The Achaeans’ success so far despite Achilles’ absence, along with Paris’s cowardice and Hector’s hopeless despair in Book 6, have seemed to spell doom for the Trojans. Yet, by the end of Book 8, we recall the Achaeans’ bravado with great irony. Hector has nearly seized their ambitious fortifications, and the Trojans appear more determined than ever. The mutual exasperation with the war that motivates the cease-fire of Books 3 and 4 has now disappeared. No longer wanting to end the war, the Trojans desire to win it; that they camp right beside the Achaeans demonstrates their hunger for battle. The severity of the Achaeans’ impending loss becomes all too clear in Hector’s determination to burn their ships. In a sense, the ships symbolize the future of all Achaea, for although some Achaeans stayed behind in Greece, very few of the land’s fathers and sons remain at home. Moreover, the men who have come to Troy constitute the “best of the Achaeans,” as the poem continually calls them. Should the Trojans burn their ships, the strongest, noblest men and rulers of the Achaean race would either die in flames or remain stranded on foreign shores.
The catastrophic reversal of the Achaeans’ fortune not only adds drama and suspense to the poem but also marks a development in the gods’ feuding and aids the progression of the overall plot. Although the gods have involved themselves extensively in the war already, Zeus’s entrance into the conflict brings great changes. Whereas he earlier frowns upon the infighting of the other gods but remains aloof himself, he now forbids his fellow Olympians from interfering and plunges headlong into the struggle. The decline of the Achaeans marks not only a change in the gods’ behavior but also a more important change in the poem’s human dynamics: the Achaeans’ eventual collapse motivates their appeal to Achilles in Book 9, which serves to bring the epic’s crucial figure to the center of the action. Zeus’s statement to Hera that only Achilles can save the Achaeans foreshadows the text’s impending focus on the prideful hero. Until now, the reader has witnessed the consequences of Achilles’ rage; Book 8 sets the scene for an explosion of his rage onto the battlefield.
Books 7 and 8 give the reader a glimpse of some of the tenets of Greek ritual and belief, which, since Greek culture dominated the ancient Mediterranean world, the Trojan warriors uphold as well. The encounter between Hector and Ajax in Book 7, which ends with them exchanging arms and thereby sealing an unsettled conflict with a pact of friendship, demonstrates the value placed on respect and individual dignity. We see that Greek culture places great significance on both enmity and friendship—on both the taking of lives and the giving of gifts—and that each has its proper place. The characters and the text itself seem to see the proper balancing of these opposites as a manifestation of an individual’s worthiness.
Another aspect of the ancient Greek value system emerges in the agreement both sides make to pause their fighting to bury their respective dead. To the Greeks, piety demanded giving the dead, especially those who had died so gloriously, a proper burial, though proper burial could mean a number of things: here the mourners burn the corpses on a pyre; elsewhere they actually bury them. According to ancient Greek belief, only souls whose bodies had been properly disposed of could enter the underworld. To leave a soul unburied, or, worse, to leave it as carrion for wild animals, indicated not only disrespect for the dead individual but, perhaps even worse, disregard for established religious traditions.