Iliad: Book 7 | Ajax Duels with Hector

Deacon Harrison Garlick and Adam Minihan sit down to talk about the duel between Ajax and Hector in Book 7.

In this episode we will discuss:

  • What happens in book 7?
  • What does Nestor, the old Achaean war chief, say to Hector?
  • The duel between Ajax and Hector.
  • How the end of book seven introduces the reader to the importance of burying the dead.

What happens in book seven?

Hector and Paris lead the “rampaging Trojans” on a counteroffensive against the Achaeans (7.19). Athena goes to intervene, but Apollo convinces her to “halt the war and the heat of combat now” to presumably save the Trojans from Athena’s wrath (7.34). To do this, Athena inspires Helenus, one of the fifty sons of Priam, that the gods have commanded that Hector challenge the bravest Achaean to single combat (7.58). Hector makes the challenge, and it should be noted that the victor can retain the war gear of the deceased—but the body of the loser will be given back to his people for full burial rites (7.92). Homer says a “hushed silence went through the Achaean ranks, ashamed to refuse, afraid to take his challenges” (7.106). Menelaus stands to take the challenge, but his brother, Agamemnon, talks him down—one may once again ponder whether Agamemnon cares more for his brother or cares more that Menelaus’ death might demotivate the Achaeans and end the Trojan war. 

Nestor, the old Achaean war chief, gives an oration on how if he was younger he would best Hector and taunts his “spineless” comrades (7.183). Nine Achaeans respond to the challenge and enter a lottery to see who fate selects (7.202). Giant Ajax is selected and his heart is filled with joy (7.220). Ajax and Hector duel, and Ajax arguably has the better of Hector who must be assisted by Apollo—but the duel ends at a draw due to nightfall (7.322). Both sides then separately come to the decision that the next day should have a break in the fighting in order that the dead may be given their ritual burials (7.380, 432). The parties make an oath to this effect (7.476) and bury their dead.

42. What else should we observe in book seven?

We continue to track the theme of fate. Apollo speaks of the “fixed doom of Troy” (7.35), and Hector, when speaking to the Achaeans, says Zeus could give the victory to either side (7.80). It is interesting that Ajax at first wants his comrades to pray but not out loud (7.224)—presumably so their prayers are not construed as him or the Achaeans being afraid (7.226). Attention should be given to the Trojan Antenor who both declares that Troy, having broken the truce, “fight as outlaws,” and recommends they give back Helen and all her treasures (7.400). His statement on the truce to his fellow Trojans is much more direct than Hector’s statement to the Achaeans blaming Zeus (7.80). Paris refuses to offer Helen but agrees to offer the treasure—it is notable that Priam, who agrees not to offer Helen, blames Paris “who caused our long hard campaign” (7.430). Compare his statement to when he told Helen it was the fault of the gods (Question 23). We should ponder to what degree these statements are contradictory to each other. Remember when messengers repeat lines, Homer uses these opportunities to add a gloss (or an omission). Here, the Trojan messenger for Priam to the Achaeans adds that he wishes Paris would have drowned (7.450) and that Helen is the “lawful wife” of Menelaus (7.452). Another insight into the Trojan view of Paris.

The end of book seven should be seen as introducing the reader to the importance of burying the dead—a theme that will take on central significance in the Iliad. Moreover, note that Poseidon laments that the Achaeans are building ramparts and an “enormous trench” (7.520). In other words, the Achaeans are building military defenses under the guise of building burial mounds for the dead. Poseidon, who is concerned the world will forget he and Apollo built the walls of Troy, is referencing the aforementioned myth of when Heracles sacked Troy (Question 33). The book ends with an insight into the Greek supply chain (7.540) and the notable juxtaposition of prayers to Father Zeus and Zeus plotting “fresh disaster” (7.551).

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