Monday, June 09, 2008


Facing Death

In Wounds, Honorable and Dishonorable, I made the following (by no means original) observation:
A wound in the back is generally disgraceful, because it means that the man struck was fleeing, and it is shameful to flee in battle. Examples in the Iliad include 5.38-42 (Agamemnon slays Odius), 11.446-448 (Odysseus slays Socus), 16.307-311 (Patroclus slays Areïycus), 17.578-579 (Menelaus slays Podes), and 20.487-489 (Achilles slays Areïthous).
I may have missed a striking example, discussed by Robert Renehan, "The Heldentod in Homer: One Heroic Ideal," Classical Philology 82.2 (April 1987) 99-116 (at 109):
Patroclus is not given a chance to die heroically in the full sense (16.786-857). First Apollo strikes him senseless with his hand—from behind. His eyes spun, says the poet. The god then knocks off Patroclus' helmet and disarms him completely; he stands stupefied, στῆ δὲ ταφών. Next, Euphorbus takes advantage of this divine intervention and hits Patroclus in the back with a spear—again from behind. Patroclus tries to shrink back into the throng of his fellow warriors and avoid death (Homer is explicit on this), but Hector sees his opportunity, rushes up to him as he retreats, and drives his spear deep into his flanks. That is the fatal blow. How a warrior who is killed while he is running away in an attempt to save his own life can be said to have died defiantly and heroically—looking death in the face, as it were—is not readily apparent.
In Richmond Lattimore's translation of this episode from the Iliad, Hector strikes Patroclus "in the depth of the belly," which implies that Patroclus is facing Hector. Likewise A.T. Murphy ("in the nethermost belly"). But the Greek says νείατον ἐς κενεῶνα, and Renehan's "flanks" seems more accurate. Liddell-Scott-Jones define κενεών as "hollow between ribs and hip, flank," and one of the definitions in Autenrieth's Homeric Dictionary is "small of the back."

One word used by Homer for "belly" is νηδύς, and a relevant quotation is Iliad 13.288-291 (Idomeneus speaking to Meriones, tr. Samuel Butler):
If you were struck by a dart or smitten in close combat, it would not be from behind, in your neck nor back, but the weapon would hit you in the chest or belly as you were pressing forward to a place in the front ranks.

εἴ περ γάρ κε βλεῖο πονεύμενος ἠὲ τυπείης
οὐκ ἂν ἐν αὐχέν᾽ ὄπισθε πέσοι βέλος οὐδ᾽ ἐνὶ νώτῳ,
ἀλλά κεν ἢ στέρνων ἢ νηδύος ἀντιάσειε
πρόσσω ἱεμένοιο μετὰ προμάχων ὀαριστύν.

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