The Strange Death of Patroklos

Diogenes 46 (181):95-100 (1998)
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Abstract

The account of the death of Patroklos occupies a strategic position in the narrative economy of the Iliad: before this event, Achilles has withdrawn from combat out of indignation against Agamemnon; afterwards, his anger turns against Hector, whom he holds responsible for his friend's death. Achilles returns to battle and kills Hector in an act of vengeance that, as we have known from the beginning of the poem, will lead to his own demise, which is not actually recounted in the Iliad. This episode stands out because it is atypical both in the contents of the narration and in the means of expression used (what are generally termed “formulas”). I will give some examples of these oddities and then propose an interpretation. Here is the text, in the translation by Richmond Lattimore:So long as the sun was climbing still to the middle heaven, so long the thrown weapons of both took hold, and men dropped under them; but when the sun had gone to the time for unyoking of cattle, then beyond their very destiny the Achaians were stronger and dragged the hero Kebriones from under the weapons and the clamour of the Trojans, and stripped the armour from his shoulders. And Patroklos charged with evil intention in on the Trojans. Three times he charged in with the force of the running war god, screaming a terrible cry, and three times he cut down nine men; but as for the fourth time he swept in, like something greater than human, there, Patroklos, the end of your life was shown forth, since Phoibos came against you there in the strong encounter dangerously, nor did Patroklos see him as he moved through the battle, and shrouded in a deep mist came in against him and stood behind him, and struck his back and his broad shoulders with a flat stroke of the hand so that his eyes spun. Phoibos Apollo now struck away from his head the helmet four-horned and hollow-eyed, and under the feet of the horses it rolled clattering, and the plumes above it were defiled by blood and dust. Before this time it had not been permitted to defile in the dust this great helmet crested in horse-hair; rather it guarded the hear and the gracious brow a godlike man, Achilleus; but now Zeus gave it over to Hektor to wear on his head, Hektor whose own death was close to him. And in his hands was splintered all the huge, great, heavy, iron-shod, far-shadowing spear, and away from his shoulders dropped to the ground the shield with its shield sling and its tassels. The lord Apollo, son of Zeus, broke the corselet upon him. Disaster caught his wits, and his shining body went nerveless. He stood stupidly, and from close behind his back a Dardanian man hit him between the shoulders with a sharp javelin: Euphorbos, son of Pantho(s, who surpassed all men of his own age with the throwing spear, and in horsemanship and the speed of his feet. He had already brought down twenty men from their horses since first coming, with his chariot and his learning in warfare. He first hit you with a thrown spear, o rider Patroklos, nor broke you, but ran away again, snatching out the ash spear from your body, and lost himself in the crowd, not enduring to face Patroklos, naked as he was, in close combat.

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