HOMER: The Iliad [Book I]

Homer’s Iliad begins in media res, during the tenth year of the Trojan War, which was fought between the Ancient Greeks and the Trojans. The Greeks have sacked neighboring towns around the walls of Troy and taken several women as captives. Chryseis, the most beautiful woman taken, was awarded to the Greek commander, Agamemnon. Briseis, the second most beautiful woman, was awarded to the Greek’s best fighter, Achilles.

Chryseis’ father, Chryses, approaches the Grecian camp and tries to ransom his daughter with gifts. Agamemnon rejects Chryses’ offer and predicts that Chryseis will die in Greece, far from her father and from her homeland. Chryses returns to his town and prays to Apollo to punish the Greeks.

Apollo grants Chryses’ prayer and afflicts the Greeks with a pestilence. For nine days, many Greeks suffer and die. Achilles calls a council in order to resolve the problem. He asks the prophet Calchas what is the cause of the plague and how the Greeks can end it. Calchas replies that the cause of the plague is Agamemnon’s refusal to return Chryseis to her father and that the Greeks can end the plague if Agamemnon returns Chryseis to her father.

Agamemnon scolds Calchas for suggesting that the plague is his fault. He, nevertheless, agrees to return Chryseis, but he takes Briseis as compensation. This act inflames Achilles’ wrath, and Achilles withdraws himself and his troops from the Greeks. He then prays to his goddess mother, Thetis, who entreats Jove to punish the Greeks for dishonoring her son.

Jove listens to Thetis and agrees to allow the Trojans to inflict heavy casualties on the Greeks, which greatly enrages Jove’s wife, Juno, who favors the Greeks. Jove and Juno argue with one another until the god Vulcan intervenes and reconciles them. Then all the gods gather together to feast.

Pride is a major theme in Book I. It is pride that causes the strife between Agamemnon and Achilles, which is the primary conflict that drives the story. To be clear, it is pride, not love, that inflames Achilles’ wrath in Book I when Agamemnon takes Briseis from him. Achilles does not love Briseis, but rather considers her a prize won in war. To be stripped of his prize, is to be stripped of his honor that he won in battle. This wound to his pride is the true reason for Achilles’ rage and bitterness.

In their dispute, Agamemnon asserts that the gods have bestowed valor and strength upon Achilles; and therefore Achilles should not be proud of these qualities because they were given to him, not earned.

“If thou hast strength, ’twas Heaven that strength bestowed,
For know, vain man! thy valour is from God.”

Although Achilles agrees that the gods have blessed him with these virtues, he nevertheless is proud of them. This raises the following question: Why are some characters, like Achilles, proud of their virtues and deeds in war if they receive divine aid? Homer answers that these characters believe the gods favor them because they have offered many sacrifices to the gods, and they have performed heroic and virtuous deeds in the past. Thus, in a sense, they have earned the gods’ favor and are proud of it.

Other characters, however, believe fate is ultimately responsible for the good and bad that men receive in their life. In this case, it is difficult to explain how a person could feel responsible or proud of their attributes and actions. Responsibility seems like a necessary condition for pride.

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