The first time I read The Iliad, I approached it a bit like you would approach a text you’ve been assigned to read in school. I wanted to study it, see That Famous Text for myself, and tick it off my literary reading list. I did not expect that I would fall in love with it, and that I would keep re-reading it over and over again through the years.
In the introduction to her brilliant, brand-new translation of The Iliad, Emily Wilson (the bestselling and award-winning translator of The Odyssey) captures much of what I love about this epic poem. The Iliad, Wilson says, “evokes human greatness and human vulnerability… We die too soon, and there is no recompense for the terrible, inevitable loss of life. Yet through poetry, the words, actions, and feelings of some long-ago brief lives may be remembered even three thousand years later.”
And we do remember them: Achilles, Odysseus, Agamemnon, Paris, Hector, Helen, Nestor… The Iliad’s characters pop off the page as their vicious rants and battle-field taunts are mixed with tearful elegies, terror-stricken pleas, bickering, posturing, long-winded tales (I’m looking at you, Nestor!), daring feats, and braggadocio.
The Iliad is full of life, and full of death. Brutal, devastating, inescapable death captured in blood-soaked, anatomic detail that rivals, and surpasses, any movie made by Hollywood. Homer, whoever they were, knew how to craft bone-breaking, skull-crushing, and (literally) eyeball-popping descriptions of death that shine, technicolor bright, three thousand years after they were crafted. And these death scenes aren’t (just) there for splatter value. They are integral to the storytelling, giving us intimate, and devastatingly human glimpses of those “long-ago brief lives” amid the wicked carnage of war.
To illustrate my point, here are 12 deaths from The Iliad, taken from Wilson’s 2023 translation.
1. Antilochus kills Echepolus
I love the sparse but evocative details here: the horsehair plume, the tip of bronze.
Antilochus killed first. He hit a splendid Trojan leader
on their front line—Echepolus, the son
of Lord Thalysius. He struck his helmet
beside his horsehair plume and pierced his forehead.
The tip of bronze impaled his skull, and darkness
covered his eyes.
2. Agamemnon kills Odius
Such an action sequence, with all that jangling, clashing armor.
The Greek king thrust a spear into his back
between the shoulders, driving through the chest,
and pushed him from his chariot. He fell.
His armor jangled, clashing round his corpse.
3. Meges kills Pedaeus
A great example of the way brief, intimate backstories are stitched into harrowing death scenes.
And Meges killed Antenor’s son Pedaeus,
born out of wedlock, but his stepmother,
Theano, cared for him like her own children,
to please her husband. But the skillful spearman,
Meges, the son of Phyleus, drew near him
and struck his neck with his sharp spear. The tip,
slicing up through his teeth, cut off his tongue.
He bit the cold bronze, falling in the dust.
4. Diomedes kills Xanthus and Thoon
Again, a brief backstory is used to bring home the wider devastation of deaths on the battlefield.
both of them there, took both their lives away,
and left their father grief and lamentation.
He would not welcome them back home again
alive, after the war. His whole estate
would be divided among distant heirs.
5. Antilochus kills Mydon
I mean. What can you even say about the morbidly striking visuals of this scene?
hacked Mydon’s forehead, so he gasped and fell
out of his well-made chariot, headfirst.
His head and shoulders smashed into the ground.
It happened to be very sandy there,
so that the corpse stayed upright, upside down,
until his horses kicked him to the ground.
6. Diomedes kills Axylus
Homer really excels at making you feel the pain and loss of these deaths. No one can escape their doom, no matter who they were in life.
He had a rich estate and wealthy home,
and everybody loved him. He was kind,
and generous and welcomed everyone
who passed that way as guests inside his home.
None of his friends stepped in to help him now.
No one protected him from bitter death.
His life was taken.
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7. Teucer kills Gorgythion (with an arrow)
Using that lovely, everyday-life image of a garden poppy in this context is A+ writing.
slumped his head sideways—like a garden poppy.
weighted down with seed and springtime showers of rain—
so drooped his head, weighed down by his heavy helmet.
8. Patroclus kills Thestor
The use of the fishing imagery, the brutality, and the precise visual details make this is one of my favorite death scenes in The Iliad.
Patroclus came in close, speared his right jaw
and drove the wooden spear shaft through his teeth,
to hook and drag him over the chariot rail,
as when a man sits on a jutting rock,
and hooks a holy fish with shining bronze
and fishing line, and drags it from the sea—
just so he dragged him from the chariot,
mouth gaping around the shining spear
9. Patroclus kills Sarpedon
Sarpedon was a son of Zeus, and every time I read The Iliad, it crushes me again that Zeus lets him die. And Patroclus doesn’t exactly go easy on him either.
Patroclus set his foot
onto the dead man’s chest and tugged his spear
out of the flesh, and with it came the lungs.
He pulled out both the weapon and the life.
10. Patroclus kills Cebriones (with a rock)
First, it’s the death:
It crushed both brows and broke his skull. His eyes
fell on the dusty ground before his feet.
He plunged out of the chariot like a diver.
But then Patroclus mocks the dead man too:
“My goodness, you are quite the gymnast!
What a fine somersault!”
11. Patroclus dies
In this scene, the gods get right into it, making sure Patroclus dies like he is supposed to. Apollo nudges his helmet off, and Zeus unclips his breastplate. Then, Euphorbus hits him from behind with a spear. Wounded, Patroclus tries to retreat.
saw brave Patroclus wounded and retreating.
He muscled through the crowd, got near Patroclus
and speared him underneath the ribs, and drove
the bronze point through his body. With a thud
Patroclus’ death is followed by this gorgeous verse about how the fight goes on around his body:
“They fought like fire,
and you would think the sun and moon were gone,
because the battle of the finest fighters
around the dead Patroclus was so shrouded in fog.
12. Achilles kills Hector
When Achilles finally finds Hector on the battlefield, he kills him with a spear “through his supple neck,” but it’s the moment right before that stays with me:
“Just as at dead of night among the stars
the Evening Star shines bright, most beautiful
of all the constellations in the sky—
so shone the bright point of Achilles’ spear.
The Iliad, translated by Emily Wilson, published by W. W. Norton & Company, is available now.