Homer

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Contents

Introduction

Agamemnon's Arrogance

Protecting the Bearer of Bad News

The Cause of a Pestilence

The Quarrel Between Agammenon and Achilles

Achilles' Threat

Agamemnon's Arrogant Answer

Achilles Swears to Not Fight

Achilles' Prayer

The Death of Patroclus

Achilles' Remorse

Hector and Andromache

Source

   

Introduction

  Homer lived in the ninth century BCE, according to the Greek historian Herodotus, and is credited with the composition of two epic poems¾the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Iliad covers a period of a few weeks during what is traditionally a ten-year siege of Ilium (Troy) by Achaeans from what we now refer to as Greece. Much of the action in Homer’s Iliad is under the control of the Olympian gods, who whenever a man decides to take some sensible action that might end the conflict, step in to frustrate him.

The Achaeans are described as murderers, thieves, rapists, and enslavers who butchered others and were butchered, at such a rate that the war could not have lasted much longer than ten months. The description of brutality is particularly graphic, dwelling on the effects of  spears thrust through necks or noses, heads lopped of with such force that the eyes pop out and hit the ground before the head, entrails spilt through hands vainly trying to hold them in, and various parts of the body smashed to pieces by use of the rocks lying handily around. 

Some of the insights into human character are acute, however. Homer’s account of the quarrel between the leader of the Achaean force, Agamemnon, and his greatest warrior, Achilles, draws a  picture of the psychology of a quarrel that is easily found in government or business today. It is the antagonism between a talented upstart and an established leader, and its ending is doubly tragic. Achilles signals his presumption when he announces in an assembly of the Achaean kings that he will protect a soothsayer if Agamemnon becomes enraged at his forecast. One can readily imagine the glances passed between the others present when that occurred. Achilles then goes on to compound his folly in actions that ultimately lead to great loss of life among the Greeks, the death of his best friend, and his experience of intense grief and remorse.

Against this sad background of brutality and folly, there is an account of the touching concern of the Trojan hero, Hector, for his young family, and their concern for him. Through his wife's speech we glimpse the suffering caused by war. But Hector feels he has no alternative but military honor as his guide to action, and both he and his family suffer terrible consequences. This aspect of the story echoes on down through later Greek poetry and plays.

Homer’s audience knew the story of the Trojan war, so they did not need an explanation of the roles of the different characters. Here, some of this missing explanation has been inserted. Most of the references to gods have been removed, to keep these short extracts focused on human behavior.

 

 

Agamemnon's Arrogance

 

Words—tell of rage! Rage of Achilles, the fastest, the strongest.

Rage that smoldered against Agamemnon, chief king of Achaeans,

Rage that blasted the warriors camped outside Troy,

Pushing brave men under the sod, feeding young men to dogs and to vultures.

 

Agamemnon the king dishonored Chryses, a priest from a city the Achaeans had sacked.

Bearing a scepter with a supplicant's wreath, he came to the black ships with a great ransom,

Seeking out Achaeans, to get back his daughter. But mostly he sought

The two sons of Atreus: Menelaos from Sparta and Agamemnon from Argos,

These were commanders in chief of the force, made up of kings who had sought to win Helen,

And sworn to each other to aid he who won, if his new bride was abducted from him.

"Sons of Atreus and all other Achaeans, may you sack Troy, the city of Priam,

And reach your homes safely” said the old priest with tears on his cheeks.

“But first free my daughter. Accept this my ransom, and make my heart glad.”

 

The Achaean kings arrayed in assembly respected the priest

And said let's take the ransom and give back the girl.

Except Agamemnon who spoke fiercely at him, urging him roughly to be on his way.

 "Old man," said the king, "let me not find you near our black ships.

Come back again and your wreath on your scepter will not protect you.

I will not free her: she sails back with me. In my mansion in Argos she will grow old.

Far from her own home will she weave on my loom and swish in my bed.

Get out, grave stuffing! And provoke me no further or you will regret it.

 

The old man was terrified and left in abjection, not speaking a word.

He walked on the shore by the dark pounding sea, matching the salt spray with tears from his eyes.

He prayed that a pestilence should avenge his dishonor, by piercing with death the bodies of Achaeans.

 

And that is what happened. First to be smitten were pack mules and hounds,

Then the people themselves collapsed, vomiting, writhing in pain.

And all through the day dead men’s pyres were set burning, pushing their fumes high into the sky.

For nine long days the pestilence raged, and on the tenth swift-footed Achilles spoke up.

The son of Peleus called all to assembly, and holding the scepter, addressed Agamemnon.

"Son of Atreus,"  he said, "We must set sail, back to our homelands,

Or we are all dead men, for we are cut down by  both war and plague.

I say we must find out from some seer or prophet why we are smitten."

 

Protecting the Bearer of Bad News

 

With these words he sat down, passing the scepter to Calchas the auger who rose up to speak.

Telling of things past, present and future, he had urged the fleet to invasion of Troy.

Gravely and earnestly he spoke to Achilles: “You bid me tell you the cause of our trouble;

This I will do if you swear to stand by me, strongly in word and strongly in deed,

For I shall offend one ruling Argos with might, the chief of Achaeans.

A mere man cannot stand up against a king’s anger, even if held back.

Kingly displeasure may be nursed as revenge till he has wreaked it.

Consider, therefore, son of Peleus whether or no you will stand and protect me."

 

And quick-moving Achilles responded to Calchas: "Fear not, but speak as prophesy tells you.

Not one Achaean from off of our ships shall lay hand upon you while I yet live—

No, not even King Agamemnon himself, foremost of Achaeans, commander of kings."

 

The Cause of a Pestilence

 

Thereon the seer spoke to the assembly. "The pestilence comes for the priest

Whom Agamemnon dishonored, not returning his daughter nor taking her ransom.

Therefore these evils descended upon us and you can be sure that others will follow.

The Achaeans will not be rid of the pestilence till Agamemnon atones.

He must give back the girl to her priestly father without fee or ransom,

And must send a rich sacrifice to Chryses. That perhaps may appease him."

With these words he sat down.

 

King Agamemnon jumped up in anger, beard shaking with rage.

His scowling eyes flashed fiercely as he yelled at Calchas: “Foul mouth!

Seer of evil! You never yet prophesied benign things about me,

But always oppressed me with things hell-born and perverse.

You have brought no good fortune and your prophesies stink!

Now you come babbling among the Achaeans, saying it’s me who has brought on the plague.

That these deaths are because I did not take the ransom and give back the girl to the wheedling priest.

 

Well, my heart yearns to keep her, for I love her more dearly than my own wife

Whose peer she is in body and grace, compliance and skill.

Yet my people must live and not flee or die, so I will release her if that’s what it takes.

But you Achaeans here in assembly must go now and find me another such prize,

Or I am the one king of all of us here without worthwhile looot?

This does not sit well now all of you know that my prize goes elsewhere."

 

The Quarrel Between Agammenon and Achilles

 

Achilles replied quickly: "Scion of Atreus, prince of rapaciousness, master of greed,

How can we Achaeans find such a prize? There is no store from which we can draw one.

Those we took from the cities have all been awarded; we cannot go back on awards made already.

Give back your slave girl. I swear when we sack Troy we will give you back four”.

 

Then Agamemnon said: "Achilles, valiant as you are, don’t try to outwit me.

By cleverness or cunning, boy, you shall not outsmart or persuade me.

So, you'll keep your own prize, while I sit here tamely, suffering my loss?

Am I to give up that soft and smooth woman just to please Achilles the thick?

You Achaeans better find me a beauty or I will demand one. From you, Mr. fast-arse,

Or from Ajax or from Odysseus. Be sure that he that I come to shall rue my coming.

 

"But we’ll settle this later; for now, launch a ship into the sea and man her.

Take Chryseis on board. Load also a sacrifice into the hold. A chief goes in command:

Either Ajax, or Idomeneus, or you, son of Peleus, mighty warrior that you are.

We also will offer a sacrifice here, in way of appeasement to take off this plague."

 

Achilles' Threat

 

Achilles the quick fighter glared and he answered: "You—steeped in insolence and  lust for gain:

With what spirit can Achaeans carry out your orders, when we attack in sudden assault,

Or take a broad plain in open warfare?

I fight not for ill done by the Trojans against me or my country.

With them I’ve have no quarrel. They’ve not raided my cattle or taken my horses,

Nor cut down my harvests on the rich plains of Phthia;

For between me and them there is a great distance, both mountains and sea.

We have followed you, Sir Insolence, for your pleasure, not ours—

To gain satisfaction from the Trojans for your shameless self and wife-loser Menelaos.

 

You forget this, and would rob me of the prize I have fought for,

And which for my valor the sons of the Achaeans have given to me.

When Achaeans beat down a rich Trojan city I get no prize as fine as yours,

Though my hands and my sword and my spear do most of the killing.

When my slaughter is done and we share out the spoils, your share is the largest.

I must humbly and thankfully take back to my ships the pittance I’m given.

Enough! I shall go back to Phthia, not stay here dishonored;

I will do better sailing home with my ships, not harvesting gold and women for you."

 

Agamemnon's Arrogant Answer

 

Then Agamemnon spoke back in anger: "Go on, flee if you will, thick-headed Achilles,

My prayers won’t come after you. I have other kings to do me high honor.

No other king here disgusts me like you, forever quarrelsome and uncouthly mannered.

What if you are brave? Were you not born that way? A gift given at birth?

Go home, you green upstart, with your ships and your comrades.

Lord it over your Myrmidons, I care not a toss for you or your anger.

 

Here’s what I’ll do: Since Chryseis must go, I shall dutifully send her:

With my ship and my followers, she’ll sail back to her father.

But I shall come to your tent and take your Briseis. she’s no longer your prize.

Perhaps then you’ll learn that the leader of kings is much stronger than you,

And others will fear to posture as you do, to set themselves up as being equal to me."

 

The son of Peleus bellowed with fury, his heart in his chest beating with rage.

His hand rushed to his sword at rest in its scabbard, the sword that had butchered so many men.

He leaned forward to force other kings out the way, and slash at their leader.

But suddenly he paused, held his head back, as prudence told him to hold off from  murder,

And wait until Agamemnon saw his own folly and came round begging a favor from him.

His grip relaxed on the hilt of his sword. Unblooded, it was thrust back in its scabbard.

 

Instead he stabbed King Agamemnon with these bitter words

"Wine-swiller," he raged, "with the face of a dog and the heart of a hind,

You never dare to go out with the host in a fight, nor yet with our men in an ambush.

You shun such danger as you fear death itself. You’d rather get prizes without a fight.

Your way is to go round and filch gifts from him speaking against you.

You drain the spirit of your people, to become lord of the feeble;

Otherwise, son of Atreus, you would not survive your insulting manner.

 

Achilles Swears to Not Fight

 

But for me, I say this—and make a great oath on this speaker’s scepter,

Which sprouts neither leaf, shoot, nor bud since cut from its tree on the mountain.

The ax stripped bark off and leaf and bark, and now it bears only witness to solemn decrees—

So surely and solemnly I swear by it, that when you seek my help you shall not find me.

When your men are chopped up by man-butchering Hector, Troy’s bloodiest warrior,

In that day of dismemberment, you shall not know how to save them.

You will tear your heart with rage for the hour you insulted the bravest of Achaeans."

Then the son of Peleus slammed the gold-studded scepter into the ground and sat down.

 

Shaking with anger Achilles continued, "I would be a weak coward to placate you in all things.

From now on make your demands of others, not me—I’ll obey you no longer.

And I say this, King Agamemnon, I’ll fight neither you nor any man because of this girl,

For those who will take her are the same those who gave her to me.

But for all else at my ship I will say this: carry away nothing by force of arms.

If you should try that, others shall see my spear red with your blood.

Engrave my vow on your black heart."

 

Achilles' Prayer

 

After Achilles stood down his men, he walked off alone at the edge of the sea,

Weeping and not seeing the never-ending waves, going over and over

The dishonor done him by Agamemnon, who forcefully robbed him of his voluptuous prize.

 

"In my hate for this king, I pray his enemies will grow stronger; that they will pour out from the city of Troy,

Hemming the Achaeans at the sterns of their ships, chopping them down and spilling their blood.

Let that be their reward from their insolent king, a leader in outrage and monster of greed.

Let Agamemnon bewail his folly in insulting me, his strongest warrior, foremost of the Achaeans."

 

In the days that followed his wishes were granted. The Trojans attacked and the battle spread like a flaming fire. Agamemon brought rich prizes to Achilles, pleading with him to join them in battle. This he declined. Then, Trojan Hector killed Achilles’ dear friend Patroclus, and stripped off the armor he had borrowed from Achilles. Hector dragged off the body to cut off the head and jam it on a pole to stare at Achilles from the walls of Troy .

 

The Death of Patroclus

 

A swift runner, Antilochus, reached the ships of Achilles, told him this news, sobbing and weeping.

“Son of noble Peleus, prepare for the worst! Patroculus is killed, a fight is raging across his stripped body.

Hector has cut through his heart with a spear and taken your incomparable armor.”

A blackness fell over the face of Achilles as he listened, he filled both his hands with dust from the ground.

He poured it over his head, defiling his fierce features, letting the refuse stick all over his clothes.

He flung his great bulk down onto the ground, huge at full length, howling and tearing his hair with his hands.

Slave women captured by Achilles and Patroclus screamed loud in their grief,

Beating their breasts, and flailing their limbs in their sorrow.

Antilochus bent over him, weeping and held both his hands as Achilles lay moaning,

For he feared he might plunge his own knife into his throat.

Achilles groaned, “My prayer has been answered but what good does it do me,

Seeing my dear friend Patroclus has fallen—he whom I valued more than all others, loving him dearly as my own life?

 

10  Achilles' Remorse

 

I have lost him—I should die here now, for not having saved him. 

To my own land I cannot return.

Far from home he has fallen, dead in a strange land, with no quiet grave.

My hand did not help him in his hour of need—

now is the world empty of all  delight.

I have brought no promised bounty to Patroclus or to my comrades, 

so many slaughtered in battle by Hector.

I stay here alone, by my ships, sitting, a burden on earth,

Useless, who in battle has no peer among the Achaeans.

But some are wiser than me. How now shall I pray? 

That strife among men may perish? And anger too—

Anger that seeps like smoke through the soul. 

Anger that tastes sweeter than honey.

Anger that hardens a virtuous man's heart—

Even so did Agamemnon infect me with anger.

And yet—no more. It’s over. 

Now I must force my soul into subjection, and fight for Achaeans.

I will find Hector, who has slain my dear friend, and face what my fate is.

Till then I will fight fiercely to win more fame with my exploits.

Trojan and Dardanian women will wring tears from their soft cheeks with both hands.

In the depth of their sorrow, they shall know 

That he who held back holds back no longer.

 

11  Hector and Andromache

 

With his armor and weapons, Hector went through the city,

And he made for the gates that led out to the plain.

There by the Scaean Gate his wife came running toward him,

Andromache, the daughter of king of the Cilicians, ruler of Thebe—

A mighty kingdom under the wooded slopes of Mount Placus.

She came with a nurse who carried his child in her arms,

Carried his baby, Hector's darling son, lovely as a star.

Hector had given him the name Scamandrius,

But the Trojans called him Astyanax, which means king of the city,

For his father stood alone as chief guardian of Ilium.

 

Hector smiled as he looked on the boy, but he did not speak.

Andromache faced him weeping, taking his hand in her own.

"Dear husband," she said "your bravery will destroy you.

Think of your infant son, and of my wretched self, too soon your widow—

For you will be killed when troops of Achaeans attack you.

It would be better for me, if I should lose you, to lie dead and buried,

for I shall have nothing to comfort me when you are gone,

Except only sorrow, for I have no father or mother.

 

Achilles murdered my father in sacking Thebe, the city I loved.

Then on that same day my seven young brothers were slaughtered.

Achilles killed them as they guarded their sheep and their cattle.

My mother, queen of all land under Mount Placus,

Achilles dragged to this place with the rest of his loot,

Then freed her for a great sum, but she died soon after.

Hector, you are to me father, mother, brother, and dear husband.

Have mercy upon me; stay here at this wall;

Make not your child fatherless, and your wife a widow.

As for our army, place them close by the fig tree,

Where the wall is weakest and can be easiest scaled.

Three times the bravest of Achaeans have come there to attack,

Led by the Ajaxes, Idomeneus, the sons of Atreus, and Diomedes,

Either off on their own, or at some soothsayer's word."

 

"My wife", answered Hector, "I too have thought this;

But how could I face Trojan men or their women, if I fled a battle?

Act like a coward? I cannot do so. I know nothing but fighting—

Bravely leading the Trojans, winning fame for myself and my father.

I know full well that that day will come when Ilium will fall,

Destroying  both Priam and all his people, but I grieve not for them.

Not even for Queen Hecuba and King Priam himself,

Nor for my brothers, many and brave, who may die in the dust.

For not one of these do I grieve as I grieve for you when that day dawns

For the Achaeans to rob you forever of your freedom,

And drag you weeping away.

 

Then he took his darling son, kissed him, dandled him in his arms,

Praying over him to Zeus and the gods.

"Zeus," he cried, "grant that this child may be as me, chief among Trojans;

Let him be no less excellent in strength; let him rule Ilium with might.

So they  may say as he comes from battle, "He is far better than was his father."

May he bring back the bloodstained spoils of the vanquished,

Filling the heart of his mother with gladness."

 

With this he laid down the child in the arms of his wife,

Who clasped him to her soft bosom, smiling through tears.

As her husband watched her his heart yearned towards her,

And caressing her fondly, he comforted her, saying:

"My own wife, do not take these things too bitterly.

No one can hurry me into the earth before my time,

But if a man's hour is upon him, be he a brave man or a coward,

There is no escape for him once he has been born.

Go, then, to the house, and  be busy with chores:

Your loom, your distaff, and the management of  servants;

For war is man's work, and mine above all others born into Ilium."

 

Then Hector took his plumed helmet up from the ground,

and strode out the gates down to the plain.

Sadly his wife returned to her house, and her tears were bitter

As she held her child close. Often looking backwards, she came

to her home, found her women within, and bade them all join her

To lament the loss of her husband, the hero of Ilium.

And so in his own house they keened, mourning for Hector,

Though he was alive. 

For each of them knew he would not come back,

Not from the murderous hands of Achaeans.

   

Achilles killed Hector with a spear thrust through the neck, stripped him of his armor, and dragged his body by the heels around Troy behind his chariot. When Troy fell, Andromache was taken into slavery; Hector's little son was hurled from the city walls to be smashed on the rocks below.

                     Selection and adaptation Copyright © Rex Pay 2000

Source

  Adapted from The Iliad of Homer, translated by Samuel Butler, 1898. This is reproduced in The Iliad of Homer, edited by Louise R. Loomis. Walter J. Black, Inc., Roslyn, New York 1942. . A version is available in electronic text via FTP from Project Gutenberg.

For a modern version that follows the Greek text fairly closely, see The Iliad of Homer translated by Richmond Lattimore. University of Chicago Press, 1951.

A highly readable more recent rendering in a freer translation is The Iliad of Homer translated by Robert Fagles. Penguin Books 1998.

A fine version in rhyming couplets was completed by Alexander Pope in 1720 and can still be found, for example in an edition by Heritage Press, New York, 1943.

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  The Iliad of Homer translated by Samuel Butler, 1898.