Homer: The Iliad


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

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BkXXIII:1-53 Achilles again mourns Patroclus

While the city of Troy grieved, the Achaeans reached the fleet by the Hellespont and dispersed to their own ships, except for the Myrmidons whom Achilles restrained, saying to his warlike friends: ‘Myrmidons, with your swift horses, my loyal comrades, don’t unyoke the teams from their chariots yet, but drive them past Patroclus and mourn for him as the dead should be mourned. Then when we’ve sated ourselves with grief, we’ll un-harness them and eat together here.’

Then Achilles led them as they raised their voices as one, in lament. Three times, in their grief, they drove their long-maned horses round the corpse, and Thetis intensified their need to weep. The sand and their armour were wet with tears, so great a warrior was the man they mourned. And the son of Peleus was loudest in the strident lament, laying his man-killing hands on his comrade’s breast: ‘Rejoice, Patroclus, even in the House of Hades, for I have kept my promise to you, that I would drag Hector’s corpse here and feed it to the dogs, and I will cut the throats of twelve noble youths of Troy at your pyre, in vengeance for your death.’

When he had spoken, he thought of a further way to defile Hector’s corpse, flinging it face down in the dust by Patroclus’ bier. The warriors removed their gleaming bronze armour, loosed the war-horses, and sat in their hundreds beside swift-footed Achilles’ ship. He gave them a funeral feast to ease their hearts. Many a sleek ox plunged under the knife, many a sheep and bleating goat was slaughtered, and many a fine fat white-tusked hog was hung above the flames to singe, while blood pooled round the corpse, deep enough to dip the wine-cups in.

Now their prince, fleet-footed Achilles, was invited by the Achaean leaders, to dine with King Agamemnon, though he was still grieving deeply and they found him hard at first to persuade. When they all reached Agamemnon’s hut, they told the clear-voiced heralds to set a great cauldron on the fire, in hopes of tempting Achilles to wash the blood from his body. But he refused, and made a vow: ‘By Zeus, the mightiest and best of gods, no water shall come near my head until I have laid Patroclus on the pyre, heaped up his mound, and shorn my hair, for I shall never grieve more deeply while I’m among the living. Let us yield to the necessity for food, however loathsome that prospect, but at dawn, Lord Agamemnon, order wood to be gathered, and provide all that is needed when a dead man enters the deepest darkness, so that Patroclus’ body may be swiftly consumed, and the army return to its toil.’

BkXXIII:54-107 Patroclus visits Achilles in dream

They readily agreed to his request, and each of them sharing in the meal, they feasted. When their hunger and thirst were sated, they retired to rest. But Achilles lay sighing heavily, among his Myrmidons, by the echoing shore, out in the open just above the breaking surf. His strong limbs were weary from hunting Hector round windy Troy, yet no sooner had sleep seized him, shedding sweetness round him and easing his heart’s cares, than the spirit of poor Patroclus appeared, the very semblance of the man himself, with the same stature, eyes, and clothes, and it was his voice that spoke saying: ‘You sleep, and forget me, Achilles. You neglect me now I’m dead, as you never did when I was alive. Hasten my funeral, and let me pass Hades’ Gate. The spirits keep me out, the shades of men done with toil, who will not let me join them beyond the river, but leave me wandering in vain this side of the yawning Gate. And clasp my hand, I beg you, for once you’ve given me to the fire, I shall not return. You and I will never sit apart from our dear friends and talk as we once did, now that mortal fate has consumed me: that fate appointed for me at my birth. You too, godlike Achilles, are doomed to die beneath the walls of Troy. One more thing I ask of you, if you will. Don’t bury my ashes far from yours, Achilles. Let them be as one, just as we were when we grew up together. Menoetius brought me, to your house, a child from Opoeis, because I killed Amphidamus’ son, accidentally, in a foolish quarrel over a game. Peleus, the horseman, welcomed me to his palace, showed me loving care, and made me your squire. So let one urn enclose our ashes, the golden urn your royal mother gave you.’

Fleet-footed Achilles answered: ‘Why, when you are here, dear heart, do you come only to ask such things? I will see to it all, just as you wish, but now come closer, so that, if only for a moment, we might clasp our arms round one another, and sate ourselves with sad lament.’

So saying, he stretched out his hands in vain. The spirit vanished like smoke beneath the earth, gibbering faintly. Achilles sprang up in turmoil, and beat his hands together, crying sadly: ‘There now! Even in Hades’ House something of us survives, spirit and semblance, but no power of response: for all night long poor Patroclus’ shade, his very likeness, stood over me, weeping, lamenting, saying what I must do.’

BkXXIII:108-191 The building of Patroclus’ funeral pyre

Achilles’ cry woke the Myrmidons to further lament, and rosy-fingered Dawn found them wailing round the pitiful dead. King Agamemnon, meanwhile, sent out men from every hut with mules to fetch wood, under the command of Meriones, attendant on kindly Idomeneus. They carried woodman’s axes and strong ropes, and drove the mules upwards to and fro on winding tracks until they came to the high slopes of Ida, of the many streams. There they set to, the long-bladed axes felling tall oaks with a crash. The Greeks split the logs and roped them to the mules that tore up the ground hauling them through dense undergrowth down to the plain. The woodcutters handled the logs, as Meriones ordered, and stacked them on the shore where Achilles planned a great funeral mound for Patroclus and himself. When they had stacked the wood, the whole crowd sat and waited. Then Achilles gave orders to his warlike Myrmidons to don their armour, and yoke the chariots. They did so and the charioteers mounted their chariots. Then they set off, the chariots first, a host of warriors following on foot, with Patroclus in the midst, carried by his friends. They had cut off locks of their hair and thrown them on the corpse till they covered it like a garment. Noble Achilles walked behind, supporting the head, sorrowing for the peerless comrade he was sending to Hades’ Halls.

When they reached the place he’d appointed, they set the corpse down on a platform of wood. Now a fresh idea struck Achilles, and stepping back from the pyre he cut a golden lock of his hair, which he had grown to honour the river-god Sperchius. He looked out over the wine-dark sea and spoke anxiously to the god: ‘Sperchius, my father Peleus made vain prayer to you, vowing that if I came home to my native land I’d cut my hair and offer a holy sacrifice of fifty unblemished rams, at the precinct and fragrant altar where your waters flow. The old man made his vow, but you have denied fulfilment. Since I shall not return to my own dear native land, allow me to give this lock of hair to the warrior Patroclus to take with him.’

The funeral pyre of Patroclus

‘The funeral pyre of Patroclus’ - Workshop of Bernard Picart, 1710

So saying, he went and placed the lock of hair in the corpse’s hands, and prompted them all to further displays of grief. Sunset would still have found them weeping, if Achilles had not spoken to Agamemnon: ‘Son of Atreus, the troops obey you above all others, and though they may go on grieving, send them away from the pyre for now, and let them prepare their meal. We the dead man’s closest mourners will manage things here, but ask the leaders to stay.’

King Agamemnon hearing this, promptly dismissed the men to their well-crafted ships, though the chief mourners remained, and piling up the wood to make the pyre a hundred feet square, sad at heart they placed the corpse on top. They flayed and dressed numerous fine sheep and sleek shambling cattle before the pyre, and noble Achilles took fat from them all and wrapped the corpse in it, head to foot, and piled the flayed carcasses around. Then he leant two-handled jars of oil and honey against the bier, and groaning aloud swiftly threw the bodies of four proud horses on the pyre. Of the nine dogs Patroclus fed beneath his table, Achilles cut the throats of two and threw their bodies on the pyre. Then he completed the grim task he had in mind, killing twelve noble sons of the brave Trojans with his bronze blade, and setting the pyre alight so the pitiless flames would spread. Then he gave a groan, and called his dear friend by name: ‘All hail to you, Patroclus, though in the House of Hades. See how I keep the promises I made. Twelve noble sons of brave Trojans, the fire will devour with you. But the dogs, not the flames, shall feed on Hector, son of Priam.’

Yet, despite his threats, no dogs defiled Hector’s corpse, for Aphrodite, Zeus’ daughter, kept them from him, night and day, and anointed him with sweet ambrosial oil of roses, so Achilles would not tear the flesh dragging the corpse about. And Phoebus Apollo drew a dark cloud down from sky to earth, and cloaked the whole place where the dead man lay, to prevent the sun shrivelling the flesh and sinews of his limbs.

BkXXIII:192-261 The funeral mound

Now the pyre of dead Patroclus would not burn. Fleet-footed Achilles took thought, then standing back from the pyre prayed to the winds, Boreas the North-wind, Zephyrus the West, promising them fine offerings. Pouring libations from a golden cup, he begged them fervently to blow, so the wood might kindle and the bodies might burn. Iris heard his prayer, and flew swiftly to give the Winds his message. They were feasting together in Zephyrus’ house, Lord of the Western Gales, when Iris halted on his stone threshold. They sprang up when they saw her, and called her to sit beside them. But she refused, saying: ‘I can’t, I must return to Ocean’s stream, and the land of the Ethiopians, where they are sacrificing to the immortals, and share in their sacred feast. But Achilles asks for you Boreas, and you wild Zephyr, and promises fine offerings if you’ll kindle the pyre where Patroclus lies, for whom the Achaeans grieve.’

Then she left while the winds rose with a roar, driving the clouds in rout before them. Soon they were out at sea, stirring the swelling waves with their stormy blast. Reaching the fertile land of Troy, they attacked the pyre, raising a great column of roaring fire. As one, their blast beat on the flames, howling all night long, and all night long swift Achilles drew wine from a golden bowl in a two-handled cup, and poured it on the ground, wetting the earth and calling to the spirit of poor Patroclus. And Achilles, pacing heavily round the fire, groaned without cease, while his friend’s bones burned, as a father groans for a newly-wedded son whose death leaves his wretched parents in despair.

At the hour when the Morning Star rises, heralding the new day, and in his wake saffron-robed Dawn spreads light on the waves, the fire died down and the flames ceased. The Winds returned home over the Thracian Sea, roaring above the surging waves. Achilles turned away from the smouldering pyre, lay down exhausted, and instantly slept. But his comrades gathered round him, and the noise of their voices and footsteps roused him once more. Sitting upright, he spoke to them: ‘Atreides, and you other leaders of the Achaeans, quench the glowing pyre with red wine, wherever there are embers, then let us collect the ashes of Patroclus, Menoetius’ son, separating them from the rest, though that is easy since he lay at the centre of the pyre, while the men and horses and the rest were burned at its edge. Then we will place the ashes in a golden urn, sealed with a double layer of fat, until such time as I too vanish to Hades. As for the mound, provide what is fitting but no more, and whichever of you survive among the benched ships when I am gone, then you must build our joint mound broad and high.’

They did as fleet-footed Achilles requested, first quenching the fire with wine to its edge, where there were embers; then, in tears, collecting the white ashes of their gentle comrade, placing them in a golden urn sealed with a double layer of fat, and covering it with a soft linen cloth they took it to his hut. Next they traced the circuit of his mound, setting a ring of stones around the pyre then piling earth inside. When they had raised the barrow, they made as if to leave, but Achilles stopped them and made them sit in a wide ring where he had decided funeral games would be held, and sent for prizes from his ships; cauldrons, tripods, horses, mules, sturdy oxen, female slaves and grey iron.

BkXXIII:262-361 Preparations for the chariot race

For the first event, a chariot race, Achilles offered splendid prizes; a woman skilled in fine handiwork, and a tripod with ear-shaped handles holding twenty-two measures, for the winner; a six-year old mare, broken-in and pregnant with a mule foal, for the runner-up; for the third place, a brand new gleaming cauldron holding four measures; for the fourth, two talents of gold; and the fifth a brand new two-handled cooking dish.

He rose and spoke to the Argives: ‘Atreides, and you other bronze-greaved Achaeans, these are the prizes that await the winning charioteers. If we Greeks were holding the games in another man’s honour, since I have the finest pair of horses, immortal steeds that Poseidon gave my father Peleus, and he in turn gave me, no doubt I would carry off first prize, but they’ve lost their great and glorious charioteer, a kind man who’d rub sweet oil in their manes after washing them in clear water. And now they stand and mourn him, heart-stricken, their manes sweeping the ground. But the event is open to the rest of you, whichever of you Achaeans trust in your horses and chariot.’

At this the competitors came forward. Noble Eumelus was first to rise, Admetus’ dear son, a skilful horseman. Then Mighty Diomedes, son of Tydeus, rose to harness the horses, of the breed of Tros, taken from Aeneas though Apollo saved Aeneas himself. Red-haired Menelaus was next, Zeus-born Atreides, yoking swift horses, Aethe, a mare of Agamemnon’s, and his own horse Podargus. Echepolus, Anchises of Sicyon’s son, had given the mare as a gift to Agamemnon, so he might stay safely at home and not follow the king to windy Troy. Zeus had granted him great wealth in spacious Sicyon. Menelaus now harnessed the eager mare. The fourth to ready his long-maned team was Antilochus, noble son of proud Nestor, son of Neleus, and the swift horses harnessed to his chariot were of the Pylian breed. His father approached to offer some good advice, the wise to the wise: ‘Antilochus, young as you are, Zeus and Poseidon love you, and they have made you an expert horseman, so you need little advice from me. Yet, expert though you are at navigating the turns, remember your horses are the slowest in this race, and that’s a great handicap. Their horses are quicker, but their charioteers no more cunning, so use all your skill, if you don’t want to see the prizes slip away. It is skill not mere strength that makes the better woodsman; skill lets the helmsman on the wine-dark wave steer a sailing ship, buffeted by the wind; and skill too sees one charioteer beat another. One man, leaving it all to his horses, slackens the reins and lets his team wander, his line stray, but the skilful man, though with slower horses, thinks of the turn and wheels close by the post, keeps his team in hand from the start, uses the ox-hide reins, and keeps his eyes on the lead chariot.

Now here’s something to look out for. There’s a dead-tree stump, of weathered oak or pine, about six foot high, flanked by two white stones, at the turn. The ground is smooth and firm on the bend. It may mark an ancient grave, or perhaps was a turning post long ago. Now Achilles has adopted it as his. Hug it tightly as you turn, and lean to the left of your team yourself as you stand firm on your platform of plaited thongs. Flick the offside horse with your whip, shout him on and give him rein, but let the near-side run so near the post the hub of the well-built wheel almost grazes the stone, but don’t touch it and wreck your chariot and harm the horses, or the rest will have glory and you the blame. Use your wits, dear son, and look sharp. If you can pass inside at the turn, no one will put on speed and overtake you, not even if he drove noble Arion, in pursuit, Adrastus’ racehorse that was sired in heaven or of Laomedon’s breed of famous horses, the very best in Troy.’

With this advice to his son on how to win, Nestor, son of Neleus, regained his place and sat, while Meriones, the fifth competitor, readied his long-maned horses. Then all mounted their chariots, and cast their lots one by one into Achilles’ helmet. When he shook it, out leapt the lot of Nestor’s son Antilochus; then that of Lord Eumelus; of Menelaus the famous spearman; and of Meriones; while that of Diomedes, the best of them all, was last. They lined up for the start, and Achilles pointed out the turning post for off over the flat plain, where godlike Phoenix, his father’s squire, was placed as referee, to keep a watch on the race and judge their merits.

BkXXIII:362-447 The chariot race

As one, they raised their whips, shook the reins, and urged their teams on. Swiftly the horses galloped over the plain, leaving the ships behind. A whirlwind cloud of dust rose to their chests, and their manes streamed in the wind. Now the chariots ran freely over the solid ground, now they leapt in the air, while the hearts of the charioteers beat fast as they strove for victory, and they shouted to their horses, flying along in the storm of dust.

It was not till the galloping horses were heading back towards the grey sea that each team showed its mettle, and the charioteers forced the pace. Eumelus’ swift-footed mares shot to the front, chased by Diomedes’ stallions, hot on their heels, as if they might mount Eumelus’ chariot, and their heads were at his back as they flew, blowing hot breath on his neck and shoulders. Diomedes would have passed him now, or at least drawn level, if Phoebus Apollo in resentment had not struck the gleaming whip from his hand. Diomedes saw the mares run on, while his own horses slowed without the effect of the whip, and tears of anger filled his eyes. But Athene saw that Apollo had interfered, and speeding after, returned the whip and inspired the team. Then in her anger she chased down Eumelus, and shattered the yoke of his chariot, so the mares swerved from side to side and the broken pole struck the ground, while Eumelus himself was hurled to the earth beside the wheel. The skin was stripped from his elbows, nose and cheeks, his forehead bruised, while his eyes filled with tears and he was robbed of speech.

Meanwhile Diomedes passed the wreck and drove his powerful horses on, far in the lead. Athene had strengthened his team and given him the glory. And red-haired Menelaus, the son of Atreus, ran second. But Antilochus called to his father’s team: ‘On now, show me how you can run. You’ll not catch Diomedes’ pair, for Athene grants them strength and him the glory. But chase down Menelaus’ team, don’t let them beat you, or Aethe the mare will put you to shame. Why so slow, my beauties? I’ll tell you this, if we win a lesser prize, there’ll be no sweet fodder at Nestor’s hands, he’ll slit your throats with his keen blade. So on, as fast as you can, and I’ll contrive to pass them where the course narrows: that’s my chance.’

With this the horses, responding to his threat, speeded up for a while, and soon the steadfast Antilochus saw a narrow place in the sunken road ahead, where a stream swollen by winter rain had eroded the track and hollowed out the course. Menelaus drove on assuming no one could overtake, but Antilochus veered alongside, almost off the track. Then Menelaus called to him, in alarm: ‘Rein in Antilochus, that’s recklessness! The track’s wider further on. Pass there if you can, mind my chariot, don’t wreck us both!’

He shouted loud enough, but Antilochus, pretending not to hear, plied his whip and drove the more wildly. They ran side by side a discus length, as far as a young athlete testing his strength can hurl it from the shoulder, then Menelaus held back, and his pair gave way, fearing the teams might collide and overturn the light chariots, hurling their masters in the dust, for all their eagerness to win. Red-haired Menelaus stormed at Antilochus: ‘You’re a pest Antilochus, we Achaeans credited you with more sense. All the same, you’ll not win a prize, when I force you to answer on oath to this.’

With that he addressed his team: ‘Don’t flag, and don’t lose heart. Their legs will weaken sooner than yours, they’re carrying more years.’ And his pair, responding to his call, increased their speed and closed on the pair in front.

BkXXIII:448-498 The spectators quarrel

Meanwhile the spectators, from their seats in the ring, were waiting to catch sight of the horses, flying towards them in a cloud of dust. The Cretan leader, Idomeneus, was first to see them, from the lookout point high above the assembly. When he heard the charioteer’s voice shouting to his horses, he recognised the man despite the distance; and he knew one of the lead horses that showed clearly, a bay with a white patch like a full moon on its brow. He stood and called to the Argives: ‘My friends, can you see the horses too? A different team’s ahead, it’s a new charioteer in the lead. Eumelus’ mares were in front on the outward leg, but they must have come to grief. I saw them galloping first towards the turning post, but there’s no sign of them now, though I’ve searched the whole Trojan plain. Perhaps the reins slipped from his hands, and he failed to take the turn? I think it’s there his chariot must have wrecked, and hurled him to the ground, while the mares swerved and bolted in their terror. Stand and look on, yourselves. I think the leader is Aetolian, yes, it’s great Diomedes, prince among Argives, son of horse-taming Tydeus.’

But Ajax the Lesser, that fine runner, the son of Oïleus, was quick to disagree: ‘Idomeneus, why are you always sounding off? Those high-stepping mares are still far out on the plain. Your not young any more, nor are your eyes the sharpest among us, yet you’re always laying down the law. Among your betters you should hold your tongue. Eumelus’ mares are still in the lead, just as they were before, that’s him standing there, the reins in his hands.’

Idomeneus answered angrily: ‘Ajax, you’re good at insults, but useless in council, your bad manners always let you down. Come, let’s bet on whose in the lead, with Atreides as referee. Let’s wager a tripod or a cauldron, losing it might teach you a lesson.’

At this, Ajax the Lesser, in his anger, leapt to his feet ready with more insults, and the quarrel would soon have been out of hand, if Achilles had not risen and spoken: ‘Ajax, Idomeneus, no more of this, enough of these crude discourtesies! It is wrong to behave so, and you’d be the first to condemn such things in others. Sit down again, in the ring, and watch the race. The teams will soon be home in their rush for victory, and then you’ll all see which of the Argive horses lead, and which are behind.’

Bk XXIII:499-565 The prize giving

Diomedes soon arrived, whipping the high-stepping horses hard, as they sped towards the goal. Showers of dust clung to him, and the wheel rims hardly left a trace on the powdery ground, as the swift-footed pair flew onwards pulling the chariot, decorated with gold and tin. He drew to a halt in the centre of the ring, sweat pouring to the ground from his horses’ chests and necks. He himself leapt to the ground from his gleaming chariot, and leant the long whip against the shaft. Nor did his squire Sthenelus lose a moment in claiming the prize, but eagerly his joyful friends led away the women and carried off the eared tripod, while he un-harnessed the horses.

Antilochus, Nestor’s son, came in second, having outstripped Menelaus by guile not speed, though Menelaus and his swift team still came in close behind, by no more than the distance from horse to wheel. As a horse strains at the yoke under its master’s lash, the tip of its tail brushes the wheel rim, and that was how close Menelaus came to peerless Antilochus, though he had been a discus throw behind at first. Long-maned Aethe, Agamemnon’s mare, was pulling ever more strongly, and if the course had been a little longer, he would have overtaken Antilochus decisively.

Meriones, Idomeneus’ strong squire, came in a spear-cast behind Menelaus, being the least skilful charioteer and driving the slowest horses. And last of all came Eumelus, dragging his light chariot and driving his horses ahead of him. Hearing his tale, swift-footed Achilles felt sorry for the man, and spoke winged words to the Argives: ‘The best charioteer has come in last, but he deserves the prize for second place, given Diomedes has won the first.’

The Achaeans shouted their agreement, and he would have given Eumelus the mare, if Antilochus, son of proud Nestor, had not risen to object: ‘Achilles, if you as you say, then I resent it. Good man though he is, you’d rob me of my prize, just because he and his chariot came to harm. He’d not have been last, if he’d prayed to the gods before the race. If you truly pity him, and he’s dear to you, then in your hut there’s a pile of gold and bronze, there are women, horses, sheep too. Give him a fine prize later, or do it now and have these Greeks applaud you. But I’ll not yield the mare, if anyone wants her let him fight me for her, hand to hand.’

Noble Achilles, the great runner, smiled at Antilochus, his dear comrade, and rejoicing in his friendship, spoke to him warmly: ‘Antilochus, if you’d rather I gave Eumelus something of my own, as an extra prize, I will. I’ll grant him the breastplate I took from Asteropaeus. It’s a valuable one, of bronze plated with bands of shining tin.’

Then he asked his dear friend Automedon to fetch it from his hut, and taking it he placed it in Eumelus’ hands, and he was delighted to receive it.

BkXXIII:566-650 Antilochus placates Menelaus

Now Menelaus rose, mortified and furiously angry with Antilochus. A herald placed the staff in his hands and commanded silence then the godlike warrior spoke: ‘Antilochus, what is this? You used to be a man of sense. Now you shame my prowess, cutting across my team and thrusting your own slower pair ahead. Come now, leaders and rulers of Achaea, judge impartially between us, lest in future some bronze-clad Achaean says that Antilochus, who cheated Menelaus, won the mare because though his team were not as fast, he was the worthier and more skilful man. I will even resolve the case myself and justly too, such that none of you Danaans will disagree. Antilochus, nurtured by Zeus, come here. Stand before your chariot and team, and as is customary take the whip in hand you used just now, place your hand against a horse’s flank and swear by the Earth-Shaker and Encircler that you did not thwart me by a deliberate foul.’

‘Ah, be gentle with me, King Menelaus,’ the sober Antilochus replied, ‘you are older and wiser. You know the follies a young man commits, his mind is hasty, and his judgement poor. So forgive me, and I will give you the mare myself, of my own free will. And if you ask more of me and my house, I’d give it eagerly, rather than be exiled from your heart, you whom Zeus nurtured, and perjure myself before the gods.’

With this, proud Nestor’s son led the mare forward, and gave her up to Menelaus, whose heart was warmed by the gesture, warmed like the dew-wet grain ripening at harvest time. So he spoke warm words, to Antilochus, in reply: ‘Antilochus, I can’t be angry with you, since you were never foolish or reckless before, though this time youth got the better of judgement. Don’t try to outwit your elders. It would have been harder for another to placate me, but you and your good father and your brother have toiled and suffered greatly for my cause, so I accept your apology and grant you the mare though she is mine, so all may know my heart is never over-proud or unyielding.’

So saying, he handed the mare over to Noëmon, Antilochus’ friend, to lead away, and took the gleaming cauldron as his prize. Meriones who had come in fourth, accepted the two talents of gold so reserved, while the fifth prize, the two-handled dish went unclaimed. Achilles carried it through the throng, and approaching Nestor handed it to him, saying: ‘My venerable lord, accept and treasure this memento of Patroclus’ funeral, for you will never see him more among the Argives. Sadly, old age weighs on you now, and you cannot contend in boxing, wrestling, javelin throwing or the foot-race, but I give you this prize nonetheless.’

So saying, he placed it in Nestor’s hands, and he accepting it with delight, replied with winged words: ‘Yes, indeed, my son, what you say is true. I am no longer as steady on my feet, dear friend, nor can I fling my arms out in a wide wrestling grip. I wish I were as young and strong as that time when the Epeians were interring King Amarynceus at Buprasium, and his sons held funeral games in his honour. Then no man proved himself my equal, Epians, Pylians or proud Aetolians. I beat Clytomedes, the son of Enops, in the boxing and Ancaeus of Pleuron, who took me on in the wrestling. In the foot race I outran Iphiclus, good as he was, and my spear out-threw Phyleus and Polydorus. Only in the chariot race did the two Moliones beat me, by their combined superior strength, forcing their team to the front, begrudging me the victory since the race carried the best prize. They were twins, and one could drive with a sure hand, while the other plied the whip.

Such was the man I once was, but now it’s time for younger men. Sadly old age is upon me, though then I was first among the warriors. Now you must go on with your dear friend’s funeral games. Meanwhile I welcome your gift with pleasure, your remembrance of our friendship delights my heart, and of the honour I’m owed among the Achaeans. In return, let the gods grant you favour enough to satisfy your heart.’

BkXXIII:651-699 The boxing match

When he had listened to Nestor’s words, Achilles, son of Peleus, made his way through the crowd of spectators and set out the prizes for the boxing-match. For the winner he fetched a six-year old mule, broken-in, and they are hardest of all to break, and tethered it in the arena. For the loser there was a two-handled drinking cup. Then he announced the contest: ‘Atreides, and all you bronze-greaved Achaeans, I want to see our two best boxers raise their fists and fight for these prizes. He whom Apollo grants true endurance in our eyes will return to his hut leading this sturdy mule, while the loser shall have this fine cup.’

At this a tall and powerful warrior stood up, a champion boxer, Epeius, son of Panopeus. He placed his hand on the mule, saying: ‘Whoever wants the cup, step forward. No man will beat me with his fists, and take the mule, since I’m the best boxer, I say. I may not be the greatest warrior, a man can’t be best at everything, but this thing is for sure, whoever I fight I’ll tear his flesh to ribbons and break his bones. I hope his kin are here to take him away when I’ve felled him.’

A silence fell at his words. Godlike Euryalus alone stood up to fight him, the son of King Mecisteus, Talaus’ son, who at the funeral games for Oedipus, in Thebes, defeated every Cadmeian opponent. Diomedes, the spearman, eager to see him win, helped Euryalus to prepare, and gave him encouragement. He buckled on his belt, and bound the ox-hide thongs carefully on his hands. When the two contestants were ready, they stepped to the centre of the arena, and raising their mighty arms, set to. Each landed heavy blows with their fists, and they ground their teeth, as the sweat poured over their limbs. Euryalus sought an opening, but noble Epeius swung and struck his jaw, and he went straight down, his legs collapsing under him. Like a fish that leaps in the weed-strewn shallows, under a ripple stirred by the North Wind, then falls back into the dark wave, so Euryalus leapt when he was struck, but the big-hearted Epeius, lifted him and set him on his feet, and all his friends crowded round, and supported him from the ring his feet trailing, his head lolling, as he spat out clots of blood. He was still confused when they sat him down in his corner, and had to fetch the cup, his prize, themselves.

BkXXIII:700-739 The wrestling bout

Swiftly, Achilles brought out the prizes for the third contest, a wrestling bout. For the winner, a great tripod to hold a cauldron over the flames, valued by the Achaeans at twelve oxen; for the loser a female slave skilled in fine handiwork, and she they reckoned at four oxen. Then he announced the bout: ‘Rise now, whichever pair of warriors will try their skill.’ At his words, Telamonian Ajax stepped forward, and cunning Odysseus also got to his feet, a man of many wiles. When they had both prepared, they entered the ring, and came to grips, clasping each other in their mighty arms, locked together like the sloping rafters that some skilled craftsman sets in place on a tall house, to resist the winds. Their backs creaked under the pressure of their strong hands, and the sweat ran down in streams, while many a blood-red weal appeared on their shoulders and ribs, as they strove for the ornate tripod and the glory. Odysseus could no more trip Ajax, and floor him, than Ajax could move powerful Odysseus’ firm stance. But when they began to weary the watching Achaeans, Ajax spoke quietly to Odysseus: ‘Zeus-born son of Laertes, Odysseus of the many wiles, you’d best try lift me, or I you, and let Zeus decide the matter.’

Wrestling match between Ajax and Odysseus

‘Wrestling match between Ajax and Odysseus’ - Crispijn van de Passe (I), 1613

So saying, he tried a lift, but Odysseus knew a trick or two. He kicked Ajax hard in the back of his knee, and toppled him backwards, falling on his chest. The spectators looked on admiringly, as they stood and noble long-enduring Odysseus in turn tried a lift, raising him off the ground a fraction, then failing to lift him further crooking a leg round Ajax’s knee, so they fell side by side, smothered in dust. They sprang up ready for a third round, but Achilles restrained them: ‘No more, don’t wear each other out. You were both victorious, and shall have identical prizes: there are other events now for competition.’ With this, they readily retired, and wiping the dust from their bodies, donned their tunics.

BkXXIII:740-797 The foot-race

Now Achilles offered prizes for a foot-race. First prize was a fine silver mixing bowl, of six measures, the loveliest thing in the world, a masterpiece of Sidonian craftsmanship, gifted to Thoas by Phoenician merchants on a trading mission over the dark waters. His grandson Euneos, Jason’s son, gave it to Patroclus as ransom for Lycaon. Now Achilles offered the bowl as a prize to the fastest runner, in tribute to his friend. The second prize was a large well-fattened ox, and for the third a half talent in gold. Achilles now rose and asked for entrants. Swift Ajax the Lesser, and Odysseus, the cunning, stepped forward, with the fastest of the young men, Antilochus, Nestor’s son. They took their places at the start, and Achilles pointed out the turning post. Off they ran, and Ajax, son of Oïleus, hit the front, with noble Odysseus at his heels, as close as a woman weaving holds the shuttle to her chest, as she draws it along skilfully passing its spool through the warp. He trod in Ajax’s footsteps before the dust had settled, and his breath beat on Ajax’s neck as they ran swiftly on. The Greeks shouted for Odysseus as he strained for victory, urging him on to the utmost. As they were nearing the finish, Odysseus prayed urgently in his heart to bright-eyed Athene: ‘Goddess, hear me, help me if you will and quicken my legs.’ He prayed and Athene heard, making his limbs seem lighter, and just as they reached the line, Pallas Athene made Ajax slip on a patch of offal from the sacrifice of bellowing bulls that fleet-footed Achilles had made in honour of Patroclus. He fell and his mouth and nostrils were filled with offal, while Odysseus came in first, and claimed the silver bowl, leaving the ox for noble Ajax. He stood there, spitting out the offal, grasping the ox’s horn, and complained to the Argives: ‘There, did you see how the goddess made me slip, she who’s always at Odysseus side, helping him!’

His words raised a shout of laughter. Antilochus lifted his prize, the gold, and addressed the crowd: ‘Friends, I declare, and don’t we know it, the immortals love the older generation. Ajax has only a few years more than I, but Odysseus is of the breed of former times, and as men say, a green old age is his, and he’s a hard man for any Greek to beat, except for Achilles.’

This tribute to swift-footed Achilles brought a response from the prince himself: ‘Antilochus, your praise shall not go unrewarded; and I’ll double the value of your prize. So saying he placed another half-talent in his hands, much to Antilochus’ delight.

BkXXIII:799-825 The armed combat

Now Achilles brought out a shield and helmet, and a long-shadowed spear, Sarpedon’s gear that Patroclus had captured. Then he announced the next event: ‘Our two best warriors must arm, and fight each other for these prizes before the army, with naked bronze. I will give the one who first penetrates the other’s guard and draws blood, this noble silver-studded Thracian sword I took from Asteropaeus, and the other arms they both can share, as well as a fine banquet in my hut.’

At these words, great Telamonian Ajax and mighty Diomedes, Tydeus’ son, leapt to their feet. When they had armed themselves on their own side of the ring, they advanced to the centre, so menacing and eager for battle the Achaeans held their breath. Closing, they charged three times and each time thrust at each other with their spears. Ajax pierced Diomedes’ shield, but his breastplate kept the point from wounding him, while Diomedes kept thrusting at the rim of Ajax’s shield, aiming for his neck with the point of his gleaming lance. Now the Greeks were so fearful for Ajax that they called an end to the contest and for shared prizes. However, Achilles awarded the long-sword to Diomedes, with its scabbard and its fine belt.

BkXXIII:826-849 The throwing competition

Then Achilles offered as prize a huge lump of pig-iron that the powerful Eëtion used to hurl. Achilles had carried it off, aboard ship, with other of his possessions, after he had killed him. Now he announced the next competition, calling for entrants: ‘The winner of this will have iron enough for five years, and even if his farmland is remote, he won’t need to send a ploughman or a shepherd into town for lack of it, this will supply all his needs.’

Up leapt steadfast Polypoetes; godlike and powerful Leonteus; Telamonian Ajax, and noble Epeius. They lined up, and first Epeius grasped the mass of iron and hurled it, but the Achaeans mocked his feeble effort. Then Leonteus, offshoot of Ares, tried and his mark was quickly passed by Ajax, whose mighty throw won him the lead. But when stalwart Polypoetes, grasped and flung it, he sent it far beyond them all, like a herdsman hurling his crook and sending it whirling past his herd of cows. There was a great shout, and Polypoetes’ friends ran to carry off the royal prize to the hollow ships.

BkXXIII:850-883 The archery

For the archery prizes, Achilles laid out ten double-headed axes of dark iron and ten single. He set up a mast from a blue-prowed ship a long way off on the sands, and fastened a pigeon to it by the foot, offering the fluttering bird as a target: ‘Whoever hits the pigeon as it flutters, wins the double-headed axes for himself, and if anyone strikes the cord that holds it, but misses the bird, he shall take the prize for a lesser shot, the single-headed axes.’

At this Lord Teucer rose, as did Meriones, noble squire to Idomeneus. They shook lots in a bronze helmet, and Teucer took first shot. He swiftly let fly a mighty arrow, but forgot his intended promise to Apollo of a rich sacrifice of firstling lambs. Apollo grudging him success, caused him to miss the bird, but hit the cord that tied its foot, the sharp arrow slicing the bond in two. The cord fell, as the pigeon darted skyward, and the Achaeans raised a great shout. But Meriones, who had readied an arrow while Teucer aimed, snatched the bow from Teucer’s hand, vowing instantly to offer those lambs to the Archer God. High up against the clouds he saw the pigeon fluttering, and as she circled he sent an arrow clean through her wing, the shaft falling to earth again and sticking upright in the ground at Meriones’ feet. Meanwhile the pigeon settled on the mast, her head drooping and her plumage all awry. There she quickly died, and fell from her perch, as the spectators gazed in wonder. So Meriones carried off the ten double-axes, while Teucer took the rest to the hollow ships.

BkXXIII:884-897 Achilles honours Agamemnon

Finally, the son of Peleus, brought a long-shadowed spear, and a new cauldron as yet unused, embossed with flowers, and worth an ox. He set them down and the javelin throwers rose, imperial Agamemnon, son of Atreus, and Meriones, squire to Idomeneus, who was eager to compete again. But fleet-footed Achilles addressed the king: ‘Atreides, we know how excellent you are at the javelin, our superior in strength and skill; so take the cauldron to the hollow ships, and I suggest we grant the spear to Meriones, if that is agreeable to you.’

Agamemnon, king of men, agreed to this, and Achilles gave the bronze spear to Meriones, and handed the king’s fine prize to Talthybius the royal herald.