Homer’s Iliad: Book XX
Questions for Book XX:
- Why do we hear so much about Aeneas, even though his encounter with Achilles amounts to nothing?
Zeus calls a meeting and allows the other gods to involve themselves in the war again, so that Achilles won’t exceed the boundaries of fate and raze the walls of Troy in his current rage.
“The rest of you: down you go,
got to Trojans, go to Achaeans. Help either side
as the fixed desire drives each god to act”
The gods take their sides and all hell breaks loose, literally, when Poseidon cataclysmically stirs up earthquakes that have even Hades trembling. Apollo urges Aeneas to involve himself more in the conflict, reassuring him that, after all, Aphrodite is his mother: a more impressive parent than Achilles’ mother, a lesser goddess. Aeneas confronts Achilles: “But about my birth, if you’d like to learn it well, / first to last — though many people know it — / here’s my story, Achilles” (20.248-250). Appropriate battlefield conflab? The long passage of his lineage is probably an insert, included because of his later importance in mythological (Roman) history. The meeting is somewhat moot anyway, since he is whisked out of harm’s way by “the god of earthquakes” (20.366).
We get a bloodbath, again literally, as Achilles hacks his way through countless warriors, including Polydamas. Apollo protects Hector, but even the appeals from his victims go unheeded; Achilles is on a rampage.
“Then Tros, Alastor’s son, crawled to Achilles’ knees
and clutched them, hoping he’d spare him,
let Tros off alive, no cutting him down in blood,
he’d pity Tros, a man of his own age–the young fool,
he’d no idea, thinking Achilles could be swayed!
Here was a man not sweet at heart, not kind, no,
he was raging, wild–as Tros grasped his knees,
desperate, begging, Achilles slit open his liver,
the liver spurted loose, gushing with dark blood,
drenched his lap and the night swirled down his eyes
as his life breath slipped away” (20.523-533).
In one case, Achilles lops off a guy’s head: “and his sword sent head and helmet flying off together / and marrow bubbling up from the clean-cut neckbone” (20.544-545). A pretty fierce swipe, if the friction from it can boil spine marrow!