National Epics
By Kate Milner Rabb

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The Story of the Iliad

For nine years a fleet of one thousand one hundred and eighty-six ships and an army of more than one hundred thousand Greeks, under the command of Agamemnon, lay before King Priam’s city of Troy to avenge the wrongs of Menelaus, King of Sparta, and to reclaim Helen, his wife, who had been carried away by Priam’s son Paris, at the instigation of Venus.

Though they had not succeeded in taking Troy, the Greeks had conquered many of the surrounding cities. From one of these, Agamemnon had taken as his share of the booty Chryseis, the beautiful daughter of the priest Chryses; and when her father had come to ransom her, he had been insulted and driven away by the king. Chryses had prayed to Apollo for revenge, and the god had sent upon the Greeks a pestilence which was slaying so many thousands that a meeting was called to consult upon what to do to check the plague and conciliate the god.

Calchas the seer had declared that the plague was sent because of the detention of Chryseis, and Agamemnon, though indignant with the priest, announced that he would send her back to save his army from destruction. “Note, however,” said he, “that I have now given up my booty. See that I am recompensed for what I lose.”

Then rose the leader of the Myrmidons, swift-footed Achilles, in his wrath, and denounced Agamemnon for his greediness.

“Thou hast ever had thy share and more of all the booty, and thou knowest well that there is now no common store from which to give thee spoil. But wait until Troy town is sacked, and we will gladly give thee three and fourfold thy recompense.”

The angry Agamemnon declared that if he were not given the worth of what he had lost he would seize the maidens of Ajax and Ulysses, or Achilles’ maid, Briseis.

Achilles was beside himself with rage. He had not come to Troy to contribute to Agamemnon’s glory. He and his followers had long borne the brunt of battle only to see the largest share of booty given to Agamemnon, who lay idle in his ships. Sooner than endure longer such indignity he would return home to Phthia.

“Go!” replied Agamemnon. “I detest thee and thy ways. Go back over the sea and rule over thy Myrmidons. But since Phoebus has taken away my maid, I will carry off thy prize, thy rosy-cheeked Briseis, that thou may’st learn that I am indeed king.”

Warned by Pallas Athene, Achilles took his hand from his sword hilt, and contented himself with telling Agamemnon that he would see the day when he would fret to think he had driven Achilles from the Grecian ranks.

Though the persuasive orator, Nestor, endeavored to make peace between the chiefs, Agamemnon could not be softened. As soon as the black ship bearing Chryseis set sail, he sent his unwilling men to where Achilles sat by his tent, beside the barren deep, to take the fair Briseis, whom Achilles ordered to be led forth to them. Then the long days dragged by in the tent where the chief sat eating his heart out in idleness, while his men engaged in athletic sports, and the rest of the Greeks fought before Troy.

Both armies, worn out with indecisive battles, gladly hailed Hector’s proposal that a combat between Paris and Menelaus should decide the war.

As the armies stood in silence, watching the preparations for the combat, Helen, summoned by Iris, left her room in Priam’s palace, where she was weaving among her maidens, and, robed and veiled in white, and shedding tears at the recollection of her former home and husband, went down to the Scaean gates, where sat Priam and the men too old for war. When they saw bright-haired Helen they whispered among themselves that it was little wonder that men warred for her sake, so fair was she, so like unto the deathless goddesses.

In response to Priam’s tender greeting she seated herself beside him and pointed out the Greek heroes,–Agamemnon, ruler over wide lands, crafty Ulysses, and the mighty Ajax; but she strained her eyes in vain for a sight of her dearly loved brothers, Castor and Pollux, not knowing that they already lay dead in pleasant Lacedaemon.

In the single combat between Paris and Menelaus, the spear of the Greek was fixed in Paris’s buckler, and his sword was shivered on his helmet without injury to the Trojan. But, determined to overcome his hateful foe, Menelaus seized Paris by the helm and dragged him towards the Grecian ranks. Great glory would have been his had not the watchful Venus loosed the helm and snatched away the god-like Paris in a cloud. While the Greeks demanded Helen and her wealth as the price of Menelaus’s victory, Pandarus, prompted by Pallas, broke the truce by a shot aimed at Menelaus, and the battle soon raged with greater fury than before.

Diomed, having received new strength and courage from Pallas, rushed madly over the field, falling upon the affrighted Trojans like a lion in the sheepfold; then, made more presumptuous by his success, and forgetful of the few years promised the man who dares to meet the gods in battle, the arrogant warrior struck at Venus and wounded her in the wrist, so that, shrieking with pain, she yielded ∆neas to Apollo, and fled to Olympus.

Perceiving that the Trojans were unable to withstand the fury of Diomed, assisted as he was by Pallas and Juno, Hector hastened homeward to order a sacrifice to Pallas that she might look with more favor upon their cause.

Having instructed his mother to lay her richest robe on Pallas’s shrine, Hector sought his wife, the white-armed Andromache, and their babe, Astyanax. Andromache entreated Hector to go forth no more to battle, to lose his life and leave their babe fatherless; but Hector, upon whom the cares of war sat heavily, bade her a tender farewell, and kissing the babe, returned with Paris to the field.

Incited by Pallas and Apollo, Helenus suggested to his brother Hector that he should challenge the bravest of the Greeks to single combat. The lot fell to Ajax the Greater, and the two mighty heroes contested with spears and stones until twilight fell, and they were parted by a herald.

That night the Greeks feasted, and when, the next morning, a Trojan messenger offered them the treasures of Helen if they would withdraw from Troy, and proposed a truce, they indignantly rejected the offer, declaring that they would not even accept Helen herself, but agreed upon a truce in which to bury the dead.

When the battle was renewed, Jupiter forbade the gods to take part. Opposed by no celestial foes, the Trojans were this day successful, and having pursued the Greeks to the ships, sat all night, full of hope, around their thousand watch fires, waiting for the morn.

In the Grecian camp, however, a different scene was being enacted. Disheartened by their defeat, Agamemnon proposed that the armies give up the siege and return to Greece.

Angry at his weakness, Diomed thus reproached him:–

“The gods have granted thee high rank and rule, but thou hast no fortitude. Return if thou desirest. Still enough long-haired Achaians will remain to take the city. If they desire to go as well, at least Sthenelus and I will remain until Troy is ours. We have the gods with us.”

At the suggestion of Nestor a banquet was spread, and after the hunger of all was appeased, the peril of the Greeks was discussed in the Council of the Elders. Here Nestor showed Agamemnon that the trouble began at the hour when he drove Achilles from their ranks by appropriating Briseis.

Ill fortune had humbled the haughty Agamemnon, and he confessed that he had done wrong. “For this wrong, however,” said he, “I am ready to make ample amends. Priceless gifts I will send to Achilles: seven tripods, six talents of pure gold, twenty shining caldrons, twelve steeds, seven damsels, among them Briseis; not only this, when Priam’s citadel falls, he shall be the first to load his galley down with gold and silver and with Trojan maidens. Better yet, I will unite him to me by the ties of marriage. I will give him my daughter for a wife, and with her for a dower will go seven cities near the sea, rich in flocks and herds. Then let him yield, and join us in taking Troy.”

Joyfully the messengers–Ajax, Ulysses, and the aged Phoenix, carefully instructed by Nestor–set forth on their embassy. As they neared the tents of the Myrmidons their ears were struck by the notes of a silver harp touched by Achilles to solace him in his loneliness. His friend Patroclus sat beside him in silence. Achilles and Patroclus greeted the messengers warmly, mingled the pure wine, and spread a feast for them. This over, Ulysses, at a nod from Ajax, drank to Achilles’ health, and then told him of the sore need of the Greeks, pressed by the Trojans. If he did not come to their aid, he whose very name frightened the enemy, the time would surely come when he would greatly lament his idleness.

Achilles’ passion, the greater for its fifteen days’ repression, burst forth in his reply: “I will say what I have in my heart,” he cried, “since concealment is hateful to me. What thanks does the victor in countless battles gain? He and the idler are equally honored, and die the same death. Many nights’ slumber have I lost on the battle field; many cities have I conquered, abroad and here upon the Trojan coast, and of the spoil, the greater part has gone to Agamemnon, who sat idle in his fleet; yet from me, who suffered much in fighting, he took my prize, my dearly loved Briseis; now let him keep her. Let him learn for himself how to conquer Hector,–this Hector, who, when I went out against him, was afraid to leave the shelter of the Scaean gates. To-morrow, if you but watch, you will see my galleys sailing upon the Hellespont on our return to Phthia. Evil was the hour in which I left its fertile coasts for this barren shore, where my mother Thetis foretold I should win deathless renown but bitter death.

“Tell Agamemnon that I will never wed a child of his. On my return to Phthia my father will select a bride for me with whom, on his broad fields, I can live the life I have dreamed of.”

The entreaties of the aged Phoenix, who had helped to rear Achilles, and his arguments against his mercilessness, were of no avail; neither were the words of Ajax. However, he at last sent the message that he would remain by the sea watching the course of the war, and that he would encounter Hector whenever he approached to set fire to the galleys of the Myrmidons.

That night sleep did not visit the eyes of Agamemnon. Long he reflected on the reply of Achilles, and wondered at the watch fires on the plain before Troy. The other chiefs were likewise full of anxiety, and when Nestor offered a reward to any one who would go as a spy to the Trojan camp, Diomed quickly volunteered. Selecting the wary Ulysses as his companion, he stole forth to where the Trojans sat around their camp fires. The pair intercepted and slew Dolon the spy, and finding Rhesus and his Thracian band wrapped in slumber, slew the king with twelve of his chiefs, and carried away his chariot and horses.

Encouraged by this bold deed, the Greeks went forth to battle the next morning. Fortune still favored the Trojans, however, and many Greeks fell by the hand of Hector, until he was checked by Ulysses and Diomed. In the fight, Agamemnon was wounded, and Diomed, Ulysses, and Machaon. And when Achilles from his tent saw the physician borne back from battle wounded, in the chariot of Nestor, he sent Patroclus to inquire of his injury. Nestor sent word that Ulysses, Agamemnon, Diomed, Machaon, and Eurypylus were wounded; perhaps these tidings would induce Achilles to forget his grievances, and once more go forth to battle. If not, he urged Patroclus to beseech Achilles to permit him, Patroclus, to go forth with the Myrmidons, clad in Achilles’ armor, and strike terror to the hearts of the Trojans.

The Trojans, encouraged by their success, pushed forward to the trench which the Greeks had dug around the wall thrown up before the ships, and, leaving their chariots on the brink, went on foot to the gates. After a long struggle,–because the Trojans could not break down the wall and the Greeks could not drive back the Trojans,–Hector seized a mighty stone, so large that two men could scarcely lift it, and bearing it in one hand, battered the bolted gates until they gave way with a crash; and the Trojans sprang within, pursuing the affrighted Greeks to the ships.

From the heights of Olympus the gods kept a strict watch on the battle; and as soon as Neptune discovered that Jove, secure in the belief that no deity would interfere with the successful Trojans, had turned away his eyes, he went to the aid of the Greeks. Juno, also, furious at the sight of the Greeks who had fallen before the mighty Hector, determined to turn the attention of Jove until Neptune had had an opportunity to assist the Greeks. Jove sat upon the peaks of Mount Ida, and thither went Juno, after rendering herself irresistible by borrowing the cestus of Venus. Jove, delighted with the appearance of his wife, and still further won by her tender words and caresses, thought no longer of the armies fighting at the Grecian wall.

Great was his anger when, after a time, he again looked towards Troy and saw that Neptune had employed his time in aiding the Greeks, and that Hector had been wounded by Ajax. By his orders Neptune was quickly recalled, Hector was healed by Apollo, and the Trojans, strengthened again by Jupiter, drove back the Greeks to the ships, and attempted to set fire to the fleet.

Seeing the Greeks in such desperate straits, Achilles at last gave his consent that Patroclus should put on his armor, take his Myrmidons, and drive the Trojans from the ships, stipulating, however, that he should return when this was done, and not follow the Trojans in their flight to Troy.

The appearance of the supposed Achilles struck fear to the hearts of the Trojans, and Patroclus succeeded in driving them from the fleet and in slaying Sarpedon. Intoxicated by his success, he forgot Achilles’ warning, and pursued the fleeing Trojans to the walls of Troy. The strength of the Trojans was not sufficient to cope with that of Patroclus; and Troy would have been taken had not Apollo stood upon a tower to thrust him down each time he attempted to scale the walls. At last Hector and Patroclus encountered each other, and fought furiously. Seeing the peril of Hector, Apollo smote Patroclus’s helmet off, broke his spear, and loosed his buckler. Still undaunted, the hero fought until he fell, and died with the boasting words of Hector in his ears.

Speedily the swift-footed Antilochus conveyed to Achilles the tidings of his friend’s death. Enveloped in “a black cloud of sorrow,” Achilles rolled in the dust and lamented for his friend until warned by Iris that the enemy were about to secure Patroclus’s body. Then, without armor,–for Hector had secured that of Patroclus and put it on,–he hastened to the trench, apart from the other Greeks, and shouted thrice, until the men of Troy, panic-stricken, fell back in disorder, and the body of his friend was carried away by the triumphant Greeks.

Through the long night the Achaians wept over Patroclus; but deeper than their grief was the sorrow of Achilles, for he had promised Menoetius to bring back his son in honor, laden with spoils, and now the barren coast of Troy would hold the ashes of both. Then Achilles made a solemn vow not to celebrate the funeral rites of Patroclus until he brought to him the head and arms of Hector, and had captured on the field twelve Trojan youths to slaughter on his funeral pile. The hated Hector slain and Patroclus’s funeral rites celebrated, he cared not for the future. The fate his mother had foretold did not daunt him. Since, by his own folly, his dearest friend had been taken from him, the sooner their ashes rested together the better. If he was not to see the rich fields of Phthia, his was to be, at least, a deathless renown.

To take the place of the arms which Hector had taken from Patroclus, Vulcan, at Thetis’s request, had fashioned for Achilles the most beautiful armor ever worn by man. Brass, tin, silver, and gold composed the bright corselet, the solid helm, and the wondrous shield, adorned with such pictures as no mortal artist ever wrought.

After having feasted his eyes on this beautiful armor, whose clanking struck terror even to the hearts of the Myrmidons, Achilles sought out the Greeks and Agamemnon, and in the assembly acknowledged his fault. “Let these things belong to the dead past,” said he. “My wrath is done. Let us now stir the long-haired Greeks to war.”

“Fate, not I, was the cause of our trouble,” replied Agamemnon. “The goddess of discord created the dissension, that Atť who troubled even the gods on Olympus until expelled by Jupiter. But I will make amends with liberal gifts.”

Peace having been made between the chiefs, Achilles returned to his tent without partaking of the banquet spread by Agamemnon, as he had vowed not to break his fast until he had avenged his friend. Agamemnon’s gifts were carried to the tents of Achilles by the Myrmidons, and with them went Briseis, who, when she saw the body of Patroclus, threw herself upon it and wept long for the one whose kindness to her–whose lot had been sorrow upon sorrow–she could never forget. All the women mourned, seemingly for Patroclus, really for their own griefs. Achilles likewise wept, until, strengthened by Pallas, he hastened to put his armor on and urge the Greeks to battle.

As he mounted his chariot he spoke thus to his fleet steeds, Xanthus and Balius: “Bring me back when the battle is over, I charge you, my noble steeds. Leave me not on the field, as you left Patroclus.”

Then Xanthus, with the long-flowing mane, endowed with power of speech by Juno, thus spake: “This day, at least, we will bring thee home, Achilles; but the hour of thy death is nigh, and, since the fates have decreed it, we could not save thee, were we swift as the winged winds. Nor was it through fault of ours that Patroclus fell.”

Angry at the reminder of his doom, Achilles drove hurriedly to the field, determined to fight until he had made the Trojans sick of war.

Knowing that the war was drawing rapidly to a close, Jupiter gave permission to the gods to take part in it, and a terrible combat ensued. Juno, Pallas, Neptune, Hermes, and Vulcan went to the fleet of the Greeks, while Mars, Apollo, Diana, Latona, Venus, and Xanthus arrayed themselves with the Trojans. When the gods joined in the combat and Neptune shook the earth and Jupiter thundered from above, there was such tumult in the air that even the dark god of the underworld was terrified. In the battle of the gods, Apollo encountered Neptune, Pallas fought against Mars, Diana and Juno opposed each other, Hermes was pitted against Latona, and Xanthus or Scamander, the river god, strove against Vulcan. It was not long before Jupiter’s fear was realized, and the mortals needed the aid of the gods. ∆neas, encouraged by Apollo to confront Achilles, was rescued only by the intervention of Neptune, who, remembering that it was the will of fate that ∆neas should be spared to perpetuate the Dardan race, snatched him away in a cloud, although he was himself aiding the Greeks.

Mad with rage and spattered with blood, Achilles pursued the flying Trojans about the plain, sparing none except the twelve youths who were to be butchered on the funeral pile of Patroclus. He stood in the river, filling it with slaughtered bodies until, indignant at the insults offered him, the river god Scamander caused his waters to rush after Achilles so that he fled for his life. Far across the plain it chased him, and was only stopped by the fires of Vulcan, summoned by Juno.

By an artifice of Apollo, Achilles was decoyed away from the gates of Troy long enough to allow the Trojans to enter. Hector, however, stayed without, unmoved by the prayers of Priam and Hecuba. Too late he saw his error in not heeding the advice of Polydamas to keep within the walls after the re-appearance of Achilles; he feared the reproaches of the Trojan warriors and dames, and determined to meet his fate, whatever it might be. Even death at the hands of Achilles would be preferable to the insults and reproaches that might await him within the walls.

When he saw Achilles approach in his god-given armor, fear seized the noble Hector, and he fled from his enemy. Thrice around the walls he fled, Achilles pursuing, and the gods looked down from heaven in sorrow, for, according to the decrees of fate, Hector must fall this day by the hand of Achilles. To hasten the combat, Pallas assumed the form of Hector’s brother Deiphobus, and stood by his side, encouraging him to turn and meet his foe.

Hector soon perceived the deception, but boldly faced Achilles, who sprang at him, brandishing his awful spear. Quickly stooping, Hector avoided the weapon and hurled his spear at Achilles. It was an unequal conflict. The armor of Achilles was weapon proof, and Pallas stood at his elbow to return to him his weapons. Achilles knew well the weak spots in his old armor worn by Hector, and selecting a seam unguarded by the shield, he gave Hector a mortal wound, and insulted him as he lay dying at his feet.

Tears and wailing filled the city as the Trojans watched the combat; and despair fell upon them when they saw the body of Hector fastened to the chariot of Achilles and dragged thrice around the Trojan walls. From her chamber where she sat weaving, unaware of the mortal combat waged before the walls, Andromache came forth to see great Hector fallen and his corpse insulted by his enemy.

While Priam sat in his palace with dust strewn on his head, and the wailings of the women filled the streets of Troy, the Greeks were hastening to their camps to celebrate the funeral rites of Patroclus, whose body had been saved from corruption by Thetis. A massive funeral pile was constructed of wood brought from the forests on Mount Ida. The chiefs in their chariots and thousands of men on foot followed the body of Patroclus. The comrades of the dead warrior cut off their long hair and strewed it on the dead, and Achilles sheared his yellow hair and placed the locks in Patroclus’s hands. He had suffered the flowing curls to grow long because of a vow made by his father to the river Sperchius that he would sacrifice these locks to him on his son’s return home, a useless vow, since now he was to lose his life by this dark blue sea.

Next the sacrifice was offered, many fatlings of the flock, and countless oxen, noble steeds, dogs, jars of honey, and lastly the bodies of the twelve Trojan youths were heaped upon the fire.

After the flames had consumed the pile, Achilles and his friends quenched the ashes with red wine, and gathered the bones of Patroclus in a golden vase which Achilles commanded his friends not to bury until he, too, fell before Troy, that their ashes might be mingled and buried under one mound by the remaining Greeks.

After the funeral rites were celebrated, the funeral games were held, in which the warriors vied with each other in chariot racing, boxing, wrestling, foot racing, throwing the spear, and archery.

So ended the funeral of Patroclus, and the gods, looking down from heaven, sorrowed for Hector, whose corpse Achilles was treating with such indignity, intending that the dogs should destroy it. The gods had kept the body unstained, and now they determined to soften Achilles’ heart, that he might restore it to Priam.

Iris descended from heaven, and standing at the side of Priam as he sat with dust-strewn head, in his palace halls, gave him Jove’s command that he should take gifts and visit Achilles, to ransom Hector’s body. Heeding not the prayers of Hecuba, Priam gathered together whatever was most choice, talents of pure gold, beautiful goblets, handsome robes and tunics, and seating himself in his polished car, drawn by strong-hoofed mules, set forth unaccompanied save by an aged herald. Above him soared Jove’s eagle, in token of the god’s protection.

Priam had not gone far when he met Mercury in the guise of a Greek youth, who guided him unseen through the slumbering Greek lines to the tent of Achilles.

The hero was just finishing his repast when the old king entered, fell on his knees, kissed the cruel hands that had slain so many of his sons, and prayed him to give up the body of his loved Hector in return for the ransom he had brought with him. Achilles, recognizing the fact that Priam had made his way there uninjured only by the assistance and protection of some god, and touched by the thought of his own aged father, whom he should never again gladden by his return to Phthia, granted the request, and bade Priam seat himself at the table and banquet with him. He also granted a twelve days’ truce for the celebration of the funeral rites of Hector, and then invited Priam to pass the night in his tent. Warned by Mercury, Priam rose early in the morning, and, unseen by the Greeks, conveyed Hector’s body back to Troy.

When the polished car of Priam entered the city of Troy, great were the lamentations and wailings over the body of Hector. Hecuba and Andromache vied with each other in the bitterness of their grief, and Helen lamented because the only friend she had in Troy had departed, and no one who remained would be kind to her.

During the twelve days granted as a truce, wood was brought from Ida, and the funeral rites of Hector were celebrated as befitted the son of a great king.

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Preface  •  The R‚m‚yana  •  The Story of the R‚m‚yana  •  Selections From the R‚m‚yana  •  The Story of the Mah‚-Bh‚rata  •  Selections From the Mah‚-Bh‚rata  •  The Iliad  •  The Story of the Iliad  •  Selections From the Iliad  •  The Story of the Odyssey  •  Selections From the Odyssey  •  The Kalevala  •  The Story of the Kalevala  •  Selections From the Kalevala  •  Selection From the Aeneid  •  Beowulf  •  The Story of Beowulf  •  Selection From Beowulf  •  Selections From the Nibelungen Lied  •  The Story of the Song of Roland  •  Selections From the Song of Roland  •  The Story of the Shah-Nameh  •  Selections From the Shah-Nameh  •  The Story of the Poem of the Cid  •  Selections From the Poem of the Cid  •  The Divine Comedy - The Hell  •  The Story of the Divine Comedy - The Hell  •  The Divine Comedy - The Purgatory  •  The Story of the Divine Comedy - The Purgatory  •  The Divine Comedy - The Paradise  •  The Story of the Divine Comedy - The Paradise  •  Selections From the Divine Comedy - Count Ugolino  •  Selection From the Orlando Furioso  •  The Lusiad  •  The Story of the Lusiad  •  Selections From the Lusiad  •  The Jerusalem Delivered  •  The Story of the Jerusalem Delivered  •  Selection From the Jerusalem Delivered  •  The Story of Paradise Lost  •  Selections From Paradise Lost  •  Apostrophe to Light  •  The Story of Paradise Regained  •  Selection From Paradise Regained