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23. Agamemnon Responds, I. 172-187
Agamemnon, king of men, answered him then:
"Be off, if your heart demands it; I’ll not
beg your presence on my account. Others, who’ll honour me,
are with me: Zeus, above all, the lord of counsel.
Of all the god-beloved princes here you are most odious to me,
since war, contention, strife are dear to you.
If you are the greatest warrior, well, it was some god I think who granted it.
Go home, with your ships and men,
and lord it over the Myrmidons: I care naught for you,
or your anger. And here’s my threat:
since Phoebus Apollo robs me of Chryses' daughter,
a ship and crew of mine will return her,
but I’ll pay your quarters a visit myself, and take
that prize of yours, fair-faced Briseis, so that you know how
my power exceeds yours, and so that others will think twice
before claiming they’re my peers, and comparing themselves to me, face to face."
These lines present the continuing contest between Achilles and Agamemnon. Here, however, the point emphasized by Homer is the inner struggle to control the emotions lest they get out of hand and wreak more havoc. First, Agamemnon will reply to Achilles (172-87); then, rather than having Achilles continue to talk, Homer brings us another divine intervention, this time by Athena (188-214), to divert attention from the escalating conflict. Agamemnon will unsuccessfully attempt to rise “above it all,” and Achilles actually will require divine attention to keep from acting foolishly.
Agamemnon’s Words (172-87)
Achilles was drowning in a sea of self-righteousness and pity in the previous lines. He had invested so much in a war for the sake of others; he got so little out of it compared to others; he needed to return to the comforts of home. In contrast, the lord of men wants to give the impression of complacent control, of calm and judicious handling of the problem of a disgruntled comrade.
This is only a facade, however, and it will come tumbling down before the end of his speech. We have some lines of incredible vividness and energy here as Agamemnon descends from the
high moral ground to the swamp of bitterness and acrimony. We can divide his words into two parts: (a) assessing Achilles’ words (173-178); and (b) thoughts on the future (179-187).
Agamemnon begins with words that mingle faux pleasantness and disdain. ‘Go ahead and take off,’ he intones, ‘if your heart hurries you to do that.’ Ah, Agamemnon the twenty-first century life coach. ‘If that is what your heart teaches you, you just have to follow your heart.’ The verb (episseuo) expresses in this instance rapid rather than hostile movement. Agamemnon could have used denigratory terms here, but he says “your heart,” rather than “your anger” or “your rage.” The word thumos is an all-purpose word that covers the waterfront from the organ within the chest to the spirit of a person to anger or rage. Here, however, it must be used figuratively but not provocatively. ‘If this is what your heart tells you, follow it.’ That is the spirit. But it is mingled also with a derogatory or disdainful tone: “Run along home.” Implied is: ‘We, the big boys, can take care of things ourselves. . .’
But then we finish the sentence, and a note of regal self-pity and satisfaction enters. “I am not going to entreat you to stay on my account.” We have matching “egos” here. The word translated “entreat” is lissomai, which has been used once before, in describing the actions of Chryses in begging for his daughter before Agamemnon (15). Perhaps Agamemnon has that event in
mind, and he is saying that he, unlike Chryses, won’t bow and scrape for Achilles to stay.
Indulging in too much complacency, self-satisfaction or pity tends to occlude the mind and lead to self-deception. Why? Because life isn’t as controllable as the complacent one thinks it is, nor does it owe you as much as the self-piteous would like to believe. And so we see Agamemnon’s self-deception entering right away. Lines 174-75 are precious in this regard:
“With me are also others, and these will honor me; oh, and most of all the prudent counselor Zeus.”
This is the classic publicly-spoken line of those leaders who are left in the lurch by a needed companion. ‘There are tons of others to step into your place.’ Interestingly enough, Agamemnon doesn’t say that there are others who will “take up the slack” or “fight well” in Achilles’ place. He is so self-absorbed that he will say, there are others who will honor me! Is this what war is all about? He may also just be saying that Achilles revolt will only affect Achilles; others will stay loyal to him.
We read and love the Iliad because it personalizes war; it makes the battle “out there” only a reflection of the battle “in here.” But it makes us pause. Is Homer just imaginatively describing
the Trojan conflict or is this a window into war itself? Is war primarily about coddling egos and maintaining honor?
But Agamemnon will go one step further. Not only are there loads of others to honor him, but also he brings Zeus in as one of them! I could almost hear him singing, doing his best Kate Smith imitation: “Zeus Bless Hellenia! Land that I love. Stand Beside Her...” Kirk says that enlisting Zeus here to support Agamemnon’s honor is a “startling claim,” Op. cit., p. 70. After all, his grand opponent Achilles has just as much claim on Zeus’ support, since he is of divine parentage. Indeed, in a delicious irony, Agamemnon recognizes Achilles’ divine origin by calling him a “god nurtured king” in the next line (176). So, how does the lord of men claim that Zeus’ is on his side too? Well, “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God,” as Abraham Lincoln said. Well, we have no
problem with the notion that as lord of men Agamemnon is to be honored. He is indirectly appointed by Zeus, and Homer will go into that in II.100-108, but the idea that others and Zeus are
standing by to prop up Agamemnon’s honor strikes the reader as an example of self-delusion. The last we have heard of the “others” was when they cried in unison for Agamemnon to give
back Chryseis to Chryses. Instead, Agamemnon dishonored the father. Doesn’t sound as if there is a ready cadre springing to Agamemnon’s defense and give him more honor. Who really is
watching his back?
Agamemnon's speech gradually begins to disintegrate. Achilles is the “most hateful” (176) of all to him. Why? Because, as Agamemnon says, Achilles is always about strife and battle. Well, duh! That
is a pretty amazingly dumb thing to say when Agamemnon is standing right in the midst of a field of battle, where he has been unsuccessful for so long. Doesn’t he need a person to whom war
is “beloved?” To complain that his fiercest warrior always wants to fight is like complaining that Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal always want to play tennis.
This is bad enough, but things really get out of hand when he begins to think about the future.
Thoughts on the Future (179-187)
Lines 180 and 181 present an example of asyndeton. The word is itself derived from the Greek and mean, literally “not with a bind or tie." It is a rhetorical figure that omits the conjunction between successive thoughts. You use asyndeton because some kind of urgency has overtaken you--either because time is short, action is necessary or emotions are high. After an initial thought in 179-
180, ‘Go home with your ships and companions and rule over your Myrmidons,' Agamemnon becomes almost breathless:
“I don’t care about you;
I don’t give a damn about your anger/grudge;
I’ll threaten you with this.”
Boom, boom, boom. These quick rhetorical thrusts are like the stabbing blows of a sword that the lord of men has no doubt buried into the guts of many a man. We want to move to the threat immediately, which was just quoted, but one thought gives us pause. When he tells Achilles
to go back home and rule, he doesn’t say, 'Go back to Phthia with its ever-resounding sea and shadow-throwing mountains.' That is Achilles’ way of nostalgic-speak. He names the people, the Myrmidons. The word "Myrmidon" is derived from a cluster of Greek words meaning “ant.” Perhaps the streaming hordes of the people reminded one of the clustering of ants. But the implication of
his word is interesting. ‘You go ahead and rule over the ant-men, while I stay here and rule over the real men.’ That could be the tone of it.
But now, here comes the threat from Agamemnon. Even if Achilles hated the king and felt that he owed little duty to him, he still to take the possibility of a threat seriously. The threat is phrased in the ancient equivalent of a Congressional resolution beginning with “whereas” clauses. You state the premises and then you state the action. Here Agamemnon says (182):
“As Phoebus Apollo is taking away Chryseis from me"
The present tense is used; it is happening right before our eyes. Recall an earlier present tense: “See how she goes to another,” line 120. She has been changing hands in the present tense for more than 60 lines! Agamemnon really wants to stretch out this act of violent pillaging of his prize. ‘It is still happening. . .' is the sense of it. Well, we assume that he will then quickly add the “so” clause, so that it would read, ‘Just as Apollo is taking her, so I take. . .' But a parenthetical thought appears. In line 183 Agamemnon just says he will sent her along with his ship (to return to her father). But the construction almost mirrors precisely his words about Achilles returning home with his ships and companions to rule over the Myrmidons (179-180). That is, he is saying, ‘Ok, Achilles, you go home with your ships and companions and rule over the ant-men, but I will send Chryseis back with my ship and my companions..’ Again, the big king rules over big people and does big things. The whiner Achilles sulks and skulks and sneaks back home to rule over his little people.
Now that all this is clear Agamemnon can get to his real point. It needs to be quoted (184-185):
“But I myself will go, going myself to your tent and lead away Briseis of the beautiful face, that is, the one who is your prize"
The translation is wooden because I wanted you to see the force of the original. There are multiple “I’s” here, and the point of all the “I’s” is to make the act of rape or taking another man’s prize a very personal act. This isn’t going to be a note in the mail telling the homeowner s/he owes more in taxes. The IRS isn’t going to send a dunning notice. This is the personal intervention of the lord of men into the home of another to seize an assethe believes is his. This is Article 9 (of the Uniform Commercial Code) repossession with a vengeance. Your worst nightmare, Achilles, is about to happen. Everything in this impersonal war is just so personal and designed to hit at people who are supposed to be your allies and friends in the most powerful, intimate, repulsive way. And the result? We can almost hear Agamemnon gloating (185-186):
“So that you would know well how much greater I am than you"
Oh my gods, it is right there in the open. But then there is more. You humiliate the great warrior so that others will be cowed. He concludes (186-187):
“And someone else may fear to say he is equal to me or to even compare himself openly with me"
We now see the shadow side of the great Greek virtue of honor-seeking. It consists in taking away the honor of others and attempting to cow them into craven acquiescence.