Modus Operandi – The Ways of Greek Literature
Story-telling and presentation are two literary techniques vital to the development of plot and theme, systematic traditions meant to illustrate the idea of the author in terms of the medium of the narrative. Epic, poetry, and drama all utilize these techniques within their respective genres, but the interpretations of their strategies differ highly, as well as the techniques themselves – story-telling usually propels the development of a character or an essential plot, whereas presentation is used in a variety of ways to establish characteristics or themes within the narrative of the story. These devices are all illustrated in a assortment of ways within epic, poetry, and drama, yet the general similarity of their applications establishes a coherence among the three forms that solidifies story-telling and presentation as two essential characteristics of the respective art forms.The Iliad and The Odyssey, Homer’s epic poems that describe well-known legends surrounding the Trojan War, employ story-telling and presentation differently within their genre to create a diversion between the structure of the texts that yields a richer definition of the two literary devices. The Iliad contains a more basic utilization of both techniques, its presentation already semi-established with the common knowledge of the legend. Homer introduces the listener by putting him straight into the middle of a scene, letting previous reputations of characters serve as jumping points from which to delve into the thematic complexities of the epic. Homer also uses the narrative device of story-telling to create a presentation of the characters, with his long speeches and biographies by the patriarchical figures like Nestor and Priam establishing an historical context into which the listener can place the character conflicts and plot complexities. This mingling of the techniques is seen often in the different genres, as the works commonly need to create a compelling way to get across necessary information or significant intricacies. Story-telling itself is seen within the obvious mediums of the Gods’ discussions and the characters’ interactions, but is also more subtly used within the actual language of the epic, for example the epithets Homer assigns to the respective characters. These are not only identifying devices, the words serve as codes to the reader of the character’s origins and possibly his destiny.The Odyssey is more complex in its use of the two techniques, but their motivation remains the same – to inform the reader and develop the story. The main difference between the two epics is the use of the “story within a story” thematic tactic– The Odyssey is driven by the presentational and story-telling aspects of this device, whereas in The Iliad its utilization is much more straightforward. The mini-Odyssey of Menelaus, the ten year voyage of Odysseus – all are examples of the dominance of the “story within a story” technique. Another difference between the two epics is the mode of presentation – The Odyssey contains the Telemachy, a whole part of the epic devoted to introducing the reader to the characters, and especially Odysseus, through the prism of other viewpoints, while The Iliad relies on common knowledge to inform the reader of the personalities of the fighters.Poetry, along with the epic genre, also explores the possibilities of these two artistic techniques. The Hymn to Demeter illustrates a mix in the two, much like the way The Iliad mingles their properties to serve to its narrative advantage. The presentation comes straightforwardly at the beginning, with Homer addressing the subject of the poem in the first line. Common knowledge also informs the reader, as the story was well-known among Greek society. But unlike the epics, this poem serves to explain something, so the story-telling is subservient to the greater purpose of the poetry, the explanation of the seasons. The same utilization of epithets occurs in the poem as in the epics, making them a common mode between the artistic forms. Also, one finds the same “story within a story” technique as in The Odyssey, as Persephone and Demeter share two interpretations of the same tale. Thus the two genres share many of the same modes of narrative device, with poetry creating a system in which to provide allegorical significance to story-telling and presentation.Drama synthesizes these two techniques into one audience-oriented device called the exposition, the staged interpretation of the written way to inform the audience, listener, or reader. Such plays as Oedipus Rex or The Bacchae depend upon the exposition to form the base of the tragic and emotional elements of their drama, because without the dramatic irony, the audience cannot become involved within the action. Drama thus differs from the modes of presentation and story-telling used in epic and poetry because it intermingles them much more purposefully, even though they do sometimes remain independent of each other. Yet along with this difference, there is an important similarity in one major mode of story-telling: the “story within a story.” Oedipus Rex relies on the narrative exploration of Oedipus’ past within the story of his present, and The Bacchae as well depends upon the visually integrated story of the women’s cult of Dionysus to propel its plot.Thus epic, poetry, and drama all interpret the basic devices of story-telling and presentation, all three arts illustrating various aspects of the traditions. The basic generalities of character development and plot complexity universalize these two themes, yet each artistic medium finds various ways in which to use their respective techniques to the fullest. Even in modern works authors continue to build upon the founding notions of technical device proposed by these three genres, signifying their importance to the development of narrative exploration in literary art.
The Evolution of Civil Justice
When contemplating the ultimate nature of the Greek gods and the ensuing roles they play in human affairs, it is helpful to view instances of divine intervention through the actions of the goddess Athena. Athena occupies a central place in The Iliad, The Odyssey, and the Oresteia. Each work elucidates various traits of Athena, which can be better understood within the context of the different stories. While Athena¹s overall persona remains constant throughout each of the stories, various, and at times contradictory attributes manifest themselves as the main themes of each work fall into place. Within The Iliad Athena represents the Greek army and fervently backs them, both on the battlefield and on Mt. Olympus. She is characterized by her war like persona, fighting and positioning herself at the forefront of the action. Athena demonstrates her leadership abilities throughout the Iliadand also her resourceful and diplomatic nature. During the beginning of The Iliad, Athena intervenes in the story instructing Achilles that she has “come to check your rage”. The Iliad as a whole represents a more contentious epicconflict and war are all permeating aspects of the work. Thus, Athena¹s actions within the Iliad portray her more as a proponent of war, under the dark backdrop of the story of the Trojan War, as told in the Iliad.The war driven nature of the Iliad can be contrasted with the almost hyper-civilized tone of Homer¹s Odyssey. Central to this is the theme of hospitality. Hospitality is used to establish an expected code of conduct in each character within the Odyssey. A characters given balance, or lack thereof, in this virtue drives both conflicts and resolutions within the story. Being too hospitable or not hospitable enough causes different sufferings and resolutions. It is imperative to note that this society is not at war, as was the society of the Iliad. Virtues such as gift giving, hospitality, and possessing the ability to speak well are all latent within the text. The suitors also exemplify a violation of a host-guest relationship on the role of host. What is important is that Athena is in fact driving their lack of hospitality. She does this because she understands that by making them unfit hosts, they will eventually have to pay severely; this is part of the resolution process that ensues. Athena gives the reader and Odysseus a chance to see exactly what kind of hosts the suitors are: “And stirred him to go collect his bits of bread from the suitors and so to learn which of the, were fair.” On both sides, the suitors the suitors have created imbalances in their relationships and this drives the major conflict within the Odyssey. Further illustrating this different approach to life from the Iliad to the odyssey is the interplay and mirror relationship of Athena and Odysseus. Athena within the odyssey represents the traits of a more evolved civilization. She is the dominant figure among the gods, and is extremely eloquent and diplomatic throughout the epic. These same qualities she shares with Odysseus, whose oratory skills, and craftiness transcends mortals. Both Athena and Odysseus represent wit, wisdom and leadership abilities. While her battle skills and inclinations towards war marked the Athena of the Iliad, the Athena of the Odyssey represents the mental over the physical. Within the Odyssey Athena evens shows genuine affection to Odysseus and even admiration as she tells him, Anyone who met you, even a god, would have to be a consummateTrickster to surpass you in subterfuge. You were always an obstinate,Cunning, and irrepressible intriguer. So don¹t propose, even in yourOwn country, to drop the tricks and lying tales you love so much!But no more of this. We both know how to get her own way: in theworld of men you have no rival in judgement and argument, while Iam pre-eminent among the gods for ingenuity and ability to get what I want (201). This is additionally true of the other gods as well. Their kinder nature reflects a newfound intellect and civil tone. This divine presence is seen as even Zeus and Poseidon interacts with statesmanship and compromise at times. While it is a more civil divine presence manifested within The Odyssey, the role the Gods play in human affairs in The Oresteia is a further synthesis of this civilityinto a modern formative justice. The Oresteia represents the most far reaching development of civilizationthat from a primitive legal code based on vengeance, as represented by the furies, and also a new conception of civil justice, as introduced by Athena. It is this contrast of forms of resolution that are prevalent in the Oresteia. It ultimately is the cyclical nature of violence that seems un-mutable that leads the God¹s to find a more evolved solution that will further civil progress. Athena¹s introduction to the modern legal code in the Eumenides is tantamount because it symbolizes the development of a new more advanced order to solve binding disputes. I will appoint the judges of manslaughter,Swear them in, and found a tribunal hereFor all time to come.My contestants,Summon your trusted witnesses and proofs,Your defenders under oath to help your cause.And I will pick the finest men of Athens,Return and decide this issue fairly, trulyBound to our oaths, our spirits bent on justice (Aeschylus 253).The above passage exemplifies the main developments of this increasingly progressive society, as reformed by Athena. Again, we see Athena as a crafty orator who demonstrates fairness and ultimately the transition of justice from primitive norms to that of modern codes of legality. This new conception of Justice, as furthered by Athena, illustrates the transition of justice from The Agamemnon to The Eumenides. Within Aeschylus first play of the trilogy, justice is upheld through the more primitive modules of punishment and retribution, whereas The Eumenides tells of a sophisticated system of legal fairness and early examples of western due process. This system of law is complete with a Jury of mortals. As Athena states, “by all rights not even I should decide a case of murder-murder whets passions” (Aeschylus 486-487). Each of the three works compared within this essay represents a different worldview. These various perspectives at society bring forth the characterization of the God¹s, based on the themes of each work. The Iliad is marked with contention and is a dreary epic. Thus, the Athena we see in the Iliad is much more concerned with actively supporting the Greek army, than the more civil and diplomatic Athena within The Odyssey. The Odyssey as a whole, represents a much-needed break from the era of the Trojan War, and shows a more genteel world. The Oresteia represents a synthesis of these two worlds. While The Agamemnon is centered on primal justice and perpetuating a seemingly endless cycle of violence, Athena¹s presence in the final play of the trilogy demonstrates the conscious elevation to a more judicially sound future.
Scepter in Hand: Odysseus, Virtue, and the Question of Rank in the Iliad
Rank was central in Homeric Greek society. Though first given by one’s pedigree, a man’s standing in society was affected by his aret (virtue). A man of low rank, unless elderly or a seer, was supposed to be physically weak, unremarkable or ugly, and unable to debate complicated issues well. A man of high rank was expected to have physical prowess and debating skill worthy of his fathers, and a man’s rank could be increased if he outstripped his ancestors in virtue. For example, though Odysseus is lord of a relatively minor island, he manages to augment his influence on the war through his power and cunning.This is illustrated by Odysseus’ victory in two decisive arguments in the Iliad, one against a man of lower rank than his, the other against a man of higher rank. The former consists of Thersites’ diatribe against Agamemnon’s greed and Odysseus’ rebuttal of it (Iliad, transl. Fagles, 2.245-328), the latter is Odysseus’ rebuke of Agamemnon’s plan to flee (Iliad, 14.99-127). Odysseus, ever fitting his argument to his opponent, pulls rank on Thersites and questions Agamemnon’s virtue, saying it seems incommensurate with his vaunted position.Thersites is a pathetic character, the antithesis of a hero. From his first description the reader or listener of the poem knows that he cannot make a decent argument. Having just been dissuaded from flight by Odysseus, all the men are content to listen to their king’s counsel except for Thersites. As the solemn assembly convenes this comic figure steps forward. Wretched Thersites, a disliked commoner and the ugliest man among the Greeks, dares to rail at Agamemnon, glorious marshal of armies! (Iliad, 246-254) How can he, totally lacking in social and physical stature, challenge the great king of Mycenae and sound the retreat for all the Achaean armies? Not effectively at all, as it turns out.Thersites, whose oratory is on par with his appearance, presents a weak argument to the Achaean hosts. He compares Agamemnon to a greedy dog, “panting” after yet more riches that he “or another hero” shall win for him. (Iliad, 2.263-270) Thersites sets himself up as a hero lofty enough to challenge Agamemnon, then calls for a retreat on the grounds that Agamemnon is not fit to command the army. He implies that Agamemnon isn’t responsible enough to be king, declaring it “shameful” that such a “high and mighty commander” should “lead the sons of Achaea into bloody slaughter!” (Iliad, 2.272-273) Thersites calls Agamemnon’s rank and the qualities befitting his kingship into question, forgetting that he has neither the rank nor the heroic deeds behind him to support his argument. Odysseus, a man of both rank and virtue, soon reminds him of that.Odysseus exhibits the power and poise of a great man in his successful rebuke of Thersites. He starts his confrontation with physical intimidation and ends it with a blow from Agamemnon’s scepter and threats of further violence and humiliation if Thersites should be insolent again. Using a formula he will call on again in his rebuke of Agamemnon, Odysseus, in reference to Thersites’ defeatist diatribe, tells him, “You’re the outrage[, not Agamemnon’s behavior].” (Iliad, 2.300) Odysseus, in an attempt to keep the Achaeans from fleeing to the ships as Agamemnon had ordered as a test, “relieved him [(Agamemnon)] of his fathers’ royal scepter.” (Iliad, 2.215) This may not seem too shocking today, but in Homeric times the king’s scepter was the symbol of his authority and this particular scepter can trace its history from Hephaestus to Zeus to Hermes to Atreus to Agamemnon. This scepter represents the greatness of Agamemnon and the house of Atreus — by taking it Odysseus claims temporary power of kingship by right of his competence. Indeed, just as Agamemnon called the troops to assembly “raising high in hand the scepter,” (Iliad, 2.118) Odysseus “stood there, scepter in hand,” (Iliad, 2.226) with Athena quieting the troops for him after they cheered Thersites’ defeat, a mark of favor she had not done for Agamemnon. In this way, Odysseus is portrayed as almost kingly as a result of his virtue in terms that must have seemed obvious to Homer’s audience.Thersites’ failure at overcoming Agamemnon’s will in argument does not mean that rank is unassailable. Later in the epic when the Trojans are pressing hard against the ships and Agamemnon counsels retreat (Iliad, 14.91-99), Odysseus successfully rebukes Agamemnon, taking up words against the great king. His argument hinges on two propositions: that Agamemnon’s conduct does not befit a man of his rank, and that a retreat would be disastrous. Making the first point, Odysseus chooses the same construction he used against Thersites and tells Agamemnon, referring to his counsel, “You are the disaster[, and not the Trojan assault]. (Iliad, 14.102, italics in original) Odysseus emphasizes the gross indecency of a man of Agamemnon’s stature proposing such a disastrous plan, saying:Quiet! / What if one of the men gets wind of your brave plan? / No one should ever let such nonsense pass his lips, / no one with any skill in fit and proper speech — / and least of all yourself, a sceptered king. (Iliad, 14.110-114, my emphasis)How it must cut Agamemnon to the quick that his plan should “fill me [(Odysseus)] with contempt!” (Iliad, 14.117) Odysseus is careful not to heap too much direct abuse on the head of Agamemnon out of respect, choosing to make only the few pointed remarks mentioned above. Odysseus also finishes the argument with his second, pragmatic point: the soldiers who have to be left behind until the next day, seeing that their comrades have left, will break into a rout and “commander of armies, your plan will kill us all!” (Iliad, 14.123-127) In this way cunning Odysseus, having “wheeled on his commander,” (Iliad, 14.100) gives Agamemnon an honorable reason to back down from his plan. If Agamemnon concedes that his plan was foolish he loses some face, but it is less than if he were to lead the army to ruin. Odysseus’ words win the day, saving the Achaeans.The story of the Iliad is, in large part, a story of rank. Men are always trying to live up to or exceed the honor and virtue expected of them by reason of the rank originally derived from their parentage. Diomedes, for example, is spurred to his great prowess in battle after Agamemnon chides him for not living up to his father’s warrior reputation. Odysseus makes a truly great name for himself as he exhibits his virtue and cunning. Feats of rank such as using Agamemnon’s scepter, putting Thersites in his place, and convincing Agamemnon not to flee are by no means typical of Homeric heroes; however, they serve to illustrate the currency of virtue and deeds in the marketplace of rank. After his reprimand of Thersites, Homer suggests a glorious picture of Odysseus. This stocky man, “shorter than Atreus’ son Agamemnon,” (Iliad, 3.235) standing erect, Agamemnon’s god-given “scepter in hand,” whips a hushed assembly of soldiers into a war-frenzy as the majestic glory of gray-eyed Athena rises from behind him: this is the quintessence of rank, the paragon of authority wielded by dint of a man’s personal excellence, a hero’s aret.
The drama found in The Iliad of Homer is not characterized by surprises. The reader always knows what to expect because of the gods’ explicit prophecies as well as the behaviors of the mortals. The latter more subtly foreshadows future events. A perfect example is found in book 6, where the conversations and actions that occur tragically foretell the death of Hektor. Upon returning home, Hektor finds that his wife, Andromache, “had taken her place on the tower in lamentation” (VI.373). Although he is still alive, Andromache has already begun to lament over his death because she is certain of his fate. She even prophetizes to Hektor that his “own great strength will be [his] death” (VI.407), and then she continues to predict that she “soon must be [his] widow” (VI.408). Her belief that he will die is further strengthened by the fact that her family has already suffered because of Achilleus. This single man had killed her father and her seven brothers, and he also took her mother away. Hektor is the only person she has left and she refers to him as her “father, honoured mother,/brother, and young husband” (VI.429-430). Hektor represents all of those who Andromache has lost to Achilleus, which indicates that he, too, will face the same fate. It seems destined that all her loved ones will suffer at Achilleus’ hands, including her husband. Knowing this, Andromache continues to mourn when Hektor leaves because she firmly believes that “he would never again come back from the fighting/alive” (VI.501-502). Hektor, himself, is also aware of his fate. He tells Andromache: “I know this thing well in my heart, and my mind knows it:/there will come a day when sacred Ilion shall perish,/and the people of Priam” (VI.447-448). He knows that he is one of the “people of Priam.” Furthermore, he predicts that after the fall of Troy, the Achaians will take his wife as ransom. He does not use words such as ‘if’ to imply possibility. Rather, he says: “when some bronze-armoured/Achaian leads you off” (VI.454-455); he is certain of what will happen and thus certain of his own death. The scene in which Hektor removes his helmet clearly foreshadows his death. In The Iliad, the removal of the helmet is equated with vulnerability. Without the helmet, the soldier lacks protection where it is most needed and he becomes extremely weak. More crucially, he “laid it in all its shining upon the ground” (VI.473). The placement of a soldier’s helmet on the ground is equivocal to his death. Hektor finds himself in such a situation in book 22 after he is killed: Achilleus drags him around the city so that “all that headwas tumbled/in the dust” (XXII.402-403). Hektor’s death in book 22 prefigures the fall of Troy. Hektor is intrinsically tied to the city. He “alonedefended the gates and the long walls” (XXII.507). He is the most important and most feared defender of Troy. When he challenges the Achaians to one-on-one combat, the Achaians “stayed stricken to silence” (VII.92). The loss of Hektor boosts the Achaians’ morale, and the defeat of the Trojans has begun. The Trojans are also aware of this. When the Trojans discover that Hektor is dead, “all his people about him/were taken with wailing and lamentation all through the city./It was most like what would have happened, if all lowering/Ilion had been burning top to bottom in fire” (XXII.408-411). They react to Hektor’s death as if they have already lost because they know that this will happen. Also, when Andromache discovers that Hektor is dead, she gives a lengthy speech regarding her son’s, Astyanax, loss of a father. She says that “with his dear father gone, he has much to suffer” (XXII.505). Just as Astyanax is now an orphan, so is Troy. Troy finds itself in the same situation as Astyanax: helpless and weak. The way in which Hektor faces his death also foreshadows how Troy will fall. During the fight, Hektor is wearing Achilleus’ armor, which he had stripped off of Patroklos after he had slain him. Wearing Achilleus’ suit gives him a false sense of security and makes him feel more confident when facing Achilleus. More important is the deceitful role which Athene plays during this battle. Athene assumes the likeness of Hektor’s brother, De_phobos, and urges him to stop fleeing and encourages him to “stand fast against him and beat him [Achilleus] back” (XXII.231). However, Athene knows Hektor will die, yet “[leads] him on by beguilement” (XXII.247) and speeds him to his death. This is similar to the way in which the Achaians will defeat the Trojans. The beguiling presentation of the Trojan horse provides the Trojans with a false sense of security. As a result, they become less wary of attack and the city is defeated in this deceitful atmosphere. Book 6 clearly prefigures book 22, which in turn clearly prefigures the fall of Troy. The characters anticipate the future because certain events provide them with insight and prepares them as well. Andromache begins lamenting over Hektor’s death in book 6 when he is still alive. Thus when she hears the news in book 22, it does not come as a complete shock. Rather, it serves as a confirmation of something she had already expected to occur which she had begun to accept earlier. The reaction of Hektor’s son, Astyanax, shows his anticipation of his father’s death as well. When Hektor reaches out for his son, he “shrank back to his fair-girdled nurse’s bosom/screaming,frightened” (XXII.467-468). Rather than being happy to see his father who has been away, Astyanax cries, indicating the tragic end his father is to face.
“Much that is terrible takes place in the Homeric poems, but it seldom takes place wordlessly… no speech is so filled with anger or scorn that the particles which express logical and grammatical connections are lacking or out of place.” (from “Odysseus’ Scar” by Erich Auerbach)In his immaculately detailed study comparing the narrative styles of Homer to those of the Bible, Erich Auerbach hits upon one of the most notable intrigues of reading Homer, namely his unrelenting sense of epic form and rhythm. The stories that unfold in the works of Homer are filled with passion and fury, but this never effects the meticulous regulation of his narrative. One of the chief questions regarding the works of Homer is to what effectual end he follows this formula so explicitly. In both The Iliad and The Odyssey, the reader recognizes patterns and formulae that combine to make up the Homeric template. The reader can first recognize Homer’s formulaic style on a specific scale in the repetition of phrases and epithets. Odysseus, throughout both The Iliad and The Odyssey is almost never mentioned without a reference to his cunning or “many designs”. Likewise, throughout The Iliad the city of Troy is almost never mentioned without reference to it being “strong-walled” or “wide-wayed”. As Richard Lattimore writes in the introduction to his translation, much of this particular kind of repetition was dictated by the metric needs of the poem. Above and beyond this strictly mechanical function however, recurring descriptions serve to ground the story in a cast of recognizable characters, thus creating a sense of familiarity for the reader. Studying an example of Homer’s form on a slightly grander scale, each individual death in The Iliad becomes discernible as a minor variation on an established sequential structure. To take the death of Phereklos as an illustration: first, we are told “Meriones in turn killed Phereklos…”(Bk V. ln. 59). Then we are given a description of his death:”… Meriones pursued [Phereklos] and overtaking him struck in the right buttock, and the spearhead drove straighton and passing under the bone went into the bladder.He dropped, screaming, to his knees, and death was a mist about him.”(Book V, lns. 65-68)Although the deaths of major characters are more elaborate and detailed, the basic structural pattern remains the same. The death of Patroklos for example is much embellished, but the basic formula–approach, attack, wound, and finally ‘the mist of death’–remains recognizable. The use of what is essentially a template for the description of death in battle could serve one of two purposes. The fact that the deaths in The Iliad and the final battle scene of The Odyssey become so many carbon copies of one another, predictable almost to the point of absurdity, perhaps reflects a poet’s judgment of war. Homer goes to such elaborate lengths to depict the immensity of the enterprise and the sweat and hardship of battle, that one can’t help but sense, hidden within this repeated formulaic expression of dying, a commentary upon death as the ultimate equalizer. Conversely, the methodical treatment of death could simply be an indication of Homer’s duties and obligations as a poet in a spiritual society. Death was a sacred rite of passage to the Ancient Greeks, less of an ending than a gateway; perhaps it would have been considered sacrilege to write about death without this ritualistic formalism.On the grandest scale, the reader recognizes Homer’s slavery to epic form in his placement of the ‘beginning’ in relation to the story he is telling. In both The Iliad and The Odyssey, we pick up the story in medias res, on the upward crest towards the climacteric. In The Iliad we enter, a year before the end of a ten year war, upon the scene of a fight between the two great leaders of the Achaians. Although we don’t recognize it right away (we have to read the poem to appreciate the beginning in relation to the rest of the story) this single event is the birth of The Iliad. Without Achilleus’ self-imposed sulking exile from the Achaians, there would be no dramatic tension around which to build a story. The ardor of battle, the supplication to gods, not to mention the only real humanity that enters into the poem, all stem from this break between Achilleus and Agamemnon. It is not until Book Two that Homer gives the reader the history necessary to understand the argument. In this way, he elegantly frames the story of The Iliad against the backdrop of the Trojan War.Similarly, The Odyssey ‘begins’ in the ninth year of Odysseus’ ten year journey home, just before he is to be released from his captivity on the Isle of Kalypso. In the first Book, Athene visits Odysseus’ son Telemachos, who is tormented by the crude and unruly army of suitors competing for the hand of his mother. Athene inspires a hopeless Telemachos to go out and search for his father, so that together, father and son might re-assert their rightful sovereignty on Ithaka. In Telemachos’ absence, the suitors conspire to lie in wait and kill him on his return. Thus Homer sets the story well in motion, indeed he even suggests the resolution, before he gives us the full history of Odysseus’ nine year journey.Of all the scales on which the reader recognizes Homer’s slavery to form, it is this impeccable shaping and framing of his story that is most relevant to his significance as a founder of narrative tradition as it suggests the relationship between narrator and audience. Both The Iliad and The Odyssey begin with an invocation of the Muses, and the unwavering consistency of atonality puts the narrator in the position of medium, rather than proprietor, of the story–he is, therefore, infallible. This firm establishment of the reliable narrator is an intimation of the sacred importance these poems held for the people of Ancient Greece. Auerbach goes on to write of the lack of suspense in Homer; suspense as a device to lure the reader is unnecessary precisely because these poems were composed first and foremost as interpretation of the divine and not mere story- telling. Homer’s aesthetic drive was towards purity and accuracy rather than thrill and entertainment. To recognize and study Homer’s methodical style is to address the question of the primary function of literature. For all his reserve and slavery to form, there remains discernible throughout the works of Homer a distinct human autograph; the aforementioned atonality itself becomes a tone that we recognize as singularly Homeric. In largely absenting himself from his own narrative, Homer was providing his readers with a more direct link to his subject material. In his rigorous employment of method in writing about phenomena such as the gods and mortality, Homer was interpreting the incomprehensible, providing a bridge between humanity and the divine. In the sense that writers ever since have been striving to do the same thing, the Homeric epics are truly outstanding as a model of literary function and as a reminder of the first quality of art.
The Consistency of Cruelty in Combat
The Iliad, in that it is more about the Greek hero Achilles than any other particular person, portrays the Achaean in surprisingly shocking light at times throughout the story. In his encounter with Lycaon, who had previously been taken prisoner by Achilles long ago, Achilles demonstrates the extents to which his warlike demeanor can go. Yet it is equally surprising that he is capable of impressive compassion, as is depicted elsewhere in the Iliad. What seems to be an almost unbelievable fluctuation in attitude and mood is far from unexplained or contradictory, however. In fact, there is a well-defined regularity in Achilles’ actions and demeanors, to the point of being capable of systematic classification. Achilles is not a loose cannon or an unpredictable firebrand. The method to his madness can be applied to his encounter with Lycaon as it can with any of his episodes in the Iliad.It is in Scroll XXI, at the height of his vengeful and destructive advance, that Achilles meets Lycaon. He has just captured twelve soldiers for sacrifice, and at the exact moment that he reaches Lycaon he is “thirsting for still further blood” (33). Lycaon entreats Achilles to have mercy on him. He mentions that he has been captured before by Achilles and has had precious little time to enjoy his regained freedom. He also distances himself from Hektor, who he knows has Achilles’ enmity because of the death of Patroklos. In near desperation, Lycaon falls to his knees, declaring himself to Achilles as “suppliant” (64).Achilles’ reaction at this instance is, along with his defilement of Hektor’s body, among the most grim and bellicose moments in the Iliad and in Achilles’ development as a character. He kills Lycaon with his sword “plunged…to the very hilt” (114). He then says without a moment’s delay:”Lie there among the fishes, who will lick the blood from your wound and gloat over it; your mother shall not lay you on any bier to mourn you, but the eddies of Skamandros shall bear you into the broad bosom of the sea. There shall the fishes feed on the fat of Lycaon as they dart under the dark ripple of the waters…None the less miserably shall you perish till there is not a man of you but has paid in full for the death of Patroklos and the havok you wrought among the Achaeans whom you have slain while I held aloof from battle” (114-136).The absolute disregard for the respect of Lycaon’s body illuminates the depths of cruelty that Achilles finds himself capable of. But in contrast with his kindness in Scroll XXIV, when Priam comes to request the body of Hektor, this might seem inconsistent. When meeting with Priam, Achilles weeps openly and seems even empathetic about the great patriarch’s loss. How is this disparity in attitude explainable? The point that must be made about the Lycaon episode is that it must be seen in its context. Achilles is on a rampage, killing as many men as he can on the battlefield. This is the keyon the battlefield, Achilles is a warrior in the truest sense. He fights purely in that each encounter on the field can be resolved in only one waycombat, usually to the death. When Lycaon attempts to reason and negotiate, Achilles sternly rebukes him: “‘Idiot…talk not to me of ransom'” (97). It might be said that Achilles is in “warrior mode.” Whereas a more typical soldier might in fact turn to negotiation on the battlefield, Achilles has demonstrated himself throughout the Iliad to be the quintessential warriorhis armor is the best, his skill is the best, and his legend is the most fearsome. So it is completely natural and in fact expected that Achilles, of all warriors, would be unwilling to discuss matters on the battlefield. It is either to kill or be killed. This idea is supported by his similar treatment of Hektor, who asks for a proper burial if he dies. Achilles has no desire to check his own warrior impulses at that moment or this one, with Lycaon.So the range in emotions and compassion that Achilles displays, from being almost barbaric with Lycaon to being empathetic with Priam, is a result of his character adhering to a certain set of rules which Achilles follows consistently. On the battlefield (particularly in light of Patroklos’ death and mistreatment), Achilles feels no compulsion for mercy. But outside of the sphere of combat, he is clearly capable of compassion and reason. This is consistently shown as a facet of Achilles’ complex character in the Iliad, and it makes it possible for the reader to fathom his utter brutality with Lycaon.This polarity of personality is to be expected of the hero. Part of the appeal of the hero is that he is an exaggeration of the facets of a normal man’s personality. Where a normal man can experience anger and sadness, Achilles feels menis and akhos, truly extreme and searing emotional states that serve to make the hero larger-than-life (yet still human).The emotional states of the hero are admirable in their consistencyAchilles is driven to rage and is unsympathetic to the pathetic, cowardly pleas of Lycaon, but he respects Priam and treats him with respect and mercy. This is why Euripides’ Herakles is so tragic. Driven by a blind rage brought on by Hera, Herakles confuses his sons with those of Eurystheus. In a parallel incident, “the boy [Herakles’ son] sprang to his father knees” and begs for mercy (987). The reader knows, however, that mercy will not come. This is because of a tragic mixing of the two realms of the herohis brutality in battle and his reason outside of combat. Herakles is confused into believing that he must spring into warrior mode, and it is clear to all what will result. This is a powerful episode in its ability to delineate the extreme states that a hero is capable of. When Achilles is in a similar situation of standing before a supplicant enemy (albeit not as a result of mistaken identity in his case), the reader knows that he will in fact kill him with disregard. That is the role of the hero in a situation such as that.While some might argue that there is nothing about such extreme brutality in battle that differentiates a hero like Achilles from other soldiers, it must be remembered that other soldiers are normal humans like the reader. It is decidedly human to have tinges of compassion on the battlefield, just as it is possible to have tinges of disrespect in personal relationships with an honorable person. Achilles the hero, however, makes no such mixture of state. In combat, he is completely and utterly a fighter. At a time of rest, he is completely honorable to a person who deserves such honor. So, in some sense, he is a model to be admired in his treatment of Lycaon. As an example of the supreme warrior, it is the cruelty and anger that he shows to his cowardly enemy that serves to elevate him above other soldiers. And far from being shocking, it is in fact completely consistent with the character of Achilles that we see throughout the Iliadfearsome in combat, respectful of honor and courage otherwise.
The Success of King Priam’s Request
The Iliad by Homer is an epic poem focused on the wrath of the character Achilles. This wrath guided Achilles to be a great warrior for the Greeks during the Trojan War, but this wrath also extended into his relationships with his fellow Greeks and Trojan enemies. The greatest example of the nature of his wrath appeared when Achilles was presented on two occasions with the ability to respond to requests made by his own Greek King, Agamemnon, and the Trojan King, Priam. Achilles responded quite oppositely to these requests because Agamemnon committed several key mistakes that caused Achilles to refuse his request, but Priam committed several key acts that allowed him to be successful in transcending the wrath of Achilles.In order to understand the reasons that King Priam was successful in his request to Achilles, it is crucial to examine why Agamemnon was not able to achieve the same success. The most obvious reason why Agamemnon failed was because he sent delegation to present his request. Rather than going himself, Agamemnon sent Odysseus, Ajax, and Phoenix. Achilles welcomed these representatives into his home and proclaimed, “Even in my anger, of all Achaeans, you are the closest” (9.240-241). Though these were obviously great friends of Achilles and he may not have responded positively to Agamemnon, it showed a lack of respect for Achilles, and Achilles recognized this. “He would not look me in the eye, dog that he is! I will not share one word of counsel with him, nor will I act with him” (9.455-456). Agamemnon was making a tremendous request of Achilles to fight after being betrayed by his own country, and considering the seriousness of the request and the possible outcome of the war, it was crucial that Agamemnon, the commander of the Greeks, personally present this request. Because of this blatant arrogance, Achilles refused to grant Agamemnon’s request.Also, Agamemnon’s request was rejected because there were selfish motives behind his request. It was not until the Greeks began losing that Agamemnon even considered humbling himself to approach Achilles, and it was then only after the persistent advice of his countrymen. They told Agamemnon to “contrive some way of making peace with him by friendly gifts and affectionate words” (9.134-135). Agamemnon showed no signs of true remorse and arrogantly believed that Achilles would honor his request simply because he was the king. “So let Achilles bow to me, considering that I hold higher rank and claim the precedence of age” (9.194-196). Agamemnon was not seeking to restore the friendship he had lost by selfishly stealing Achilles’ war bride; he only wanted to save himself from sure defeat at the hands of the Trojans. He knew that the only way to conquer the Trojans was to have the unmatched strength and reputation of Achilles and selfishly requested that Achilles join the war without admitting to Achilles that his actions were wrong. Because of Agamemnon’s selfish motives, it was obvious to Achilles that he could gain nothing by succumbing to Agamemnon’s request. Immediately after Achilles’ war bride was taken, he proclaimed, “I swear a day will come when every Achaean soldier will groan to have Achilles back. That day you shall no more prevail on me than this dry wood shall flourish – driven though you are, and though a thousand men perish before the killer, Hektor” (1.283-289). Achilles would have actually lost honor by breaking this emotional vow to never fight for Agamemnon because he knew that rejoining the war would only cause him to appear weak to his fellow warriors. Instead, Achilles chose to retain his honor by not allowing Agamemnon to be successful.Agamemnon was also unsuccessful because of his means of attempting to regain Achilles as a warrior. Agamemnon had the audacity to bribe a great warrior by offering him such things as gold, horses, and women. All of these were items that Achilles could easily acquire by his own power. “His gifts I abominate, and I would give not one dry shuck for him” (9.470-471). Agamemnon also foolishly offered one of his own daughters as a bride to Achilles. Agamemnon was apparently not thinking about the consequences of this arrangement because if Achilles had accepted such an offer, he would have become Agamemnon’s son-in-law. “The daughter of Agamemnon, son of Atreus, I will not take in marriage. Let her be as beautiful as pale-gold Aphrodite, skilled as Athena of the sea-grey eyes. I will not have her at any price” (9.474-478). Achilles would never desire to be related to a man who had just severely damaged his pride. Agamemnon, however, failed to see this and offered a multitude of gifts to persuade Achilles to join the war, but this bribery caused him to be unsuccessful. Also, the nature of the wrong that Agamemnon committed against Achilles severely damaged his chances of gaining favor with Achilles. Not only did Agamemnon steal Achilles’ beloved war bride, he also damaged Achilles’ pride by cheating him of his kleos. For this reason, Achilles had a personal battle with Agamemnon, and rejoining the war would represent defeat for Achilles. “Give in to Agamemnon? I think not, neither to him nor to the rest” (9.385-386). Achilles was certainly determined to deny Agamemnon the satisfaction of a personal victory over such a great warrior. Though Achilles chose to remove himself from the war, he was forced to do so by Agamemnon because he saw no other way to defend his great pride. Achilles had certain kleos awaiting him if he fought in the Trojan War, but he felt that he was denied this opportunity by his own king who was simply saving his own honor after being forced to return Chryseis to her father. Therefore, Agamemnon showed his great pride by stealing Achilles’ war bride and, more importantly, his honor and certain glory.Just as there are distinct reasons for the failure Agamemnon’s request, there are distinct reasons for the success of King Priam’s request. Most obviously, the fact that Priam went personally to confront Achilles allowed him to be successful. “Priam, the great king of Troy, passed by the others, knelt down, took in his arms Achilles’ knees, and kissed the hands of the wrath that killed his sons” (24.570-573). With this single act, King Priam showed great respect, and the great warrior recognized the magnitude of this act. This was a man who was mourning his son but still found the strength to kiss the very hands that murdered his son. Also, both Achilles and Priam shared the common bond of grief because both of these men were consumed by strong emotions. “Then both were overborne as they remembered; the old king huddled at Achilles’ feet wept, and wept for Hektor, killer of men, while great Achilles wept for his own father as for Patroklos once again; and sobbing filled the room” (24.612-617). While Achilles mourned Patroklos and remembered his own father, Priam mourned Hektor, his son. This is very interesting because Achilles only killed Hektor because Hektor killed Patroklos, Achilles’ closest friend. Achilles was finally able to see beyond his wrath because of his grief and sympathize with the suffering king. Additionally, Priam was able to capitalize on the fact that he represented a father figure to Achilles because of his age and great respect. “Remember your own father, Achilles, in your godlike youth: his years like mine are many, and he stands upon the fearful doorstep of old age” (24.581-584). Priam commanded Achilles to think about his own father so that he could draw similarities. These similarities ended, however, when Priam commanded Achilles to realize that his father still had a living son. “Ah, but he may nonetheless hear news of you alive, and so with glad heart hope through all his days for the sight of his dear son, come back from Troy, while I have deathly fortune” (24.587-591). This statement allowed a great warrior who was a son to identify with a king who was the father of a great warrior. Achilles was also more responsive to Priam because Priam had committed no wrong against Achilles. Though Priam was the king of the Trojans, Achilles’ sworn enemy, he had not offended Achilles like Agamemnon had. Achilles had no personal battle with Priam because this king came with pure motives. Priam said, “It is for [Hektor] that I have come among these ships, to beg him back from you, and I bring ransom without stint” (24.600-602). The reason Priam confronted Achilles was to simply retrieve the body of his dead son. Priam did not seek revenge even though Achilles was the one who murdered his son and desecrated the body, and Achilles took notice of this unselfish act to the point of granting the great king the time he wanted to mourn Hektor. It is also important to notice that a major contributing factor to Priam’s success was the role of the gods. Zeus commanded, “In fear of me, let him relent and give back Hektor’s body” (24.140-141). Zeus also provided a Wayfinder that was to “bring [Priam] across the lines into the very presence of Achilles” (24.183-184). It was only through the role of the gods that this exchange between Priam and Achilles even occurred, but Achilles was not a puppet for the gods because he still had the free will to choose whether or not to grant the request of Priam. Achilles also knew that he was dealing with a higher power by desecrating the body of a dead man. Though Zeus commanded Achilles to return the body, it was ultimately Achilles’ decision because of the manner in which Priam approached Achilles.In all, Achilles was given two opportunities in which he had to choose either accept or deny requests given by men of distinct honor. He denied the request of his own king to rejoin the war to help save the Greeks from sure defeat but granted the request of the enemy king to return the body of his fallen son. Achilles did so because of specific actions each took in their methods of negotiation. Achilles merely wanted someone to come to him personally and make a request to a warrior of great honor. Priam successfully met these requirements, but Agamemnon failed because of his arrogance and pride. As a result, Achilles denied Agamemnon, and Priam was able to give his son a proper burial. Works CitedHomer. “The Iliad.” Western Literature in a World Context: The Ancient World through the Renaissance. Ed. Paul Davis et al. vol 1. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. 25-156.
The Simile of the Iliad
Many authors employ the device of the simile, but Homer fully adopts the concept, immersing many provoking, multi-layered similes into even the most ordinary of battle scenes in the Iliad. This technique both breaks up the ponderous pace of warfare and allows insight to the frequently volatile emotions of the characters. A specific simile, found in Book Sixteen (lines 259-65), is set amongst rather dramatic action: Patroklus, in Achilleus’s armor, rouses the Myrmidons as they head towards the battle. It is clear that the battalion is eager to fight (“In heart and fury” the Myrmidons “stream from their ships” (XVI, 268)), and Patroklus asks them to “remember your furious valour” (XVI, 270). Homer, however, offers the reader more than mere nouns, as he translates the sentiment of the Myrmidons into an elaborate visual simile. The basic premise of the comparison is to equate the fury of the aggravated wasps to the fury of the battle-hungry Myrmidons. This simile, however, runs far deeper than this surface association; as with many of Homer’s similes, when studied more carefully, suspiciously familiar characters emerge. The wasps of the passage, as explicitly relayed to the reader, are the Myrmidons, a faction of the Greek army. Uncovering the identity of the “little boys” (XVI, 260) proves more taxing. Homer lays the foundation for the character when he describes the boys as thoughtless, ignorant, and casually hedonistic. It is line 262, however, that casts the boys as expressions of Paris himself: “silly boys, they do something that hurts many people [emphasis added].” Thus the parallels begin to rapidly surface in the reader’s mind: Paris’s provocation of the enemy, his maddeningly cavalier self-indulgence, and his complete ignorance of the dire consequences of his action. It then follows that the man, presented as an innocent passer-by who “stirs [the wasps] unintentionally” (XVI, 264) represents the Trojan army. Troy, unlike the Greek nations, is truly forced into the war. In the very same way, the man is left to deal with the painful outcome of the boys’ play. The effect of this simile on the narrative is rather remarkable. Throughout the Iliad Homer relentlessly challenges the reader’s allegiance to each army, and one is bound to question where justice lies amongst his perpetual juggling of sympathies. In the presented simile, Homer takes the startling stance of declaring both parties innocent, and places all of the fault cleanly on one man’s shoulders: Paris. Although readers now understand the motivation of the Greeks (as the poking of the stick efficiently translates into the robbery of a wife), their pity lies with the blameless Trojans, an attitude that will deepen with the upcoming death of Sarpedon, and will then abruptly wane, in typical Homeric fashion, with the death of Hektor. This simile can, however, be viewed from another angle. The comparison to wasps – especially in a poem riddled with associations between men and lions, boars, and wolves – is an interesting one. The Myrmidons, as presented, are mere wasps. They aren’t a great asset to the Greek army. What is most important, as becomes clear through the simile, is their enthusiastic spirit: they are eager to fight, and their will to battle is infectious. The reader is soon presented with the lucid visual of the cloud of wasps “streaming” (XVI, 259) out of their nests which so perfectly parallels the crowd of the Myrmidons pouring from their tents. Thus Homer communicates the innate spirit of mass warfare itself: individuals cease to exist in this swarm; they draw their power from the mob, propelled by a community filled with of ambitious, furious spirit. The final notable quality of this excerpt is the delicate insight it provides on the perspective of the gods. Using wasps as a point of comparison, one recalls scenes of Zeus sitting atop Olympos, from which the humans in fact do resemble insects. Several pages later, the reader finds Zeus looking down on the battle, watching the warriors “forever swarm over [Sarpedon’s] dead body, as flies” (XVI, 641). These two descriptions reinforce the notion that the gods are, in general, truly apathetic about the fate of humans. The perspectives of the humans and the gods clash: the human’s lives are saturated with the overwhelming importance of this war and the potential honor, victory, and death, while the gods look upon it as an amusing diversion. The clashing perspectives of the humans and the gods allow the reader to better appreciate the parallel inner battle of Achilles: that perhaps the war should not completely consume one’s life. Using similes, Homer manages to incorporate striking images, persuasive techniques, unifying themes, and relevant undertones into his epic tale. It is the arresting lines of comparison, and all of their intricate suggestions, that truly compel one to respect Homer for the remarkable beauty contained within his poetry.
The Anger of Achilleus
“Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians …and the will of Zeus was accomplished since that time when first there stood in division of conflict Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.” – (1. 1-7) Thus begins Homer’s Iliad, a narrative, on certain levels, of the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus. This anger, divine wrath, of Achilleus is at the center of the epic, an element that drives the action forward. With the opening lines of the poem, one can already distinguish that the focus Homer intended was upon human emotions, the consequences of Achilleus’ anger, caused by the conflict between himself and Atreus’ son, Agamemnon. Only near the very end of the Iliad does the anger finally dissolve, and a necessary transformation takes place to ensue a comfortable (though not completely comfortable) closure to an otherwise uneasy story. To examine more closely this transformation, we will focus upon the first and last books of the Iliad, Book One and Book Twenty-Four, in hopes that the similarities and, more importantly, the differences will reveal much about the transformation of the hero Achilleus. Firstly, the similarities are striking, even on the most basic level. In both books, a desperate supplication takes place to implore the return of the supplicant’s child. In Book One, Chryses, bearing gifts and friendly wishes (“to you may the gods grant…Priam’s city to be plundered and a fair homecoming thereafter” (1. 18-19)) to entreat Agamemnon to return his daughter: “…may you give me back my own daughter and take the ransom, giving honour to Zeus’ son who strikes from afar, Apollo.” (1. 20-21) In the last book, a grieving Priam, again bearing gifts, falls to the feet of Achilles, begging for the return of his son Hektor’s body: “one was left me who guarded my city and people, that one you killed a few days since as he fought in defence of his country, Hektor; for whose sake I come now to the ships of the Achaians to win him back from you, and I bring you gifts beyond number.” (24. 499-502) Another similarity is the recurring motif of feasting, usually to celebrate reconciliation. In Book One, after returning Chryseis back to her father, the Achaians make a sacrifice to Apollo and Apollo stops the plague he had brought upon them. Afterwards, the men feast upon the meat from the sacrifice. In Book Twenty-Four, Achilleus invites Priam to feast after they reached an understanding, after Achilleus agrees to return Hektor’s body to Troy. The role of gods in the two books is also comparable. Divine intervention is necessary in both books to restrain the effects of Achilleus great anger. In Book One, Athene descended to dissuade Achilleus from killing Agamemnon: “I have come down to stay your anger – but will you obey me” (1. 207) In Book Twenty-Four, Achilleus abuses the body of Hektor and drags it around the tomb of Patroklus, and only the intervention of Apollo prevents the corpse from damage: “…guarded the body from all ugliness, and hid all of it under the golden aegis, so that it might not be torn when Achilleus drags it.” (24. 19-21) In Book One, the goddess Thetis begs Zeus to help her ill-fated son, while in Book Twenty-Four Zeus asks Thetis to speak to her son “see that Achilleus is given gifts by Priam and gives back the body of Hektor.” (24. 75-76) An argument or grudge among the gods is common in both books. In Book One, Hera is furious with Zeus for deciding to help the Trojans to punish Agamemnon. Book Twenty-Four recounts the cause of the Trojan War, the story of how Paris offered the golden apple to Aphrodite, instead of Hera or Athene, infuriating the latter two goddesses. Helen was then abducted from Menelaos as a prize for Paris.The last similarity mentioned puts forth a question regarding the glory/pettiness of war. Throughout the book, the noble characters are the ones valiant in battle, while the cowardly ones (like Paris) are given no respect. While Homer does seem to glorify war, both books One and Twenty-Four hint at the pettiness of it all. Book One, the wrath of Achilleus entails unspeakable suffering for the Achaians, and in Book Twenty-Four, Homer mentions the seemingly small conflict (the abduction of Helen) that incites the Trojan War, that caused bloodshed and the eventual fall of Troy. In Book One, we learn of the origin of Achilleus anger. Agamemnon, when contemplating whether he should return Chryseis to her father, demands compensation for his loss: “What do you want? To keep your own prize and have me sit here lacking one?” (1. 133-134) Agamemnon takes Briseis, Achilleus’ prize, thus robbing Achilleus of honor, and setting in motion their bitter conflict. Both sides stubbornly defend their pride. Achilleus withdraws from battle to his ships and promises suffering upon the Achaians: “…some day longing for Achilleus will come to the sons of the Achaians, all of them. Then stricken at heart though you be, you will be able to do nothing, when in their numbers before man-slaughtering Hektor they drop and die. And then you will eat out the heart within you in sorrow, that you did no honour to the best of the Achaians.” (1. 240-244) Achilleus’ decision essentially detaches him from humanity, as his unshakable pride and rage make him capable of standing by, doing nothing, while his friends die in agony. The Trojans nearly defeat the Achaians in Book Eight, and Agamemnon tries to persuade Achilleus to return to battle, offering riches in return for Achilleus’ loyalty, but is still too proud to offer an apology. Achilleus, despite all the appeals from his friends, refuses to return, remembering the injustice he has suffered: “…still the heart in me swells up in anger, when I remember the disgrace that he wrought upon me before the Argives, the son of Atreus, as if I were some dishonoured vagabond.” (9. 645-648), insulted further by the fact that Agamemnon sent delegates to make the plea, instead of appearing himself: “…he would not, bold a s a dog though he be, dare look in my face any longer. I will join with him in no counsel, and in no action.” (9. 372-374) Only after Patroklos’ death does Achilleus return to battle, his rage multiplied by grief. Achilleus’ attack on the Trojans is inhumanly and unnecessarily brutal, as is his treatment of Hektor’s corpse after Hektor’s defeat. Achilleus finally transcends his anger in Book Twenty-Four. King Priam kneels before Achilleus, and begs him to think of his own father Peleus and how glad he will be when he hears that his son is alive. But Achilleus remembers that he is fated to never return to Phthia, and realizes that Peleus will suffer the same anguish Priam is suffering for the loss of a son, and is moved to tears: “There was not any generation of strong sons born to him in his great house but a single all-untimely child he had, and I give him no care as he grows old, since far from the land of my fathers I sit here in Troy, and bring nothing but sorrow to you and your children.” (24. 537-542) Achilleus understands the suffering he has caused, and is overwhelmed with sorrow and compassion. The sorrow of Achilleus in this final chapter is not selfish as it was in Book One, when he wept at the loss of Briseis: “sorrowing in his heart for the sake of the fair-girdled woman whom they were taking by force against his will.” (1. 429) and the loss of his honor: “Since, my mother, you bore me to be a man with a short life, therefore Zeus of the loud thunder on Olympos should grant me honour at least. But now he has given me not even a little. Now the son Atreus, powerful Agamemnon, has dishonoured me, since he has take away my prize and keeps it.” (1. 352-356) His sorrow is at the end is more profound, as now he understands the true scope of what has been lost. The rage that pervaded the story, ever since Book One and the provocation by Agamemnon, is finally overcome. Achilleus agrees to return the body of Hektor, and even allows a twelve-day mourning period, a respite from battle, for the fallen Trojan hero.Homer, by ending the Iliad much like it began, strives to call attention to the great implications resulting from the differences between the two books. Achilleus has changed. Book One finds him selfish, impulsive, and irrationally stubborn at the cost of his friends. Now, at the end, Achilleus is more mature, capable of empathy, and granting the mercy he previously denied. Achilleus and King Priam forge a temporary but sacred peace amidst the turmoil of war. But the Iliad ends, leaving both sides of the war mourning, and we are reminded of the doomed city of Troy and its people, fated to be destroyed after the defeat of their cherished hero. The final tone is of overwhelming loss and sorrow. Only the transformation within Achilleus, and the end of his wrath that began the story brings some sense of closure.
Achilles as Sympathetic Hero and Egotistical Bully in The Iliad
Achilles, the swift, godlike warrior of Greek lore, is among the most complex of Homer’s epic characters. Achilles and his ill-fated tendon figure prominently in the Western archetypal notion of a tragic hero; however, the application of the term “hero” to the Achaean fighter is disputable. Homer creates in Achilles a character that challenges the audience to grapple with both positive and negative aspects of his personality. From the very first to the very last books of The Iliad, Achilles says and does things that can be interpreted in different ways depending on one’s overall view of his character. This ambiguity, while frustrating, seems to have been intentionally included by Homer in order to more forcefully engage the audience’s thoughts on themes such as honor, righteousness, and mortality that are at the core of the poem. Achilles, because he is left open to so much interpretation, emerges as a character representative of a broad range of human experience.The Iliad begins, in true Homeric fashion, in medias res: specifically, in the middle of Achilles’ rage. Because of this rapid introduction, the reader or audiencemember forms an immediate opinion of Achilles. Such first reactions are crucial; the resulting attitude colors the reader’s perceptions of Achilles’ actions for the rest of the story. In the case of the opening scenes of The Iliad, the text contains bases for several different reader reactions. A favorable reaction might view Achilles as a challenger of tyrannical leaders, a voice for the little guy. After all, Achilles is objecting in part to Agamemnon’s concern for his own glory and personal satisfaction over concern for the lives of his troops. Plus, if Achilles were to give up his own hard-won trophy, it would just be exacerbating the unjustness of the prize distribution. Achilles rails against Agamemnon, “Staggering drunk, with your dog’s eyes, your fawn’s heart! Never once did you arm with the troops and go to battle… Safer by far you find, to foray all through camp, commandeering the prize of any man who speaks against you. King who devours his people (85, 264-270)!” Achilles is fighting not just for himself, but for the whole Achaean army, all of the King’s people. Thus his rage and withdrawal from battle can be viewed as a sort of nonviolent resistance in the face of despotism.Achilles’s initial clash with Agamemnon, if examined from a different point of view, can also yield a negative attitude in the mind of the reader. The case can be made that both Agamemnon and Achilles in this situation act incredibly selfishly. They are both unnecessarily risking others’ lives in defense of their own honor, and quibbling over female chattel. Furthermore, beyond simply sulking and refusing to fight, Achilles asks his mother Thetis to appeal to Zeus to help the Trojans. In his rage against Agamemnon, Achilles has now actively sought the death of his fellow Achaeans — a damnable act, hardly inspiring sympathy. Based on this evidence, one could assume him to be an egocentric rageaholic. Indeed, sufficient evidence for the negative view of Achilles is to be found just in the first few pages of The Iliad.After the introduction of Achilles in book one, the warrior’s appearances in the plot action become sparse. Not until book nine does he reappear in any significant form, after much bloodshed has already been sustained on the battlefield. The stretch of battles scenes leaves the reader ample time to stew over his or her initial attitude towards Achilles. Similarly, it leaves Achilles to stew in his rage towards Agamemnon. When Achilles reenters the action in book nine, the tables have turned slightly; he is now being plied with gifts in exchange for his return. By changing the circumstances in this way, Homer shows Achilles’s personality from a different perspective. People’s actions are often judged differently based on whether they have the upper hand or not, and this situation indicates how Achilles acts when he, for the most part, has the upper hand. Again, Achilles’s response to the embassy from Agamemnon can be viewed as supporting both positive and negative attitudes towards Achilles.On the favorable side, the idea of asserting the rights of the common man once again appears. This time, on a fundamental level, Achilles questions why the troops are even fighting for Agamemnon. Their lives and homes had not been threatened by the Trojans. They are simply fighting to settle the personal scores of rulers. Achilles asks “Why must we battle Trojans, men of Argos?… Are they the only men alive who love their wives, those sons of Atreus (262, 409-414)?” It can be seen that Achilles feels that an injustice is being perpetrated, an injustice that he will no longer take part in. His familial sentiments can be considered touching; he views Briseis with spousal tenderness, even though she is his prize. Achilles’s moral stance is one that has been taken by soldiers throughout the ages, and it thus can inspire sympathy among the audience.To take the negative view, one can return to the fact that Achilles now has the advantage, and as such, his actions should be judged against a higher standard. Agamemnon is now acquiescing to Achilles’s original wish and more. Achilles could accept the embassy with grace and honor, but instead he remains obstinate in his refusal. Not only is this obstinacy childish, it is also detrimental to the ranks of Achaean soldiers, who cannot face the Trojans without Achilles. Achilles’s rage at Agamemnon, which once was fairly specific in nature, has now become a thoughtless and all-encompassing emotion. His selfish pride is costing the lives of thousands of fellow warriors.These attitudes of sympathy or disgust seem fairly straightforward. Yet both the argument in favor of the positive view of Achilles and that in favor of the negative view cannot be considered complete without taking into account some themes of ancient Greek culture. One such theme is that of honor. Honor is mentioned constantly throughout The Iliad; it was obviously of paramount importance to the men of ancient Greece. The original row between Agamemnon and Achilles had honor at its core: whoever lost his trophy woman would also lose a part of his honor and manliness. In this light, Achilles’s initial refusal to cooperate with Agamemnon seems somewhat more understandable. Achilles’s subsequent refusal to fight also seems more daring when it is considered that he is losing honor by not fighting.Honor is linked with another Homeric theme, mortality, in Achilles’s speech explaining why he refuses the embassy. In most cases, and particularly for Achilles, honor and death go hand in hand. Achilles specifically knows that if he fights he will die, and that if he sails home he will live a long life. Choosing to sail seems the cowardly route, yet considering the historical context, the action would have been a bravely revolutionary one to take. Thus these social ideas of honor and mortality can be used to further blur the line between the positive and negative views of Achilles. The circumstances under which Achilles finally reenters combat result in interesting perspectives on his character. His directions to Patroclus about not entering the city seem to show affectionate and genuine concern. Similarly, his severely anguished reaction upon hearing of his friend’s death reveals a deep personal attachment. These occurrences tend to endear Achilles to the reader by portraying him as a caring and sensitive human being. Even Achilles’s bloodlust towards Hector is understandable, given the magnitude of his grief over Patroclus’s death. The sympathetic view of Achilles sees him here as a reluctant warrior, compelled to avenge his dear friend’s murder.In characteristic ambiguous fashion, the above events can all easily be interpreted negatively instead of positively. For example, when Achilles exhorts Patroclus to turn back before seizing the city, he focuses on the good of his own glory: “Even if Zeus the thundering lord of Hera lets you seize your glory, you must not burn for war against these Trojans, madmen lusting for battle — not without me — you will only make my glory that much less… (415, 102-106)” These wishes are a tad presumptuous, given that Achilles refuses to go into battle himself. Achilles’s extreme expression of grief and rage at Patroclus’s death can also inspire skepticism among readers; after all, he had to have realized earlier that there was a good chance of Patroclus being wounded or killed. His violence toward Hector’s body can be viewed as unreasonable and downright psychotic. Thus Achilles’s reentrance into war is conducive to a distinctly negative interpretation, as well as a positive one.The reader reaches the last scenes of The Iliad with a deep but confused sense of Achilles’s character. From the very opening lines and on throughout the work, the actions and words of The Iliad’s tragic hero are left wide open to interpretation. Because Achilles can be perceived in so many different ways depending on the reader’s perspective and understanding of the story, his character emerges as representation of all human tragedy. When Achilles and Priam gaze into each other’s eyes at the end of the poem, the reader wonders if Priam is also trying to divine the true motives behind the swift warrior’s behavior. In the end, by remaining an enigma, Achilles inspires the reader to ponder the very depths of human experience that The Iliad explores.