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30. Things Fall Apart, Second Essay, I. 304-325
When their war of words was over,
they both rose, and so ended the gathering by the Achaean ships.
Achilles left for his fine fleet and his huts,
with Patroclos son of Menoitios, and his men;
while Agamemnon launched a swift ship in the waves,
chose twenty oarsmen, and embarked an offering for the god, then sent
the fair-faced daughter of Chryses aboard,
with Odysseus, that man of resource, to take command.
While they embarked and set sail on the paths of the sea,
Atreides ordered his men to purify themselves,
and wash the dirt from their bodies in salt-water,
and offer Apollo a sacrifice of unblemished bulls
and goats, by the restless waves;
and the savour went up to heaven with trails of smoke.
Though the camp was busy with all this, Agamemnon
did not forget his quarrel with Achilles, or his threats,
and he summoned his heralds and trusty attendants,
Talthybius and Eurybates, saying: "Go to
Achilles' hut, seize
the fair-faced Briseis and bring her here. If he
refuses to release her, I’ll go in force to fetch her,
and so much the worse for him."
Breaking Up the Meeting; The Sacrifice (304-17)
Homer knows how far he can push the action before he needs to take us elsewhere. We can go no further at this point with the two leading Achaians; and so the action shifts here. But Homer shifts
attention with tightly drawn words (304-305):
“So the two stood up, warring with opposing words, and they broke up the meeting alongside the ships of the Achaians"
In the prologue we have reference to how the two leading men “stood apart” in strife (6-7); now we see that visually. They were on opposite sides of the assembly, positions where they are required
to fight with words and not with swords. Now that this meeting breaks up, however, each man goes to his respective task: Achilles back to his ship with his companions and Agamemnon to the
launching of the ships to take Chryseis back to her father. For the first time, in line 307, we have mention of the son of Menoitios (Patroclus), who will be the focus of action later in the Iliad,
The words used to describe Agamemnon’s preparations for the return of Chryseis are identical to those in lines 142-144, when Agamemnon used them to describe what he would have to do to try to ward off the plague. What we know from those earlier lines, however, is that they followed Agamemnon’s grave threat. If he had to give up his prize, he might just go swipe that of one
of his leading men, 'whether of you, Achilles, or Aias or Odysseus' (137-139). Now we will see the return of Chryseis; we are waiting for the other shoe, figuratively, to fall. One point, however, is
provided here that we didn’t hear nearly 200 lines previously. Agamemnon appoints “clever” or “rich in counsel” Odysseus (311) to lead the return trip. He was one of four being considered
by the lord of men in lines 145-46.
Repetition of words or even a whole section, as we will shortly see, in the Iliad helps both the poet/singer of tales and the reader. The poet is able to go on “automatic pilot,” making the act of memorization and recitation a little less laborious. We are able, also, to remind ourselves of everything that has taken place and even, on occasion, to speed up our reading.
The next six lines (312-317) describe in brief fashion what the divided troops of Agamemnon do. Some, led by Odysseus, sail away and offer the hecatomb. The rest stay behind, purifying
themselves and washing the offscouring or filth into the sea. We see Agamemnon acting responsibly as the lord of men here. They dutifully pay their respects to the god and they wash off
the impurities gathered through war or daily living. He has never looked more regal.
Line 317 is one of those delightful little lines that, for those who read Greek, make learning the language worth it. It simply describes the hecatomb’s smoke rising towards heaven. But Homer uses the verb elisso, which means “to twirl, twist, curl, roll,” to describe the way the savor rose to heaven. Literally, it says, “The savor went heavenward around about in the smoke.” We always imagine smoke swirling its way to heaven, but here it is the smell or odor of the roast meat that makes its way to the gods. We know that smoke swirls. But do smells swirl or just rise? Homer
enlarges our sensual palate in this brief line.
But these lines are only an interlude of sorts, a breathing space before the relentless tide of action picks up again. Agamemnon has given orders and done what he could to restore a right relationship with the gods; now he returns to the business with men. He will order his troops to seize Achilles’ prize. This will be the last straw for Achilles, leading to his withdrawal from the battle. In addition, it also expressly contravenes the words of Nestor. Even though Achilles himself said he was willing to allow his prize to be taken, since the Achaians, who granted it to him, could also take it back (299), the taking commanded in these lines (318- 325) is not sanctioned by the Achaian people. It is simply done at the behest of Agamemnon.
The Order To Seize Briseis (318-325)
Darkness and a sense of foreboding return in lines 318-325. It is as if we have been living under a thick cloud cover that momentarily broke up when Agamemnon sent the delegation off to Chryses, only to return now that the action returns to Agamemnon. The telltale line gets us started is 319:
“Agamemnon did not cease his strife"
This is the third time that Homer has used the verb lego. First, in line 210, Athena told Achilles to “cease his strife,” even though he could continue to berate Agamemnon verbally. Then, in line 224, we learn that Achilles didn’t “give up” (lego) his anger as he addressed Agamemnon. Now, in line 319, we learn that Agamemnon didn’t cease from or slacken his strife. This time the particular act of strife or quarrel is identified--”with which he first threatened Achilles.” Ah, we are getting to that most sensitive area, the taking of Achilles’ prize. The action then follows quickly. Agamemnon, resolved on what to do, quickly calls two of his trusted assistants, whom he commands with these
“Go to the ship of Achilles, son of Peleus. Take Briseis of the beautiful face by the hand and lead her"
Then comes the threat. If Achilles could threaten the lord of men, so Agamemnon could issue a dire warning against Achilles, even if it is out of earshot. If Achilles won’t willingly give up the girl, Agamemnon will come in person, with a retinue if needed. He will be able to neutralize Achilles’ power. He will show really who is boss. And, then, he ends with the chilling words in line 325:
“For this [Agamemnon’s personal seizing of Briseis with his troops] would be the more horrible for him”
You can almost imagine Agamemnon rubbing his hands together in pleasure. Finally, he will be able to get back at Achilles in a way that really hurts. Agamemnon no doubt believes that his action will significantly damage Achilles. But, as we will see, it will end up hurting the Achaians. That possibility really isn’t on Agamemnon's mind now. All he can do is to assert his battered authority. He has done so through sending off the hecatomb, appointing Odysseus to head the return party, ordering the soldiers to purify themselves in the sea. Now, he simply has to do something to humble his strongest warrior. He will do so, and then he will deserve the title “lord of men” again. And if he has to go personally to do the job, it will be the worse for Achilles. He doesn’t even have to say in which way things will be worse. It just will be. It is as simple as that. Or is it?