Some background: At this point in The Iliad, Achilles, the Greeks’ greatest assest in the Trojan War, has forsaken the battlefield due to his frustration with Agamemnon’s overwhelming arrogance. He has given his famous armor to Patroclus, a fellow Myrmidon and his best friend. Hector, the Trojan prince in command of the Trojan armies, has taken advantage of Achilles’ absence and has begun to push the Greeks back towards their beach-head encampment. The gods, as always in Greek mythology, interfere and spin fate towards its inevitable, inescapable direction. Patroclus is killed, and though sad, it is this event that ultimately draws Achilles back into the war, more furious and deadly than ever.
A quick note: The narrative shift from third-person omniscient to the second-person address to Patroclus is inherent in the original Greek text. You see these inexplicable shifts all the time in Homer; some translators just gloss over them and smooth the narrative into a single point of view, but so doing causes the text to lose some of its power: how effective is it, after all, that the poet directly addresses Patroclus as the warrior faces his death? The pathos is pumping at that moment, and I think we have that narrative shift to thank.
The Greeks had reached the heights of their battle successes,
And soon Xanthus’ clear water ran black with Greek blood.
But despite their losses against the Trojan army,
They refused to relent their foothold upon the field.
It was then, amidst that corpse-infested deadlock, that
Patroclus emerged and unleashed his fury upon
The Trojan warriors indiscriminately: three
Times he rushed the enemy ranks, and three times he came
Back to the Greek lines victoriously, commanding
His war-power like almighty Ares on the field.
But when, in your demon’s passion, you made your fourth charge,
Did you feel it, Patroclus? Did you feel Death’s icy
Grip clasping around your throat, robbing you of your life?
But it was not Death who laid his designs upon you
But Apollo, hidden from your sight out on the field.
He raised his mighty hand and smacked you dead between your
Shoulder blades, knocking Achilles’ great-plumed helmet to
The ground, rattling beneath the horses’ powerful hooves;
And this back-attack also tore Achilles’ breast-plate
From your chest, leaving your torso exposed to attack;
Your spear splintered into countless shards, rendering you
Weaponless; and at last, so too fell your tasseled shield.
He stood there much as naked before the Trojans, all
Of whom wanted to avenge the deaths of their comrades
Who had fallen at his impassioned command; but it
Was a boy, a beardless whelp named Euphorbus, who rushed
Up to the exposed Patroclus and sunk a spear deep
Into the Myrmidon’s side; but unlike a manly,
Heartened warrior, Euphorbus withdrew his spear and
Shrivelled like a prematurely-withering blossom
Back into the Trojan ranks; Hector, a heartened and
Manly warrior as any could be, saw this and
Made his move, plunging his death-tipped spearhead deep into
Patroclus’ stomach so that it parted his guts
And struck out through his back, dragging entrails as it went.
Hector looked down upon Patroclus and thus intoned:
“You thought you could slaughter my Trojan brethren and go
Back to your beach-head camp unscathed like an immortal
Who wreaks havoc upon men and departs for some safe
Refuge? You thought wrong, O Patroclus; and now you die
For your foolish judgment.” Thus Hector, great horse-breaker.
And Patroclus, with balls of steel even in death throes:
“You may speak with manliness in your throat now, son of
Priam; but the day is coming like a lamb to the
Slaughter when you will reap the seeds of death that you have
Sown here this day. But let’s remember the proper chain
Of events: firsts a god — surely Leto’s angry son,
Apollo — rid me of my armor and weaponry;
Then hairless Euphorbus ran up and stole a hit that
Left me unfairly wounded; and then you, third in line,
Came last to claim a victory that was truly won
By somebody else. Let’s be fair now, you and I, as
I draw my last breaths. You have won no glory out here;
Phoebus Apollo has won everything for you; for
Pious though you are, you are also weak like a child.
Death now grants me the vision of eternity, and
I see marked out for you the pathway to Hades, a
Road upon which you will soon embark. Peleus’
Son, perfect in every way that you fail, is coming.”
Thus Patroclus, heartened son of Menoetius.
Death hung its dark veil about Patroclus’ body
After he spoke these ballsy words to his death-bringer.
His soul tore out from its mortal confines angrily,
Resentful of its premature departure for the
Eternal realm of Hades below the living world.
His soul was long gone when Hector removed his death-tipped
Spear from the butchered corpse and spoke these few unheard words:
“What god granted you Delphic powers, O Patroclus?
The gods may grant yet that this death-tipped spear find a home
Within Achilles’ tempest-tossed chest and calm that storm.”
But even as he said these words, he felt they paled in
Comparison to the blood-red truth that lay in wait.