The Iliad

                                       By Homer

 

          Chryses stumbled along the seashore, his eyes blurred by tears of rage and anguish. Neither his white hair, nor the agony he felt as a father, had melted the arrogance of Agamemnon, king and commander of the Greeks. Agamemnon had remained unmoved by the handsome ransom Chryses had offered to buy his daughter Cryseis’ freedom and had scorned Chryses’ golden mace, the staff he carried as a priest of Apollo. Chryses’ ears still rang with the insult of the king’s answer: “Old man, if I see you hanging around our ships again, even Apollo’s mace will not save you. I will never release your daughter. When the war ends I shall take her to my palace in Argos where she will grow old, passing her days at the loom and her nights in my chamber. If you value your life, go now!”

          Frightened and humiliated, Chryses slowly made his way home. For nine years now the Greeks had camped along this shoreline, laying siege to the great walled city of Troy. His dear daughter had been kidnapped in one of the frequent raids made by the Greeks. In utter despair, Chryses cried out to the God Apollo, “Son of Leto with your silver bow, protector of our cities, if ever you have rejoiced in the glorious temple I built for you and the countless sacrifices I have offered, make the Greeks pay for these bitter tears I shed!”

          Apollo heard the supplications of his faithful priest, and flew in a fury from Mount Olympus , the abode of the gods. He took up position opposite the Greek ships, readied his bow, and made true and deadly aim. For nine days and nine nights Apollo’s arrows devastated the Greek camp, slaying so many that the funeral pyres of the dead burned incessantly. On the tenth day, Achilles called the Greeks to council, and asked the seer Calchas to identify the source of this calamity.

          “Apollo is not angry because we have failed to honor him with vows and sacrifices.” said the seer. “He is angry because Agamemnon insulted his priest by refusing his ransom. Only by returning Cryseis to her father and offering up rich sacrifices will his fury be assuaged.”

“Prophet of doom!” cried Agamemnon. “If I have to give back this girl to save our army, then I will. But you must find me an equally good prize to replace her.”

“Where will we find you such a prize?” asked Achilles. “All the loot from the rid has been shared. Send the girl home. If we win the war there will be spoils aplenty.”

Agamemnon was enraged. “Don’t try to deceive me, Achiles. I won’t be left empty handed! Bring me fair cheeked Briseis, your own slave girl!”

“I withdraw from this war!” cried Achilles. “Hear my solemn vow: there will come a day when your men will drop like flies by Hector’s sword and you, Agamemnon, will be helpless. At the Greek’s hour of need you will regret insulting me!”

Agamemnon ordered a ship to be laden with gifts for Apollo, and set Cryseis aboard to return home. He then sent two men to seize the beautiful Briseis, who for Achilles was much more than a slave.

The aggrieved Achilles sat on the beach, his tears flowing. From the foam of the sea rose a mist, and his mother, the nymph Thetis, appeared. Hearing what troubled him, she flew to Mount Olympus to find Zeus, king of the gods. She begged him to help the Trojans in the war, so that the Greeks would regret their treatment of her son. Zeus heard her plea, and agreed that the Greeks should pay dearly for dishonoring Achilles.

What was it that had brought the Greeks to those distant shores? Strange as it may sound, it all started with an apple. A Greek king was to be married, and all the immortals were invited to the brilliant ceremony - all except Eris, goddess of discord, whom no one wanted. Offended, Eris came uninvited, and tossed onto the banqueting table a golden apple, on which was inscribed “For the most beautiful.” Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite all felt the apple should be theirs. To end their embarrassing argument, Zeus asked a mortal, Prince Paris of Troy, to judge which of them deserved it.

The three goddesses stood before the amazed youth in all their immortal glory. Each tried to persuade him to choose her as most fair. Hera promised him political power, whilst Athena offered skill in battle and infinite wisdom. Last spoke Aphrodite, who with a seductive smile, promised, “I will give you the heart of the most beautiful woman in the world!”

Paris handed her the apple without even stopping to think. So Paris gained the favor of the goddess of love, but he also made two arch-enemies, Hera and Athena, who came to hate all Trojans for the slight Paris had shown them.

A few years later, Paris and his brother Hector, on a state visit to Sparta, were promoting goodwill between Trojans and Greeks. How ironic, then, that this visit would cause the bloodiest war ever known! For Paris met and fell in love with Helen, who was truly beautiful. They said her father was Zeus himself, and she had an immortal look. Helen’s heart stirred, and Paris easily seduced her. Aphrodite had not forgotten her promise. But she had forgotten to mention one thing: the most beautiful woman in the world was already married to mighty Menelaus, king of Sparta.

Ignoring the consequences, Paris and Helen eloped in the dead of night and headed for Troy. When Menelaus found his wife gone, he called upon all the kings of Greece to gather their armies and to join him in vengeance. They responded to his call, and soon a huge fleet was gathered - over a thousand ships - ready to set sail for Troy.

Already, in that faraway kingdom, the people were dumbstruck by Helen’s beauty. Even old King Priam, who knew she should go home, was so dazzled that he promised never to send her back, even if all the kings of Greece came calling. How little did he know. They were already on their way.

Like creeping mist, a cloud of dust arose from the pounding of thousands of soldiers’ feet as the Greeks crossed the plain that lay between their camp and the walls of Troy. Outside the great city the Trojan forces had lined up to meet them, their leaders at the front of the ranks. In front of those leaders was Paris.

Menelaus spotted him from afar like a lion spots its prey. He jumped down from his chariot and moved swiftly through the ranks, appearing suddenly before his hated enemy to challenge him. Paris, when he saw rugged Menelaus standing there, hid in terror behind his men.

His brother, the brave Hector, rebuked him harshly. “Shame on you Paris, you coward! Better you were dead than humiliate us in this way. You steal a man’s wife in the night, yet cannot face him by day. Go out there - see the strong warrior who held Helen before you. Your pretty looks won’t help you when he rolls your head in the dirt.”

Paris looked around and saw the eyes of the Trojans upon him, full of contempt. He could not avoid the duel. “So be it. He and I will fight.”

Silence fell, then came Menelaus’ answer. “Hear me now,” his deep voice boomed. “Trojans and Greeks. Should you all suffer because of Paris? No. One of us two will die and the war will end here.”

How the men were relieved!

From a tower high above Troy, old King Priam watched in agony as the two men made ready for the duel. Paris donned his silver breastplate, greaves with silver pins, and his helmet with its proud plume. Next he took up his sword, bronze studded with silver, and then his huge shield and spear. Menelaus did the same. The ground was marked out; each took up his place, and the duel began.

Paris threw his spear first. His aim was good, but not strong enough to penetrate Menelaus’ heavy shield. Then Menelaus threw, and his spear flew, far shadowing, to hit Paris with force. It pierced his shield, his breastplate, his robe beneath, and grazed his skin. Menelaus rushed forward and threw Paris to the ground, grabbed the plume of his helmet, and started to drag him towards the cheering Greeks.

The helmet’s tight chinstrap began to cut into Paris’s soft throat, and he would have choked had not the goddess Aphrodite intervened and unclasped it. Then she hid him in a mist and spirited him away to safety, leaving Menelaus holding an empty helmet. Menelaus raged like a wild beast as he looked for his opponent, but Paris was gone as surely as if the ground had opened up and swallowed him.

Agamemnon called out above the clamor: “Trojans, it is clear that Menelaus is victor. Return Helen to us, and compensate us for our troubles in coming here.”

It seemed the war was over.

But the gods, watching from above, were not satisfied. Zeus bade Athena fan the flames of hatred between the two sides once more. She appeared to one of the Trojans in the ranks, and put it into his head that he could win great honor by killing Menelaus. The foolish man fired his bow, and Athena deftly changed the direction of the deadly arrow so that Menelaus was only wounded.

 When Agamemnon saw his brother bloodied, he let out a mighty cry: “The Trojans have broken their word! To war! To war!”

As the surf of the waves crashes relentlessly against the rocks when the west wind blows, so the Greeks poured forth, column of men rushing upon the hapless Trojans. The sound of clashing swords rang out along the valley, mingled with shouts of victory and the cries of the wounded. And blood flowed in a river, soaking the thirsty soil.

The Greek army counted many heroes among its men, but mighty Diomedes was one of the bravest. With Achilles still refusing to fight, this was Diomedes’ chance to shine. Many hundreds had already been slain by his hand, and his quarry now was Aeneas, son of Aphrodite. Diomedes would not rest until he claimed the armor, as was the custom, from his opponent’s corpse.

Diomedes, some distance from Aeneas, took a huge rock and hurled it at his man. The force of it was deadly, but Aeneas’ goddess mother descended into the fray to shield her son with her immortal gown.

Divine intervention did not worry Diomedes, however, and he went after Aphrodite too, catching her arm with his spear. With a yelp of pain, she dropped her son’s body. The god Apollo sped to help them, wrapping Aeneas in a black cloud and preparing to carry him away.

“Goddess of love,” cried Diomedes,” the battlefield is not your realm - either leave or regret it!” Aphrodite, surprised by the power of Diomedes’ voice and with ichor, the imperishable blood of the immortals, gushing from her wound and staining her lovely skin, fled the field.

Diomedes continued his attack. Three times he advanced on Aeneas, and three times Apollo blocked him.

“Stop and think, Diomedes,” Apollo the silver archer warned. “Do not oppose the gods. Remember that mere men are not immortal!” Apollo was much vexed by Diomedes, and as he carried Aeneas to safety he called upon Ares, the god of war, to descend to the battlefield and stop this man who dared attack the gods.

Ever thirsty for blood, Ares leapt into the fray, brandishing his spear, and urging the Trojans on. Recognizing the divine forces ranged against them, the Greeks began to withdraw. But they too had divine support. Seeing her beloved Greeks under threat, the goddess Hera harnessed her chariot and called Athena to join her. Together they descended, alighting on the plain in readiness to rally them against the Trojans.

“You need not fear Ares while I am by your side,” whispered Athena in Diomedes’ ear. Invisible to all, she took the reins and drove Diomedes’ chariot herself, bearing down fast on the god of war. Seeing Diomedes before him, Ares threw his spear, but Athena deflected it. Now Diomedes attacked, and, with invisible Athena’s help, thrust his spear into Ares just below the belt. There was an unearthly howl, as if thousands of men cried out together. The sound of it froze both Greeks and Trojans. As the air darkens before the break of the storm, and the thunderclouds move on the wind, so Ares, defeated, rose to the vaults of heaven.

Thus it was that fearless Diomedes became the first mortal to wound two gods in one day.

The war dragged on, neither side able to gain a decisive advantage. The balance of favor would tip one way as a particular god helped their favorite, but then the gods on the opposing side would ensure that the victory was not pressed home. Both on the battlefield and in the heavens, things had reached an impasse. After nearly ten years of being besieged the fortress walls of Troy remained impregnable, but still the Greeks did not leave.

One night, Agamemnon gathered his dejected men around him and asked them if they wanted to concede. Diomedes stood up and spoke: “Zeus gave you kingly stature, Agamemnon, but you appear to have lost your kingly valor. If you miss your home, then you know the way back. But we shall stay here and fight.” The men applauded.

Then the wise old king Nestor spoke. Was it not time to apologize to Achilles for insulting him, he suggested, and beg the young hero to fight once more? Agamemnon saw that he must end their quarrel, and sent wily-tongued Odysseus to bring Achilles rich gifts and an apology. But proud Achilles refused, and for once Odysseus’ diplomacy failed.

Meanwhile in the heavens, Zeus did not forget his promise to the Thetis. He now granted the Trojans the upper hand, so that the Greeks might suffer until they begged for the return of Achilles. The Trojans fought hard and won much ground, advancing right up to the Greek ships. Fighting on, they broke through the Greek defenses and set the first ship alight.

Achilles’ dear friend Patroclus saw how the battle had turned. “If the rout of the Greeks leaves you cold,” he admonished Achilles, “at least let me go and fight. I shall wear your armor. Everyone will believe that it is you. The Greeks will take heart and the Trojans will take the flight.”

The clangor of the battle and the stench of the burning ship moved Achilles. “Very well, go,” he said to Patroclus, “but as soon as the tide turns in our favor, be sure to return. Let the others take the fighting to the plain, lest some immortal such as Trojan-loving Apollo is lying in wait to crush you.”

          So Patroclus donned Achilles’ shining armor and mounted his chariot. Then with a rallying cry, he wheeled into battle, the men following like a pack of hungry wolves.