David Bruce: Homer’s ILIAD: A Retelling in Prose — Book 12: The Trojans Storm the Barricade

Book 12: The Trojans Storm the Barricade

As Patroclus helped Eurypylus, the Greeks and Trojans fought before the Greek trench and wall. At any time, it seemed that the Trojans would break down the wall and bring fire to the ships — the Greeks had neglected to sacrifice to the gods and so their defensive fortifications would not protect them.

After the war, the wall would not last long. After the war, it would vanish. After many warriors died, and after Troy fell in the tenth year of the war, and after the Greeks had sailed for home, Poseidon and Apollo would turn their anger to the wall. They would turn rivers — the Rhesus and Heptaporus and Caresus and Rhodius and Grenicus and Aesepus — against it. They would also turn the Scamander and Simois rivers against it — rivers into which fell shields and helmets and the corpses of warriors who seemed half god and half mortal. Apollo would join all these rivers together and direct their force against the wall for nine days as Zeus sent cloudburst after cloudburst and Poseidon ripped apart the foundations of the wall. The Greeks had built the wall with their own hard work, but the gods knocked it down and covered it with smooth sand, and then the rivers flowed in their natural channels again.

In the future, Poseidon and Apollo made it look as if a wall had never existed there.

But now the wall still stood, and the battle raged before it. Hector was driving the Greeks back to their ships. Hector fought like a whirlwind. Hector fought like a boar that hunters have cornered but that wheels around and attacks. The hunters hurl their spears at the boar, but the boar with its strength and bravery charges the hunters again and again. What will kill the boar will be its own courage. It charges, and the hunters give way, and the boar charges again.

Hector kept charging, kept rallying his warriors, kept trying to reach the ships so he could keep his wife and son safe at Troy.

But the Greek trench stopped his horses. They whinnied and balked. The trench was deep, and the far side was lined with sharpened stakes.

Polydamas warned Hector, “The trench is too deep for our chariots, and just beyond it is the Greek wall. The Greeks have the advantage. If Zeus is on our side and wants us to win and to kill the Greeks, I hope he helps us soon. I hope that the Greeks die here, far from their homes.

“What if the Greeks attack while we and our chariots are in the trench? What if the Greeks are triumphant? The warriors and chariots will be in a disorganized mass of confusion.

“It is best if we don’t fight here with chariots. Let everyone dismount from the chariots and fight on foot. All of us will follow you, Hector, in a mass attack. We can defeat the Greeks on foot.”

Hector agreed. He leapt from his chariot, and so did the other Trojans. They lined up their chariots and prepared to fight on foot. Five captains led five battalions of Trojans and Trojan allies against the Greeks.

The largest battalion was with Hector and Polydamas. Cebriones was third in command.

Paris led the second battalion. With him were Alcathous and Agenor.

Helenus led the third battalion. Second in command was Deiphobus. Both of them were sons of Priam. Third in command was Asius — huge stallions had carried him to Troy.

Aeneas led the fourth battalion. With him were Acamas and Archelochus, two sons of Antenor.

The fifth battalion consisted of many of the Trojans’ allies. Sarpedon, the son of Zeus, led them. Next in command were Glaucus and Asteropaeus. They were the best men next to Sarpedon.

The five battalions charged the Greeks, intending to break through the wall and reach the ships.

Almost all Trojans followed Polydamas’ plan of fighting on foot, but Asius did not. He charged the Greeks in his chariot — fool! He was fated to die. Idomeneus’ spear would take his life.

Asius charged the ships on the left, straight toward some gates through which the Greeks passed after a battle.

The gates were open — two warriors who kept them open so that any straggling Greeks could make their way to safety guarded them. Asius drove straight at the gates with his warriors following him.

The two Greek warriors guarding the gates were Polypoetes and Leonteus. They were like deeply rooted, huge oak trees on a mountain ridge, standing up to storms.

They stood up to Asius, who was followed by Trojan warriors yelling cries of war. Following Asius was Adamas, his son, as well as Iamenus, Orestes, Thoon, and Oenomaus.

Polypoetes and Leonteus yelled to the other Greeks, “Defend the ships!” Polypoetes and Leonteus then stood in front of the gates and fought like two wild boars on a hilltop taking on hunters and dogs, charging and shattering trees, fighting men and dogs with their tusks until a hunter spears them. Meanwhile, Greek warriors from the wall behind Polypoetes and Leonteus threw rocks at the Trojans and their allies.

Blow on blow sounded on the Greeks’ armor and on the Trojan allies’ armor.

Asius cried, “Zeus, I did not believe that the Greeks could withstand our charge. The Greeks are like wasps or bees defending their homes and their young. The bees keep the hunters of honey away. Although only two warriors are in front, they will not stop defending the gates until either they kill all of us or we kill both of them.”

Zeus heard Asius, but Zeus would give kleos to Hector, not to Asius.

At the gates they fought. It is impossible to tell the story with the detail with which a god could tell it. But the Greeks were desperate — what would happen if the Trojan allies broke through the wall? The gods who supported the Greeks were dejected, but the Greek warriors Polypoetes and Leonteus kept fighting and kept killing.

Polypoetes’ spearhead went through Damasus’ metal helmet and through his skull. His brain splattered inside his helmet.

Polypoetes then killed Pylon and Ormenus and stripped their armor from their corpses.

Leonteus speared Hippomachus in the belly and then drew his sword and killed Antiphates, Menon, Orestes, and Iamenus. Corpses littered the ground.

While Polypoetes and Leonteus stripped the armor of the warriors they had killed, the warriors led by Hector and Polydamas witnessed a bird-sign sent by Zeus. An eagle was flying on their left — the unlucky, sinister side. It clutched in its talons a huge bloodied snake. Still alive, the snake bit the eagle’s throat, and the eagle dropped it. It fell in the midst of the Trojan warriors and wriggled.

Polydamas the prophet was able to interpret the sign. He said to Hector, “Often you criticize me when I interpret a bird-sign or other sign from the gods, although my advice is good. You don’t think that anyone should criticize you in council and especially during a war. But I have to tell you what I have learned from this bird-sign. Stop the attack and return to Troy. The eagle bloodied the snake, but the eagle was unable to feed it to its nestlings. We have bloodied the Greeks in battle today, but we will be unable to continue to do so. Eventually, the Greeks will batter us back to Troy, defeated. That is what this bird-sign shows us.”

Hector said, “Polydamas, shut up. You are wrong. I have heard a message from Zeus himself that this is my day of triumph. I will not put that aside because of a bird-sign. Not all movements of birds are signs from the gods. I pay no attention to birds on the right, lucky side or to birds on the left, unlucky side or to birds in the middle. I do pay attention to messages given to me from Zeus.

“The best thing that all of us can do is to fight for our country. We have wives and children and parents and other family members to protect. You yourself have nothing to fear in war. The rest of us risk our lives and may die trying to set the Greek ships on fire, but you are so cowardly that you will not fight long or hard.

“I warn you not to hold back from the fighting. I warn you not to convince even one of our warriors to hold back from the fighting. If you do, I myself will kill you with my spear!”

Hector led the Trojans in a charge against the Greeks, and Zeus sent a dust storm against the Greeks. This was the day on which Zeus would allow Hector to win great kleos.

Hector and his Trojans were mad to tear down the Greek wall. They tried to use levers to tear it down, and they tried to wreck the foundations so that the wall would fall. But the Greeks kept fighting. They used shields to plug holes in the wall, and from the wall they threw rocks at the Trojans.

Great Ajax and Little Ajax were on the wall, calling on their fellow Greeks to fight fiercely: “Warriors! Commanders! Look at the Trojans as they attack! This is not the time to rest! We can either achieve victory and live or we can be defeated and die! There is no other outcome! May Zeus help us to achieve victory!”

Zeus sometimes sends a snowstorm from which flakes of snow fall and cover the highlands and the lowlands, the plowed fields and the beaches, everything except the sea. Rocks thrown by Greeks and by Trojans were as plentiful as those flakes of snow.

Zeus inspired Sarpedon, his son, to achieve a great feat and so earn kleos. Sarpedon charged straight at the Greeks, holding his shield in front of him. He was like a hungry mountain lion wanting to feed on some sheep. Even if the lion chances on herdsmen protecting the flocks with spears and with dogs, the lion still charges. Either the lion kills a sheep and carries it away or the herdsmen kill the lion.

Sarpedon called to his second-in-command, “Glaucus, why do our fellow Lycians honor us with the best meat and the best wine? Why do our countrymen respect us as if we were gods? Why do we have the best vineyards and the best cropland?

“They do it because of times like this. Our duty is to fight in the front lines. Our duty is to fight so well that a fellow warrior will say, ‘Our kings of Lycia have earned kleos. Our kings eat the best food and drink the best wine, and they deserve it. They have great fighting ability, and they lead us during war!’

“Glaucus, my friend, if it were possible for us to leave this battle and never die and never age, to be immortal and eternally young, I would never fight again. Nor would I command you to fight. But immortality for us is not possible because death is not optional.

“Death in any of a thousand forms awaits you and me and all men. All living men will die. No living man will escape his fate. So let us fight! Let us kill and earn kleos for ourselves, or let us be killed and earn kleos for another warrior! Let us achieve such great feats that we will be remembered after we die!”

Glaucus heard him and responded by charging at the Greeks. Sarpedon and Glaucus led the Lycian warriors in the attack.

Menestheus saw them charging and knew he needed reinforcements. Who could help defend the wall at that spot? He saw Great Ajax and Little Ajax with Teucer, the archer who had been wounded earlier but, rested now, had come from the camps to help fight the Trojans. They were too far away for them to hear Menestheus shout. The Trojans and Greeks yelled as they fought before the bolted gates.

Menestheus sent a herald to give Great Ajax a message: “Ask Great Ajax to come here and fight. Better, ask Great Ajax and Little Ajax to come here and fight. The Lycians are attacking with a mighty force and we will be hard pressed to resist it. But if their part of the wall is strongly under attack, let Little Ajax stay there. But let Great Ajax and Teucer fight here.”

The runner took off and delivered the message: More warriors were needed to fight off the Lycians.

Great Ajax told Little Ajax, “Stay here. You and Lycomedes command the Greeks in their fight with the Trojans. I will return soon — after I have fought off this fresh attack.”

Great Ajax and Teucer went to Menestheus. Pandion, Teucer’s comrade, carried Teucer’s bow. The Lycians were attacking in force, storming against the Greeks like a tornado.

Great Ajax was the first to kill a Lycian. He threw a rock that a strong man of today would find difficult to lift with both hands. The rock struck Epicles, one of Sarpedon’s friends, and splintered his skull.

Teucer shot an arrow that wounded Glaucus, hitting him in his shoulder blade.

Sarpedon felt sorrow for his friend, but he kept on fighting. Sarpedon stabbed Alcmaon and then drew his spear out of Alcmaon’s body. Alcmaon fell headfirst from the wall.

And now Sarpedon grabbed the wall and wrenched it, and a part of the wall fell. A gap in the wall was before him, a gap through which hundreds of Trojans could attack.

Teucer and Great Ajax both targeted Sarpedon. Teucer aimed an arrow at him and shot and hit Sarpedon’s war-belt. But Zeus made sure that Sarpedon — his son — was not wounded. Sarpedon was not yet fated to die.

Great Ajax stabbed at Sarpedon and hit his shield, which held off Great Ajax’ spear. But Great Ajax forced Sarpedon back — slowly, unwillingly.

Sarpedon shouted to his Lycians, “Fight harder! I’ve knocked down part of the wall! Now we need to charge through it! The harder we fight together, the more Greeks we will kill!”

The Lycians rallied around Sarpedon, but the Greeks also rallied. What would happen to the Greeks if the Trojans and Trojan allies got through the wall? The Lycians were unable to push the Greeks back and get through the wall, and the Greeks were unable to push the Lycians back.

Two farmers sometimes fight over boundary stones, and each tries to get more territory. They fight it out with measuring rods, but the Greeks and the Lycians were fighting it out with spears and swords as they jabbed and hacked at each other.

Many warriors were wounded, sometimes in the back and sometimes when a spear punched through a shield. Everywhere was the blood of Greeks and Lycians — on rocks, on the ground, on pieces of the wall, and on weapons. But the Trojans and their allies could not pour through the gap in the wall. Greeks and Trojans were evenly matched.

But Hector arrived, and Zeus gave him the glory of storming the wall. Hector shouted, “Charge, Trojans! Get through the wall! Burn the ships!”

Hector’s warriors gathered around him, and Hector picked up a huge boulder that no two men of today could easily lift into a wagon. But Hector lifted it as easily as a shepherd can lift the fleece of a ram.

Hector ran toward the gates. They were sturdily built, with two crossbars locking them. Hector threw the boulder against the gates, using his weight as he did so. The boulder smashed the gates and knocked them down.

Hector’s armor blazed. No Greek could stop him as he battled his way through the gate, shouting to his warriors, “Storm the wall!”

They obeyed him. Some climbed over the wall, and some followed Hector through the gate.

The Trojans forced the Greeks back. Nothing was behind the Greeks except their camps and ships. They had nowhere to escape the fighting.

Zeus, watching the battle, thought, What are these warriors fighting for? Hector and the Trojans are fighting to save their wives, children, parents, other family members, and siblings. The Greeks are fighting to get Helen back. But what else are these warriors fighting for?

Although it is difficult for an immortal god to understand, my own son, Sarpedon, explained it well in his speech to his friend and second-in-command, Glaucus. They are fighting for something that Achilles at this time completely rejects: kleos. Achilles told the embassy of Odysseus, Phoenix, and Great Ajax that he is no longer willing to fight for kleos and timê. In doing that, he is completely rejecting what Sarpedon, Glaucus, and every other warrior — Greek or Trojan or Trojan ally — wants. He is rejecting the Warrior Ethic on which mortal society is built.

The human condition is mortality. Every human being must die. Many, many warriors have died and are dying here. For human beings, death is not optional. Everyone must face death, and warriors face it almost daily. Every mortal, including the mortal’s friends and family and the mortal himself, must die. They have to accept that, and although they accept that, they also have to eat, sleep, and try to find joy in life.

For these warriors, only one kind of meaningful afterlife exists, and it cannot be found in Hades, the Land of the Dead. Every mortal dies and goes to Hades, a gloomy and unhappy place. The breath of life leaves the mortal body and, once the body has had a proper funeral, the warrior’s psyche, or soul, enters Hades. The only thing worse than being a soul in the Land of the Dead is being a soul that is not allowed to enter the Land of the Dead. The dead belong with the dead.

Kleos aphthiton is the only kind of meaningful or significant afterlife available to a warrior. It is not a living body but a living reputation. Kleos is fame or glory or reputation; it is what people say about you after you are dead. Kleos aphthiton is undying kleos. The body of the warrior will die, but if he fights well enough in battle, his kleos will be everlasting — people will remember his name and he will be talked about after he is dead. Epic poets such as Homer who is yet to be born will sing songs about him.

The only alternative is to be forgotten.

The way that a warrior can get kleos aphthiton is to kill and/or to be killed — or both. Many of the warriors who achieve immortality by having their exploits sung have killed other warriors and were killed themselves.

Achilles told Odysseus, Phoenix, and Great Ajax about his two fates that he learned about from his goddess mother, Thetis. If he returns home to Greece, his life will be long but he will die with no kleos. If he stays at Troy, he will die young but his kleos will be aphthiton — everlasting.

Previously, Achilles has been willing to die for kleos, but Agamemnon has shown him that kleos can be taken away arbitrarily. Timê is related to kleos in that if the warrior gets lots of timê, the warrior will also get lots of kleos; however, kleos is what the warrior is truly fighting for. Agamemnon took away Achilles’ timê: Briseis. If Agamemnon can take away Achilles’ timê — and therefore his kleos — arbitrarily, then Achilles says that kleos is not worth dying for.

Achilles can get kleos aphthiton, but only at the price of killing many, many Trojans and at the price of dying young.

My son Sarpedon stated the Heroic Ethic clearly. Death is not optional, and therefore what warriors ought to do is to fight bravely and win kleos. By killing or being killed, warriors can either win kleos for themselves or give kleos to others.

Achilles, of course, has rejected the Heroic Ethic. He said that he loves life and therefore he no longer values kleos and timê. This is entirely different from what the other warriors believe.

Achilles, in rejecting kleos and timê, rejects everything that his warrior society believes in. He is rejecting the Heroic Ethic, and he is rejecting everything that he has built his life on up to this point.

Achilles is examining the Heroic Ethic and asking if it is worthwhile.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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