THE DEATH OF SARPEDON
(THE ILIAD, BOOK XVI)
Detail from the Euphronios Krater (below)
Sarpedon almost became immortal
What the death of Sarpedon, as told by Homer, means to me is
that the gods cannot play favorites.
Sarpedon was a favorite of Zeus, and the Iliad tells us that it was
painful for Zeus to see that this favorite human of his was going to perish at
the hands of Patroclus, and not only perish, but so far from the beautiful and
peaceful land of Lycia, where Sarpedon had been king. Zeus, God, who is watching the Trojan War
from the heights of Mount Ida, in present day Turkey, is tempted to spare Sarpedon
from death, to convey him back home to his family and lands in Lycia where he
could live a long life, but Zeus’ wife, Hera, whose widely separated eyes, her “ox
eyes,” disguise a great intelligence, counsels her husband to let Sarpedon die,
because to make an exception of him would draw the envy and the ire of the
other gods. The reason the Greek gods
could be gods, as Nietzsche said, is because they were many. They all watched each other with jealousy, because
they were all gods, and they could admire each other. Zeus, the God of gods, is sorely tempted to
put Sarpedon back in Lycia, where he could live many years as a happy King, but
Hera reminds him of the jealousy of the other gods, and the strife that will
cause among them. In sadness, Zeus
yields to his wife, and Sarpedon dies.
The Iliad, Book 16, lines 439 to 457, in Richard Lattimore’s translation:
“In turn the lady Hera of the ox eyes answered [Zeus]:
‘Majesty, son of Kronos, what sort of thing have you spoken?
Do you wish to bring back a man who is mortal, one long since
Doomed by his destiny, from ill-sounding death and release him?
Do it, then; but not all the rest of us gods shall approve you.
And put away in your thoughts this other thing I tell you;
If you bring Sarpedon back to his home, still living,
Think how then some other one of the gods might also
Wish to carry his own son out of the strong encounter;
Since around the great city of Priam are fighting many
Sons of the immortals. You will waken grim resentment among them.
No, but if he is dear to you, and your heart mourns for him,
Then let him be, and let him go down in the strong encounter
Underneath the hands of Patroklos, the son of Menoitios;
But after the soul and the years of his life have left him, then send
Death to carry him away, and Sleep, who is painless,
Death to carry him away, and Sleep, who is painless,
Until they come with him to the countryside of broad Lykia
Where his brothers and countrymen shall give him due burial
with tomb and gravestone. Such is the privilege of those who have perished.”
Son of Zeus and Laodamia
The Euphronios Krater, showing the death of Sarpedon and his corpse taken from the field by the twins, Sleep and Death.
Sarpedon scolded Hector in the Iliad, (Book 5, lines 471–492) claiming that Hector left all the hard fighting to the allies of Troy and not to the Trojans themselves, and he also made a point of saying that the Lycians had no reason to fight the Greeks, or no real reason to hate them, but because he was a faithful ally to Troy he would do so and fight his best anyway. When the Trojans attacked the wall newly built by the Greeks, Sarpedon led his men (who also included Glaucus and Asteropaios) to the forefront of the battle and caused Aias and Teucer to shift their attention from Hector's attack to that of Sarpedon's forces. He personally held up the battlements and was the first to enter the Greek encampment. This attack allowed Hector to break through the Greek wall. It was during this action that Sarpedon delivers his speech of stewardship and social responsibility to Glaucus, stating that they were most honored kings and therefore must now fight the most to repay that honor and prove themselves and repay their loyal subjects. While he was preparing to plunge into battle, he told Glaucus that together they would go on to glory: if they were successful, the glory would be their own; if not, the glory of whoever stopped them would be the greater.
The death of Sarpedon, depicted on the obverse of the so-called Euphronios Krater, c.515 BCE. Sarpedon is carried away by the twins, Sleep and Death.
Sarpedon carried away by Sleep and Death, a painting by the Swiss Henry Fuseli, 1803.
One account holds that the first and second Sarpedon are both the same man, and that Zeus granted Sarpedon an extraordinarily long life that had to end at the Trojan War. However, the favored account is that Sarpedon, brother of Minos, and Sarpedon, who fought at Troy, were different men who lived generations apart. A genealogical link is provided between the two Sarpedons, through Laodamia. Laodamia (called Deidameia in that particular account) is said to have married Evander, son of the first Sarpedon, and to have presented Evander with a son named Sarpedon (in reality her son by Zeus).
See: The Iliad, books: II, IV, XII, and XVI.
Maps of Lycia
“When Sarpedon saw his belt-less Lycians fall at the hands of Patroclus, he called out to the rest in reproach: ‘Shame on you, Lycians, where are you off to? Run then, quickly, while I face this fellow, and find out who it is that conquers all and hurts us so, killing so many of our noblest.’
So saying, he leapt fully armed from his chariot, and Patroclus seeing him do so did likewise. With loud cries, they attacked each other, like raucous vultures, fighting with curved beak and crooked talon on some high crag.
Zeus and Hera on Mount Ida, overlooking the Trojan War
Zeus, gazing down on them, felt pity, and spoke to Hera, his sister-wife: ‘Alas that Sarpedon, so dear to me, is fated to die at the hands of Patroclus! Even now I am undecided, whether to snatch him up and set him down alive in his rich land of Lycia, far from this sad war, or allow him to fall to this son of Menoetius.’
The ridge of Mount Ida in Turkey, where Zeus spoke with Hera
‘Dread son of Cronos,’ ox-eyed Queen Hera replied, ‘what do you mean? Are you willing to save a mortal from the pains of death, one long since doomed by fate? Do so, but don’t expect the rest of us to approve. And think hard about this fact too. If you send Sarpedon home alive, why should some other god not do the same for their dear son, and save him from the thick of war? Many who fight before Priam’s great city are children of immortals, and those divinities will resent it deeply. If he’s so dear to you, and it grieves your heart, let Patroclus defeat him in mortal combat, but after his spirit has departed, send Death and sweet Sleep to bear him away to the broad land of Lycia, where his brothers and all his kin may mark his resting place with barrow and pillar, a privilege of the dead.’
The Father of men and gods accepted her advice, but he sent a shower of blood-red raindrops to the earth, to honor his beloved son whom Patroclus would slay in the fertile land of Troy, far from his native realm.
The Lycian plain, Sarpedon's home.
Now, as the two warriors came face to face, Patroclus struck noble Thrasymelus, Sarpedon’s brave squire, piercing his lower belly, and loosening his limbs. But Sarpedon’s reply went astray, his gleaming spear striking the horse Pegasus on its right shoulder, and the horse cried out in pain breathing its last, and fell in the dust with a great sigh as it gave up its life. The other two horses pulled away, the yoke creaking with the strain, their reins entangled with the trace horse in the dust. But Aytomedon, the noted spearman, found an answer. Leaping down, and drawing the long sword from beside his sturdy thigh, he cut the trace horse loose in a moment. The other pair righted themselves, and tugged again at the harness, as the two men resumed their deadly duel.
Again Sarpedon’s bright spear missed, the blade passing over Patroclus’ left shoulder, leaving the man unscathed. But Patroclus hurled his bronze, in turn, and the spear sped from his hand and not in vain, striking Sarpedon where the ribs press on the beating heart. He fell as an oak, a poplar or lofty pine falls in the mountains, downed by the shipwrights with sharp axes as timbers for a ship. Down he tumbled, and lay stretched out at his horses’ feet, groaning and clutching the blood-stained dust before his chariot.
Figure of a wounded soldier, from the pediment of the Temple of Aphaia in Aegina
There, struggling with death, the leader of the Lycian shieldmen, straddled by Patroclus, called out to his dear comrade: ‘Glaucus, my friend, warrior of warriors, now you must wield the spear and battle bravely; now if you truly have fight in you, let dread war be your aim. First go and rouse the Lycian leaders to battle now over Sarpedon. And you yourself must defend me with your spear. If the Greeks strip me of my armor, here where I fall close to the ships, then it will be a reproach and a cause of shame to you through all your days. Hold your ground with courage, and urge on the men.’
The Lycian shores
As he spoke death descended over his mouth and eyes, and Patroclus set his foot on his chest, and drew the spear from the flesh, the whole midriff yielding with it, releasing the point of the blade and Sarpedon’s spirit, while the Myrmidons held the panting horses, the creatures eager to flee now the chariots lacked their masters.
Figure of Dying Soldier, from the pediment of the Temple of Aphaia in Aegina
Bk XVI:508-568 Glaucus rouses the Lycians and Trojans
Deep sorrow gripped Glaucus on hearing Sarpedon’s call: his heart was pained seeing no way to help him. Distressed by the arrow-wound that Teucer, fighting for his comrades’ lives, had dealt him, as he charged the Achaean wall, he gripped his damaged arm with his other hand. He prayed though to Apollo, the Far-Striker: ‘Lord, hear me wherever you are, in Lycia’s rich land perhaps or even here in Troy, for you always hear a man in sorrow, as I sorrow now. The wound I have is grievous, my arm a mass of pain; the blood will not clot, the shoulder is numb. I can’t grip my spear to fight to the enemy. And Sarpedon, son of Zeus, the best of us is gone, for Zeus cannot even save his own child. Heal me of this foul wound, Lord Apollo, ease my pain, give me the strength to rally my Lycians, rouse their courage, and fight over the body of the fallen.’
So he prayed, and Apollo heard, quelling the pain, clotting the black blood flowing from the deep wound, and filling his heart with courage. Glaucus recognised immortal aid, glad of the god’s swift answer. He ran to rally the Lycians, and urge them to fight for Sarpedon’s corpse, then sought the Trojan leaders, Polydamas, son of Panthous, noble Agenor, Aeneas and the bronze-clad Hector. He found the latter and addressed him with winged words: ‘Hector, you forget your allies now, we who are spending our lives for you, far from our friends and our native land. You give not a thought to their protection. Sarpedon has fallen, chief of the Lycian shield-men, the strong and just defender of Lycia. Bronze-clad Ares has brought him down at the point of Patroclus’ spear. Take your stand, beside his body, friends, dread the breath of shame if the Myrmidons, in anger over those Danaan dead we slew with our spears by the swift ships, strip him of his armour and desecrate his corpse.’
He spoke to the willing. Then both sides, strengthening their numbers, met in battle with a mighty roar, the Trojans and Lycians, the Myrmidons and Achaeans, fighting over the body of the fallen, their battle gear clanging. And Zeus wrapped the fog of war about the fierce conflict, so that the vicious toils of battle might wreathe his dear dead son.’”
The Iliad, Book XVI
The shores of Lycia
Alexander Pope’s Translation
(The Iliad, Book XVI)