Persuading Achilles: Books IX, XVI, XXIV Considered

“Triumphant Achilles” by Franz von Matsch

In Book IX of the Iliad, the Achaeans have been stricken with Panic (“panicos” meaning pertaining to Pan, the god of shepherds and wild animals). In the absence of Achilles on the battlefield, Hector has beaten back the Achaeans nearly to their ships. All that is left is to burn the Achaean ships into the sea. The prospect of returning home begins to cross the Greek minds, and Agamemnon, the shepherd of the people, pleads that Odysseus and Ajax form an embassy and persuade Achilles to return to the battle.

Which form of persuasion is best when speaking to Achilles? What is his response to the various methods of persuasion lobbied towards him?

Upon the Achaean arrival to the camp of the Myrmidons, Odysseus and Ajax are greeted as friends of Achilles, in fact the ‘men he loves most’ and together they feast until Ajax nods to Phoenix and Odysseus raises a toast to the “health” of Achilles (269-273).

Before we examine this diplomatic mission further, let us step back for a moment and consider the scene.

The heroes Odysseus and Ajax make their way along the beach, praying to Poseidon to “bring the proud heart of Achilles round with speed and ease” (217-221). Odysseus leads the way. Upon arrival, they find Achilles “delighting his heart” by plucking his lyre, part of the spoils from razing Eetion’s city, and singing the famous deeds of heroes. Here, Achilles assumes the role of poet with an audience of, at least, Patroclus. He is startled out of his peaceful song by his “dearest friends,” and instantly Achilles realizes that he must be sorely needed on the battlefield.

Achilles welcomes the emissaries and sits them down on purple carpets with bigger and stronger cups of wine than he and Patroclus are currently enjoying. Presumably, they are both under the comforting spell of wine as they speak with Odysseus and Ajax. Achilles carves and serves the meat, while Patroclus lights the spit and delivers the bread in wicker baskets. Together, with Achilles sitting against the far wall, they sacrifice to the gods and eat and drink.

Now that we have properly characterized the scene -a symposium, or a banquet -let us return to Odysseus’s toast. He fills his cup and raises it to the “health” of Achilles. It is healthy and fitting that friends should eat and drink with one another. Second, Odysseus compares the great feast from Achilles to that of the feast in the son of Atreus’s tent, Agamemnon. He states that they are both excellent feasts, and by making this comparison, he reminds Achilles of the unity existing between the Achaean forces.

Following this toast, that is the sweet honey he gives to Achilles before delving into political matters, Odysseus tells the great warrior that the Achaeans are “afraid” (276). First, he explains the dire situation: the Trojans have pitched thousands of tents and fires along the ramparts of the Achaean lines, Zeus sends favorable fire bolts on the right (in classical antiquity, fortune always favors the right, while the is always sinister, coming the Latin meaning “left”), and Hector yearns for morning to destroy the Achaeans. All hangs in the balance, and the fate of the Achaeans lies in the hands of Achilles.

Odysseus also recalls the parting words of Achilles’s father, Peleus, before sending him out with Agamemnon. He reminds Achilles that his father said friendship is always better than troublesome quarrels. In addition to invoking the memory of Achilles’s father, Odysseus also tries to persuade Achilles with troves of gifts and promises from Agamemnon: seven tripods never touched by fire, ten bars of golds, twenty burnished cauldrons, a dozen prize-winning stallions. He will also give twenty women, fine artisans, from Lesbos, including Briseis, whom he swears a sacred oath over that he did not have relations with her. Finally, if they conquer Ilium, Achilles will take his pleasure of the spoils: twenty women second only to Helen, and he can choose any of Agamemnon’s three daughters -Chrysothemis, Laodice and Iphianassa to marry into his family and be treated as an equal of Orestes. Agamemnon will also promise seven citadels to Achilles on sandy Pylos -all facing the sea.

Odysseus closes by beckoning Achilles to, at least, take pity on the Achaeans who will, no doubt, honor him like a god if he returns to the battle to kill Hector in his murderous frenzy.

Achilles responds to Odysseus’s attempt to persuade him (although we should bear in mind that Odysseus has been compelled to relay the messages of Agamemnon, and therefore his attempt to persuade Achilles is both a mix of Odysseus’s tact and Agamemnon’s offerings). He says he will speak bluntly with Odysseus because he hates “the man like the very Gates of Death who says one things but hides another in his heart” (378-379). Rather than riches or honor, Achilles is preoccupied with death -what is the point of fighting if the same fate awaits the coward and the hero?

He criticizes Agamemnon. While Achilles risks his life, pirating 12 cities by sea and 11 cities by land in Troy, the spoils always end up in the hands of Agamemnon. Achilles takes a stand on principle. Agamemnon gets the greatest share of goods, but is undeserving of them because he waits calmly behind the lines. Therefore Achilles’s principle is that the person, or warrior, who takes the greatest risk should receive both the greatest share of bounty and also the greatest honor. He feels cheated and lied to -and he takes down each prize offered to Achilles from Agamemnon and promises to return home after the third day. He wants no brides, or prizes, or citadels, or stallions, or any other gifts offered by Agamemnon, for what good are transient things when a man’s life breath slips away between his teeth. He reminds Odysseus of his fate as told by his mother, Thetis. Achilles can either remain in Troy and die a quick death but will be unendingly honored, or he can return home to a long but forgotten life.

Achilles’s response stuns them all into silence.

Phoenix, the great Myrmidon charioteer, speaks next. He reminds Achilles of his training, in both arms and letters, upon setting out from the house of Peleus to join Agamemnon. Phoenix teaches Achilles and helps to rear him as his own son. He recalls his childhood and running away from the house of his father, only to be taken in by Peleus. He also invokes the image of the gods, none of whom have such an inflexible, iron heart as Achilles. Phoenix, apparently the most poetic and skilled in the art of music, recalls an ancient tale for Achilles, a tale only to be told among friends. He tells the fable of Meleager, the great fighter for the Curetes, as they were locked in combat with Aetolia. His rage was so powerful that he turned the tide of the war, but he suddenly became enraged at his mother, and he retired to his bed to be with Cleopatra, his wife. It was not until Cleopatra wept bitterly as the city was torched, prizes taken, women raped that he decided to rejoin the fight, however it was too late. He ultimately won the battle, but he was not given the treasures he was promised by fighting alongside his friends.

Achilles responds firmly, not persuaded like Chauntecleer of pleasing poems and speeches. He will not rejoin the battle, so long as Agamemnon is his enemy. He also invites Phoenix to join him in his spurn of Agamemnon, as they should shun him together. He tells Phoenix to sleep in his tent tonight, and in the morning they will decide whether to sail home or not -a noticeably different answer than the one he gave to Odysseus. He, at least, leaves open the possibility that the Myrmidons will rejoin the war.

Lastly, Ajax, son of Telamon, rises and speaks to Odysseus that their mission to win over Achilles has failed. He rebukes Achilles for behaving this way over a single woman -perhaps forgetting the catalyst of the war is conducted over the illicit capture of Helen -he asks Achilles to open his heart and show respect for those who want to become his dearest, closest friends. Ajax’s chastisement of Achilles is the shortest attempt to persuade him yet.

Achilles responds “warmly” and that everything he said is after Achilles’s own heart, “or at least mostly so” (788). What could Ajax have said that is not after Achilles’s own heart? Perhaps Achilles, one of the few unmarried men in Troy, does not respond favorably to the fight over a woman, as he does not care for women the way other Achaean warriors do.

Contrast this scene with the image of Patroclus weeping to Achilles in Book XVI. He laments Achilles’s stubborn “heart of iron” and wishes there was a way to help their comrades push back the Trojans as they close in on the Achaean ships. Achilles moved to “pity” admits, for the first time, that is anger could not last forever and also that the Trojans have not yet reached the Myrmidon ships. Therefore, he tells Patroclus that he may don the mighty shield and armor of Achilles and enter the battle with the Myrmidons to push back the Trojans. However, he tells Patroclus that he must return to the camp once the Trojan army has been sufficiently stultified.

Odysseus, in his attempt to move Achilles to pity, gave the best effort at persuasion. Yet he was bound by covenant to present Agamemnon’s gifts as possible retribution. However, with Patroclus, Achilles -who is also a poet and a player of music -is moved to pity at the tears of Patroclus in his love for the Achaean comrades.

Consider a final example of persuasion and Achilles. In Book XXIV, Priam, with the help of the messenger Hermes, goes to the Achaean camp as all of the Myrmidons are stricken with wonder as they see him. Priam, as Odysseus attempted to do and Patroclus did successfully, persuades Achilles by appealing to his sense of sorrow and pity. He begs Achilles to recall his father and the great sadness that comes to a father who loses his son (presumably Achilles recalls his fate that will never let him see his father, Peleus, again). They both weep together as Priam kisses the hands of Achilles, the killer of his son. Once Achilles overcomes his state of lament, he vows to return Hector back to Priam. In addition, Priam offers gifts, as Agamemnon once did, in an attempt to persuade the Achaeans to sail away as they have won the war. However, Achilles does not respond in kind. As in the earlier case from Book IX in which Agamemnon sends Ajax and Odysseus to offer gifts to Achilles, he, once again, does not embrace the idea and also threatens Priam, alluding to his impending death.

Thus, in summary, Achilles, as a man of many passions, is persuaded best by feelings of pity. He is a tragic man who sees only sorrow and rarely comedy -we are never given an instance of laughter with Achilles, but we are given many examples of him weeping. He is compelled to act by his great tragic pity he feels for his friends, and this influences his mighty wrath, which Homer identifies as the subject of the Iliad. While Ajax chastises Achilles and Phoenix tells a pleasing fable, Odysseus makes the best presentation by appealing to his pity for his fellow soldiers. Although Odysseus ultimately fails in this mission, he, nevertheless, gives a lasting impression to the young Patroclus who is moved by feelings of pity as he sees the Achaean forces being trampled by the Trojans. This moment, in turn, causes his appeal to Achilles and Achilles relents his wrath in exchange for feelings of pity for his friends. As when Zeus bears two jars at his feet, one with honors to bestow on humans, and the other with sorrows to bestow on humans, Achilles takes far too much stock from the latter and opens his fate to a tragic demise.

For this reading I used the Fagles and Lattimore translations.