The Goriest Fight Scenes from The Iliad, Pt. 2

More gruesome kills from epic poetry

Clive Thompson


A color painting depicting Achilles, in a chariot, riding over the slain body of Hector, with smoke arising in the air behind him and a large army of Trojans facing him
“Achilles in his chariot rides over the body of the slain Hector” (via Wikipedia, CC 4.0 license, unmodified)

This is National Poetry Month, so I figure it’s time to talk about famous depictions of bone-crunching violence.

Specifically, the Iliad! It’s a poem that is possessed of heart-piercing metaphoric imagery, vividly weird characters, beautiful turns of phrase … and a body count so massive it practically requires Excel.

This is the second part of a series. Last year I wrote a Medium post entitled “The Goriest Fight Scenes from The Iliad, Pt. 1”. As I noted at the time, the Iliad

… has moments of gorgeously observant poetry, as when Homer describes Achilles as a towering rogue wave rushing across the ocean, or a soldier toppling to his death as an ash-tree shedding its leaves. It’s an existentially unsettling tale, since so much of the fates of the combatants are in the hands of the gods — who behave like fickle and petulant children. And it’s philosophically and morally deep — reminding us of “the vital interdependence between individual and group achievement, prosperity, and happiness”, as Emily Katz Anhalt argues in her terrific book Embattled: How Ancient Greek Myths Empower Us To Resist Tyranny.

Yet whenever I reread the poem, I’m also struck by how many lines of poetry Homer lavishes upon detailing — in positively surgical detail — the gruesome parts of combat.

Over and over again, Homer dilates upon “the grisly physics of what happens when a spear stabs someone in the groin, or when a sword severs an arm at the shoulder socket. And it’s not just metal weapons: Frequently the combatants — having expended their spear or broken their sword — just pick up big ol’ rocks and smash the everlasting crap out of each other.”

The sheer precision of the anatomical details is kind of amazing: Whenever he describes how someone dies, Homer hones in on individual body parts — livers, lungs, tongues, esophaguses, pubic bones, eyeballs. This is poetry by way of Gray’s Anatomy.

A black and white drawing of Achilles stabbing Patroclus, who’s on a chariot, with a long spear
“The Death of Patroclus”, from Pope’s Iliad (via Wikipedia, CC 1.0 license, unmodified)



Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”.