Was there a greater war story, ever, than Homer’s Iliad? It’s almost a crime to call the Iliad a war story, by so many magnitudes does it transcend that and every other genre. What works of literature stand beside it? The Bible. The Bhagavad-Gita. The collected works of Shakespeare. Not much else.
I took a full-semester course in the Iliad in college. I got a D. I wish I could take that class over, because, after a few decades in the trenches of the storytelling craft, I’ve acquired a keen appreciation for the challenges that Homer faced in conceiving and composing this epic—and for how masterfully he solved them.
Today let’s consider one item only: minor characters.
The architecture of the Iliad has heroes stacked in tiers, if you’ll forgive a term from this season’s presidential debate coverage. As Homer’s champions duel each other before the walls of Troy, third-tier heroes (Agenor, Teukros, Antiphos) fall to second-tier heroes (Odysseus, Diomedes, Aeneas), who in turn are slain or bested in other ways by first-tier heroes (Hector, Achilles).
Glaukos and Sarpedon are third-tier heroes, but look at the speeches that Homer gives them (translation by Richmond Lattimore):
SARPEDON: Glaukos, why is it you and I are honored with pride of place, the choice meats and the filled wine-cups in Lykia, and all men look on us as if we were immortals, and we are appointed a great piece of land by the banks of the Xanthos, good land, orchard and vineyard, and ploughland for the planting of wheat? Therefore it is our duty in the forefront of the Lykians to take our stand and bear our part of the blazing of battle, so that a man of the close-armoured Lykians may say of us, “Indeed these are no ignoble men who are lords of Lykia, these kings of ours, who feed upon the fat sheep appointed and drink the exquisite sweet wine, since indeed there is strength of valour in them, since they fight in the forefront of the Lykians.”
Sarpedon was the son of Zeus and Laodameia; he and Glaukos were princes of the country of Lykia in Asia Minor. They were allies of the Trojans; they had rallied to the aid of Priam and fought beside Hector in defense of Troy. The root glauk- in Greek means “gray,” thus “Glaukos” means “gray-eyed.” Here is that hero, on the battlefield, answering the challenge of the Greek champion Diomedes:
GLAUKOS: High-hearted son of Tydeus, why ask of my generation? As is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity. The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the live timber burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning. So one generation of men will grow while another dies. [Glaukos goes on to cite his descent from Bellerophon, who among other feats captured and tamed the winged horse Pegasus and rode him when he slew the monster Chimera]. But Hippolochos begot me … sent me to Troy and urged upon me repeated injunctions, to be always among the bravest, and hold my head above others, not shaming the generation of my fathers, who were the greatest men in Ephyre and again in wide Lykia.
Sarpedon, in the end, would be slain by Patroklos, prompting Hektor to enter the fray to save his ally’s corpse from being dishonored. The death of Patroklos brings Achilles at last back into battle and leads to the climactic clash between him and Hektor that would seal the fate of Troy.
But, presaging this several books earlier, Homer gives Sarpedon this brief speech, addressed again to his dear friend Glaukos, which, in brilliant economy, sums up the warrior code of the Iliad’s Age of Heroes:
SARPEDON: Man, supposing you and I, escaping this battle, would be able to live on forever, ageless, immortal, so neither would I myself go on fighting in the foremost nor would I urge you into the fighting where men win glory. But now, seeing that the spirits of death stand close about us in their thousands, no man can turn aside nor escape them, let us go on and win glory for ourselves, or yield it to others.