The Iliad (Collins)/Chapter 3

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The Greeks claim the victory—reasonably, since the Trojan champion has fled the lists; but again the intrigues of the court of Olympus interfere to interrupt the course of mortal justice. The gods of Homer are not the gods of Epicurus' creed, who, as our English poet sings, "lie beside their nectar, careless of mankind." They are anything but careless, so far as the affairs of mortals are concerned; but their interference is regulated by the most selfish motives. Men are the puppets whom they make to dance for their gratification—the counters with which they play their Olympian game, and try to defeat and checkmate each other. Even the respect which they pay to the mortal who is regular in the matter of offering sacrifices is entirely selfish—it seems to be merely the sensual appetite for fat roasts and rich savours. They are commonly influenced by jealousy, pique, revenge, or favouritism; and where they do punish the wrongdoer, it is far more often from a sense of lèse-majesté—a slight offered to some cause which is under their special protection—than from any moral indignation at wrong itself. When the scene opens in the fourth book of the poem, it seems to pass at once from serious melodrama to broad comedy; and but that these dwellers in Olympus really rule the fortunes of the tale, it would be scarcely possible not to believe that the poet so intended it.

We are introduced again, then, to Olympus; and, as before, to a quarrel among the Immortals. It is Jove this time who is the aggressor. He has seen the result of the combat, and taunts Juno with the double patronage extended to the Greeks by herself and Minerva—which, after all, has failed—while Venus, more active and energetic, has rescued her favourite. However, he awards the victory to Menelaus; and suggests, as a solution to all disputes and difficulties, that now Helen should be given up, the Greeks go home, and so the fate of Troy be averted. At the thought of her enemy thus escaping, the queen of the gods cannot contain her rage. Jupiter gives way. He loves Troy much, but domestic peace and quietness more. He warns his queen, however, that if he now consents to give up Troy to her insatiable revenge, she shall not stand in his way hereafter, in case some community of mortals who may be her especial favourites shall incur his royal displeasure. And Juno, with that utter indifference to human suffering, or human justice, which characterises the deities of Olympus, makes answer in these words:—

"Three cities there are dearest to my heart;
Argos, and Sparta, and the ample streets
Of rich Mycenæ; work on them thy will—
Destroy them, if thine anger they incur—
I will not interpose nor hinder thee."

In furtherance of this strange compact, Minerva is once more sent down to the plains of Troy. Her mission now is to incite the Trojans to break the truce by some overt act, and thus not only renew the war, but put themselves plainly in the wrong. Clothing herself in the human shape of the son of old Antenor, she mingles in the Trojan ranks, and addresses herself to the cunning bowman Pandarus. His character in the Iliad has nothing in common with the "Sir Pandarus of Troy," whose name, as the base, uncle of Cressida, has passed into an unwholesome by-word, and whom Lydgate, Chaucer, and, lastly, Shakespeare, borrowed from the medieval romancers. Here he is but an archer of known skill, somewhat given to display, with his bow of polished ibex-horns tipped with gold, and vain of his reputation, whom the goddess easily tempts to end the long war at once by a timely shot, and win immortal renown by taking off Menelaus. With a brief prayer and a vow of a hecatomb to Apollo, the god of the bow—who is supposed to be as ready as the rest of the immortals to abet an act of treachery on such condition—Pandarus ensconces himself behind the shields of his comrades, and choosing out his arrow with the same care which we read of in the great exploits of more modern bowmen, he discharges it point-blank at the unsuspecting Menelaus. The shaft flies true enough, but Minerva is at hand to avert the actual peril from the Greek hero: she turns the arrow aside—

"As when a mother from her infant's cheek,
Wrapt in sweet slumbers, brushes off a fly."

It is a pretty simile; but the result is not so entirely harmless. The arrow strikes in the belt, and so meets the double resistance of belt and corslet. It draws blood, nevertheless, in a stream; and both Menelaus and Agamemnon at first fear that the wound is mortal;—

"Great Agamemnon shuddered as he saw
The crimson blood-drops issuing from the wound,
Shuddered the warlike Menelaus' self;
But when the sinew and the arrow-head
He saw projecting, back his spirit came.
Then, deeply groaning, Agamemnon spoke,
As Menelaus by the hand he held,
And with him groaned his comrades; 'Brother dear,
Fatal to thee hath been the oath I swore,
When thou stoodst forth alone for Greece to fight;
Wounded by Trojans, who their plighted troth
Have trodden under foot.'" (D.)

Two points are remarkable in this passage: first, the tenderness which Agamemnon shows towards his younger brother, even to the point of self-reproach at having allowed him to fight Paris at all, though in a quarrel which was so thoroughly his own. His expressions of grief and remorse at the thought of going home to Greece without him (which run to considerable length), though somewhat tinged with selfishness, inasmuch as he feels his own honour at stake, are much more like the feeling of a parent than of an elder brother. Again, the picture of Menelaus "shuddering" at his own wound —so sensitive to the dread of death that he apparently all but faints, until he is reassured by finding that the barb of the arrow has not really penetrated—is utterly inconsistent with our English notions of a hero. We have to bear in mind, here and elsewhere, that these Greek heroes, of whatever race we are to suppose them to be, are of an entirely different temperament to us cold and self-restrained northerns. They are highly sensitive to bodily pain, very much given to groans and tears, and very much afraid of death for themselves, however indifferent to human life in the case of others. Death, to these sensuous Greeks, was an object of dread and aversion, chiefly because it implied to their minds something like annihilation. However vivid in some passages of their poets is the description of those happy Elysian fields where the souls of heroes dwelt, the popular belief gave to the disembodied spirit but a shadowy and colourless existence.

The wound is soon stanched by the aid of the skilful leech Machaon, son of Æsculapius (and therefore grandson of Apollo "the Healer"), but who is a warrior and chieftain as well as the rest, though he has placed his skill at the service of Agamemnon. The King of Men himself, as soon as his brother's hurt is tended, rushes along the lines, rousing chiefs and clansmen to avenge the treachery of the enemy. Idomeneus of Crete, Ajax the Greater and the Less, Mnestheus of Athens, Ulysses, Diomed—to all in turn he makes his passionate appeal; to some, in language which they are inclined to resent, as implying that they were disinclined for the combat. Diomed and Sthenelus he even reminds of the brave deeds of their fathers Tydeus and Capaneus in the great siege of Thebes, and stings them with the taunt, that the sons will never win the like renown. Diomed hears in silence; but the son of Capaneus inherits, with all the bravery, something of the insolence of the chief who swore that "with or without the gods" he would burn Thebes: he answers the great king in words which have yet a certain nobility in their self-assertion—


"Atrides, lie not, when thou know'st the truth;
We hold ourselves far better than our sires;
We took the strength of seven-gated Thebes,
Though with a smaller host we stormed her towers,
Strong in heaven's omens and the help of Jove;
For them—their own presumption was their fall."

All the leaders of the Greeks eagerly marshal their forces at the King's call. Nestor's experienced counsel orders the line of battle—so well, that subsequent commanders were fain to take a lesson from it.

"In the front rank, with chariot and with horse,
He placed the mounted warriors; in the rear,
Num'rous and brave, a cloud of infantry,
Compactly massed, to stem the tide of war.
Between the two he placed th' inferior troops,
That e'en against their will they needs must fight.
The horsemen first he charged, and bade them keep
Their horses well in hand, nor wildly rush
Amid the tumult: 'See,' he said, 'that none,
In skill or valour over-confident,
Advance before his comrades, nor alone
Retire; for so your lines were easier forced;
But ranging each beside a hostile car,
Thrust with your spears; for such the better way;
By men so disciplined, in elder days,
Were lofty walls and fenced towers destroyed.'" (D.)