P is for Patroclos

Published April 18, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Finally, we’re up to P!  Patroclos is definitely my favorite character in the Trojan War, and quite possibly my favorite mortal in all the Greek myths.

Why?  Well, part of it’s just a “gut reaction,” I’ll admit.  I’m the type who forms attachments quickly and firmly where fictional characters are concerned, so there isn’t always a logical reason behind it.  But there are a lot of reasons to be a fan of Patroclos.

For one thing, he is absolutely the nicest guy in the Iliad.  Even when he tries to talk smack during the battle, he’s not very good at it; one of the many pieces I read last semester for my paper described his use of formalized language there and called it “awkward and self-conscious.”  (If I could remember which one, I would definitely give credit, but…I read a ludicrous number of books and articles on the subject last semester, so…I have no idea.  I’m not even sure if that was in a book or an article.)  And, in addition to his extreme devotion to his best friend and closest companion, he’s also deeply concerned by the plight of the other Achaians as the Trojans are decimating them in battle…which is something that absolutely cannot be said about his buddy Achilles!

Of course, his devotion to Achilles is what he’s best known for.  He does, after all, literally die for his sake and in his place.  As I mentioned in talking about Meleager’s wife Cleopatra, the parallel tale of Meleager as told in the Iliad describes him giving up on his sulks and going off to save his people, only to die in the process.  (Technically, the tale doesn’t absolutely say that he dies in the same battle, merely that he dies before he can collect the offered rewards, but that’s close enough!)  But instead of convincing Achilles to go fight–which, according to Achilles’ own oath, he should now do, since the Trojans have brought the fires of war into the camp–he goes out to fight in his armor, so that he can meet the death intended for his friend.  Whether or not he’s conscious of the fact that Achilles ought to be the one dying in that battle…who knows?  In my own (rather lame) novel about the Trojan War, that doesn’t occur to him, but if I ever write that one about Iphis, there he will go out to fight with that basic thought.  More relevantly, in the Iliad, he seems entirely unaware of his impending doom (though the audience is certainly made repeatedly aware of it!) and yet his death speech to Hector shows a certain amount of prescience that would imply that the notion had in fact crossed his mind that he might die in Achilles’ place.

And while the subject is under discussion, let me address his epic final battle.  Certain modern re-interpretations, particularly lousy Hollywood movies, have given the distinct impression that Patroclos was not up to the challenge of the battle, and that any victories he had were due entirely to the fear inspired by the armor of Achilles.  I would like to take this opportunity to set the record straight about that.  As Hyginus mentioned, Patroclos kicked a lot of ass in that battle, and killed a lot of Trojans.

Now, I’m not saying that he wasn’t aided by the fear inspired by that armor.  (All quotes to follow come from Book XVI of the Iliad, W.H.D. Rouse translation.)

But when the Trojans saw Patroclos and his companions in their shining armour, they were amazed, and the ranks wavered; for they believed that Achilles had thrown off his resentment and made friends again.

So, yes, the rank and file Trojans thought he was Achilles….possibly.  They might simply have recognized that Patroclos was the warrior always fighting at Achilles’ side, and that he Myrmidons were Achilles’ personal troops, and assumed that Patroclos and the Myrmidons wouldn’t be on the field of battle unless Achilles was also.  But!  Even if they did make that mistake!  After Patroclos killed Sarpedon, son of Zeus (you’ll hear more in a few days about that), Glaucos, the same one from last week, goes running off to fetch help to avenge his cousin Sarpedon, and to protect his corpse and armor.

First he went round urging the Lycian leaders to fight for Sarpedon.  Then he repaired at a good pace to the Trojans, Polydamas and Panthoides and Agenor, Aineias and Hector the mighty man himself, calling upon them in plain words–

“Look here, Hector! you have quite forgotten your allies.  They wear themselves out for your sake, far from home and friends, and you will not help them.  Sarpedon lies dead! the leader of the Lycian spearmen, who ruled his country with justice and his own strong arm.  Brazen Ares has brought him down by the spear of Patroclos!  Do stand by us, friends!  Let your hearts be moved with indignation!  Do not suffer the Myrmidons to strip him and maltreat his body, in revenge for the Danaans whom we have killed in fair fight beside their own ships!”

So, as you can see, the lords and leaders of the Trojans and their allies knew the faces of their enemies, and knew that it was Patroclos who was kicking their butts, not Achilles.  And when Apollo took on the form of a mortal to encourage Hector to fight Patroclos personally, he did again mention him by name.

Another quote, shortly after Patroclos has killed Hector’s half-brother and charioteer Cebriones, and Hector and the other Trojans have failed to save the body from the Achaian forces.

They dragged away the body of Cebriones and stript his armour, and Patroclos turned upon the Trojans again.  Thrice he leapt on them like another god of war with awful shouts, thrice nine men he killed:  but at the fourth furious attack–ah then, Patroclos, the end of your life was in sight! for Phoibos was there in all his terrors.

Patroclos did not see him coming, for the god was hidden in mist.  He stood behind Patroclos:  his eyes rolled in rage, and he slapped him between the shoulders with the flat of the hand.  The helmet was knocked from his head, and went rolling and rattling under the horse’s feet; the plumes were dabbled in blood and dust.  Never before had it been God’s will that this plumed helmet should be fouled in the dust, when it covered the head and brows of a man of the blood divine, Achilles; then Zeus granted that Hector should wear it, yet death was coming near him.  Patroclos felt the spear in his hand broken to pieces, the great strong heavy-bladed spear; the tasselled shield with its belt fell from his shoulders; the corselet was stript off his body by the great son of Zeus.  His mind was blinded, his knees crickled under him, he stood there dazed.

Then from behind a spear hit him between the shoulders.  A Dardanian struck him, Euphorbos Panthoides, best of all his yearsmates in spearsmanship and horsemanship and fleetness of foot.  He had already dismounted twenty since he drove out to learn his first lesson of war.  His was the first blow, but it did not bring down Patroclos, and Euphorbos pulled out he spear and mixed again with the crowd; he could not stand up to Patroclos even when naked and bare.

Even unarmed and naked, he was enough to scare someone allegedly among the best of the Trojans.  (Though this is pretty much the only time we ever hear of Euphorbos, as Menelaos kills him quite promptly.  And then he reincarnates into Pythagoras, for some reason.)  And, let me hasten to note, in the early part of that quote, Patroclos killed twenty-seven men in a single sentence.  How many men have ever accomplished that?  (How many men using a bronze spear, I should say.  Killing twenty-seven men in a single sentence isn’t so impressive if you’re using a tommy-gun or a grenade or the Death Star.)

The final exchange between Hector and Patroclos is worth quoting, too.  (Okay, technically, virtually the entire epic is worth quoting (the Catalog of Ships is pretty dull unless you’re studying pre-historic power distribution and stuff like that) but I meant worth quoting for this discussion of what a badass Patroclos is.)

“Ah, poor wretch, your Achilles is a good man, but he was no help to you, although no doubt he warned you earnestly when you started (and he stayed behind)–‘Don’t come back to me, my brave Patroclos, until you have stript the blood-stained shirt from Hector’s body!’  No doubt he must have said that, and you thought you could do it–no more sense in you than that!”

Patroclos replied, half fainting:

“For this once, Hector, make your proud boast; for you are the victor, by the help of Zeus Cronides and Apollo, who mastered me–an easy thing:  they stript off my armour themselves.  But if twenty men like you had confronted me, my spear would have slain them all on the spot.  No, it was cruel fate that killed me, and Leto’s son, and of men Euphorbos; you come third and take my armour.  One thing I tell you, and you should lay it up in your mind:  you have yourself not long to live.  Already death and fate are beside you, and Achilles Aiacides shall lay you low.”

So, there’s none of this “mistaken identity” garbage here.  Hector knew exactly who he was killing, and he was damned proud of himself for managing to bring the man down, even though he had, as Patroclos pointed out, an unfair advantage in the form of divine assistance.  (Not to mention, seriously, how impressive is it to kill an unarmed, naked opponent who’s already been wounded?  Hector dies over a killing that’s actually rather ignoble.  Which, I suppose, is actually the point; he’s done something unworthy of himself, and suffers a grievous price for it.  Thus reinforcing the social lesson that it’s wrong to kill an unarmed man.  Or not.)

Okay, now that I’ve cleared up Hollywood’s stupidity and re-asserted that Patroclos is a serious force to be reckoned with on the field of battle, I’ll get back to talking about him as a person.  Er, as a mythical character.  I’m not about to get into the speculativeness of whether or not any of these characters were based on real people.  (Though I will assert as many times as necessary that Alexander was at least named after a real person.)

So, in talking about Patroclos’ devotion to Achilles, so far in this post I’ve only called them friends.  But if you’ve read much else I’ve had to say on the subject, then you know that I’m not the type who thinks they were just friends.  While the homoerotic aspect of their relationship is only subtext in the Iliad, it’s still present.  And when you get into the classical era, it sometimes becomes explicit.  We only have fragments of the Myrmidons of Aeschylos, but those fragments are extremely clear on the romantic and sexual side of their relationship:

And you did not respect the sacred honour of the thigh-bond, ungrateful that you were for those countless kisses!

And I honoured the intimacy of your thighs by bewailing you. (Trans. Alan H. Sommerstein; Loeb Classics)

Both of the above quotes are undoubtedly Achilles addressing the corpse, either on stage or in absentia.  The following quote is a little less clear:

And yet to me, because I love him, this is not loathsome.

It’s clear on the whole “love” thing, but what “this” is is unclear.  The translator’s note on “this” says “Referring either to the sight of Patroclus’ bloody corpse (if, for example, Achilles is asking for it to be uncovered) or, as has also been suggested, to the act of affectionately touching or even kissing it.”  I would agree with the latter interpretation, myself.  Because in the Iliad, when Thetis arrives with Achilles’ new armor, she finds her son in his hut:

He lay with Patroclos in his arms, weeping bitterly, while his comrades were mourning around.

Seriously, he’s lying there with a dead body in his arms.  That, it seems to me, would be what Aeschylos was building from with that line, whatever it was he had happening on stage when that line was said.  One last quote, presumably from much earlier in the play than the previous one, but who knows?  Addressing Antilochos, the son of Nestor who brought him the news of Patroclos’ death:

Cry for me the living, Antilochus, more than for the dead:  all I had is gone!

Hmm, you know, the older translation I saw on that one was actually better.  I mean, I’m sure this is more accurate, but the other had better punch in English.  I wonder if I can find that…hang on a moment…yeah, here it is.  From the earlier Loeb Aeschylos fragments book (sorry, don’t have the translator’s name handy, but it was really old, like 1920s) two of the quotes I kind of like better in the older way:

Antilochus, bewail me, the living, rather than him, the dead; for I have lost my all.

No reverence hadst thou for the unsullied holiness of thy limbs, oh thou most ungrateful for my many kisses!

Okay, the whole “thou” thing is annoying, but I prefer “unsullied holiness of thy limbs” to “the sacred honour of the thigh-bond,” personally.  I mean, was intercrural sex honestly sacred?  I find that unlikely, to say the least.  I suspect both translations of that line are missing some aspect or other of the original text.  Though without the rest of the text, it’s probably impossible for anyone to translate it with perfect understanding of its meaning, needless to say.  (Not to mention the fact that it could have been mis-quoted.  Though it seems to have been quoted in two or three places, so if it was mis-quoted, whichever author came later would have had to get the quote from the earlier one, instead of directly from the play.)

Anyway, so, getting away from the direct textual evidence and back to the characters themselves, the odd thing is that in the Iliad, Patroclos is spelled out to be the elder of the two.  This made their relationship impossible to fit neatly into the rigidly defined pederastic relationship that developed during the classical era.  Because, of course, that strict social set-up didn’t exist yet when the Iliad was composed.  Or at least, it doesn’t seem to have.  Or if it did, it wasn’t so important in Ionia.  (The problem with lack of information is that it makes sweeping generalizations more than a bit likely to be wrong.)  There were two basic ways that were used to pretend that it fit, and they’ve hung around to the present day.

One way was to pretend that Nestor didn’t mention that Patroclos was older, and pretend he was younger, and therefore the eromenos, like Aeschylos described.  Not the popular choice during the classical era, but by the time people were comparing Alexander the Great and Hephaistion to Achilles and Patroclos, it had come back into vogue, because that way they wouldn’t have to imply that Alexander, conqueror of half the then-known world, was the passive partner.  (Personally, I doubt Alexander’s relationship with Hephaistion fit the traditional pederastic mold in any way.  Particularly since they were the same age, more or less, as far as we know.  Most likely, if we were able to look back through time and see those two historical people interacting, we would see something more akin to the modern situation of “friends with benefits.”  Only same-sex instead of hetero.)  This has remained the more popular approach, as seen in, say, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, where the grieving Achilles called Hector a “boy-killer.”  (Lemme tell ya, I hated that play until I got to the part where Achilles and Patroclus were revealed to be lovers.  Then I kinda dug it.  At least the scenes addressing their love for each other.)

The other way, preferred by classical authors like Plato, and a number of vase-painters, was to say that Achilles was not merely younger, but significantly younger, allowing them to fit into the traditional pederastic mold…though that was still not very traditional, because Achilles was the son of a king and a goddess, while Patroclos was the son of nobody in particular.  Normally, someone that important would not become an eromenos, no matter what.  (In classical Sparta, where pederasty was institutional (but with the claim that it was forbidden to “go all the way”) the sons of the kings were exempt from having to serve as an eromenos, though they still got to be an erastes.  BTW, Leonidas had not been expected to inherit the throne (he inherited via his wife), so he did have to serve as an eromenos.)  But putting a larger age difference between them still doesn’t really work, because Patroclos in the Iliad is clearly also a young man.  Their relationship is clearly one of friendship between more-or-less equals, with sexual/romantic aspects added on top.  (Like “friends with benefits” only more intense.)

But there’s the rub.  How can they be “more-or-less equals”?  Achilles’ father is a king and the grandson of Zeus, and his mother is an immortal Nereid, a minor sea goddess.  Patroclos’ father is Menoitios, a man known only for having fathered Patroclos (though Apollonius of Rhodes did add him to the crew of the Argo in his Argonautica) and his mother is unnamed and unknown.  Being older would improve Patroclos’ standing a little, but not much.  He should still be considered much less important than Achilles.  So why isn’t he?

Well, according to the fragments of the Hesiodic Catalog of Women, Patroclos’ father Menoitios was also a son of Aiakos, just like Peleus and Telamon.  In other words, he would be Achilles’ first cousin, just like Aias and Teukros.  The problem with that is that it’s clearly not the case in the Iliad.  Only Achilles is ever called Aiakides ((grand)son of Aiakos) in the Iliad.  When and where that epic was composed, only Peleus was a son of Aiakos.  Plus, Menoitios is usually said to be the son of Actor.  Though there are quite a few men in Greek myths named Actor, so that doesn’t really tell us much.

One of the identities assigned to Actor, father of Menoitios, is that of the husband of Aegina.  Aiakos, you see, was the son of Zeus and Aegina.  But, like other women used and discarded by Zeus, she also took a mortal husband…at least in some versions.  And that husband, sometimes, was Actor.  Which made Menoitios the half-brother of Aiakos…and made Patroclos a full generation removed from Achilles, being in the same generation as his father instead.  Fine and dandy for the version of their relationship described in Plato’s Symposium, but if Patroclos was Peleus’ age, he wouldn’t have been capable of kicking that much butt.

So where does that leave us?  Confused and without an answer, essentially.  As with so many things about the Greek myths, there’s no way to compile all the known details and make them make sense, because they’re too inconsistent with each other.  “Homer” was from Ionia, not far from Troy, in fact, and Hesiod was from Boeotia, if I recall correctly.  (Even if I’m wrong about Boeotia, Hesiod was absolutely from Greece, not from a Greek colony in Anatolia, like “Homer” was.)  They knew different traditions, because they lived very far from each other, and their local environments had different external influences.  Patroclos’ lineage is far from being the only place they differ, after all.  (Their differences on the origin of Aphrodite, for example, are astounding!)

One other thing about Patroclos’ family, or specifically about his father.  As I said before, Patroclos means “glory of/from/to the father”.  So long as his father is a nobody, there’s a delightful irony to the name.  Or an appropriateness, if you take it to mean “to the father” in that Menoitios’ only glory comes from his son’s exploits.

Patroclos is an “unconfirmed” name, as far as the Mycenaean civilization in which any real war which might have inspired the myth could have taken place.  Many of the big names have been found on Linear B tablets either in their own form–Achilles, Hector, Aias–or in feminine variations–Idomeneus, Alexander–and of course the name Alexander is also attested from the Hittite texts.  (Eteocles, the name of one of Oedipus’ sons, has also been found, we think, in a Hittite text.  And there were more Trojan War names found on the Linear B tablets than that; I just don’t remember which ones, and I don’t own a copy of that book, so I can’t easily look it up.)  While Patroclos has not been found on Linear B tablets, a name ending in “-klewos” has been found, so compounds of that type definitely existed.  So, in theory, someone named Patroclos–or its nearest Mycenaean equivalent–could have fought and died at Troy.  If the name already existed, one probably did; evidence of combat was found at a number of Late Bronze Age layers at Troy (though not all combat evidence also necessarily led to the destruction of that layer of the city, I should point out).  Of course, that wouldn’t mean that any real person by that name had anything to do with the mythic character we (I?) know and love.


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