Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Embassy to Achilles


I've been neglecting this blog for too long and it's time for an update.

One of the most pivotal, and in my mind, well-written parts of the Iliad was Book IX- which is the same title as this blog entry. It entirely sums the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon and its failure would lead to the disastrous consequences of the second-third of the poem for Achilles, the result of his overweening pride and anger. There is also subtle gamesmanship going on, led by the master of that genre- Odysseus.

At the end of the day's fighting (in Book VIII), the Greeks are routed by Hector, with the blessing of Zeus. It was then that Agamemnon realized what a mistake he'd made by alienating Achilles at the beginning of the poem, and he sends an embassy to try and make peace with the raging leader of the Myrmidons. Three people are chosen to go to negotiate with Achilles, and each of them represents a different, desirable aspect to appeal to Achilles' honor:

Odysseus- wealth and power, the spoils of war
Phoenix- a warning of imminent ruin- and how overweening pride can cost the proudest dearly
Ajax- friendship and camaraderie

Achilles welcomes all three men into his tent, telling them that they are the comrades he loves most among the Greeks. After exchanges of pleasantries and the customary meal shared with friends and aristocratic peers, the embassy gets down to business.

Odysseus' appeal is the longest and most polished. The prizes that he offers Achilles would be enough to tempt most men into acquiescence to doing anything. Firstly, he conveys Agamemnon's offer of Briseis back to Achilles, along with an oath before the gods that he never touched her. In addition to Briseis, Agamemnon offers seven more beautiful women from Lesbos skilled in crafts plus twenty more of his personal picks of the captured Trojan women should the city fall, seven tripods, ten bars of gold, twenty cauldrons, a dozen horses, the hand of whichever of his daughters Achilles chooses in marriage, and seven cities to rule over. It is a monumental offer, and knowing Achilles' nature- his hunger for glory (which is partially recognized by the amount of loot one has taken), it seems like something that he would be foolish to spurn.

Odysseus did leave one thing out though- he did not tell Achilles that Agamemnon quipped: "Let him submit to me! I am the greater warlord, the greater man!"

Achilles however, sniffed a rat, and knew that Agamemnon's offer was not genuine. He is thus one of the few people in the Epic Cycle to see through Odysseus' deceptions. It wasn't that Agamemnon wouldn't have offered him the gifts, it was that Agamemnon would offer them as a price to pay for Achilles' service- and an affirmation of his own generosity rather than Achilles' worth on the battlefield. There is not a semblance of remorse from Agamemnon or admission that he had been in the wrong, and Odysseus made the fatal mistake (again, one of the few he makes) of not conveying the illusion that there had been one.

Achilles turns down Agamemnon's offer, stating to Odysseus that no amount of wealth could buy a life that was lost. He tells of his choice between the two fates laid down by his mother: a short life full of glory, or a long life full of love and happiness. Achilles opted to choose the former- so that his name would live on forever, but now that he has been denied this glory, he says he is choosing to go home, to choose life.

When Odysseus' appeals are turned down, Phoenix, a mentor of Achilles who had a large hand in raising him, moves to speak next. He tells the story of Meleager, whose refusal to fight nearly brought his country to ruin. As the enemies gathered in strength and stormed in, he still would not fight- even in the face of the offer of splendid gifts from his countrymen. Finally, Meleager was roused to fight by his wife, Cleopatra- but he paid the price of his refusal. He was able to fend off his enemies, true, but the gifts were refused him at the end, and his countrymen are not exactly grateful for his services. Phoenix warns Achilles not to make the same mistake.

But Achilles is still not moved. He could not care less about Agamemnon or his gifts, and refuses to concede. He does however relent on his resolution to sail home the next day, saying that he would decide in the morning whether to sail home or not.

Finally, Ajax is moved to speak. His speech was the shortest and and most direct, without any ulterior motives. He was open and honest, telling Achilles that they desired nothing more than to be his closest comrades and dearest friends. This moves Achilles to say that he will stay on with the army, but will not yet return to battle. He will only take up arms again when Hector rampages at his own ships.

With that, the three men leave to relay the bad news to Agamemnon.

There is subtle messaging and politicking going on throughout the chapter. Odysseus, as usual, is the most deceptive. Phoenix is more honest but certainly has a motive greater than Achilles at heart, at least according to Achilles' mindset. Ajax is the most honest and appeals directly to friendship. Nevertheless, Achilles refuses to yield. His status as the greatest warrior of the Greeks- and the respect that that position demands, is non-negotiable- even at the expense of the lives of Achilles' own comrades and all the earthly wealth that Agamemnon promises. The threat of their loss thus meant nothing to him, and from that point of view Phoenix is serving Agamemnon's, rather than Achilles' best interests. The embassy did not serve its purpose, and its failure would lead to the death of Patroclus in Book XVI of the poem.

In a way, Phoenix' warning came true after all. Achilles lost wealth- the wealth of friendship supplied by his best friend- and would enjoy none of what Agamemnon offers (or anything else he'd won in the war), for his own death was fated by the events that were set in motion. The embassy is thus a stark warning of what failure to negotiate can often lead to, and that pride often comes before the fall. Everyone lost due to the embassy's failure.

I wonder if Congress should be mandated to read this chapter of the Iliad?

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