In my 20`10 book with Mary Ebbott (Iliad 10 and the Poetics of Ambush) and my 2019 book (Achilles Unbound), I have argued that stories about cattle raids and ambush (two closely interconnected forms of warfare in Homeric poetry, with closely interconnected poetics) are some of the most ancient forms of heroic tales that are attested. (We build especially on work by Richard Martin and Douglas Frame in making these arguments, among others. Please see citations below.) The greatest heroes are said to be the best at both raiding and at spear fighting. So this "pastoralist reading" of heroic dominance makes perfect sense to me, as is the interconnection between the winning of women and the winning of cattle in a cattle raid. (I think also of the passage in Iliad 22.162-164, in which Achilles' chasing of Hektor is compared to a chariot race at funeral games, for which the prize is a tripod or a woman. In the previous lines Achilles and Hektor are said not to be running for the prize of an animal for sacrifice or a bull's hide, but for the life of Hektor.) In Achilles Unbound I suggest that Achilles' signature epithets (tied to his "swift-footedness") are in fact connected to his skills as an ambusher and raider. I adapt what I wrote there (pp. 142ff.) here, before coming back to this pastoralist reading:
Perhaps, as suggested by the Theran frescoes, and as is implied by Achilles’ boasts about sacking twenty-three cities on land and sea (Iliad19.328–329), in earlier Iliads Achaean heroes went on raids of various sorts, and regularly engaged in ambush. (See Dué, Homeric Variations on a Lament by Briseis, pp. 61–62.) A speech of the Second Sophistic writer Dio Chrysostom states explicitly (although, admittedly, as part an extended clever critique of Homer) that Achilles did indeed fill his time this way:
τὸν δὲ λοιπὸν χρόνον τὰ μὲν ἐποίουν κακῶς, τὰ δ᾽ ἔπασχον, καὶ μάχαι μὲν οὐπολλαὶ ἐγένοντο ἐκπαρατάξεως· οὐ γὰρ ἐθάρρουνπροσιέναιπρὸς τὴνπόλιν διὰ τὸπλῆθος καὶ τὴν ἀνδρείαν τῶν ἔνδοθεν· ἀκροβολισμοὶ δὲ καὶ κλωπεῖαι τῶν Ἑλλήνων· καὶ Τρωίλος τε οὕτως ἀποθνῄσκειπαῖς ὢν ἔτι καὶ Μήστωρ καὶ ἄλλοιπλείους. ἦν γὰρ ὁ Ἀχιλλεὺς ἐνεδρεῦσαι δεινότατος καὶ νυκτὸς ἐπιθέσθαι. ὅθεν Αἰνείαν τε οὕτως ἐπελθὼν ὀλίγου ἀπέκτεινεν ἐν τῇ Ἴδῃ καὶπολλοὺς ἄλλους κατὰ τὴν χώραν, καὶ τῶν φρουρίων ᾕρει τὰ κακῶς φυλαττόμενα(Dio Chrysostom 11.77–78)
In the years that followed, the Greeks both did and suffered damage. However, not many pitched battles were fought, since they did not dare to approach the city because of the number and courage of the inhabitants. Skirmishes and forays there were on the part of the Greeks, and it was thus that Troïlus, still a boy, perished, and Mestor and many others; for Achilles was very skillful in laying ambushes and making night attacks. In this way he almost caught and slew Aeneas upon Mount Ida and many others throughout the country, and he captured any forts that were poorly guarded. (The translation is that of Cohoon 1932.)
It would be easy to dismiss Dio as a late author playing a literary game with the Iliad, much as Dares and Dictys of Crete and Philostratus’ Heroikos are not typically seen as reliable guides to early epic tradition. And perhaps, in an abundance of caution, we really should not try to use Dio as clue to what the Iliad was like fifteen hundred years before his time.
And yet, I am tempted to… I would point out that Achilles’ ambush exploits (highlighted by Dio) are alluded to repeatedly throughout the Iliad. Achilles castigates Agamemnon in Iliad 1 for not going into ambush with the “best of the Achaeans” in the opening episode of the poem. An ambush is featured on the shield of Achilles, and formulaic language indicates that Achilles ambushed Andromache’s brothers, Aeneas, and Lykaon. These are in addition to Achilles’ ambush of Troilos, which is featured prominently in other non-Homeric Archaic sources.
In fact, Achilles seems to be exceedingly good at ambush. Virtually every other example of ambush in the epic tradition that Mary Ebbott and I located features two ambushers, or two leaders of a much larger ambush (Dué and Ebbott 2010:70–71). (Cf: Iliad 10.224–225: σύν τε δύ᾽ ἐρχομένω καί τε πρὸ ὃ τοῦ ἐνόησεν/ὅππως κέρδος ἔῃ ‘When two men go together, one perceives even before the other/what is the best strategy.’). But Achilles in every case ambushes solo. I am even tempted to interpret Achilles’ traditional epithet “swift-footed” (ποδάρκης, πόδας ὠκύς, and ποδώκης) as referring to his ambush skills. (On these three epithets for Achilles and their connections to ambush see also Dué and Ebott 2010 ad 10.316, which I expand upon here.) Ambush requires speed because the ambusher typically lies in wait, surprises his victim, and then chases him as he flees. When Achilles taunts Aeneas in book 20 about the time he ambushed him on Mt. Ida while he was shepherding, he explicitly refers to chasing after him with his swift feet:
ἦ οὐ μέμνῃ ὅτε πέρ σε βοῶν ἄπο μοῦνον ἐόντα
σεῦα κατ᾽ Ἰδαίων ὀρέων ταχέεσσι πόδεσσι
καρπαλίμως; τότε δ᾽ οὔ τι μετατροπαλίζεο φεύγων. (Iliad 20.188–190)
Don’t you remember when you being alone from your cattle
I chased down from the peaks of Ida with swift feet,
speedily? At that time you did not look back as you fled.
In fact the chase takes Achilles all the way to Lyrnessos, which he then proceeds to sack (taking Briseis as his prize), while Aeneas makes his escape. Aeneas, earlier in book 20, recounts this exact same episode when Apollo (disguised as Lykaon) urges him to fight Achilles. Aeneas too refers to Achilles’ swift feet when invoking this prior encounter (οὐ μὲν γὰρ νῦν πρῶτα ποδώκεος ἄντ᾽ Ἀχιλῆος/στήσομαι 89–90).
Achilles is called ποδώκης twenty-two times in the Iliad and twice in the Odyssey. That that word is associated with the theme of ambush is supported by the fact that in Iliad 10.316 Dolon is likewise described as ποδώκης. Dolon is of course overtaken and eventually killed by Odysseus and Diomedes in that book and so evidently he is not swift enough. But it seems that both the victim of ambush and the successful ambusher can be thought of as swift. In one of his Cretan lies, Odysseus claims to have ambushed and killed Orsilokhos, a son of Idomeneus, in Crete, and he says that Orsilokhos is swift-footed (πόδας ὠκύν), faster than all other seafaring men in wide Crete (Odyssey 13.259–270). There is some evidence that the death of Achilles himself at the hands of Paris and Apollo, foreshadowed throughout the Iliad, might have been narrated as an ambush in at least one epic tradition. Surviving evidence (including what we know of the now lost Aithiopis) indicates that in Archaic myth Achilles died after receiving an arrow wound to the ankle, and the Skaian gate is pointed to as the location in several sources. (The ancient evidence is collected in Burgess 2009:38–39. See also Burgess 1995.) But in some (primarily late) accounts of Achilles’ death, Paris ambushes him in the sanctuary of Thymbraion when he comes, unarmed, to arrange his marriage to Polyxena. (See Dictys of Crete 3.2ff, Dares 27, Hyginus 110, and Philostratus, Heroikos51.1. with Burgess 1995.) These late sources may reflect an alternative epic tradition about Achilles’ death at the hands of Paris and Apollo by ambush. Intriguingly, Thymbrē (the location of the sanctuary of Thymbraion) is mentioned only in book 10 (at line 430) in our Iliad. It is associated with ambush in the larger epic tradition about the Trojan War in that it is the site of Achilles’ ambush of Troilos (according to the scholia in the Townley manuscript on Iliad 24.257; see also Apollodorus Epitome 3.32). If these late sources do ultimately go back to an Archaic epic tradition, it would be another example of a swift-footed ambusher falling victim to ambush.
As the example with Aeneas cited above suggests, several of Achilles' ambush exploits have a pastoral coloring. Andromache says that Achilles ambushed her brothers in a pastoral context—she says “swift-footed brilliant Achilles killed all of them amidst their rolling-gaited cattle and white sheep” in Iliad 6 (421–424). In Iliad 11 (101–106) we are told the story of Antiphos and Isos, two sons of Priam, whom Achilles ambushed while they watched their sheep on Mt Ida and then sold for ransom. In the episode with Aeneas, it is noteworthy that Achilles' chase takes him to Lyrnessos, which he goes on to sack and take Briseis as his prize. Aeneas and his cattle escape, but Achilles gets a woman, a woman "won by the spear," instead.
On a final note, I have recently been reading George Thomson's description of the Blasket Islands off the West coast of Ireland (entitled Island Home: The Blasket Heritage). He notes the many parallels between Irish lore and the Homeric epics, parallels which must be very very old indeed, reflecting an inherited IndoEuropean poetics (p. 70): "[The Iliad depicts] an age in which rival chiefs enriched themselves by means of cattle raids and plundering expeditions, their prestige resting directly on their individual fighting capacity. Such conditions once prevailed in Ireland and were remembered in the heroic tales." (See also Luce, "Homeric Qualities in the Life and Literature of the Great Blasket Island," in Greece & Rome 16 .) Achilles and Cú Chulainn are cattle raiders and spearmen, the "best of the Achaeans" and the best of the Ulstermen, respectively.
Burgess, J. 1995. “Achilles’ Heel: The Death of Achilles in Ancient Myth.” Classical Antiquity 14:217–243.
–––. 2009. The Death and Afterlife of Achilles. Baltimore.
Frame, D. 2009. Hippota Nestor. Cambridge, MA and Washington, DC.
Martin, R. P. 1989. The Language of Heroes: Speech and Performance in the Iliad. Ithaca, NY.
———. 2000. “Wrapping Homer Up: Cohesion, Discourse, and Deviation in the Iliad.” In Sharrock and Morales, eds., Intratextuality: Greek and Roman Textual Relations, pp. 43–65.