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“Ransom of Chryseis” (1.8–611)

“Ransom of Chryseis” (1.8–611)

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Glaring from beneath his brows spoke to him swift-footed Achilles, “Ah

me, clothed in shame, thinking of profit, how shall any man of the Achaeans

obey your words with an eager heart, to go on a journey or to fight

against men with violence? It was not on account of the Trojan spearmen

that I came here to fight, for they have done no wrong to me. Never have

they driven off my cattle or horses, nor ever in deep-soiled Phthia, nurse

of men, did they lay waste the harvest. Many things lie between us –

shadowy mountains and sounding sea. But you, shameless, we followed

so that you, dog-face, might rejoice, seeking to win timê for Menelaus

and yourself from the Trojans. You pay no attention to this. And now

you threaten to take my geras from me, for which I labored so hard,

which the sons of the Achaeans gave to me. Never have I geras like yours,

when the Achaeans sack a well-peopled citadel of the Trojans. My hands

undertake the brunt of furious battle, but if ever an apportionment comes,

your geras is far more, while small but precious is the reward I take to my

ships, after I have worn myself out in the fighting. Now I will go back to

Phthia. It is far better to return home with my beaked ships, nor do I

intend while I am here dishonored to pile up riches and wealth for you.

(Il. 1.148–71)

Achilles directly threatens Agamemnon’s power, a frontal assault, and

anger grips Agamemnon. He will in fact take Achilles’ girl, Briseis. The

enraged Achilles draws his sword to kill Agamemnon, which his devotion

to the winning of timê might justify. The situation is out of control: if

Achilles kills Agamemnon, the expedition will break up and the war will

be lost (and there will be no story). But Athena, visible to Achilles alone,

pulls him by the hair and stops his hand: if he now relents, he will later

be honored ever more and receive three times as many prizes, she says.

Achilles does relent. Agamemnon may take Briseis, but at the price of

an ocean of anger that now consumes Achilles’ whole being. He has

been publicly dishonored. He will no longer fight for scum like

Agamemnon and his tawdry cause. King Agamemnon, and all who

allowed him to behave in this way, will soon regret that Achilles is no

longer afoot on the plain of battle. Nestor, whose great age gives him

wisdom and authority, attempts to calm the captains, but matters have

gone too far and they part in anger.

That is how the story begins. Such an abundance of action takes place

in less than 300 lines, one of the great action sequences in literature.

Homer, the inventor of plot, defines the story of the double bind: no

matter in what direction a character turns, he is ruined, a characteristically Greek perception. We sympathize with Achilles, and believe that



Agamemnon treats him unfairly, but what choice does Agamemnon

have? Agamemnon must replace his geras, which the plague forces him

to relinquish, or he will be without timê, hardly befitting the leader of

an international expedition in a world where all behavior is directed to

winning timê. For timê engenders “fame” = Greek kleos, really “that

which is heard,” from kluo “to hear.” You have kleos when an aoidos

sings of your deeds, and through kleos you remain alive (as still today we

speak of Achilles). In this way the great warrior defies the human curse

of mortality. When Hector issues a challenge to the Achaeans for someone to meet him in manly duel, he says:

But if I kill him, and Apollo gives me cause for boasting, I will take his

armor and carry it to sacred Ilios and hang it on the temple of Apollo, the

god that strikes from afar, but his corpse I will give back to the wellbenched ships, that the long-haired Achaeans may give him burial and

heap up for him a sêma [= “sign,” that is, a mound] by the wide Hellespont.

And some one will some day say, of men that are yet to be, as he sails in

his many-benched ship over the wine-dark sea, “This is the sêma of a man

that died in olden times, whom once in the midst of his greatness [aristeia]

glorious Hector killed.” So shall some man say, and my kleos shall never die.

(Il. 7.87–91)

To give up his girl (= geras) is for Agamemnon the same as giving up

the purpose for living.

Nestor attempts to stop this perilous quarrel by reminding the captains of their common goal, to take Troy, whose rulers will enjoy such

dissension. But no common goal can override the personal conflict.

There are no states in Homer’s world, a central power to overcome the

individual’s desire to impose his own will on the world. The campaign

against Troy is in danger of coming apart.

The Achaeans (also called Danaans or Argives) return Chryseis to her

father and heralds take Briseis from Achilles’ hut. Achilles goes to sit

alone by the sea. He weeps and calls to his divine mother Thetis, a

nymph of the sea:

Mother, since you bore me, though to so brief a span of life, surely ought

the Olympian to have delivered timê into my hands, Zeus who thunders

on high, but now he has given me no timê. Truly the son of Atreus, wideruling Agamemnon has taken away my timê, for he has taken and keeps

my geras through his own arrogant act. (Il. 1.352–6)



Thetis comes from the sea to comfort him. Achilles asks her to intercede

with Zeus, whose will is always fulfilled: may the Achaeans, his former

companions, fall to Trojan ferocity. As for his part, he will fight no more.

Homer finishes the unit with Thetis’ successful appeal to Zeus, Hera’s

bitchy complaint about other women’s influence, and the lame peacemaker Hephaestus, more successful than Nestor, brings the Olympians

to their cups and their senses.

“False Dream” (2.1–210)

“The Ransom of Chryseis” explains the origin of the quarrel between

Achilles and Agamemnon, and Achilles’ angry refusal to fight is plot

point one. The direction of the action now changes completely. The

sequence of scenes that follows Achilles’ withdrawal must show just how

Zeus brought defeat to the Achaeans, according to Achilles’ request to

Thetis and Thetis’ request to Zeus. Only the death of his friends can

satisfy Achilles’ anger. Although Homer never forgets his purpose, he

now takes the opportunity to tell the “story of the Trojan War,” and

Achilles’ presence is barely felt. In a modern film or novel it would be

impossible to drop out the main character for a third of the story, as

Achilles drops out here. However, the sequence of scenes, tied together

by a sometimes invisible narrative thread, does give the sense that time is

passing and that things are happening out there while Achilles mopes in

his tent.

In order to fulfill his purpose to punish the Achaeans, according to

Thetis’ request, Zeus decides to send False Dream to Agamemnon. On

the very next day he can sack Troy, False Dream will whisper. Zeus’

purpose is evidently to lure the Achaeans onto the plain in expectation

of victory where they are exposed to Trojan fury, as if they needed to be

tricked into fighting.

Homer presents the ploy as burlesque. The bungler Agamemnon, after

receiving the dream, concocts the cockeyed plan to invert the dream’s

message and tell the troops they will never take Troy. Surely the suggestion will only inspire them to fight harder, he is thinking, but instead

the Achaean warriors run with a shout pell-mell to the boats, eager to

sail home. It’s a stampede for peace. Only the resourceful Odysseus can

stop them.

The sequence is a joke and meant to spark laughter. Humor, something

that makes you laugh or smile, resides in the perception of incongruity,



and there is much humor in the Iliad (but almost none in the Odyssey).

Supposedly the bronze-clad Achaeans long for nothing more in life than

the timê that prowess in battle may bring. Yet in an instant, and on a

misunderstanding, they turn tail and run! Homer’s audience is peeping

through: the joke appeals to fighting men who have felt the urge just

to run away. The soldier–poet Archilochus, who may have lived in the

seventh century bc, was to write a famous poem in which he brags how

he threw away his shield and ran, for he could always get another, and

other poets made the same boast. Real warriors know too much of war

to believe its pieties, and what we might call antiwar themes were always

part of the Greek warrior culture.

Odysseus snatches the scepter, symbol of authority, from the bewildered Agamemnon and restores order. All respectfully sit down except

for Thersites, the “ugliest man who went to Troy,” misshapen in body

and with a pin head, an object of laughter. He is the opposite to

Achilles, said to be the “most handsome man at Troy.” Later tradition

reported how Achilles killed Thersites because he mocked Achilles for

loving the Amazon queen Penthesilea. Many commentators have taken

Thersites to be the only named member of the “people” (= Greek

dêmos), the rank and file in the poem, because of his rudeness and

ugliness. Thersites complains about the war and Agamemnon’s behavior

to Achilles until Odysseus whacks him with the scepter, and everyone

has a good laugh at his expense.

Odysseus takes the occasion to clarify the political premises by which

they live: not everyone can be a king! Odysseus reminds the army, and

Homer’s audience, of their purpose in this war and the sureness of

eventual victory. The fighting is set to begin.

“Catalogue of Ships” (2.441–887)

To magnify the battle’s greatness, and in accord with his purpose to

drop back and tell the “story of the Trojan War,” Homer lists the

combatants in the “Catalogue of Ships,” which begins with the most

celebrated series of similes in Homer. At first he compares the troops

with birds and flies:

And as the many tribes of winged fowl, wild geese or cranes or longnecked swans on the Asian meadow by the streams of Caystrius, fly this

way and that, glorying in their strength of wing, and with loud cries settle



ever onwards, and the meadow resounds, even so their many tribes poured

forth from ships and huts into the plain of Scamander, and the earth

echoed wondrously beneath the tread of men and horses. So they took

their stand in the flowery meadow of Scamander, numberless as are the

leaves and the flowers in their season. Even as the many tribes of swarming flies that buzz to and fro in the herdsman’s farm in the season of

spring, when the milk drenches the pails, even in such numbers stood the

long-haired Achaeans on the plain in face of the men of Troy, eager to rip

them apart. (Il. 2.459–73)

Stacking on still more similes that emphasize the greatness of the expedition, he appeals to the Muses, who must be the same as the “goddess”

of the poem’s first line, to help him remember the leaders of the various

contingents and the numbers of the ships in their order.

The Catalogue of Ships is famously dull reading and sometimes

omitted from translations, but it is a document of great importance, the

first geography of the Western world. Information in it does not always

agree with information in the rest of the poem, as if the Catalogue had

a life of its own. Here is a typical entry, that of the Euboeans, who lived

in the long island along the eastern coast of mainland Greece, where the

Greek alphabet was first used and where Homer’s texts may have come

into being:

And the Abantes, breathing fury, who held Euboea and Chalcis and Eretria

and Histiaea, rich in vines, and Cerinthus, near the sea, and the steep

citadel of Dios, and who held Carystus and lived in Styra – all these again

had as leader Elephenor, follower of Ares, who was son of Chalcodon

and captain of the great-hearted Abantes. And with him followed the

swift Abantes, with hair long at the back, spearmen eager with outstretched

ashen spears to tear the corselets on the breasts of the enemy. And with

him there followed forty black ships. (Il. 2.536–45)

It’s not clear why the Euboeans should be called the Abantes. Chalcis

and Eretria were the earliest rival states in historical Greece to attract

allies from abroad, according to Thucydides (1.15), and Carystus was

on the extreme southern coast, but no one knows where Histiaea is or

Cerinthus or Dios. The mixture of known and unknown places is typical

of the Catalogue, as is the appearance of famous heroes side by side with

such complete unknowns as Elephenor and Chalcodon.

The Catalogue of Ships must have been a traditional song in Boeotia,

the mainland where Homer’s near-contemporary Hesiod lived just

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“Ransom of Chryseis” (1.8–611)

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