Asteropaeus the ambidextrous hero

One of the joys of writing Henchmen of Ares (see also the synopsis) was revisiting the Homeric epics. Homer has been a significant part of my studies from before I finished my master’s thesis, and I never tire of reading and re-reading the Iliad in particular.

One of the things that makes these epic poems so memorable are the well-realized characters: Agamemnon is a strong ruler, but also arrogant and proud; Achilles is brave, but his temper is a problem; Patroclus is a loyal, but also somewhat overzealous, compatriot. One of the most interesting articles I have read on these characters is C.O. Pache’s “War games: Odysseus at Troy”, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 100 (2000), pp. 15–23. In this article, the author draws attention to the fact that everybody cries in the Iliad, from Andromache to Achilles; even Achilles’ divine horses weep when Patroclus has been slain. Everyone, that is, except Odysseus, who seems aloof, distant, and sometimes even cruel when he, alone of all the Greek heroes, smiles at a victim that is about to be cut down. Only in the Odyssey, the Ithacan king’s own story, does he ever break down in tears.

Anyone who has read the Iliad will be familiar with the vast numbers of characters that are introduced at one point, only to be dispatched by one of the Greek or Trojan heroes a few lines further along. Some of these characters survive for a little longer. One of the most interesting of these lesser characters is perhaps Asteropaeus, the subject of this blog post.

We first get a glimpse of Asteropaeus when the poet briefly enumerates the Trojan forces that will attempt to storm the walls of the Greek camp. Sarpedon is mentioned as the leader of a contingent of troops, picking Glaucus and Asteropaeus to accompany him because, in Richmond Lattimore’s translation, “these seemed to him to be marked out as the bravest of the rest” (Il. 12.103–104). Asteropaeus disappears in the ensuing battle, but is later referred to as the best fighting man from Paeonia, a region in northern Greece (Il. 17.351).

Skip ahead to the twenty-first book of the Iliad and we encounter Achilles – enraged by the death of Patroclus – slaughtering Trojans left, right and centre. The bodies of his victims pollute the river Scamander (or Xanthos). The river god wonders how to stop Achilles when Asteropaeus again enters the scene. We learn further details about the man now: he is the son of Pelegon, who was himself the son of another river god, Axius. As a (distant) relation, the river god decides to bolster Asteropaeus’ courage and lead him to attack Achilles.

Asteropaeus sets a striking figure as he appears carrying not one, but two spears. Unlike the other heroes of Homer’s epic, this Paeonian is ambidextrous, able to wield an offensive weapon in either hand or, indeed, in both hands.

Achilles asks Asteropaeus who he is and how he dare stand against him. Asteropaeus explains that he is one of the leaders of the Paeonians and that he had only arrived at Troy eleven days earlier. He then makes a mention of the River Axios that flows through his land and renders it fertile, as well as his father (“Pelegon the spear-famed”), but does not make the divine connection in his speech to Achilles, but later it is clear that Achilles did connect the dots and realized he was fighting divine offspring. The two heroes then engage in combat (Il. 21.161–168):

So he spoke, challenging, and brilliant Achilles uplifted
the Pelian ash, but the warrior Asteropaeus
threw with both spears at the same time, being ambidextrous.
With one spear he hit the shield but could not altogether
break through the shield, since the gold stayed it that the god (Hephaestus) had given.
With the other spear he struck Achilles on the right forearm
and grazed it so that the blood gushed out in a dark cloud, and the spear
overpassed him and fixed in the ground, straining to reach his body.

Alone of all of the Trojans and their allies, Asteropaeus succeeds in drawing blood from Achilles. No doubt his ability to throw two spears at once worked to his advantage here, wounding Achilles in his spear arm. (Note that there is no trace in Homer of the later story that Achilles was only vulnerable in his heel; he is the Greeks’ greatest champions, but nevertheless just as mortal as any other man.)

Achilles throws his mighty spear at Asteropaeus, but misses. He then draws his sword while preparing to attack Asteropaeus. Meanwhile, the Paeonian vainly struggles to draw Achilleus’ spear from where it had struck the river-bank. Vulnerable to attack, Achilles pierces his belly with the sword, so that “all his guts poured out on the ground” (Il. 21.181–182). Asteropaeus then dies. Achilles is said to jump on Asteropaeus’ chest and strip him of his armour. Achilles, drunk with success, then boasts that he can trace his line back to Zeus and that none can thus hope to defeat him. After this, he sets out to pursue the rest of the Paeonians, leading the river god to speak to Achilles directly and warn him to stop (Il. 21.214–221).

The corslet that Achilles stripped from Asteropaeus was made of bronze and featured a tin inlay. It is briefly described in the twenty-third book of the Iliad (Il. 23.560), where it is given to Eumelus, a Thessalian warrior who took part in the chariot-races that were part of the funeral games in honour of Patroclus.

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