HOMER: The Iliad [Book IX]

In Book IX of Homer’s Iliad, Agamemnon summons the other Greek generals to discuss their most recent defeat at the hands of the Trojans. He argues that they should admit defeat and return to Greece. Diomedes, however, opposes Agamemnon’s motion and calls Agamemnon a coward for even thinking of abandoning the expedition. Nestor seconds Diomedes’ motion and urges Agamemnon to seek Achilles’ forgiveness so that he will return to the fighting.

Agamemnon heeds Diomedes’ and Nestor’s advice. He orders his soldiers to strengthen their newly constructed fortifications and prepare for battle. Then he sends ambassadors to Achilles with the message that he is willing to apologize and give gifts, including Briseis, the slave-girl whom he stole from Achilles at the beginning of the epic, if only Achilles returns to the war.

The ambassadors arrive at Achilles’ tent and convey Agamemnon’s message to him. Achilles, however, remains obstinate despite the passionate speech given by Phoenix, who cared for Achilles when he was a child and was like a second father to him. “Great godlike Achilles, I made you my son, I tried, so someday you might fight disaster off my back. But now, Achilles, beat down your mounting fury! It’s wrong to have such an iron, ruthless heart.”

Phoenix also warns Achilles that men who do not show mercy and forgiveness will regret their cruelty in the future because prayers for mercy are like the daughters of Jove. Men who spurn the daughters of Jove are punished. “If a man has pity upon these daughters of Jove when they draw near him, they will bless him and hear him too when he is praying; but if he deny them and will not listen to them, they go to Jove the son of Saturn and pray that he may presently fall into sin – to his ruing bitterly hereafter.”

Forgiveness is an important theme in the Iliad. In the beginning of the epic, Agamemnon does not forgive Achilles for insulting him, and he decides to take Achilles’ prize from him, thus dishonoring Achilles and provoking him to withdraw from the war to spite Agamemnon. In this book, Agamemnon seeks forgiveness from Achilles with supplications and promises of gifts, but Achilles sternly denies Agamemnon’s petition. This incapacity to forgive causes great calamity and affliction not only to the Greeks and Trojans fighting in the war, but also to Achilles himself when his dear friend Patroclus is killed later in the epic.

In this book, Homer also highlights a key difference between the Greek hero Achilles and the Trojan hero Hector. Like Hector, Achilles realizes that death comes to both the coward and the brave, but their individual reactions to this evident truth are starkly different. While Hector believes that he should act bravely due to these circumstances of life, Achilles believes that he should behave like a coward since he is not rewarded for his valorous deeds and will succumb to death regardless of how he conducts his life. Thus, Hector is a far more admirable character than Achilles. This is interesting considering the fact that Homer and his audience were Greek.

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