Homer: The Iliad

Book XII

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2009 All Rights Reserved

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BkXII:1-79 The Trojans plan to cross the trench

While brave Patroclus was tending wounded Eurypylus in his hut, the Greeks and Trojans milled together fighting, and it seemed the Danaans’ trench and the thick wall behind it would not long protect them. They had built the wall and dug the moat to defend the ships and their vast spoils, but had failed in ritual sacrifice to the gods. Built in violation of immortal will, it could not stand for long. In fact while Hector lived, and Achilles nursed his anger, and Priam’s city remained intact, the Achaeans’ mighty wall remained. But when the best of the Trojans were dead, and many Greeks too though some survived, and Troy had fallen in the tenth year, and the Greeks in their ships had sailed for their native land, Poseidon and Apollo would agree to destroy it, channelling the force of all the rivers against it, those that flow from Ida to the sea.

Rhesus, Heptaporus, Caresus, Rhodius, Granicus, Aesepus, fair Scamander and Simoïs, by whose banks lay many an ox-hide shield, many a helmet, many a warrior of that well-nigh immortal generation: all these rivers Phoebus Apollo would merge together, and for nine days turn their flood against the wall, while Zeus poured down continual rain the quicker to wash it to the sea. Poseidon, Earth-Shaker, the trident in his hands, would further the destruction, sweeping its foundations, all the stones and beams, into the waves, all that the Greeks had laboured so hard to establish; would turn the rivers back into their channels confining their fair streams; cover the long beach again with sand, and make all smooth again by Hellespont.

All this Apollo and Poseidon would perform, but now war with its confusion raged about the well-built wall, till the wooden towers rang with the blows of missiles. The Greeks, under Zeus’ lash, were penned by the hollow ships, held there by fear of Hector, the mighty maker of rout, who scoured among them like a whirlwind. A lion or a wild boar, revelling in its strength, whirls this way and that among the hounds and huntsmen, till the men close ranks and make a wall against it, hurling showers of darts. Then its great heart, free of fear, never quails, though its very courage condemns it, as it wheels about to test the ring of men again and again, forcing the huntsmen to retreat before its charge. So Hector ranged to and fro, while urging his men to cross the trench. The swift horses, neighing loudly in fear, balked at the steep brink of the wide moat, which was hard to overleap or cross, bordered as it was by hanging banks, planted above by the Greeks with thick and close-set sharpened stakes, to foil the foe. No chariot team could pass across with ease, though the infantry were eager to attempt it.

So Polydamas approached brave Hector, saying: ‘Hector, and all you other leaders of the Trojans and allies, it would be foolish to set our fine horses at the trench. They would fail to dodge the sharpened stakes, while the space between the moat and the wall is too narrow for charioteers to fight even on foot, but wide enough to cause our ruin. If Zeus the Thunderer aids us Trojans in anger, and wills the enemy’s destruction, then I too would gladly see the Achaeans fall, far from Argos and forgotten, but if they round on us and drive us from the ships back against the moat they dug, not one of us will escape to carry the news to Troy. Why not do as I suggest? Let the charioteers restrain the horses by the moat, while we fully-armed follow Hector on foot. If their fate is already sealed, the Greeks cannot withstand us.’

BkXII:80-174 The Trojans attack the Greek wall

Hector approved of Polydamas’ prudent advice, and leapt from his chariot fully armed. The rest of the Trojans, seeing him on foot, abandoned their chariots and swiftly followed. They left their charioteers to marshal the chariots by the moat, while they formed five companies and fell in behind their leaders.

The largest company with the finest warriors followed Hector and peerless Polydamas, eager to breach the wall and attack the hollow ships. Cebriones went with them, Hector leaving a squire with the horses. Paris, Alcathous and Agenor led the second company. Helenus and noble Deïphobus, sons of Priam, led the third, with Asius, son of Hyrtacus, proud of his great bay steeds that brought him from Arisbe by the banks of Selleïs. The fourth company had Aeneas for a leader, the mighty son of Anchises, and with him Antenor’s sons, Archelocus and Acamas, veterans in war. Sarpedon led the rest, Troy’s noble allies, choosing Glaucus and fierce Asteropaus, the finest among them after himself, as his subordinates. Forming a wall of ox-hide shields, they advanced eagerly on the Greeks, sure of breaking through and reaching the black ships.

All the leaders of the Trojans and their famed allies followed peerless Polydamas’ advice, except for Asius, son of Hyrtacus, who refused to leave his chariot, his horses, and squire behind, and took a path to the swift ships, foolishly, for he would not evade black fate, or return again in glory with chariot and horses to windy Troy. Dark destiny awaited him, the sharp spear of Idomeneus, great son of Deucalion. Asius, heading left of the ships on a route the Achaeans took when their chariots returned from the plain, found the gates manned but unbarred and standing open, to leave access for warriors fleeing from the field. He took his course directly towards them, his men following with loud cries, thinking, in their folly, to pass through and reach the black ships. But there at the gates they met two fine spearmen, brave sons of the Lapith race, one the mighty Polypoetes, son of Peirithous, the other Leonteus peer of Ares the man-slayer.

The two stood firm before the tall gates, like high-crowned mountain oaks that day after day withstand the wind and rain, anchored by long deep roots: and trusting in their strength of arms they held their ground awaiting mighty Asius. Round him, his son Adamas, Iamenus, Orestes, Thoön and Oenomaus, with their Trojan warriors, gathered, and shouting loudly attacked the gates, raising their ox-hide shields above their heads.

The Trojans storm the Greek camp

‘The Trojans storm the Greek camp’ - Workshop of Bernard Picart, 1710

For a while the two Lapiths had been trying to rouse the bronze-greaved Greeks inside to fight and save the ships, but seeing the Trojans charge the Danaans were panicked into flight, so the two ran forward and facing the foe fought to hold the way, the bright bronze of their breastplates clanging as the enemy missiles landed. They fought like a pair of wild boars facing a loud pack of men and dogs, charging either flank, uprooting and crushing the trees around them, with a sound of clattering tusks, till the huntsmen strike them and they die. Mightily they fought, trusting in themselves and the men on the wall above, who in defence of their lives, the ships, and huts hurled down stones from the solid towers. Both sides, Greeks and Trojans alike, threw rocks that fell like snowflakes in a heavy blizzard, when the wind drives on the dark clouds, blanketing the earth. Under the hail of boulders the helmets and the bossed shields rang.

Siege of the Greek camp

‘Siege of the Greek camp’ - Crispijn van de Passe (I), 1613

It was then that Asius groaned and beat his thigh and cried out angrily: ‘Father Zeus, it seems you too are a lord of lies. I never dreamed these Greeks would stall our charge, and our all-conquering arms. Like bees that hive, or slender-waisted wasps that nest, by some stony track and defend their larvae and their hollow home, this pair, though only two, will not give ground till they kill us all or are killed.

But his words had no effect on Zeus, already determined that Hector should reap the glory.

BkXII:175-250 Hector ignores the omen of eagle and snake

Meanwhile the Trojans fought the Greeks at the other gates, and it would take a god indeed to tell of all those things. Fierce fires lit the stone wall, all along its length, as the desperate Greeks defended their ships, while even the immortals who favoured them were troubled.

Still the Lapiths took the fight to their enemies. Peirithous’ mighty son, Polypoetes, in his fury, struck Damasus with a spear on his bronze-cheeked helmet, its point piercing the metal and entering the bone, so the Trojan’s brains spattered the lining of his helm. Then Polypoetes killed Pylon and Ormenus, while Leonteus, scion of Ares, hit Hippomachus, Antimachus’ son, on the belt with a spear-cast, then drawing his sharp sword from its sheath ran at Antiphates in the crowd and knocked him backwards on the ground. Then he felled Menon, Iamenus and Orestes, and left them in the dust.

While the Lapithae stripped the corpses of their gleaming armour, the young warriors following Hector and Polydamas, the largest contingent and pick of the army, though eager to take the wall and burn the ships, were forced to halt at the trench and reflect. As they prepared to cross, an eagle high in the sky wheeled across their left, grasping a long blood-red snake alive and writhing. It still had fight in it, arching back to strike the eagle on its breast, and the bird in pain, letting it fall among the troops, flew swiftly down the wind with a loud cry.

The Trojans were appalled by the snake writhing on the ground, an omen from aegis-bearing Zeus. Polydamas again approached brave Hector: ‘You always object to my sound advice in council, Hector. You think it wrong if a commoner questions your power, there or here in the field, but I will say what I think. We should call off our attack on the Greek ships. This omen of the eagle high on the left letting the red snake fall, before the bird reached its nest to feed its young, means that though we break the wall and push the Greeks back they will fight for their ships and kill many Trojans, the rest of us retreating over this ground in disarray. So a soothsayer, skilled in deciphering omens and respected by the men, would say.’

Hector of the gleaming helm gazed at him angrily and replied: ‘Polydamas, your words are no longer to my taste: you can do better than that speech surely. If you mean what you say, the gods must have addled your brains. You would tell me to forget Zeus the Thunderer’s faithful promise, and the advice he gave me, but take note of the flight of birds! I care not if they fly towards dawn and the sun, or west towards the dark. We must obey the will of almighty Zeus, the king of mortals and immortals. This one rule is best, to fight for your country. Why indeed should you shrink from battle? For even if the rest of us, to a man, die beside the Greek ships, you, wavering and weak, are not one to lose your life, yet if you shirk the fight or try to dissuade others I will strike you down with this spear.’

BkXII:251-289 Hector leads the attack

So saying, he advanced, and they followed with a mighty roar, while Zeus the Thunderer roused a gale of wind from Ida that blew the dust straight against the ships, bewildering the Greeks and granting Hector the advantage. Trusting in these portents and their own strength the Trojans sought to shatter the Greek wall, tearing down the projecting outworks, razing the battlements and prying out the supporting beams with which the Greeks had buttressed it. Removing them they hoped the works would collapse. But even now the Greeks would not give way, masking the holes with ox-hide screens, pelting the foe as they neared the wall.

The two Aiantes ranged along the wall, rallying the defence and urging the Greeks on. Some received kind words, others a harsh rebuke if they were seen shrinking from the fight: ‘Friends, Greeks of every rank, though men are not equal in war as you know, yet there is work for all. Let no man heed another’s urging and run for the ships. Forward, and cheer each other on, trusting that Olympian Zeus, lord of the lightning, lets us counter this charge and drive them back to the city.’

So the Aiantes, with a shout, roused the Greek soldiers. Stones fell thick as flakes on a winter’s day, when Zeus the Counsellor sends the snow, hurling towards men his shower of arrows, calming the wind and with an even fall covering the mountain summits, high headlands, grassy plains and fertile fields, till even the shores and inlets of the grey sea are veiled, and only the beating of the waves absorbs it, while all else is blanketed by the weight of Zeus’ winter storm. Such was the shower of flying stones, as the Greeks and Trojans pelted each other, while the whole length of wall was drowned in noise.

BkXII:290-328 Sarpedon urges Glaucus on

Even now glorious Hector and the Trojans would have failed to shatter the barred gates had not Zeus the Counsellor urged on his own son Sarpedon to assault the Argives, as a lion seizes cattle. Holding his round shield before him, bronze hammered by the smith and lined with ox-hides stitched with gold round the rim, brandishing two spears, he advanced like a lean mountain lion spurred on by hunger to attack the walled fold and ravage the flock. Though the armed herdsmen and their dogs watch the sheep, the lion will not desist, and leaps into the flock to seize one or be struck down swiftly by a ready spear. So Sarpedon was spurred on to rush the wall, and pierce the battlements.

He turned to Glaucus, Hippolochus’ son: ‘We hold the most honoured seats in Lycia, Glaucus. Ours are the best cuts at the feast; ours the ever-flowing cups. There they think us gods! Ours are the vast estates along the Xanthos, too, the tracts of orchard and the rich plough land. Now we must stand in the front rank and lead the fight, so that the mail-clad Lycians can say: “No cowards, these our Lycian kings. Theirs are the fattest sheep and the finest wines, but theirs the greatest courage too, who fight in the vanguard.” Friend, if we were spared this battle, and ageless could live forever, I would not choose to lead this charge, nor send you into glorious battle, but now, while the threat of death is upon us, death that is everywhere, death that no mortal can evade, let us advance, either to our own glory or that of others.’

BkXII:329-377 Ajax and Teucer rush to the defence

Glaucus obeyed without a murmur, and the two ran forward leading the mass of Lycians. Seeing them charge, Menestheus, Peteos’ son, who held the length of the wall they threatened, shuddered with fear, and looked for one of the leaders to save the Greeks from disaster. His gaze found the two undaunted Aiantes, standing with Teucer near his hut, but too far off to hear his shout, amidst the noise. The din of clashing shields, the ringing of horsehair-crested helms, the pounding on the barred gates, rose to heaven as the enemy charged, trying to break through. In an instant he called to Thoötes the herald: ‘Run to Ajax, to the Aiantes, we will need both to counter the assault by these Lycian leaders, powerful in war. But if they too are hard pressed, let us have Telamonian Ajax at least, and Teucer the fine archer, as well.’

The herald, hearing the order, ran swiftly along the line of bronze-clad Achaeans, and reaching the Aiantes gave his message. At once Telamonian Ajax turned, and spoke these words to Ajax the lesser: ‘Son of Oïleus, you and mighty Lycomedes hold the fort and rouse the men to fight, while I ward of this new attack then hurry back.’

With this, he and Teucer, his blood brother, set off along the inner wall, followed by Pandion carrying Teucer’s curved bow. Reaching stalwart Menestheus’ post, they found him hard pressed: the enemy like a black storm-surge poured over the wall, led by the mighty rulers of the Lycians and their generals, and with a great cry the Greeks set themselves to fight.

BkXII:378-441 Alcmaon is killed and Glaucus wounded

Telamonian Ajax was the first to kill, felling brave Epicles, Sarpedon’s friend, with a jagged lump of rock from a heap inside the wall. The youngest and strongest of our generation would have been hard put to lift it in both hands, but Ajax raised it high and hurled it, shattering the four-ridged helm and crushing the skull. Epicles plummeted like a diver from the wall, and the spirit fled his bones.

Meanwhile Teucer had pierced mighty Glaucus, Hippolochus’ son, wounding his exposed arm, with an arrow shot from the battlements, forcing him from the fight. Glaucus withdrew quietly, so the Greeks would not notice the loss, and boast of it. Though Sarpedon grieved at Glaucus’ wound when he knew of it, he stuck to his task, killing Alcmaon son of Thestor with a keen spear-thrust, then tugging at the shaft to pull it clear. Alcmaon, dragged down by the spear, fell headlong, with a crash of his bronze inlaid armour. Then Sarpedon’s huge hands pulled at the battlement till a length gave way, laying bare the walkway, making a wide breach.

Now Ajax and Teucer countered him together, Teucer striking him with his arrow on the gleaming belt that ran across his chest to hold his round shield, but Zeus saved him from harm, not wishing him conquered beside the ships’ sterns. Then Ajax leapt on him thrusting at the shield, making him stagger, though the spear-point was balked. Sarpedon fell back from the battlement, yet still anxious to win glory he turned and shouted to the godlike Lycians: ‘Where is your fierce courage? Strong as I am, I cannot breach this wall and force a way to the ships alone. Follow me, the more of you the better.’

At this, shamed by their lord’s rebuke, the Lycians gathered round their counsellor and king, while the Greeks on the far side reinforced the wall, and there was a mighty conflict. Lycian strength failed to break the parapet and force a way, while the Greeks failed to dislodge the Lycians from the wall. Like two parties with their measuring rods arguing over the boundary stones in a shared field, contending in that narrow strip for their rights, so the battlements divided them. Over the top they hacked at each other’s ox-hide shields, those round targets or light bucklers at their chests. The pitiless bronze cut into many a warrior’s flesh, through the exposed back as he turned, or clean through his shield itself. The whole length of the wall was spattered with Greek and Trojan blood. Still the Greeks held, and the fight hung in the balance, like the scales in which a woman carefully weighs the wool she has spun to earn a meagre wage and feed her children, until Zeus chose to grant the greater glory to Hector. Priam’s son would be first inside the wall. Now Hector uttered a piercing cry to rouse the Trojans: ‘On: horse-taming Trojans: break the Argive wall, and put their ships to the blazing torch.’

BkXII:442-471 Hector among the ships

So he urged them forward, and they gave ear. Massing together they rushed the wall, and climbed the outworks spear in hand. Meanwhile Hector seized a rock that lay before the gate, thick at the base but pointed at the top, two of the strongest men these days could barely have levered it from the ground onto a cart, yet he handled it alone, Zeus the son of devious Cronos making it seem light. Hector lifted the rock like a shepherd lifting a ram’s fleece in one hand, scarcely burdened by the weight, and raised it against the solid panels of the tall tightly-fitted double gates, held by two cross bars and a single bolt. Bracing himself, feet well apart, to hurl it with greatest force, he stood in front and struck them square in the middle. The hinges broke on either side, and the stone’s weight carried it on, as the doors flung open groaning, crossbars broken. Glorious Hector leapt inside, face dark as night; his body gleaming with baleful bronze, grasping his twin spears in his hands. None but a god could have checked him once he had passed the gates. Eyes blazing fire, he turned to the ranks behind and called to them to climb the battlements. At his order some men scaled the wall, while others poured in through the broken gates, as the Greeks, routed, were driven back to the hollow ships, in the midst of a relentless clamour.