History (Iliad Book XXIII)

Square stone column with faucet at the bottom and Ottoman writing in Arabic script at the top, below the capital; road, buildings, and trees behind

Ottoman fountain
Harbor of Tarabya (Θεραπειά) on the Bosphorus
Sarıyer, Istanbul, May Day 2023
The bay was called Φαρμακία by Medea
according to Dionysius of Byzantium (2nd century c.e.)
in his Anaplous (“sailing up”) of the Bosporos
Rough translation by Brady Kiesling:

§ 68 Immediately following is the bay call [sic] Pharmakias, from Medeia the Colchian, who deposited coffers of drugs here. It is, however, a very fine and commodious place for fishing and ideal for beaching ships. For right up to the edge of the beach it is deep and very safe from the winds. A multitude of fish are attracted here. The forest, however, is dense, with a deep wood of every species, and meadows, as if the land were competing with the sea. Its circumference is shaded by a forest overhanging the sea, through the middle of which a river descends noiselessly.

Still water below a row of small boats, one with a mast; behind them, on the far side of the harbor, three large boxy buildings, with trees around and above them

Along the coast to the left
towards the Sea of Marmara
is the Pitheci Portus
again according to Dionysius:

§ 66 Beneath this prominent coast follows a bay in which is Harbor of Pithex, whom [sic] they say was a king of the barbarians who lived here who together with his sons led Asteropaios in the crossing to Asia. From here the shore is broken and steep.

Achilles slew the ambidextrous Asteropaeus in Book XXI of the Iliad
He will be giving away the spoil now, in Book XXIII

Topographical map of a section of the Bosphorus, with many points labelled with their Greek names in Latin letters

Map source: Richard Talbert, editor
Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World
Princeton University Press, 2000

At the end of Book XXII of the Iliad, we were mourning Hector in Troy, with Andromache and her women. At the beginning of Book XXIII, we mourn Patroclus at the Achaean ships on the Hellespont, with Achilles and his men. The boss tells the minions how to do it (lines 6–11):

Ye Myrmidons of fleet steeds, my trusty comrades, let us not yet loose our single-hooved horses from their cars, but with horses and chariots let us draw nigh and mourn Patroclus; for that is the due of the dead. Then when we have taken our fill of due lamenting, we will unyoke our horses and sup here all together.

Compare a 1978 cartoon by Bill Griffith called “Toadette Enlightenment” (appearing in Zippy Stories #2, part of Zippy Special 2-in-1 Issue, 2nd printing 1985). I describe the four panels and transcribe the speeches:

  1. With a roller coaster called “Cyclone” in the background, a regiment of toads standing erect are instructed by their leader.


    YES, MASTER!!”

  2. The toadettes are sitting in cars as their leader looms over them.


  3. The train of cars in silhouette descends along the track.



  4. The train has come to the end of the track.


    “Y-YES, MASTER..”

Add that to the associations with Book XXIII that I made in 2019 of

  • personal memories (wrestling in school, playing in family croquet matches),
  • William Blake (“Bray a fool in a morter with wheat, yet shall his folly not be beaten out of him”),
  • two films (Late Marriage and General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait),
  • an Onion article (“Lack Of Second Car Preserves Marriage”).

Book XXIII has two parts, which are horrifying and relieving, respectively.

  1. The cremation of the body of Patroclus is accompanied by the sacrifice of

    • many sheep and cattle, whose fat is used to wrap the principal body;
    • jars of honey and oil;
    • four horses;
    • two of Patroclus’s nine dogs;
    • the twelve sons of Trojans whom, in Book XXI, Achilles reeled in from the river like fish.
  2. The athletic contests for which Achilles offers prizes are a civilized kind of struggle, in contrast to the ongoing war. The particular events are as follows.

    1. Chariot race (line 262).
    2. Boxing (653).
    3. Wrestling (700).
    4. Footrace (740).
    5. Armed fighting (798).
    6. Shot put (826).
    7. Archery (850).
    8. Javelin throw (884–897).

Homer supplies a lot of details; for example, second prize in the chariot race is not only a horse, but a mare, and a mare who is not only pregnant, but pregnant by a jackass. Does Homer mean to give his listeners instruction, in addition to entertainment? Some people think so, according to Socrates, as given voice by Plato in the Republic, Book X (606e–7a). Socrates does not approve of taking instruction from Homer:

Then, Glaucon, when you meet encomiasts of Homer who tell us that this poet has been the educator of Hellas, and that for the conduct and refinement of human life he is worthy of our study and devotion, and that we should order our entire lives by the guidance of this poet, we must love and salute them as doing the best they can, and concede to them that Homer is the most poetic of poets and the first of tragedians, but we must know the truth, that we can admit no poetry into our city save only hymns to the gods and the praise of good men.

Even today there would seem to be encomiasts such as Socrates condemns. I did not remember his name, but I see this one joined Cornel West in 2021 to decry the dissolution of the classics department at Howard University. Jeremy Wayne Tate tweeted recently (April 22, 2023),

Classical education, formerly known as simply “education”, inspires young people to live lives of heroic virtue.

If we want young men to act like Odysseus, they need to hear the story.

Perhaps it is telling that only for young men is Odysseus proposed as a model. I suppose young women should act like Penelope.

I can recommend the story of Odysseus, because it is a good story and many other people know it. I named this blog after the description of Odysseus at the head of the Odyssey. He may be one of the most interesting characters among all of those who appear in the Odyssey or the Iliad; but that is different from being a pattern for imitation.

I wish everybody could learn to act the way Achilles does, when he refrains from erupting into violence at Agamemnon in Book I of the Iliad. Socrates tries to teach such restraint, even though he condemns Homer. I would only condemn those who would follow any model blindly.

Jeremy Wayne Tate’s statement about Odysseus is literally conditional, but I assume there are people for whom it is a foregone conclusion that Odysseus should be emulated. They may be the people who support Tate’s business venture, the Classic Learning Test.

I found a tweet of two days later by classics professor Maxwell Paule that would seem to be a response to Tate’s (there were many others too):

How do so many right-wing trolls have so many ill-informed opinions about Odysseus??

It’s kinda hard to read him as a model hero unless you’re channeling Christian allegorists, and even then it’s a stretch!

I suppose Tate actually has read Homer’s epics, and therefore his opinions are not ill-informed. They may be ill-considered; or again, they may be adjusted for a certain audience.

I learned about Tate’s tweet from classics professor Joel Christensen in “Classical Deception: Reactionary Misappropriation of Greek Classics Fuel Culture Wars in Education” (Neos Kosmos, 30 April 2023). I think I can agree with his saying,

The best examples of using classical texts for education are firmly grounded in narrative; the worst treat them as offering simple paradigms, patterns empty of their meaning. Homeric poetry is like a philosophical dialogue, a tragedy, or a painting: it invites audiences to explore its narrative through their experiences, and to compare their experiences to epic in turn.

In short, Homer is like Plato, or perhaps we should say it the other way around: Plato is like Homer, because neither of them tells was what to think, but only gives us examples of people thinking or avoiding it.

The Funeral

I return to Book XXIII of the Iliad. I say the cremation of the body of Patroclus is horrifying; but the night before is interesting. We have seen Achilles instruct the Myrmidons on how to mourn. He tells the corpse of Patroclus that he is doing what he promised:

  • bringing the body of Hector to feed to dogs;
  • cutting the throats of twelve Trojan sons to feed the pyre of Patroclus.

To feed Achilles’s men, so many animals are slaughtered that you could dip your cup in the flowing blood. Then Achilles is brought reluctantly to see Agamemnon, who wants him to wash. He refuses until the burial of the bones of Patroclus; meanwhile, in the morning, Agamemnon should send men to cut trees for the pyre that will burn the flesh from those bones.

Achilles sleeps rough on the shore; I’m guessing the splashing of the waves reminds him of his Nereid mother. He dreams of Patroclus, who scolds him for making him wait to cross the river, enter the gates of Hades, and mingle with the other souls (ψυχαί, line 72). Patroclus wants Achilles’s bones to join his in the golden coffer that Achilles’s mother gave him. He recalls how, after killing the son of Amphidamus over a game of dice, he was entrusted by his father to Achilles’s father.

So young Patroclus had a gambling problem. Later in the book, we are going to see Idomeneus challenge Aias son of Oileus to bet on who is ahead in the chariot race. Gambling aroused the passions then, and it does so now:

All gambling games are based on psychological triggers that mean they work. The human brain is incapable of dealing with randomness. We’re obsessed with finding patterns in things because that prevents us from going insane. We want to make sense of things.

That is from “Nudge Theory: How gambling firms keep punters coming back for more” (Guardian Weekly, 18 Feb 2022, vol. 206, no 8). The article is an excerpt from Jackpot, by Rob Davies; but the words themselves are a quotation of “Kim Lund, founder of poker game firm Aftermath Interactive,” who

has made a career out of game design and has seen at first-hand how cold, hard probability defeats the illogical human mind every time—and allows the gambling companies to cash in.

Apparently one trick the casinos use is to post the numbers that have already come up on the roulette wheel. This information tricks gamblers into thinking they can develop a system for beating the house.

In Maryland once, I met a man who was confident he was going to win a lottery. We were sitting near one another on a public bus, and he was so excited by his expectation of winning, he had to tell somebody. He had a system for choosing his numbers. I assume he lost.

Achaeans and Trojans have a system for reading the course of their lives in the flight of birds. In Book XII, Polydamas saw a warning in how a snake had bit the eagle that had picked it up. Hector ridiculed Polydamas’s diffidence over continuing the attack on the Achaean wall; but in Book XXII, he finally recognized that Polydamas was the more prudent.

Some people think humans are a lot smarter than they used to be. Perhaps they should think again.

When Achilles tries to embrace Patroclus in his dream, he wakes up and exclaims (lines 103–4):

“Look you now, even in the house of Hades is the spirit and phantom somewhat, albeit the mind be not anywise therein.”
“Oh, wonder! Even in the house of Hades there is left something, / a soul and an image, but there is no real heart of life in it.”
“A wisp of life remains / in the undergloom of Death: a visible form, / though no heart beats within it.”
“See now! There is after all even in the house of Hades / some kind of soul and image, though the power of life is not altogether there.”

The verses being translated are,

ὢ πόποι ἦ ῥά τίς ἐστι καὶ εἰν Ἀΐδαο δόμοισι
ψυχὴ καὶ εἴδωλον, ἀτὰρ φρένες οὐκ ἔνι πάμπαν.

The challenge is to interpret the third bolded word, the plural of φρήν. I looked at the word when writing “On Translation,” but I did not have then the Greek etymological dictionary of Beekes, who suggests the possibility of a connection of the word with φράζομαι. I did not note this possible connection, when I looked at the use of φράζομαι in Book XIV for what Nestor proposed to engage in with his wounded comrades Agamemnon, Odysseus, and Diomedes. What Nestor proposed to do was think.

Today we use the brain, but the Achaeans did their thinking with the φρένες. These were organs in the body, like the lungs. Responding to his dream, Achilles is talking about something that Patroclus lacks. This could be the ability to think properly; but he definitely lacks a body that Achilles can grab onto.

In The Iliad: A Commentary, Volume VI: books 21–24 (Cambridge, 1993), Nicholas Richardson refers to scholia according to which Achilles is indeed making a bodily reference; and this “alternative view … seems to be that of Aristophanes”—not the comedian, but Aristophanes of Byzantium, the Hellenistic scholar who invented the polytonic diacritics that we continue to use for Greek.

Murray just has a note that line 104 “was rejected by Aristophanes.”

Rosy-fingered dawn comes. As Achilles asked, Agamemnon sends men up Mount Ida to cut trees under the supervision of Meriones, attendant of Idomeneus.

Chariots in front, footsoldiers behind, Achilles has the Myrmidons carry the body of Patroclus in a procession, their shorn hair covering it like a garment. Achilles himself cuts off a “golden lock” that he intended to give to Spercheius; this river was mentioned in Book XVI as the father of Menesthius, first of the Myrmidon leaders chosen by Achilles to go out fighting with Patroclus. Peleus offered his son’s hair if the son actually returned home. Now the son expects not to return home, and so he puts his hair in Patroclus’s hands.

Evening is approaching. The sun would go down on all of the weeping over Patroclus, did Achilles not tell Agamemnon to take the rest of the men off to eat, while Patroclus’s nearest and dearest make the pyre. The make the sacrifices that I mentioned. Achilles again tells Patroclus that he is going to feed Hector’s body to the dogs, not the flames. However, Aphrodite and Apollo are going to keep the body from harm.

The pyre does not burn, so Achilles prays to Boreas and Zephyr. It is Iris who hears the prayers, and she finds all of the winds feasting at Zephyr’s house. She cannot stay with them; she has to get back to Ocean, where the Ethiopians are sacrificing hecatombs.

Achilles spends all night pouring wine on the ground, as if he were a father whose newly wed son had died. Achilles sleeps when the morning star rises and the winds go home. The gathering of Agamemnon’s men wakes him, and he tells them to quench the pyre with wine, gather the bones of Patroclus, wrap them again with fat, and bury them in a mound that is no bigger than is fitting; the mound can be made bigger when Achilles’s bones are added by whichever Achaeans are still alive.

The Games

The men do this, and we pass to the second part of the book. Achilles brings out the prizes: cauldrons, tripods, horses, mules, oxen, women, and iron. Women are just one more thing to be possessed. There may be male slaves around too, but we don’t hear about them.

The Chariot Race

The prizes:

  1. A woman skilled in handiwork and a 22-measure tripod.
  2. A mare pregnant with a mule.
  3. A four-measure new cauldron.
  4. Two talents of gold.
  5. A new two-handled urn.

Achilles would join the chariot race and win, because of his superior horses (whom we first met in Book XVI), if the games were in honor of anybody else but their charioteer.

Those who do join the race are the following.

  1. Eumelus, whom we met before only in the catalogue of ships in Book II, where his parents are named as Admetus and Alcestis, and he himself among the Danaans is said to drive the best mares, who had been reared by Apollo, but who belonged to Pheres, apparently Eumelus’s grandfather.
  2. Diomedes, with the horses of Tros, taken from Aeneas in Book V, where one learns that Tros had been given horses by Zeus in exchange for Ganymede, and Anchises had put mares under them without knowledge of Laomedon, thus breeding six horses, of which he gave two to his son—who would recount his genealogy, including the people just named, in Book XX.
  3. Menelaus, with Agamemnon’s mare Aethe and his own horse Podargos; the former was a gift of Anchises’s son Echepolus, but it didn’t serve to keep Agamemnon from Troy.
  4. Antilochus, advised by his father that his horses are not the swiftest, but he can win by cunning; at least that is what Homer tells us, attributing it to one of his characters, but Socrates could ask whether we expect good advice on horsemanship to come from a poet.
  5. Meriones.

Achilles shakes out lots for the order in which the racers line up:

  1. Antilochus.
  2. Eumelus.
  3. Menelaus.
  4. Meriones.
  5. Diomedes.

Achilles sends Phoenix to the turning post to serve as umpire.

At first, Eumelus is ahead, with Diomedes in hot pursuit until Apollo strikes the whip from his hand. Athena gives it back and causes Eumelus to crash.

Next after Diomedes is Menelaus, and then Antilochus, who points out to his horses that they are being beaten by a mare, Aethe. He threatens them with death if they don’t run faster. They do, in fear.

Antilochus is able to pass Menelaus in a narrow rut, because the latter slacks off in fear of an accident. He says Antilochus will not be able to win without swearing an oath. At the end we are going to learn that the oath is not to have willingly used guile. Meanwhile, Menelaus rebukes his own horses, pointing out that they are younger than Antilochus’s; and they speed up.

Idomeneus hears this. He looks for mares, apparently those of Eumelus, and wonders if there has been an accident. He says Diomedes is in the lead. Calling him Bigmouth, Aias son of Oileus contradicts him, saying Eumelus is ahead. Idomeneus tells him to make it interesting, as I said, with a wager of a tripod or cauldron. They could come to blows, if Achilles did not tell them to act their age.

The finishing order:

  1. Diomedes.
  2. Antilochus.
  3. Menelaus.
  4. Meriones.
  5. Eumelus.

Sthenelus has already presumed to take the first prize of a woman and a tripod when Diomedes came in. Achilles proposes to give second prize to Eumelus, since everybody knows he is the best. Antilochus objects, saying

  • Eumelus should have said his prayers;
  • Achilles can give him something else, even a better prize;
  • Antilochus is taking the mare.

Achilles agrees, giving Eumelus the corselet of Asteropaeus (mentioned above as having crossed the Bosphorus near where I live now).

Menelaus demands the oath mentioned above. Apparently Antilochus would be ashamed to say he had lost control of his own faculties. He will not make the oath, but says he will freely give Menelaus the mare. Menelaus is pleased and says he is generally grateful for the help of Antilochus and his father and brother at Troy. Since the mare is now his own, he gives it back to Antilochus and takes away the cauldron.

Meriones takes the gold; but the iron remains unclaimed, presumably because Eumelus is off tending his wounds; Achilles gives it to Nestor, because he is too old for athletic competition.

Nestor takes the opportunity to recall how he excelled at the games held for the funeral of Amarynceus. He beat

  • Clytomedes son of Enops in boxing,
  • Anaeus of Pleuron in wrestling,
  • Iphiclus in the foot race,
  • Phyleus and Polydorus in spear throwing.

He would have won the chariot race, but the twin sons of Actor teamed up to thwart him. He is grateful now that Achilles remembers him.


The prizes:

  1. An unbroken six-year-old mule.
  2. A two-handled cup.

Unknown to us till now, Epeius, son of Panopeus, points out that while he may fall short in battle, the next of kin had better be ready to carry off whoever is foolish enough to box with him.

Euryalus rises to the challenge (he killed four men in Book VI, but so far I have not recorded it). Epeius does indeed knock him senseless.


The prizes:

  1. A tripod worth twelve oxen.
  2. A woman worth four oxen.

The contestants:

  1. Telemonian Aias.
  2. Odysseus, described now not as “polytropic,” but as “polymetic,” of many wiles or counsels or skills.

The two men give each other welts, but neither can win. Odysseus says, Try to lift me, or I’ll try to lift you. Aias tries, and Odysseus hits him behind the knee so he falls, Odysseus on top of him. Odysseus tries to lift Aias, but cannot quite do it; still he makes him fall again.

Achilles stops the contest and tells the men to take equal prizes, but it is not clear what those are. Probably one of them does not consist of the woman and one leg of the tripod.

Foot Race

The prizes:

  1. A silver mixing bowl holding six measures, made by Sidonians, obtained by Patroclus from Jason’s son Euneos as ransom for Lycaon (killed by Achilles in Book XXI).
  2. A fat ox.
  3. Half a talent of gold.

The contestants:

  1. Aias son of Oileus.
  2. Odysseus of many wiles.
  3. Antilochus.

Aias takes the lead, but Odysseus is as close behind him as the weaving rod to the breast of the woman who draws it. He prays Athena to help him, and she does. Aias trips and falls into the offal from all of Achilles’s sacrifices—is Homer poking fun at the warrior’s excesses?

Still Aias comes in second, saying Athena helped Odysseus like a mother; everybody laughs at this.

Antilochus, smiling, points out how the gods are favoring older men today. Achilles gives him another half-talent of gold.


Whoever of two armed warriors draws blood from the other shall win the Thracian sword stripped from Asteropaeus, but the two warriors will share the arms of Sarpedon.

The contestants:

  1. Telemonian Aias.
  2. Diomedes.

The blow of Aias does not draw blood. Diomedes aims his spear at Aias’s neck. Fearing for Aias, the Achaeans stop the fight and ask the men to accept equal prizes; but Achilles still gives the sword to Diomedes.

Shot Put

The prize is the shot itself: a mass of iron that Achilles took from Eetion. If you win this, your shepherd or plowman will not need to visit the blacksmith in town for five years.

The contestants:

  1. Polypoetes.
  2. Leonteus.
  3. Telemonian Aias.
  4. Epeius.

Throwing order:

  1. Epeius.
  2. Leonteus.
  3. Aias.
  4. Polypoetes.

Finishing order:

  1. Polypoetes.
  2. Aias.
  3. Leonteus.
  4. Epeius.

The order of the last two is not clear; but everybody has laughed at the throw of Epeius.


The prizes:

  1. Ten double axes.
  2. Ten single axes.

The target is a dove tied to a mast.

The contestants:

  1. Teucer (whose string Zeus broke in Book XV).
  2. Meriones, attendant of Idomeneus.

Since Teucer now omits to offer Apollo a hecatomb, the god keeps him from hitting the bird; but he does cut the cord holding her.

Meriones now takes Teucer’s bow and shoots the dove out of the sky, thus winning first prize.

Javelin Throw

The prizes:

  1. A spear.
  2. A new cauldron, worth an ox, embossed with flowers.

That is the order in which the prizes are named. However, the contestants are:

  1. Agamemnon.
  2. Meriones.

Since Agamemnon is already known to be best at casting the spear, Achilles just offers him “this prize,” if he will allow Meriones to take the spear. Agamemnon agrees. This must somehow be a way of saving face.

2 Trackbacks

  1. By Dawn (Iliad Book XXIV) « Polytropy on May 12, 2023 at 5:54 pm

    […] « History (Iliad Book XXIII) […]

  2. By On Homer’s Iliad Book V « Polytropy on May 21, 2023 at 6:52 am

    […] “The heart of Tydeus’ son 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. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: