Iliad I.285-325 (II)
Bill Long 1/24/10
Then, Achilles' Turn (292-303)
So, Agamemnon has ignored Nestor's advice to put an end to his anger (282). It still rages. Now it is Achilles' turn. Even before the first words come from his mouth we see that he has ignored Nestor's counsel. Nestor wanted him to recognize the majesty and authority of Agamemnon's regal position. But look at what Homer does in line 292. In a word only appearing here in more than 25,000 lines of his poetry, Homer uses upobleden, which means "interrupting." Achilles cuts off the king before he is finished. It is rarely if ever permitted for a lawyer to cut off a judge or a soldier to break in on a commander-in-chief. It bespeaks lack of respect and a sense that it is the soldier's or lawyer's agenda which is the most important thing. Already by interrupting Agamemnon we see that Achilles not only still rages but that he has lost respect for the lord of men. Achilles basically treats Agamemnon as an inferior.
Achilles first words confirm my approach--because they have to do with obedience. Listen:
"May I be called fearful and worthless if I obey you in everything that you say," 293-94.
But just as Agamemnon ran to one extreme by downgrading Achilles' gift from the gods, so Achilles now runs to the extremes. He isn't being asked to obey Agamemnon in everything. Nestor is just suggesting to him who really is in power--Agamemnon. The deeply pained person, however, can't help but run to extremes. Why? Because he hears suggestions as commands; he hears a suggestion to do one thing as a command to do everything.
Just as Agamemnon piled up four words to speak of Achilles' power-grab, so Achilles now piles up thoughts about obedience.
"Why don't you command these things to others and not try to give me orders? For I don't suppose (oio again) that I will obey you any longer," 295-96.
What Achilles does in the next seven lines, however, is nothing short of brilliant. He appears to acquiesce in his earlier words to give Briseis, his prize, up to Agamemnon if conditions are met (i.e., the Achaians themselves have to take her away), but he surrounds this apparent acquiescence with words of stern warning. In fact, he is speaking to Agamemnon as if he, Achilles, is really the lord of men. The harsh attention-getting words of 297 ("But I say this to you; and cast it deep in your mind"), followed by his apparent williingness to relinquish his prize are only preparation for the solemn blood oath he swears. in 300-03. We can say that oath better in paraphrase than literally. 'If you have the gall to take anything beyond that which belongs to me, which I would give up unwillingly, if you has the guts to try it, know this. Immediately your black blood will be spurting around my sword.'
Sorry, Nestor, but your words were completely ineffective. We are back to threats and swords, to rage and hostility. Agamemnon can't give up his anger; Achilles can't learn to submit. The only thing left, if Nestor is completely to be ignored, is for Agamemnon to take away Achilles' prize. Oh...that is in the next section!
Breaking Up the Meeting; The Sacrifice (304-17)
Homer knows perfectly how far he can push the action before he needs to take us elsewhere. We can go no further at this point with the two leading Achaians; and so the action will shift. But Homer shifts attention with tightly drawn words:
"So the two stood up, warring with opposing words, and they broke up the meeting alongside the ships of the Achaians," 304-05.
In the prologue we have reference to how the two leading men "stood apart" in strife (6-7); now we see that visually. They are on opposite sides of the asssembly, which requires them to fight with words and not with swords. Now that the meeing breaks up, however, each man goes to his respective task: Achilles back to his ship with his companions, and Agamemnon to the launching of the ships to take Chryseis back to her father. For the first time, in line 307, we have mention of the son of Menoitios (Patroclus), who will be the focus of action later in the Iliad, accompanying Achilles.
The words used to describe Agamemnon's preparations for the return of Chryseis are identical to those in lines 142-44, when Agamemnon used them to describe what he would have to do to try to ward off the plague. What we know from those earlier lines, however, is that they followed Agamemnon's grave threat. If he had to give up his prize, he might just go swipe that of one of his leading men, whether of you, Achilles, or Aias or Odysseus (137-39). Now we will see the return of Chryseis; we are waiting for the other shoe, figuratively, to fall. One point, however, is provided here that we didn't hear nearly 200 lines previously. Agamemnon appoints "clever" or "rich in counsel" Odysseus (311) to lead the return trip. He was one of four being considered by the lord of men in lines 145-46.
Repetition of words and even whole section, as we will shortly see, in the Iliad both helps the poet/singer of tales and the reader. The poet is able to go on "automatic pilot," making the act of memorization and recitation a little less laborious. We are able, also, to speed up our reading, because we know what is happening.
The next six lines (312-17) describe in brief fashion what the divided troops of Agamemnon do. Some, led by Odysseus, sail away and offer the hecatomb. The rest stay behind, purifying themselves and washing the offscouring or filth into the sea. We see Agamemnon acting responsibly as the lord of men here. They dutifully pay their respects to the god and they wash off the impurities gathered through war or daily living. He has never looked more regal.
Line 317 is one of those delightful little lines which, for those who read Greek, makes learning the language worth it. It simply describes the hecatomb's smoke rising towards heaven. But Homer uses the verb elisso, which means "to twirl, twist, curl, roll," to describe the way the savor rose to heaven. Literally, it says, "The savor went heavenward around about in the smoke." We always imagine smoke swirling its way to heaven, but here it is the smell or odor of the roast meat that makes its way to the gods. We know that smoke swirls. But do smells? Homer enlarges our sensual palate in this brief line.
But these lines are only an interlude of sorts, a breathing space before the relentless tide of action picks up again. Agamemnon has given orders and done what he could to restore a right relationship with the gods; now he returns to the business with men. He will order his troops to seize Achilles' prize. This will be the last straw for Achilles, leading to his withdrawal from the battle, and it also expressly contravenes the words of Nestor. Even though Achilles himself said he was willing to allow his prize to be taken, since the Achaians, who granted it to him could also take it back (299), the taking commanded in these lines (318-25) is not sanctioned by the Achaian people. It is simply done at the decision of Agamemnon.
The Order To Seize Briseis (318-25)
A darkness and sense of foreboding returns in lines 318-25. It is as if we have been living under a thick cloud cover that momentarily broke up when Agamemnon sent the delegation off to Chryses only to return now that the action centres around Agamemnon. The telltale line gets us started:
"Agamemnon did not cease his strife," 318-19.
This is the third time that Homer has used the verb lego. First, in line 210, Athena told Achilles to "cease his strife," even though he could continue to berate Agamemnon verbally. Then, in line 224, we learn that Achilles didn't "give up" (lego) his anger as he addressed Agamemnon. Now, in 319, we learn that Agamemnon didn't cease from or slacken his strife. This time the particular act of strife or quarrel is identified--"with which he first threatened Achilles." Ah, we are getting to that most sensitive area, the taking of Achilles' prize. The action then follows quickly. Agamemnon, resolved on what to do, quickly calls two of his trusted assistants, whom he commands with these words:
"Go to the ship of Achilles, son of Peleus. Take Briseis of the beautiful face by the hand and lead her," 322-23.
Then comes the threat. If Achilles could threaten the lord of men, so Agamemnon could issue a dire warning against Achilles, even if it is out of earshot. If Achilles won't willingly give up the girl, Agamemnon will come in person, with a retinue if needed. He will be able to neutralize Achilles' power. He will show really who is boss. And, then, he ends with the chilling words:
"For this [Agamemnon's personal seizing of Briseis with his troops] would be the more horrible for him," 325.
You can almost imagine Agamemnon rubbing his hands together in pleasure. Finally, he will be able to get back at Achilles in a way that really hurts. Notice I didn't put an object after the verb in the last words of the preceding sentence. Agamemnon no doubt believes that his action will significantly hurt Achilles. But, in fact, it will end up hurting the Achaians. But that really isn't on his mind now. All he can do is to assert his battered authority. He has done so through sending off the hecatomb, appointing Odysseus to head the return party, ordering the soldiers to purify themselves in the sea. Now, he simply has to do something to humble his strongest warrior. He will do so, and then he will be deserving the title "lord of men" again. And if he has to go personally to do the job, it will be the worse for Achilles. He doesn't even have to say in which way things will be worse. It just will be. It is as simple as that. Or is it?