(to return to Iliad Table of Contents, click here)
5. The Quarrel Foreshadowed, I. 6-7
'Sing of it from the moment when Agamemnon, Atreus' son,
that king of men, parted in wrath from noble Achilles."
We still have two more lines of the prologue to consider, though they properly belong with the quarrel to come. Homer, unlike Milton more than 2,000 years later, will not take us back to the
earliest times, when angels revoltt in heaven, but he will take us back to the beginning of the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon. We are still in the prologue in line 6, though
now the covering is removed slightly from the enigmatic anger of Achilles, mentioned in line 1. Homer will ask the Muse to help him sing of Achilles’ wrath “from what [time] when first. . . ” line 6.
So, even though we will be plunked down in medias res of the battle, in the ninth year of the Trojan War, we will join the quarrel from the beginning. We will learn that it is a spat that leads to
Achilles’ anger, a spat between two great men.
In placing us at the beginning of the quarrel but not the war, Homer helps us in at least two ways. First, he teaches that though we may be able to understand the genesis and nature of specific
things in which we find ourselves, we really can’t, as it were, “trace everything back” to its beginnings. Why? Because every time you find a beginning, you realize that this was the result of
something earlier. I used to think when I was a young person and was seeking wisdom in the world that I would certainly attain that wisdom if I only could interview people in their 70’s and 80’s,
people who, it seemed to me, had been around since the beginning of time. If only I could understand where things came from in our day by talking to them, I would have full knowledge of the world. That was how I thought.
But it was a chimerical quest since theycould only take me, at best, back to the late days of the nineteenth century, and still they seemed young from the perspective of the history of the country or the Western tradition in general. Homer could, I suppose, have told stories about the carrying off of Helen by Menelaus and the decade-long preparation for the Trojan War; but that story would have taken us to stories further behind that, and on and on. He plunks us down in the ninth year of a ten-year war because he wants to foreclose the question of the ultimate causes of the war. Yet.
he still is interested in beginnings, and he can narrate the beginning of a quarrel. Thus, he brings us to this issue to satisfy our longing for a causal explanation, even though he remains mum on what you might call “deep causes.”
Then, second, by focusing the drama of war on a quarrel between two men, he refocuses our attention. We begin to see war as the long shadow of petty human jealousies and offenses.
And, who is to say that Homer isn’t right? As mentioned previously, historians in our day (2020) are increasingly focusing on the people, personalities and decisions of those responsible for war rather than simply the grand strategies or throngs of troops facing each other.
First Things First
As Homer tells his story, then, he will narrate when things “first” began--that is, when the quarrel first began. The last two words of line 6 are arresting. Though two words in Greek, they
are translated in about five or six words in English, such as “there stood in division of conflict” (Lattimore) or “fell out with one another” (Samuel Butler) or, more briefly, “there parted in strife”
(Wyatt’s revision of Murray’s translation in the Loeb Classical Library series). I say the words are arresting because one must slow down in pronouncing them. “Diasteten (two e’s are long,
pronounced “ay”) erisante.” Diasteten comprises two of the six (metrical) feet of this line in Greek. Each of its four vowels is long; each vowel requires the reader to pause over it, to stretch
it out, to say it slowly. The word is translated “to part/separate” or “to stand in opposition,” and the length of time it takes to pronounce it gives us time to imagine in our mind the actual separation of two great men. They stood apart, just as the word requires us to pronounce it syllable by syllable.
They stood apart in quarrel. The word translated “quarrel” here is not a noun but rather a participle, in the past (aorist) tense. The aorist tense in Greek emphasizes an action complete, over and done. They had their quarrel, and they stood apart (also an aorist). That is what we have. Our wandering mind (what might have caused Achilles’ wrath?) is now focused on a quarrel in the past. We want to know all about it. We want to see it unfold, point to the exact point where the relationship ruptured, imagine a painless way to end the quarrel. Homer guides our mind in the channel of quarrel.
But before we get to the narrative of that quarrel, beginning in line 8, we face line 7. It is one of those “Iowa”-types of lines in the Iliad; that is, you just fly over it because you think that it
has nothing interesting in it. And, in fact, all it says is “the son of Atreus, lord of men, and divine (noble) Achilles.” The two men, standing apart in line 6, are now named and divided from
each other through the conjunction kai (“and”) in line 7. “In this corner, the lord of men, weighing in at. . .” You get the picture. But line 7 also acts as a perfect closure device to the prologue.
We have been rushing along so quickly in the first six lines, from anger, to destruction, to bodies and souls being separated, to feasts for dogs and birds, to the divine will being fulfilled, to the
standing apart in quarrel. Lots of topics there. So many, in fact, that we are almost exhausted as we read the first six lines. But then Homer gives us line 7, where he just names the two men. It
is as if we are given a breather as we climb a mountain; we can pause, name the chief combatants, and then let the echo of the rushing ideas gradually die away in our mind. Line 7 creates a
pause for us, a chance to recapture our forces for the hugely long narrative that now follows.
On to the Narrative
Well, are we ready for it? I am, because I know that Homer will talk about a quarrel and not something more complex. He won’t try to talk about the condition of the peasants in rural
Greece; the disappointed expectation of helots in Mycenaean civilization; the struggle for power within royal houses and intrigue here and there. He won’t tell us of poor harvests that might lead to discontent that might lead to something else. He doesn’t review the history of scholarship on the Trojan War, setting up two camps of warring scholars as they try to determine if it was the gods or humans who ultimately were responsible for the war. All he will do is tell us about a quarrel. I can handle that. I know what a quarrel is. I have seen them. I have even instigated them. I know how quarrels can get out of hand, how others try to calm you down, how you sometimes want to kill the other person, etc. I can go on and read the Iliad because Homer has taken the complexity of a ten-year battle and reduced it to a human quarrel between outsized people.
So that now we have gotten ourselves nice and comfy, we are ready for his story. Here it is.