Culture

The 5 Most Underrated Heroes of the Iliad (and their Battle Stats)

I’ve been writing a lot recently about the headliners of the Iliad — star players like Achilles and Odysseus who are first off the bench and always get screen time. But I can’t let this series finish without giving a shout-out to the underdogs. These are the five top B-list team players who, in my opinion, just don’t get the street cred they deserve. This one goes out to the guys who work too hard for too little recognition: here are the most unsung heroes of Homer’s war poem, ranked from the most to the least underrated.

1. Diomedes

Handle: “The Machine”

Kills: 35

Weapon of Choice: Spear

Why He’s So Underrated: Diomedes is a no-drama kind of guy. He has no dog in any of the petty fights that make up the poem’s main plot: he doesn’t care about Agamemnon’s cheating wife or Achilles’ wounded pride. He just keeps his head down and does his job. So while the divas are bickering, Diomedes quietly schools them all, racking up the most kills of anyone in the poem. The result is thirty-five dead Trojans — the second-place Greek finisher (Patroclus) doesn’t even come close to that. But no pats on the back for Diomedes — it’s all in a day’s work.

His Fifteen Minutes of Fame:

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Book five is Diomedes’ virtuoso performance. After pages and pages of total obscurity, the gentle giant gets kicked in the pants by Athena, and suddenly he cowboys up big time. From out of nowhere, the nice guy nobody’s ever heard of becomes the unbeatable machine everyone’s talking about. Diomedes rips unforgivingly through ten Trojans in a row, and as an afterthought on the way casually wounds two gods — Love and War. After humiliating an entire army singlehandedly and drawing blood from two unthinkably powerful immortal beings, he jumps back into the action like nothing ever happened. Classic Diomedes.

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2. Telamonian Ajax

Handle: “The Man-Mountain”

Kills: 17

Weapon of Choice: A “Shield the Size of a Tower”

Why He’s So Underrated: Telamonian Ajax makes The Hulk look like a green dwarf with anger issues. All Homer’s heroes are already twice the size of normal men today, which is why it’s so impressive that Telamonian Ajax “juts out head and shoulders” above everyone else. The guy is a tank. Ajax is the Greeks’ second string quarterback, their go-to bruiser after Achilles leaves. Homer calls him “the best of the men while Achilles held his grudge.” But in war, second place is the first loser, so once Achilles gets back in the game Ajax gets shoved aside — all 600 pounds of him.

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His Fifteen Minutes of Fame:

There are almost too many glorious Ajax moments. There’s the time he faces down Hector, Troy’s champion, in single combat. There’s his killer assist to the archer, Teucer. But his most beastly move comes in book fifteen. When a swarm of Trojans backs him up against the shore, Ajax gets a little bored, so he leaps onto the Greek ships, “striding across the massive decks” like he’s hopping across stepping stones. From there he brings a world of hurt down on the Trojans with a fishing spear. And they thought they could corner Ajax. Nobody corners Ajax.

(16.676)

3. Teucer

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Handle: “The Sharpshooter”

Kills: 15

Weapon of Choice: Bow and Arrow

Why He’s So Underrated: Teucer is the sharpest shot in Greece, but he’s too subtle for his own good. While other soldiers saw off limbs and crack heads open, Teucer deftly picks off Trojans one by one from a distance with his bow. He’s almost dainty about it — at least, about as dainty as an arrow shaft ramming through a man’s eye socket can be. But splitting enemies open from navel to sternum with a serrated bronze sword makes a better photo finish than hiding in the wings and shooting darts at them, so Teucer never gets the press he deserves.

His Fifteen Minutes of Fame:

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Teucer gets credit for one of the most genius tactical moves in the poem. Mid-battle, he gets the bright idea of hiding behind Telamonian Ajax’s massive shield. From there, he darts out to shoot Trojan after Trojan before scurrying back to Ajax “like a little boy running to his mommy.” Not a flattering description, but you don’t hear a lot of Trojans giving him grief because they’re too busy pulling arrows out of their skulls. The sneak attack is so deadly that Homer’s only question is, “which Trojan did Teucer take out first?” Answer: Who cares, he’s dead now.

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4. Patroclus

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Handle: “The Boy Wonder”

Kills: 27

Weapon of Choice: A Really Big Rock

Why He’s So Underrated: Patroclus proves that no good deed goes unpunished. When his best buddy Achilles is letting the Greek army get creamed to indulge a hysterical ego trip, Patroclus steps up to save the day. With Achilles’ permission, Patroclus puts on the big guy’s armor, tricking everyone into believing Achilles is back in action. The Greeks then make a rousing comeback in which Patroclus, the sidekick of the century, makes mincemeat out of a whopping twenty-seven Trojans. But since he’s disguised as Achilles the whole time, he gets no recognition for any of it and then Hector kills him. Rough deal.

His Fifteen Minutes of Fame:

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Patroclus’ crowning achievement is killing Sarpedon, son of Zeus. As in, master-of-the-universe wielder-of-thunder patriarch-of-the-unbounded-heavens Zeus. Patroclus skewers his beamish boy like a beef kebab. He does it without batting an eye. In fact, he’s on such an unstoppable rampage that when the king of the gods considers stepping in to save his kid, he decides, “nah, better not mess with Patroclus. He’s kind of on a roll right now.” That and Sarpedon was fated to die, but still — pretty impressive for a pinch hitter like Patroclus.

5. Oilean Ajax

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Handle: The Little Guy”

Kills: 2

Weapon of Choice: Sword

Why He’s So Underrated: Imagine being an NBA player named Shaquille Frederickson. After the fifteen hundredth time, saying “no no, the other Shaquille” might get a little old. It does for Oilean Ajax: he’s “the other Ajax.” Not Telamonian Ajax, the hulking colossus who could crush a man’s skull in his palm — no no, Oilean Ajax, the little runty guy with a stick. Oilean Ajax is actually a pretty solid fighter, but when you share a name with a juggernaut the size of a house, you’re bound to suffer by comparison. He spends most of the poem in Telamonian Ajax’s ten-story shadow.

His Fifteen Minutes of Fame:

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We don’t get to see much of Oilean Ajax, but the plucky kid finally gets off the bench for some time on the field in book 16. Achilles’ right-hand man, Patroclus, has come roaring into the fight, and the crowd is going wild — the whole Greek army is pumped up. Trojan heads are rolling. Ajax sees his moment, and he grabs it like a champ. “In the wild mêlée,” Homer says, “Oilean Ajax leapt forward, grabbed Cleobulus alive and . . . slit his throat with his sword right there.” You go, Oilean Ajax — score one for the little guy.

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Did I miss your favorite hero? There are plenty of worthy wingmen who don’t get enough love. What about Hector, the doomed boy scout? Or Euryalus, Diomedes’ right-hand man? How about Antilochus? Sarpedon? Any Aeneas fans out there? The comments are all yours — give props to the hero who you think doesn’t get enough of them. To help you decide, check out these two handy and hilarious lists of deaths in the Iliad — no bloodbath is complete without them.

This is the last installment of my series on the Iliad — check out part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4. Hopefully these past few weeks have rescued the poem a little bit from the snooze-fest that was your ninth grade english class, and put it back on the battlefield where it belongs. Next up, I’ll tackle Zack Snyder’s 300 and Herodotus, the twisted, weirdo Greek historian who inspired the film.

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