The Iliad (Collins)/Chapter 7

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CHAPTER VII.

 

THE THIRD BATTLE.

 

With the morrow's dawn begins the third and great battle, at the Greek lines, which occupies from the eleventh to the eighteenth book of the poem. Agamemnon is the hero of the earlier part of the day, and Hector is warned by Jupiter not to hazard his own person in the battle, unless the Greek king is wounded; which at last he is, by the spear of a son of Antenor. Ulysses and Diomed supply his place; until Paris, fighting in somewhat coward fashion, crouching behind the monumental stone of the national hero Ilus, pins Diomed through the right heel to the ground with an arrow. Ulysses stands manfully at bay almost alone amidst a host of enemies, holding his ground, though he too is wounded, till Ajax comes to his aid. Still, the Greeks have the worst of it. The skilful leech Machaon, amongst others, is wounded by an arrow from the bow of Paris: till even Achilles, watching the fight from the lofty prow of his ship, sees his day of triumph and vengeance close at hand. He sends Patroclus to the field—nominally to inquire who has just been carried off wounded, but with the further object, we may suppose, of learning the state of the case more thoroughly. Nestor, to whose tent Patroclus comes, begs him to use his influence now with his angry chief, and persuade him, if not to come to the rescue in person, at least to send his stout Myrmidons to the aid of his countrymen, under Patroclus' own command.

Again the Greeks are driven within their intrenchments, and Hector and the Trojan chariot-fighters pressing on them, attempt in their fierce excitement even to make their horses leap the ditch and palisade. Foiled in this, they dismount, and, forming in five detachments under the several command of Hector, Helenus, Paris, ÆEneas, and Asius son of Hyrtacus, they attack the stockade at five points at once. Asius alone refuses to quit his chariot; and choosing the quarter where a gate is still left open to receive the Greek fugitives, he drives full at the narrow entrance. But in that gateway on either hand stand two stalwart warders, Leonteus and Polypates. The latter is the son of the mighty hero Pirithous, friend and comrade of Hercules, and both are of the renowned race of the Lapithæ. Gallantly the two champions keep the dangerous post against all comers, while their friends from the top of the rampart shower huge stones upon their assailants. Even Hector at his point of attack can make no impression: and as his followers vainly strive to pass the ditch, an omen from heaven strikes them wuth apprehension as to the final issue. An eagle, carrying off a huge serpent through the air, is bitten by the reptile, and drops it, writhing and bleeding, in the midst of the combatants. Polydamas points it out to Hector, and reads in it a warning that their victory will be at best a dearly-bought one. Hector rebukes him for his weakness in putting faith in portents. The noble words in which the poet sums up Hector's creed in such matters have passed into a proverb with patriots of every age and nation—


"The best of omens is our country's cause."


Sarpedon the Lycian, who claims none less than Jupiter for his father, has taken chief command of the Trojan auxiliaries, and, gallantly seconded by his countryman Glaucus, sweeps "like a black storm" on the tower where Mnestheus, the Athenian, commands, and is like to have carried it, when Glaucus falls wounded by an arrow from Teucer. The slaughter is terrible on both sides, and the ditch and palisade are red with blood. "The balance of the fight hangs even;" until at last the Trojan prince lifts a huge fragment of rock, and heaves it at the wooden gates which bar the entrance at his point of attack.


"This way and that the severed portals flew
Before the crashing missile; dark as night
His low'ring brow, great Hector sprang within;
Bright flashed the brazen armour on his breast,
As through the gates, two javelins in his hand,
He sprang; the gods except, no power might meet
That onset; blazed his eyes with lurid fire.
Then to the Trojans, turning to the throng,
He called aloud to scale the lofty wall;
They heard, and straight obeyed; some scaled the wall;
Some through the strong-built gates continuous poured;
While in confusion irretrievable
Fled to their ships the panic-stricken Greeks." (D.)


Neptune has been watching the fight from the wooded heights of Samothrace, and sees the imminent peril of his friends. "In four mighty strides"—the woods and mountains trembling beneath his feet—he reaches the bay of Œge, in Achaia, where far in the depths lie his shining palaces of gold. There the sea-god mounts his chariot, yoking


"Beneath his car the brazen-footed steeds,
Of swiftest flight, with manes of flowing gold.
All clad in gold, the golden lash he grasped
Of curious work, and, mounting on his car,
Skimmed o'er the waves; from all the depths below
Gambolled around the monsters of the deep,
Acknowledging their king; the joyous sea
Parted her waves; swift flew the bounding steeds;
Nor was the brazen axle wet with spray,
When to the ships of Greece their lord they bore." (D.)


He takes the form of the soothsayer Calchas, and in his person rallies the discomfited Greeks, and summons the greater and the lesser Ajax to the rescue. Both feel a sudden accession of new vigour and courage; Ajax Oileus detects the divinity of their visitor, as the seeming Calchas turns to depart. The two chiefs quickly gather round them a phalanx of their comrades.


"Spear close by spear, and shield by shield o'erlaid,
Buckler to buckler pressed, and helm to helm,
And man to man; the horse-hair plumes above,
That nodded on the warriors' glittering crests,
Each other touched, so closely massed they stood.
Backward by many a stalwart hand were drawn
The spears, in act to hurl; their eyes and minds
Turned to the front, and eager for the fray." (D.)


Hector's career is stayed. Ajax the Lesser brings into play his band of Locrian bowmen, of little use in the open field, but good when they are under cover.


"Theirs were not the hearts
To brook th' endurance of the standing fight;
Nor had they brass-bound helms with horse-hair plume,
Nor ample shields they bore, nor ashen spear,
But came to Troy in bows and twisted slings
Of woollen cloth confiding."


The galling storm of their arrows throws confusion into the Trojan ranks. Helenus and Deiphobus, Hector's brothers, have already been led off wounded: Asius son of Hyrtacus has found his trust in chariot and horses vain, and lies dead within the Greek lines. But Hector still presses on, and Paris shows that he can play the soldier on occasion as successfully as the gallant. The Greeks, too, miss their leaders. Agamemnon, Ulysses, Diomed, are all disabled for the time. The two Ajaxes and Idomeneus of Crete do all that man can do. But the stockade has been forced, and the fight is now round the ships,—the last hope of bare safety for the Greek forces. If Hector burns them, as he boasts he will, all means of retreat, all the long-cherished prospect of seeing their homes again, are lost to them. In a hasty conference with his wounded companions beside his galley, Agamemnon, suffering and dispirited, once more counsels retreat before it be too late. If they can but hold out till nightfall, then, under cover of the darkness, he proposes to take the sea. Those vessels which lie close to the shore may be launched at once without discovery from the enemy, and kept out at anchor: the rest can follow when the Trojans have, as usual, withdrawn from immediate attack, as soon as the shades of evening make the distinction hazardous between friend and foe. Ulysses and Diomed overrule the proposal; and the wounded leaders return to the scene of combat, unable to take an active part, but inspiriting their men from safe posts of observation.

The interlude of comedy is furnished again by the denizens of Olympus. Juno has watched with delight the successful efforts of Neptune to rally the Greeks against Hector and the hateful Trojans; but she is in an agony of apprehension lest Jupiter, who has his attention just now occupied in Thrace, should interfere at this critical moment, and still grant the victory to Hector. She determines to put in force all her powers of blandishment, and to coax the Thunderer to spend in her company those precious hours which are laden with the fate of her Greeks. She is not content with her ordinary powers of fascination: she applies to the goddess of love for the loan of her magic girdle,—


"Her broidered cestus, wrought with every charm
To win the heart; there Love, there young Desire,
There fond Discourse, and there Persuasion dwelt,
Which oft enthrals the mind of wisest men."


It certainly enthrals the mind of the sovereign of Olympus; who, in all cases where female attractions were concerned, was even as the most foolish of mortals. Transfigured by the cestus of Venus, his queen appears to him in a halo of celestial charms which are irresistible. In her company he speedily forgets the wretched squabbles of the creatures upon earth. Juno has bribed the god of sleep also to become her accomplice; and the dread king is soon locked in profound repose.

Then Neptune seizes his opportunity, and heads the Greeks in person. Agamemnon, disregarding his recent wound, is seen once more in the front of the battle. Ajax meets Hector hand to hand, receives his spear full in his breast just where his cross-belts meet, and so escapes unwounded. As the Trojan prince draws back to recover himself, the giant Greek up-heaves a huge stone that has shored up one of the galleys, and hurls it with main strength against his breast. "Like an oak of the forest struck by lightning" Hector falls prone in the dust. With shouts of exultation, Ajax and his comrades rush to crown their victory by stripping his armour; but the great chiefs of the enemy,—Æneas, Polydamas, the Lycian captains Sarpedon and Glaucus—gather round and lock their shields in front of the fallen hero, while others bear him aside out of the battle, still in a death-like swoon, to where his chariot stands. Dismayed at the fall of their great leader, the Trojans give ground; the trench is recrossed, and the Greeks breathe again.

Jupiter awakes from sleep just in time to see the mischief that has been done; the Trojans in flight, the Greeks with Neptune at their head pursuing; Hector lying senseless by the side of his chariot, still breathing heavily, and vomiting blood from his bruised chest, and surrounded by his anxious comrades. He turns wrathfully upon Juno—it is her work, he knows. He reminds her of former penalties which she had brought upon herself by deceiving him.


"Hast thou forgotten how in former times
I hung thee from on high, and to thy feet
Attached two ponderous anvils, and thy hands
With golden fetters bound which none might break?
There didst thou hang amid the clouds of heaven:
Through all Olympus' breadth the gods were wroth;
Yet dared not one approach to set thee free." (D.)


He does not proceed, however, to exercise any such barbarous conjugal discipline on this occasion, and is readily appeased by his queen's assurance that the interference of Neptune was entirely on his own proper motion. He condescends even to explain why he desires to give a temporary triumph to the Trojans: it is that, in accordance with his sworn promise to Thetis, he may avenge the insult offered to her son Achilles, by teaching the Greeks their utter helplessness without him.

The Goddess of the Rainbow is sent to warn Neptune, on pain of the Thunderer's displeasure, to quit the fight. The sea-king demurs. "Was not a fair partition made, in the primeval days, between the three brother-gods, of the realms of Air, and Sea, and Darkness? and is not Earth common ground to all? Why is not Jupiter content with his own lawful domains, and by what right does he assume to dictate to a brother—and a brother-king?" Iris, however, calms him; he is perfectly right in theory, she admits; but in practice he will find his elder brother too strong for him. So the sea-god, in sulky acquiescence, leaves the scene of battle, and plunges down into the depths of his own dominion, Phœbus Apollo, on the other hand, receives Jupiter's permission to aid the Trojans. He sweeps down from Olympus to the spot where Hector lies, now slowly reviving. The hero recognises his celestial visitor, and feels at once his strength restored, and his ardour for the battle reawakened. To the consternation of the Greeks, he reappears in the field, fierce and vigorous as before. But he no longer comes alone; in his front moves Phœbus Apollo,—


"His shoulders veiled in cloud; his arm sustained
The awful Ægis, dread to look on, hung
With shaggy tassels round and dazzling bright,
Which Vulcan, skilful workman, gave to Jove,
To scatter terror 'mid the souls of men." (D.)


When the sun-god flashes this in the faces of the Greeks, heart and spirit fail them. Stalking in the van of the Trojans, he leads them up once more against the embankment, and, planting his mighty foot upon it, levels a wide space for the passage of the chariots,—


"Easy, as when a child upon the beach,
In wanton play, with hands and feet o'erthrows
The mound of sand which late in sport he raised."}}}}|4%}}


The habits and pursuits of grown-up men change with the passing generation; but the children of Homer's day might play with our own, and understand each other's ways perfectly.

Chariots and footmen press through the breach pellmell, and again the battle rages round the Greek galleys. Standing on their high decks, the Greeks maintain the struggle gallantly with the long boarding-pikes, as we should call them, kept on board for use in such emergencies. Ajax' galley is attacked by Hector in person; but the Greek chief stands desperately at bay, wielding a huge pike thirty-three feet long, and his brother Teucer plies his arrows with fatal effect upon the crowded assailants: until Jupiter, alarmed lest Hector should be struck, snaps his bowstring in sunder. Hector calls loudly for fire to burn the vessels, and one warrior after another, torch in hand, makes the attempt at the cost of his life, until twelve lie biting the sand, slain by the huge weapon of Ajax.