HOMER: The Iliad [Book XXIV]

In Book XXIV of Homer’s Iliad, Priam departs from Troy with the intention of ransoming Hector’s corpse from Achilles. Priam’s mission is a dangerous one – the Greeks may seize and hold him as a valuable hostage. Therefore, the god Mercury conducts Priam safely and stealthily through the camp to Achilles’ tent.

Priam enters the tent and immediately clasps Achilles’ knees and begs for Hector’s corpse. The entire scene is very moving, and Priam’s speech to Achilles is worthy of being recited here. “Think of your father, who is such even as I am on the sad threshold of old age. It may be that those who dwell near him harass him, and there is none to keep war and ruin from him. Yet when he hears of you being still alive, he is glad, and his days are full of hope that he shall see his dear son come home to him from Troy; but I, wretched man that I am, had the bravest in all Troy for my sons, and there is not one of them left. I had fifty sons when the Greeks came here; nineteen of them were from a single womb, and the others were borne to me by the women of my household. The greater part of them has fierce Mars laid low, and Hector, him who was alone left, him who was the guardian of the city and ourselves, him have you lately slain; therefore I am now come to the ships of the Greeks to ransom his body from you with a great ransom. Fear, O Achilles, the wrath of heaven; think on your own father and have compassion upon me, who am the more pitiable, for I have steeled myself as no man yet has ever steeled himself before me, and have raised to my lips the hand of him who slew my son.”

Achilles is moved with compassion and tearfully embraces Priam. He grants Priam’s request for Hector’s corpse, and Priam returns with his son’s body to Troy, where the Trojans perform the proper funeral rites for Hector. Thus, the Iliad concludes optimistically. It presents a vision of society unhindered by the banes of war, strife, and animosity.

But it is important to note that the Trojan War raged on until the utter destruction of Troy. The brief respite secured by Achilles and Priam serves only to accentuate the war that surrounds it. War is a microcosm of the universe; one life struggles against another in the quest for survival. This war for survival will never end. However, of all the animals, only men desire something more than mere survival; they also seek glory. The lion does not kill the zebra for glory, but rather for sustenance. Men kill each other for glory, among other things; no other animal does this.

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