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Alfred J. Church

The Battle at the Ships

N OW Poseidon, the god of the sea, loved the Greeks, and when he saw from a distant mountain where he sat how they fled before the Trojans, he was greatly troubled; and he said to himself: "Now I will help these men." It happened, also that Zeus had turned his eyes from the battle, thinking that none of the gods would do the thing which he had forbidden, that is, bring help to the Greeks. So Poseidon left the mountain where he sat, and came to his palace under the sea. There he harnessed his horses to his chariot, and he passed over the waves, while the great beasts of the sea, whales, and porpoises and the like, gambolled round him as he went, because they knew that he was their king. And when he came to the land of Troy, he left his chariot in a cave, and went on foot into the camp of the Greeks, having made himself like to Calchas the herald. And he came to the place where Ajax the Greater and the other Ajax were standing, and said to them: "Stir yourselves, for it is for you, who are stronger than other men, to save the people. I do not fear for the rest of the wall, but only for the place where Hector is fighting. Go then and keep him back, and may some god give you strength and courage."

And as he spoke he touched them with his staff and filled them with fresh courage, and gave new strength to their hands and to their feet. And when he had done this, he passed out of their sight, as quickly as a hawk flies when he drops from a cliff, chasing a bird. Then the Lesser Ajax perceived that he was not Calchas the herald but a god; and he said to the other Ajax: "This is a god who sends us to the battle. I knew him as he went away; and truly I feel my heart in me eager for the fight." And Ajax the Greater answered: "So it is with me also. I am all on fire for the battle. I would go against this Hector, even should I go alone." Meanwhile Poseidon went through the army, stirring up the other chiefs in the same way. But still the Trojans came on, even fiercer than before. Then Teucer slew a famous chief, Imbrius by name, driving his spear point under the man's ear. Like to some tall poplar by a river-side which a woodman cuts down with his axe of bronze, so did Imbrius fall. Then Hector cast his spear at Teucer. Him he missed, but he struck the comrade who was standing next to him. And Hector, as the man lay upon the ground, seized his helmet, and would have dragged the body among his own people. But Ajax the Greater thrust with his spear, and struck the boss of Hector's shield so strongly that he was driven backward and loosed his hold of the helmet, and the Greeks carried the man to the ships. Next there was slain a chief from the land of Caria who had come to Troy, desiring to have Cassandra, daughter of King Priam, for his wife. Loudly he had boasted, saying that he would drive the Greeks to the ships; and the King had promised him his daughter. But now he was slain. And the King of the Cretans, when he saw him lie dead, cried: "Truly this was a great thing which you promised to King Priam, so that he might give you his daughter. You should have come rather to us, and Agamemnon would have given you the fairest of his daughters, bringing her from Argos, that she might be married to you, if only you would take for us this city of Troy. But come now with me to the ships, that we may treat with you about this matter. Verily you will find that we Greeks are men of an open hand." Thus did the King speak, mocking the dead.

King Asius heard these words and was full of anger, and came at the Prince of Crete, lifting his spear to throw it. He was on foot, and his chariot followed close after him. But before he could cast the spear the Prince of Crete smote him full on the breast, and he fell as an oak or a pine tree falls before the axes of the wood-cutters on the hills. And when the driver of the chariot saw his master fall he was struck with fear, not knowing what to do. Then Antilŏchus, who was the eldest son of old Nestor, struck him down with his spear, and jumped on to the chariot, and took it and the horses for his own. Many other of the Trojans did the Greeks slay, and many they wounded. Even the mighty Hector himself was struck down for a time. He cast his spear at the great Ajax but hurt him not, for the point was turned by the armour, so thick it was and strong. And when he saw that he had cast the spear in vain, then he turned, and sought to go back to the ranks of his comrades; but, as he went, Ajax took up from the ground a great stone, one of many that lay there, and served as props for the ships, and cast it at Hector, smiting him above the rim of his shield on the neck. He fell as an oak falls when the lightning has struck it, and the Greeks, when they saw him fall, rushed with a great cry, and would have caught hold of his body and dragged it away. But this the Trojans did not suffer, for many of the bravest of them stood before him, covering him with their shields. And when they had driven back the Greeks a space, they lifted him from the ground, and carried him to the river and poured water on him. After a while he sat up, and then his spirit left him again, for it was a grievous blow which Ajax had dealt him. But when the Greeks saw that Hector was carried out of the battle, they took fresh courage and charged the Trojans, and drove them back even beyond the walls and the trench. And when the Trojans came to the place where they had left their chariots and horses, they stood pale and trembling, not knowing what to do.

But now Zeus turned his eyes again to the land of Troy. Very angry was he when he saw what had happened, how the Trojans fled from the Greeks, and Hector lay upon the plain, like to one that has fallen in battle, and his friends stood round him in great fear lest he had been wounded to the death. So he said to Hera: "Is this then your doing, rebellious one? Tell me now the truth, or it will be worse for you." And Hera answered: "Nay, this is not my doing. It is Poseidon who gives to the Greeks strength and courage." Then said Zeus to Iris the messenger: "Go now to Poseidon and tell him that it is my will that he is not to meddle with these things any more. Let him go back to the sea, for there he is master; but the things that happen on the earth, these belong to me. And when you have given this message to Poseidon, then go to Apollo and bid him go to Hector where he lies like a dead man on the plain, and put new life and courage into him, and send him back with new strength to the battle."

So Iris went on her errand. First she came to Poseidon, and gave him the message of Zeus. He was very angry when he heard it, and said: "Am I not his equal in honour? By what right does he bid me do this thing and cease from doing that? We were three brothers, sons of Old Time, and to me was given the dominion of the sea, and to Pluto the dwellings of the dead, and to Zeus to reign over the heaven and the earth."

But Iris answered: "O Poseidon, is it well to speak thus of Zeus? Do you not know how the eldest born is ever the strongest?" And Poseidon answered: "These are words of wisdom, O Iris, yet truly, if Zeus is minded to save this city of Troy, there will be enmity without ceasing between him and me."

Then went Iris to Apollo and gave him the message of Zeus. So Apollo hastened to Hector where he sat by the river-side, for already his strength had begun to come back to him. And Apollo said to him: "Why is this, O Hector? Why do you sit and take no part in the battle?" Hector answered: "Is this a god that speaks to me? Did you not see how Ajax struck me down with a great stone, so that I could fight no more? Truly, I thought that I had gone down to the place of the dead." Apollo said: "Take courage, my friend. I am Apollo of the Golden Sword, and Zeus has sent me to stand by you and to help you. Come now, call the Trojans together again, and go before them, and lead them to the ships, and I will be with you and make the way easy for you." Then Hector stood up, and his strength came back to him as it had been before, and he called to the Trojans and went before them. The Greeks wondered when they saw him, for they thought that he had been wounded to death. They were like men who hunt a stag or a wild goat and find a lion. Nevertheless they kept up their courage, and stood close together with their faces towards the enemy; but though the chiefs stood firm, most of the Greeks turned their backs and fled. And Hector still came on and Apollo went before him, having a cloud of fire round his shoulders, holding the great shield of Zeus in his hand. Many of the Greeks were slain that day. And now the Trojans came again to the trench and crossed it, and neither the wall nor the gates stopped them, and they came as far as the ships, Hector being first of all. And close behind Hector was a chief who carried a torch in his hand, with which to set fire to a ship. Him Ajax smote on the breast with his sword and killed him. And Hector, when he saw it, cast his spear at Ajax. Him he missed, but he killed the comrade who was standing close by him. Then Ajax called to Teucer: "Where is your bow and arrows? Shoot." So Teucer shot. With the first arrow he slew a Trojan; but when he laid another arrow upon the string and aimed it at Hector, the string broke, and the arrow went far astray. When Teucer saw this he cried out: "Surely the gods are against us; see how the string of my bow is broken, and yet it was new this very day." And Ajax said to him: "Let your bow be, if the gods will not have you use it. Take your spear and fight. Truly, if the men of Troy prevail over us, yet they shall not take our ships for nothing." So Teucer threw away his bow, and took up spear and shield. When Hector saw it, he cried: "Come on, men of Troy, for Zeus is with us, and they whom Zeus favours are strong, and they whom he favours not are weak. See now how he has broken the bow of Teucer, the great archer. Come on, therefore, for the gods give us victory. And even if a man die, it is a noble thing to die fighting for his country. His wife and children shall dwell in peace, and he himself shall be famous for ever."


Ajax Defending the Greek Ships against the Trojans

Thus did Hector urge on his people to the battle; and Ajax, on the other hand, called to the Greeks and bade them quit themselves like men. Many chiefs fell on either side, but still the Trojans prevailed more and more, and the Greeks fell back before them. And now Hector laid hold on one of the ships. Well did he know it, for it was the first that had touched the Trojan shore, and he had slain the chief whose ship it was with his own hand as he was leaping to shore. There the battle grew fiercer and fiercer; none fought with arrows or javelins, but close, man to man, with swords and battle-axes and spears, thrusting at each other. And Hector cried: "Bring me fire that we may burn the ships of these robbers, for Zeus has given us the victory to-day." And the Trojans came on more fiercely than before, so that Ajax himself was forced to give way, so much did the Trojans press him. For at first he stood on the stern deck, the ships being drawn up with the stern to the land and the forepart to the sea, and then being driven from the deck, in the middle of the ships, among the benches of the rowers. But still he fought bravely, thrusting at any one who came near to set fire to the ship. And he cried to the Greeks with a terrible voice, saying: "Now must you quit yourselves as men, O Greeks! Have you any to help you if you are conquered now? Have you any walls behind which you may seek for shelter? There is no city here with a wall and towers and battlements behind which you may hide yourselves. You are in the plain of Troy, and the sea is close behind us, and we are far from our own country. All our hope, therefore, is in courage, for there is no one to save if you will not save yourselves."

So did Ajax speak to the Greeks, and still as he spoke he thrust at the Trojans with his spear.