Agamemnon's council (Il 2.402-3): 8 little birdies caught by the snake. The birds have a mother-bird: Achilles (Il 2.308-16, Il 9.321-, Il 16.7-). The members all have something in
common with the universal hero, each according to his own character and relation with the gods.
There are four pairs:
Agamemnon and Menelaos: the old and the young king
Agamemnon is not presented very favourably. He has to be obeyed of course because he is
the leader and that is how armies work. But the poet shows him:
Like Achilles, he boasts of being the best of the Achaeans (Il 1.91), like Achilles he does foolish things when he is in the grip of anger (Il 1.101-, 19.85-).
Rhetorically of course his greatest sin is the insulting of our greatest hero.
- refusing Chryses, keeping Chryseis “because I prefer her to my wedded wife” (Il 1.113). This may be
honesty but then as now, you cannot say such things without condemning yourself.
- mishandling the Achilles situation
- accepting the wrong advice (Nestor and the Evil Dream)
- being harsh (Adrastos episode, Il 6.37)
- giving up too easily: in Il 11.264- he is wounded but fights on until the pain becomes "like the pain of a woman in childbirth".
Winning a war demands more than that, certainly more than quitting on a pain that every
woman has to go through. Besides, he does not pray to the gods like Diomedes or Glaucos (Il 16.513-). See also Il 14.74-.
- As shown in book 11, Agamemnon works on a 'first-in, first-out' principle. He is the first to attack, he himself is also the first
Menelaos is one of the addressee figures of the poem(2). He is "you" because "you" are young,
going out to war and capture girls, and dream of honor and great victories (like Achilles).
In short, you are the addressee of the Helen-myth. The basic
ironical contrast between your naive expectations and the actual situation you will find
yourself in, is the main point of Menelaos' Aristeia (book 17): instead of winning honor
and prizes, you will be fighting desperately for your life and to recover the dead body
of your friend. In the Odyssey he is not very happy about the whole affair (Od 4.97-).
Part of the rhetorical picture is that he is young, but a dutiful soldier: he never
shirks and he is always there when older, cleverer soldiers such as Agamemnon, Idomeneus, and Odysseus leave him to do the work.
Old soldiers never die
Idomeneus and Diomedes: the old and the young soldier
Idomeneus seems to be the type of the older, highly aristocratic 'professional soldier'.
He is honored most by Agamemnon (Il 4.255-), traces his lineage back to Minos himself.
Idomeneus is not a shining example of eagerness to fight (like Antilochos for instance),
see the humorous exchange he has with his therapon Meriones in his aristeia (Il 13.206-).
He does know how to fight well, he also knows to get out before things get too rough,
leaving his therapon to do the fighting (as Achilles does).
Diomedes has no therapon to take his place but he is learning the survival-knowledge of an Idomeneus.
In Homeric terms, this is "recognizing the gods" and drawing one step back before they kill you.
Diomedes is an ironical fantasy, in that the basic conundrum of Homeric warfare: how to find the
very narrow middle between "not far enough" and "too far"(3) is not a problem for him: with the
help of Athena, the goddess of know-how and know-when, he can easily do this.
He can be very brave and take great risks, but at the crucial time he is found with the wounded warriors at the back. We all know no harm will ever come to him,
as is proved by his easy sailing home in the Odyssey. He is of perfect behaviour:
unlike Achilles, when he is slighted by Agamemnon (Il 4.370-) he keeps his mouth shut and swallows the rebuke (though he does not forget it: Il 9.32-). He also knows, like Nestor, to say the right heroic things at the right time (Il 9.29-).
Telamonian Aias gets a very positive picture: he is the 'bulwark of the Achaeans', he is
always there where the situation is dire and he is near-unbeatable. He symbolizes the defensive strength and never-giving-up of Homer's people.
It is Aias with his laconic remarks who
almost gets Achilles to fight again. Without him, the Achaeans would have been
wiped out. Yet he is not a winner. He gets unmanned by Hector in defense of the ships, he
loses to Odysseus in the contest for Achilles' armor. The goddess of Victory
never helps him. He is the part of Achilles that speaks in Il 9.316-: 'I do all the work and get nothing for
it'. All this makes sense: defensive strength is indispensable, noble, but it does not give us victory. It only keeps us alive.
The Greater Aias is not a runner, but his companion, the son of Oileus, is. He is known
most of all for his skill in pursuing enemies on the run (Il 14.520-). Apart from that
he is shown to be a brave warrior. Both of them are aspects of Achilles: Achilles is 'greater'
in the sense that he is a hero of the counter-attack: he frees a beleaguered city from
the enemy so he is a defensive hero. In Achilles' aristeia however, his main occupation
is 'running': slaughtering enemies on the run. This is useful in war and gives you a reputation,
but Homer makes the silent point that it is not quite as honorable.
Nestor and Odysseus, the two councillors
Nestor represents the 'sweet voice' of heroism. In this capacity he rules the young generation (Il
1.252). He appears as an old man telling tall tales but he is more than that: as Achilles is the best man in
battle, Nestor is the best in assembly, winning every debate. He wins because if you dispute Nestor's advice, you are open to being called a coward, weakling or traitor. We cannot understand the Iliad if we do not understand Nestor. This, however, is really quite simple:
- Courage is the greatest force(4). See below.
- There are no excuses
- Not tomorrow, now is the time.
Even in the modern world, we still love
to hear this voice ("when the going gets tough, the tough get going"). We do need this voice to
keep us going but Homer has a few reflections to show us, perhaps to ensure that it is not the only voice that
we listen to:
- He is often wrong. It is no accident that the 'Deadly Dream' of book 2 comes in
the likeness of Nestor.
- His advice is often of the "I cannot do it, you must do it" kind. This is because
Nestor is an old man and has an excuse, but this is also a typical characteristic of
- He is harsh. Not just to his enemies, but to his own: his father's name Neleus (the pitiless) is quite
fitting: Nestor is the
only survivor of 12 brothers. How hard it must be to be a son of Nestor, is shown in
the picture of his brave son Antilochos (the first to kill a man, Il 4.457). It is almost ensured that
will get himself killed in his drive to prove himself. Antilochos is one explanation of Achilles.
- It is Nestor who brings out the slogan "let no one go home before having slept with
the wife of some Trojan..." (Il 2.354-). This is the crux of the Helen myth. He really knows how to motivate the men.
- Nestor and his pupil Diomedes think that "courage (or fighting spirit, ἀλκή) is the greatest force (Il 9.39)":
if you have enough fighting spirit, you can do anything.
This is a common form of magical thinking in which
the will can shape reality, if we just will it hard enough. The poets are here
to remind us that Zeus is the greatest force.
The picture of Nestor also reminds us that in the real world, it is more effective to talk
heroically than than to actually be a hero.
The 'voice of heroism' may not always be a completely sober voice: Il 11.632-7, 8.227-35, 7.467-
Odysseus the calculating hero (Il 11.401-), the champion of Athena and of metis (cleverness). Unlike Nestor, he is usually right. In
the Iliad he does not yet have the prominence that he has in the Odyssey and where he does (in the Doloneia for
instance, or in the second assembly) there is some suggestion of later addition by the poet. Here I will limit
the view to the Iliad.
Like Achilles, Odysseus is slighted by Agamemnon (Il 4.349-). This irritates him a little and he also has a wrath, albeit a short one (Il
4.494-). When Achilles obeys Athena in book 1, he is making a calculating move, aimed at his own advantage. At this
moment he is acting like an Odysseus. This strategy fails because it causes the death of Patrocles and thus indirectly his own death.
This difference between Odysseus and Achilles shows why Achilles is the greater hero: Achilles, like Hector, is a hero of shame. Odysseus does not seem to know any (Il 8.92).
So, not only is Achilles greater than any of the other heroes, he is all of them. There is no questioning his greatness or his beauty and he received from Zeus what he asked for. But as for happiness...