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22. Achilles' Passionate Response, Third Essay, I. 160-171
. . .And you neither see nor care;
and even threaten to rob me of my prize,
given by the sons of Achaea, reward for which I laboured.
When the Achaeans sack some rich Trojan city,
it’s not I who win the prize.
My hands bear the brunt of the fiercest fight, but when the wealth is shared,
yours is the greater, while I return,
weary with battle, to the ships,
with some small fraction for my own.
So now I’m for Phthia, since it’s better
to lead my beaked ships home than
stay here dishonoured piling up wealth and goods for you.’
The Problem of the Prizes of Battle (160-168)
Achilles’ next words look both forwards and backwards. His argument goes something like this: ‘You didn’t consider these things and you do something else...’ In other words, it would be enough for me to pull out of battle simply because of your acts of shamelessness and deceit. But you have done more, much more. The rest of line 160 is an arresting and abrupt conclusion to the previous words:
“But you didn’t think about these things nor take them into consideration.”
The verb metatrepo (“think about”) literally means “to overthrow,” but in the middle voice, as here,
it means to “turn over in the mind” or “care for/show regard for.” As the Greeks were getting overthrown, it would have been nice had these thoughts churned in your mind. That is the thought.
Then he turns to the other concern, the fact that Agamemnon has threatened to take his prize of war (see line 138). The king had only mentioned it as a possibility in that line, and had put Achilles’
prize right up there with those of Aias and Odysseus, but the sting of that slight still bit him deeply. The prize is the token of honor bestowed on the leading men after a successful war. It is the Heisman trophy of battle, and you only lose that if you are OJ, who himself has done some pretty shameless things.
Achilles can’t help but play the emotional card now. We saw how good he was at this in describing the allure of Phthia; now he will describe his prize in plangent and melodramatic terms. Two things seem to gall him now that Agamemnon is threatening his prize. First, he, Achilles, labored for the prize, and the Achaians awarded it to him (162). The Greek word for labor, toil, or pain is mogos, and the verb here is derived from that noun. People moan with this mogic toil. But, let me ask, did the Achaians award him his prize? Was there a vote, show of hands, recorded minutes?Or is this just one act of Achilles’ special pleading? Wouldn’t it have been truer to say that the chieftains doled out the prizes of war among themselves? Achilles is trying to derive popular and democratic support for his personal agenda, and the rhetoric of a popular gift to him buttresses that.
Second, as he sniffles and continues, the real issue with prizes of war is that he didn’t receive an equal prize to Agamemnon whenever the Achaians utterly sacked a pleasantly-lying city of the Troad. This was in spite of the fact that with his own hands (cheires emai-166) he accomplished much more by far (than anyone). Here the concept of what is “fitting” or “just” or “appropriate,” which popped up in the earlier speeches, returns with a vengeance. He not only objects to the philosophy behind the war but also to the prosecution of the war. Spoils are unequally distributed and he, of course, comes up on the short end. You wonder if his prize, Briseis, was within earshot at this point? His words sound eerily like Agamemnon’s earlier words where he compares his own prize favorably to his wife. Nothing seems to be equal or appropriate here. Nothing fits.
Achilles keeps pounding away at this theme, with his exaggerated emotion carrying the day.
‘Whenever there is a distribution,’
and we recall Achilles telling Agamemnon earlier that once a division has been made it cannot be recalled (125),
'you, O Agamemnon, receive the greater prize, and I, the long-suffering, put-upon, hand-fighter Achilles get the “little” prize (167).’
Well, he adds a melodramatic touch to his “little” prize. She is “little though beloved.” Again, Calchas had used this touching little word “beloved” (philos) when describing the relationship of the priest Chryses and his daughter Chryseis (98). Achilles draws the life of his words from the priest. But the word has another effect. To be sure, we are supposed to “side” with Achilles as the hardworking, toiling man who is always oppressed but nevertheless treasures his “small” prize.
But we also receive a mini-picture of the domestic harmony that she and he bring each other. He comes home to the ships when he is wearied from the battle (167). We see, in our mind’s eye, a
war-weary and care-worn Achilles, showing up after a toilsome, mogic, day, exhausted yet still with time on his hands and love in his heart for the beloved “small” prize which is his. “It is...a small
college. And, yet there are those who love it!” Daniel Webster could have gotten his rhetoric straight from Achilles.
Longing for Home (169-171)
Achilles’ sensationalist excess of emotion and his reflection on the contrast between his home amid the shadow-throwing mountains of Phthia and his temporary domicile in the ships stimulated his desire to return to his real home. And so he ends his words with a thought reminiscent of his earlier decision to leave, but now, it appears, with a more settled conviction to depart. He simply says, “Now I am heading to Phthia.” And he closes his speech with a line that sums it all up (170-171):
“For I don’t propose to stay here with dishonor, and amass wealth and riches for you"
The little word translated “propose” is an old friend, oio. Achilles had used it with Agamemnon in line 59 to suggest the rather speculative idea of leaving to avoid the pain of battle and plague. Now that he admits the toil that he faces in battle, he uses it again, but we don’t really know if he uses it with a more definitive or final meaning. “I suppose I should now go home. . .”
Honor tastes brackish in his mouth when he fights for the lord of men. There really is no reason to remain. Yet his repeated use of oio might suggest that he still is wavering, still able to be wooed
even though greatly disappointed and not a little shamed. He is almost inviting an appeal to his ego, to his sense of being a “great man,” and the verb oio lets us know this openness, despite the
apparent resolve to return. Greek had other verbs, such as nomizo (“I believe on the basis of accepted truth”) or hegeomai (“I judge after careful consideration”) that could have been used to express a greater commitment to departure. Kirk, Op. cit., p. 69. He uses oio again. He isn’t fully convinced in his mind. He is a divided man, as we will soon see.