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The Iliad by Homer is an epic poem focused on the wrath of the character Achilles. This wrath guided Achilles to be a great warrior for the Greeks during the Trojan War, but this wrath also extended into his relationships with his fellow Greeks and Trojan enemies. The greatest example of the nature of his wrath appeared when Achilles was presented on two occasions with the ability to respond to requests made by his own Greek King, Agamemnon, and the Trojan King, Priam. Achilles responded quite oppositely to these requests because Agamemnon committed several key mistakes that caused Achilles to refuse his request, but Priam committed several key acts that allowed him to be successful in transcending the wrath of Achilles.
In order to understand the reasons that King Priam was successful in his request to Achilles, it is crucial to examine why Agamemnon was not able to achieve the same success. The most obvious reason why Agamemnon failed was because he sent delegation to present his request. Rather than going himself, Agamemnon sent Odysseus, Ajax, and Phoenix. Achilles welcomed these representatives into his home and proclaimed, “Even in my anger, of all Achaeans, you are the closest” (9.240-241). Though these were obviously great friends of Achilles and he may not have responded positively to Agamemnon, it showed a lack of respect for Achilles, and Achilles recognized this. “He would not look me in the eye, dog that he is! I will not share one word of counsel with him, nor will I act with him” (9.455-456). Agamemnon was making a tremendous request of Achilles to fight after being betrayed by his own country, and considering the seriousness of the request and the possible outcome of the war, it was crucial that Agamemnon, the commander of the Greeks, personally present this request. Because of this blatant arrogance, Achilles refused to grant Agamemnon’s request.
Also, Agamemnon’s request was rejected because there were selfish motives behind his request. It was not until the Greeks began losing that Agamemnon even considered humbling himself to approach Achilles, and it was then only after the persistent advice of his countrymen. They told Agamemnon to “contrive some way of making peace with him by friendly gifts and affectionate words” (9.134-135). Agamemnon showed no signs of true remorse and arrogantly believed that Achilles would honor his request simply because he was the king. “So let Achilles bow to me, considering that I hold higher rank and claim the precedence of age” (9.194-196). Agamemnon was not seeking to restore the friendship he had lost by selfishly stealing Achilles’ war bride; he only wanted to save himself from sure defeat at the hands of the Trojans. He knew that the only way to conquer the Trojans was to have the unmatched strength and reputation of Achilles and selfishly requested that Achilles join the war without admitting to Achilles that his actions were wrong.
Because of Agamemnon’s selfish motives, it was obvious to Achilles that he could gain nothing by succumbing to Agamemnon’s request. Immediately after Achilles’ war bride was taken, he proclaimed, “I swear a day will come when every Achaean soldier will groan to have Achilles back. That day you shall no more prevail on me than this dry wood shall flourish – driven though you are, and though a thousand men perish before the killer, Hektor” (1.283-289). Achilles would have actually lost honor by breaking this emotional vow to never fight for Agamemnon because he knew that rejoining the war would only cause him to appear weak to his fellow warriors. Instead, Achilles chose to retain his honor by not allowing Agamemnon to be successful.
Agamemnon was also unsuccessful because of his means of attempting to regain Achilles as a warrior. Agamemnon had the audacity to bribe a great warrior by offering him such things as gold, horses, and women. All of these were items that Achilles could easily acquire by his own power. “His gifts I abominate, and I would give not one dry shuck for him” (9.470-471). Agamemnon also foolishly offered one of his own daughters as a bride to Achilles. Agamemnon was apparently not thinking about the consequences of this arrangement because if Achilles had accepted such an offer, he would have become Agamemnon’s son-in-law. “The daughter of Agamemnon, son of Atreus, I will not take in marriage. Let her be as beautiful as pale-gold Aphrodite, skilled as Athena of the sea-grey eyes. I will not have her at any price” (9.474-478). Achilles would never desire to be related to a man who had just severely damaged his pride. Agamemnon, however, failed to see this and offered a multitude of gifts to persuade Achilles to join the war, but this bribery caused him to be unsuccessful.
Also, the nature of the wrong that Agamemnon committed against Achilles severely damaged his chances of gaining favor with Achilles. Not only did Agamemnon steal Achilles’ beloved war bride, he also damaged Achilles’ pride by cheating him of his kleos. For this reason, Achilles had a personal battle with Agamemnon, and rejoining the war would represent defeat for Achilles. “Give in to Agamemnon? I think not, neither to him nor to the rest” (9.385-386). Achilles was certainly determined to deny Agamemnon the satisfaction of a personal victory over such a great warrior. Though Achilles chose to remove himself from the war, he was forced to do so by Agamemnon because he saw no other way to defend his great pride. Achilles had certain kleos awaiting him if he fought in the Trojan War, but he felt that he was denied this opportunity by his own king who was simply saving his own honor after being forced to return Chryseis to her father. Therefore, Agamemnon showed his great pride by stealing Achilles’ war bride and, more importantly, his honor and certain glory.
Just as there are distinct reasons for the failure Agamemnon’s request, there are distinct reasons for the success of King Priam’s request. Most obviously, the fact that Priam went personally to confront Achilles allowed him to be successful. “Priam, the great king of Troy, passed by the others, knelt down, took in his arms Achilles’ knees, and kissed the hands of the wrath that killed his sons” (24.570-573). With this single act, King Priam showed great respect, and the great warrior recognized the magnitude of this act. This was a man who was mourning his son but still found the strength to kiss the very hands that murdered his son.
Also, both Achilles and Priam shared the common bond of grief because both of these men were consumed by strong emotions. “Then both were overborne as they remembered; the old king huddled at Achilles’ feet wept, and wept for Hektor, killer of men, while great Achilles wept for his own father as for Patroklos once again; and sobbing filled the room” (24.612-617). While Achilles mourned Patroklos and remembered his own father, Priam mourned Hektor, his son. This is very interesting because Achilles only killed Hektor because Hektor killed Patroklos, Achilles’ closest friend. Achilles was finally able to see beyond his wrath because of his grief and sympathize with the suffering king.
Additionally, Priam was able to capitalize on the fact that he represented a father figure to Achilles because of his age and great respect. “Remember your own father, Achilles, in your godlike youth: his years like mine are many, and he stands upon the fearful doorstep of old age” (24.581-584). Priam commanded Achilles to think about his own father so that he could draw similarities. These similarities ended, however, when Priam commanded Achilles to realize that his father still had a living son. “Ah, but he may nonetheless hear news of you alive, and so with glad heart hope through all his days for the sight of his dear son, come back from Troy, while I have deathly fortune” (24.587-591). This statement allowed a great warrior who was a son to identify with a king who was the father of a great warrior.
Achilles was also more responsive to Priam because Priam had committed no wrong against Achilles. Though Priam was the king of the Trojans, Achilles’ sworn enemy, he had not offended Achilles like Agamemnon had. Achilles had no personal battle with Priam because this king came with pure motives. Priam said, “It is for [Hektor] that I have come among these ships, to beg him back from you, and I bring ransom without stint” (24.600-602). The reason Priam confronted Achilles was to simply retrieve the body of his dead son. Priam did not seek revenge even though Achilles was the one who murdered his son and desecrated the body, and Achilles took notice of this unselfish act to the point of granting the great king the time he wanted to mourn Hektor.
It is also important to notice that a major contributing factor to Priam’s success was the role of the gods. Zeus commanded, “In fear of me, let him relent and give back Hektor’s body” (24.140-141). Zeus also provided a Wayfinder that was to “bring [Priam] across the lines into the very presence of Achilles” (24.183-184). It was only through the role of the gods that this exchange between Priam and Achilles even occurred, but Achilles was not a puppet for the gods because he still had the free will to choose whether or not to grant the request of Priam. Achilles also knew that he was dealing with a higher power by desecrating the body of a dead man. Though Zeus commanded Achilles to return the body, it was ultimately Achilles’ decision because of the manner in which Priam approached Achilles.
In all, Achilles was given two opportunities in which he had to choose either accept or deny requests given by men of distinct honor. He denied the request of his own king to rejoin the war to help save the Greeks from sure defeat but granted the request of the enemy king to return the body of his fallen son. Achilles did so because of specific actions each took in their methods of negotiation. Achilles merely wanted someone to come to him personally and make a request to a warrior of great honor. Priam successfully met these requirements, but Agamemnon failed because of his arrogance and pride. As a result, Achilles denied Agamemnon, and Priam was able to give his son a proper burial.
Homer. “The Iliad.” Western Literature in a World Context: The Ancient World through the
Renaissance. Ed. Paul Davis et al. vol 1. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. 25-156.
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