Homer’s Iliad: Book XII

Questions for Book XII:

  • Why does Homer give us a flashforward to the destruction of the rampart?
  • Why do you think Hector rejects the bird-omen and Polydamas’ logical interpretation of it?

We first hear of the destruction of the rampart which will take place in the future:

“So in the years to come Poseidon and god Apollo
would set all things to rights once more” (12.41-42).

It’s a peculiar flash-forward, possibly for a momentary melancholic perspective. We will later read flash-forwards related to individuals. Here we get only a taste of the future desolation on the wider scale.

Back in the present, the Trojans have pushed back the Greeks, and Polydamas advises not to cross the trench, with its spikes, in chariots, but to continue the assault on foot. Hector agrees, and the Greeks at this point are struggling to defend their ships.

A bird omen occurs. An eagle flying by with a serpent in its beak is bitten by the prey. The bird shrieks and flings the still writhing serpent amid the Trojan warriors. Polydamas, anticipating Hector’s objections, interprets this in a grim way, which seems appropriate: do not attack the Greeks beside their ships. Hector, on the other hand, may be growing reckless; he rejects this as an omen:

Fight for your country — that is the best, the only omen!”

The Trojans are doing well and indeed, with Zeus guarding his Trojan son Sarpedon, by the end of the book have pushed the Greeks back to their ships, and Hector has used a boulder to smash through their gated protection.

“No one could fight him, stop him,
None but the gods as Hector hurtled through the gates
And his eyes flashed fired. And whirling round
he cried to his Trojans, shouting through the ruck.
“The wall, storm the wall!” They rushed to obey him,
some swarming over the top at once, others streaming in
through the study gateways–Argives scattering back in terror,
back by the hollow hulls, the uproar rising, no way out, no end –”

This is exciting and impressive, but must strike us with a note of doom, because we know that this is as far as the Trojans will be allowed to progress in this war.

Iliad: Book XIII
Iliad Index