmits to the audience through the poet a vivid account of the making of the great shield of Achilleus; similarly, Hephaistos, Thetis, Achilleus, and the warriors on the battlefield of the Iliad actually see the shield; however, the poet lacks a visual perspective.

Of course, it must be recognized that the vantage point and the act of seeing may both be metaphorical. In the second sense of the term, point of view is a figurative expression, referring to the ideology or conceptual system through which an individual filters facts or impressions. In this sense, the poet, as well as the Muse(s)-narrator and the characters of the drama, may also have a point of view uniquely his or her own. As we will see in chapter 6, Homer has a point of view on the meaning of the shield of Achilleus that seems to differ markedly from the views expressed in the text by either the Muse(s)-narrator or the characters. In this second sense of the term, which I will call conceptual point of view, the Iliad gives expression to a number of different ideas about the meaning of the “heroic code,” which plays such a large part in the development of the poem.

In a final extension of the term, we may speak of interest point of view, which designates the manner in which self-interest influences what is thought or felt. Thus both the poet and the Muse(s)-narrator lack personal involvement in what transpires within the Iliad. Their points of view are literary-aesthetic; they are concerned with producing a meaningful and beautiful story. In this regard, the Muse(s)-narrator engages in what we may call narrative-as-art. In contrast, when a character within the drama acts or tells a story, he or she acts or uses narrative for a number of practical purposes, reflecting a personal stake in what transpires. Stories told within the Iliad take the form of narrative-as-action. In Homer, narrative-as-action usually concerns itself with the performance of acts involving more than the telling of an aesthetically pleasing story. Just as importantly, narrative-as-action often entails a certain element of risk.3 For example, in book 1, the Muse(s)-narrator tells the story of Chryses and Apollo from a literary-aesthetic point of view, while later in the book Achilleus retells the same story with more practical intent. In the process, Achilleus tries to excuse his conduct during the assembly of book 1, condemn the actions of Agamemnon, and persuade his mother to seek the intervention of Zeus. Achilleus' interest point of view … greatly influences the shape that his story takes.

Though critics at least since the time of Plato have been accustomed to refer to the narrator of the Iliad as the poet,4 my failure to conform to common practice in this regard arises not only from a wish to maintain narratological precision.5 The distinction between the poet and his êthos, the Muse(s)-narrator, is essential, I think, for a proper appreciation of the pervasiveness and subtlety of the system of points of view in the poem.

When I speak of the “narrator” of the Iliad, I mean to designate the Muse or Muses, whom the poet directly addresses in various prooemia, seeking from them not inspiration, I think, but rather information.6 They are the primary tellers of the tale. The narrator of Greek epic is explicitly identified and invoked by the poet; thus she emerges as a more recognizable presence than the fictional, third-person narrator of the novel, whom theorists have always had a difficult time characterizing adequately: witness T. Mann's rather vague reference to the narrator of the novel as “der Geist der Erzählung” [the Spirit of Narration].7

The word narrative is being used in this book only in the technical sense employed by Aristotle in the Poetics, referring to what G. Genette has called “narrative statement, the oral or written discourse that undertakes to tell of an event or a series of events.”8 Narrative requires the activity of a narrator;9 the speeches of the characters of the Iliad are not a part of the poem's narrative. Character speech in the Iliad is unmediated, direct discourse, as Aristotle saw.

When I speak of the “poet” of the Iliad, I mean not the flesh-and-blood poet or poets who created the work but rather the “implied author,” the official version of himself or herself that an author creates within a work.10 Chatman's description of the implied author of a novel can also be applied, with an important qualification, to what we may call the “implied poet” of the Iliad:

He is “implied,” that is, reconstructed by the reader from the narrative. He is not the narrator, but rather the principle that invented the narrator, along with everything else in the narrative, that stacked the cards in this particular way, had these things happen to these characters, in these words or images. Unlike the narrator, the implied author can tell us nothing. He, or better, it has no voice, no direct means of communicating. It instructs us silently, through the design of the whole, with all the voices, by all the means it has chosen to let us learn.11

The implied poet of Homeric epic differs from the implied author of a novel in at least one significant way. As we will see in the following chapters, implied poets actually speak. Thus Aristotle rightly directs our attention to Homer's various prooemia as examples of nonrepresentational poets' speech. We will make use of the utterances of the poet in the attempt to understand his own point of view as distinct from that of the narrator or the characters.


In different ways both the Muse(s)-narrator and the poet manipulate point of view to discover and define the meaning of the Iliad, placing various ways of thinking in competing and complementary relationships with one another. For her part, the Muse(s)-narrator maintains an ironic distance from the attitudes and values of the world of the characters of the Iliad.12 Her irony is “stable” in the sense defined by W. Booth; that is, she makes an implied claim for the superiority of her own point of view when discrepancies arise between her vision and perspective, on the one hand, and the words and deeds of the characters, on the other.13 The Muse(s)-narrator thus produces a sophisticated and compelling analysis of the tragic limitations of life in accordance with the heroic ethic. In this regard, we must note that she has structured the Iliad as a double-plotted work, with the wrath of Achilleus furnishing the major plot, and with the Trojan War unfolding in tandem within a subplot. …14 Both events are plotted in three similar stages that run in parallel tracks, and at certain points, as we will see, they reflect, reduplicate, or offer important commentary on one another.

In the case of the wrath, Achilleus becomes angry with Agamemnon in the assembly of book 1 and withdraws from the fighting, making no plans to return to battle for the foreseeable future. However, his initial anger over the theft of a woman only temporarily masks more difficult questions of heroic honor and proper compensation, and these come to the fore eventually in book 9, increasing the intensity of his wrath. In the second stage of his anger, which commences in book 9, Achilleus makes plans to return to battle, but only at the last moment, when Hektor is burning the Achaian ships. However, when Patroklos dies, Achilleus gives up his anger against Agamemnon in the formal assembly of book 19. In the third, most intense stage of his wrath, he directs an awful predatory violence against Hektor, seeking revenge for the slaying of Patroklos. Now he plays an active role in the fighting, as savior of the Achaian host rather than its destroyer. In the narrator's view, as we will see, Achilleus' course of action in each of the three phases of his wrath is determined by the influence of a different paradigmatic figure whom he interprets as offering an exemplum for his own conduct: in the first phase (in book 1), the figure is Chryses; in the second (in book 9), Meleagros; and in the third (in book 18), Herakles. In each case, however, conformity to his self-chosen paradigm proves fruitless in achieving his intended goal. Three times he surrenders to others an individual's prerogative of determining action in accordance with his or her own basic nature and assessment of circumstance. In other words, Achilleus repeatedly allows his fate to be determined by the external contingency of conveniently available models.15

The narrator uses the subplot to generalize from the story of Achilleus' wrath a diagnosis of the weaknesses common to heroic motivation in general.16 By interspersing it within the plot, the Muse presents the history of the Trojan War as following a trajectory and course of development similar to the story of Achilleus' wrath. The war is thus marked by the same ascending level of violence and bitter feeling that characterizes the wrath and also by the same lack of stable conviction in the choice of goal and purpose. Thus Helen serves as the object of contention between the two armies until the duel between Paris and Menelaos in book 3, the futile outcome of which cancels any hope of a quick conclusion to the war. Afterward, in a second and more bitter phase of fighting, the heroes, poised between total victory and ignominious defeat, ignore the question of the disposition of Helen and contend rather for honor and glory. In the process, they articulate from various conceptual points of view a number of personal codes of heroism throughout books 4-12. Taken together, these codes serve to enlarge our understanding of Achilleus' attempt in book 9 to formulate the poem's most complex and interesting version of heroism. Finally, a desire for revenge on behalf of friends and kin first emerges as a major motif in the poem within the subplot in book 16. This third, more bitter and climactic period of fighting nicely adumbrates and prepares the way for the final stage of Achilleus' wrath, when, though still fighting for honor and glory, he abandons all sense of heroic chivalry and directs an awful predatory violence against his foe. Plot and subplot are thus constructed to follow the same general lines of development.17

Within the subplot, the narrator sets the ideals and vocabulary of a competitive form of heroism against a more cooperative version of the code. Competitive heroism sets heroes against one another—and sometimes against their fathers—in a contest for the winning of individual glory. Cooperative heroism, in contrast, stresses that glory belongs to all the generations of a family and is won through the joint efforts of comrades supporting one another in heroic endeavor. The narrator's purpose, I argue, is to reveal the contingencies that lead heroes to adopt whatever version of the code they happen to espouse at a given moment. Victory or defeat on the battlefield serves as the major determinant of a hero's conceptual point of view regarding the meaning of the heroic ethic. In victory, the heroes of the Iliad speak the vocabulary of competitive heroism; in defeat, their thoughts turn to the need for joint endeavor. In other words, like Achilleus, the heroes of the poem's subplot determine their conduct and define their selfhood largely by the accidents of contingent circumstance rather than by any deeply held set of inner convictions.

Plot and subplot exist in a state of tension with each other. The complex machinery of the poem's double plot manifests itself most especially at the beginning and end of the story of Achilleus' wrath. Events within the subplot twice threaten to short-circuit the development of the major plot. First, the Achaians threaten to go home in book 2, abandoning the war entirely and thus frustrating Achilleus' plans for revenge. In book 3 their desire for closure seems to infect the Trojans as well, and the united will of both armies threatens to settle the main issue of the war, the disposition of Helen, through a duel between Paris and Menelaos. In both books, timely divine intervention is required for the continuation of the subplot and, therefore, of the plot itself. The proper consummation of the story of Achilleus' wrath demands not only that the war continue but that further attempts at compromise and reconciliation between the armies be effectively forestalled. “The subplot,” P. Brooks rightly says, speaking of the novel genre, “stands as one means of warding off the danger of short-circuit, assuring that the main plot will continue through to the right end.”18 The narrator of the Iliad is especially artful here in the development of the subplot, using it first to threaten the short-circuiting of the plot and then to guarantee its proper development.

Similarly, the workings of the double plot manifest themselves at the conclusion of the epic. As W. Empson saw, the double plot furnishes a convenient device for the telling of the same story twice with two endings.19 In book 24, the narrator presents Achilleus as achieving maturity and an autonomy of thought conspicuously lacking from his actions and deliberations earlier in the poem. Now he acts not in accordance with heroic exempla but with the dictates of his own good nature. The narrator seems to believe that in the end Achilleus proves himself a hero not by acting like Chryses, Meleagros, or Herakles but by being true to himself. The narrator's understanding of Achilleus' “heroic” achievement in book 24 is significantly enhanced as we contemplate the kinship in shared suffering that he achieves with Priam at the conclusion of the poem. The narrator's plot thus manages to find a peaceful resolution that cannot be achieved in the subplot, the Trojan War at large, which is fated to continue beyond the limits of the poem and to end finally in the destruction of Troy.

In the failure of the hero to profit from examples provided by others, the narrator, as we will see, constructs a radical critique of life lived in accordance with traditional views of heroism. … I will suggest that the narrator's analysis of the character of Achilleus bears a remarkable resemblance to the critique of so-called mimetic desire carried out in a number of recent works by R. Girard.

The narrator tells this story to an audience whom modern literary critics often identify as the “narratee.” Genette defines the narratee in the following terms:

Like the narrator, the narratee is one of the elements in the narrating situation, and he is necessarily located at the same diegetic level; that is, he does not merge a priori with the reader (even an implied reader) any more than the narrator necessarily merges with the author.20

The gap between the narratee and the authorial audience of a work of literature seems to exist in direct proportion to the ironic distance separating the author from the narrator.21 … To the extent that poet of the Iliad can be distinguished from the narrator and manifest a unique point of view, he may choose to communicate a message behind the back of the narrator. This [essay] argues that the gap between the poet and the narrator is rather extensive in the case of the Iliad, that the message conveyed by the narrator to the narratee should not be confused with what the poet wishes to communicate to the authorial audience.

Like the author of the novel, the poet of the Iliad stands behind his narrator at a further level of ironic detachment from the beliefs and points of view represented within the story. His distance from the narrator is marked by a more thoroughgoing ironic perspective. While the narrator of the Iliad employs stable irony, the poet's irony is “unstable” in Booth's sense; that is, the poet “refuses to declare himself, however subtly, for any stable proposition.”22 The poet's more pervasive ironic vision even calls into question the Muse(s)-narrator's point of view on the meaning of the Iliad. Using his own brief prooemia and the interactions between narrative and speech, the poet suggests that the narrator's final word on the significance of the story is but the expression of a single point of view. The poet thus provides a demonstration of the extent to which reality in epic poetry can only be grasped and apprehended in images constructed from various individual perspectives. However, this conclusion remains a part of what M. Schorer has called “the author's secret world of value,”23 which the author communicates to the authorial audience alone, working behind the backs of both the Muse(s)-narrator and the characters who live and die within the world of the story.

As S.S. Lanser has explained, a particular ideology (what we have called a conceptual point of view) will normally emerge as authoritative in a work of literature only when the point of view of the narrator is also expressed by at least one other major voice within the world of the story or is confirmed in some other way, “for example, through both the story's outcome and the comments of a narrating consciousness.”24 However, in setting the system of value of the narrator to work against the norms represented in the story's direct speech, the poet refuses to sanction any such explicit hierarchy of values. In other words, the Iliad makes use of an oppositional arrangement of perspectives different from the counterbalancing structure that a number of critics have found at work in the poem.25 Oppositional perspective “simply sets norms against one another by showing up the deficiencies of each norm when viewed from the standpoint of the others.”26 Many evaluations of the meaning of the Iliad are possible, I think, because the poet refuses to identify himself fully with the voice and point of view of either the narrator or any of the characters. … [H]e also does not explicitly endorse either the narrator's or the characters' views of what properly constitutes the beginning or the end of the story of the wrath of Achilleus. …


  1. The Greek text of the Iliad employed throughout this book is that edited by D. B. Monro and T. W. Allen, Homeri opera, 3d ed., vols. 1-4 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1920). Unless otherwise indicated, the translation of the Iliad is taken from M. Hammond's version, Homer: The “Iliad” (London: Penguin, 1987).

  2. The conventions of epic poetry regarding visual point of view differ somewhat from those of the novel. In the novel, a third-person omniscient narrator lacks visual point of view. Thus, as Chatman, Coming to Terms, 141-42, points out, when the third- person narrator of Dombey and Son describes the younger Dombey as lying in a little basket and being toasted like a muffin, we are not to imagine the narrator as actually having seen the baby; rather, he merely reports the scene. Omniscient narrators in the novel do not actually see the events that they relate. Indeed, as S. S. Lanser, The Narrative Act: Point of View in Prose Fiction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), 212, notes, the possession of visual point of view by a narrator in a novel “limits the depth of vision to words and gestures externally performed.” In Homeric epic, in contrast, the narrating agency, the Muse or Muses, has access to the consciousnesses of the characters but also visually witnesses the events recounted.

  3. I borrow here from T. Todorov's description of what he calls “speech-as-action,” in his The Poetics of Prose, trans. R. Howard (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), 56.

  4. See Republic. 393a6, λἐγει τε αὐτὸs ὁ ποιητήs, and passim.

  5. Chatman, Coming to Terms, 83-87, argues convincingly that the narrator of a work of literature should always be distinguished from the author, even when no discern