Nestor, King of Pylos

In Homeric epic Pylos is ruled by the wise (if garrulous) old Nestor. In the Iliad he is: the sweet-voiced, clear-tongued speaker of the Pylians, whose voice, when he spoke, was sweeter than honey. Already two generations of men, born and raised with him in sacred Pylos, had withered in his lifetime and now he ruled over a third.

As a youth, Nestor had taken part in many adventures, joining both the boar hunt at Calydon and the voyage of the Argo from Iolcus, his father Neleus’ childhood home. After quarrelling with his brother Pelias, Neleus left Iolcus and settled as king in Pylos, where he fathered twelve sons. However, he took the wrong side in a war between Heracles and Elis (near Olympia). In retribution, Heracles sacked Pylos and killed Neleus’ sons – all except Nestor, who was living in nearby Gerania (hence his Homeric epithet ‘Geranian’). When the dust settled, Heracles befriended Nestor and made him king of Messene.

Nestor, King of Pylos Photo Gallery

Weakened but unbowed, Neleus continued to rule Pylos. Responding to the theft of a chariot, which he had sent to the Olympic Games, he requested Nestor to conduct a cattle-raid across the border into Elis. In the Iliad, Nestor describes how he and his men drove off fifty herds of cattle, the same number of sheep, the same of pigs, the same of roaming goats, and a hundred and fifty chestnut horses, each one of them a mare, and many with a foal beneath her, suckling. At night we drove them inside Neleus’ city, Pylos. The Elians responded by crossing the River Alpheus into Neleus’ territory. Nestor led his army out to meet them. First blood was his. He leapt into his victim’s chariot: and took my place in the front rank. Then, like a black storm cloud, I charged. I brought down fifty chariots, and for each chariot two men bit the dust, felled by my spear. Into the hands of Pylian men Zeus put great strength. Across the vast plain we pursued them, killing them and stripping their bodies of their armour. And all praised Zeus among the gods; but among men they praised Nestor.

Nestor was not just a fine warrior. He was an athlete, too. On another occasion he describes how he took part in funeral games, winning contests in boxing, wrestling, racing and javelin. Only in the chariot race was he defeated. ‘Thus I was once. But now younger men must face such challenges and I must yield to harsh old age, though once I ranked among the greatest of the heroes.’

Succeeding Neleus as king of Pylos, Nestor took part in the Trojan War, where he enjoyed his role as elder statesman. Despite his old age he was still keen to fight – Pindar describes how, when one of his horses was shot down, Nestor was marooned in his chariot; as Troy’s Ethiopian ally Memnon bore down on him, Nestor’s son Antilochus stepped between them, sacrificing his life for his father. However, it was for his counsel (usually given at some length and not always the best) that Nestor was held in highest esteem. Agamemnon declared that with ten such advisors Troy would ‘soon fall to our hands, taken and destroyed’. Nestor was one of the few Greek commanders to return safely home from Troy and enjoy prosperity warriors and light-armed soldiers.

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