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Aging and Death


The oldest man who fights is apparently Crete's king, Idomeneus. He fights valiantly and effectively, particularly in book 13. By book 13, however, the Trojans gain the upper hand, forcing him and all Greeks to retreat.

"Years had tempered his legs--once sprightly when running
to retrieve his spear or to fall back fast--
so now he battled Trojans hand-to-hand.
Afraid his feet were too slow to turn and run,
he backed up, step by step."

Nestor--who has ruled over two generations of Pylians and now rules a third--does not fight, but he is always armed and among his fighters on the field. He often expresses a wish that he was still young, but he also voices a healthy acceptance of reality: "[T]he gods give us seasons to pass through." (4.308).

Priam, who does not appear armed or on the battlefield, muses:

"[D]ogs are allowed to shame the fallen old
who are the most despised of pitiful mortals."


Descriptions of battlefield death abound in the Iliad, and every character is well aware of the likelihood of death.

On the verge of battle, Sarpedon says to his Lycian lieutenant, Glaucus:

"Ah cousin, if only we could quit this war
and count on living without age or death,
I would not head for the front ranks myself
nor would I urge you to do battle there,
but we are mortal and death's faces stalk us
in numbers such that no man can escape.
So let us go, and take glory or give!"

Death is personified two ways in the Iliad. In book 16 "twin brothers Sleep and Death" transport Sarpedon's body to his homeland, Lycia, for burial rites. (16.682).

In book 18 Hephaestus forges a battle scene on Achilles' shield (view images of the shield).

"Strife and Turmoil were there, dreaded Fate too.
She grasped a wounded man and one unhit,
then dragged a dead one through the fight by his feet,
the cloak draping her shoulders red with blood."

This is an occasion where a mortal's death and fate are synonymous. However, the word used for Death in book 16 is a form of the masculine noun, Θάνατoς, whereas the word employed in book 18 is the feminine noun, Κῆρ.

Return to main Themes page to select another topic.

View Wikipedia on Sarpedon's death, including images from vase paintings.

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