Iliad: Book 16 | Patroclus Fights and Dies

Dcn. Harrison Garlick and Adam Minihan discuss Book 16 of the Iliad: Patroclus Fights and Dies.

  • Summary of Book 16
  • What is the difference between Zeus and Fate?
  • What is the relation of Fate to the free will of men?
  • Did Patroclus deserve his fate?


70.      What happens in books sixteen?


Patroclus returns to Achilles and begs Achilles to send him out to fight in Achilles’ armor (16.43). Homer writes: “So [Patroclus] pleaded, lost in his own great innocence, condemned to beg for his own death and brutal doom” (16.53). Achilles comes to understand his rage cannot last forever, but he recalls his promise not to fight until the “cries and carnage reached” his own ships (16.72). Thus, Achilles agrees and sends Patroclus with his armor and the Myrmidons to fight (16.74). However, Achilles tells Patroclus to only fight the Trojans off the Argive ships and not to pursue them back to Troy, because that may diminish his glory, the fame of Achilles (16.105).


Homer notably invokes the Muses to help him sing about the burning of the Achaean ships (16.135). Ajax is unable to stop Hector and his men from setting the ship ablaze, and Achilles sees the flames and sends out Patroclus with the Myrmidons (16.151). The Trojan columns “buckle” upon seeing Patroclus who they believe is Achilles (16.328), as Patroclus bears all of Achilles’ war gear save his spear (16.168); thus, Patroclus and the Argives set upon the Trojans like “ravenous wolves” upon lambs (16.415). Sarpedon, son of Zeus, is slain by Patroclus (16.570), and Glaucus, strengthened by Apollo, rallies his fellow Trojans to secure Sarpedon’s body (16.631). Similarly, Patroclus rallies Ajax and the Argives to the body of Sarpedon, the first to storm the Argive wall (16.653), to “mutilate him, shame him, [and] tear his gear from his back” (16.653). Thus, the body of Sarpedon, son of Zeus, becomes lost under the “mass of weapons, blood, and dust” (16.743).


Zeus makes Hector a coward, and the Trojan prince calls for a retreat (16.763). The Achaeans win the body of Sarpedon, but Zeus sends Apollo to rescue the body before it can be mutilated (16.777). Patroclus, not heeding the command of Achilles, pushes his assault onward toward Troy (16.803). Apollo repels Patroclus’ assaults on Troy and warns the warrior that it is “not the will of fate” that Troy falls to him (16.826). Though Apollo strengthens Hector (16.840), Patroclus still presses forward but Apollo sneaks behind him and slams Patroclus to the ground with a slap across the back (16.920). Disoriented, Patroclus is then stabbed in the back by Euphorbus, a Trojan (16.938), who then retreats. Hector then runs forward and spears Patroclus in the gut—the “brazen point went jutting straight out through Patroclus’ back” (16.967). Hector taunts the dying Patroclus (16.967), and Patroclus dies prophesying that Hector will die soon (16.998).[1] The last word of Patroclus is “Achilles” (16.1000).


71.      What do we observe about Zeus and the nameless fate in book sixteen?


We see Zeus lament his “cruel fate” in his son, Sarpedon, having to die to bring about the death of Patroclus (16.514). Knox holds this shows the “will of Zeus is thwarted by fate.”[2] He writes that the “will of Zeus” and this “nameless destiny” are “irreconcilables” held in “coexistence.”[3] He sees in this the nascent discussion in the Western tradition to “embrace the logical contradiction of freedom and order combined.”[4] Many will note that both Zeus and Hera seem to assume that Zeus could change Sarpedon’s “doom sealed long ago” but that doing so would introduce chaos (16.524). The scene is reminiscent of Zeus holding out the golden scales in book eight (Question 46). Is fate simply an alter ego of Zeus, a manifestation of his will, or is Zeus truly subject in some way to the nameless fate? We should also recall that Zeus already showed himself vulnerable to the more primordial forces of Sleep and Love.


It should be remembered that once Zeus gives his assent, he cannot change his decision; thus, his own will certainly manufactures a particular fate to which even he is bound. Note that just prior to Patroclus’ death we are told: “the Father’s spirit churning, thrashing out the ways, the numberless ways to cause Patroclus’ slaughter” (16.752). As Knox observes, “the idea of destiny, of what is fixed, is flexible.”[5] The question is whether Zeus is bound by and even an agent of a more cosmic, nameless fate.


72.      What observations may be made between fate and the will of men?


Hector, who is acted upon often by the gods, occasions several examples in book sixteen of the dynamics between the will of man and the will of the gods. First, observe that upon the Achaean advance, Hector, who knows the tide has turned, “still stood firm, defending die-hard comrades” (16.428). Then Zeus sends cyclones to produce the foretold “dust storm” (16.442), and Hector’s horses speed him away as his fellow Trojans die (16.433). For a more explicit example, Zeus begins the work of Patroclus’ death by making Hector a coward (16.763). Hector, however, appears aware that Zeus is acting upon him (16.766). Homer tells us that Patroclus “might have escaped his doom” if he had listened to Achilles, but ultimately “the will of Zeus will always overpower the will of men” (16.803).


Similarly, as Patroclus attempts to assault Troy, Apollo repels him and says: “it is not the will of fate” that Troy fall to him (16.826). As an aside, the reader should note that Apollo also says it is not the fate of Troy to fall to Achilles either (16.828). As Patroclus lays dying, he is cognizant of what has happened to him, as he tells Hector: “deadly fate in league with Apollo killed me” (16.993). Book sixteen continues to present fate as deterministic over the actions of man though some men may be aware that fate (or the gods as agents of fate) have acted upon them. Recall that Hector has confidence that no man can take him before fate allows. Moreover, even Achilles or Euchenor who seemingly can choose their fate, can only do so because fate gives them that choice.


73.      Did Patroclus deserve his fate?


On whether Patroclus deserved his fate, many turn to the fact Patroclus disobeyed the advice of Achilles to refrain from assaulting Troy (16.816); however, Homer couples that sentiment with the line that “the will of Zeus will always overpower the will of man” (16.805). Others will turn to Patroclus following the advice of Nestor and construe him donning Achilles’ armor as an act of pride and folly. Most convincing, however, is that Patroclus deserved his fate, because he failed in his mission—he was sent to Troy temper the rage of Achilles and provide him counsel. The intimacy of Patroclus to the narrative is arguably shown by Homer shifting into second person, e.g., “Patroclus, O my rider.”[6] Achilles’ rage, however, animates the events of the Iliad, and the fact it consumed Patroclus bears a certain fittingness and irony.


First time readers to the Iliad often find Patroclus’ death unsatisfying. Expecting some magnificent duel between Patroclus and Hector, they are presented a fatalistic and ignoble death (Question 70). The ignominious nature of it seems worse when coupled with Hector gloating over a dying Patroclus—a Patroclus already struck down by a god and stabbed by Euphorbus (16.938). Though Patroclus’ death seems fitting given his role, the manner of his death seems illuminative to the tension between the will of man and fate. On one hand, Zeus pushes him to assault Troy (16.805), and on the other he is chastised by Apollo that it is not his fate to take Troy (16.826). It is noteworthy that Patroclus assaults Troy three times and then a “superhuman” fourth assault all repelled by Apollo (16.821), which is then mirrored at the death of Patroclus—he has three assaults and then on his fourth assault Apollo strikes him down (16.913). The explicit pattern links the two texts as commentaries on man and fate. Apollo simply slapping Patroclus to the ground from behind belittles Patroclus and shows the human frailty before the gods (16.920). It emphasizes the deterministic fatalism that haunts much of Homer’s work within the Iliad. Moreover, on a more granular level, the manner of Patroclus’ death seems to exhibit the frustration of Apollo who is defending a city he knows is doomed.


74.      What else should be observed in book sixteen?


It is difficult not to note the manner in which Achilles receives the weeping Patroclus, as he states: “O weeping over the Argives, are you? Seeing them die against their hollow ships, repaid for their offenses?” (16.18). We once again see the indefatigable defense of Ajax retreat seemingly only at the will of Zeus (16.121), and that he knows this to a degree “deep in his heart” (16.143). We may observe that Achilles not only has a special cup from which to offer a libation to Zeus but also that he does so outside any feast or drink for himself (16.299). The advent of Patroclus to the battlefield crying “Slaughter Trojans!” brings about the foretold “dust storm” of Trojans retreating back to Troy (16.440). Similarly, the bloodshed confirms the prophecy of Polydamas to Hector on the dangers of lingering by the Achaean ships (16.472). Once again, we are told that the Achaeans could have most likely taken Troy even without Achilles (16.816). Patroclus chastises Meriones for taunting his enemies, saying: “No time for speeches now, it’s time to fight” (16.732) and then taunts Cebriones, the deceased chariot driver of Hector (16.867). Finally, we should observe that Hector calls the dying Patroclus a “maniac” for obeying the orders of Achilles when in fact Patroclus disobeyed (16.984).

[1] Those who may be put off by Hector taunting the dying and then dead Patroclus may compare this Homeric text to the taunting between David and Goliath (I Sam 17). Moreover, note that David strips Goliath of his gear and cuts off his head and brings it to Jerusalem. There is also a parallel between how Hector threatens to treat Patroclus’ body, and Patroclus’ earlier threats against the body of Sarpedon.

[2] Fagles, 40.

[3] Fagles, 40.

[4] Fagles, 40.

[5] Fagles, 40.

[6] See examples at 16.22, 867, 878, 915, 944, 985.

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