The Iliad, Book XVI

Book I Book II Book III Book IV Book V Book VI Book VII
Book VIII Book IX Book X Book XI Book XII Book XIII Book XIV Book XV 
Book XVI Book XVII Book XVIII Book XIX Book XX Book XXI Book XXII

The Death of Patroclus

Patroclus told Achilles that the Greeks were in serious trouble with many of their best warriors wounded and Achilles was heartless not to help them; Patroclus requested that, if Achilles would not return to the fighting, to allow him to do so in his place, wearing Achilles’ armour so that the Trojans would retreat, thinking he was Achilles, and give the Greeks some respite.

The body of Patroclus borne by Menelaus, Roman copy of a Hellenistic sculpture, 1st c. AD. Florence. (c) Morio

Achilles agreed to Patroclus’ request, granting him permission to wear his armour and lead the Myrmidons to defend the Greeks’ ships; however, Achilles warned that, once Patroclus had saved the ships, he must return to Achilles and not advance towards Troy. Patroclus did not realise he was hastening his own destiny and death.

Ajax, meanwhile, was finally forced back by the Trojans who set fire to the ship he had been defending. As Patroclus put on his armour and Automedon prepared his chariot, Achilles called the Myrmidons to follow Patroclus into battle and, as they set off, he made a libation to Zeus and prayed for Patroclus’ victory and safe return. Patroclus proved to be an inspiring leader, driving the Trojans away from the ships, putting out the fire and leading the Greek assault, resulting in many Trojan casualties.

The death of Sarpedon, depicted on the obverse of Euphronios krater, c. 515 BC. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As the Trojans retreated, Patroclus pursued them, wanting to kill Hector but he escaped him. Instead Patroclus killed a number of Lycians including Sarpedon, their leader. Sarpedon’s father, Zeus, considered saving him but was persuaded by Hera to leave him to his destiny. Before he died, Sarpedon begged Glaucus not to allow the Greeks to strip him of his weapons. Glaucus, with the help of Apollo and the Trojans with Hector taking the lead, fought over Sarpedon’s body and armour. The fighting was fierce with losses on both sides. Finally Zeus decided Hector and the Trojans should retreat and, after the Greeks had stripped Sarpedon of his armour, Zeus sent Apollo to recover Sarpedon’s body and take it back to Lycia for his family to bury.

Patroclus then disregarded his instructions from Achilles and pursued the fleeing Trojans towards Troy. It was his destiny to die and not for Troy to fall under his attack. Therefore Apollo prevented Patroclus from scaling the city walls and made him fall back. Apollo then, disguised as Hector’s uncle, urged him to pursue Patroclus in his chariot. As the two warriors faced each other, Patroclus, aiming a spear at Hector, missed and killed his charioteer, Cebriones. The Greeks and Trojans fought over his body and the Greeks snatched it. The gods then moved fate forwards, with Apollo stripping Patroclus of his armour and Zeus gave his helmet to Hector to wear. Patroclus was wounded in his back by a spear thrown by Euphorbus. Hector chased and fatally stabbed the wounded Patroclus. As Hector gloated over him as he lay dying, Patroclus predicted Hector’s death at the hands of Achilles.

The body of Patroclus is lifted by Menelaus and Meriones while Odysseus and others look on. Etruscan relief, 2nd c. BC. Florence.

Book XV Book XVII