The Funeral Games of Patroclus by H. L. Havell


When Achilles reached the camp, he commanded his men to remain under arms, and led the whole company, with horses and with chariots, in solemn procession, three times round the couch on which the dead Patroclus lay. When the strange rite was ended, the couch, which had been brought out for this purpose, was carried back with its burden to the tent, and they unyoked their horses, and prepared to take their supper. Hector's body was flung into a corner, where it lay exposed to the burning sun, and the cold dews of night. Achilles feasted his men bountifully, and then went, attended by a special guard of honour, to partake of a banquet in the royal tent. Being invited to refresh himself with a bath, he stubbornly refused, and swore a great oath that he would never wash the stains of battle from his person until Patroclus had been buried with all the pomp of woe. At the banquet he seemed ill at ease, and as soon as it was ended he prayed his kingly host to have him excused, and went back to the quarters of the Myrmidons.

Night came down, and silence fell on the sleeping camp. Achilles had not sought his bed, but had laid himself down on the sand, in a clear space, where the billows broke at his feet. There sleep soon overtook him, stilling the dull ache of sorrow; for his limbs were very weary, after that tremendous fight, and still more tremendous race. And as he slept the ghost of Patroclus came and stood by his side, like to the living man in stature and in face and in voice, and in the very garments he had on; and thus spake the spectre, in hollow and mournful tones: "Ah! fickle heart, oblivious of the dead, canst thou sleep, Achilles? Has death broken the bond which united us in life? Bury me with all speed, and let me wander no more, a homeless ghost, at the gates of Hades, disowned and rejected by the other spirits who have crossed the dark river. Give me thy hand, sweet friend, I entreat thee! For never again shall I return to earth, when ye have given my body to the flames—never more shall we sit retired from our comrades, as once in life, and take sweet counsel together. My fate hath seized me, and cast me down into the pit which was prepared for me when I was born; and for thee too the bolt is prepared, which shall lay thee low beneath the walls of Troy. And one more charge have I to lay upon thee: let not our bones lie apart, Achilles, but let us be joined in death, even as we were united in life. One home, one love, we shared, and thy father was to me as mine own, from the day when I slew my playmate in a childish brawl, and was brought by Menœtius to the house of Peleus. Therefore, when thy fate hath reached thee, let our ashes be mingled in one urn."

"Wherefore, beloved," answered Achilles in his sleep, "hast thou come hither to remind me of my duty, and seemest to doubt my love? Come nearer, that I may embrace thee! Yet a little while let my heart beat against thine, and ease its heavy burden of sorrow."

With these words he stretched out his eager arms to clasp Patroclus to his breast; but the ghost eluded his grasp, and with one piercing wail melted away like smoke into the darkness. "Alas!" cried Achilles, springing up in amaze, and summoning his comrades, "I perceive that, even in the house of Hades, there is a spirit and a phantom of the dead—but understanding none at all—for all night long the ghost of the hapless Patroclus stood by my side moaning and lamenting, and straitly charging me concerning all that I must do. And the phantom was in aspect as the living man himself."


At earliest dawn a long train of mules was seen ascending the lower slopes of Ida, attended by a numerous company of men, all carrying axes and ropes of withes. The whole troop was under the command of Meriones, the squire of Idomeneus, on whom the task had been laid of providing fuel for the funeral pyre of Patroclus. A large grove of pines was felled, the trunks were divided into logs, and these were bound into bundles and laid on the backs of the mules. Then down the slope they were driven at a quick trot, the men running beside them; and when they reached the camp the mules were unloaded and the logs piled up in an open space pointed out by Achilles. A thousand willing hands aided in the work, and soon a huge stack of pinewood towered in the midst of the ships and tents.

When the pyre was raised, Achilles gave the order to the Myrmidons to gird on their armour and harness the steeds to their cars. The whole army stood waiting, drawn up in silence on either side of the way by which the funeral train was to pass; and presently the procession was seen approaching. First came the chariots, each carrying two men—the driver, and the man-at-arms; behind these followed a numerous troop of infantry, marching slowly in dense array; and in the space between the corpse was borne, covered with locks of hair which the Myrmidons had cut off as a last tribute to the dead.

Achilles walked behind the bier, supporting the head of Patroclus in his hands, and moving heavily, as one that mourns for a brother; and so they passed on, through the long lane of mailed warriors, until they came to the place where the pyre was built.

Then Achilles took a sharp knife, and cut off from his forehead a long lock of hair, and, placing the lock in the dead man's hand, turned round and gazed wistfully across the dark gulf of waters which divided him from his home. "Alas for the hopes of men!" he said, in a voice of distress. "My father Peleus designed this lock for another purpose, as an offering to thee, Spercheus, my native stream, if ever I returned safe from the war. But now thine altar, which stands in thy grove near thy sacred source, shall never smoke for me again. A foreign grave awaits me, far from my home and kindred, and Peleus is absolved from his vow. Therefore to thee, Patroclus, I dedicate this lock."

The Greeks now dispersed to their quarters leaving those who were nearest to the dead, by birth or by station, to perform the last rites. The chief mourners approached the bier, and lifting it with the corpse placed it on the top of the pyre. Many sheep and oxen were slaughtered and flayed, and the body of Patroclus was wrapped from head to foot in the fat taken from the carcasses. Then the carcasses of the victims were heaped up round the bier, with jars of honey and olive-oil. Four horses were next slaughtered, and two favourite hounds of Patroclus, and their bodies added to the rest. Last of all the twelve Trojan captives whom he had taken in battle the day before were led in chains to the spot, butchered by Achilles with his own hands, and flung upon the pyre.

"It is done!" cried Achilles, when this last savage tribute was paid to his friend, "I have accomplished my vow, and the fire may now do its work—but for thee, Hector, no fire shall be lighted, but dogs shall devour thee."

That cruel threat at least was not to be fulfilled. Unseen hands were busy about the fallen Trojan hero, guarding him day and night from the prowling dogs of the camp. Aphrodite embalmed his body with a heavenly essence, which closed all his wounds, and kept his flesh pure and unharmed; and Apollo covered all the place where he lay with a dark cloud, to shield him from the scorching rays of the sun.

Meanwhile torches had been brought to kindle the pyre. But the huge mass smouldered sullenly, and the victims remained unconsumed. Then Achilles took a golden bowl, and pouring a libation to Boreas and Zephyrus, the twin gods of the winds, prayed them to lend their blasts and blow the fire to a blaze. Iris heard his prayer, and went swiftly to call the winds to his aid. She found them seated at table with all their brethren in the house of Zephyrus; and thus spake Iris to that boisterous company: "Why sit ye here feasting and making merry, when there is work for you to do? Hear ye not the prayers of Achilles, who needs your help, that the pyre of Patroclus may burn freely, and consume him to ashes, with all that lies about him."

Prompt at the summons, the winds arose, with clamour and uproarious din, and rushed down the mountainside, chasing the clouds before them. Over the complaining sea they swept, and flew whistling onward till they reached the shores of Troy. There they fell upon the smouldering pyre, and the flames leaped and bellowed in response to the roaring blast. So all night long they lashed the fire to fury, and all night long Achilles paced to and fro before the pyre, pouring libations from a golden bowl on the ground, and calling aloud to the ghost of his ill-starred friend. As mourns a father when he burns the bones of his son, a young bridegroom cut off by death on his wedding-day, so mourned Achilles as the fire devoured his comrade's body—so pitiful were his cries, so faltering his gait.

Towards dawn the fire began to die out, and nothing was left but a vast heap of glowing ashes. Then the winds went back to their home, and earth and ocean sank to rest, beneath the gentle light of the morning star. Soothed by the calm influence of the hour, Achilles fell into a fitful slumber, but was soon aroused by the sound of footsteps and the murmur of voices. Starting up, he saw a goodly company of nobles approaching, with Agamemnon at their head; and with their assistance the ritual ceremonies due to the dead were completed. First, they poured wine on the glowing mass of embers, till the last spark was extinguished; then they collected the ashes of Patroclus, which lay by themselves, surrounded by the charred remains of beasts and men. A costly urn of gold received the few handfuls of dust which were all that remained of him whom they had so cherished and honoured; and the urn was buried in a low mound of earth, which was one day to be raised to a commanding height, as a monument to the great Achilles.


When the last tribute of sorrow had been paid, the rest of the day was devoted to sport and festivity. In heroic times funeral games were an important part of the honours assigned to a fallen warrior; and those of Patroclus were celebrated on a scale of unrivalled magnificence.

The great event of the day was to be the chariot race, and splendid prizes were offered by Achilles, who was the sole patron and prize giver, for the winners. When the gifts were set in order, Achilles rose and invited all who prided themselves in their horsemanship to take part in the friendly contest. "If," he said, "we were keeping this festival in honour of any other Greek, I myself must needs carry off the first prize; for no steeds in all the army can vie with mine, the immortal coursers which were a gift from Poseidon to my father. But this is a day of mourning both to me and to them; for they have lost their gentle charioteer, and now stand, sorrow-stricken, with manes drooping to the ground, in their stalls, deprived of his loving care. Therefore take your places, all ye who would prove the mettle of your horses, and your own mastery of this gallant game."

Four chieftains brought their cars to try their fortune in the race: Eumelus, a prince of Thessaly, a land renowned for its breed of horses; Diomede, who drove the horses which he had taken from Ćneas; Menelaus, with a mare of Agamemnon's, named Arthe, and his own horse Podargus; and Antilochus, whose car was drawn by a pair from his father's stables. Nestor, who knew their quality, which was indeed but poor, accompanied his son to the starting-point, and as they were the first to arrive he improved the occasion by proffering a world of good advice, reinforced by many a pithy saw, showing Antilochus how the want of speed may be remedied by cunning and skill. "Art," he said, "is far greater than force. Art drives the axe, though aimed by a weaker arm, deep into the heart of the oak; art controls the motions of tall ships, by means of a very small helm; and art may save thee from reaching the goal last in this race."

In the ancient chariot races the starting-point and the winning-post were always the same, as it was the custom to run a certain distance, and then wheel round a certain point, and return on the homeward track, which was parallel to the other. The turning-point was marked by a pillar, or some other conspicuous object, and here a desperate struggle often took place between the rival cars for the inside place, taxing the skill and courage of the drivers to the utmost. Nestor had been over the course, and gave his son minute directions as to the appearance and position of the turning-post, which was far off on the plain, and invisible from the starting-point. "You will see," he said, "a withered stump of oak or fir, rising to about a fathom above the earth, with a white stone leaning against it on either side. There you must turn; and see that you lose no ground in wheeling round to the homeward track. Give your right horse the reins, and urge him to full speed with voice and lash, but rein in the other, and hold him back; and let the nave of your left wheel just seem to graze the stump. If you can pass another car in turning, there is no fear that he will catch you again. Thou hast my counsel: go, and prosper—be wary, and be wise."

At the last moment a fifth chariot appeared on the scene, driven by Meriones. Lots were cast for the stations, and Antilochus was so fortunate as to obtain the inside place. The cars drew up in a line, Achilles gave the word, and away they went in a cloud of dust, the horses' manes streaming, the drivers shouting, and the cars gliding smoothly, or leaping and plunging at the uneven places.

Soon the cars began to separate by wider and wider intervals, and a keen struggle ensued between the Thracian horses, driven by Eumelus, and the Trojans, driven by Diomede. Eumelus took the lead, but Diomede followed him so close that he felt the hot breath of the pursuing horses on his back. So they ran for about a bowshot; then Diomede dropped his whip, and his horses, wanting the lash, began to fall back. This accident befell him by the malice of Apollo, who owed him a grudge for the havoc which he had wrought among the Trojans. But Athene had not forgotten her favourite, and she contrived that he should recover his whip, and put fresh mettle into his steeds. Nor did she stop there, but, overtaking the car of Eumelus, she broke the yoke which coupled his horses, so that they reared violently in opposite directions, and the pole of the car was dashed to the ground. Thus suddenly arrested at the height of his speed, Eumelus rolled headlong from the car, and sustained woeful damage. The skin was torn from his elbows and nose and mouth, his forehead was severely bruised, and he lay for a while senseless where he fell. This mishap secured an easy victory for Diomede. Avoiding the wreck, he pressed onwards, leaving the whole field far behind, turned the goal successfully, and drove at an easy gallop along the homeward track.

He was followed at a long distance by Menelaus, now second in the race; and the third place was held by Antilochus, whose ambition had been fired by the unlooked-for good fortune of Diomede, so that he hoped by some similar accident to obtain at least the second prize. Cheering on his horses, he went hard in pursuit of Menelaus, who was just then approaching a difficult piece of ground, where the course had been hollowed out by the winter rains. The place was too narrow to allow two cars to pass, and Antilochus determined to secure the lead before Menelaus had time to reach the broad course on the other side of the ravine. Accordingly he plied the lash unsparingly, and overtook Menelaus at the moment when he was about to enter the neck of the dry watercourse. "Keep back!" shouted Menelaus in alarm. "Do not try to pass me here, or you will wreck both our cars."

Antilochus pretended not to hear, and drove on harder than ever, so that Menelaus, who was a timid driver, was compelled to rein in his horses and let him go by.

While the race was being thus run, with varying turns of fortune, the chieftains assembled round Achilles were sitting in their places, waiting for the return of the cars, and discussing the chances of the drivers. Presently Idomeneus, who sat somewhat apart from the rest, in a position which gave him a long view over the course, cried out excitedly: "Diomede is leading! I can see the white mark on the face of one of the horses, which shows that he is one of the Trojan stallions—the red chestnut, with a mark like a half-moon on his forehead. Look out, some of you who have younger eyes than mine, and see if I am right."

"Hold thy peace, old prater!" said Ajax, son of Oileus, roughly. "We can see nothing yet—neither canst thou. Eumelus was leading when we saw him last, and doubtless he is leading still."

"Thou mannerless fellow!" answered Idomeneus hotly. "Foremost in a brawl, and in all else the least of the Greeks! Come, let us lay a wager, and Agamemnon shall hold the stakes; or art thou afraid to back thy saucy tongue?"

Ajax started up in a rage, hurling abuse at the Cretan veteran, and words would have soon led to blows, had not Achilles interposed his authority to put an end to the quarrel. "For shame!" he said, rising from his seat, "I wonder to hear you, two men of name and high station, wrangling like boors. What avails this idle contention? Wait but a moment, and the winner will be here to answer for himself."

Even as he spoke, a loud huzza was heard, and a moment after, the Trojan car, driven by Diomede, turned the last corner, and came racing lightly down the last straight stretch of the course, until it was pulled up before the chair of Achilles. Sthenelus was standing ready to welcome his comrade, and the first prize—a female slave, and a huge cauldron for heating water for the bath—was forthwith delivered to the victor.

After a long interval Antilochus came in, driving at a heavy gallop, and hotly pursued by Menelaus, who was gaining at every stride, and had by this time reduced the wide gap which had separated them to a mere hand's-breadth. His horses were displaying splendid mettle, especially the mare Arthe, who had been given to Agamemnon by a wealthy noble of Sicyon, as the price of his exemption from serving in the war; and if the course had been a bowshot longer he would have passed Antilochus, and taken the second prize. As it was, he came in third, but those who stood near as he was dismounting could see that he was red with indignation, and big with some grievance, real or supposed.

The fourth was Meriones, who was a poor driver, and whose steeds were the weakest; and last of all came Eumelus, with face sorely disfigured, dragging his wrecked car behind him, and driving before him his horses. "The last man is the best!" cried Achilles, moved to pity by his ill-fortune. "How say you, sirs? Shall we not give him the second prize?" The proposal found general approval, excepting, of course, with Antilochus, who loudly protested against such an award. "Thou art no friend of mine, Achilles," he said angrily, "if thou deprive me of the gift which I have fairly earned. Prizes are given to reward the winners, not to console the unlucky. If you wish to be generous, you can make Eumelus happy by bestowing on him some other gift, of equal or greater value, out of the rich store which is laid up in your tent. But this prize is mine, and I will not give her up no, not if I have to fight for her."

So saying, he seized the halter of the mare, who was tethered near, with her foal, to be given to him who won the second place.

The great Achilles smiled indulgently at the defiant attitude of Antilochus, who was very dear to him. "It shall be as you say," he replied. "The prize is yours, and to Eumelus I will give the corslet of Asteropćus, which I won in the battle yesterday." Automedon brought the corslet—a curious piece of work, finely fashioned in brass, with a casting of white metal—and Eumelus' eyes glistened with pleasure as he received it.

But the storm which had been lowering in the face of Menelaus ever since Antilochus had passed him now burst. Having caused the herald to proclaim silence he took the staff from his hands, as a sign that he had an important statement to make, and standing up before the whole assembly proclaimed his wrongs to the ears of all. "I am astonished," he said, "at the conduct of Antilochus. He has beaten me in the race by a trick, though his horses are far inferior to mine in any fair trial of speed. I appeal to all those present to say whether it is not so. If he denies it, let him take his whip in his hand, and holding his horses by the rein swear a solemn oath, in the name of Poseidon, the god of horsemanship, that he did not hinder me by fraud in the race."

Menelaus was clearly in the wrong, indeed, his whole plea was absurd; for nothing but his own faint-heartedness had lost him the second prize. But out of respect to his high rank and amiable character Antilochus was willing to appease him. Accordingly he brought the mare with her foal to Menelaus, and placing the bridle in his hand said respectfully: "Spare me thy reproaches, gentle prince! I yield to thee the prize, and would sacrifice much more than this, rather than lose thy favour and incur the anger of heaven."

As falls the refreshing dew on the bristling ears of barley, when the crops are ripening, so fell the soft answer of Antilochus on the Spartan prince's heart, and the sharp stings of resentment pricked him no more. "Thou shalt have the prize," he said mildly, "though it is mine by right. Thou art not wont to be so heedless of what is due to others: but this time thy young blood didst get the mastery of thy better sense. Take heed that thou art not so reckless again. I have yielded to thee in this for thy father's sake, and for thine also; for ye have both suffered many things in my cause." And so the dispute, which threatened to disturb the harmony of the meeting, was happily ended.

Five prizes had been offered for the race, and as Eumelus had received a special gift, the fifth prize, a drinking goblet, still remained unclaimed. Observing this, Achilles seized the occasion of showing his esteem for the venerable King of Pylos. So he took the cup, and going to the place where Nestor was sitting put it in his hands. "Take this, father," he said, "as a memorial of our lost Patroclus, in whose honour we are met to-day. Thou art full of years and honours, and deservest the highest prize of all, though thou canst not strive with young men in boxing, or in wrestling, or in speed of foot."

"Thou sayest truly, my son," answered the old man, "my feet are heavy with age, and my arms dart not nimbly from the shoulder, as they did of yore. Yet the day has been when none could vie with me in feats of strength and skill. Well do I remember the funeral games of a noble prince of Elis, where I won the prize in every contest, except only in the chariot race, and then I was overmatched by numbers, for the winning car had two drivers, one plying the lash, and the other managing the reins. Alas for my youth! Alas for my vanished strength! Now I must be content to see others excel, though once I was mighty among the mightiest. Let then the games proceed, and receive an old man's blessing for thy kindly gift."


"Now let the boxers try their skill and hardihood," said Achilles, when he had returned to his seat. "Here is a stout mule of six years old for the winner, and for the loser there is a silver cup."

In answer to the challenge a huge champion named Epeus strode into the ring, and, laying his hand on the mule, cried boastfully: "Come on, whoever wishes to win the cup! The mule is surely mine, for there is no boxer here who can match me. If there be anyone who would dispute the prize with me, let him stand up, when he has made all ready for his funeral—for I will pound his flesh, and batter his bones, until he is fit only for burial."

Epeus, with his massive frame and brawny arms, seemed quite capable of performing his threats, and it was some time before anyone was found willing to face him. At last Euryalus, an Argive, whose father had been a famous boxer, was encouraged by his friend Diomede to try his chances in this painful and dangerous sport; and having stripped to the waist, and bound their hands with tough leathern thongs, the two combatants confronted each other in the centre of the ring. The struggle was very short, for after they had fenced a little with their fists Euryalus received a crushing blow on the side of his jaw, and dropped in a heap where he stood, like a great fish flung by the waves on the beach. Spitting out blood, and rolling his head from side to side, he was led away by his friends, and Epeus carried off the mule in triumph.

Then followed a hard-contested match between Odysseus and Telamonian Ajax, for the championship in wrestling. Stripped, like the boxers, to the waist, they clutched each other in a fierce embrace, and remained thus locked together, their strong arms crossed like the rafters in a roof, and their sides growing black under the iron pressure. They seemed rooted to the ground, and neither could stir the other an inch. Then Ajax, suddenly exerting his enormous strength, lifted Odysseus bodily into the air; but Odysseus struck him with his heel behind the knee, and they fell together, Odysseus above, and Ajax below. Rising again to their feet they wrestled a second bout, and this time Odysseus, though foiled in his attempt to lift the huge bulk of his antagonist, succeeded in tripping him by a crook of the knee, and they came down again, and lay side by side. Once more they would have renewed the struggle, but Achilles put an end to the contest, and awarded them an equal prize.

A beautiful silver bowl, the work of Sidonian artists, which Achilles had once received as the ransom of the unhappy Lycaon, was now offered as the first prize for the foot race. The second prize was a fat ox, and the third one half of a talent of gold. There were three competitors: the lesser Ajax, who was famed for his speed of foot, Odysseus, and Antilochus. The distance was about a furlong, and Ajax took the lead from the start, though Odysseus pressed him so hard that he seemed glued to him; and so they ran, without changing their positions, over half the course, the Greeks shouting to encourage Odysseus, who was a popular favourite. Still Ajax held the lead, and seemed about to win, when he slipped in a miry place, where the ground was wet with the blood of the oxen slaughtered by Achilles at the funeral of Patroclus, and pitched head foremost in the horrid mire, which filled his mouth and nostrils. But he was on his feet again in a moment, and though he could not overtake Odysseus he succeeded in obtaining the second prize. "It is an old story," he said, holding the ox by the horn, and spitting out the slime which filled his mouth; "Odysseus was helped by Athene, who watches over him as a mother over her child."

The Greeks laughed at his discomfiture, and found fresh matter for mirth in the humorous excuses of Antilochus, who had been left far behind in the race. "You know," he said, "that the gods are always on the side of the elder men; Ajax is a little older than I, and Odysseus belongs to another generation. But he is in a green old age, and none can vie with him in speed, except only Achilles."

"Thy praise shall not be spoken for nothing," said Achilles, smiling, and he gave him one half of a talent of gold as a reward for his good words.

Contests in archery and throwing the weight succeeded, and an encounter with sword and spear took place between Ajax and Diomede. Then Achilles offered two prizes for throwing the javelin, and Agamemnon, in recognition of his high rank and known skill in this exercise, was allowed to take the first prize without a trial. With this incident the games came to an end.