Editor’s Note: This series first ran from August 25 through September 22, 2014. It’s part of a developing body of work in which Spencer Klavan makes classical history and myth come alive with vivid descriptions based on his own translations and comparisons to modern day culture and events.
1. The 10 Goriest Deaths in the Iliad
Let’s get one thing clear: this is not your grandmammy’s Iliad. You’ve probably snored through a few excruciating lectures about “the subtle mastery of Homer’s poetic scansion.” Please. This is not some prissy love sonnet. This is a poem in which 12-foot-tall he-men use rusty bronze spears, devastating serrated blades, and boulders the size of tractors to rip each other to shreds over a stolen girlfriend in the most brutal and gratuitous cage match known to history. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be reclaiming the Iliad in the name of awesome, with a series of posts designed to brush the dust off of Homer’s epic proto-action-movie. First up: the 10 most stomach-turning kills in the war between Troy and Greece, from least to most disgusting. All the translations are my own. All the bloodshed is Homer’s.
1. Twelve Sleeping Trojans: Gutted by Night
The fact that this is the least gory item on this list should tell you something about the upcoming mayhem. When the Greeks lose their star fighter, Achilles, they’re playing at a serious handicap. In desperation, they send two undercover operatives, Diomedes and Odysseus, to slaughter the Trojans in their sleep. It’s a low blow, but it gets the job done: while the Trojans are cuddled up all snug, the two Greeks eviscerate twelve of them, spilling their guts on the ground. “Unholy shrieking rose from them as they died,” Homer says, “and the ground ran red with their blood.”
2. Leucus: The “Accidental” Crotch Shot
With Achilles sulking over his girlfriend, the Trojan war goes pretty FUBAR for a while. Book 4 is a no-holds-barred bloodbath — Hera, who’s insatiably thirsty for Trojan blood, sends her fellow-goddess Athena to earth to bring the pain, and a lawless mêlée erupts. In the chaos, the Trojan prince Antiphos misses the mark when he throws his spear at the Greek hero, Ajax. Instead he gores poor little “Leucus, Odysseus’ buddy.” Homer doesn’t dwell on it, but he says Leucus gets shafted right in the βουβών, a word that means “groin” or worse, “glands.” That’s gotta hurt.
3. Lycaon: No Mercy
Homer’s heroes may be musclebound giants, but Achilles is the Chuck Norris of them all, meaning grown men pee their pants and snivel for their lives when he’s around. In book 21, the Trojan Lycaon sees Achilles and falls to his knees, squealing, “don’t hurt me! My daddy’s rich! He’ll pay you just PLEASE DON’T HURT ME” (not a literal translation but pretty close). Achilles briefly considers the tears and snot pouring down Lycaon’s face, then cleaves him from shoulder to sternum, “and the black blood gushed out and drenched the ground.” And that is a literal translation.
4. Hector: Serious Overkill
You just don’t get Achilles angry. You won’t like him when he’s angry. You don’t steal his girlfriend. And you sure the hell do not gloat over slaughtering his best pal, as the Trojan prince Hector did. At the climax of the poem, Achilles strips Hector naked, watches him blubber for mercy, calls him a dog, and guts him. But it’s not enough: Achilles shoves a rope through the tendons of Hector’s ankles, ties them to a chariot, and drags his mangled corpse around Troy in a gruesome victory lap. That’s how Troy learned: you do not. Mess. With. Achilles.
5. Deucalion: Heads Will Roll
Before he gets his revenge on Hector, Achilles lays some serious hurt down on the Trojans for cutting up his best friend. Blind with rage, the Greek champion hacks his way through wave upon wave of fighters, splitting necks open, stabbing livers, and slicing faces in half. The gnarliest is Deucalion, whose head he severs with a single blow. The head full-on goes flying “far away, helmet and all,” while the body stays tottering where it is spewing marrow and gunk from the spine. I promise I’m not making this stuff up.
6. Chersidamas: Right in the ‘Nads
Odysseus (who later gets his own sequel), gets abandoned deep in Trojan territory in book 11 when all his pals lose their nerve. Ready to die rather than surrender, Odysseus goes on an epic killing spree to fight his way out of the ambush, laying Trojans flat left and right. When Chersidamas jumps out of his chariot for an aerial attack, Odysseus sticks him right in the family jewels with his spear mid-leap. Chersidamas, “hurtling to the dust,” lays flat and bleeds out on the ground. Getting gored in the nuts will do that to you.
7. Cebriones: Biting the Dust
Cebriones, the Trojan charioteer, is a moving target. That’s why it’s so impressive when the Greeks’ second-string hero, Patroclus, heaves a boulder at him and hits him square in the forehead. What happens next isn’t pretty: “his bones didn’t hold; his eyeballs tumbled into the dust on the ground at his feet.” As Cebriones falls out of his chariot and face-plants in the dirt next to his severed eyeballs, Patroclus says something along the lines of, “hey Cebriones, nice diving, twinkletoes!” Not a lot of sympathy for a guy whose skull he’s just crushed like a tin can.
8. Lycon: Hanging by a Thread
The Greeks’ MVP, Achilles, spends most of the war on the sidelines, but eventually he sends in a pinch hitter, Patroclus, to take his place. When Patroclus comes on the field dressed as Achilles in book 16, the Greeks think their star quarterback is back off the bench, and they get pumped way up. So they start kicking butt and taking names, and one of those names is Lycon, a Trojan who gets his head sliced clean off — almost. Homer emphasizes that a single flap of skin holds fast, and Lycon’s head stays just barely dangling from his neck. Eugh.(16.335-41)
9. Pandarus: Spear to the FACE
In book 5, Athena fires up the B-list Greek captain Diomedes, and he goes Super Saiyan, coming from behind to tear through Trojans like tissue paper. His grizzliest kill comes when two dudes charge him full tilt in a chariot. Diomedes’ wingman begs him to run, but he growls, “don’t talk to me about fear.” Then he digs in his heels and skewers Pandarus, who’s driving the chariot, with a spear that pierces “his nostrils . . . and shattered his pearly whites, and . . . severed the root of his tongue, and the spearhead burst out the base of his chin.” Nasty.
10. Erymas: Eat Spear, Trojan!
Nothing even comes close to this one. In Homer’s words: “Idomeneus [the Greek] gored Erymas [the Trojan] in the mouth with a bronze spear. And the copper shaft punched out the other side from underneath his brains, and cracked the white bones in two. And his teeth rattled, and his eyes welled up with blood, which bubbled up out of his mouth and down out of his nostrils.” Hands-down the most gruesome mutilation in the whole poem. It takes a sick imagination to write a death scene like that. But to write 255 of them, apparently, takes a genius.
Those are my picks — but there are 245 other ruthless slaughters to choose from. Does someone else deserve the top spots? Greek Myth Comix just released this slick comprehensive infographic about death in the Iliad. Their rankings are different than mine — who do you think is right? Hash it out in the comments, and tune in next time for a look at the most blood-pumping scenes in the poem, and what it means to be a hero in the highest-octane war story ever told.
Even in an epic poem, some scenes are more epic than others, and a few scenes just blow the top of your head clean off. The Iliad is packed with those scenes, and this week I’m bringing the five greatest hits to a theater near you. This is part two of my five-part series dusting off the awesome in the Iliad — last week I laid out the poem’s ten nastiest deaths. This week, I want to dig in a little more and think about one of the poem’s core ideas: heroism. What makes a hero? It’s a question we’re still asking, but Homer knew better than anyone what turns a man into a legend. So here they are: the Iliad’s five most intense scenes (each with my own translation, which you can read by clicking on the title), and some comments on the image they carve out of what it means to be awesome. Get out the popcorn.
When the gods go to war, you get your sorry self out of the way. Ares especially is the jacked-up juggernaut of them all, a bristling mountain of rusty bronze blades and throbbing muscles fueled by a raw thirst for carnage. But the Greek hero Diomedes charges full-tilt into Ares’ onslaught — an unheard-of and suicidally ballsy move. When the dust clears, Diomedes has done the unthinkable: he’s scored a hit and drawn divine blood. In the standoff that follows, Ares stares down the human who dared to stand up to him and retreats into the darkened sky.
What it All Means: Heroes stand up to death
Homer’s heroes strain against the boundaries of being mortal. True: the gods wield forces like flood, disease, and war, against which the strongest men alive are “like leaves,” wiped mercilessly off the earth without exception. But for Homer, the courage of a hero makes him stronger than his fear of death, and almost lets him defy the forces of nature. That’s why men like Diomedes are on par with Ares, why they can fight against gods and even wound them. A Homeric hero’s courage turns him into more than a man: it makes him a legend. And legends outlive death.
It’s crunch time for the Greeks, and their strategy session has devolved into an embarrassing fiasco. Agamemnon, the commander-in-chief, and Achilles, his hothead maverick star general, are red in the face, bickering over women. Achilles is inches away from drawing his sword on his superior officer. Nobody moves — if he attacks it means utter chaos, a complete disintegration of military discipline. At the last possible instant, as he’s unsheathing his sword, the goddess of wisdom yanks Achilles back by the hair, talking him down until his anger cools. Achilles shoves his sword back in his sheath and walks it off.
What it All Means: Heroes use their heads
Heroism in the Iliad is more than brute strength. Despite their massive raw power and testosterone, heroes are singled out above their equally brawny companions because they can reason; they’re capable of wrestling their momentary anger into submission to preserve order. Achilles is uniquely blessed by Wisdom: it whispers in his ear and, even in the grips of his brute rage, he listens. That’s what makes him semi-divine, not his rippling biceps: in a world of tribal savagery, leaders like Achilles are elevated, chosen to fight their animal impulses and follow, however imperfectly, in the footsteps of the gods.
Hector, Troy’s last great hope, knows he’s living on borrowed time: Achilles is unbeatable, and Troy’s days are numbered. But even so, he can’t run from his duty — he has to put up a doomed final fight in the name of honor. Gearing up for the final showdown, he meets his wife on the city walls, and silently they both know it’s the last time they’ll see one another. Hector embraces his weeping wife fiercely, makes a desperate prayer that his son will live to see manhood, then straps on his helmet and marches out to his death.
What it All Means: Heroes are vulnerable
For Homer, being a hero means staying human against all odds. Faced with his impossibly painful duty, it would be far easier for Hector to deaden his emotions and choke them down. But he never does — he never abandons one inch of his intimate, vulnerable love for his wife. He acknowledges the full scope of the horror that his death will mean for the woman who depends on him. But what makes him a hero is that he can bear that burden and then give his whole frail, human self — grief and all — to the service of a greater good.
In his blind rage after Hector kills his best friend, Achilles hacks his way to the walls of Troy, piling up a gruesome stack of corpses. He lays down such unholy carnage that Troy’s enormous river, the Scamander, feels the pain, and groans at Achilles to stop. Too crazed with bloodlust to listen, Achilles takes on the river itself, leaping headlong into the water to try and conquer its enormous strength. Pounded by wave after wave and soaked to the bone, Achilles hacks away at the thrashing waters until the Scamander overpowers him and sends him running.
What it All Means: Heroes are a little crazy
There’s a madness to heroism in the Iliad. Being human means being up against austere and unassailable gods, at the mercy of hurricanes, fires, and above all your own certain death. But being a hero means stubbornly, insanely daring to defy those forces. Achilles knows he’ll die if he fights, but he still fights with his whole heart, as if he could win. Watching him beat back the river, you can almost believe that somehow, impossibly, he will win. The tragedy of the poem is that we know he can’t: “the gods,” says Homer, “are still more powerful than men.”
For the entire war, the gods are straining eagerly at the borders of Olympus, itching to get a taste of action. Zeus restrains them as long as he can, but when the final fight gets underway and Troy’s fate is sealed, he calls all bets off. The gods come roaring onto the field with hair-raising battle cries, shaking the earth to its foundations and knocking the Trojan and Greek armies up against one another like giant schoolboys playing with toy soldiers. They take sides and pair off in devastating divine match-ups, and the battle that ensues is catastrophic.
What it All Means: Heroism is worth it
This one moment redeems all the tragic sacrifice of Homeric heroism. For all their immortal perfection, the gods are desperate to take part in human war and pain. That’s because death — the same death that widows Hector’s wife — gives human life significance that gods can’t attain. Clashes between cold abstract forces like War and Love are meaningless without mortality: who cares who gets hit if nobody can die? Death creates the opportunity for courage; the chance to die bravely is a chance at glory. And for Homer, glory makes a man more than a god: it makes him a hero.
And with that, the lines are open. What does heroism mean today? Could we use a little more of Homer’s unshakeable sense of valor these days? More importantly, did I leave out your favorite scene? If so, take me to task for it in the comments — if you bring up a good scene and ask nicely I’ll even write you a translation of it!
– Watch More
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell did a rare thing earlier this month — so rare it’s hardly ever been done since the 1200s BC. In cracking down on Ravens running back Ray Rice for a savage act of domestic abuse, Goodell (begrudgingly, after getting backed against the wall by public outcry) plunked for morals over talent. That, as the ancient Greeks knew from reading the war stories of their cultural icon, Homer, is easier said than done.
It shouldn’t have been a hard choice. Rice seems to have been caught dead to rights on camera, beating his fiancée senseless in a public place. Even the snippet of the video that’s been publicly released by TMZ is difficult to watch: with the casual unconcern of a man used to being treated like a demigod, Rice drags the unconscious woman out of an elevator like a rag doll. He takes his time, as if daring anyone to stop him.
Worst of all, no one did stop him. Rice was right to assume that starting running backs with Super Bowl rings and solid rushing averages can do what they want and get away with it. Rice is a star; he sells seats. So for an offense that may put him behind bars, the league suspended that naughty, naughty boy for two whole games. It looked like Rice was in line to join the ever-growing complement of suspected criminals and potential felons to be slapped gently on the wrist before returning to their adoring fans and multi-million-dollar contracts. Ray Lewis, Leonard Little, Andre Smith — the list goes on.
Add to that list Achilles, MVP of the Greek forces in the Trojan War. In Homer’s epic, the Iliad, the Greeks bring Achilles to the fight against Troy as their ultimate weapon, the star player that makes it impossible for them to lose. He was a jacked-up super-soldier, half divine and twelve feet tall, with biceps that made Andrew Luck’s throwing arm look like a floppy rubber chicken. He was also a petulant narcissist with the maturity of an overgrown toddler.
Homer writes about Achilles’ erratic and irresponsible anger, which “spelled death for thousands of Greeks” (1.2). In the opening scenes of the poem, Achilles gets in a screaming match with his superior officer, throws a temper tantrum over his bruised pride, then sits out most of the rest of the war sulking. He intentionally leaves thousands of his men to be mowed down without his all-important support. He was not what you’d call a team player.
Homer was dramatizing the same deep-seated tension that the NFL faces routinely: dazzling, indispensable talent weighed against disastrous egomania. Men with godlike abilities and childish tempers. Talent is blind, and sometimes it falls on preening reprobates convinced the world exists for their consumption and abuse. The lavish adoration and corporate sponsorships that get heaped on them don’t do much to relieve them of that delusion.
Take Ray Lewis. Last week, the Ravens erected a thunderously majestic effigy of Lewis, nine feet tall, complete with triumphant pyrotechnics. This is a man who was almost certainly involved in the murder of two people. Now, the NFL has no responsibility to police its employees’ personal lives, but surely we all agree double homicide crosses a bit of a line. Lewis avoided jail time, but come on: a statue? What gives?
The dirty secret that both Homer and pro sports make painfully clear is that, when it comes to talent, justice goes conveniently mute. The Greek soldiers in the Iliad hem and haw to excuse Achilles just as Goodell did to exonerate Rice — it’s painful to watch some of the noblest Greeks eat crow to appease the drama queen who puts his ego before the wholesale slaughter of his fellow soldiers. The genius general Odysseus has to grovel, offering Achilles heaps of trophies and a hero’s welcome from Greeks “who will honor [him] like a god” just for coming back on the field and fighting like everybody else (9.303-4). Not a far cry from Goodell, who originally tied himself in knots to excuse Rice’s obviously inexcusable violence, offering a few lame remarks about how Rice “did not have another incident” and is therefore somehow allowed to flagrantly beat a woman unconscious. “Sure, we all believe in the rule of law and women’s rights,” he might as well have said, “but have you seen this guy’s forward hustle?”
The Greeks’ ethical acrobatics were understandable. War is war, and when people are dying it makes sense to overlook quite a bit for the sake of getting back on the winning team. Football, difficult though it may be to believe, isn’t a life-or-death situation. So this willful moral amnesia isn’t just about pragmatism, or survival. It’s about the talent itself. We worship talent. It intoxicates us, blurs our sense of right and wrong. It’s not just the NFL — talented celebrity defendants routinely get off easy. Rice, Lewis, Michael Jackson, Justin Bieber, Lindsay Lohan: they get a pass because the stars in our eyes make us forget our consciences.
That’s why Goodell’s about-face on domestic violence, halting and lukewarm though it may be, is actually pretty impressive. It contradicts centuries of tradition, millennia of reverence for gifted but reprehensible thugs. It’s a start at holding people with extraordinary talent to ordinary standards of common decency. In contemporary America, we have that luxury in a way not many people have, because of our unprecedented peace and national security, and because football isn’t war. We’re not currently depending on our star athletes to save our lives, so we have a chance to demand that they clean up their acts a little bit — a chance for which ancient Greek military leaders would have given their right arms. Goodell has an opportunity to stick to his guns on the new cases of Quincy Enunwa and Ray McDonald. Let’s hope he does — it’s a once-in-an-epoch sort of thing.
images via shutterstock / Panos Karas
For the past three weeks, I’ve been dusting off the one of the West’s oldest thrill rides: the Iliad. I’ve looked at the best, the worst, and the bloodiest parts of what it means to be a hero in the legendary war stories of Homer. This week, I’d like to put it all together and see if I can’t find some of Homer’s heroism wrapped into the ideas that made this country, our country, what it is. In short, I’d like to make the case for why democracy is the government of heroes.
The Greeks invented democracy, but their bible was a poem about kings. To read the Iliad, you’d think the common man shouldn’t be trusted to tie his own shoelaces, let alone make complex political decisions. Homer composed the poem in the 700s BC, and it’s about a war between bronze-age monarchies. In it, kings are the god-appointed rulers of men. Everyone else is born to obey. That’s what the Athenians were reading when, for the first time in Western history, they handed the government over to the people. So where on earth did they get that idea?
There’s no question of equality in the poem. The royals are the main characters, kings and princes and generals with names you’ve heard like Hector and Achilles. They’re statuesque, with washboard abs and gleaming armor — Abercrombie and Fitch models who can decimate troops of lesser men and probably make a perfect omelette, too. Most importantly, they’re “beloved of Zeus” or even “fed by the gods”: they’re divinely appointed from birth to rule.
But every king needs subjects, and in the Iliad they’re a dime a dozen. Homer’s foot soldiers are the ancient equivalent of cannon fodder: slack-jawed, usually unnamed lemmings who move as a herd. Their poster child is Thersites, a sniveling, balding hunchback with a club foot, as ugly as his superiors are dashing. That’s the world of the Iliad: some men are worth more than most. There were no participation trophies given out at the Trojan war.
To a modern ear, this sounds like a pretty raw deal. We like to believe every kid can grow up to be president — the idea that some men are born better sounds backwards, barbaric even. But imagine what the alternative was. Greece in the early bronze age was mostly a collection of illiterate tribes ruled by raw violence. Disagreements were settled by beating the guy next door into submission; if you did that enough times, you became king. Then, slowly, visionary civilizations — the Minoans, the Mycenaeans — began developing complex systems of art, language, law. From out of nowhere, as if divinely inspired, rulers learned to talk things out.
That’s exactly what Homer’s kings do. They hold council; they can “put together a clever plan” and discuss it with one another (2.55). Early on in the poem, nearly the entire Greek army breaks rank, and King Odysseus sets about restoring order. When he meets “a king and a man of distinction,” Odysseus politely asks the fellow to see reason — it wouldn’t do, he says, “to intimidate you as if you were a low-life.” But when he sees a “man of the people,” Odysseus clobbers the poor schmuck and tells him to listen to his superiors “because they’re stronger, and you’re a sissy unfit for war” (2.188-206). It’s appalling, but it’s also telling: for Odysseus, what sets a king apart is his intellect. Most of the men, he assumes, will only respond to threats of violence. The kings are the ones who can be made to see reason.
No wonder Homer called that a gift from the gods. In the middle of centuries-old tribal violence, intellect and logic must have seemed like divine blessings, granted like a bolt from the blue to leaders who could defend their tactics with logical arguments rather than violence. In fact, that’s exactly what Homer’s gods do: they hold meetings, “taking their seats on the golden council-floor” to debate (4.1-2). The kings in the Iliad are semi-divine because they’ve been chosen to imitate what the gods can do. They’ve been blessed to think.
Now, that’s a far cry from democracy. Homer’s heroes are still royalty — they’re bred for their positions, not asked to earn them. But they aren’t chosen at random, either: their exceptional skills and gifts set them apart from other men. At the heart of Homer’s monarchy is the kernel of a democratic society, the makings of a meritocracy. It’s the stirrings of a new world order.
That new order came to Athens in the 400s BC. Praising Athenian democracy, the iconic statesman, Pericles, proclaimed that “each man is honored . . . not according to his class but according to his valor.” Just like Homer, Pericles believed in recognizing excellence and achievement — he called them the basis of public honor. From there, he went one step further: poverty and obscurity, he declared, “won’t hold a man back if he can do something good for the city” (Thucydides, Peloponnesian War 2.36). The days of men born as kings were over.
The Athenians idolized Homer — they recited his poetry like a national anthem and memorized it in school like Shakespeare. They grew up learning from Homer that being a king meant more than just being born — it meant distinction on the basis of merit, leadership founded on exceptional courage and intelligence. The founders of the original democracy had been taught, not that all men are equal, but that some men are excellent. From there they made the radical assertion that those excellent men can come from anywhere, and that anyone can distinguish himself, regardless of his birth. It was a revolutionary idea, but its roots were as old as the Iliad.
These days, in our own democracy, we say “all men are created equal” — as in, the law treats everyone equally. Pericles said the same, that “equality is established for everyone in the eyes of the law” (2.36). The reason we say that, though, is the same reason Pericles said it, or should be: it creates a chance for the best of the best to rise to the top. Our modern danger is in translating “all men are created equal” to mean “all men are the same,” or worse, “everyone is special.” That’s not just provably untrue, it’s undemocratic — it strikes against the foundational ideas of Western democracy. Those ideas come from Homer, who celebrated the fact that not all men are the same: some men, he knew, are heroes.
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.
Handle: “The Machine”
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:
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.
2. Telamonian Ajax
Handle: “The Man-Mountain”
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.
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.
Handle: “The Sharpshooter”
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:
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.
Handle: “The Boy Wonder”
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:
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
Handle: “The Little Guy”
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:
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.
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.