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.


One thought on “Conversations with Students IV: The Embassy to Achilleus and Death of Dolon

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