The Iliad

by: Homer

Books 9–10

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 (9.138139). 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.