By Thomas Van Nortwick
Here, as often in this episode, the painful exchange between Hector and Andromache in Book Six echoes in our ears. Like Andromache, Priam hopes to keep Hector close by appealing to his sense of responsibility to those who depend on him. Achilles has left them both bereft of family, killing or selling into slavery those they love. Priam begs him not to wait οἶος ἄνευθ᾽ ἄλλων, “alone, apart from the others” (39). Do not, in other words, value heroic excellence, which separates you from other mortals and eventually kills you, over the people who love you. He might well have used Andromache’s words, φθίσει σε τὸ σὸν μένος, “your own strength will destroy you” (6.407).
Priam ends his appeal by envisioning, as Andromache does, the grim aftermath of Hector’s death, his sons killed, daughters dragged off into slavery, the royal palace destroyed, grandchildren flung to the ground. Last, and most shocking, is his vision of his own death, killed by some enemy soldier, then torn apart by his own dogs, pets he used to feed dinner scraps now driven wild by the taste of his blood. Like a cinematic tracking shot, his dark vision pulls us past the threshold of the dining room, with its slavering dogs, the ever-tightening focus finally settling on the withered genitals of his own naked body.
The pathetic picture of Priam’s mutilated corpse draws power from various sources. The specter of dogs and birds feasting the dead bodies of warriors appears in the poem’s opening lines (1.4–5) and hovers constantly over the battle scenes. If a man’s corpse is left unburied, his psyche, “soul,” is doomed to wander forever, denied its final rest in Hades, consigned to anonymous oblivion (23.70–74). The treatment of a warrior’s dead body becomes a major theme in the poem beginning with the death of Sarpedon, continuing through the battle over the corpse of Patroclus, and building to a crescendo in Achilles’ abuse of Hector’s body. To this dismal motif Priam’s vision of his own body’s fate adds special, intimate horrors. His description of his own dogs eating his flesh, with its vision of the dog’s affection for their master swept away by a feeding frenzy, is more disturbing than an enemy savaging his victim. These are not wild dogs, but pampered pets, eating the hand that fed them.