Fighting Beyond Fate

The death of Patroclus propels the events in the final books of Homer’s Iliad.


Book 16 of the Iliad epitomizes the height of the chaotic struggle between the Achaeans and the Trojans as each try desperately to gain the upper hand. Lost in the rage of battle and spurred on by Zeus, Patroclus gains the upper hand after killing Sarpedon, the adopted son of Troy, yet only to be taken down by Apollo, then killed by Hector. In this battle, there is a contention between desire and fate, the gods’ and man’s struggle for they want placed beside that of inexorable fate. Here, Patroclus is the warrior fighting beyond his fate, not great enough to level the walls of Troy, but just a soldier who, like many young men, is fated to die outside the walls of Ilium.

From the outset, man’s contention with fate is given voice by Zeus’ indecision. The mightiest of the gods deliberates about the impending fate of his son Sarpedon: should he save him from immediate death impaled on the spear of Patroclus, or should he let him die, a fate to which even Zeus must eventually acquiesce. Hera reminds the waffling god that he must allow fate to run its course; otherwise all of the immortals would try to save their sons from death. Hera’s speech suggests that even the gods must bow to the mightier force of fate, though they might wish to interfere for those they love. There is a way of things: the warrior’s fate is “to die in the brutal onslaught” of the battlefield (16.38).

Yet, Homer’s treatment, while brutally realistic (Sarpedon is “buried under a mass of weapons, blood, and dust” (246)), cannot be considered inhuman. Each of the fallen heroes, on both sides, has a name, a position, and is truly a hero on the battlefield. Though many are fated to die, Homer is concerned with all of the men, at least those who are members of the aristoi, or the nobility. The concentration remains on these heroes, while the rank and file probably die like many of our soldiers today on battlefields around the world: nameless fodder for the war machine, compelled to action while for reason they might not understand.

The gods of war. Does it help to give them human faces?

Fate seems to be something that remains out of the realm of human understanding. Glaucus, Sarpedon’s companion and cousin, laments the ostensible fact that Zeus did not stand behind his fallen son, unaware of Zeus’ impotence at the hands of fate: “Our bravest man is dead, Sarpedon, Zeus’s son — / did Zeus stand by him? Not even his own son!” (116-117). Glaucus’ cry suggests humanity’s ignorance at much of their position in the universe, especially when it comes to death. Is it fate or the gods that control our destinies? While this question will later be asked quite poignantly in Oedipus Rex, the question here remains moot in the face of grim death; our friend and hero has fallen — why? There is no answer except to reciprocate in kind. Patroclus must die.

This book also suggests another aspect of war, another savage part of humanity that comes to the surface all too often: when we pick up swords or gun or tactical missiles, the time for diplomacy is at an end. There is a time for talk, and a time for the spear, as Patroclus reminds Meriones as he trades insults with Aeneas:

Trust me, my friend, you’ll never force the Trojans
back from this corpse with a few stinging taunts—
Earth will bury many a man before that. Come—
the proof of battle is in action, proof of words, debate.
No time for speeches now, it’s time to fight. (231-235)

While it is regrettable that we humans now and again depend on violence to set things right, perhaps violence is hard wired into our species by millennia of biological evolution. We are not much different today, though the mere 3000 years that separates our world from that of epical Greece cannot seemingly compete with the millions that shaped our biology for survival. Still, when we have made more technological progress in the last fifty years than we have in the last 3000, it seems as if we should be able to solve our problems without resorting to the gun. Alas, it’s not so.

Is it our fate to always live by the sword? Are we creatures doomed to die on the battlefield, no matter what scientific and cultural advances we pretend make us the dominant species on the planet? When it comes down to it, we are not better than the animals we think we’re superior to. What good does the Iliad do if it does not let us know that war should be avoided at all costs? When our best and brightest must be sacrificed for the desires and arrogance of a few, how have we grown as a species? Perhaps my desire to learn something from the 3000 years of culture is my own fighting beyond my fate? For I, like the arrogant Patroclus, am doomed to die.


Originally written on Sep 10, 2004 @ 16:07.