On Homer’s Iliad Book IV

Bosphorus and third bridge over it, seen from a height through trees beside a house
Kireçburnu, Sarıyer, Istanbul
November 30, 2022

Last time I mentioned what I had remembered most from the Iliad, after reading it in high school: the metaphor in Book VI of humans as leaves dying in the fall, to be replaced by new ones in the spring. I also remembered how often men died at the hands of their fellow men:

Antilochos was first to kill a chief man of the Trojans,
valiant among the champions, Thalysias’ son, Echepolos.
Throwing first, he struck the horn of the horse-haired helmet,
and the bronze spearpoint fixed in his forehead and drove inward
through the bone; and a mist of darkness clouded both eyes
and he fell as a tower falls in the strong encounter.

Those are lines 457–62 of Book IV, in Lattimore’s translation. I think they give us the first account of a battlefield death in the Iliad. At the beginning of Book I, Homer told us that men were dying of the plague sent by Apollo after the dishonoring of his priest by Agamemnon; but we were given no examples.

Book III could have ended in the bedroom of Paris and Helen, on line 457. The remaining 14 lines of the book (namely 458–61) put us back on the battlefield, where Agamemnon asserts that Menelaus has vanquished his vanished foe. Book IV shifts the scene again, to Olympus, where the gods argue over what is to be done at Troy. Peace is not to be allowed, and so we end up with deaths such as Echepolos’s. These start late in the book, because first Agamemnon rallies the troops.

Meanwhile, more precisely, line 458 of Book III does still have us in the bedroom; but the line cannot be separated from the next ones, because of a coordinating or contrasting μὲνδέ construction:

τὼ μὲν ἄρ᾽ ἐν τρητοῖσι κατεύνασθεν λεχέεσσιν,
Ἀτρεΐδης δ᾽ ἀν᾽ ὅμιλον ἐφοίτα θηρὶ ἐοικὼς
εἴ που ἐσαθρήσειεν Ἀλέξανδρον θεοειδέα.

Murray renders the μὲν … δέ with “but” alone:

Thus the twain were couched upon the corded bed; but the son of Atreus ranged through the throng like a wild beast, if anywhere he might have sight of godlike Alexander.

Lattimore could have imitated Homer’s line breaks, but he doesn’t:

So these two were laid in the carven bed. But Atreides
ranged like a wild beast up and down the host, to discover
whether he could find anywhere godlike Alexandros.

Alexander does:

Then the two lay together in the decorated bed;
but Atreus’ son ranged along the host like a wild beast,
trying to catch sight of godlike Alexandros.

Fitzgerald goes his own way:

He went to bed, and she went with him,
and in the inlaid ivory bed these two
made love, while Menelaos roamed the ranks
like a wild beast, hunting the godlike man,
Aléxandros.

Let us recall how we got here. In Book III,

  • Menelaus accepted Paris’s offer of a duel.
  • By the luck of the draw (literally the shake of the lots), Paris got to strike first.
  • Paris’s spear could not penetrate the shield of his opponent.
  • Menelaus’s could, but not the skin.
  • The sword of Menelaus broke on Paris’s helmet, which Menelaus then grabbed.
  • Aphrodite broke the chin-strap and took Paris away to his bedchamber.
  • She sent Helen there.

No divine assistance was said to slow either spear. Before throwing his, Menelaus prayed Zeus (lines 351–4; Murray):

Zeus, our king, grant that I may avenge me on him that was first to do me wrong, even on goodly Alexander, and subdue thou him beneath my hands; that many a one even of men yet to be may shudder to work evil to his host, that hath shown him friendship.

It was a righteous prayer, in defense of civilization and a war to save it. Zeus did not listen.

In Book IV, Zeus speaks up for the Trojans. No other people on earth are so pious, he says. Hera will have none of it. The exchange is thus:

Zeus
Hera and Athena help Menelaus; Aphrodite, Paris. Clearly Menelaus has won the duel; shall we have the humans make war again, or peace?
Athena
[Holds her tongue.]
Hera
You talk peace, after all I did to drive the Achaeans to attack Troy?
Zeus
You could eat Priam alive! Be it so; just don’t complain if I ever feel like destroying a city that you love.
Hera

I won’t, be it Argos, Sparta, or Mycenae. I am

  • eldest daughter of Cronos,
  • wife of you who are king.

Send Athena to make the Trojans break the truce.

Zeus
Athena, go make the Trojans break the truce.

Athena travels to earth like a meteor, and everybody can see that either war is coming, or peace.

No shit, Sherlock. The point is that what happens is up to the gods, not men. How convenient.

Athena goes to tempt Pandarus, son of Lycaon. She takes the guise of Laodocus, son of Antenor (whom we met in Book III as a Trojan elder and a companion of Priam). This is not the first time god meets human.

  • In Book I, Achilles recognized Athena as the goddess who dissuaded him from slaying Agamemnon.
  • In Book II, the dream of Agamemnon took the likeness of Nestor, but identified himself as a messenger from Zeus.
  • In Book III, Helen knew it was Aphrodite sending her to Paris.

Pandarus does not see through Athena’s disguise. Speaking as Laodocus, the goddess tells Pandarus what favor he will win, from the Trojans and especially Paris, if he can shoot Menelaus. Pandarus takes the bait (line 104):

ὣς φάτ᾽ Ἀθηναίη, τῷ δὲ φρένας ἄφρονι πεῖθεν.

So spoke Athena, says Homer, and persuaded

  • his heart in his folly, says Murray;
  • the fool’s heart in him, says Lattimore;
  • the fool’s wits, says Alexander.

Those translators do not try to imitate the repetition in φρένας ἄφρονι. Fitzgerald does:

That was Athêna’s way, bemusing all
his wits with witless glory.

Fitzgerald introduces his own figure of speech, attributing witlessness to glory, rather than to Pandarus, or to wit itself, as Homer does. More literally, I think Athena persuaded Pandarus’s demented mentality or mindless mind; or she persuaded the mind of the mindless man.

Pandarus gets out his bow, and we hear its story, which takes us up into the mountains, where (with unspecified weapon) Pandarus ambushed and killed an ibex. The horns were sixteen palms long—eight palms each, I suppose—, and Pandarus had them joined and made into the weapon with which he now thinks thoughtlessly that he will slay Menelaus.

Pandarus does not now act alone. His comrades shield him as he takes out a new arrow, fits it to the bow, and prays to Apollo.

Apollo does not hear. Athena brushes away the arrow from Menelaus as if she were a mother brushing away a fly from a sleeping child. Nonetheless:

  • The arrow does draw blood, perhaps the first blood seen in the Iliad.

  • The thighs of Menelaus are now like ivory stained purple.

  • Agamemnon freaks out.

  • Menelaus reassures him.

  • Agamemnon tells Talthybius to fetch the sawbones, Doc Machaon.

  • Whether Trojan or Lycian, the unknown archer has achieved, in another men-de construction (line 197),

    τῷ μὲν κλέος, ἄμμι δὲ πένθος,

    glory for himself, but for us sorrow,

    according to Agamemnon. Glory is something objective.

  • Machaon comes and treats the wound.

  • Agamemnon rallies the troops.

    • He encourages eager warriors, saying “father Zeus will be no helper of lies” (line 235). Because of the perfidy of the Trojans (lines 238–9, Murray),

      we shall bear away in our ships their dear wives and little children, when we shall have taken their citadel.

      It is remarkable how justice can be used to justify injustice.

    • He likens reluctant warriors to deer in the headlights:

      Why is it that ye stand thus dazed, like fawns that, when they have grown weary with running over a wide plain, [245] stand still, and in their hearts is no valour found at all (οὐδ᾽ ἄρα τίς σφι μετὰ φρεσὶ γίγνεται ἀλκή)?

      There must be a lot of such men, since most of the warriors are effectively draftees.

    • He addresses some leaders specifically.

      • Idomeneus he praises as a man who at feasts gets to drink as much as he wants, just as Agamemnon himself does.
      • The Aiantes, he says, need no encouragement.
      • Nestor, who is putting the cowards between the rest of his men,—Agamemnon wishes he were as strong in body as in mind.
      • Odysseus is annoyed when it is pointed out to Menestheus and him (whose men, Athenians and Cephalonians respectively, have not heard the war-cry) that they are always first to a feast. Agamemnon will make up for it: “Nay, come, these things will we make good hereafter, if any harsh word hath been spoken now” (lines 362–3). This postponing reminds me of what he told Achilles in Book I, after threatening to take a prize for himself, if the Achaeans did not give him one to replace Chryseis: “Wroth will he be to whomsoever I shall come. Howbeit, of these things will we take thought hereafter” (lines 139–40).
      • Diomedes and Sthenelus are teased as being not so formidable as their fathers, in particular Tydeus, whose story is recounted; I spent time on this in in 2017.
  • The Danaans come on like waves on the beach, but silently.

  • In their several tongues, the Trojans and their allies bleat like ewes to be milked.

  • Gods get involved, along with abstract concepts not quite personified as gods (lines 439–45, Lattimore):

    Ares drove these on, and the Achaians gray-eyed Athene,
    and Terror drove them, and Fear, and Hate whose wrath is relentless,
    she the sister and companion of murderous Ares,
    she who is only a little thing at the first, but thereafter
    grows until she strides on the earth with her head striking heaven.
    She then hurled down bitterness equally between both sides
    as she walked through the onslaught making men’s pain heavier.

    The three concepts are Δεῖμος, Φόβος, and Ἔρις, which Murray translates as Terror, Rout, and Discord.

  • The two sides clash with a din like that of colliding torrents in the mountains.

  • The specific killings begin:

    • Antilochus kills Echepolus, as above; and as he tries to take the body and strip the armor, Elephenor is killed by Agenor.
    • Telamonian Ajax kills Simoeisius, born by the banks of the Simoïs; he falls like a poplar to the wainwright’s axe.
    • Trying to take that body, Odysseus’s man Leucus is killed by the spear of Priam’s son Antiphus, who was aiming for Ajax.
    • Odysseus kills Priam’s bastard son Democoön.
  • Apollo reminds the Trojans that Achilles is not fighting.

  • Athena still urges on the Achaeans.

  • Thracian leader Peiros (apparently fighting for the Trojans) kills Diores and is killed by Thoas of Aetolia; neither body can be stripped.

Many others are killed. That is what Homer says; I am not just summarizing. If he fell under the protection of Pallas Athena (line 539),

ἔνθά κεν οὐκέτι ἔργον ἀνὴρ ὀνόσαιτο μετελθών,

Then could no man any more enter into the battle and make light thereof.

The verb here is thought to be cognate with the noun ὄνομα, -ατος “name.” “For the semantics of the Greek word,” says Beekes under ὄνομαι, “starting from the meaning ‘to call, name’, one may compare the English expression ‘to call names’.”

I do not remember what George Constantinople had to say about the killings in the Iliad, when we read them in his ancient Greek history class at St Albans School for Boys; but we read the Odyssey that year too, in Fitzgerald’s translation, in English class. Stanley Willis was fascinated by the horrid beauty of the following lines, from the slaying of the suitors in Book XXII:

Backward and down he went, letting the winecup fall
from his shocked hand. Like pipes his nostrils jetted
crimson runnels, a river of mortal red,
and one last kick upset his table
knocking the bread and meat to soak in dusty blood.

The current US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona tweeted recently,

Every student should have access to an education that aligns with industry demands and evolves to meet the demands of tomorrow’s global workforce.

Some tweeters defended this, and certainly people who want job training should be able to get it. I am sorry it has to be pointed out that there can be something more to education than training. We cannot know what we want before we know what is available. Reading Homer, in small classes, ought to be available.

3 Trackbacks

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

    […] Book V of the Iliad, the battlefield deaths that started in Book IV continue. Some of them are caused by […]

  2. By On Homer’s Iliad Book VII « Polytropy on January 14, 2023 at 9:26 am

    […] Trojan War agreed to let the outcome be decided by a duel between Paris and Menelaus; however, in Book IV, the agreement was broken, when Aphrodite spirited Paris away, and then Pandarus drew the blood of […]

  3. By Loneliness (Iliad Book IX) « Polytropy on January 24, 2023 at 7:50 am

    […] Diomedes did tell Sthenelus something similar about Agamemnon in Book IV (lines […]

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