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19. Answering a Fool, Second Essay, I. 130-147
Then Lord Agamemnon answered him:
"Brave you may be, godlike Achilles, but don’t try
to trick me with your cleverness. You’ll not outwit me or cajole me.
Do you think, since you demand I return her,
that I’ll sit here without a prize while you keep yours?
Let the great-hearted Achaeans find a prize,
one that’s to my taste, so the exchange is equal.
If not, then I myself will take yours,
or seize and keep that of Ajax or Odysseus.
Whoever it is, he’ll be angered.
But we can ponder all of that later;
for now, let us launch a black ship on the shining sea,
crew her, and embark creatures for sacrifice
and this fair-faced daughter of Chryses too.
One of our counsellors can go as captain,
Ajax, Idomeneus, noble Odysseus
or you, son of Peleus, you the most redoubtable of men,
and make sacrifice and appease far-striking Apollo."
Agamemnon’s Turn (I.130-47)
The petty personal repartee of the previous lines should not obscure the fact that large issues are at stake here. On the one hand is the need to obey, and not dishonor, the gods or their representatives. On the other hand is a sense of right order or decorum that should attend the division of spoils. Right order and relation with the gods require the return of Chryseis; right order in human society requires Agamemnon’s keeping Chryseis. Thus, the personal vituperation and invective only slightly mask the drama of clashing principles just below the surface of the text.
We may conveniently divide Agamemnon’s speech into two sections: (1) Chiding Achilles (130-139) and (2) Acting Regally (140-47). Agamemnon can’t allow the vitriol and cleverly veiled insults of Achilles’ speech to go unanswered. But, as lord of men, he couches his words at first in greater honor, only then to attack Achilles. He disagrees with Achilles’ major point--that it is best to wait for another prize--and he deftly parlays that disagreement into another attack on him.
Agamemnon begins with his customary “not” (me). But before we learn what Agamemnon doesn’t want or doesn’t like, we are greeted with two honorable appellations for Achilles: “even though you are brave” and “godlike,” line 131. Achilles has just said that Agamemnon will be recompensed when they utterly sack Troy; Agamemnon recognizes Achilles’ bravery in so saying that. These two positive traits are meant to double Achilles’ one positive trait he ascribed to Agamemnon in 122: kudiste. But then, just as there was one “most greedy for gain” in 122, so Agamemnon has to double the negative things about Achilles in line 132.
“Do not play the thief in your heart, since you will neither outwit me nor persuade me.”
Lattimore translates this in an even more “anti-Achilles” fashion: “Not that way..strive to cheat, for you will not deceive...” Agamemnon hits Achilles right between the eyes by calling Achilles’ delaying tactics nothing other than stealing or cheating in his heart. By telling Agamemnon to wait (true love waits, you know), Achilles is really engaging in thievery; he is cheating Agamemnon. No more of this deception. Agamemnon has put his finger on Achilles’ heel--he is wily and clever in battle, but his words are deceptive and fraudulent. And those words won’t
convince Agamemnon to be content.
Having stated that opening point, Agamemnon then moves to his question, which most translators break into several queries. Here it is in one sentence, literally (133-134):
“Is it that you desire, so that you yourself may keep your prize, that I sit down lacking and thus you command me to give her back?”
In other words, Agamemnon accuses Achilles of acting solely out of self-interest in making this suggestion. We best translate the little phrase in line 133 as “you yourself might have your prize” because there is an emphatic pronoun in the text. Agamemnon is saying, ‘It really is all about you isn’t it Achilles?’ Again, it takes one to know one.
This, then, is the interpretive filter through which Agamemnon “reads” Achilles’ action. Self-interest, pure and simple. We need to know this because the lord of men will craft his words in 135-140 based on this assumption. Since Achilles is doing nothing but protecting his turf, Agamemnon will suggest a way that Achilles’ turf might be invaded. He poses two alternatives in these lines. It may be, he says, that the “great-souled Achaians” (at least these two agree on that!) will give him a prize. What is the time frame that Agamemnon is thinking of? Though the verb is in the future, he doesn’t mean the indefinite future, as Achilles did. The context of his words suggests an immediate future. So, ‘if the Achaians are immediately to recompense me....well, such a person must suitable to my heart, so that things will be equal,’ 135-136.
These two phrases just quoted are finely said. The first stresses the need for appropriate recompense. He gets to choose, as it were, if a new prize is given. It isn’t like a present received
on the birthday, where you just unwrap the package to see what someone has chosen for you. He chooses. But then he states the principle in view. There must be an equal exchange. Again,
the metaphor is from economics. So much for the attempt of Agamemnon to sing the varied virtues of a prize (118); he wants to make sure that his net worth hasn’t declined in value, nor his honor diminished, when the Achaians give him his new prize. But it may not work this way. Thus, he provides a second alternative that takes him a little longer to say, because he repeats himself in lines 137-139. Maybe if the Achaians aren’t Johnny-onthe- spot to recompense me, he says, “I will have to seize one myself. . .” Oops.
Now the music behind the scene shifts into an ominous minor key. The words are hyper-emphatic. Three times, let me say three times, let me say three times, he stresses his own initiative in seizing another’s prize. The verb is in the middle subjunctive, which is best rendered, “I may have to seize for myself.” Then, there is the ego at the beginning. Finally the intensive pronoun autos stands directly before the verb. In a word, the “I’s” have it. If the Achaians can’t get their act together, he says, I guess I will have to take matters into my own hands and act on my own volition and for my own benefit.
The repeated use of the first person not only bespeaks determination but also a little recklessness. One mention would have sufficed; the repetition only serves to “up” the emotional ante. We see, in our mind’s eye, the lord of men striding and strutting through the camp of the terrified soldiers, checking out each prize for her “body and stature” and “disposition” and “deeds/skills” (115) so that he can be “equally” compensated for the loss of Chryseis. All this emphasis on what is fitting, appropriate or equal is starting to drive us crazy. “Fitting for whom?” we want to know. Well, thus we imagine the slightly crazed lord of men angrily seizing a prize for himself if the Achaians can’t rise to the occasion.
But rather than stopping there, he tells us which prize he might have to seize. ‘Maybe it will be yours, Achilles.’ Ah, just think of the jolt of power that must have run through Agamemnon’s body when he said this. ‘Maybe yours. . .’ He glowered, he smiled inwardly. Maybe his lip even curled up, a gesture so beloved of later rhetoricians that they invented the term mykterismos (or “the sneer”) to capture it. ‘I am the lord of men; I can take your prize easily, too.’ But, not wanting to dwell on the subject, he
quickly goes on to others’ prizes he might take. Maybe that of Aias or Odysseus. Lest we forget the violence of the action, he adds again, at the end, “I will lead her by seizing. . .” Before moving on to his more “regal” decision in lines 140-147, he inserts another warning. “The one whom I come upon, this one will certainly be angry” line 139. Anger again. Now it not only infects Achilles and Agamemnon, the priest and Apollo, but it will imbue a potentially unnamed Achaian. It is spreading.
Homer loves to end speeches or sections of speeches with pithy, paratactic-type constructions. Calchas appeals for help from Achilles: “Tell me, if you will save me;” (83) or Agamemnon
warns the priest: “so you will go safer” (32). The effect of these brief thoughts at the end of longer speeches is not only to fix the content in our mind but also to let our mind continue to play out
the scene, with these final words providing the interpretive grid to keep us going. Thus, here we imagine such an angry, bitter and disappointed person, whom Agamemnon deprives of his prize.
Agamemnon seems to have no qualms about it. It simply is the way things might have to be.
Returning to His Regal Self (140-147)
Like the reality around divorce law firms, where you generally see clients at their worst, so we have seen Agamemnon at his worst so far. But now, the tone changes. The tone-shift here is consistent with Homer’s earlier method of changing the topic whenever the heat is really on (cf. Achilles’ desire for a seer after he has expressed a desire to bail out--62). So Agamemnon proposes something that we really don’t expect. He has decided to relinquish Chryseis, and so he orders that preparations be
made so that she, along with a hecatomb, can be returned to her father Chryses.
He quickly changes the subject. “Let’s talk about this later,” he says. It takes him a whole line to say this; about four or five of the nine words are “particles,” which means that they function primarily to give a tone to the passage and to ensure that the meter is right. Instead of the “I will go” in line 139, which has the menacing tone of a seizure of a new prize, we have the command “go” here (141) to capture the variety of things that need to be done to prepare to return Chryseis home. We (now he is speaking in the first person plural!) must go and drag the black boat into the sacred sea; we must outfit it with suitable oarsmen; we must put the hecatombs on board. All these “we’s.” Perhaps Agamemnon has learned his lesson when he used the word “they” to talk about the plague falling on the Achaians in line 110.
Finally, he uses one more “we.” To capture a little bit of the hesitation in his voice, let’s translate it literally.
“And even her, Chryseis of the beautiful cheeks, let’s put her on board.”
You wonder if there was a little catch in his throat as he said this, or whether he was so practiced in cynicism that he said it effortlessly. Or, a third alternative, perhaps he was so practiced in cynicism that he said it with a catch in his throat, hoping to score some sympathy points from unsuspecting subjects. But then the great-heartedness of the moment fades as quickly as it came, for Agamemnon can’t quite get it out of his mind that Achilles has baited him and dishonored him. In his planning to send the deputation with the hecatomb and Chryseis, the lord of men mulls over who should lead it. It has to be “one man” who is “counsel-bearing” or “wise.” Then, Agamemnon gives some suggestions. Just as he might go swipe the prize of Aias or Odysseus, so perhaps these two, or Idomeneus, might be good at leading the delegation. But already in these names is a bit of self-deception for why, if Agamemnon has just said that he might go steal their prizes, would they be so gung-ho to go a special mission for him? Indeed, since Agamemnon has already said he might seize their prize, perhaps they are worried that if they are chosen to lead the delegation, the lord of men might seize their prize precisely when they are away doing the religious duty. The brief window of sanity was only that--very brief. Agamemnon compounds the problem in the next line (146) by
“or even you, Son of Peleus, you who are most terrifying of men"
Right. It would be an honor to send Achilles, thus making his prize of war, Briseis, vulnerable to Agamemnon’s taking. Bu the fact that he named Achilles last of all was a bit demeaning. It
was as if Agamemnon went through all the possible candidates in his mind and then, looking at the man right before him, said, ‘Hm. You might do...” What he calls Achilles in line 146 should make
us pause. He is the most “terrible” or “awful” or “frightful” or “violent” of men. It is just the characteristic you don’t want when you gently approach the priest and Apollo to ask for forgiveness.
In this regard I disagree with Ian Johnston’s translation of this word as “eminent.” His translation implies that Agamemnon is trying to build up Achilles and declare his appropriateness for the task. I see things differently. Agamemnon is trying to damn Achilles by praising him. ‘You are the most terrifying and violent of all men. Oops..not what we need.’
It is almost as if Agamemnon’s eyes are narrowing on Achilles as he says these last lines, for in two instances the words “you” appear. ‘Perhaps you (emphasized), Son of Peleus, would be the good one to lead the delegation, so that you may propitiate for us the one who works his will from afar.’ He personalizes it for his immediate interlocutor. But is he serious? Or cunning? Or cutting? Or vicious? If only we could read the human heart with as much skill as one might read a newspaper article. Achilles certainly doesn’t take his words in a friendly spirit, as the next essay shows.