War and Redemption: Achilles’ Refusal
The epic Iliad begins with the anger or wrath of Achilles (Achilleus or Akhilleus) as he withdraws himself and his own private army from the sandy beaches of Troy. The following passages narrate the anger and ‘hesitation’ of Achilles during the war. From the selected lines from the narrative, we find evidence of such steadfast disagreement between Achilles and king Agamemnon of Greece. The following arguments present Achilles’ firm decision not to return to war in spite of the many peace offerings and persuasion from his fellow warriors.
In the given passage, it is evident from Achilles’ response of his clear and blatant refusal to return to the battlefield as he is persuaded by the Greek hero, Odysseus: “But I will speak as appears to me to be best; and I think that neither Agamemnon, the son of Atreus, nor the Greeks will persuade me; since there is no gratitude to him who fights ceaselessly with hostile men” (Book IX, 313). The manner in which Achilles’ addresses Odysseus provides a clear understanding of his selfish contempt for Agamemnon who took Briseis for his own selfish reasons. Achilles’ nature is also evident in the passage with regard to Briseis; he is possessive and easily angered even by the slightest of things. He does not give any respect, especially to the Grecian king, except for other heroes, and eventually, Priam of Troy. The succeeding passage also presents Achilles’ prior reasons over his bias and frustration for Agamemnon: “From all these have I carried off many and precious spoils, and bearing them, have given all to Agamemnon, son of Aterus; whilst he, remaining behind swift ships, receiving them, hath distributed few but retained many” (Book IX, 323). Thus, this presents Agamemnon’s devaluation of the services of Achilles, even prior wars before the Trojan conflict. The passage also implies Achilles unmatched skill and dedication toward Greece back then, but due to Agamemnon’s selfishness, Achilles held the Greek king in his disfavour.
The next passage declares the ultimate reluctance of Achilles of returning to the war, taking into consideration the advice given to him by his nymph-mother Thetis:
“For my goddess mother, silver-footed Thetis, declares that the double destinies lead me on to the end of death. If, on the one hand, remaining here, I wage war around the city of Trojans, return is lost to me, but my glory will be immortal; but if, on the other hand, I return home to my dear fatherland, my excellent glory is lost, by my life will be lasting, nor will the end of death size upon me. And to others also would I give advice to sail home, for ye will not find an end of lofty Ilium” (Book IX, 414).
From this lengthy argument, Achilles implies his hesitation to go back into war. Aside from the advice given by his mother, he is also concerned with his welfare and advices the same for the other Greek heroes and warriors. It may be said that Achilles may have felt a shred of fear for battle but his overall nature and characteristic negates this idea. His remonstrations in this passage show his underlying attempt to throw off Agamemnon as one his personal slights against the selfish king, to consciously negate the Grecian manpower in terms of army number and also morale. In a way, Achilles also responds to the same selfishness and imprudence given by Achilles through a more subtle yet commanding way.
We have then established the personal reasons of Achilles in his reluctance to go back into war through the following conditions: that he was first disrespected by Agamemnon through the abduction of his own slave-woman Briseis, who was first given to Achilles himself. This produces a slight in Achilles respect and consequently his burgeoning patience with Agamemnon by taking what was rightfully his. This is some context in a more personal perspective or character of Achilles as a strong-willed and a ‘man for himself’ type of attitude. Second, it is also important to note the pent-up frustration of Achilles as implied in line 323 of book nine as he had rendered his services to the Greek empire as well as Agamemnon. His efforts in procuring spoils of war for Agamemnon himself were not given due importance; his efforts went unrecognized in spite of his heroic deeds and his own attempt in giving honor to Greece and Agamemnon. But the Grecian king failed to recognize such deeds as he was also too malevolent and proud of his own accomplishment that he had failed to see through Achilles character as a great asset in war and in a more personal way, a man consumed by his own anger and sometimes, arrogance.
Third, the mention of the advice given by Achilles’ mother works in two ways: one, the advice acts as his divine message or symbol in convincing himself not to return to war. Coming from the advice of his own mother, Achilles prompts his choice to a lesser and much degrading one in terms of the warrior’s path. He had opted to choose a life well-lived without honor instead of dying in the battlefield and eventually immortalizing his name and deeds forever. Naturally, a warrior would choose to die in the battlefield in the name of some self-serving honor; but Achilles, motivated by his own contempt with the Greek party, decides to withdraw from the battle and urges other warriors to do the same.
The succeeding paragraphs then further enhance Achilles’ apprehension toward returning to the war. In contrast with the aforementioned passages, we then turn to Achilles’ gradual understanding of the war without any pretence of Agamemnon’s own selfish whims. A number of Greek heroes including Odysseus and Ajax then talk or in some way ‘negotiate’ with the mighty hero in returning to the battle as phrased by Ajax: “And we must report to the Greeks with all haste, although it not be good. They now sit expecting us; but Achilles stores up within his breast a fierce and haughty soul, unyielding; nor does he regard the friendship of his companions with which we have honoured him at the ships beyond others” (Book IX, 619). This passage implies a plea for Achilles return not for the sake of their king, but of the many warriors who turn to Achilles for inspiration in the battlefield. However, after much reproach from the Greek warriors, Achilles replies: “Yet does my heart swell with indignation as often as I recollect those things, how the son of Atreus [Agamemnon] hath rendered me dishonoured among the Greeks, as if it were some contemptible stranger” (Book IX, 645). From the aforementioned conversation from Ajax and Achilles, it is clear that there is some evident bitterness and anger with Achilles’ response. Basing from the prior conversations in the first point, the selfless deeds of Achilles went unrecognized and even with the remonstration and appeal to Achilles’ warrior instincts; he did not leave himself to be drawn by the call of his demoralized warriors in the battlefield. He had further despised Agamemnon by sending ‘gifts’ to the warrior yet not releasing his Briseis to him. Finally, with this one final notion from Agamemnon, the king had already lost all attempts to convince Achilles in returning. Consequently, he had further insulted the mighty hero with an offer of other material gifts instead of satisfying his demand for the return of Briseis.
From the following passages, it is clear that Achilles personality and nature capitalizes on his wrath or anger, which consumes him yet gives him a clear and definitive decision toward his self-proclaimed destiny. Further, because of his own pride and arrogance, he had already a justified reason to hold king Agamemnon in contempt since he had already rendered services toward the king that he felt devalued and unrecognized. Thus, it can be concluded from the arguments of Achilles a rather selfish attitude toward the war. It is evident through his own actions that he was indeed a single, reckoning force apart from the Greek army yet he instils courage and strength toward his fellow warriors. Agamemnon only realizes this during the tide of the war where he had discreetly assured himself of Achilles’ himself and his army, as an asset in the way. Yet many disagreements sprung from both sides until the fateful event when Patroclus, his favourite nephew, donned Achilles’ armor and went to battle in his stead.
Homer. The Iliad. trans. Ian Johnston. Arlington, Va. Richer Resources Publications, 2007.