Zeus speaks these words to the horses of Achilles’ chariot, who weep over the death of Patroclus in Book 17. Grim as they are, the lines accurately reflect the Homeric view of the human condition. Throughout The Iliad, as well as The Odyssey, mortals often figure as little more than the playthings of the gods. Gods can whisk them away from danger as easily as they can put them in the thick of it. It is thus appropriate that the above lines are spoken by a god, and not by a mortal character or the mortal poet; the gods know the mortals’ agony, as they play the largest role in causing it.
While gods can presumably manipulate and torment other animals that “breathe and crawl across the earth,” humanity’s consciousness of the arbitrariness of their treatment at the hands of the gods, their awareness of the cruel choreography going on above, increases their agony above that of all other creatures. For while the humans remain informed of the gods’ interventions, they remain powerless to contradict them. Moreover, humans must deal with a similarly fruitless knowledge of their fates. The Iliad’s two most important characters, Achilles and Hector, both know that they are doomed to die early deaths. Hector knows in addition that his city is doomed to fall, his brothers and family to be extinguished, and his wife to be reduced to slavery. These men’s agony arises from the fact that they bear the burden of knowledge without being able to use this knowledge to bring about change.