Conversations with Students IV: The Embassy to Achilleus and Death of Dolon

This seminar focused on two particular episodes and in its own way two particular characters: the embassy to Achilleus as it is known, from Book IX, and the Doloneia, the potentially interpolated episode of the traitorous Dolon, and his unfortunate run-in with Diomedes and Odysseus. Even though this seminar only covers Books IX and X of Homer’s Iliad, they are packed full of information, complexity, and interesting questions. Let us first examine the structure of the two books.

After the Trojans route and defeat the Achaians during Book VIII, mighty Hektor decides to camp on the Trojan Plain, outside the walls of Ilion, for the first time in the nine years that the war has been ongoing. This, understandably, freaks Agamemnon, leader of the Achaians out, and in a true testament to his meddle as a commander, his first instinct is to instruct all the men to flee back to their homes by ship. Diomedes, who has recently seen his star in ascent (Cf. his aristeia of Bk. V), immediately declines and derides the course of action, and Nestor, wisest and eldest Achaian on the battlefront, assents with him, but “completes his argument,” with the suggestion that an embassy of trusted men should be sent to propitiate and placate Achilleus (9. 95-113). Agamemnon agrees to this action saying that “[he] was mad in the persuasion of [his] heart’s evil.” Nestor then with great politic suggests that Aias the Greater, Phoinix, and Odysseus be sent to placat Achilleus without allowing or forcing Agamemnon to nominate himself. Here ensues the first question we considered during seminar:

1) Why were these three men chosen, and would the embassy have had a greater effect had Agamemnon led it himself?

The first thing which must be noted in answer to this question is that Nestor suggests these three men before the reader ever finds out the thoughts of imperious Agamemnon. Regardless of exactly what Agamemnon might have planned–and in fact the plan to even supplicate Achilleus comes from Nestor–it is Nestor’s wise and guiding hand which determines who will be sent. That said, seeing as the last time Achilleus saw Agamemnon Athene had to prevent Achilleus from slaying Agamemnon, the three men chosen will undoubtedly have a more positive ethos and rapport with Achilleus. And as we see in the speeches of Phoinix and Odysseus in an obvious way (speaking of “glory like an immortal”, Odysseus, and childhood memories, Phoinix), there is plenty of pathos too. Even Aias, terse as he is, offers arguably the best logic of the three.

In Aias’ speech he very quickly observes a potential flaw in the reasoning of Achilleus. He mentions that even when a man’s brother is killed, he will accept a blood-price and be placated, but Achilleus, pitiless as he is, is now offered back his woman, and seven more, and he will not accept them. (9. 630-639) Is Aias’ reasoning here correct, or is the hypocrisy of Achilleus fighting for a man who has stolen his “woman” too much? One has to wonder: in Book III, Menelaos seemed very willing to fight against Paris for Helen, though she was very much “sullied” by him in the way that men and women lie together. And Menelaos, angry as he was, did accept the terms that if he won, the Trojans would keep their city after paying recompense and returning Helen. Is Achilleus’ character simply stronger than Menelaos’? Or is he pitiless, as he is described?

After the three men and two heralds return from their embassy in failure, Book X begins, and Agamemnon and Menelaos cannot sleep. With the Trojans camped right outside their walls, on the plain, the war is finally going to make its way to the Achaians’ ships–without the aid of their greatest soldier, Achilleus. Something must be done: so Nestor, Diomedes, the Aiantes’, Odysseus, Meges, and Idomeneus are roused. A spy mission, then in close-council, is suggested, and Diomedes, recently having achieved some glory for himself (his aristeia in Bk V, his bold words in defense of the war at the beginning of Book IX (9. 31-49), and his callous remarks about Achilleus after he does not agree to return (9. 696-705)) is keen to volunteer, but he requests a second man because: “When two go together, one of them at least looks forward to see what is best; a man by himself, though he be careful, still has less mind in him than two, and his wits have less weight.” (10. 223-226). Agamemnon then gives Diomedes free-reign to choose whichever man he thinks will be best equipped to handle the situation (while secretly worrying that Menelaos will be chosen (10. 240-241)); and naturally, Diomedes chooses the most cunning and capable Achaian to join him: Odysseus.

The two of them traipse through the night in search of the Trojan camp and Hektor to view the position of the Trojans and decipher their plans for the next day. Unbeknownst to the Achaians, however, Hektor has himself asked for volunteers to do the same thing, and a fool, Dolon, has volunteered to spy, on the condition that he be given Achilleus’ chariot and horses should he be successful and is described as, “an evil man to look on, but was swift-footed; moreover he was a single son among five sisters.” (10. 316-319) In the physical and masculine culture of the Archaic Greeks, Dolon already has two major strikes against him, being womanly and ugly–but he is also covetous and delusional. He claims that he will go straight to the tent of Agamemnon–somehow getting past the seven-hundred sentries and wall and ditch that the Achaians have recently built. A major question which is asked the students is this: does Hektor show his inability to lead as a strategic commander in this situation? Now, there is ample literature calling Book X itself an interpolation, and even more claiming that there is a Greek nationalist bias present in Homer. But from a purely literary standpoint, the students are rather unimpressed here with Hektor’s lack of foresight. They do, however, suggest that at least he chose an expendable man–but that reasoning does not hold up under scrutiny, because after Dolon is caught, he quickly and with little prodding reveals the location of the new Thracian camp–which leads to the death of 13 men, including their king Rhesos, and the leading off of their horses which were fated to save Troy should only they drink from the waters of Xanthos/Skamandros. So, Dolon, in all his traitorous nature, could be argued to be a man who cost the Trojans the war.

800px-Rhesos_MNA_Naples Diomedes and Odysseus (Lycurgus, @360 BCE)

The students thought that it would be difficult to dislike a character more than Pandaros or Thersites. Dolon, however, is universally despised for his cowardly and traitorous nature. If Aristotle is correct, therefore, in saying: ”

“For moral excellence is concerned with pleasures and pains; it is on account of pleasure that we do bad things, and on account of pain that we abstain from noble ones. Hence we ought to have been brought up in a particular way from our very youth, as Plato says, so as both to delight in and to be pained by the things that we ought; for this is the right education.” (Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle 1104b 9-13, Barnes tr.)

Then, perhaps our students have a chance. For Dolon is certainly hateful, and he is justly despised even by the young.


Conversations with Students III: Defeat, Destruction, and Catastrophe on the Trojan Plain

The body of text that we covered in preparation for this seminar was technically Homer’s Iliad Books VI-VIII, and just through the very beginning of Book IX. During that time, the students encountered the odd exchange between Glaukos and Diomedes of vows of friendship and an exchange of armor of wildly disparate values (Glaukos’ gold armor was worth 100 oxen and Diomedes’ 9), but the students were quick to remind that at least Glaukos left the encounter with his life, so perhaps the 91 oxen difference is value is at least one or two short of the value Glaukos lays on his life.

Much of the remainder of Book VI is given to Hektor briefly leaving the battlefield in order to order a sacrifice to Athene within the walls of Troy, to collect his brother Paris, who is sitting about his bedchamber, doing nothing, like a pale shadow of Achilleus, and for Hektor poignantly to see his son, Astyanax, and his wife, Andromache for the last time.

Book VII then carries on with the fighting and Apollo and Athene decided that yet another one on one combat between champions is in order: Apollo chooses Hektor, the greatest warrior of the Trojans, and when Hektor calls out his challenge to the Achaians, only Menelaos attempts to accept it–but his older and more prudent brother, Agamemnon, stops him from volunteering, insisting that Hektor is “by far the greater man”. Nestor, the wise old counselor of the Achaians, then tells a story in typical fashion about him once defeating a great champion named Ereuthalion, and the Achaians now shamed and full of fighting spirit have 9 intrepid champions volunteer to fight: Agamemnon, Diomedes, Aias the Greater, Aias the Lesser (The two Aias’ are called the “Aiantes” when referred to together), Idomeneus, Meriones, Eurypylos, Thoas, and Odysseus. Each man then has a lot assigned, and with a prayer for Diomedes, Aias the Greater, or Agamemnon to be chosen, Nestor shakes the helmet and shoots the lot. Aias’ lot is chosen, and he proceeds to seriously task Hektor during the fight: penetrating his shield twice a spear, tearing Hektor’s neck, and crushing his shield inward with a rock while sustaining no damage himself. Unfortunately, night comes and the two champions are separated by the heralds, Idaios and Talthybios.

Book VII then ends with the Trojan advisor, Antenor, sagaciously suggesting that the Trojans just give Helen and the stolen possessions of Menelaos back to the Achaians, but Paris demurred, and for some reason, his father Priam, king of Troy, agrees to send the possessions back but not Helen. Of course the Achaians take this as a slap in the face, and they do not accept the fulsome offering from the Trojans. All this said, the seminar we had to today largely focused on why the Achaians and Trojans are still fighting after 9 long years of war. Several suggestions ensued.

1) Helen is a political object which was possessed by Menelaos, king of Sparta, and she was stolen by a foreign dignitary, Paris, and therefore an act of war was made by Troy against Sparta. In the background to this is the fact that many of the great men around then Achaia, Argos, and what would come later to be called Hellas or Greece had all been suitors to Helen before Menelaos was chosen as winner. During this process, Odysseus, seeking after his own interest in winning Penelope, niece of Tyndareus (father of Helen) suggested that Tyndareus have every suitor honor the decision of Helen and Tyndareus on husband and promise forever to protect Helen and her husband. The idea behind this oath was to keep the suitors from outright murdering Helen, her father, and her new husband in a collectively spurned rage. Little did any of them expect that they would later be honor-bound to mass armies, cross the Aegean Sea, and fight a ten year long war, which few enough of them would return from.

2) The second reason that the students gave for why the war rages on is the champions/heroes’ desire for further enlarging and expanding their kleos or honor. This claim might see some evidence with Pandaros, fool that he is, being persuaded by Athene to shoot his arrow at Menelaos in a misbegotten attempt to win honor at the expense of continuing the war on (4. 115-140). Also, Diomedes several times distinguishes himself as a great battler, susceptible to shaming (4. 425-430) and desirous of wonderful honor during his heroic and god-like deeds during his aristeia all throughout Book V. But the problem with this perspective was that in the first nine books of Homer’s Iliad there are five attempts by the Achaians or the Trojans alone or in tandem to draw the war to a quick end–all five of which occur during a Two day stint (Books III-VII are one long day of fighting, Book VIII another long one during which the Trojans rout the Achaians with the favor of Zeus, and Book IX begins on the same night as Book VIII).

The first time the Achaians show their weakness and desire to leave is actually the same day spoke of in Book III but is found back in Book II. Agamemnon devises a “reverse psychology” sort of speech where he tells the Achaians that they should just go home because Zeus must have falsely promised Agamemnon Troy (2. 119-153). Instead of having their battle spirits raised, the men of the Achaians just start heading back towards their ships, and it takes a command by Hera to Athene to rouse the men back up through the voice of Odysseus and then the liquid-honey voice of Nestor to get the men to stay. The point is though Odysseus suggests that it is disgraceful to return home after a long time empty-handed, that these men are all tired and beaten down.

The second time both the Achaians and Trojans show a desire for a quick end is when Paris suggests to his brother Hektor single-combat against Menelaos, winner take Helen, receive war-restitution, and the items stolen from Sparta alongside Helen. Menelaos hears of this opportunity, and with the assent of all his people (and likely the Trojans too), proceeds to beat Paris senseless (its true; he knocks him over with his spear, breaks his sword over Paris’ head, and then attempts to choke him with his own helmet’s chin-strap) (3. 375-400). Unfortunately for both sides, Aphrodite then saves Paris and deposits him safely back in his bedchambers with Helen, who all too humanly, is disgusted with her wretched and cowardly husband.

The third time both Achaians and Trojans, and even the gods Athene and Apollo, show a desire to end the war is when in Book VII a second single combat (on the same day as the first) is suggested between Hektor and an unnamed Achaian champion, who after a rousing speech by Nestor, and nine men volunteer, ends up being Aias the Greater, who is chosen by lots (as summarized above as well). This battle is less one-sided than the Paris and Menelaos battle in a way, but Aias essentially dominates it until the heralds Talthybios and Idaios stop it do to the onset of darkness, and ostensibly, because both men are so beloved, that neither side really wants to see either die on account of pathetic Paris.

The fourth and most pathetic attempt to end the war (until we see the fifth at the beginning of Book IX) is Antenor’s suggestion to the Trojan council that the Trojans just give Helen back to the Achaians with Menelaos’ possessions and be done with it all. After two failed attempts at ending the war that day, Antenor reasonably assumes that the will of the people is to end the war, with Troy not being sacked. As reasonable as his perspective is, Paris demurred, and for some reason, Priam places the desires of Paris above the will of his people. Is this perhaps because he would prefer to see Troy destroyed than it further suffer disgrace at the hands of his beautiful but weak son? One is led to wonder, but the thought is never confirmed by him.

After Book VIII and Zeus’ decree that the Trojans shall smash the Achaians back until Achilleus retakes the field of battle (after his friend Patroklos dies), Agamemnon begins Book IX disconsolate. He is so disconsolate that now, without using reverse psychology, he suggests to his counselors that they just retreat (9. 18-31). Zeus is just too strong! Naturally, Diomedes, the young and name-making Achaian, who had just fought with the gods Ares and Aphrodite is sick of this sort of attitude and claims that if he and Sthenelos were left alone on the battlefield that they would sack Troy themselves. But all that said, over a span of two days, the men show just how tired, worn-out, fatigued, exhausted they are. Though kleos might be the immortal measure of a man’s life and power, his mortal limits apparently must be taken into account.

In the end, the students were asked just who was keeping this war going, gods or men, and in two of the accounts gods stepped in to keep the war from ending (examples 1 and 2), but in the following three (Examples 3,4, and 5) it was mortal men who continued to fight. What keeps them going? Or is it who? With these questions we left seminar, though the issue of Helen, her acute ability to spot Aphrodite through her deceptions, her keen hand for weaving and her take on all this remains for us to discuss another day.

Conversations with Students II: Wars between Gods and Mortals in Homer’s Iliad

“…so now this is no horrible war of Achaians and Trojans, but the Danaans are beginning to fight even with the immortals.” (Homer, Iliad, Bk V 379-380. Lattimore tr.)

A lot has happened in the text since our last conversation: Agamemnon has failed to rouse his men, just to leave the task to better speakers: Odysseus and Nestor. We have met Thersites, ugliest and worst of the Achaians, and seen him brutally, but necessarily dealt with. We caught our first glimpse of heroic looking but cowardly Paris, and the grim and honest berating of him by his far superior brother, Hektor. We then saw the view of the Achaians from the top of the Trojan Wall, the so-called teichoscopia, where Helen described Agamemnon, Odysseus, Aias the Greater, Menelaos and Idomeneus to Priam, while, sadly, she did not see her brothers Castor and Polydeuces because they had already fallen.

We meet the great fool, Pandaros, and his cursed bow, and his failed attempts at eternal glory–letting loose shafts at Menelaos and Diomedes, injuring both, but killing neither. We see Aphrodite make a pest of herself on the battle field, saving Paris from dying and ending the Trojan War with no more death, and then attempting to save her son Aineias, but allowing a mortal “pin-prick” to make her lose her grasp, leaving the task of saving her son to her much stronger half-brother, Apollo.

We viewed the aristeia of Diomedes, or his heroic, and near invincible deeds after Athene breathes strength back into him and lets “the mist fall” from his eyes so that he might see Ares, Aphrodite, and Apollo on the battlefield.

Some of the major questions which were asked:

Who, exactly, was at fault for the rekindling of the Trojan War? This question involves the actions and mutual agreements of Zeus, the direct intervention of Athene, and the conscious decision of a mortal Trojan: Pandaros. So, in its simplest form, the question boils down to this: did Pandaros have the choice to shoot his arrow at Menelaos and restart the war, and even if he had not, would the gods have found a way to insight the war without him, or some other human?

This situation is this: a truce had been called between the Trojans and the invading Achaians after nine long years of war in order to allow for a single-combat, winner-take-all, fight to the death between Paris, who started the war by stealing Helen, and Menelaos, the husband from whom Paris stole Helen. The tension was palpable. During the fight, Menelaos immediately wins the upper hand over Paris, knocking him to the ground with his spear-cast, then breaking his sword over the head of Paris, and then attempting to strangle him with his own chin-strap. Paris, beloved as he is by Aphrodite, is saved by her in a mist, and she safely deposits him, unharmed and apparently washed and re-dressed, like a man “from a dance”, in the bedchambers of his stolen wife, Helen. Now, Helen is none too happy to see her husband, and she rebukes Aphrodite for not letting him die and the shame that she, Helen, will now have to endure from the other Trojan women, but after an Olympian response from Aphrodite, Helen capitulates.

In the aftermath of Aphrodite stealing Paris from the battle, Menelaos prowls about the battlefield, alone, looking for Paris. It is during this time that Zeus and Hera, high on Olympos, come to an agreement: should Zeus allow the destruction of Troy, his favorite city, so must Hera allow for one of her three favorites: Sparta, Mykenai, or Argos some day to be expunged by Zeus. Hera then sends Athene to convince some fool Trojan to “fire the arrow that will restart it all”, and that easily convinced and fooled Trojan is Pandaros–ever in search of, but just short of, eternal glory.

The question which occupied my students was this: was it Pandaros himself, the mortal, who was at fault for rekindling the war by shooting his arrow at defenseless Menelaos and reigniting hostilities between the Achaians and Trojans, or was it due to the divine influence of Athene–Hera–Zeus that the war began? Essentially, could the war have started again without human determination. Even had Pandaros not been the fool who was tempted, would not have some other mortal have been easily tempted, and was it not precisely because Pandaros had this quality (or lacked integrity) that he was chosen for the task? It is a difficult question, because there are times when the gods act of their own volition on the battlefield–Ares fighting and stripping armor of the fallen Periphas in Book V 840-855, or Apollo himself slapping the back of Patroklos’ back in Book XVI 785-795, and of course Aphrodite saving Aineias and attempting to save Paris just as Hephaistos saves the son of his priest, Idaios son of Phegeus, Book V lines 20-25. So, why exactly the gods needed a mortal man to enact their will is a troubling and ambiguous question which led the students to an even bigger and more difficult one: what exactly is the relationship between the men and the gods?

Some of the funnier analogies of the day were shared in answer to the question above: as ants are to humans so are humans to gods; puppets to puppeteers; favorite characters of dramas on an interactive stage. But then the analogies began to be earnest: perhaps the gods are like major sponsors and the mortals who receive their favors are like elite athletes. This analogy has some ground–the gods do not dispense their gifts evenly in the Ancient Hellenic world–they give to those already “gifted”. Diomedes, a prince, strong and clever, is healed and given the ability to see gods by Athene. Paris, a man remarkable for his handsome looks, is given Helen by Aphrodite, and then saved from death by her (Bk III 379-382). Odysseus, most cunning of all mortals, receives more favor and affection from Athene than any mortal–so much so that even his son receives her blessings (though, this all occurs in the Homer’s Odyssey). So, the question became, why did the gods dispense their gifts only to those men who were already great in some way or another? The students had an interesting, and very pragmatic response: because these men would be most capable of seeing to the will of the gods and accomplishing the tasks they were set to. Diomedes attacks and wounds both Aphrodite and Ares under the instruction of Athene, Odysseus helps in the construction of the Trojan Horse and destruction of Troy, and Agamemnon masses an army which floods and ends the nation of Troy as it is; by the students’ reasoning, it would be wasteful of the gods to give their gifts to lesser mortals–much like, one imagines, sponsors would feel about giving having some smaller, less influential mortal endorse their wares. The analogy, perhaps even more intelligent, was brought up of calling gods political backers/contributors and the men the politicians. Our students are becoming very perspicacious indeed.

The nature, though, of the relationship between the gods remains something of a mystery–perhaps once given contour and direction by the famous mysterious Eleusinian Mysteries, but the fact that the gods have favorites, can breed with mortals and have children with them (Aineias, Herakles, Sarpedon, and Achilleus–to name a few of the hero-children who were part of or frequently mentioned in Homer’s Iliad) means that the relationship is in many ways a close one for the Ancient men of Hellas. The gods frequently took the form of men, had the desires and passions of men, but their power was far greater. A question the students had, which I could only echo, was: what is the relationship between the prayers and offerings of men to gods (like hekatombs to propitiate) and the power of the gods? Did the gods become so furious with mortals for neglecting to sacrifice simply out of vengeful anger? Or was their an element of survival instinct in so bitterly punishing those who transgressed: Agamemnon had to sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia because of either himself or his father neglecting Artemis; Tyndareus was himself curses to have adulterous daughters (Helen and Klytaimestra most famously) for neglecting Aphrodite; and Apollo in Book I doles out plague to the Achaians for Agamemnon treating his priest, Chryses, without due respect. Is the anger which the gods feel at these snubs simply due to the fact that such inferior and unworthy creatures might dare not recognize their might and majesty, or is there some relationship between the beliefs and offerings to the power and splendor of each Olympian god, just as proper funerary rights and the subsequent cults were essential to the deification of a hero (cf. the story of Herakles and Philoktetes burning his hydra-poison-ridden body in Sophocles’ Philoctetes). The question, here, remains open.