Achilles in the Battlefield by H. L. Havell

I

By high permission of all-ruling Jove the gods were now free to take part in the war, and they all with one accord came down from Olympus to mingle with the fray. Only Zeus remained behind, as supreme arbiter of the final issue. All the rest took sides with the Greeks or Trojans, and five rival pairs confronted each other in the field—Poseidon found a match in Apollo, the great ally of the Trojans—Hera, who loved the Greeks like a mother, was confronted by the archer-goddess Artemis—against Athene stood Ares, whose fickle mind now inclined to the Trojans—Hermes, who favoured the Greeks, was met on the other side by Leto, the mother of Artemis and Apollo—and lastly Hephæstus and Scamander, the opposing powers of fire and water, took the field, the former for the Greeks, the latter for the Trojans.

All nature was in uproar as these tremendous allies entered the scene of conflict. Earth shook, and the mountains reeled to their foundations, and the towers of Troy and the Grecian ships reeled as in an earthquake. Then trembling came upon Hades, the monarch of the dead, and leaping from his throne he cried aloud in fear, lest the earth, rent by Poseidon's trident, should disclose to mortal and immortal eyes the dank and dreary mansions of the dead, which even the gods abhor.

Far in front of the Grecian line was seen the glittering form of Achilles, who scanned the Trojan ranks like a lion who seeks his prey, having but one thought, but one aim—to meet Hector, and slay him. But Hector's hour was not yet come, for Apollo stood near to shield him from his great enemy, and delay the fatal stroke which sooner or later must lay him low. And first the god put it into the heart of Æneas to defy Achilles to battle, and gave him unwonted courage and strength, that he might not flinch in that fearful encounter. Then Æneas heard a voice which whispered within him, and seemed to say: "Art thou not the son of Aphrodite, who is the daughter of supreme Jove? Why fearest thou then this upstart child of Thetis, of far meaner lineage than thine? Go face him, and let him learn that neither are the Trojans forsaken of heaven."

So between the advancing lines they met, both sons of gods, but far different in their fate. At first Achilles had not observed his approach, but stalked, heedless of all lesser foes, before the embattled host of Troy, like a lion bent on ravage, against whom a whole township is gathered, with purpose to slay him and at first he goes on his way, disdaining the menaces of that rabble rout—but then, being pricked by the point of a random spear, he gathers himself, foaming and gnashing his teeth, for the spring, and his mighty spirit groans within him, and he lashes his flanks on both sides with his tail, goading himself to battle—then glaring and roaring he launches his vast weight at the foe, resolved to kill or be killed—so sprang Achilles against Æneas, in wrath at his presumption.

"What wouldst thou of me, Æneas?" he cried, in disdainful mood. "Have the Trojans promised thee a fair estate, if thou take my life? Or hopest thou, perchance, to sit in the seat of Priam, if thou accomplish this great deed? I thought thou hadst had enough of me and my spear. Hast thou forgotten when I chased thee through the glades of Ida, having caught thee alone among the grazing herds? Then didst thou never turn thy head to look back, until thou hadst reached the shelter of a fenced city. And I sacked the city, and led captive the women; but thou didst escape me again, through the special mercy of Zeus. Go back, vain man, and join the press of thy comrades or thou shalt not escape me now.

"Who art thou?" answered Æneas, undaunted, "that thinkest to affright me with boastful words, as if I were a witless boy? Know, proud man, that I am of higher descent than thine, for in my veins flows the royal blood of Dardanus, mingled with the blood of gods. Go to, let us wrangle no more like women in the market-place, but decide the quarrel with our spears."

As he spoke, he cast his spear, which struck with strong impact against the shield of Achilles; and he, when he felt the shock, held the shield away from his body, fearing that the point would pass through and reach his flesh. But immortal armour is not easy to be pierced by mortal weapons, and the spear dropped harmless to the earth. Then Achilles flung in his turn, and the spear tore its way through the upper rim of Æneas' shield: and he, stooping low, heard the rush of the mighty lance, as it flew over his head, and buried itself in the ground behind him. Having thus both missed their cast, they prepared to renew the struggle hand to hand. Achilles drew his sword, and rushed to the encounter with a fierce cry: while Æneas lifted a heavy stone, and stood ready to hurl it as his antagonist drew near.

But that combat, which must have ended fatally for the Trojan, was not destined to be fought out to its end. "Behold," said Poseidon, who was watching the unequal duel, to Hera, who sat near him, "my spirit is troubled because of Æneas, whom his own rashness, and the evil counsels of Apollo, are leading to his doom. But this must not be: he is reserved for a better fate, which shall be accomplished after the towers of Troy have been levelled with the dust. In him shall the line of Dardanus be preserved, and from him shall be born a mighty race, to found a new empire on the ruins of the old."[1]


[1] These lines contain the germ of the Æneid.


"Do as thou wilt," answered Hera. "As for me, I have sworn a great oath that I will never save a Trojan from perishing, no, not in the last fatal hour when Troy shall be consumed with fire."

When Poseidon heard that, he went and stood between the fighting champions; and on the eyes of Achilles he shed a thick darkness, that he might not see what was done. Then he drew the spear from the shield of Æneas, and threw it at Achilles' feet; and catching up the Trojan prince in his hand he bore him aloft over the heads of the Greeks and Trojans, until he reached the utmost verge of the battlefield. There he set him down, and, becoming visible in all his divine majesty, addressed him in these solemn words of warning: "Æneas, what put this mad thought into thy heart, to fight against Achilles, who is both stronger than thou and dearer to the gods? Tempt not thy fate again, but when thou meetest him avoid his spear; and after he is slain, then mayest thou boldly encounter the bravest of the Greeks, for no other hath power to do thee hurt."


II

When the darkness fell from the eyes of Achilles he looked round about him, and saw his spear lying at his feet, but sought in vain for Æneas. "What wonder is this?" he said to himself; "the spear is returned to me, but mine enemy is vanished. Surely the gods love him also, though I deemed that he boasted idly. Let him go! It will be long before he desires to face me again."

Then, shouting to the Greeks to support him, he fell upon the main body of the Trojans, seeking everywhere for Hector; and finding him not (for Apollo as yet withheld the Trojan patriot from his eyes) he began to deal out indiscriminate slaughter wherever he went. A brave Lycian, the son of a mountain nymph, who rushed to attack him, was his first victim; with one blow of that tremendous spear his head was shattered as with a battering-ram, and he fell beneath the feet of the horses, and the wheels of the car passed over his body.

Among the many who went to swell the list of the slain that day was Polydorus, a favourite son of Priam, who loved him as his youngest born, and who had forbidden him to go into battle. But he, trusting in the speed of his feet, had come to the field the day before, and now appeared in the van of the Trojans, a graceful and agile youth, lovely and pleasant to behold. But as he pursued his gay career a javelin from the hand of Achilles pierced his armour at the waist, and he fell, torn in the midst by a hideous wound.

Hector saw his brother fall, and full of rage and grief sprang forward to avenge his death. When Achilles saw his great enemy at last within his reach he leapt towards him with a loud and exultant cry: "Draw near, and pay the price of my comrade, whom thou hast slain!" "Proud man, I fear thee not," answered Hector, undismayed: "I know that thou art far mightier than I, but nevertheless I defy thee, and trust that heaven will lend keenness to my spear."

But the end was not yet. Apollo intervened to save the gallant Trojan, and bore him away wrapped in a cloud of darkness. Three times Achilles struck, and three times his spear smote idly on the empty air. "Thou dog!" he cried at last, finding his efforts unavailing, "Thou hast avoided me now, but I will destroy thee yet, for I have friends among the gods as well as thou. Till then, let my vengeance fall upon thy countrymen."

And as a fire rages in a forest on a mountainside, licking up the underwood, and thrusting out its red fangs to devour the tall trees, so raged Pelides in the fury of slaughter, and the earth ran red with blood. And as two broad-browed steers move to and fro on a threshing-floor, treading out the corn, so trampled the steeds of Achilles on corpses and shields and broken armour, as he passed on, raining wounds and death on every side.


III

The Trojan army was now split into two divisions, one of which was flying across the plain towards the city, while Achilles drove the other before him towards the banks of Scamander. Into the stream they flocked, without pausing in their flight, like a cloud of locusts driven by a fire to seek refuge in the nearest water; and Scamander's bed was choked by a huddled multitude of horses and men.

Leaning his spear against a plane-tree, Achilles leapt into the river, sword in hand, and struck right and left, until the waters were crimsoned with blood. And as a shoal of fish flies before the onset of a dolphin, seeking the shallow waters near the shore, so shrank the Trojans from the sword of Achilles, and hid themselves under the arching banks. Then he remembered his promise to Patroclus, and, choosing twelve comely youths from that panic-stricken throng, he drove them before him, and gave them, bound, to his men to be brought alive to the ships. This done, he went back to continue the work of slaughter; and as he reached the river's brink he saw a Trojan, who had just left the water, and was preparing to fly towards the city. "Aha! are we met again?" cried Achilles, recognising in the fugitive a certain Lycaon, one of the numerous family of Priam, whom once before he had taken prisoner, having caught him during a night foray, when the luckless youth was busy cutting the young shoots of the olive, to make a rim for a chariot. On that occasion he had spared his life, and sold him into captivity to the King of Lemnos, from whom he had been ransomed by a friend of Priam, and so found his way back to Troy. For eleven days since his return from Lemnos he had taken his pleasure among his friends, and on the twelfth his fate threw him into the hands of Achilles for the second and last time.

Lycaon had flung away shield and helmet and spear, that he might be lightened in the race for his life. But Achilles was upon him before he was aware, threatening him with uplifted spear. "So thou hast returned from Lemnos?" he said mockingly. "We will now send thee on a longer journey, and we will see if thou come back again this time." The wretched youth flung himself down, and avoiding the spear-point crawled on his knees to Achilles, and clinging to him said: "Have pity on me, great warrior, and have respect for the sacred tie between host and guest; for I was thy guest, illustrious chieftain, and have broken bread under thy roof, on the day when thou madest me captive. Thou hast no cause to hate me, for I was not born of the same mother as Hector, who slew thy friend."

But there was no sign of relenting in the stern face which was bent over him, and he received a foretaste of the pangs of death as he heard the answer of Achilles. "Talk not to me," said he, "of ransom or redemption. As long as Patroclus was alive I was well pleased to make prisoners and release them for a price, but now not one shall escape of all those who fall into my hands, and least of all the sons of Priam. Thou must die, my friend! Why seems it to thee so hard? Patroclus met his fate with the rest, and he was a far better man than thou art. Look upon me; am I not a tall and proper man? Yet the shadow of death is creeping nearer and ever nearer to me, and soon the hour of my doom shall strike, whether at morn, or at noon, or at eventide."

At these words Lycaon's heart froze within him, and leaving hold of the spear he sank down on his knees, stretching out both his hands in mute entreaty. Then Achilles lifted up his sword, and clove him to the waist, and seizing his body by the foot flung it into the river. "Lie there among the fishes!" cried that ruthless man: "They will tend thy wounds, until Scamander bears thee to the deep, where thou shalt find fit burial in some sea monster's maw. Death, death to all your accursed race! Naught shall avail you your silver-eddying stream, to whose deity ye offer sacrifice of bulls and horses, but ye shall pay threefold and fourfold the debt of blood which ye owe me for the lives of the Greeks whom ye have slain."

The river-god heard him, and, waxing exceeding wroth, began to consider how he should stop the murderous career of Achilles. And while he was still debating within himself Achilles was confronted by Asteropæus, a brave Thracian chieftain, and the son of the presiding deity of Axius, a broad and noble stream. This man now barred the way of Achilles, brandishing a spear in each hand. "Whence and what art thou?" cried Achilles, amazed that anyone should dare to oppose him; for he knew not that Scamander had steeled the heart of Asteropæus to do this deed. "Art thou weary of thy life?" he asked again, as the Thracian still came on. "I will tell thee what I am," answered Asteropæus boldly: "I am the son of a deity, even as thou art, and my father was Axius, the fairest river on earth. Now let us fight, great son of Thetis."

With that he flung both spears at once, for he was equally skilled with both hands; and one of the spears struck against the shield of Achilles, but could not penetrate it, while the other grazed his right arm, and drew blood. Then Achilles hurled his spear, which missed Asteropæus, and buried itself to half its length in the river bank. Asteropæus grasped the shaft, and strove with all his might to tear the weapon from the ground. Failing in this, he next tried to break it in the middle, to use as a club; but by this time Achilles was upon him, and with one stroke of his sword clove him almost in twain. "Thou hast found thy match, thou river's brood!" he cried, stripping off the bloodstained armour. "Fool, that comparest thyself with me, whose fathers sprang in a direct line from Jove! He, methinks, is mightier than any river, yea, mightier than Oceanus, the great father of floods, who trembles before the red lightning, and the voice of the thunder, when it crashes through the skies."

So saying he lightly plucked out the embedded spear, and went in pursuit of the men of Asteropæus, who were crouching in terror along the river's banks. Seven of them he slew, and was about to continue the work of carnage when he received a check. From the depths of the stream a mysterious voice arose, in tones of protest and complaint: "Achilles, thine arm is exceeding mighty, and thy prowess more than mortal; for the gods are ever near to aid thee. If Zeus hath given thee leave to slaughter all the Trojans, at least drive them away from my bed and butcher them on the plain. My waters are choked with corpses, and I cannot roll my current any longer towards the holy sea, because my channel is straitened by the multitude of thy miserable victims. Give place, great chieftain, and cumber me no more."

"It shall be as thou sayest, thou god revered," answered Achilles. "But suffer me yet a little while until my task is done." And without further parley he sprang down again into the river bed. Then the god was wroth, and prepared to expel that daring intruder from his domain. He gathered all his waters, which rose up in surging billows, and washed the corpses ashore; and to the living he gave shelter, hiding them away in great hollow eddies. Then, collecting himself in one towering wave, he rushed upon Achilles, buffeting his shield, and eating away the ground under his feet. Achilles grasped an elm, a tall and stately tree, and clung to it for support; but the torrent had undermined its roots, and the next moment it fell, tearing a huge gap in the bank, and damming back the waters with its leafy boughs. Then he leaped from the yellow, swirling torrent, and darted across the plain in head-long flight; for he was sore afraid. But Scamander followed hard at his heels, roaring and arching his crest. In vain Achilles ran and doubled, and doubled and ran; the river pursued him everywhere, until his strength began to fail him; and if he stood still for a moment the waves rose instantly as high as his shoulders, threatening to swallow him up. Then he gave himself up for lost, and with a groan he gazed upward to the broad heaven, and uttered this despairing cry for help: "O all ye gods, is this then to be my end? Am I to perish thus, drowned like some nameless churl, who is swept away while crossing a ford in winter?"

Some friendly power heard his wild appeal, and lent him new strength and courage to continue the struggle. So on he panted across the plain, which by this time was covered with floating corpses, helmets, and shields. But Scamander raged the more furiously when he saw his prey still eluding his clutch, and he called aloud to Simocis, his brother stream, to join in the pursuit. And Simocis answered to his call, and mustered all his waters from every fountainhead and every tributary stream. Then the twin rivers roared together in unison, and came down upon him, battering him with uprooted trees and rolling rocks, which they swept along in their course, "We will quell thee," they shouted, "thou godless man, for all thy beauty and thy strength, and thou and thy gleaming panoply shall be wrapped in a thick shroud of mud, at the bottom of our blackest and deepest pool. Thy dirge shall be sung by our rolling waters, and thy monument none shall behold."

Achilles was now in extremity, and would surely have ended as ignobly as the river-god had said, if another power had not come to his aid. "Where art thou, my son, Hephæstus?" cried Hera, seeing that Achilles could hold out no longer. "Thou art he who should save our champion in this strait, for thou and Scamander are natural enemies. Haste thee to the rescue, armed with thy proper element; and I will summon the blasts of the West and the South to fan thy flames. Let fire fight with water, and spare not, nor cease thy fury until I give thee the signal to desist."

Hephæstus made haste to obey his mother, and forthwith he caused a sheet of fire to sweep across the plain, burning the corpses, and drying up the flood. Then he turned his flames upon the river himself, and all the trees which fringed his banks—elms, and willows, and plane-trees—were soon ablaze. Speedily the fire spread to the rushes and water plants, and at last the very waters began to grow hot, so that the fishes leapt into the air in their agony, and Scamander himself was in dire distress.

"It is enough," he cried, yielding to a superior power. "Torment me no more, Hephæstus! Let Achilles destroy the whole nation of Trojans, if he will—I will not seek to prevent him."

By this time the waters were beginning to boil and bubble, and clouds of steam rose into the air. Seeing that the river was thoroughly quelled, Hera gave the signal, and Hephæstus drew off his forces, and left Scamander in peace.


IV

After his escape from the river, Achilles went in pursuit of the other Trojans, who had fallen back towards the town. Then began a second rout, and a second slaughter, and Priam, who was watching the field from his citadel, soon beheld the whole remnant of the Trojan army flying before Achilles towards the city. With a cry of alarm he hastened down to the gates, and gave directions to the warders to draw bolt and bar, and admit the flying multitude. "But stand ready," he said, "to make all fast, as soon as the people are safe within, for fear lest this terrible man should enter the town."

The warders did as they were bidden, and held the gates ready; and before long the first of the fugitives came panting in, their lips parched with thirst, and their armour powdered with dust.

Still unsated with slaughter, Achilles came on in hot pursuit, and Priam's fears might have been realised if Agenor, a young Trojan noble, had not been inspired by Apollo with sudden courage, which prompted him to cross the destroyer's path. "I will face this man," he said, halting from his flight. "He too is of mortal flesh, and has but one life to lose. I will face him, though Zeus fight on his side."

As a leopard comes forth from his thick covert to meet the hunter, when he hears the baying of the hounds, and, even though sorely wounded, fights on till he is slain, so stood Agenor to meet Achilles, with shield on breast, and spear poised for the throw. "Thou thoughtest to have taken Troy this day," he cried. "Thou fool! This deed is not for thee; thou shall not read to the end the story of her woes, but here, on this spot, I will end thy life of blood."

With that he cast his spear, which struck him on the greave above the knee, but rebounded from the tempered metal; but before Achilles could return the attack Apollo removed Agenor from his reach, and putting on the likeness of Agenor fled away towards the river, luring Achilles after him. The Trojans were thus given time to make good their escape, and the city was soon filled with a frightened and disordered host, thankful to have escaped with bare life. All along the battlements were seen groups of exhausted men, who wiped the sweat from their brows, and drank deep draughts of wine to quench their burning thirst. Only one was left outside: This was Hector, who remained of his own free will, resolved to decide the issue in single combat with Achilles.