The Duel of Ajax and Hector

Attic red-figure cup, c. 490-480 BC
Musée du Louvre
Here at Tigerloaf we are reading The Iliad and have reached Book 7, with the stirring and surprisingly friendly combat between Ajax and Hector. The heroes and their divine patrons appear here on the side of a kylix or drinking cup by the master painter Douris; Hector, with Apollo behind him, falls to the spear stroke of Ajax, supported by Athene.
In Homer’s poem the greatest of the Greek warriors draw lots to determine who will answer Trojan Hector’s challenge in single combat. Ajax is the winner, and this excerpt begins with his splendid statement of indomitable courage. The duel ends not in death but, in a passage of great majesty, with mutual respect and an exchange of gifts.

‘Friends! The lot is mine! And I am delighted, because I think I shall defeat godlike Hector. But, while I am arming for the fight, pray to lord Zeus son of Cronus, and pray in silence, so that the Trojans cannot overhear you. Or pray out loud! We are afraid of nobody whatever. No one is going to have his way with me and make me run, either by brute force or because I lack the skill: after all, I should be surprised to find I was born and bred a complete novice on Salamis.’

So he spoke, and they then prayed to lord Zeus son of Cronus. They looked up to the broad skies and said as one man:

‘Father Zeus, you that rule from Mount Ida, greatest and most glorious! Answer Ajax’s prayer and grant him a brilliant victory. But if you hold Hector dear too and wish him well, let neither man be beaten and the fight be drawn.’

So they spoke, and Ajax armed himself in his dazzling bronze. When all his armour was on, he set out like awe-inspiring Ares, god of war, going to join battle among men brought together to fight by Zeus, their hearts set on soul-destroying combat. So awe-inspiring Ajax, a tower of strength for the Greeks, rose and went into battle, smiling a grim smile, taking great strides as he went, brandishing his long-shadowed spear. The Greeks, when they saw him, were overjoyed, but there was not a Trojan whose knees did not tremble. Even Hector’s heart beat faster. But it was too late now for him to turn tail and slink back among his men, since it was his will to fight that had made him throw down the challenge.

And now Ajax drew near, carrying a shield like a tower, made of bronze and seven layers of oxhide. Tychius the master leather-worker, who lived at Hyle, had made this glittering shield for him with the hides of seven well-fattened bulls, which he overlaid with an eighth layer of bronze. Holding this shield in front of him, Ajax son of Telamon went right up to Hector and defied him:

‘Hector, you’re now going to discover, in single combat, what sort of champions the Greeks have at their disposal, even when they can’t count on Achilles, lion-hearted breaker of men. At the moment he is lying by his seafaring beaked ships, nursing his implacable anger against Agamemnon son of Atreus, shepherd of the people. But for all that, we have men who can stand up to you, and plenty of them. So take the first throw and start the duel.’

Great Hector of the flashing helmet said:

‘Olympian-born Ajax, son of Telamon, leader of men, don’t try to scare me like a feeble child or a woman who knows nothing about warfare. I know all about fighting and killing. I know how to handle my toughened oxhide shield and swing it to right or left – the real skill of work with a shield. I know how to charge in among the confusion of the chariots; and in a standing fight I know all the steps of the War-god’s deadly dance. But enough: seeing the man you are, I have no desire to steal a shot at you when you aren’t looking, but to throw openly, if I can hit you.’

He spoke, balanced his long-shadowed spear and hurled it. It struck the formidable, sevenfold shield of Ajax on its metal sheath, the eighth and outermost layer. The untiring bronze tore through six layers, but was held up by the seventh hide. Then Olympian-born Ajax in turn hurled his long-shadowed spear. It hit Hector’s round shield. The heavy weapon pierced the glittering shield, forced its way through the ornate body-armour and ripped right on through the side of Hector’s tunic. But Hector had swerved and so avoided dark death.

And now the pair, when each had pulled the long spear out of his shield, fell on each other like flesh-eating lions, or wild boars whose strength is not to be despised. Hector thrust at the centre of Ajax’s shield with his spear, but it did not break through and the tip was bent back. Then Ajax leapt in and stabbed at Hector’s shield. The spear passed clean through and stopped Hector in his tracks: it grazed his neck and the dark blood spurted out.

Yet even so Hector of the flashing helmet did not give up the fight. He drew back and with his great hand picked up a large and jagged piece of black rock that was lying on the ground, hurled it at Ajax’s formidable sevenfold shield and struck it in the middle on the boss, making the bronze ring out. But Ajax then picked up an even bigger rock, which he swung and hurled at Hector, putting his full weight into it. This millstone of a boulder crumpled his shield and swept him off his feet. There Hector lay, jammed in the shield, stretched on his back. But Apollo quickly had him up on his feet again.

And now they would have closed and hacked at one another with their swords, if heralds, ambassadors of Zeus and men, had not intervened, Talthybius on the Greek side and Idaeus on the Trojan, both sensible men. They raised their sceptres between the combatants, and Idaeus, a herald rich in wisdom, spoke his mind:

‘Dear sons, give up now and break off the fight. Cloud- gatherer Zeus holds you both dear, and you are both fine spearmen – we all of us know that. Also, it is nearly dark. It is sensible to take that into account.’

Ajax son of Telamon replied and said:

‘Idaeus, tell Hector to call it off. It was his will to fight that made him throw down the challenge to all our best men. Let him make the first move. I will do as he does.’

Great Hector of the flashing helmet said:

‘Ajax, the god has given you size, strength and ability, and you are the best spearman on your side. Let us bring today’s duel to an end. We can fight some other time, till the powers above decide between us, and one of us wins. Also, it is nearly dark. It is sensible to take that into account.

‘Then you will bring joy to the Greeks back at the ships, your friends and relatives above all; while I too shall get a warm welcome in lord Priam’s town from the Trojans and the Trojan ladies in their trailing gowns, who will enter the sacred assembly to offer up prayers in my name. But first let us both exchange prestigious gifts, so that Trojans and Greeks alike can say:

‘‘These two fought each other in soul-destroying combat, but were reconciled and parted friends.’’’

With these words he gave Ajax his silver-riveted sword, which he handed over with its scabbard and sword-belt; and at the same time Ajax gave Hector his brilliant purple belt.

So the two parted.

Homer, The Iliad, trans. E. V. Rieu (London: Penguin Books, 2003)

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