Essential as it was in the classical Greek world to honor the citizen-soldiers who had died for the city, it was also considered important, indeed commanded by the customs of war, to bury the bodies of enemy soldiers who had died in combat, or at least to permit the enemy recover and bury them himself. The custom was not, of course, universally followed, and indeed some have argued that the practice of the world that Homer dramatizes was contrary to it. But by the fifth century, and certainly by the time Euripides’ Suppliants was staged, the practice had congealed into a customary norm. So compelling was that norm, in fact, that it was taken to be a defining mark of Hellenism and of civilization. We cannot begin to understand the moral universe of The Suppliants until we grasp the centrality of this norm and the horror that attended its violation.
The obvious starting place is Homer’s Iliad. The Greek hero Achilles, seething with anger at the insult offered him by the Greek king Agamemnon, has withdrawn from combat, leaving the Greek forces to their own devices. Without Achilles, the war goes badly for the Greeks. They send an embassy to Achilles, offering compensation for Agamemnon’s offense, appealing to his fellow-feeing for his erstwhile comrades-in-arms, and seeking to persuade him to rejoin them in the struggle against Troy. Achilles will not be mollified. But his loyal comrade and intimate friend Patroclus persuades Achilles to permit him to enter the fray, bearing Achilles’ armor, so that the Trojans may be deceived into thinking that Achilles himself has returned to fight them. Achilles agrees, but only after setting strict limits to how and when Patroclus may fight. Disobeying Achilles’ instructions, Patroclus is speared and killed by the Trojan prince, Hector. On learning of Patroclus’ death, Achilles’ grief and remorse have no limits. The loss of Patroclus, Achilles says, wounds him as much as the killings of his own father or son would: “Nothing could more afflict me: fame relating the foul deed/Of my dear father’s slaughter, blood drawn from my sole son’s heart/No more could wound me. Cursed man, that in this foreign part/(For hateful Helen) my true love, my country, sire and son,/I should thus part with.” (Iliad Book XIX, ll. 318-22).
Achilles composes his differences with Agamemnon and the Greeks and rejoins the battle against the Trojans. He seeks Hector out for single combat. Hector’s mother Queen Hecuba implores her son to withdraw into the safety of the walled city of Troy, warning him that Achilles will defeat and kill him, leaving his unburied body for the dogs: “our tears shall pay thy corse [corpse] no obsequy./ Being ravish’d from us, Grecian dogs nourish’d with what I nursed” (Iliad Book XXII, ll. 74-75). Despite knowing Achilles to be far stronger and more powerful, Hector, fearing shame more than death, remains outside the city, to confront the vengeful Achilles. Hector proposes to Achilles that whichever of them kills the other do no outrage on the defeated man’s dead body:
Let vows of fit respect pass both, when conquest hath bestow’d
His wreath on either. Here I vow no fury shall be show’d
That is not manly, on thy corse; but, having spoil’d thy arms,
Resign thy person; which swear thou. (Iliad Book XXII, ll. 219-22).
Although Homer characterizes Hector’s terms as “fair and temperate,” Achilles angrily refuses them: he says that he and Hector can no more reach an agreement than lions and men, or wolves and lambs, could. Achilles can only urge Hector to feel what he himself feels: “Hunger for slaughter, and a hate that eats thy heart to eat/Thy foe’s heart” (Iliad Book XXII, ll. 232-33). Achilles’ anger transports him to the levels of a beast and a cannibal: in his wrath, he tramples down the barriers between the civilized and the barbaric, the human and the bestial, the cooked and the raw. He is waging a war for the utter annihilation of his enemy, a war without mercy or limits, war in the form that Clausewitz was later to call the “pure concept” of war. (See On War, Book One, c. 1, sec. 23, in which Clausewitz says that “the pure concept” of war is that of “a complete, untrammeled, absolute manifestation of violence”).
The degradation of Hector’s body
Achilles slays Hector, pierces the dead body’s “Achilles’ tendons,” straps the body to the back of his chariot, hauls it back to the Greek camp, and drags it in the dust twelve times around Patroclus’ funeral pyre. Addressing the dead Patroclus, Achilles boasts:
Hector lies slaughter’d here
Dragg’d at my chariot, and our dogs shall all in pieces tear
His hated limbs. Twelve Trojan youths, born of their noblest strains,
I took alive, and (yet enrag’d) will empty all their veins
Of vital spirits, sacrific’d before thy heap of fire. (Iliad Book XXIII, ll. 16-21.)
Then Achilles lays Hector face down in the dust before Patroclus. This, Homer says, was shameful, “unworthy” of Achilles.
Despite Hector’s death and the degradation of his body, Achilles’ thirst for revenge remains unslaked: “with Hector’s corse his rage had never done” (Iliad Book XXIV, l. 16). Even the gods begin to pity Hector. Apollo denounces Achilles before the other gods as “one that hath neither heart/Nor soul within him that will move or yield to any part/That fits a man, but lion-like, uplandish, and mere wild,/Slave to his pride, and all his nerves being naturally compil’d/Of eminent strength, stalks out and preys upon a silly sheep” (Id., ll. 41-45). “Shame,” Apollo says, “is not known, nor hath the power to be,/In this man’s being” (id., ll. 47-50). Achilles’ treatment of Hector’s body, Apollo says, is “vile” and “outrageous.”
Apollo intervenes to protect Hector’s body from Achilles’ unrelenting abuse. He places his divine shield over Hector’s body (so that, when Priam finally retrieves his son’s body, Hector can be given a burial worthy of a fallen hero):
Apollo yet, even dead,
Pitied the prince, and would not see inhuman tyranny fed
With more pollution of his limbs, and therefore cover’d round
His person with his golden shield, that rude dogs might not wound
His manly lineaments (which threat Achilles cruelly
Had us’d in fury). (Iliad Book XXIV, ll. 18-23.)
The gods then take counsel. Although the goddess Hera takes Achilles’ side, arguing that Hector and Achilles cannot fairly be treated as equals, the chief god, Zeus, decides that the dishonoring of Hector’s body must end, albeit in a way that does not injure Achilles’ honor. Zeus proclaims that Priam, the aged King of Troy and Hector’s father, must ransom his son’s body from Achilles, and that Achilles must yield the body to Priam. Zeus instructs the goddess Thetis (Achilles’ mother) to tell her son of his decree, telling her of the gods’, and above all his own, anger at Achilles’ defilement of Hector:
Haste then, and tell thy son
The gods are angry; and myself take that wrong he hath done
To Hector in worst part of all: the rather, since he still
Detains his person. Charge him then, if he respect my will
For any reason, to resign slain Hector. I will send
Iris to Priam to redeem his son, and recommend
Fit ransom to Achilles’ grace . . . (Iliad Book XXIV, ll. 122-28.)
Achilles’ accepts Zeus’ decision. Priam comes to Achilles’ tent to ransom Hector’s body and, in scenes of exquisite beauty and pathos, is reconciled to the man who slew his son.
The moral universe of the Iliad
Scholars have interpreted these passages to show that even in the world portrayed in The Iliad, there was a norm or expectation, grounded in the will of the gods, that even if the enemy dead could be stripped of their armor and weapons, their bodies should not be mutilated or left as carrion, but instead should be burned or surrendered for burning. Thus the eminent British classicist Hugh Lloyd-Jones wrote in his The Justice of Zeus (1971) that “Achilles’ insistence on honouring Patroclus by giving Hector’s body to the dogs is clearly contrary to the prevailing standards. . . . Zeus . . . deplores his treatment of the body.” And the distinguished American classicist Seth Bernardete states in Achilles and Hector: The Homeric Hero (2005 (1985)) that in describing the debate among the gods over Achilles’ treatment of Hector’s body, Homer utters “his own final indictment of Achilles.”
The Iliad itself provides evidence that the warring Greeks and Trojans assumed this understanding. In Book VII, Agamemnon accepts Priam’s bid for a truce for the burning of the dead (Book VII, ll. 341-45). Even Achilles himself had earlier shown such respect. Hector’s wife Andromache says that after killing her father in battle, Achilles nonetheless treated his corpse with the utmost dignity:
The royal body yet he left unspoil’d – religion charm’d
That act of spoil – and all in fire he burn’d him complete arm’d,
Built over him a royal tomb (Iliad Book VI, ll. 449-51).
The dark side of the heroic ideal: The beautiful death and its sinister obverse
Not all scholars would agree with this interpretation of the Iliad’s implicit moral standpoint. The American classicist Samuel Eliot Bassett argued powerfully that under the war code found in The Iliad, Achilles’ treatment of Hector’s body was not merely acceptable, but even mandatory:
The Homeric poems show clearly that it was the most solemn duty incumbent on a warrior not only to avenge the blood of a kinsman or friend by the death of the slayer and of others bound to him by the ties of blood and friendship, but also to outrage thee bodies of these and to prevent their burial. This code of Homeric warfare Achilles follows in refusing the pleas of . . . Hector, and in dragging the body of the latter. . . . Homer shows by numerous passages that to expose to the dogs and vultures the body of one who had wronged a kinsman or friend was both a duty and an act of piety. (Samuel Eliot Bassett, The Poetry of Homer (new ed. 2003 (1938)).
In support of this bold claim, Bassett notes that in retaliation for Patroclus’ slaying of Polydorus, “Hector dragged the body of Patroclus that he might cut off the head (to fix it on the battlements, Iris says) and throw the body to the dogs.” See Iliad Book XVIII, ll. 154-56. What was considered virtuous in Hector could hardly be condemned in Achilles.
Nor is that episode unique. Battling to defend the body of Patroclus from the Trojans, Ajax warns his comrade Menelaos of the danger that they both will be destroyed by the triumphant Hector. Ajax cries out:
‘O my friend!
O Menelaos! Ne’ermore hope to get off; here’s the end
Of all our labours: not so much I fear to lose the corse
(For that’s sure gone; the fowls of Troy and dogs will quickly force
That piece-meal) as I fear my head, and thine, O Atreus’ son.’ (Book XIII, ll. 209-13).
Ajax seems to be saying that if he and Menelaus fall to Hector, both their bodies will be decapitated. And Euphorbus, in single combat with Menelaus, threatens to slay him and bring “that proud head of thine” back to Troy. Book XVII, l. 34.
The great French classicist J.-P. Vernant explains, in an essay called A “Beautiful Death” and the Disfigured Corpse in Homeric Epic, why the temptation to dishonor and mutilate the enemy warrior’s corpse was so powerful. That desire was, he says, inherent in the heroic ideal itself; dishonor and mutilation are the “sinister obverse” of the “beautiful death” that the Homeric hero wants for himself. To die a “beautiful death” in terrifying, radiant combat, even if that death is gruesome, preserves the warrior’s body from age and decay, and opens the path to his eternal youth. Not for the Homeric hero (or at least not for an Achilles) is the unenticing prospect of a long, inglorious and unremembered life. But that very heroic ideal is intrinsically linked to the mutilation of the enemy’s corpse. “Does not the hero’s beautiful death, which grants him eternal glory, have as its necessary corollary, its sinister obverse, the disfigurement and debasement of the dead opponent’s body, so as to deny him access to the memory of men to come? . . . [W]hat is most important is not to kill one’s enemy but to deprive him of a beautiful death.” When Achilles drag Hector through the dust, he seeks to deny him that “beautiful death”; when Apollo protects Hector with his golden shield, a god ensures that Hector may still have the beautiful death worthy of such a warrior.
The judgment of Zeus
This is not the place to assess the merits of these rival positions: both, plainly, are supported by evidence. For my own part, however, I find that the judgment of Zeus given in Book XXIV is most likely to be dispositive on the question. True, the council of the gods in Book XXIV is divided; true, Zeus recognizes that Achilles’ honor must be respected; true also, the practices of dishonoring the enemy dead, leaving them exposed and unburied, or carving up their bodies to make war trophies, are shown to be widespread in The Iliad. But as I read the poem, Achilles’ actions stand condemned from its dominant moral perspective. As Aristotle was to say in The Politics (1334a25), “war compels men to be just and temperate.” And Achilles was not.
Furthermore, it is perfectly intelligible why this norm or custom should have emerged even in the violent world of The Iliad. Like much of the traditional law of war, it reflects an ethics of reciprocity: Do as you would be done by. All soldierly combatants had an interest in being buried decently if they were slain in battle; all cities wanted to honor their battle-dead. If protecting these interests required opposing militaries to permit the recovery of an enemy’s fallen, that concession was worth the price. In a similar manner, the ethics of reciprocity underlies such traditional customs of war as the decent treatment of enemy captives or the restrictions on the use of certain weapons, such as gas. (In The Odyssey, poisoned arrows may be such a prohibited weapon, although Zeus makes an exception from the rule for Odysseus. See Book I, ll. 300-04).
Likewise, the exception, noted in several places in The Iliad, that permitted armor-stripping before an enemy corpse was yielded up, is also perfectly intelligible: an enemy’s armor and weaponry could be very valuable, both for later military use and as a prize that magnified the victor’s glory. The cases are many. The divinely-wrought shield of Achilles, which Homer describes at great length in Book XVIII, would obviously make a superb war trophy, as Hector recognizes in proposing terms of combat to Achilles. Again: after slaying Patroclus, Hector strips him of the armor of Achilles, which Patroclus had been wearing, leaving Achilles unable to avenge his friend until Hephaestus, persuaded by Thetis, forges new armor for him. See Book XVIII, ll. 405-13. These were “th’eternal arms that the celestial states/Gave Peleus,” Achilles’ father. Book XVII, ll. 165-66. Ajax robs the corpse of newly wed Iphidamas of his armor after killing him. Book XI, l. 285. Teucer is crazed to strip Imbrius of his armor after killing him, but Hector intervenes to protect the body. Book XIII, l. 217. After their inconclusive duel in Book VII, Hector and the Greek champion Ajax exchange gifts: Hector gives Ajax “a sword, whose handle was with silver studs through driven/Scabbard and all, with hangers rich,” while Ajax gave Hector “A fair well-glossed purple waist,” Book VII, ll. 262-64 – the belt which Achilles later use to strap Hector’s body to his chariot. Even Menelaus, King of Sparta, pauses in the battle over Patroclus’ body to strip the arms of the vanquished Euphorbus. Book XVII, l. 53. And after the peaceful exchange of armor between two combatants, Glaucon and Diomedes, once they recognize each other as “guest-friends,” Homer tells us that Glaucon’s armor was made of gold and worth a hundred oxen. See Book VI, ll. 246-48. Such spoils as these were too precious to part with. As with the general rule, reciprocity also underlay the exception.
There is, however, an apparent exception to the exception: Zeus condemns Hector for “rudely” taking Achilles’ armor from the “gentle, kind,/And valiant” Patroclus, and rules that, “since the justice is so strict,” Hector must in turn forfeit that armor. Book XVII, ll. 172-76. Perhaps Homer is suggesting that some values transcend the heroic code, and that Hector should have shown a kind of respect for the body of the gentle, lovable Patroclus that would not have been expected in the case of other warriors. But I think Homer’s point here is different. Is there not something unique about Achilles’ armor, which Achilles had lent to Patroclus and which then fell into Hector’s hands? Perhaps wearing it maddens anyone who is not Achilles himself, and makes him more savage or reckless than it is in his nature to be? The armor leads the gentle Patroclus to perform uncharacteristic acts of brutality, and it drives Hector to make the reckless decision to challenge Achilles rather than to find safety within the walls of Troy. The technology of war has mastered men, not men the technology.
In the following postings, I will trace out the later development of the norm of respect for enemy corpse in, first, the fifth century tragic dramatist Sophocles and, second, in the historians Herodotus and Thucydides.