The Iliad

previous book Iliad home next book

Book XII


And so under shelter now Menoetius' fighting son
was healing Eurypylus' wounds. But hordes of men fought on,
the Achaean and Trojan infantry going hand-to-hand.
The Argive trench could not hold out much longer,
nor could the rampart rearing overhead, the wide wall
they raised to defend the ships and the broad trench
they drove around it all—they never gave the gods
the splendid sacrifice the immortals craved,
that the fortress might protect the fast ships
and the bulking plunder heaped behind its, shield.
Defying the deathless gods they built that wall
and so it stood there steadfast no long time.
While Hector still lived and Achilles raged on
and the warlord Priam's citadel went unstormed,
so long the Achaeans' rampart stood erect.
But once the best of the Trojan captains fell,
and many Achaeans died as well while some survived,
and Priam's high walls were stormed in the tenth year
and the Argives set sail for the native land they loved—
then, at last, Poseidon and Lord Apollo launched their plan
to smash the rampart, flinging into it all the rivers' fury.
All that flow from the crests of Ida down to breaking surf,
the Rhesus and the Heptaporus, Caresus and. the Rhodius,
Grenicus and Aesepus, and the shining god Scamander
and Simois' tides where tons of oxhide shields
and homed helmets tumbled deep in the river silt
and a race of men who seemed half god, half mortal.
The channels of all those rivers—Apollo swung them round
into one mouth and nine days hurled their flood against the wall
and Zeus came raining down, cloudburst powering cloudburst,
the faster to wash that rampart out to open sea.
The Earth-shaker himself, trident locked in his grip,
led the way, rocking loose, sweeping up in his breakers
all the bastion's strong supports of logs and stones
the Achaeans prized in place with grueling labor . . .
He made all smooth along the rip of the Hellespont
and piled the endless beaches deep in sand again
and once he had leveled the Argives' mighty wall
he turned the rivers flowing back in their beds again
where their fresh clear tides had run since time began.


      So in the years to come Poseidon and god Apollo
would set all things to rights once more.
                                                            But now
the war, the deafening crash of battle blazed
around the strong-built work, and rampart timbers
thundered under the heavy blows as Argive fighters
beaten down by the lash of Zeus were rolled back,
pinned to their beaked ships in dread of Hector,
that invincible headlong terror.
On he fought like a whirlwind, staunch as always—
think of the hounds and huntsmen circling round
some lion or boar when the quarry wheels at bay,
rippling in strength as the men mass like a bastion
standing up to his charge and hurl their pelting spears
and the boar's brave spirit never flinches, never bolts
and his own raw courage kills him—time and again
he wheels around, testing the huntsmen's ranks
and where he lunges out the ranks of men give way.
So Hector lunged into battle, rallying cohorts now,
spurring them on to cross the gaping trench—
but his own rearing stallions lacked the nerve.
They balked, whinnying shrill at the edge, the brink--
a dead stop-frightened off by the trench so broad
the team could never leap it, not at a single bound,
nor could they plunge on through with any ease.
Steep banks overhung its whole length, jutting up
on either side and topped by stabbing rows of stakes,
planted there by the Argives, thickset and huge
to block the enemy's onslaught.
No light work for the teams that trundled chariots
churning massive wheels to make it through in stride
but the Trojans strained to bring it off on foot.
So Polydamas stood by headstrong Hector, warning,
"Hector—and all our Trojan captains, allies-in-arms!
It's madness to drive our teams across that trench,
impossible to traverse it. Look, the sharp stakes
jutting right at the edge, and just beyond that
the Achaeans' sturdy rampart. No room there
for charioteers to dismount and fight it out,
the strait's too narrow, cramped—
we'll take a mauling there, I see it all!
If mighty Zeus, thundering up on high, is bent
on wiping out the Argives, down to the last man,
if he longs to back our Trojan forces to the hilt,
by heaven I hope the Father works his will at once
and the Argives die here, their memory blotted out,
a world away from Argos!
                                        But what if they round on us?
If the Argives roll us back away from the ships,
trapped and tangled there in the yawning trench,
no runner, I tell you, pressed by an Argive rally,
could struggle free and bear the news to Troy.
So come, do as I say, and let us all unite.
Drivers, rein your horses hard by the trench—
the men themselves, armed for assault on foot,
we all follow Hector, all in a mass attack.
And the Argives? They cannot hold their line,
not if the ropes of death are knotted round their necks!"


      So Polydamas urged. His plan won Hector over—
less danger, more success—and down he leapt
from his chariot fully armed and hit the ground.
Nor did the other chariot-drivers hold formation—
all dismounted, seeing shining Hector leap to earth.
Each man shouted out commands to his driver, quickly,
"Rein the team by the trench, good battle-order now!"
And the fighters split apart and then closed ranks,
marshaled in five battalions, captains leading each.


      The men who trooped with Hector and Prince Polydamas—
they were the greatest force, the best and bravest,
grim set above all the rest to breach the wall
and go for the beaked ships and fight it out.
Cebriones followed close, third in command
since Hector left another to rein his team,
a driver less than Cebriones, less a fighter.
The second Trojan battalion Paris led in anus
with Alcathous and Agenor. Helenus led the third
with Deiphobus striding on like a god beside him,
two sons of Priam; captain Asius third in command,
Asius son of Hyrtacus—hulking, fiery stallions
bore him in from Arisbe, from the Selleis River.
The fourth battalion marched with gallant Aeneas,
Anchises' offspring flanked by Antenor's two sons,
Acamas and Archelochus drilled for every foray.
Sarpedon marshaled the famous allies, placing Glaucus
next in command with the combat veteran Asteropaeus,
head and shoulders the best men, Sarpedon thought,
after himself of course: he outshone the rest.
Now shield against oxhide shield, wedging tight,
with a wild rush they charged the Argives head-on,
never thinking the Argive line could still hold out—
they'd all be hurled back on their blackened hulls.


      So all the Trojans and famous friends-in-arms
embraced Polydamas' plan, the faultless chieftain.
But Asius captain of armies, Hyrtacus' son refused
to leave his horses there with a driver reining back—
and on he drove at the fast trim ships, chariot and all,
the fool. Vaunting along the hulls with team and car
but never destined to slip past the deadly spirits,
never to ride in glory home to windswept Troy.
Long before, his accursed doom blacked him out
with Idomeneus' spear, Deucalion's noble son.
Now left of the ships he sped where Argive ranks
would head home from the plain with teams and cars.
Here Asius flogged his team and chariot hard,
nor did he find the gates shut, the bolt shot home,
not yet, the men still held them wide, hoping to save
some comrade fleeing, the onset, racing for the ships.
Straight at the gates he lashed his team, hell-bent,
his troops crowding behind him shouting war cries,
never thinking the Argive line could stir hold out—
they'd all be hurled back on their blackened hulls.
Idiots. There in the gates they found two men,
a brace of two great fighters,
lionhearted sons of the Lapith spearmen,
one Pirithous' offspring, rugged Polypoetes,
the other Leonteus, a match for murderous Ares.
Both warriors planted there before the towering gates
rose like oaks that rear their crests on a mountain ridge,
standing up to the gales and driving rains, day in,- day out,
their giant roots branching, gripping deep in the earth:
so these two, trusting all to their arms, their power,
stood up to Asius' headlong charge and never shrank.
On the Trojans came, straight for the rock-tight wall,
raising rawhide shields and yelling their lungs out,
grouped under captain Asius, lamenus and Orestes
and Asius' own son Adamas, Thoon and Oenomaus.
The Lapiths had just been rousing Argives packed
behind the rampart: "Close in a ring—defend the ships!"
But soon as the Lapiths saw the Trojans storm the wall,
and cries broke from the Argives lost in sudden panic,
then the two burst forth to fight before the gates
like wild boars, a pair of them up on the hilltops
bracing to take some breakneck rout of men and dogs
and the two go slanting in on the charge, shattering timber
round about them, shearing off the trunks at the roots
and a grinding, screeching clatter of tusks goes up
till a hunter spears them, tears their lives out—
so the clatter screeched from the gleaming bronze
that cased their chests as blows piled on blows.
Deadly going, fighting now for all they were worth,
staking all on their own strength and friends overhead
as they ripped off rocks from the rampart's sturdy ledge
and hurled them down, defending themselves, their shelters,
their fast ships—the rocks pelted the ground like snow
that a sudden squall in fury, driving the dark clouds,
heaps thick-and-fast on the earth that feeds us all.
So the missiles showering from their hands—Achaeans,
Trojans, helmets and bossed shields clashing, ringing
shrilly under the blows of boulders big as millstones.
And now with a deep groan and pounding both thighs
Asius son of Hyrtacus cried in anguish, "Father Zeus—
so even you are an outright liar after all!
I never dreamed these heroic Argive ranks
could hold back our charge, our invincible arms.
Look, like wasps quick and pinched at the waist
or bees who build their hives on a rocky path,
they never give up their hollow house, they hold on,
keep the honey-hunters at bay, fight for their young.
So these men will never budge from the gates
though they're only two defenders—
not till they kill us all or we kill them!"
But his wailing failed to move the heart of Zeus:
it was Zeus's pleasure to hand the prize to Hector.


      Now squad on squad, gate to gate they fought—
but how can I tell it all, sing it all like a god?
The strain is far too great. Everywhere round the wall
the surging inhuman blaze of war leapt up the rocks—
the Argives, desperate, had no choice, they struggled now
to defend the ships, and the gods were cast down in spirit,
all who had urged the Argive soldiers on in battle . . .
But the Lapiths still kept fighting, slaughtering on.


      There—Pirithous' son the rugged Polypoetes
skewered Damasus, pierced his bronze-sided helmet.
None of the bronze plate could hold it, boring through
the metal and skull the brazen spearpoint pounded,
Damasus' brains splattered all inside his casque—
Polypoetes beat him down despite the Trojan's rage,
then Pylon and Ormenus, killed and stripped them both.
And the tested veteran Leonteus speared Hippomachus,
gouged Antimachus' offspring down across the belt,
then drawing his long sharp sword from its sheath
he rushed the front and took Antiphates first
with a quick thrust, stabbing at close range—
he slammed on his back, sprawled along the ground.
Then Menon, Orestes, Iamenus—Leonteus killed the lot,
crowding corpse on corpse on the earth that rears us all.


      While the Lapiths stripped their kills of gleaming gear
the fighters trooping behind Polydamas and Hector,
the greatest force, the best and bravest, grim set
above all to breach the wall and torch the ships,
still halted up at the trench, torn with doubt.
For suddenly, just as the men tried to cross,
a fatal bird-sign flashed before their eyes,
an eagle flying high on the left across their front
and clutching a monstrous bloody serpent in both talons,
still alive, still struggling—it had not lost its fight,
writhing back to strike it fanged the chest of its captor
right beside the throat—and agonized by the bites
the eagle flung it away to earth, dashed it down
amidst the milling fighters, loosed a shriek
and the bird veered off along the gusting wind.
The Trojans shuddered to see the serpent glistening,
wriggling at their feet, a sign from storming Zeus.
And Polydamas stood by headstrong Hector, saying,
"Hector, you always seem to attack me in assembly,
despite my good advice. Never right, is it,
for a common man to speak against you, King,
never in open council, and god forbid in war.
Our part is always to magnify your power. Well,
once again I am bound to say what I think best.
Stop the attack, don't fight them at their ships!
All will end as the omen says, I do believe,
if the bird-sign really came to us, the Trojans,
just as our fighters tried to cross the trench.
That eagle flying high on the left across our front,
clutching this bloody serpent in both its talons,
still alive—but he let the monster drop at once,
before he could sweep it back to his own home . . .
he never fed his nestlings in the end.
                                                            Nor will we.
Even if we can breach the Argives' gates and wall,
assaulting in force, and the Argives give ground,
back from the ships we'll come,
back the way we went but our battle-order ruined,
whole battalions of Trojans left behind and killed—
the Achaeans will cut us down with bronze to save their fleet!
So a knowing seer of the gods would read this omen,
someone clear in his mind and skilled with signs,
a man the Trojan armies would obey."
                                                            His helmet flashing,
Hector wheeled with a dark glance: "Enough, Polydamas!
Your pleading repels me now—
you must have something better than this to say.
But if you are serious, speaking from the heart,
the gods themselves have blotted out your senses.
You tell me to forget the plans of storming Zeus,
all he promised me when he nodded in assent?
You tell me to put my trust in birds,
flying off on their long wild wings? Never.
I would never give them a glance, a second thought,
whether they fly on the right toward the dawn and sunrise
or fly on the left toward the haze and coming dark!
No, no, put our trust in the will of mighty Zeus,
king of the deathless gods and men who die.
Fight for your country—that is the best, the only omen!
You, why are you so afraid of war and slaughter?
Even if all the rest of us drop and die around you,
grappling for the ships, you'd run no risk of death:
you lack the heart to last it out in combat-coward!
But if you hold back from the bloody foray here
or turn some other soldier back from battle,
winning him over—you with your soft appeals—
at one quick stroke my spear will beat you down,
you'll breathe your last!"
                                                  Shouting he led the charge
and his armies swarmed behind with blood-chilling cries.
And above their onset Zeus who loves the lightning
launched from Ida's summits a sudden howling gale
that whipped a dust storm hard against the ships,
spellbinding Achaean units in their tracks,
handing glory to Hector and Hector's Trojans.
Inspired by the signs and their own raw power
all pitched in to smash the Achaeans' massive wall.
They tore at the towers' outworks, pulled at battlements,
heaving, trying to pry loose with levers the buttress stakes
Achaeans first drove in the earth to shore the rampart up—
they struggled to root these out, hoping to break down
the Achaean wall itself. But not yet did the Argives
give way to assault—no, they stopped the breaches up
with oxhide shields and down from the breastwork heights
they hurled rocks at the enemy coming on beneath the wall.


      And the two Aeantes ranged all points of the rampart,
calling out commands to spur their comrades' fury.
Now cheering a soldier on, tongue-lashing the next
if they marked a straggler hanging back from battle:
"Friends—you in the highest ranks of Argives,
you in the midst and you in rank and file,
we cannot all be equal in battle, ever,
but now the battle lies before us all—
come, see for yourselves, look straight' down.
Now let no fighter be turned back to the ships,
not with his captain's orders ringing in his ears--
keep pressing forward, shouting each other on!
If only Olympian Zeus the lord of lightning
grants us strength to repel this Trojan charge
then carve a passage through to Troy's high walls!"


       So their cries urged on the Achaeans' war-lust.
Thick-and-fast as the snows that fall on a winter dawn
when Zeus who rules the world brings on a blizzard,
displaying to all mankind his weaponry of war . . .
and he puts the winds to sleep, drifting on and on
until he has shrouded over the mountains' looming peaks
and the headlands jutting sharp, the lowlands deep in grass
and the rich plowed work of farming men, and the drifts fall
on the gray salt surf and the harbors and down along the beaches
and only breakers beating against the drifts can hold them off
but all else on the earth they cover over, snows from the sky
when Zeus comes storming down—now so thick-and-fast
they volleyed rocks from both sides, some at the Trojans,
some from Trojans against the Argives, salvos landing,
the whole long rampart thundering under blows.


      But not even now would Trojans and Prince Hector
have burst apart the rampart's gates and huge bar
if Zeus the Master Strategist had not driven
his own son Sarpedon straight at the Argives,
strong as a lion raiding crook-homed cattle.
Quickly Sarpedon swung his shield before him—
balanced and handsome beaten bronze a bronzesmith
hammered out with layer on layer of hide inside
and stitched with golden rivets round the rim.
That splendid shield he gripped before his chest
and shaking a pair of spears went stalking out
like a mountain lion starved for meat too long
and the lordly heart inside him fires him up
to raid some stormproof fold, to go at the sheep,
and even if he should light on herdsmen at the spot,
guarding their flocks with dogs and bristling spears,
the marauder has no mind to be driven off that steading,
not without an attack. All or nothing-he charges flocks
and hauls off bloody prey or he's run through himself
at the first assault with a fast spear driven home.
So now the heart of Sarpedon stalwart as a god
impelled him to charge the wall and break it down.
He quickly called Hippolochus' son: "Glaucus,
why do they hold us both in honor, first by far
with pride of place, choice meats and brimming cups,
in Lycia where all our people look on us like gods?
Why make us lords of estates along the Xanthus' banks,
rich in vineyards and plowland rolling wheat?
So that now the duty's ours—
we are the ones to head our Lycian front,
brace and fling ourselves in the blaze of war,
so a comrade strapped in combat gear may say,
'Not without fame, the men who rule in Lycia,
these kings of ours who eat fat cuts of lamb
and drink sweet wine, the finest stock we have.
But they owe it all to their own fighting strength—
our great men of war, they lead our way in battle!'
Ah my friend, if you and I could escape this fray
and live forever, never a trace of age, immortal,
I would never fight on the front lines again
or command you to the field where men win fame.
But now, as it is, the fates of death await us,
thousands poised to strike, and not a man alive
can flee them or escape—so in we go for attack!
Give our enemy glory or win it for ourselves!"


      Glaucus did not turn back or shun that call—
on they charged, leading the Lycians' main mass.
And Peteos' son Menestheus cringed to see them
heading straight for his bastion, hurling ruin on . . .
He scanned the Achaean rampart: where could he find
some chief, some captain to fight disaster off his men?
He spotted the Great and Little Ajax, gluttons for battle,
flanking Teucer fresh from his shelter, side-by-side.
But Menestheus could not reach them with a shout—
the din was deafening, war cries hitting the skies,
spears battering shields and helmets' horsehair crests
and the huge gates all bolted shut, but against them there
the Trojans tensed and heaved, trying to smash them down
and force a passage through. At once Menestheus
sped a herald to Ajax: "Run for it, quick one,
call Great Ajax here—
both of them, better yet, that's best of all.
Headlong ruin's massing against us quickly.
Lycia's captains are bearing down too hard,
fierce as they always were in past attacks.
But if fighting's flaring up in their own sector,
at least let the rugged giant Ajax come alone
with Teucer the master archer at his side."


      A brisk command, and the runner snapped to it--
he dashed along the wall of the Argive men-at-arms
till he reached the two Aeantes, stopped and shouted,
"Ajax—Ajax! Chiefs of the Argives armed in bronze,
the favorite son of Peteos dear to immortals
needs you at his strongpoint—hurry, come,
just for a moment, meet the crisis there.
Both of you, better yet, that's best of all.
Headlong ruin's massing against us quickly.
Lycia's captains are bearing down too hard,
fierce as they always were in past attacks.
But if fighting's flaring up in your own sector,
at least let the rugged giant Ajax come alone
with Teucer the master archer at his side!"


      And Telamon's giant son agreed at once.
He called out to his smaller, faster brother
with orders flying, "Ajax, you stay here,
you and the burly Lycomedes stand your ground,
keep our Danaans fighting here with all they've got.
I'm on my way over there to meet this new assault—
I'll soon be back, once I've helped our friends."


      And with that Telamonian Ajax strode off
with his brother Teucer, his own father's son,
and Pandion cradling Teucer's long curved bow.
Holding close to the wall, they picked their way
until they reached the brave Menestheus' bastion.
There they found the defenders packed, hard-pressed
as the Lycians' stalwart lords and captains stormed
like a black tornado up against the breastworks—
both men flung themselves in attack, the war cries broke.


      And Telamon's son was the first to kill his man,
Sarpedon's comrade, Epicles great with heart.
He brought him down with a glinting jagged rock,
massive, top of the heap behind the rampart's edge,
no easy lift for a fighter even in prime strength,
working with both hands, weak as men are now.
Giant Ajax hoisted it high and hurled it down,
crushed the rim of the fighter's four-homed helmet
and cracked his skull to splinters, bloody pulp—
and breakneck down like a diver went the Trojan
Plunging off and away from the steep beetling tower
as life breath left his bones.
                                                  And Glaucus next . . .
Hippolochus' brawny son was scrambling up the wall
when Teucer's arrow winged him from high aloft,
just where he saw his shoulder blade laid bare,
and stopped his lust for battle. Down he jumped
from the wall in secret, fast, so no Achaean
could see him hit and bellow out in triumph.
Soon as he noticed Glaucus slipping clear,
the pain overcame Sarpedon
but even so he never forgot his lust for battle.
He lunged in with a spear at Thestor's son Alcmaon,
stabbed him, dragged out the shaft as the victim,
caving into the spear's pull, pitched headfirst
and his fine bronze armor clashed against his corpse.
And Sarpedon clawing the rampart now with powerful hands,
wrenched hard and the whole wall came away, planks and all
and the rampart stood exposed, top defenses stripped—
Sarpedon had made a gaping breach for hundreds.


      But Teucer and Ajax, aiming at him together,
shot!—Teucer's arrow hitting the gleaming belt
that cinched his body-shield around his chest—
but Zeus brushed from his son the deadly spirits:
not by the ships' high stems would his Sarpedon die.
Ajax lunged at the man, he struck his shield but the point
would not pierce through, so he beat him back in rage
and he edged away from the breastwork just a yard.
Not that Sarpedon yielded all the way, never,
his heart still raced with hopes of winning glory,
whirling, shouting back to his splendid Lycians,
"Lycians—why do you slack your fighting-fury now?
It's hard for me, strong as I am, single-handed
to breach the wall and cut a path to the ships—
come, shoulder-to-shoulder!
The more we've got, the better the work will go!"


      So he called, and dreading their captain's scorn
they bore down fiercer, massing round Sarpedon now
but against their bulk the Argives closed ranks,
packed tight behind the wall,
and a desperate battle flared between both armies.
Lycian stalwarts could not force the Achaeans back,
breach their wall and burst through to the ships,
nor could Achaean spearmen hurl the Lycians back,
clear of the rampart, once they'd made their stand.
As two farmers wrangle hard over boundary-stones,
measuring rods in hand, locked in a common field,
and fight it out on the cramped contested strip
for equal shares of turf—so now the rocky bastion
split the troops apart and across the top they fought,
hacked at each other, chopped the oxhides round their chests,
the bucklers full and round, skin-shields, tassels flying.
Many were wounded, flesh ripped by the ruthless bronze
whenever some fighter wheeled and bared his back
but many right through the buckler's hide itself.
Everywhere—rocks, ramparts, breastworks swam
with the blood of Trojans, Argives, both sides,
but still the Trojans could not rout the Argives.
They held tight as a working widow holds the scales,
painstakingly grips the beam and lifts the weight
and the wool together, balancing both sides even,
struggling to win a grim subsistence for her children.
So powerful armies drew their battle line dead even
till, at last, Zeus gave Hector the son of Priam
the greater glory—the first to storm the wall.
Hector loosed a piercing cry at his men:
"Drive, drive, my stallion-breaking Trojans!
Breach the Achaean rampart! Hurl your fire now—
a blazing inferno of fire against their ships!"
                                                            So he cried,
driving them on, and all ears rang with his cries
and a tight phalanx launched straight at the wall,
brandishing sharp spears, swarming the bastions,
as Hector grappled a boulder, bore it up and on.
It stood at the gates, huge, blunt at the base
but spiked to a jagged point
and no two men, the best in the whole realm,
could easily prize it up from earth and onto a wagon,
weak as men are now—but he quickly raised and shook it
as Zeus the son of Cronus with Cronus' twisting ways
made it a light lift for Hector all on his own.
As a shepherd lifts a ram's fleece with ease,
plucks it up with a hand—no weight at all to him—
so Hector raised the rock, bore it straight for the doors
that blocked the gateway, powerful, thickset, the pair
towering up with two bars on the inside, crossing over
each other, shot home with a bolt to pin them firm.
Planting his body right in front, legs spread wide,
his weight in the blow to give it total impact,
Hector hurled at the gates, full center, smashing
the hinges left and right and the boulder tore through,
dropped with a crash and both gates groaned and thundered—
the doorbars could not hold, the planking shattered up
in a flying storm of splinters under the rock's force
and Hector burst through in glory, his face dark
as the sudden rushing night but he blazed on in bronze
and terrible fire broke from the gear that wrapped his body,
two spears in his fists. No one could fight him, stop him,
none but the gods as Hector hurtled through the gates
and his eyes flashed fire. And whirling round
he cried to his Trojans, shouting through the ruck,
"The wall, storm the wall!"
                                                  They rushed to obey him,
some swarming over the top at once, others streaming in
through the sturdy gateways—Argives scattering back in terror,
back by the hollow hulls, the uproar rising, no way out, no end—


02 03 04 05 06
07 08 09 10 11 12
13 14 15 16 17 18
19 20 21 22 23 24