Iliad I.148-71 (I)
Bill Long 1/19/10
Achilles' Passionate Response
This speech by Achilles is one of the most remarkable in the Iliad for its statement of the aims of war and the competing demands on a person who engages in war. It also shows quite compellingly that the battle for the hearts and minds of men is often more interesting than the battle on the field. Our text can best be divided into two sections: (1) Achilles' indictment of Agamemnon (148-68); and (2) His decision to return home (169-71). I will subdivinde the former into three subsections.
IA. Getting Started (148-51)
The gloves are off. All veneer of civility and recognition of each other's nobility has peeled away. Now Achilles goes right for Agamemon's jugular, so to speak, by attacking both his motives for war as well as the justice of distribution of prizes. Dishonor, which has stalked the narrative like the plague ravishing the troops, is in the air, almost suffocating us as we read each line of this speech.
We can't even get out of the first formulaic "response" line before we have to stop and catch our breath. Achilles lowers his eye and looks scowlingly or askance at Agamemnon. The word hypodra or upodra carries with it the "down" of the lowered brow (after all, the prefix upo or hypo, such as in the word hypothyroid, means that you have a "low" thyroid). Though the black cloud of anger mantled Agamemnon's visage, here we have, in Achilles' lowered glare, the mingled emotions of disgust, disdain, impatience, and scorn. And his words in 149-51 match that feeling. They begin with two invectives, and they go downhill from there.
Speaking of emotions mantling or covering people, Achilles' first words to Agamemnon are "O clothed in shame.." (149). The perfect participle of the verb is used, which emphasizes a continuous condition beginning in the past and lasting until today. Agamemnon, he says, is "invested" in his shame. He is "of crafty mind" also. The second invective can be translated either as "crafty" or "avaricious," but the former fits the context here, because Achilles is soon going to argue that the lord of men has manipulated men to get them to battle.
But the effusion continues, and in 150-51 we see an expression of complete loss of respect for Agamemnon. 'How can anyone of the Achaians eagerly obey your words?" Let's stop there before we finish the sentence. The word I rendered as "eagerly" (prophron) is one we have seen previously, when Calchas appealed to Achilles to protect him (77). A close study of Book I shows us how later speakers often pick up interesting or unique words of earlier speakers and bring them into their own way of speaking. Calchas had said, 'Achilles, I want a sign that you are ready and eager to defend me' (if I speak the truth about the plague). Now Achilles is using this striking word in his own verbal arsenal and turning it against Agamemnon. How can anyone eagerly or readily obey your words? Calchas helps Achilles not only by providing the definitive oracular interpretation of the destruction but also in supplying him words to express his own mind.
But I stopped in the middle of a question. Achilles is really asking how anyone with half a brain would follow Agamemnon in two circumstances: (a) "going on the road;" or (b) "fighting mightily in battle" (151). Several translators see these two as two ways of fighting: forays or ambushes and fixed battles. But I side with Kirk on this one, where "going on the road" refers to the immediate context of returning Chyrseis to her father. That is, Achilles would be saying that no one is eager to follow Agamemnon either in peaceful or warlike gestures. He covers the entire waterfront of conduct and not simply the theater of battle.
IB. The Motives of War (152-60)
The indictment of Agamemnon continues as Achilles turns to the fragility of war's rationale. He turns directly to his participation in war and for six lines emphasizes why he didn't come to fight, before adding the rationale for fighting in two and a half lines. That he spends almost three times as much space on the former than the latter indicates how reluctantly he was there; now that Agamemnon isn't showing proper gratitude, Achilles will have no spirit to fight. But Achilles' words here bespeak a kind of individuality and self-consciousness that perhaps isn't really part of the "heroic code," as scholars are fond to call it. One fights not because one's particular plot of land has been ravaged; one fights because one lives in a complex network of interlocking relationships of obligation and demand. Thus, even though Achilles will be "dead on" when he identifies the true cause for the war effort, his long "poor me" declaration in the first six lines are almost as hollow as the Achaian ships.
His words may be hollow, but they are eloquently and even audaciously expressed. It is all about Achilles, as the prominent placing of the ego in line 152 shows. He didn't need to use the word; the verb carries the person with it. Nevertheless he did. He also, taking Agamemnon's cue, begins three of his six lines with negatives (ou or oude). Everyone is so negative here! He didn't come to this place because of the Trojan warriors,
"since not at any time have they been guilty [or accountable] to me," 153.
In simple words he is saying that he has no particular beef against the Trojans. But this is about the lamest thing that a person could utter. Does almost anyone in any war have a personal vendetta that they must repay against the enemy? Did the Japanese lay waste to California estates in the 1930s? Did the Germans invade Cincinnati before WWI? Why, then, should any San Franciscan have joined the fray after December 7, 1941 or any Ohioan have take up arms against Germany in 1917? Precisely because the needs of the entire community demand it. Achilles' logic is faulty, and the beginning of his problem was the ego.
Yet he continues, more for rhetorical effect than with a new thought. Never at any time did they drag away my oxen or horses. He is beginning to sound like a whiner. Then he breaks into a rare eloquence that makes us want to memorize 155-57. The Trojans never destroyed crops in the multi-epitheted Phthia (hero-nourishing, heavy-clodded), since there is a great distance in between us, [consisting of] the shadow-providing mountains and the echoing sea. We get a visual feast in all of these words, but time permits mention of only two. Achilles describes "shadowy" mountains, or what I call the "shadow-throwing" mountains, referring to the phenomenon we have seen, but for which we have no English word, of shadows gradually covering more and more land as the daylight rushes to conclusion. But it is a striking way of describing terrain; we already know it is "rich-clodded" or "very fertile" but now we have the land from another angle. But we also have the "echoing sea," and that word "echoing" is onomatopoetic--echeissa. We can almost hear the polyphloisboisterous sea in its echeissic mode!
Four epithets, then, describe Achilles' beloved homeland. We have a saying, when an unusual concentration of skilled people come from a certain region: "there must be something in the water." Here we have a more eloquent ancient equivalent. Phthia is a "hero-nourishing" place, and it must be something about the richly clodded soil, the darkening shadows cast by the majestic peaks, the ever-sounding beating of the sea. And, the language describing Phthia takes us readers, just for second, away from the quarrel between the two great men. We are brought into the realm of nature, and nature here has the last word. Human stuggles and longings seem almost trivial in the presence of shadow-throwing mountains and ever-resounding sea. You begin to see by these four descriptors how someone could actually fall in love with a land, and how the rhythms provided by the regularity of shadow and beating sea, of cultivation and harvest, produce strapping men who till the ground, fight the battles, marry the women and then return home to be comforted by those same sounds and shadows that watched over their birth.
We have forgotten ourselves for a moment in the richly textured meaning embeddded in these few lines. But then we return abruptly to reality in line 158 with the accusatory, "But you!" How can a person go from one world to another so quickly? From the quiet embrace of nature's regularities to the teeming wrath of a failed human encounter? Well, precisely because another reality overtakes the speaker--that of the placid brine of the area around Troy, and the hollow ships, and the decimated men and the looming towers of the well-defended Troy. Those things all conspire to bring Achilles back to his senses and to the contest with Agamemnon.
The next essay completes these thoughts.