Agamemnon's council

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:

  1. 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.
    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
  2. 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-).
  3. The Aiantes

    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.
  4. 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:

    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...

  1. In apostrophe, direct address by the poet, e.g. Il 4.127, 4.146, 7.104 etc.
  2. A main theme of the Iliad. Above all in the Idomeneus - Patroclus contrast, in the picture of Diomedes, and in Nestor's advice to Antilochos (Il 23.306-)
  3. Nietsche would say "the Will".