The Iliad and a sporting controversy.

You may not think of sports when considering the Iliad. Homer’s great work centres on the infighting and fighting at Troy. However, even back then there was time for some sporting drama.

It started during the funeral games for Patroclus. Here Achilles organised a chariot race with five prizes and five charioteers step forward. First up was Eumelus, famed for his skill as a charioteer, then Diomedes. Following him was Menelaus, who needs little introduction and fourth was Antilochus, the son of Nestor. The fifth and final competitor was Meriones. To determine the starting positions lots were drawn to determine the lanes with the order being Antilochus, Eumelus, Menelaus, Meriones and in what was presumably the outside lane, Diomedes.

The chariot race at Patroclus' funeral as depicted on the Francois Vase
The chariot race as depicted on the Francois Vase.

The race itself is described as hectic both on and off the track. The main tension on it resulted from Antilochus who attempted to overtake Menelaus as the track narrowed. This resulted in some road rage on the part of Menelaus who backed down and as a result Antilochus overtook him. 

The Iliad and spectator rage.

Things were heating up off the track as well, Idomenus pointed out that Diomedes was now in the lead (that’s some neat charioteering) but Ajax (not the main Ajax, the son of Oileus) argued that it was Eumelus. Thus escalated quickly and Achilles had to step in to stop them from fighting, remember by the way that this was at Funeral games, decorum gentlemen please. It seems the Greeks could fall out with each other anywhere.

The outcome of the race was Diomedes winning, with Antilochus second and Menelaus third. Fourth was Meriones and the much fancied Eumelus coming in last. Achilles had set out the prizes before the race and gave first prize to Diomedes, as you’d expect. But then Achilles decided to give Eumelus second prize in part because he felt sorry for him and even said how he was still the best. 

Antilochus kicked up a real stink about this and Achilles was forced to backtrack and give Eumelus another prize. At this point Menelaus ratched things up by accusing Antilochus of cheating, or at least using ‘unfair’ tactics. He even asked Antilochus to take an oath to that effect. Perhaps sensing that getting on the bad side of Menelaus wasn’t a good idea Antilochus gave up his prize to Melenaus and calmness prevailed. 

Out of interest this left the fifth prize unclaimed, originally Eumelus would have received it. Instead Achilles gave it to Nestor and this was a great idea. In a move worthy of Odysseus this led to Nestor invariably telling a story which doubtless dulled the passions of everyone there. 

The Iliad is a wonderful poem in part due to this level of characterisation and what I see as humour, it’s not all blood and guts. Well not all the time.

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