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20. Achilles' Passionate Response, Three Essays 1.148-171
Then, with an angry look, swift-footed Achilles replied:
Why, you shameless schemer, why should
any Achaean leap to obey your orders
to march or wage war?
Achilles' Indictment of Agamemnon, First Essay, 1.148-151
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 three sections: (1) Achilles’ indictment of
Agamemnon (148-151); (2) The Modes of War (152-160); and (3) His decision to return home (161-
171). Each one will merit a brief essay.
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 Agamemnon’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 carries with it the “down” of the lowered brow (after all, the prefix hypo, such as in the word hypothyroid, means that you have a “low” thyroid). We saw how 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 149-151 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 (149):
“O clothed in shame"
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 “crafty” 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 150-151 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,” line 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 Chryseis 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 in these words and not simply the theater of battle.