Iliad: Book 12 | The Trojans Storm the Rampart

Deacon Harrison Garlick and Adam Minihan welcome Thomas Lackey and David Niles to discuss Book 12 of The Iliad, The Trojans Storm the Rampart.

In this episode we will discuss:

  • Our Sunday Great Books group.
  • What is the issue with the gods and the wall of the Achaeans?
  • What should we make of the story of Asius?
  • What should we make of Hector disregarding the bird-sign?
  • What else should be observed in book 12?

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Bird-signs! Fight for your country—that is the best, the only omen! – Hector (12.280)

58. What happens in book twelve? 

As many of the Achaean warlords lay injured, Hector leads his onslaught against the Greek defenses (12.05). The Achaean ships are surrounded by a rampart, a thick wood wall, with a wide trench in front (12.05). The Trojan Polydamas advises Hector that the sharp stakes in the trench and narrowness of openings in the rampart make chariot-warfare impossible (12.72). The Trojans dismount and break into five battalions to assault the Achaean wall (12.105). Hector leads the charge against the rampart, as Zeus whips up a dust storm to aid the Trojan siege (12.292). The Achaeans have blocked the rampart gates with “ox-hide shields,” (12.305), they have gathered heavy stones to crush their enemies (12.438), and they have the two Aeantes, i.e., Giant and Little Ajax, helping to defend the wall (12.307). 

Sarpedon, driven by his father, Zeus, leads his Trojan battalion against the rampart (12.340). Homer writes: “And Sarpedon clawing the rampart now with powerful hands, wrenched hard and the whole wall came away, planks and all” (12.460). He “made a gaping breach for hundreds” (12.463). The Achaean archer Teucer hits Sarpedon with an arrow, but Zeus ensures it is not a fatal hit (12.467). The armies crash with neither gaining ground (12.485) until Zeus gives Hector the glory (12.507). Hector lifts a boulder no two men could easily lift (12.519) and, amongst the chaos of the clashing forces, throws the boulder at the Achaean gate (12.532). The gate shatters, and Hector “bursts through in glory” (12.537). He cries, “the wall, storm the wall!” (12.544) The book ends as the Trojans swarm through the wall and the Argives “scatter back in terror” (12.547).

59. What is the issue with the gods and the wall of the Achaeans?

The opening of the book returns to the fact the Achaeans did not give the deathless gods their due sacrifice when they made their rampart (12.07). Recall that Poseidon and Apollo, who helped build the Trojan walls (Question 42), are offended that the Achaean walls may receive more glory. Homer then shifts into the future when Troy has fallen and tells us that Poseidon and Apollo (with some help from Zeus) will destroy the Achaean wall and set everything right (12.41). The Achaeans forgetting to exercise their proper piety toward the gods and thus omitting a due sacrifice is a poor habit that should be noted for future reference. 

60. What should we make of the story of Asius?

Homer gives us the curious narrative of Asius, a Trojan ally and leader, who refuses to leave his chariot when all the other Trojans form into battalions to assault the Achaean wall (12.132). As Homer writes: “Straight at the gates he lashed his team, hell-bent, his troops crowding behind him shouting war cries” (12.146). The assault fails. Asius calls Zeus a liar—presumably because he knew that Zeus had given the Trojans the glory but did not think that only two Achaeans—the “lionhearted of Lapith”—could hold the gate (12.153). The error of Asius seems twofold: first, breaking ranks with Hector, favored by Zeus; and two, presuming that the glory of being the first to breach the wall was attainable and not one reserved by Zeus for Hector (12.507). His tactical error is, at heart, a theological one: an inability to read the gods well. 

61. What should we make of Hector disregarding the bird-sign? 

After the folly of Asius but before the Trojan battalions assault the wall, the Trojans see another bird-sign, an omen (12.231). The Trojan Polydamas warns the omen is a sign from Zeus not to engage the Argives at their ships—and if they do, the Argives will slaughter the Trojans all the way back to the walls of Troy (12.249). Hector provides a somewhat famous response: “Bird-signs! Fight for your country—that is the best, the only omen!” (12.280) One may compare his response to his earlier unquestioning obedience to the bird-sign that recalled him to Troy to arrange a sacrifice to Athena (Question 35). 

Any perspective here that attempts to present Hector as trusting in the power of men over the gods (i.e., human capacity over superstition) seems unsupported by the text. Note that Hector disregards the bird-sign as an omen from Zeus, because he believes he knows the will of Zeus (12.272). No doubt this is a reference to the message from Iris in book eleven (11.217). In sum, Hector tells Polydamas to not be a coward and trust “in the will of might Zeus” (12.278). The issue here is not trusting in human ability over the divine, but rather how to interpret the divine will. 

62. What else should be observed in book twelve?

The speech of Sarpedon to Glaucus prior to storming the wall provides a quick insight into the ancient concept of duty (12.359). Sarpedon lists how he and Glaucus enjoy grand estates and other kingly benefits from their people; thus, it is now their duty to throw themselves into the “blaze of war” (12.367). In sum, they have a duty to win glory that justifies their kingly lives (12.372). In contrast to the perspective of the ruler, we see the perspective of the ruled in Polydamas’ comment to Hector: “Never right, is it, for a common man to speak against you, King… our part is always to magnify your power” (12.247). As such, book twelve provides some material to discern the mindset of the ruler and ruled in ancient Greek culture. 

Also, if we recall the question of how strong is the Trojan army without divine intervention (Question 44), note that not even Hector and his Trojans could have breached the wall unless Zeus first sent in his son, Sarpedon, to breach it (12.337). Finally, recall too the theme of how the Iliad depicts warfare (Question 27), and note that Homer mentions the Trojans forming a phalanx to storm the Achaean wall (12.514).

63. Halfway through the Iliad, what the major themes or motifs we should be tracking?

The major themes and motifs that we should be observing throughout the Iliad are as follows:

  • The rage of Achilles and how the request of Thetis to Zeus structures the narrative;
  • The invocation to the Muses and why they are invoked; 
  • The role of the “nameless fate” and whether it is distinguishable from Father Zeus; 
  • The freedom of man, if any, in relation to the will of the gods and/or fate;
  • The importance of burying the dead with proper rituals (and what denying that means);
  • The comparison between Achilles and Hector and Homer’s intent in doing so (arete);
  • The importance of guest-friendship (xenia) amongst the ancient Greeks; 
  • The character of Odysseus and what we are to make of the famous tactician; and
  • The subtle theme of shields and what it means to bear the shield of another in battle.

We continue to turn toward Homer the teacher to unfurl these themes and provide us insights not just into his characters but into human nature as a whole.

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