If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy,
my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies.
With the Trojans poised to drive the Achaeans back to their ships, the Achaean troops sit brokenhearted in their camp. Standing before them, Agamemnon weeps and declares the war a failure. He proposes returning to Greece in disgrace. Diomedes rises and insists that he will stay and fight even if everyone else leaves. He buoys the soldiers by reminding them that Troy is fated to fall. Nestor urges perseverance as well, and suggests reconciliation with Achilles. Seeing the wisdom of this idea, Agamemnon decides to offer Achilles a great stockpile of gifts on the condition that he return to the Achaean lines. The king selects some of the Achaeans’ best men, including Odysseus, Great Ajax, and Phoenix, to communicate the proposal to Achilles.
The embassy finds Achilles playing the lyre in his tent with his dear friend Patroclus. Odysseus presents Agamemnon’s offer, but Achilles rejects it directly. He announces that he intends to return to his homeland of Phthia, where he can live a long, prosaic life instead of the short, glorious one that he is fated to live if he stays. Achilles offers to take Phoenix, who helped rear him in Phthia, with him, but Phoenix launches into his own lengthy, emotional plea for Achilles to stay. He uses the ancient story of Meleager, another warrior who, in an episode of rage, refused to fight, to illustrate the importance of responding to the pleas of helpless friends. But Achilles stands firm, still feeling the sting of Agamemnon’s insult. The embassy returns unsuccessful, and the army again sinks into despair.
The Greek commanders sleep well that night, with the exception of Agamemnon and Menelaus. Eventually, they rise and wake the others. They convene on open ground, on the Trojan side of their fortifications, to plan their next move. Nestor suggests sending a spy to infiltrate the Trojan ranks, and Diomedes quickly volunteers for the role. He asks for support, and Odysseus steps forward. The two men arm themselves and set off for the Trojan camp. A heron sent by Athena calls out on their right-hand side, and they pray to Athena for protection.
Meanwhile, the Trojans devise their own acts of reconnaissance. Hector wants to know if the Achaeans plan an escape. He selects Dolon, an unattractive but lightning-quick man, to serve as his scout, and promises to reward him with Achilles’ chariot and horses once the Achaeans fall. Dolon sets out and soon encounters Diomedes and Odysseus. The two men interrogate Dolon, and he, hoping to save his life, tells them the positions of the Trojans and all of their allies. He reveals to them that the Thracians, newly arrived, are especially vulnerable to attack. Diomedes then kills Dolon and strips him of his armor.
The two Achaean spies proceed to the Thracian camp, where they kill twelve soldiers and their king, Rhesus. They also steal Rhesus’s chariot and horses. Athena warns them that some angry god may wake the other soldiers; Diomedes and Odysseus thus ride Rhesus’s chariot back to the Achaean camp. Nestor and the other Greeks, worried that their comrades had been killed, greet them warmly.
Although the episodes in Books 9 and 10 take place during the same night, providing a break from the fighting, little continuity exists between them. The mission to Achilles’ tent occurs early in the evening, while the mission across the Trojan line occurs quite late—during the third watch, according to Odysseus, or around 3 a.m. The only seeming connection between the two books is the Greeks’ desperateness, accentuated by Achilles’ obstinacy, which troubles the commanders’ sleep and makes them so ready to meet. Despite this lack of continuity, some symmetry nevertheless exists between the two halves of the night. In each case, a meeting of the Achaean command yields a proposal by Nestor to send an expeditionary force to provide the Achaeans with fresh information. Odysseus goes on both expeditions. The mission to Achilles’ tent ends in failure, while the mission toward Troy brings success.
Whereas Achilles stews with rage, unwilling to consider the possibility that he might be overreacting to Agamemnon’s insulting actions, Agamemnon displays a levelheaded approach to the Achaean dilemma in heeding Nestor’s recommendation to reconcile himself with Achilles. “Mad, blind I was! / Not even I deny it,” he exclaims, acknowledging his fault in the rift (9.138–139). Yet, despite his seeming eagerness to repair his friendship with Achilles, Agamemnon never issues anything resembling an apology. Though he admits to having been “lost in my own inhuman rage,” he seeks to buy back Achilles’ loyalty rather than work with him to achieve some mutual understanding of their relationship (9.143). Achilles isn’t really seeking an apology, nor does he want simple recompense in the form of wondrous gifts. He wants restitution for the outrage that he has suffered: restoration of the honor and glory for which he has worked so hard and given so much.
While Agamemnon’s bountiful offer of sumptuous gifts to Achilles may seem a superficial gesture, it is important to remember that the ancients conceived of material possessions, whether won in battle or awarded by kings, as indicators of personal honor. Nevertheless, though Agamemnon is generous in his offerings, which he believes will “honor [Achilles] like a god,” he still essentially calls for Achilles to accept that his status is lower than Agamemnon’s (9.185). “Let him bow down to me! I am the greater king,” he cries out, illustrating that Agamemnon, though perhaps more pragmatic, is just as self-centered as Achilles (9.192).
The embassy to Achilles constitutes one of the most touching scenes in The Iliad. Homer achieves his effect largely through an exchange of narratives, which illuminate Achilles’ upbringing and hint at his ultimate fate beyond the scope of the epic. Ostensibly, each side presents these stories to persuade the other side, but Homer uses them to humanize Achilles, to give us a glimpse of his past and future. Although Achilles’ pride and rage define the thematic concerns of the epic, they also result in Achilles’ absence from most of the action of the poem. Accordingly, Homer has little opportunity to delineate the hero’s character. The embassy scene reveals the pressures that Achilles faced in Phthia and highlights the dilemma that he faces now, thus illuminating his inner struggles and thereby making him a richer character.