Reading Project Icon PAGE HEADING: The Iliad

Book 7 - Ajax Duels with Hector

In Book 7 there is a subtle shift in the feelings about the war. While the Trojans seem to desire the conflict to end, the Greek forces sense an eventual victory and make more preparations to continue the fight.

Apollo’s idea to halt the battle

This book begins at the point Book 6 ends. Paris and Hector return to the fighting together, and they both kill several men upon their return. Athena, seeing how the battle is going, rushes from Olympus to intervene. But Apollo intercepts her, questioning her desire to promote more bloodshed and aid the Achaeans. Instead, he suggests, they should try to stop the general slaughter and save Troy’s defeat for another day. Athena claims she had had the same idea. Apollo suggests they inspire Hector to challenge any Achaean in single combat to the death, so that the rest of the troops might sit aside and watch, rather than fight. Athena suggests this in Helenus’ mind, and Helenus goes to his brother, Hector, to suggest this course of action, adding that he has heard a voice saying it is not yet Hector’s time to die. Hector, signals for his men to stand down, and Agamemnon follows. Athena and Apollo settle on top of an oak tree to watch.

Hector sets the terms for the battle. Whoever wins will take the armour of the defeated but leave the body for proper rites by his people. Hector does not imagine he might lose. But the Achaean forces are silent when they hear this challenge. Menelaus feels shame that no man will step forward and begins to put on his own armour to take up the challenge. But Agamemnon stops him, saying that Hector is a better fighter than him and will overpower him. He suggests another champion should be sent against Hector. Menelaus yields to Agamemnon’s will.

Ajax fights Hector

Nestor takes the opportunity of speaking about his own glory days: how he managed to kill Ereuthalion in single combat when he was wearing the armour stripped from King Areithous by Lycurgus. Nestor states that if he still had his youth he would challenge Hector. Nestor’s taunts inspire nine men to volunteer, including Diomedes, Great and Little Ajax and Odysseus. Lots are drawn from a helmet to select the champion. It is Great Ajax. Ajax is overjoyed and asks the Achaeans to pray for him. He strides out to fight Hector. The Trojans, even Hector, are nervous at the sight of Ajax. Ajax is a powerful man and his shield and armour are superior to Hector’s. When Hector flings his spear it is stopped by Ajax’s shield. When Ajax throws his spear it pierces Hector’s shield and almost wounds him. As they fight, Ajax again pierces Hector’s shield and grazes his neck, drawing blood. When Hector throws a rock at Ajax, Ajax responds with a boulder which smashes Hector’s shield and knocks him to the ground.

Apollo pulls Hector to his feet, but the fight is stopped by Talthybius, an Achaean, and Idaeus, a Trojan, both heralds, who plead for them to stop since night will soon be upon them. Ajax will only agree to this if it is Hector who asks for the reprieve. Hector does. He says that both sides will be overjoyed to have their respective champions back that night. Before they part, Ajax and Hector exchange gifts.

Different attitudes to a continuation of the war

Ajax is escorted back to the Achaean troops as a victor. They sacrifice an ox and have a feast. During the feast Nestor speaks. He advises two things. First, that the fighting be suspended to give time to bury the dead. Second, that a defensive wall be built to defend the Achaean ships and armies from a land attack. This suggests planning for a further protracted war.

Meanwhile, on the Trojan side, Antenor advises that the Trojans give Helen and all her treasures back. Clearly, there is a desire on the Trojan side to end the war. But Paris says he will not give Helen back. He is, however, willing to give back her treasures and add his own to that to appease the Greeks. Priam speaks next. He proposes that Idaeus be sent to the Greek ships with these conditions, as well as a request to at least suspend conflict until the dead can be buried. Idaeus delivers the conditions, saying also that Paris acts against the will of the Trojans in keeping Helen. Clearly, the Trojans want peace. Diomedes speaks against accepting the conditions, not even to take the treasure back. It is clear that Diomedes anticipates a Greek victory. He is backed up by all the Achaean soldiers and Agamemnon. The Achaeans agree only to allow the dead to be buried. Idaeaus delivers the Achaean response to his people. The next day corpses are collected by both sides and the dead burned.

The Achaean defensive wall

After that, the Achaeans begin to build the defensive wall that Nestor suggested. Poseidon, seeing the work, complains to Zeus that no sacrifice was made, and that the construction will outshine a wall he and Apollo once helped build for Troy. Zeus has no sympathy. He tells Poseidon that he has enough renown, and that when the Achaeans return to their homes across the sea, Poseidon will be easily able to destroy the wall, as it is close to the shore.

As the wall is finished ships from Lemnos pull in. Eunes, Jason’s son, has brought a shipment of wine. The Achaeans plan for a night of feasting and drinking, but Zeus frightens them with thunder. None will drink further until they make an offering to Zeus. It’s a nice contrast to his attitude to Poseidon’s complaint.

A Change in Attitude

While it is Hector who issues the challenge for single combat, we get a sense that there is a shift in attitudes to the war in this book. The Trojans are looking for a way out now while the Greeks, sensing they have the upper hand, are determined to accept no compromise and to push their advantage. This is reflected in the actions of the Gods at the beginning of the book. Athena rushes down to the Trojan plain when she sees the slaughter carried out by Paris and Hector. It is clear she intends to take sides and tip the battle against the Trojans, but Apollo, who is in sympathy with the Trojans, intends they find a way to peace. Knowing this cannot be achieved completely, he proposes the single combat. Athena’s assurance that, “Those were my very thoughts”, is unconvincing.

The following is a series of quotes that mark this shift in the two sides towards their respective positions:


Quote 1

In the following quote Apollo, who supports the Trojans, suggests a reprieve in the fighting. The god’s will may be taken as a reflection of the spirit of the Trojans themselves

The Iliad, Book 7, lines 30 - 38

Quote 2

Here Hector represents the Trojan forces. We are told explicitly that not only does Hector tremble with fear, but so too does each Trojan warrior, when they see Ajax. Meanwhile, the Greek forces ‘exult’ at the thought of the battle. In this short extract we see the psychological differences between the two armies.

The Iliad, Book 7, lines 246 - 251

Quote 3

When the single combat is halted each champion is escorted back to their armies. This scene continues the psychological portrait of each army. The Greek forces know that Ajax had the upper hand before the fighting was stopped and are “thrilled” while Hector is “saved”.

The Iliad, Book 7, lines 356 - 358

Quote 4

Antenor’s speech to the Trojans follows Nestor’s speech to the Argives. Each speech is a mirror to the other. Nestor proposes stopping to burn the dead, as does Antenor, but Nestor proposes building a defensive wall from which attacks can be launched, while Antenor’s speech recommends capitulation: to return Helen and her treasure.

The Iliad, Book 7, lines 400 - 406

Quote 5

Idaeus’ message to the Argives delivers the terms agreed to by the Trojans after Paris refuses to give up Helen. However, he goes off his script somewhat when he tells the Argives that Paris acts against the wishes of his people. Idaeus’ language is deferential. He describes Helen as Menelaus’ “lawful wife” and honours Menelaus with the epithet “renowned Menelaus”. Idaeus’ language and his criticism of Paris is the speech of a man who represents a people suing for peace.

The Iliad, Book 7, lines 452 - 454


Quote 6

When Ajax faces Hector to do battle they each first have something to say. Here, Ajax references what should be a weakness for the Greeks, Achilles’ refusal to fight. His language is defiant. Achilles is of no consequence, he suggests. The Argives have the numbers and the courage to face the Trojans.

The Iliad, Book 7, lines 266 - 269

Quote 7

The Trojan attempts to sue for peace fail when Diomedes speaks against it. This passage makes it clear how different the feelings of the Trojans and Argives have become to continuing the war. Diomedes refuses not only that the treasure be returned, but even Helen, who is not being offered. His imagery of a noose suggests how confident he feels that the Trojans can be beaten. This attitude is affirmed by both Agamemnon and the Argive forces. While all of Troy wants the fighting to stop, as shown by Idaeus’ admission that Paris acs against the will of everyone, it is clear that the Argive forces are now willing to see the fight to the end: the destruction of Troy.

The Iliad, Book 7, lines 462 - 470

Quote 8

This quote near the end of Book 7 shows a quick movement from burning the dead to constructing the defensive position from which the Greek forces can continue the war. This act shows how determined they are to fight against an enemy who is now desiring peace. The Argives intend to give the Trojans no quarter. They can sense their victory.

The Iliad, Book 7, lines 503 - 511

Representations in Art

Hector Fights Ajax
‘Combat between Ajax and Hector’ - Workshop of Bernard Picart, 1710
The fight between Ajax and Hector in Book 7 recalls to us the fight between Menelaus and Paris in Book 3, in which Paris is soundly beaten but saved. Hector’s defeat is not as ignominious but it is clear that he is saved from defeat. We may even consider it in the light of the future contest between Achilles and Hector, where Hector is finally killed. However, the fight between Ajax and Hector is not so widely represented as other moments in The Iliad. This image by Bernard Picart is the only one I can confirm as an image of that battle.
Some elements of the representation are okay. We see the Greek camp and the masts of their ships behind, but there is no attempt at historical accuracy. Of course, the image was completed before the archaeological work in what is now thought to be Troy, so the historical accuracy of The Iliad was in doubt. Picart’s most faithful treatment of Homer’s text lies with the birds in the tree above the combatants. Once the plan to halt the battle by engaging Hector in single combat against a Greek champion is decided, Homer tells us:
The Iliad, Book 7, lines 66 - 70
It is not a flattering image, but Picart has got it fairly accurately in his engraving. As for the fight, itself, it doesn’t match the battle in the book very well. We don’t get a strong sense that the combatants are watched by either army, despite troops in the background. The intrusion by two others appears to be the moment when Talthybius and Idaeus intervene and stop the fight, thus saving Hector. It is unclear to me whether Hector is one of the men standing, or the man lying on the ground. Homer describes how Ajax smashes Hector’s shield and knocks him to the ground with a thrown boulder. A boulder is present in the image. However, Homer also tells us that Apollo sets Hector back on his feet immediately.
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