Homer is the traditional name given to the author(s) of the Iliad and the Odyssey, epic poems that were written down in a dialect known as Homeric Greek sometime around the 8th century B.C. No certain biographical information about Homer is known today. It is disputed whether Homer was one person, when he lived, and how the oral poems came into their current written form. The Iliad and the Odyssey represent the height of the ancient Greek oral tradition of epics and other poems that would have originally been circulated and performed by generations of rhapsodes.
The Iliad, from which this excerpt is drawn, chronicles the Trojan War, a ten-year war fought between the Greek city-states and Troy, traditionally thought to have occurred sometime around the 12th century B.C.. Homer’s poem concerns itself with the “wrath” of the great warrior Achilles, who as part of his quarrel with King Agamemnon chooses to abstain from battle and allow the Greek army to be temporarily defeated, with the help of the god Zeus, in the absence of his singular fighting abilities. For Achilles, abstention from battle also means the delay of his own death, prophesied to take place on the battlefield should he decide to fight at Troy. When Achilles does eventually re-enter the war, it is in order to kill the Trojan heir, Hector, in revenge for Hector’s slaughter of Achilles’ close friend Patroclus.
As they approach to fight one another, both Achilles and Hector are submitting to the form of death they regard as honorable: Hector to his most likely death at the hands of Achilles, and Achilles to his eventual death at Troy, which, he is told, will take place soon after he kills Hector. At the time portrayed in Book 9, Achilles had revealed his knowledge of the prophecy and expressed his intention to leave Troy immediately, thereby avoiding its fulfillment; by the time of Book 18, Achilles instead wishes to die because he could not save Patroclus, whom he loved “as dearly” as his own life. Achilles is informed that his death is sure to occur should he take his revenge on Hector. Meanwhile, in Book 22, Hector’s parents beg him not to sacrifice himself by fighting Achilles alone and instead return to the safety of the city. Hector’s concern is with his own honor, however, and guilt for the men who were killed by Achilles on the first night Achilles came for him. Thus, both warriors respectively choose courses of action they know will result in their own deaths. When, with his dying breath, Hector again foretells Achilles’ death, Achilles replies that he will accept his fate “whensoever Zeus and the other gods see fit to send it.”
Homer, The Iliad of Homer: rendered into English prose for the use of those who cannot read the original, tr. Samuel Butler, London, New York, and Bombay: Longmans, Green and Co., 1898. Available online at Perseus Digital Library and Internet Archive. Troy is referred to as Ilius and Zeus as Jove in the original translation; other names have been changed from Roman to Greek and minor typographical errors have been repaired.
from THE ILIAD
Achilles answered, “. . . My life means more to me than all the wealth of Ilion while it was yet at peace before the Achaeans went there, or than all the treasure that lies on the stone floor of Apollo’s temple beneath the cliffs of Pytho. Cattle and sheep are to be had for harrying, and a man can buy both tripods and horses if he wants them, but when his life has once left him it can neither be bought nor harried back again.
My mother Thetis tells me that there are two ways in which I may meet my end. If I stay here and fight, I shall lose my safe homecoming but I will have a glory that is unwilting: whereas if I go home my glory will die, but it will be a long time before the outcome of death shall take me. To the rest of you, then, I say, ‘Go home, for you will not take Ilion.’ Zeus has held his hand over her to protect her, and her people have taken heart. Go, therefore, as in duty bound, and tell the princes of the Achaeans the message that I have sent them; tell them to find some other plan for the saving of their ships and people, for so long as my displeasure lasts the one that they have now hit upon may not be. As for Phoenix, let him sleep here that he may sail with me in the morning. . . .”
[Achilles’] mother went up to him as he lay groaning; she laid her hand upon his head and spoke piteously, saying, “My son, why are you thus weeping? What sorrow has now befallen you? Tell me; hide it not from me. Surely Zeus has granted you the prayer you made him, when you lifted up your hands and besought him that the Achaeans might all of them be pent up at their ships, and rue it bitterly in that you were no longer with them.”
Achilles groaned and answered, “Mother, Olympian Zeus has indeed vouchsafed me the fulfillment of my prayer, but what boon is it to me, seeing that my dear comrade Patroclus has fallen—he whom I valued more than all others, and loved as dearly as my own life? I have lost him; aye, and Hector when he had killed him stripped the wondrous armor, so glorious to behold, which the gods gave to Peleus when they laid you in the couch of a mortal man. Would that you were still dwelling among the immortal sea-nymphs, and that Peleus had taken to himself some mortal bride. For now you shall have grief infinite by reason of the death of that son whom you can never welcome home—nay, I will not live nor go about among humankind unless Hector fall by my spear, and thus pay me for having slain Patroclus son of Menoetius.”
Thetis wept and answered, “Then, my son, is your end near at hand—for your own death awaits you full soon after that of Hector.”
Then said Achilles in his great grief, “I would die here and now, in that I could not save my comrade. He has fallen far from home, and in his hour of need my hand was not there to help him. What is there for me? Return to my own land I shall not, and I have brought no saving neither to Patroclus nor to my other comrades of whom so many have been slain by mighty Hector; I stay here by my ships a bootless burden upon the earth, I, who in fight have no peer among the Achaeans, though in council there are better than I.
Therefore, perish strife both from among gods and men, and anger, wherein even a righteous man will harden his heart—which rises up in the soul of a man like smoke, and the taste thereof is sweeter than drops of honey. Even so has Agamemnon angered me. And yet—so be it, for it is over; I will force my soul into subjection as I needs must; I will go; I will pursue Hector who has slain him whom I loved so dearly, and will then abide my doom when it may please Zeus and the other gods to send it. Even Hercules, the best beloved of Zeus—even he could not escape the hand of death, but fate and Hera’s fierce anger laid him low, as I too shall lie when I am dead if a like doom awaits me. Till then I will win fame, and will bid Trojan and Dardanian women wring tears from their tender cheeks with both their hands in the grievousness of their great sorrow; thus shall they know that he who has held aloof so long will hold aloof no longer. Hold me not back, therefore, in the love you bear me, for you shall not move me.”
Priam raised a cry and beat his head with his hands as he lifted them up and shouted out to his dear son, imploring him to return; but Hector still stayed before the gates, for his heart was set upon doing battle with Achilles. The old man reached out his arms towards him and bade him for pity’s sake come within the walls. “Hector,” he cried, “my son, stay not to face this man alone and unsupported, or you will meet death at the hands of the son of Peleus, for he is mightier than you. Monster that he is; would indeed that the gods loved him no better than I do, for so, dogs and vultures would soon devour him as he lay stretched on earth, and a load of grief would be lifted from my heart, for many a brave son has he reft from me, either by killing them or selling them away in the islands that are beyond the sea: even now I miss two sons from among the Trojans who have thronged within the city, Lycaon and Polydoros, whom Laothoe peerless among women bore me. Should they be still alive and in the hands of the Achaeans, we will ransom them with gold and bronze, of which we have store, for the old man Altes endowed his daughter richly; but if they are already dead and in the house of Hades, sorrow will it be to us two who were their parents; albeit the grief of others will be more short-lived unless you too perish at the hands of Achilles. Come, then, my son, within the city, to be the guardian of Trojan men and Trojan women, or you will both lose your own life and afford a mighty triumph to the son of Peleus. Have pity also on your unhappy father while life yet remains to him—on me, whom the son of Kronos will destroy by a terrible doom on the threshold of old age, after I have seen my sons slain and my daughters hauled away as captives, my bridal chambers pillaged, little children dashed to earth amid the rage of battle, and my sons’ wives dragged away by the cruel hands of the Achaeans; in the end fierce hounds will tear me in pieces at my own gates after some one has beaten the life out of my body with sword or spear-hounds that I myself reared and fed at my own table to guard my gates, but who will yet lap my blood and then lie all distraught at my doors. When a young man falls by the sword in battle, he may lie where he is and there is nothing unseemly; let what will be seen, all is honorable in death, but when an old man is slain there is nothing in this world more pitiable than that dogs should defile his gray hair and beard and all that men hide for shame.”
The old man tore his gray hair as he spoke, but he moved not the heart of Hector. His mother hard by wept and moaned aloud as she bared her bosom and pointed to the breast which had suckled him. “Hector,” she cried, weeping bitterly the while, “Hector, my son, spurn not this breast, but have pity upon me too: if I have ever given you comfort from my own bosom, think on it now, dear son, and come within the wall to protect us from this man; stand not without to meet him. Should the wretch kill you, neither I nor your richly dowered wife shall ever weep, dear offshoot of myself, over the bed on which you lie, for dogs will devour you at the ships of the Achaeans.”
Thus did the two with many tears implore their son, but they moved not the heart of Hector, and he stood his ground awaiting huge Achilles as he drew nearer towards him. As a serpent in its den upon the mountains, full fed with deadly poisons, waits for the approach of man—he is filled with fury and his eyes glare terribly as he goes writhing round his den—even so Hector leaned his shield against a tower that jutted out from the wall and stood where he was, undaunted.
“Alas,” said he to himself in the heaviness of his heart, “if I go within the gates, Polydamas will be the first to heap reproach upon me, for it was he that urged me to lead the Trojans back to the city on that awful night when Achilles again came forth against us. I would not listen, but it would have been indeed better if I had done so. Now that my folly has destroyed the host, I dare not look Trojan men and Trojan women in the face, lest a worse man should say, ‘Hector has ruined us by his self-confidence.’ Surely it would be better for me to return after having fought Achilles and slain him, or to die gloriously here before the city. What, again, if I were to lay down my shield and helmet, lean my spear against the wall and go straight up to noble Achilles? What if I were to promise to give up Helen, who was the fountainhead of all this war, and all the treasure that Alexandrus brought with him in his ships to Troy, aye, and to let the Achaeans divide the half of everything that the city contains among themselves? I might make the Trojans, by the mouths of their princes, take a solemn oath that they would hide nothing, but would divide into two shares all that is within the city—but why argue with myself in this way? Were I to go up to him he would show me no kind of mercy; he would kill me then and there as easily as though I were a woman, when I had off my armor. There is no parleying with him from some rock or oak tree as young men and maidens prattle with one another. Better fight him at once, and learn to which of us Zeus will vouchsafe victory.”. . .
. . . Then Hektor said, as the life-breath ebbed out of him, “I pray you by your life and knees, and by your parents, let not dogs devour me at the ships of the Achaeans, but accept the rich treasure of gold and bronze which my father and mother will offer you, and send my body home, that the Trojans and their wives may give me my dues of fire when I am dead.”
Achilles glared at him and answered, “Dog, talk not to me neither of knees nor parents; would that I could be as sure of being able to cut your flesh into pieces and eat it raw, for the ill have done me, as I am that nothing shall save you from the dogs—it shall not be, though they bring ten or twenty-fold ransom and weigh it out for me on the spot, with promise of yet more hereafter. Though Priam son of Dardanus should bid them offer me your weight in gold, even so your mother shall never lay you out and make lament over the son she bore, but dogs and vultures shall eat you utterly up.”
Hector with his dying breath then said, “I know you what you are, and was sure that I should not move you, for your heart is hard as iron; look to it that I bring not heaven’s anger upon you on the day when Paris and Phoebus Apollo, valiant though you be, shall slay you at the Scaean gates.”
When he had thus said the shrouds of death enfolded him, whereon his soul went out of him and flew down to the house of Hades, lamenting its sad fate that it should enjoy youth and strength no longer. But Achilles said, speaking to the dead body, “Die; for my part I will accept my fate whensoever Zeus and the other gods see fit to send it.”