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21. Achilles' Passionate Response, Second Essay, I. 152-160
No quarrel with Trojan spearmen brought me
here to fight: they have done me no wrong.
No horse or cow of mine have they stolen,
nor have my crops been ravaged in deep-soiled Phthia,
nurturer of men, since the shadowy mountains
and the echoing sea lie between us.
No, for your pleasure, you shameless cur, we followed
to try and win recompense, for you and Menelaus,
from the Trojans. And you neither see nor care;
The Motives of War (152-60)
The indictment of Agamemnon continues as Achilles examines 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 of calling it. According to that code, one fights not because one’s particular plot of land has been ravaged but 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 is 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 used it. He also, taking Agamemnon’s cue, begins three of his six lineswith negatives (ou or oude). Everyone is so negative here! He didn’t come to this place because of the Trojan warriors (153):
“since not at any time have they been guilty [or accountable] to me"
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 demanded 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 lines 155-157. 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 things. 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 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, from the perspective of the mountains. We also have the fourth thing, the “echoing sea,” and the word “echoing” is onomatopoetic--
echeissa. We can almost hear the polyphloisboisterous sea in its echeisstic mode!
These four epithets, then, describe Achilles’ beloved homeland. We have a saying in English to describe the situation when an unusually large concentration of skilled people come from a certain region. We say, “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, and the ever-sounding beating of the sea. 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 struggles 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 and of cultivation and harvest could 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 embedded 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.
Achilles’ words in 158-160 are full of animus; they reflecta deep feeling of betrayal and of being used by Agamemnon. Instead of lofty motives behind the war, Achilles and others were dragged off to it because they were protecting someone else’shonor. The war, therefore, is about honor and shame. Thus, the appellation in line 158 is all the more telling, “O you, most shameful man..” The idea is that the Greeks are there to protect the honor of men without honor, to guard from shame those who are completely shameless. And then, before leaving the thought, Achilles drops in another invective, giving the passage the flavor, in Kirk’s language, of a “sporadic interjection of pure abuse,” Op. cit., p. 69. The term of abuse? Dog-eyed (kunopa) or dog-faced. We have the word “dog-eared” in English to describe something that is well-used. It carries no abusive connotation. But dog-face in ancient Greek would be equivalent to our “toad” or “slugface.”
Not on your list of words to impress people.
So, the people willingly followed the plea of the leaders, Agamemnon and Menelaus. The latter had been dishonored by the rape of his wife, Helen, as she was whisked away by Paris of the Trojans (the hearers of the epic would definitely know this). People fight for each other’s honor all the time. But Achilles had soured on that, especially since the lord of men imperiously “lords” it over “men.” He throws his weight around a bit too much, not simply endangering but even bringing to death the
loyal and hapless troops who came at his request. Shame now coats both Agamemnon and Menelaus, from the perspective of Achilles. Shame, deceit, betrayal--it is a sordid mess. And, since
it will be Menelaus’ private concern that actuates them to battle, Achilles feels free to mention that his own private concern will now motivate his action.