(to return to Iliad Table of Contents, click here)
28. Nestor to the Rescue, Second Essay, I. 254-284
‘Well, here is grief indeed to plague Achaea.
How Priam and his sons would rejoice,
and the hearts of the Trojan throng be gladdened,
if they could hear this tale of strife between you two,
the greatest of Danaans in war and judgement.
You are both younger than I, so listen,
for I have fought beside warriors, better men
than you, who ever showed me respect.
I have never seen the like of them since,
men such as Peirithous, and Dryas, the people’s Shepherd,
Caeneus, Exadius, godlike Polyphemus,
and Aegeus' son Theseus, one of the immortals.
They were the mightiest of earth-born men;
the mightiest and struggled with the mightiest, the Centaurs
that lair among the mountains, whom they utterly destroyed.
They summoned me, and I
joined them, travelling far from Pylos.
I held my own among them,
though against them no man on earth could fight.
Yet they listened to my words, and followed my advice.
You too should do the same, for that is wise.
Great as you may be, Atreides, do not seek to rob him of the girl,
leave him the prize that the Achaeans granted;
and you Achilles, son of Peleus, do not oppose
the king blow for blow, since the kingly sceptre brings no
little honour to those whom Zeus crowns with glory.
You have your power, a goddess for a mother,
yet he is greater, ruling over more.
Agamemnon, quench your anger,
relent towards Achilles,
our mighty shield against war’s evils.’
5. No speaker has been presented with more ‘hype’ thanNestor. Now he speaks. Personal example will be the key to the speech, but the first five lines (254-58) try to nudge the pair away from their sole focus on themselves. How? By imagining how the Trojans would greet the fact of dissension in the Achaian ranks. The Iliad began with the anger of Achilles; this anger then spread like the plague that ravished the people. Now Nestor points to this dissension as a penthos, a woe or grief or sadness that has overcome the entire people. Waves of grief, anger and destruction keep crashing on the people. But, instead of waves of grief among the Trojans, there will be waves of laughter. Waves of grief from the Achaians; gales of laughter from the Trojans. They would rejoice (getheo) and be glad (charizomai) at the news of “all these things,” line 257. The Trojans especially would rejoice when those in conflict are the leaders among the Achaians. The actual word to describe the
leaders is “superior in counsel.” Superior in counsel? We haven’t really seen it, have we? Is that supposed to be Agamemnon or Achilles or both? Perhaps Nestor’s honeyed words are a bit too
6. Now Nestor tells his story. Willcock (A Companion to the Iliad, p. 9) speaks of the “ring composition” of this section of the speech, which extends from 259-74. The clear structure not only
helps a bard remember it but also gives a pleasing “picture within a picture” as we read. We have been with the men in assembly and we see them arrayed, sitting, listening to two impassioned
speakers. Now we are brought into another world through a story of Nestor’s heroic past. The first line is a bit abrupt. “Listen up! Both of you are younger than I am,” line 259.
7. The abruptness is replaced now by Nestor’s gentler version of an “in your face” interaction. Again it is the pote or “at one time” that provides the occasion for him to tell his story. And,
as with both of the protagonists, the word ego is prominently placed (260-261):
“Indeed I, at one time, associated with men even better than you"
Whoa! Let’s stop there right now. Yes, the past was much better than today. The men were stronger. Ah yes, don’t we all know Johnny Unitas was far better than Peyton Manning because he was a quarterback in the “good old days” of the NFL, when quarterbacks really had to be tough, before the officials “protected” them so that the revenues of the league could soar? Yes, don’t you remember the championship games of ‘58 and ‘59, when the real men played in the NFL? Nestor is engaging in some such talk as this. But he goes further. Not only were the guys in the old days better, but (261):
“Not at any time (pote, again) did they disregard me"
The implication is obvious. The better men in the past listened to me; who are you guys to ignore me today, when I have the additional benefit of years of experience?
8. He now descends into his own past experience, as sacred to him as sacred Pylos is to all Greece. The story he alludes tois not told here, but every commentator mentions it as the war between the Lapiths and the Centaurs. The latter, half men and half horses, were an unruly lot, and at the wedding of King Peirithoos and Hippodameia they tried to rape her and other women. Had too much to drink. Got out of control. Just like Centaurs were accustomed to doing. Maybe it was the liberals who gave them one more chance. “Oh, the Centaurs have just had it rough. Give them another chance.” And, of course, they got rip-roaring drunk and did a lot of damage. And, of course,
this had to be avenged. It is a long story but eventually the Centaurs were chased out of their ancestral home in Thessaly. Well, Nestor doesn’t want the hearers then or now to become
wrapped up in that story, and so he only alludes to it. He wants them to focus on me, me, me, me. Well, before we get to what he will consider to be his decisive role in that conflict, he lists a number of other people who were supposedly present in that conflict. The most well known is Theseus (265), but that line isn’t well-attested in ancient manuscripts. In any case, these people were the “strongest” or “mightiest” (the word appears three times in two lines--kartistoi) of men nourished on the earth and they fought against the strongest. Who wins when the mightiest fight against the mightiest? Well, naturally, our Lapiths. They destroyed them (the Centaurs) terribly (268).
Note that we still haven’t arrived at the “punch line” ofthe story yet--i.e., Nestor’s role in all of this. He is an effective storyteller, which means that he knows how to stretch out details that make people long for more details. The point that was left hanging--his role in it all--will now call for comment. But
before I get there, I would like to mention one other word in line 268--ekpaglos, which I translated here as “terribly.” It could also be rendered “horribly, dreadfully, awfully.” In other words, the
Lapiths really delivered quite a whuppin’ to the Centaurs. I stop on the word ekpaglos because it is the word that Agamemnon used in 146 in his a subtle berating of Achilles. In that case Achilles, the “terrible” warrior, might have to give sacrifices to the god Apollo. But, one’s terrible nature won’t be of much help in that situation. What the god wants is contrition and humility. Now we have Nestor, perhaps listening to the way words were used, using the word in the appropriate context. One defeats an enemy terribly.
Now it is “show time” for Nestor to burnish his resume, to tell the story of his past greatness. We recall, of course, that this story won’t be told simply to bring honor to himself. He also wants to establish his “cred” so that Achilles and Agamemnon listen. What did he do in this famous battle? He associated together with these men, and he was “far off,” indeed “distant,” from his native earth. He twice emphasizes the distance he traveled, as if that mere fact establishes authority when the Achaians now are far from home. Why did he come? Simple (270):
“For they themselves called me"
Whoa! You mean the great Peirithoos called you? And Theseus too? And all the rest? They made the special effort to make sure you were with them? What have we here? My goodness. Right before our eyes. A man of such distinction!But he isn’t finished. The most extreme example of piling up of the “I’s” is in line 271. Literally, it reads:
“And I fought, by myself alone, yes I (fought).”
So, he seems to have a three-fold credibility. He rules over the third generation of men. He is a wise-counselor and honey-tongued orator. Now we learn he was a man who fought singlehandedly
in this fierce battle. He didn’t have anyone watching his back; he didn’t participate in the midst of a joint attack. He was there fighting it out in single combat.
9. Then he makes sure that we have heard him properly (271-272):
“No one of mortals living on the earth, not a single one, could do battle with those"
Get the picture? Now you know what is coming. “And they listened to my counsel and obeyed my word,” line 273. The form of the argument is known as an a fortiori or “from the stronger” argument. Herbert Spencer used the word in 1855 when he said, “The expression ‘substance of Mind’ can have no meaning...A fortiori, the substance of Mind cannot be known.” If you weren’t at the crime scene, a fortiori you couldn’t have robbed the bank. If Nestor gave advice to greater people in the old days,
and they heeded him, a fortiori you lesser people should give heed to him today. It means “with stronger reason,” or “still more conclusively.” That is the nature of Nestor’s argument.
10. So, in line 274, he simply repeats the opening frame of the story. “Listen to me..” It is, actually, a delightful way to frame or conclude his narrative. He presents an attractive cameo right in the middle of a larger battle, which itself is a vignette in the larger war against Troy.
11. Now he turns to the two opponents and makes his case to them very practically. First, as is fitting, he addresses the lord of men. And he does so quite skillfully by using a phrase to describe Agamemnon that the lord of men previously has used to describe Achilles. It is agathos per eon, “although you are good” or “although you are great.” In line 131 the lord of men used it as a courtesy term to the son of Peleus. Although Achilles was great, he ought not to be deceived (131-32). Now Nestor is saying to Agamemnon, “although you are great,” you shouldn’t go take the girl. Why? Because it would upset the distribution already made by the Achaians (276). So, “let it be” (ea). The sons of Achaia had already made division of goods. This is, in fact, the same argument used by Achilles to tell Agamemnon to keep his hands off his prize but Nestor makes it in more soothing and
12. Just as Nestor began his advice to Agamemnon with the phrase “mete su” (“let not you..”), so he addresses Achilles the same way. It is the literary way of saying that the men are equal, if not in rank, but in honor. Nestor gently chides Achilles and tells him not to stand in strife with the king. Then, the word antibien is enjambed on line 278, and it means “in opposition” or “antagonistically.” One might have a strife, conceivably, with a ruler, but don’t set yourself up in opposition like this. While in the
previous words to Agamemnon Nestor appealed to the authority of the Achaians, now he appeals to the authority of Zeus. The reason Achilles shouldn’t oppose Agamemnon is because Zeus has given
Agamemnon kudos (the Greek and English word!). Lest Achilles miss the point, a “scepter-bearing king” does not have the same portion of honor as another person. Never “at any time” (pote, again) does he share equal honor with the king. Nestor’s principle is so neatly balanced and clearly stated that weought not to miss it (280-281):
“Even if you are stronger/mightier (karteros here;
the same word used three times, in the superlative, in
266-67), the goddess, your mother, gave you birth,
but this one (i.e., Agamemnon) is better (pherteros),
since he rules over many"
There you have it. Nestor grants to each his honor and his position, but he also places demands on each. The key is that if each recognizes the sources of his power and authority, whether it is the Achaians or Zeus, he should back down slightly without losing his honor. Everyone in the world under some kind of authority. Recognize that.
13. But even though things are “equal,” in a way, they are unequal in that Nestor gives two exhortations to Agamemnon. And, this one, which finishes his speech, is very clear. Using two different words for anger, he urges Agamemnon to cease his anger. One might think that since the Iliad is about the anger of Achilles (1), that Achilles would be exhorted to relinquish his. But no. It is fitting (a great Homeric word) that the lord of men first abandon his wrath (menis). But this fittingness has a good reason. Achilles is a bulwark in the Achaian defense (283-284). Nestor’s request to Agamemnon then takes on a very personal and even poignant dimension, when he says, “I beg (you) to let go your anger (cholon) against Achilles. The word for “beg” (lissomai) is the same one used to describe Chryses plaintive cry for his daughter at the beginning of the book. Sometimes we all are just beggars. Agamemnon must abandon his anger because they need Achilles. Achilles is a great bulwark for “all the Achaians.”
Nestor has tried, in a very balanced fashion, to get them out of the pickle in which they find themselves. He chides both, begs Agamemnon, tells stories of his glorious past, gently tries to give them a perspective on their own history, lays out timeless principles, praises both in his unique area of expertise or competence. Both are extremely gifted men; both are given a lot of what they have by the gods. Both men ought to recognize now that it is incumbent on them to “do the right thing” and bury the anger. It is such a reasonable request. Do you think it will be heeded? Not on your life!