In reading The Death and Afterlife of Achilles, by Jonathan S. Burgess, I came across a passage where I felt that the author may have been overlooking the point of the sequence he was discussing in the Iliad. Purposefully overlooking, perhaps, because it was irrelevant to his argument, but…I felt like addressing it none the less. (Because sometimes I’m anal like that. Especially when it comes to Patroclos.) So, the passage in question is the following: “Yet one might wonder whether such a battle would normally arise over a figure of Patroklos’s stature.” (Pg 83) The battle in question, naturally, being the one over his corpse, which lasted for an entire day (as did the later battle over Achilles’ corpse, which was Burgess’ point) despite that Patroclos was not a man of any significant social standing, and had already lost his armor prior to his death, so it’s not like they were trying to get his (borrowed) fabulous armor.
One might argue that the ancient Greeks had seen the same improbability in the desire of both sides to fight to obtain the remains of a socially insignificant man, and that was why later authors altered his father’s paternity so that his father, Menoitios, became the brother of Peleus and Telamon, and their fellow Argonaut as well, so that Patroclos became the first cousin of Achilles and Aias. However, that could as easily have been done to excuse his ability to kick that much butt, and besides, that dates back as far as the Hesiodic Catalog of Women, which is roughly contemporaneous with the Iliad, so…the popularity of that notion in later writers probably has more to do with making Achilles’ favorite companion closer to his own rank than it has to do with making the object of that battle “worthy” of being fought over.
Because, let’s face it: he just single-handedly turned the Trojan near-victory into a near-rout. They wanted to get their hands on his body and rip it to shreds for that reason and that reason alone. Who he was had nothing to do with it; simple human desire for vengeance was reason enough. (Let’s not forget that at one point he killed 27 Trojans in a single sentence! Even Achilles never managed that, as far as I know!) And the Greeks wanted to protect his body in part because he was the nicest, most likable person in their entire camp, and in part because Achilles would have torn them all limb from limb if they hadn’t. (Let’s be honest here. You know he would have. Allies or no allies. That would not have stood, and they all knew that.)
But none of that is actually my point. Those are all the “in world” reasons. Those aren’t the points I think Burgess was missing/overlooking. Now, maybe this is a little too close to “authorial intent,” but it seems to me that the main reason to have this huge battle over Patroclos’ body–the reason that any modern author would have put a similar huge battle there if they were writing in a world in which battles over corpses was the norm–was not to heighten the rather obvious Patroclos-as-Achilles-death-substitute thing, but rather to make Achilles’ anguish even greater, because he’s not only lost the one person he truly cares about, but there he is utterly helpless to do anything about it while everyone’s fighting this huge, lengthy battle over the body.
Because he’s without his armor, right? And it’s specified then and there that there isn’t another set of armor in the whole of the camp that will fit him, except perhaps Aias’, but since he’s using his, that’s hardly an option, so all he can do is wait for his mother to return from Hephaistos’ forge with his new armor, so he’s as helpless as a child while his friend’s body–and thus his soul, since he can’t get into the afterlife without being properly buried!–is in terrible jeopardy, and all he can do is go to the edge of the camp and bellow to scare off the enemy. (Which, bizarrely, actually works, but that’s another matter entirely.)
Anyway, that’s my opinion. The real reason there’s an enormous battle like that is to torment Achilles.
So they have that battle not (solely) for symbolic reasons, but because the poem’s hero needed to suffer more.
(Be glad I had this awesome post saved up from last night. Otherwise I might have bitched about how them closing a two block section of street on my way home from the museum today somehow got me lost for two hours because of other streets being closed for road work and this city not being built on a grid system. Urgh. And I had things I wanted to do today…)