Iliad: Book 20 | The Olympian Gods in Arms

Dcn. Harrison Garlick and Adam Minihan discuss Book 20 of the Iliad: The Olympian Gods in Arms

  • Summary of the narrative
  • What is Aeneas special?
  • Some details others often overlook

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“Aeneas will rule the men of Troy in power—his son’s sons and the sons born in future years.” 

Poseidon (20.355).


90.      What happens in book twenty?

Zeus calls the gods to council and tells them that they may now aide whatever side they wish—the strict decree to not intervene is over (20.29). And why does Zeus do this? He states: “I fear [Achilles will] raze the walls against the will of fate” (20.36). As such, Hera, Athena, Poseidon, and Hermes go to the Achaeans, and Ares, Apollo, Artemis, Leto, Xanthus, and Aphrodite go to the Trojans (20.40).[1] The gods clash in an apocalyptic war (20.80). Achilles searches for Hector, but Apollo convinces Aeneas to duel him (20.99). Poseidon convinces the gods of a truce, and the immortals line the battlefield to watch the mortals wage war (20.160). After some taunting, Achilles and Aeneas meet on the battlefield (20.299). Aeneas’ spear fails to penetrate the great shield of Achilles (20.310), and the ashen spear of Achilles penetrates Aeneas’ shield but fails to hit him (20.319). Aeneas lifts a giant boulder, and we are given a future glimpse at fate: Aeneas will hit Achilles, but Achilles’ counter will slay Aeneas (20.331). Oddly, it is Poseidon, not Apollo, who takes pity on Aeneas, for Poseidon tells the gods Aeneas is “destined to survive” (20.349). Hera refuses to pity a Trojan (20.357); so, Poseidon saves Aeneas and tells him to stay away from Achilles, because “no other Achaean can bring you down in war” (20.386).

 Unlike with Aeneas, Apollo advises Hector to not engage Achilles (20.428). Achilles slaughters several Trojans including Polydorus, the brother of Hector (20.476). Hector, unable to bear watching Achilles slaughter his countrymen, engages Achilles against Apollo’s command and throws his spear at him (20.479). Athena makes Hector’s spear blow back to him and land at his feet (20.500), and Apollo whisks Hector away before Achilles can kill him (20.502). More and more Trojans fall to Achilles until the young Trojan Tros falls at Achilles knees, clutching him, and begs for mercy (20.524). Achilles slits open is liver and watches his “dark blood” spill out (20.530). The book ends with Achilles raging like an “inhuman fire,” like a “frenzied god” (20.558).

 91.      What is the destiny of Aeneas?

In his stance against Achilles, Aeneas presents his genealogy—presumably due to Apollo’s observation that Aeneas’ patrimony is more impressive than Achilles’ (20.250, 125). We also see Poseidon tell the gods that Aeneas is “destined to survive” (20.349). Most notable, Poseidon prophesies: “Aeneas will rule the men of Troy in power—his son’s sons and the sons born in future years” (20.355). How will Aeneas rule Troy, however, if Troy is already fated to be destroyed? Aeneas is destined to be the founder of a new Troy. His genealogy shows he is from the “younger branch of the Trojan royal house (Priam, king of Troy, was the older branch.”[2] And, as Fagles notes, “Aeneas is to be the only survivor of the royal house of Troy, and here his lineage is established.”[3] After the Homeric era, there is a lost poem, the Iliupersis, that states Aeneas escaped Troy with his father and son.[4] Other stories that Aeneas’ wanderings led him to Italy “may possibly have existed in the sixth or fifth centuries.”[5] By the fourth century B.C., the legend of Aeneas as the founder of Rome matured “when it was synthesized with the chronologically difficult legend of the city’s foundation by Romulus (a descendent of Aeneas through his mother).”[6]

The narrative that Rome was the new Troy was so ingrained in the ancient peoples, that when a Greek king launched a war against Rome in 281 B.C., “he saw himself as a descendent of Achilles making war on a colony of Troy.”[7] The definitive legend of Aeneas as the founder of Rome come from the Roman poet Virgil who authored the Aeneid (19 B.C.). The story tells of Aeneas’ famous escape from Troy, his wanderings, and his eventual founding of the eternal city of Rome. It has been observed that the Roman Empire is the final revenge of Troy upon the Greeks.


92.      What else happens in book twenty?

The opening of the text includes: “the Ocean stream that holds the earth in place,” which gives further insight into the significance of Ocean’s river limning Achilles’ shield (20.09). It is notable that Zeus believes he must tend to fate and be its caretaker at times, as he releases the Olympian gods to ensure Achilles does not take Troy “against the will of fate” (20.36). As if fate, on some level, must be cared for in order to properly mature. One should note that Hera gives a different reason for the gods intervening: “so Achilles might not fall at Trojan hands today” (20.148). Homer uses the three principal gods—Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades—to denote the severity of the gods warring with one another (20.68). The Trojans know the gods favor Achilles, and that the fight is not fair (20.115).

It is interesting to see what Achilles thinks would motivate a man to stand against him in battle, as he assumes Aeneas has been offered Priam’s throne or grand estates to fight him (20.207). Achilles’ shield is shown to be five plies think (and not indestructible): two outer layers of bronze, then two of tin, and a center one of gold (20.310). One is tempted to find allegorical meaning in these details. We see the return of the pattern of three assaults and then a fourth, as Achilles attempts to kill Hector under Apollo’s care (20.504).[8] The book ends lending itself to the perception that Achilles is begining a type of deification, as he is like an “inhuman fire,” a “chaos of fire,” and “like a frenzied god” (20.558).

[1] Fagles notes that Hephaestus could functionally be seen to be on the Achaean side as well. “Leto and Artemis are mother and sister of Apollo,” hence their allegiance to Troy. Xanthus is the principal river outside of Troy. Fagles, 631.

[2] Companion, 9.

[3] Fagles, 632.

[4] Companion, 9.

[5] Companion, 9.

[6] Companion, 10.

[7] Companion, 10.

[8] Cf. Patroclus’ assault on Troy and his death (Question 73).

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