Homer’s Iliad: Book XVII

Questions for Book XVII:

  • Why is there such fierce fighting over the dead body of Patroclus?
  • Describe the new side of Zeus we get to see in this book.

“And he stabbed Menelaus’ round shield, full center,
not battering through — the brazen point bent back
in the tough armor” (17.48-50).

This is Euphorbus, who Menelaus then kills. It’s one of hundreds of quick death episodes in the epic, but this one is important, because Pythagoras, who believed in a kind of reincarnation, said that he remembered being Euphorbus in one of his past lives. (More on this in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.)

“What can I do?
If I leave this splendid gear and desert Patroclus —
who fell here fighting, all to redeem my honor —
won’t any comrade curse me, seeing me break away?”

So frets Menelaus. The tug-of-war for Patroclus’ body, because of the armor, is pretty grisly.

“Hector, tearing the famous armor off Patroclus,
tugged hard at the corpse,
mad to hack the head from the neck with bronze
and drag the trunk away to glut the dogs of Troy”

And how weird is it for Achilles that Hector will appear before him in Achilles’ own armor? It’s the closest practical situation to a doppelgänger phenomenon: Achilles sort of seeing a mirror image of himself, and being in a relationship of homicidal antagonism with this other self.

“Poor soldier. Never a thought of death weighs down
your spirit now, yet death is right beside you …
You don the deathless arms of a great fighter –”

Zeus offers a lament for Hector ahead of time. He even seems to have some heartfelt compassion for the plight of mortality — “There is nothing alive more agonized than man / of all that breathe and crawl across the earth” (17.515-516) — that is, in an address to the crying horses. Yes, Achilles’ chariot horses weep over the death of Patroclus, and Zeus meditates on the fact that humans have a special agony all their own. At the end of the book, the Trojans are still thriving.

“so pursued by Aeneas and Hector Argive fighters
raced, screaming death-cries, lust for battle lost
and masses of fine armor littered both sides of the trench
as the Argives fled in fear, no halt in the fighting, not now –”

Iliad: Book XVIII
Iliad Index