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Book 23

Course Hero's video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of Book 23 of Homer's epic poem The Iliad.

The Iliad | Book 23 | Summary

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Summary

After returning to the Achaean camp, Achilles and the Myrmidons mourn Patroclus, and Achilles vents his anger by abusing Hector's corpse. He vows he will not wash Hector's blood off his body until he has buried Patroclus. Later Achilles falls asleep on the beach. Patroclus's spirit visits him in a dream, asking why he has forgotten him. His spirit cannot enter the land of the dead until his body has been burned. Recalling their shared childhood, Patroclus asks that their bones be interred in the same jar when Achilles dies, which will be soon. Achilles reaches out to hold Patroclus, but he slips away like smoke.

The next day, the Achaeans build a pyre for Patroclus, surrounding his body with slain animals, enemies, and other goods. Achilles cuts a lock of hair he was letting grow as a pledge to return to his father and burns it with Patroclus. Achilles vows that dogs will eat Hector's body, but Aphrodite and Apollo keep it safe from animals and the elements.

Achilles gathers the Achaeans for funeral games the following day. Diomedes, with Athena's help, wins the chariot race. Nestor's son Antilochus appeases Menelaus, who feels he cheated, by giving up his second-place prize. Odysseus and Great Ajax tie in the wrestling match, and Odysseus wins the footrace. Warriors also compete in a boxing match, a duel, and shot put and archery contests. Achilles awards Agamemnon first place for the spear-throwing contest based on his reputation.

Analysis

As he did in his argument with Agamemnon, Achilles takes his anger against Hector too far, abusing his body at every opportunity and killing captured enemies to burn with Patroclus's body. As he cries to Patroclus, he is "venting my rage on them for your destruction!" The appearance of Patroclus's ghost emphasizes the importance of a proper burial for the ancient Greeks, exactly what Achilles is denying Hector. Achilles again expresses a feeling of responsibility for Patroclus's death. Cutting the lock of hair he has been growing out symbolizes his choice to die with glory in the war rather than return home.

In the second half of Book 23, the audience gets a fascinating glimpse of Achilles free of the effects of rage, which seems to briefly take a backseat to his role as host of the games. He is fair and diplomatic, graciously conceding to resolve a dispute about prizes that contains echoes of his own conflict with Agamemnon.

Games such as those described in this section played an important role in Greek culture. They were a way for fighters to win glory, honor, and prizes in peacetime, and they share many attributes of war. The games test many of the same skills used to make war, and boasting plays a similar role in the contests as in battle. However, contests and arguments are not allowed to proceed to the point of actual harm. Participants in the games are as protective of their honor as in battle, as shown by the disputes over the equitable awarding of prizes.

In addition to achievements in the games, position and recognized skill are honored. Achilles wants to award second prize in the chariot to the best driver who actually came in last. (Ultimately he gives him a different prize.) Nestor is honored with a leftover prize for his long and accomplished life as a warrior. Achilles diplomatically declares Agamemnon the winner in the spear-throwing contest without a competition, a nod to his position as the overall commander of the army and his pride.

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