Part II: Honor, Wrath and Justice in the Iliad: A Hard-Learned Lesson in Human Finitude

In book one of the Iliad, we learn that as part of the so-called “spoils of war,” Agamemnon and Achilles have claimed two concubines for themselves, Chryseis and Briseis.  Agamemnon declared Chryseis as his own, but her father, Chryses, intervened and offered a ransom for her return.  When Agamemnon refused the offer, Chryses prayed to Apollo for help, and he responded by sending a plague on the Achaians.  After several days of intense suffering resulting in many Achaian deaths, Achilles summons an assembly and seeks the help of a prophet named, Kalchas, to determine the reason for the plague.  Kalchas reveals that the deadly pestilence is the work of Apollo in answer to Chryses’ prayer and was due to Agamemnon’s refusal to return Chryseis and his dishonoring of Kalchas.[1] Agamemnon is enraged and says that he will return Chryseis in exchange for Briseis, Achilles’ “prize.” Achilles is offended by Agamemnon’s proposal and considers it an act of dishonor.  Agamemnon eventually takes Briseis, which results in Achilles’ rage toward Agamemnon and his withdrawal from the war.[2]

Later in book nine, after things have gone exceedingly bad for the Achaians, Agamemnon sends an embassy with lavish gifts to try and convince Achilles to rejoin the war efforts.[3] The embassy consists of Odysseus, Phoinix and Aias, each giving a speech designed to move Achilles to return and fight.  Though Achilles is still infuriated with Agamemnon, he greets the ambassadors warmly.  This seems suggest that the offense nurtured by Achilles is personal; yet, in book one just prior to his oath that he would not rejoin the Achaians, he calls them “nonentities.”[4] Here Achilles is not only angry with Agamemnon but with the other Achaian men who failed to speak against the king’s unjust actions.  Has Achilles then in book nine decided that Agamemnon as the representative of the people is to bear the blame personally and not Achilles’ comrades? If so, is Achilles’ withdrawal just?  One is hard-pressed to answer in the affirmative, as many of Achilles’ friends lose their lives because of Achilles’ inability to reconcile with Agamemnon.

Returning to the ambassadors, it is instructive to briefly examine the content of the speeches, as well as Achilles’ response to each.  Odysseus speaks first and appeals to Achilles’ sense of comradeship, playing upon the welcome Achilles has given his three visitors.  “Up, then! if you are minded, late though it be, to rescue the afflicted sons of the Achaians from the Trojan onslaught.”[5] Odysseus then warns Achilles that to fail to do so will result in great emotional torment and regret for Achilles. “It will be an affliction to you hereafter, there will be no remedy found to heal the evil thing when it has been done.”[6] Next Odysseus appeals to an admonition that Achilles’ father had given him, to keep his anger in check and not allow his pride to dictate his actions.  Odysseus thus exhorts Achilles to employ his spiritedness properly, lest it become his downfall.  Agamemnon’s gifts are then enumerated, which among other things include the return of Briseis.  Finally, Odysseus appeals to Achilles’ desire for honor and glory, suggesting that should he return, Hektor will provide him the opportunity to “win very great glory” among men.[7]

Achilles responds to Odysseus by charging him with a kind of double-speak-“I detest that man, who hides one thing in the depths of his heart, and speaks forth another.”[8] Since Agamemnon did not come himself to make reparations with Achilles but sent extravagant gifts via ambassadors, he perceives that Agamemnon still views himself as superior to Achilles.  (Odysseus does in fact leave out Agamemnon’s statement that Achilles must yield to him). Achilles then speaks about fate in a leveling, relativizing way that seems to indicate that he is now calling into question the whole honor system of his day.  “Fate is the same for the man who holds back, the same if he fights hard.  We are all held in a single honour, the brave with the weaklings.  A man dies still if he has done nothing, as one who had done much.”[9] Perhaps Achilles has overstated things because of his anger toward Agamemnon;[10] nonetheless, his experience has resulted in a time of reflection upon the arbitrary nature of the code of honor of his day.[11] That is, Achilles has come to realize that the value of honor is intricately tied to the source conferring it, and the source itself can be self-interested, and hence, less honorable than the conferee. In light of his realizations, perhaps Achilles’ withdrawal and time of reflection has led him to seek to demonstrate a self-sufficiency and honor that does not depend on Agamemnon and the opinion of (human) others.  (I shall elaborate more on this possibility as the essay unfolds).

Clearly, Achilles sees Agamemnon’s taking of Briseis as an unjust, deceptive act and even equates it to a man stealing another man’s wife.[12] In fact, Achilles connects Agamemnon’s deed with Paris’ theft regarding Helen.[13] Over the course of Achilles’ response to Odysseus,  we sense that his argument and outrage presupposes a moral principle which involves (1) a call to respect and honor a man’s love for his wife/concubine and (2) a censure against taking a man’s wife/concubine arbitrarily and by force.  Presumably, Achilles wants to apply this principle in a transcultural, “timeless-truth” manner.

Are the sons of Atreus alone among mortal the ones who love their wives?  Since any who is a good man, and careful, loves her who is his own and cares for her, even now as I loved this one from my heart, though it was my spear that won her.[14]

From Achilles’ point of view, Briseis is his wife, his part of the “booty” that he rightfully deserved and earned through his valiant fighting; [15] hence, Agamemnon is in the wrong for taking her from him and dishonoring him. However, as we shall see, since Achilles ultimately rejects Agamemnon’s reconciliatory gifts, can we conclude that his decisions here are just? Should Achilles allow a personal affront to be the basis of his choices and actions? After all, his withdrawal affects not only himself but the lives of many others as well.

As Achilles continues his discourse with Odysseus, he announces that he will return to his homeland of Phthia and that no gift which Agamemnon might offer would change his mind.  Then he recounts the prophecy of his two fates, which Thetis had revealed to him:  a short, glorious life or a long, inglorious life.  In light of his calling into question the value of the present honor code, Achilles has now (in contrast with his original choice in book one) chosen a long life without glory and even recommends his comrades to follow suit.[16] Life itself, as well as the goods of this life-marriage, a peaceful, non-military existence-now appear more valuable to Achilles than the arbitrary bestowal of honor in the present system.  “A man’s life cannot come back again, it cannot be lifted nor captured again by force, once it has crossed the teeth’s barrier.”[17] In other words, how estimable is this so-called eternal glory if it comes at the cost of the goods of this life and the loss of life itself-not to mention the possibility of dishonor in the present?


[1] Iliad I.94-100, 61.

[2] For a taste of Achilles’ anger toward Agamemnon, cf. I.225-44, p. 65.

[3] The gifts include gold, horses, women, Briseis (with a promise that he has not had intercourse with her).  Cf. Iliad IX.264-276, 205.

[4] Iliad I.231, 239-44, 65.

[5] Iliad IX.246-47, 204.

[6] Iliad IX.249-50, 204.

[7] Iliad IX.303, 206.

[8] Iliad IX.311-12, 206.

[9] Iliad IX.318-20, 206.

[10] As already mentioned, the Achaians are also to a certain extent guilty in Achilles’ mind, as they failed to speak against Agamemnon’s act.  Even so, Achilles’ anger and resentment is (understandably) more specifically focused upon Agamemnon, who now possesses the “bride of his heart” (IX.336, 207).

[11] Sarpedon articulates (in a positive, uncritical light) various aspects of the honor code in book XII.315-326, 266-67.

[12] “All the other prizes of honour he gave the great men and the princes are held fast by them, but from me alone of all the Achaians he has taken and keeps the bride of my heart” (Iliad IX.333-36, 207).

[13] “And why was it the son of Atreus assembled and led here these people?  Was it not for the sake of lovely-haired Helen?” (Iliad IX.337-39, 207).

[14] Iliad IX.340-43, 207.

[15] One wonders how taking other humans as “booty” (even if the captives are willing) can be considered just.  If justice is giving to the other what is his/her due, then the category, “other,” in the Iliad excludes  women.  If we say that treating women as property and part of the spoils of war was simply accepted and unquestioned in Homer’s day, and hence, these kinds of practices were considered just, then are we not admitting that justice itself (or at least justice as practiced) is a conventional notion that changes over time and is dependent upon what the people of a particular cultural have deemed it to be?  Also, is the definition of justice as “giving to the other what is his/her due,” a definition derived from Homer, or is it a later definition common in Socrates’ day?  If the latter, why should we assume it is operative in Homer’s day or that it applies in a transcultural way?

[16] Iliad IX.407-18, 209.

[17] Iliad IX.408-9, 209.