Summary: Book 11

The next morning, Zeus rains blood upon the Achaean lines, filling them with panic; they suffer a massacre during the first part of the day. But, by afternoon, they have begun to make progress. Agamemnon, splendidly armed, cuts down man after man and beats the Trojans back to the city’s gates. Zeus sends Iris to tell Hector that he must wait until Agamemnon is wounded and then begin his attack. Agamemnon soon receives his wound at the hands of Coon, Antenor’s son, just after killing Coon’s brother. The injured Agamemnon continues fighting and kills Coon, but his pain eventually forces him from the field.

Hector recognizes his cue and charges the Achaean line, driving it back. The Achaeans panic and stand poised to retreat, but the words of Odysseus and Diomedes imbue them with fresh courage. Diomedes then hurls a spear that hits Hector’s helmet. This brush with death stuns Hector and forces him to retreat. Paris answers the Achaeans’ act by wounding Diomedes with an arrow, thus sidelining the great warrior for the rest of the epic. Trojans now encircle Odysseus, left to fight alone. He beats them all off, but not before a man named Socus gives him a wound through the ribs. Great Ajax carries Odysseus back to camp before the Trojans can harm him further.

Hector resumes his assault on another part of the Achaean line. The Greeks initially hold him off, but they panic when the healer Machaon receives wounds at Paris’s hands. Hector and his men force Ajax to retreat as Nestor conveys Machaon back to his tent. Meanwhile, behind the lines, Achilles sees the injured Machaon fly by in a chariot and sends his companion Patroclus to inquire into Machaon’s status. Nestor tells Patroclus about all of the wounds that the Trojans have inflicted upon the Achaean commanders. He begs Patroclus to persuade Achilles to rejoin the battle—or at least enter the battle himself disguised in Achilles’ armor. This ruse would at least give the Achaeans the benefit of Achilles’ terrifying aura. Patroclus agrees to appeal to Achilles and dresses the wound of a man named Eurypylus, who has been injured fighting alongside Ajax.

Summary: Book 12

We learn that the Achaean fortifications are doomed to be destroyed by the gods when Troy falls. They continue to hold for now, however, and the trench dug in front of them blocks the Trojan chariots. Undaunted, Hector, acting on the advice of the young commander Polydamas, orders his men to disembark from their chariots and storm the ramparts. Just as the Trojans prepare to cross the trenches, an eagle flies to the left-hand side of the Trojan line and drops a serpent in the soldiers’ midst. Polydamas interprets this event as a sign that their charge will fail, but Hector refuses to retreat.

The Trojans Glaucus and Sarpedon now charge the ramparts, and Menestheus, aided by Great Ajax and Teucer, struggles to hold them back. Sarpedon makes the first breach, and Hector follows by shattering one of the gates with a boulder. The Trojans pour through the fortifications as the Achaeans, terrified, shrink back against the ships.

Analysis: Books 11 & 12

Two instances of divine intervention contribute to an extreme sense of suspense in these scenes. First, Zeus firmly manipulates the battle, from showering the Achaeans with blood to enabling Hector to become the first Trojan to cross the Achaean fortifications. The Achaeans recognize his presence and realize that in fighting the Trojans they pit themselves against the king of the gods. Diomedes even interprets Zeus’s acts of favoritism to mean that Zeus has singled out the Trojans for ultimate victory. At the same time, however, the epic frequently reminds us of a second case of divine plotting: according to soothsayers, Troy is fated to fall. Homer builds dramatic tension by juxtaposing this prophecy with vivid descriptions of the Achaeans’ sufferings and setbacks. He constantly tempts us with the expectation of Trojan defeat while dashing this prospect with endless examples of the Trojans’ success under Zeus’s partiality. Ultimately, we feel unable to trust either set of signs.

Read an in-depth analysis of Zeus.

The frequent reappearance of Zeus also reminds the reader indirectly of Achilles, thus keeping our focus on The Iliad’s central conflict. Zeus first enters the war in response to Thetis’s prayers and now inflicts the same sort of damage upon the Achaeans that we are led to believe Achilles might easily inflict upon the Trojans if his rage were to abate. Zeus’s overpowering of the Achaeans makes Achilles’ absence all the more noticeable. Perhaps Homer worries that his audience, like the Achaeans, will miss Achilles—he seems to use the wounding of Machaon, whom Nestor whisks past Achilles’ tent toward medical aid, as an opportunity to make Achilles and, perhaps more important, Patroclus appear. The encounter between Nestor and Patroclus does more than present another glimpse of life behind the lines with Achilles and Patroclus; it also sheds some light on the difference in these two men’s attitudes. As the text gives information on the background of Patroclus, we begin to wonder whether Patroclus shares Achilles’ rage and whether he may wish to rejoin the fight despite his loyalty to his friend.

The scene between Patroclus and Nestor also contains an instance of foreshadowing, hinting at what happens when Patroclus does finally rejoin the battle. Homer writes that Patroclus’s “doom [is] sealed” as soon as Achilles calls for him to instruct him to speak with Nestor (11.714). It is Nestor who gives Patroclus the idea of returning to battle dressed in Achilles’ armor, by means of which tactic Patroclus meets his death. The reference to Patroclus’s doom not only foreshadows Patroclus’s end but also points toward the event that finally motivates Achilles himself to return to battle.

Read more about the foreshadowing of the death of Patroclus.