The Iliad

by: Homer

Important Quotations Explained

3
Cattle and fat sheep can all be had for the raiding,
tripods all for the trading, and tawny-headed stallions.
But a man’s life breath cannot come back again—
. . .
Mother tells me,
the immortal goddess Thetis with her glistening feet,
that two fates bear me on to the day of death.
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. . . .

With these words in Book 9, Achilles rejects the embassy of Achaean commanders come to win him back to the war effort. His response here shows that Agamemnon’s effrontery—which he discusses earlier in his speech—does not constitute the sole reason for his refusal to fight. Achilles also fears the consequences in store for him if he remains in Troy. His mother, Thetis, has told him that fate has given him two options—either live a short but glorious life in Troy or return to Phthia and live on in old age but obscurity. As he confronts this choice, the promise of gifts and plunder—cattle, fat sheep, stallions—doesn’t interest him at all. Such material gifts can be traded back and forth, or even taken away, as his prize Briseis was. In contrast, the truly precious things in the world are those that cannot be bought, sold, seized, or commodified in any way. These include glory and life itself.

The choice that Achilles must make in this scene is between glory and life; it is not merely a matter of whether to accept the gifts or to continue protesting Agamemnon’s arrogance. At this point in the epic, Achilles has chosen life over glory, and he explains that he plans to return to Phthia. However, the allure of glory later proves irresistible when he finds a compelling occasion for it—avenging the death of his beloved friend Patroclus.