“The Best of the Achaeans has Fallen”: Iliad 17

This year’s Homer Multitext Summer Seminar at the Center for Hellenic Studies will focus on book 17 of the Iliad as transmitted in a variety of medieval manuscripts.

Book 17, while not the longest, is certainly among the longer books of the Iliad at 761 verses, and is entirely devoted to the fight for Patroklos’ corpse after his death on the battlefield at the hands of Apollo, Euphorbos, and Hektor. At the seminar we will explore Patroklos’ role within the Iliad and in the larger poetic tradition, as well as the interconnections between the Iliad and other epics, such as the Aithiopis. Among other topics, we will discuss the way that Patroklos’ death is formulated as both a sacrifice that brings Achilles back into the war after his withdrawal in Iliad 1 and as a ritual substitution that previews Achilles’ own coming death (Nagy 1979, Lowenstam 1981).

Patroklos is the closest comrade of the Iliad’s central figure, the Greek hero Achilles. His death is the reason that Achilles comes back to battle, even knowing that he himself will die in avenging Patroklos’ death. The deaths of Patroklos at the hands of the Trojan prince Hektor, of Hektor at the hands of Achilles, and of Achilles at the hands of Paris (beyond the confines of the poem) are fundamentally interconnected in the Iliad. Achilles’ death is foreshadowed repeatedly after the death of Patroklos and prophesied by various characters, including by his mother, the goddess Thetis, who tells Achilles at Iliad 18.96: “Your own death awaits you straightaway after that of Hektor” (αὐτίκα γάρ τοι ἔπειτα μεθ’ ῞Εκτορα πότμος ἑτοῖμος). With his dying breath Patroklos foretells the death of Hektor, who in turn with his dying breath foretells the death of Achilles.

This interconnectedness is made manifest in the exchange of armor that takes place among these three characters (Whitman 1958:199–203). Patroklos goes into battle wearing Achilles’ famous divinely crafted armor precisely in order that he be mistaken for Achilles. Hektor strips Patroklos of this armor upon killing him and puts it on himself. Achilles must get a new set of divinely made armor, in which he confronts Hektor, who is still wearing his old set. Each of these characters then becomes an embodiment of Achilles; in killing Patroklos, Hektor arguably kills Achilles as well, and in killing Hektor, Achilles kills himself.

We can see that the 750+ verses devoted to the fight for Patroklos’ corpse are about much more than the grief initiated by a single warrior’s death. An ancient audience, familiar as they would have been with the larger mythological, poetic, and religious traditions about the hero Achilles, were witnessing in advance the coming fight for Achilles’ own body (see also Burgess 2009:81–83). That fight was narrated in the Aithiopis in the Epic Cycle and is also described in the Odyssey by Agamemnon, who is at this point dead and in the underworld:

‘ὄλβιε Πηλέος υἱέ, θεοῖς ἐπιείκελ᾽ Ἀχιλλεῦ, ὃς θάνες ἐν Τροίῃ ἑκὰς Ἄργεος: ἀμφὶ δέ σ᾽ ἄλλοι κτείνοντο Τρώων καὶ Ἀχαιῶν υἷες ἄριστοι, μαρνάμενοι περὶ σεῖο: σὺ δ᾽ ἐν στροφάλιγγι κονίης κεῖσο μέγας μεγαλωστί, λελασμένος ἱπποσυνάων. ἡμεῖς δὲ πρόπαν ἦμαρ ἐμαρνάμεθ᾽: οὐδέ κε πάμπαν παυσάμεθα πτολέμου, εἰ μὴ Ζεὺς λαίλαπι παῦσεν.

Fortunate son of Peleus, Achilles like the gods, (since) you died in Troy far from Argos. And around you the rest, the best sons of the Trojans and the Achaeans, were killing, doing battle around you. But you in a whirl of dust lay huge and hugely, no longer mindful of chariot-fighting. The whole day we battled, nor would we have at all stopped from war, if Zeus hadn’t stopped us with a storm. (Odyssey 24.36–42)

The body of Achilles was not only the subject of myth, song, drama, and art throughout antiquity, but in keeping with the Greek practice of hero cult, it was ritually lamented and worshipped and believed to be very powerful after death. Having the body matters in this tradition. Proper burial matters. Patroklos’ bones will be mingled with those of Achilles himself, in the golden amphora given to Thetis by Dionysus for this very purpose, on day of her marriage to the mortal Peleus (Iliad 23.81–92; Odyssey 24.72–79).

Achilles is unquestionably the best of the Achaeans in the Iliadic tradition (Iliad 2.768–769), but when Patroklos dies in his place in book 17, Patroklos becomes in that moment the best. When Menelaos breaks the news that Patroklos has died to Antilokhos (Achilles’ next closest comrade to Achilles after Patroklos, according to Odyssey 24.78–79), he says:

Ἀντίλοχ᾽ εἰ δ᾽ ἄγε δεῦρο διοτρεφὲς ὄφρα πύθηαι λυγρῆς ἀγγελίης, ἣ μὴ ὤφελλε γενέσθαι. ἤδη μὲν σὲ καὶ αὐτὸν ὀΐομαι εἰσορόωντα γιγνώσκειν ὅτι πῆμα θεὸς Δαναοῖσι κυλίνδει, νίκη δὲ Τρώων· πέφαται δ᾽ ὤριστος Ἀχαιῶν Πάτροκλος, μεγάλη δὲ ποθὴ Δαναοῖσι τέτυκται. ἀλλὰ σύ γ᾽ αἶψ᾽ Ἀχιλῆϊ θέων ἐπὶ νῆας Ἀχαιῶν εἰπεῖν, αἴ κε τάχιστα νέκυν ἐπὶ νῆα σαώσῃ γυμνόν· ἀτὰρ τά γε τεύχε᾽ ἔχει κορυθαίολος Ἕκτωρ. ὣς ἔφατ᾽, Ἀντίλοχος δὲ κατέστυγε μῦθον ἀκούσας. δὴν δέ μιν ἀμφασίη ἐπέων λάβε, τὼ δέ οἱ ὄσσε δακρυόφι πλῆσθεν, θαλερὴ δέ οἱ ἔσχετο φωνή.

“Antilokhos, cherished by Zeus, come here in order that you may learn of grievous news, which I wish had never happened. Already I think you yourself see and comprehend that a god is rolling down sorrow upon the Danaans, and victory belongs to the Trojans. The best of the Achaeans has been slain, Patroklos, and a great longing [pothē] has been created for the Danaans. But you run quickly to the ships of the Achaeans and tell Achilles, if he could as quickly as possible save the body back to the ship, stripped. Hektor of the shining helmet has the armor.” So he spoke, and Antilokhos was struck with horror upon hearing his words. For a long time he was speechless, and his two eyes filled with tears, and his flourishing voice was held in check. (Iliad 17.685–693)

For all of book 17, Achilles is unaware, just like Antilokhos, that Patroklos is dead. His mother, does not tell him the news (17.410–411), nor did she foretell it to him (19.328–329). He did not expect, when he asked his mother to persuade Zeus to give help to the Trojans, that it would be Patroklos who would die. This passage from Iliad 17, then, allows us to appreciate the events of Iliad 1 and Achilles’ own words in a new light. When he withdraws from battle in book 1, Achilles foretells that the Greeks will regret dishonoring him:

ἀλλ᾽ ἔκ τοι ἐρέω καὶ ἐπὶ μέγαν ὅρκον ὀμοῦμαι… ἦ ποτ᾽ Ἀχιλλῆος ποθὴ ἵξεται υἷας Ἀχαιῶν σύμπαντας· τότε δ᾽ οὔ τι δυνήσεαι ἀχνύμενός περ χραισμεῖν, εὖτ᾽ ἂν πολλοὶ ὑφ᾽ Ἕκτορος ἀνδροφόνοιο θνήσκοντες πίπτωσι· σὺ δ᾽ ἔνδοθι θυμὸν ἀμύξεις χωόμενος ὅ τ᾽ ἄριστον Ἀχαιῶν οὐδὲν ἔτισας.

But I will speak out and, on top of that, I will swear a great oath… Some day a longing [pothē] for Achilles will come upon the sons of the Achaeans, all of them together. But at that point you will not be able, even though in great sorrow, to help it, when many men at the hand of man-slaying Hektor fall dying. And you will tear your heart out inside, angry because you did not honor the best of the Achaeans. (Iliad 1.233ff.)

In Iliad 17, Patroklos becomes the best of the Achaeans, and it is for him that the Achaeans—and most especially Achilles himself—will long.

But so interconnected are the deaths of Patroklos and Achilles that once Patroklos has died, everyone begins lamenting for Achilles. His mother Thetis begins a lament among her sisters the Nereids, and Achilles’ captive prize woman Briseis laments as much for Achilles as she does for Patroklos (Dué 2002:67–81). The funeral mound that the Achaeans build is simultaneously for Patroklos and Achilles (23.123–126). When Achilles finally hears the news of Patroklos’ death at the beginning of book 18, he previews the corpse that he will soon be:

ὣς φάτο, τὸν δ᾽ ἄχεος νεφέλη ἐκάλυψε μέλαινα: ἀμφοτέρῃσι δὲ χερσὶν ἑλὼν κόνιν αἰθαλόεσσαν χεύατο κὰκ κεφαλῆς, χαρίεν δ᾽ ᾔσχυνε πρόσωπον· νεκταρέῳ δὲ χιτῶνι μέλαιν᾽ ἀμφίζανε τέφρη. αὐτὸς δ᾽ ἐν κονίῃσι μέγας μεγαλωστὶ τανυσθεὶς κεῖτο, φίλῃσι δὲ χερσὶ κόμην ᾔσχυνε δαΐζων.

So he spoke, and a black cloud of sorrow covered [Achilles]. Taking the sooty dust with both hands he poured it down from his head, and disfigured his lovely face. On his khiton, fragrant as nectar, the black ash settled. Stretched out in the dust all huge and hugely he lay, and with his own hands he disfigured his head, tearing his hair. (Iliad 18.22–27)

Just as Agamemnon describes his corpse in the underworld scene of Odyssey 24, Achilles lies on the ground, mega megalosti—”huge and hugely,” in the translation of Samuel Butler—covered in dust. Patroklos’ death has initiated an inevitable chain of events leading to Achilles’ own death, an epic battle for his corpse, and mourning of cosmic proportions.

Burgess, J. 2009. The Death and Afterlife of Achilles. Baltimore.

Dué, C. 2002. 2002. Homeric Variations on a Lament by Briseis. Lanham, MD.

Dué, C., and M. Ebbott. 2012. “Mothers-in-Arms: Soldiers’ Emotional Bonds and Homeric Similes.” War, Literature & the Arts 24.

Lowenstam, S. 1981. The Death of Patroklos: A Study in Typology. Königstein.

Nagy, G. 1979. The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry. Baltimore. Revised ed. with new introduction 1999.

Whitman, C. 1958. Homer and the Heroic Tradition. Cambridge, MA.


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