HOMER: The Iliad [Book XII]

In Book XII of Homer’s Iliad, the Greeks retreat behind their newly constructed fortifications. The Trojan horses refuse to cross the ditch, in front of the Greek walls, so the Trojans dismount from their chariots, form five groups, and begin the attack.

Shortly after the Trojans begin the attack, they see an eagle flying overhead on their left side with a serpent in its talons. The Trojan warrior Polydamas proclaims that the appearance of the eagle is an omen and that the Trojans should immediately retreat. Hector, however, opposes Polydamas’ motion and urges the troops to continue the attack. “You bid me be ruled rather by the flight of wild-fowl. What care I whether they fly towards dawn or dark, and whether they be on my right hand or on my left? Let us put our trust rather in the counsel of great Jove, king of mortals and immortals. There is one omen, and one only – that a man should fight for his country.” Men like Hector, who have a strong sense of justice, never waver, but always act with confidence. They are unaffected by superstition and the opinions of others.

After a long and bloody struggle, the Trojans finally manage to breach the Greek wall. Sarpedon makes the first breach, but the Greeks quickly repel him and bolster their defenses around the hole in their wall. Then Hector casts a huge boulder into the side of the Greek wall where Sarpedon had weakened it. The boulder creates a vast crater in the wall, enabling the Trojans to rush through and drive the Greeks to their ships.

During the long description of the battle for the Greek wall, Homer returns again and again to his favorite theme of glory. Sarpedon, the Trojan who made the first breach in the wall, urges his friend Glaucon onward, stating that death comes to all, but glory only comes to the brave. “My good friend, if, when we were once out of this fight, we could escape old age and death thenceforward and for ever, I should neither press forward myself nor bid you do so, but death in ten thousand shapes hangs ever over our heads, and no man can elude him; therefore let us go forward and either win glory for ourselves, or yield it to another.”

Thus far, Homer has depicted the Trojans as brave and heroic, and the Greeks as petulant and quarrelsome. The Greeks have reached their absolute lowest point – Achilles remains sulking in his tent, the Trojans have breached the Greek fortifications, and the Greek army is cowering in fear near their ships, awaiting the approaching deathblow of the Trojans. We have, however, reached the mid-point of the epic and the turning point for the Greeks. Stay tuned.

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