The Iliad ~ Book XI & Book XII

The Iliad Read-along

In these sections the epic lives up to its reputation of being a “poem of death,” but in spite of this title, you can still see very human exchanges between characters.  I’m going to try to pick out some of these more human elements.

In Book XI there are a number of similes (a figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind, used to make a description more emphatic or vivid) so be on the lookout!

The Abduction of Helen

The Abduction of Helen (1530-39) Francisco Primaticcio
~ source Wikipedia

Book XI

As Dawn arrives, Zeus sends down Hate to sit among the Achaian ships and give them strength to continue the battle.  Agamemnon arms himself with his magnificent corselet and finally the Achaian warriors pull up in their chariots, dismount, and sweep towards the ditch, while Zeus is still fulfilling his promise to Thetis:

” ……………..  And the son of Kronos

drove down the evil turmoil upon them, and from aloft cast

down dews dripping blood from the sky, since he was minded

to hurl down a multitude of strong heads to the house of Hades.” 

(Line 52 – 55)


On the opposite side of the ditch, Hektor, Poulydamas, and Aineias are amassed, Hektor being described at the forefront, then urging those at the back, and is compared to Zeus.  The two sides now clash, fighting “like wolves,” as “Hate, the Lady of Sorrow, was gladdened to watch them.”  We are treated to descriptions of carnage as Agamemnon has his second aristeia of the poem and thus the Trojans are pushed back to the Skaian gate where they hold ground.

Zeus commands Iris to fly to Hektor and relay to him that when Agamemnon is struck by an arrow, then Hektor will have power to drive the Achaians back to their “strong-benched vessels.”

Iphidamas attempts to stab Agamemnon but the spear head is bent back against his war belt and he is killed by Agmemnon, as is his brother, Koön, but not before Agamemnon is stabbed in the arm.  Agamemnon continues his killing rampage but eventually pain overcomes him, and he leaves in his chariot back to the ships. Hektor takes his cue with the departure of the Argive leader and now begins his aristeia.  Soon the Achaians are in panic, but Odysseus rallies Diomedes, and they beat back the Trojans.  They pursue Hektor, and Diomedes manages to hit him in the helmet but although he is dizzy, he merges back into his people, as Diomedes taunts him.  Yet Paris is nearby and manages to impale Diomedes in the right foot with an arrow, mocking the warrior, but Diomedes responds:

“Now you have scratched the flat of my foot, and even boast of this.

I care no more than if a witless child or a woman

had struck me; this is the blank weapon of a useless man, no fighter.”

(Line 388 – 390)

Odysseus removes the arrow and, in pain, Diomedes, in his chariot, heads back to the ships.  Odysseus is left alone as the Achaians retreat in fear as the Trojans descend on them, however Odysseus carves his way through them.

Idomeneus calls to Nestor to take Machaon, an injured healer, back to the ships while Kebriones encourages Hektor to move to intercept Telamon Aias.  Yet while Hektor avoids Aias’ path, Zeus sets fear upon Telamon Aias, so he would fight, then run, then fight again.  Eurypylos arrives to assist him until he is wounded in the thigh.

Meanwhile, at the ships, Achilles spies Nestor approaching in his chariot and orders Patroclus to discover the identity of the wounded man inside.  Patroclus sets out and finds that the wounded man is Machaon, but refuses Nestor’s offer of hospitality, using some illuminating words to reference Achilles:

“You know yourself, aged sir beloved of Zeus, how he is;

a dangerous man; he might even be angry with one who is guiltless.”

(Line 652-653)

Nestor responds bitterly that Achilles cares nothing for their plight, so why is he curious now?  He then digresses into a story of his youth, which transforms into a story of when he and Odysseus visited Achilles, with Patroclus there, and invited them to go to war.  He reminds Patroclus of his father’s words for him to give wise counsel to Achilles, and Nestor attempts to persuade him to do so now and, failing that, he should don the armour of Achilles to lead the Myrmidons himself; and “so he spoke, and stirred the feeling in the breast of Patroclus.”  Upon the return of Patroclus, he meets Eurypylos who also stresses the danger the Achaians are facing with their best fighters removed from battle.  He begs Patroclus to remove the arrow and attend his wound, which he does.

Claws of Fate

Achilles’ Wrath

So here we learn from Patroclus that Achilles can be angry even with one who is “guiltless”.  I don’t think this excuses Agamemnon’s behaviour but it certainly illustrates Achilles pride and stubbornness.  Given the situation, I think he’s let his anger get the best of him, however he knows the war will end with his own death.  Do you think this foreknowledge is affecting his behaviour?

Battle at the Ships

Battle At The Ships from a Roman Sarcophagus
~ source Wikipedia

Book XII

The wall surrounding the Achaian ships is standing now, but after Troy falls because it was constructed without proper respect to the gods, they (the gods) will later remove it by causing rivers to consume it, taking over 9 days (notice the parallel with the years of the war).  But for now, the battle rages at the wall.

Poulydamas counsels Hektor to leave their chariots, as crossing the ditch is hazardous.  Hektor agrees, and they assemble in mass formation in groups, then hurl themselves towards the Achaians to drive them back to their ships.  The fighting continues until the Trojans see a bird-sign: an eagle who drops a still-live snake into their midst.  Poulydamas complains that Hektor never listens to his counsel (Huh?!  He just did!), but he should listen to him now, that they should not fight by the Danaan ships; as the eagle was not able to hold his prey, they might not either.  Hektor is appalled and disgusted that Poulydamas could forget the portents of Zeus.  His wits must be addled, and Hektor sweeps after the Achaians with the will of Zeus.  They attempt to destroy the wall, but the Danaans battle fiercely.

Sarpedon (an ally of Troy) now steps forward and addresses Glaukos, urging him to fight alongside him.  He makes a curious comment that if they escape this battle, they need seek no more glory, but since now death is near, let them battle for glory.

The Trojans are clamouring at the gates, and Menestheus sends Thoötes to call the Aiantes to help repel the attack of the Lykians (Sarpedon’s people) led by Sarpedon and Glaukos.  Their presence gives hope, as Glaukos is wounded.  The battle presses on as neither side gives way, yet the battlements hold them apart.  Blood is everywhere and Hektor finally succeeds in breaking the wall, casting an enormous stone at the gate which breaks open:

“…………… Then glorious Hektor burst in

with dark face like sudden night, but he shone with the ghostly

glitter of bronze that girded his skin, and carried two spears

in his hands.  No one could have stood up against him, and stopped him,

except the gods, when he burst in the gates; and his eyes flashed fire.

Whirling, he called out across the battle to the Trojans

to climb over the wall, and they obeyed his urgency.

Immediately some swarmed over the wall, while others swept in

through the wrought gateways, and the Danaans scattered in terror

among their hollow ships, and clamour incessant rose up.”

(Line 462 – 471)



First of all, the emphasis on different warriors’ aristeias must have been very important to a Greek audience, as this was the way a man could earn “imperishable immortality.”

Sarpedon’s words to Glaukos struck me when he said they would either win glory or they would give it away.  A warrior won Kleos by killing others, yet he could also give Kleos by his own death.  So either way, a man is involved in Kleos which gives immortality either by living or dying.  A curious paradox indeed!


⇐ Book IX & Book X                                                 Book XIII & Book XIV ⇒

14 thoughts on “The Iliad ~ Book XI & Book XII

  1. I’m a bit behind only because I am a few pages from finishing The Unconsoled. I’m coming back to comment once I finish this “the carnage” and aristea section, as you so fittingly call them.

      • Now. I’m ready.

        From these two books, a few thoughts. I’m impressed with how the book is gore and poetic, the carnage was so well narrated. I never thought one could be so invested. One thing, I assume the names were mainstream for them in the past, but to my 2020 person, I had to laugh. Some sound like diseases or medicines, so weird.

    • Apparently at death, the soul or psyche leaves the body and goes to the underworld. What happens to it there is very vague and not much comfort, so the only real immortality a warrior can fathom is Kleos. Think about it. Here we are talking about Achilles, Odysseus, etc. 2500 years after they were alive. Quite amazing, isn’t it?

  2. now that it seems to be operating: i initially planned on reading this but electronic issues and unsuspected roadblocks kept me on a detour… very interesting comments and ideas, tho… wonderful phots as per norm…

    • Yes, I thought you were going to read too and wondered what happened. You’re missing a great read! Perhaps you can pick it up later. Please feel free to add your comments if you do!

  3. Well, Cleo, I hope you won’t be disappointed in me, but I have decided to quit reading The Iliad. I put it back on the bookshelf last night and felt so relieved. As you know, I read it this past year and didn’t like it. I was hoping that maybe I might like it at least a little bit more by reading it with ya’ll and discussing it. But we are now about halfway through and though I have continued to be determined to persevere, I just don’t like it. Period. And it has just become tedious to read. 😦 And I don’t want to be so burnt out with this one that I end up not wanting to read The Odyssey with you in April because of it.

    I am getting more out of the reading experience this time, but not because I’m re-reading The Iliad itself I think. I think that mainly comes from reading your wonderful posts and the discussion you all are having in the comments.

    With some classics, I tend to persevere and keep reading even when I don’t like it because it is probably a book I feel I should be familiar with. And I did that with The Iliad last year. I kept reading it to the very end even though I really didn’t like it (not to mention that I didn’t get much out of it….). (By the way, speaking of reading classics and finishing ones I didn’t like, did you finish The Grapes of Wrath? I’d like to know what you thought about it. I need to pop over to our discussion of that. 🙂 )

    Anyway, I do want to keep reading along with your posts and the discussion though. And if I have something to add to the discussion, I will if that’s okay. I feel like I can still get more understanding of the Iliad through these discussions. 🙂

    • If you hadn’t read it before, I’d encourage you to continue but since you’ve read it once and it’s not resonating with you, there’s no point in torturing yourself. It does take alot of work to learn the Greek characters, as so many of them are in this poem. And not only them but their fathers and mothers and various stories of events that happened previously. 🙄 I remember my first read was confusing, although enjoyable and it’s only now that I’m familiar that I can read it with relish.

      The Odyssey is an easier read. It appeals to readers because, like what we’re used to reading nowadays, it moves from story to story which tends to capture one’s interest more. The Iliad focuses more on psychology …. of war, of men, of what it means to be human. It takes more effort to force your mind to go there with little entertainment except battle. But I find having a single event allows one to focus more on what make up these interesting humans.

      I haven’t finished The Grapes of Wrath yet but I do plan to when I get some time. I made it about 1/4 of the way through and I wasn’t enjoying it. But I’ll save the details until I do finish.

      Thanks for giving it a try, Karen. Better luck with The Odyssey!

  4. I have fallen slightly behind having just finished book 12 tonight. I also have been noticing the similes. There were many in book 11 but my favorite was at the end of book 12 when talking about the blood shed from both sides and comparing it to a widow weighing… her wool to win a pitiful wage for her children. I know in my head the importance of honour and all of the rest of it to the people of this time, but in my pacifist heart all this blood shed over a woman or worse men’s pride is indeed pitiful.

    Take what I have just written as the simple meanderings of an idle mind late at night after a glass of wine.

    Still enjoying this read and want to once again thank for persevering with this labour despite computer problems which can be very frustrating.

    • I think that’s what makes it so effective … it’s another paradox. To win honour you have to either kill or be killed, yet it brings grief and sadness.

      Thanks for your thoughts, Connie! They are ALWAYS welcome!

      Well, as I was saying to Silvia, my mother is in the hospital for the last 2 1/2 weeks so it’s been hard keeping up. I’m going to try to get it going again tomorrow. Wish me luck!

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