Homer’s Iliad: Book IX
Questions for Book IX:
- What is the point of Phoenix telling his story of patricidal considerations to Achilles?
- Although Achilles says he loved the girl Briseis, whom Agamemnon snatched away, what is his real problem? What did the girl represent, or what issue is he really hung up on?
- True or false: When Achilles was a toddler he used to barf wine on Phoenix’s shirt.
The book begins with an acknowledgement that the Greek troops are scared:
“So the Trojans held their watch that night but not the Achaeans —
godsent Panic seized them, comrade of bloodcurdling Rout:
all their best were struck by grief too much to bear” (9.1-3).
Agamemnon pulls his old temporary insanity plea — “madness, blinding ruin” (9.20) — and his “let’s run away” trick with his captains (as in Book 2). This time Diomedes publicly defies this dishonor, saying that Agamemnon may leave but the rest will not. Nestor advises that everyone calm down and eat something. This seems to work well. Nestor advises they try to get Achilles back. He dares to bring up the original touchy issue about taking Achilles’ girl Briseis and Agamemnon’s irrationality: “you, you gave way to your overbearing anger / disgraced a great man the gods themselves esteem — / you seized his gift of honor and keep her still” (9.130-132). Agamemnon accedes:
“Mad, blind I was!
Not even I would deny it.
Why look, that man is worth an entire army,
the fighter Zeus holds dear with all his heart–
how he exalts him now and mauls Achaea’s forces!
But since I was blinded, lost in my own inhuman rage,
now, at last, I am bent on setting things to rights:
I’ll give a priceless ransom paid for friendship”
But the concept of “Atê,” meaning delusion or madness or “blinding ruin,” plays a part in Agamemnon’s excuse for his earlier behavior now: essentially a plea of temporary insanity. Peachy, but note how he seems unable, however, to say Achilles’ name, and pay attention to the speech he gives, itemizing the gifts he promises (Briseis back and cauldrons and horses and seven skilled women of Lesbos and gold and bronze and one of his own daughters), and his finalé…?
“All this —
I would extend to him if he will end his anger.
Let him submit to me! Only the god of death
is so relentless, Death submits to no one —
so mortals hate him most of all the gods.
Let him bow down to me! I am the greater king,
I am the elder-born, I claim — the greater man”
“There is something nauseating in the accumulating enticements Agamemnon offers. They miss the point” (Nicholson 150). But a delegation — Odysseus, Ajax, and Achilles’ old mentor and forster-father Phoenix — finds Achilles and Patroclus listening to a sung epic. Achilles is a good host in so far as meat-zeal goes, and soon Odysseus sketches the situation, poor currently for the Greeks, since Hector is unstoppable:
“hold in check
that proud, fiery spirit of yours inside your chest!
Friendship is much better. Vicious quarrels are deadly —
put an end to them at once….
let your heart-devouring anger go!” (9.311-315).
Odysseus then repeats, verbatim, Agamemnon’s speech; and “the great tactician” earns his title by diplomatically omitting that last part (9.361f). But Achilles is still caught at an impasse, even questioning here the heroic code itself:
“One and the same lot for the man who hangs back
and the man who battles hard. The same honor waits
for the coward and the brave. They both go down to Death,
the fighter who shirks, the one who works to exhaustion”
He works himself into the same frenzy against Agamemnon as before: that the guy is greedy and doesn’t earn his war plunder, that taking the girl from Achilles was a dishonor, that twenty times the gifts wouldn’t change Achilles’ mind: “no, not if his gifts outnumbered all the grains of sand / and dust in the earth — no, not even then could Agamemnon / bring my fighting spirit round until he pays me back, / pays full measure for all his heartbreaking outrage!” (9.470-473). It’s hard here to imagine how Achilles envisions such a pay-back. Part of his railing is that he would never marry a daughter of Agamemnon. Achilles insists that tomorrow he’s sailing home. (So why didn’t he leave in all this time?) He also mentions his particular fate, reported to him by his mother:
“If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy,
my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies.
If I voyage back to the fatherland I love,
my pride, my glory dies . . .
true, but the life that’s left me will be long”
So, advises Achilles, the Greeks should all sail home; Agamemnon’s “scheme” is not going to work. Achilles’ old mentor, Phoenix, is up next. He comes from a rather dysfunctional family: he slept with his father’s mistress because his mother begged him to do it, and when his father found out and cursed him, he decided to kill the old man. “But a god checked my anger” (9.559) with the warning that he would be remembered with the taboo label of father-killer. After some travels, Phoenix ended up serving as a kind of father-figure to baby Achilles. After glutting on chunks of meat,
“all too often you soaked the shirt on my chest,
spitting up some wine, a baby’s way…” (9.593-594).
Why does he recount his backstory? Phoenix reminds Achilles that he was like a substitute son to Phoenix, and makes the same appeal for Achilles to relent. Consider the story of Meleager, when Artemis unleashed that Calydonian boar, and Meleager’s wife Cleopatra, and more anger and more war. Don’t let it be too late. If Achilles rejects Agamemnon’s offer, he takes on himself responsibility for the folly of this feud, since it is an honorable offer. Anger is overwhelming his own honor and spirit. But after all this, Achilles says it degrades Phoenix to “curry favor with that man” (9.748). Achilles signals Patroclus to prepare a bed for Phoenix, which should signal to the others it’s time to leave.
Ajax loudly tells Odysseus this is hopeless, that Achilles is too “savage” (9.769). “Achilles, / put some human kindness in your heart” (9.780-781). So Ajax, the third of the delegates, makes his case — the weakest of the three since that’s not how it works! And Achilles gets himself all in a tizzy again: “But my heart still heaves with rage / whenever I call to mind that arrogance of his” (9.789-790). He may be giving an inch when he says that he’ll not return to battle … until the Trojans drive back the Greeks all the way to the ships.
Odysseus reports the failure of the delegation to Agamemnon, that Achilles is unrelenting in his rage. In an outburst, Diomedes accuses Agamemnon of merely having plunged Achilles even “deeper in his pride” (9.854). So that’s that; everyone goes to sleep.