Soap (Iliad Book XI)

At the end of Book XI of the Iliad, the Trojans have the upper hand. They have wounded a number of Achaeans, as one of them, Eurypylus, tells Patroclus (lines 822–6):

No longer, illustrious Patroklos, can the Achaians
defend themselves, but they will be piled back into their black ships.
For all of these who were before the bravest in battle
are lying up among the ships with arrow or spear wounds
under the hands of the Trojans whose strength is forever on the uprise.

Nestor has just suggested to Patroclus that he fight in the armor of Achilles. The idea is a key element of the arc of the epic, but will not be realized till Book XVI, when Patroclus proposes it to Achilles without mentioning its provenance.

Perhaps I never thought about whether the idea was original to Patroclus. When I wrote about Book XI in 2018, I did not point out Nestor’s introduction of the idea there.

Orange sky seen through bare trees along an empty four-lane undivided road
ἠὼς δ᾽ ἐκ λεχέων παρ᾽ ἀγαυοῦ Τιθωνοῖο
ὄρνυθ᾽, ἵν᾽ ἀθανάτοισι φόως φέροι ἠδὲ βροτοῖσι
“Now Dawn rose from her couch from beside lordly Tithonus
to bring light to immortals and to mortal men” (Iliad XI.1–2)
Cloudy winter sunrise over Θεραπειά, Sarıyer, Istanbul
Saturday, February 4, 2023

Why does it take five more books to be realized? Perhaps for the same reason why there is a certain form of entertainment today:

Although melodramatically eventful, soap operas such as this also have a luxury of space that makes them seem more naturalistic; indeed, the economics of the form demand long scenes, and conversations that a 22-episodes-per-season weekly series might dispense with in half a dozen lines of dialogue may be drawn out, as here, for pages.

  • You spend more time even with the minor characters;
  • the apparent villains grow less apparently villainous.

The the bullets being mine, the words themselves belong to Robert Lloyd of the Los Angeles Times, in a 2012 review of Hollywood Heights, a TV series of eighty episodes, each lasting nominally an hour. Lloyd had watched four of those hours, and I have watched none. I found the quotation above in the Wikipedia article “Soap Opera,” on a subject that I haven’t got a lot of first-hand experience with, unless indeed the Iliad be counted as an example.

  • The length of the Iliad does let us “spend more time even with the minor characters,” such as Andromache, Diomedes, Eurypylus, Nestor, and Odysseus. (In writing about Book III, I gave the major characters as Achilles, Agamemnon, Hector, Helen, Menelaus, Paris, Patroclus, and Priam.)

  • Not only does the length of the epic ensure that “the apparent villains grow less apparently villainous”; they may come to be seen as not villainous at all. If Agamemnon and Hector be villains, they still shine in Book XI.

Nestor has been trying to reconcile Agamemnon and Achilles since Book I. Near the end of Book XI, before Patroclus meets Eurypylus, Nestor tells him, referring to Achilles (lines 793–7),

But if he is drawing back from some prophecy known in his own heart
and by Zeus’ will his honored mother has told him of something,
let him send you out, at least, and the rest of the Myrmidon people
follow you, and you may be a light given to the Danaäns.
And let him give you his splendid armor to wear to the fighting.

The word that Lattimore translates as “prophecy” (and Murray as “oracle”) is θεοπροπίη. The latter element of this compound word comes from πρέπω (“to be clearly seen”), which has a single cognate in English: “furbish,” from the French fourbir, from a Frankish word.

The former part of θεοπροπίη comes from θεός, meaning god. The Olympian gods are mostly absent from Book XI, except Father Zeus, who, back in Book VIII, warned the other gods not to interfere in his plan whereby Hector would dominate the battlefield until the death of Patroclus. Zeus did not say then that Patroclus would die wearing Achilles’s armor; as far as I know, Book XI provides the first foreshadowing of this.

Zeus’s role in the book is as a coach to Hector, whom he tells to hold himself back while encouraging his men; when they manage to injure Agamemnon, driving him from the field, then Hector can start fighting for himself (lines 202–9):

As long as you behold Agamemnon, shepherd of the people,
raging among the champions and cutting down the ranged fighters,
so long hold back from the fighting, but urge on the rest of your people
to fight against the enemy through this strong encounter.
But when, either struck with a spear or hit by a flying arrow,
he springs up behind his horses, then Zeus guarantees power to you
to kill men, till you make your way to the strong-benched vessels,
until the sun goes down and the blessed darkness comes over.

Strictly speaking, those are the words of Iris, who is only repeating what Zeus has told her to say. We have already heard Zeus tell her those words, with appropriate differences of grammatical voice. I don’t see an obvious reason why those particular words should be repeated, unless perhaps to emphasize that, unlike some of the other gods, Zeus speaks to humans only through signs (such as eagles or lightning bolts) or the intermediary of Iris.

The speech of Zeus now makes me think of somebody like Giovanni Guidetti, coach of the women of the VakıfBank volleyball team (which is supported by my household).

In Book XI, that

  • Nestor proposes that Patroclus wear the armor of Achilles, and
  • the only Olympian interference is to give such advice to Hector as a human coach might give

—I did not make these observations in 2018, but I noted the following.

  • At dawn, Discord comes to set the theme of the book: the sweetness of war. (She is said to have been sent by Jove, so you can count this as Olympian interference too. She makes war sweeter [comparative of γλυκύς -ό] than going home. See perhaps the Stephen Crane poem, “War Is Kind,” which I quoted in 2018 as relevant to Book XII.)
  • Paris shoots Diomedes in the foot. (Chapman has Odysseus draw the arrow out, but this seems to be a mistake; Odysseus shelters Diomedes so that he can remove the arrow.)
  • First not sure what to do next, Odysseus becomes like a boar attacking hunting dogs. He kills a number of men, ultimately Charops and Socus, sons of Hippasus.
  • Menelaus and Ajax come to help, like a lion when lucerns have surrounded a hart.
  • Achilles sends Patroclus to see whom Nestor is taking off the field.
  • Telling a long story of himself as a young fighter, Nestor says Achilles ought to fight.
  • The book has many similes.
  • It begins with Agamemnon, whose gear is described in detail.
  • So is the cup in Nestor’s tent in which a potion is given to the wounded Machaon (the surgeon who treated Menelaus in Book IV).

Bringing in Eliot and Seinfeld, I asked whether irrelevant details served to distract us from the horror of war.

In Book XI, the lines of battle don’t shift until the time when a man chopping wood in a forest starts getting hungry. Then the Danaans break through the Trojan lines, and Agamemnon does the shining that I mentioned, killing:

  • Bienor and his comrade Oïleus, whose bodies he also manages to strip;
  • Isus and Antiphus, sons of Priam, bastard and legitimate respectively—they were once held for ransom by Achilles, and this shows that ransoming does happen, and not every captive is killed like Dolon, although we may note that Achilles took Isus and Antiphus, not in the heat of battle, but as they herded sheep;
  • Peisander and Hippolochus, whom Agamemnon will not hold for ransom, because their father, Antimachus, greedy for a reward from Paris, wanted to kill Menelaus when he came with Odysseus to Troy, asking for the return of Helen.

Agamemnon rages like a forest fire, pursuing Hector

  • past the tomb of Ilus, son of Dardanus;
  • past the wild fig tree (ὁ ἐρινεός, line 167);
  • up to
    • the Scaean gates (αἱ Σκαιαί πύλαι, line 170; σκαιός -ά -όν “on the left”),
    • the oak tree (ἡ φηγός, line 170; Chapman calls it the Beech of Jove, here and in Book VII).

Now is when Zeus tells Hector to urge on his men; only when they have worn out Agamemnon should Hector exert himself. This could well be good advice in an athletic contest. True, Agamemnon is to be worn out by being actually wounded; but the possibility of his being killed is not suggested.

Zeus’s advice might thus be taken as implicit prophecy that Agamemnon is not going to be killed. However, even if we have not seen the Agamemnon of Aeschylus, we can already have inferred from the Iliad that Zeus will not allow Agamemnon to die before Achilles can take his revenge.

Another prophecy is explicit. Merops of Percote warned his sons that they would die if they went to fight in the Trojan War. Any parent might make that warning; however, for Homer, it was prophecy, and Diomedes and Odysseus make it come true:

There they took a chariot and two men, lords in their countryside,
sons both of Merops of Perkote, who beyond all men
knew the art of prophecy, and tried to prevent his two sons
from going into the battle where men die. Yet these would not
listen, for the spirits of dark death were driving them onward.
Tydeus’ son, Diomedes of the renowned spear, stripped them
of life and spirit, and took away their glorious armor
while Odysseus killed Hypeirochos and Hippodamos.

It seems remotely possible that Hypereirochus and Hippodamus are the sons of Merops; but probably they are the next victims. Agamemnon is now off the field. Heeding the call of Odysseus to stay and fight, Diomedes has shown his doughtiness (lines 317–9):

Of a surety will I abide and endure, howbeit but for scant space shall be our profit, for Zeus, the cloud-gatherer, plainly willeth to give victory to the Trojans rather than to us.

Agamemnon has been driven hors de combat by sons of Antenor. First he was struck by Iphidamas, who is given a strange history. He was raised by Cisseus, who has one, two, or three daughters, described respectively as

  • the mother of Iphidamus;
  • Theano, who may be the priestess of Athena who appears in Book VI;
  • the woman whom Cisseus marries to Iphidamus to keep him at home.

I’ll guess that the last is different from the first and did not share her mother.

Not only does Iphidamas fail to drive his spear home, but Agamemnon uses it to pull him in so as to dispatch him with a blow to the neck.

Iphidamas’s eldest brother (or half-brother) Coön does drive his spear home, albeit in the arm. Agamemnon still manages to kill his attacker and then to go on fighting, till the blood clots. Then comes the pain, as if sent by the Eilithyiae, goddesses of childbirth.

How does Homer know what labor feels like? It doesn’t matter what Homer knows, but what his audience believes. Possibly he understands his audience to include women.

Possibly too he means to insult Agamemnon as womanish; but this seems unlikely. The pain of his wounded foot will drive Diomedes from the field. Meanwhile, Agamemnon has shown why he deserves to be recognized as the leader of the Achaeans.

3 Trackbacks

  1. By Femininity (Iliad Book XIV) « Polytropy on March 3, 2023 at 5:22 am

    […] Book XI, when Nestor suggested that Patroclus might fight in Achilles’s armor, he intended that the […]

  2. By Masculinity (Iliad Book XV) « Polytropy on March 9, 2023 at 7:53 am

    […] has been tending to the wound of Eurypylus since the end of Book XI; now he sees he has to continue on his way back to […]

  3. By Focus (Iliad Book XVI) « Polytropy on March 17, 2023 at 1:35 pm

    […] not then, that Nestor gave Patroclus the idea of borrowing Achilles’s armor, back at the end of Book XI. In Book XVI, we are still in the same day, perhaps even the same hour. Achilles faces several […]

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