On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book XXIII

Book XXII of the Iliad is rich in human emotion; Book XXIII, in anthropological detail. The books form a natural sequence:

  1. Defiance, flight, fight, and death of a man.
  2. Funeral and memorial games for a man.

That the man is different in either case creates tension, to be resolved in the next and final book (whose emotions I once took up in “Homer for the Civilian”).

At the beginning of Book XXIII, possessing the body of his enemy, Achilles tells the body of his friend (Chapman’s lines 15–21),

… Reioyce (said he) O my Patroclus: Thou
Courted by Dis now: now I pay, to thy late ouerthrow,
All my reuenges vow’d before; Hector lies slaughterd here
Dragd at my chariot; and our dogs, shall all in peeces teare
His hated lims. Twelue Troian youths, borne of their noblest straines,
I tooke aliue: and (yet enrag’d) will emptie all their vaines
Of vitall spirits; sacrifisde, before thy heape of fire.

The dogs will not actually tear up the body, since Venus will apply to it a foul-tasting balm. The gods do not want the body mutilated. Neither does Patroclus, I would say, and Achilles knows this unconsciously. In a dream, Patroclus says only that his soul will be given no rest without proper burial, and his bones should be interred with Achilles’s.

Achilles tries to hug his friend, but can find nothing to grasp. Although Chapman has it happening after Achilles wakes up, I would suggest that the failed attempt to embrace is what awakens Achilles. Homer himself would seem to be noncommital.

Agamemnon sends men and mules, under command of Meriones, to climb Mount Ida and cut wood for Patroclus’s pyre. It is a pyre not just for the principal, but for the twelve Trojan victims mentioned, along with sheep and horse and hounds, and vessels of oil and honey. The mixture does not burn till Iris visits the winds, who have assembled for a feast. They urge her to join them, but she has a hecatomb to attend in Ethiopia. Still Zephyr and Boreas agree to go whip up the flames of Patroclus’s pyre.

Next day the embers are quenched with wine. The pyre has been so vast that the bones of Patroclus can be distinguished from the others. Achilles has plans for them (lines 222–8):

Being found, Ile finde an vrne of gold, t’enclose them; and betwixt
The aire and them; two kels of fat, lay on them; and to Rest
Commit them, till mine owne bones seale, our loue; my soule deceast.
The sepulcher, I haue not charg’d, to make of too much state;
But of a modell something meane: that you of younger Fate,
(When I am gone) may amplifie; with such a bredth and height,
As fits your iudgements, and our worths …

Achilles has done so much for Patroclus, or at least for Patroclus’s body and memory; but he does not forget, or allow to be forgotten, the difference in their social rank.

Immediately Achilles has his men bring out prizes for athletic competition. There will be at least a participation trophy for everybody, and the details are fascinating and sometimes horrifying. For instance (lines 609–14),

Pelides then set forth
Prise for a wrastling; to the best, a triuet, that was worth
Twelue oxen, great, and fit for fire; the conquer’d was t’obtaine
A woman excellent in workes; her beautie, and her gaine,
Prisde at foure oxen. Vp he stood, and thus proclaim’d: Arise
You wrastlers, that will proue for these …

A woman may be as good as four oxen; but a good tripod is worth twelve. I somehow recall an old Onion article, “Lack Of Second Car Preserves Marriage” (2000):

Though they’ve weathered some rocky times during their five years of marriage, Dale and Sheila Hefko have managed to stay together. The couple’s secret? Their lack of a second car.

“This marriage hasn’t exactly worked out like I expected, but we’re determined to stick it out,” he said. “At least until I get my own car so I can still get around.”

In the Iliad, the wrestlers who step forward are Ajax the huge and Ulysses the crafty (lines 618–20);

And as the beames of some high house, cracke with a storme, yet stands
The house, being built by well-skild men: So crackt their backe bones wrincht
With horrid twitches …

The wrestling brings back more or less unpleasant memories for me, who wrestled in school because I had to pick some sport. I was skin and bones, and had no strength, and either because of this or in addition, I had little interest in competing.

At one of our matches with another school, I did beat my opponent, if only because he was a lot shorter than I. The boy tried using trash talk, telling me I was dead shit or something like that. It seemed so pathetic.

When Achilles calls a boxing match, offering a mule for the winner and a cup for the loser, the rodomontade is mixed with a bit of humility. Says Epeus (lines 582–8),

Now let some other stand
Forth for the cup; this Mule is mine; at cuffes I bost me best;
Is’t not enough I am no souldier? who is worthiest
At all workes? none; not possible. At this yet, this I say,
And will performe this; who stands forth; Ile burst him; I will bray
His bones as in a mortar; fetch, surgeons enow, to take
His corse from vnder me …

Says the devil to the angel in Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “Bray a fool in a morter with wheat, yet shall his folly not be beaten out of him.”

Epeus does not kill his opponent, but he knocks him out, leaving him spitting up blood.

The prize for the shot put is the shot itself: a ball of iron, presumably a meteorite. Achilles says it will serve your farming needs, for plowshares and such, for five years. However, it has some historical significance, having been hurled by King Eetion, Andromache’s father, killed by Achilles.

The competition hosted by Achilles is not always fair, at least according to some of the competitors—Antilochus and Menelaus both, in the chariot race. Nestor has advised his son that, while his horses are not the fastest, he can win by being clever. Antilochus’s way of being clever is passing Menelaus in a narrow way where Menelaus thinks, for safety, he ought to be allowed to keep the lead.

When Menelaus complains of winning only third prize, a mare, Antilochus offers him his second prize, a cauldron. Menelaus, he says, should remember that Antilochus is young and foolish, but wishes to remain in Menelaus’s good graces. Menelaus is pacified, and declines the offer of the mare, but he gives Antilochus the cauldron.

Eumeleus had been favored to win the race, but then he fell in an accident, so Diomedes won; the prize was a lady and a tripod together. Achilles wanted to give Eumeleus second prize anyway, but Antilochus complained (470–4):

His chariot ouerthrowne,
O’rethrew not me; who’s last? who’s first? mens goodnesse, without these
Is not our question. If his good, you pitie yet; and please,
Princely to grace it; your tents hold, a goodly deale of gold,
Brasse, horse, sheepe, women; out of these, your bountie may be bold.

Achilles laughed and gave Eumeleus the arms spoiled from Asteropaeus in Book XXI.

I used to play croquet with my family, on a stony hill in West Virginia or a yard dotted with pine trees in Michigan. Some of my elders thought deference in the field should be given to persons such as one’s spouse. My uncle once recalled a match I was not present for, when his son had let our grandfather win, and this was supposed to be a good thing. I just played to win, and sometimes I did.

To me then the end of Book XXIII is rather sad. For the javelin throw, a javelin and a cauldron are to be the prizes. When Agamemnon stands for the contest, and then Meriones, Achilles calls it off. Since Agamemnon is the king, there is no need for a competition. Agamemnon shall receive the cauldron (“new, engrail’d with twentie hewes; Prisde at an Oxe“ lines 760–1); Meriones, the javelin.

I suppose royalty today continue to receive prizes and medals in this way. I just recall two movies:

  • Late Marriage (Israel, 2001), in which Georgian parents abuse their son till he gives up his Moroccan girlfriend, who is older than he, and agrees to marry a younger woman. At the wedding he drunkenly praises his parents and his new bride, but everybody seems to understand the bitterness behind the words. Achilles’s praise of Agamemnon may hide the same bitterness, though I can offer no textual evidence of this.

  • General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait (1974). In the scene that I recall best, the general is in a swimming pool with boys, and there is supposed to be a race. After a lot of splashing, no boy will get ahead of the general, who in the end grins and says, “I won.”

Sea and distant island under cloud

3 Trackbacks

  1. By On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book XXIV « Polytropy on September 26, 2019 at 8:26 am

    […] « On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book XXIII […]

  2. By On Homer’s Iliad Book V « Polytropy on December 26, 2022 at 5:58 am

    […] “The heart of Tydeus’ son,” she says, “knoweth not this, that verily he endureth not for long who fighteth with the immortals” (lines 406–7). Dione is wrong here, as far as the Iliad is concerned; for Diomedes will not die in the epic, but will stick around to compete in the games organized by Achilles in memory of Patroclus in Book XXIII. […]

  3. By History (Iliad Book XXIII) « Polytropy on May 4, 2023 at 9:05 pm

    […] that to the associations with Book XXIII that I made in 2019 […]

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