Summary and Analysis
The Achaians are forced to take refuge behind their wall while the Trojans continue their brutal assault. But the Trojans soon discover that they are unable to cross the Achaian trench in their chariots, so they attack on foot. Much bloody combat ensues.
Then suddenly an eagle with a serpent in its talons flies over the Trojan army; Poulydamas, a Trojan commander, interprets this as a bad omen and asks Hektor to fall back, but the commander refuses. The attack continues and after several attempts, the Achaian wall is broken. Forcing open one of the gates with a large stone, Hektor and his men storm inside. The Achaians retreat in panic and take refuge among their ships.
Zeus has brought Hektor and the Trojans as far as the Achaian ships, so now he relaxes and turns his attention to other matters. Poseidon takes advantage of Zeus' lapse of attention to come to the aid of the Achaians and, disguised as Kalchas, he moves among the Achaian ranks, encouraging them to continue fighting.
While the violent battle continues, old Nestor seeks out Agamemnon, Diomedes, and Odysseus, all three of whom are wounded. Nestor wants to devise a plan of action. Agamemnon is certain that the defeat of the Achaian army has been willed by heaven, and he can think only of having the troops retreat and board their ships, escaping by sea. Odysseus points out that this is not only dishonorable but that it would be extremely dangerous. It would be very difficult, he says, to launch and board their ships while under attack. To do this may make a Trojan victory even easier. The leaders then decide to go among the ranks and encourage their men.
From Olympos, Hera notices how Poseidon, the sea god, is trying to aid the Achaians, and so she makes plans to occupy Zeus so that Poseidon will have even more opportunity to help the besieged Achaians. Dressing in her finest garments and borrowing the magic girdle of Aphrodite, Hera flies off to Mount Ida, where Zeus is sitting. Her husband is overwhelmed by her charms, and Hera finds it easy to seduce him. As prearranged, the God of Sleep casts a spell over Zeus.
Book XII, sometimes called "the book of the wall," completes the first grand sweep of Trojan successes as Homer builds up to the re-entry of Achilles. The Book opens with the explanation that in the future the wall will be completely destroyed by Poseidon, showing the impermanence of human creation. The passage on the future of the wall is somewhat reminiscent of Shelley's "Ozymandias" that points out the futility of human pride. In both works, the impermanence of human accomplishments is contrasted with the overwhelming natural power of the universe.
Poseidon, having been introduced in Book XII, takes an even greater role in Book XIII. Book XIII is sometimes referred to as the Poseidonead. Poseidon rouses the Achaians to battle with hortatory speeches. These exhortations early in Book XIII are another typical facet of epic battle and once again accentuate the importance of oratory in Greek culture. Just as the speeches in Book IX reveal the oratorical skills of the warriors, so now in Book XIII the god is shown as a great orator as well as fighter.
In the last part of the book, old Idomeneus emerges as the principal fighter. The battle scenes in this book grow more intense as the fighting seems to move toward some climax. Idomeneus, the Cretan king, has his aristeia as he holds off the Trojan attackers.
Book XIV continues the great battle near the Achaian ships but adds a new element — the tricking of Zeus. Several commentators have suggested that this book prefigures later mock epics such as The Rape of the Lock. Unquestionably, Homer here introduces a comic element as a break from the intense battle scenes that precede and follow the interlude between Hera and Zeus. The seduction of Zeus by Hera requires careful planning because she, in a very real sense, is subverting the will of the Father God in attempting to allow Poseidon to attack the Trojans unchecked.
The sash that Aphrodite gives Hera is of some interest. It has both sexually provocative pictures and words, one of the few references in the Iliad to writing.
Zeus' seduction speech to Hera must be one of the most unusual in the history of love and sex. Zeus essentially woos his wife with a report on his sexual conquests — an interesting tactic.
After Hera seduces Zeus and lulls him to sleep, the story returns to the battle, where, oddly, the Greek warriors exchange armor. This event has been frequently commented on, some suggesting that it shows a commingling of identities among the Achaian warriors, others finding it incomprehensible if not downright bizarre. Because the passage says, "The best men donned the best, the worst the worst," it seems that the idea is that for the upcoming charge, the greatest warriors need the best armor. To suggest that this is somehow a commingling of identity seems unlikely because the action is clearly to stratify the soldiers rather than bring them together.
At the end, Poseidon leads the Achaians into battle, perhaps symbolically showing that the Achaians literally have the sea at their backs.
The second great surge forward by the Trojans occurs in Book XV. Zeus, having awakened to the Achaian rally, asserts his leadership, and no god dares stand in his way. Zeus stands into direct contrast with Agamemnon, whose leadership is frequently questioned and sometimes challenged.
On page 389 starting at line 67, Zeus presents the outcome of the battle. This passage is of interest because it points to the fact that Homer's audience was completely aware of the plot events of the poem. Homer does not have to depend on his plot to create interest. His audience is involved as they watch the inexorable tide of events surging toward their inevitable close. As with so many Greek works, the power lies in how the author handles his material as opposed to simply what happens.
Achilles' friend, Patroklos, who has been introduced earlier in the epic, becomes a major player in this book. Patroklos tries to persuade Achilles to enter the battle. Having failed in that attempt, Patroklos gets permission to enter himself. The discussion between Achilles and Patroklos shows that Achilles is in conflict regarding his position. He obviously wishes to return to battle, but cannot because of his vow and his pride. Oddly, Achilles seems more and more like a modern, alienated anti-hero — the man apart from everyone else, unable to act until action is forced upon him.
Apollo rouses Hektor to return to the battle. Once again the gods act as inspiration for the mortals. Symbolically, the God of War acts as the elemental force that drives men into battle. Consequently, Hektor, who had pulled back from the fight, finds renewed energy and surges forward.
boundary stones boulders used to mark property lines in Greek communities.
casque a helmet; In anatomy the casque refers to a helmet-like body part; Homer, often refers to the skull with this term.
Cebriones one of Priam's bastard sons, killed by Achilles.
Polydamous one of the Trojan commanders.
battalion a large group of soldiers arrayed for battle.
bossed shield decorated with raised ornaments. The more modern term would be embossed.
God of the Earthquake Poseidon.
Panic god who personifies fear and riot among the troops.
Sleep god who is the brother of Death.
Zeus' conquests Danae, Ixion's wife, Europa, Semele, Alcmena, Demeter, and Leto are all listed by Zeus as sexual conquests. This list is his strange means of seducing his wife, Hera.
Styx, River of the Underworld Achilles was dipped in it by Thetis, making him invulnerable except for his heel. Gods also swore oaths by the River Styx.