A Deadly Plague

Iliad Diary
Day 2

In my first post you may have noticed that I included an asterisk at the end of the fourth paragraph… and then forgot to add the footnote!

What I said, was ‘With that said, let’s jump into the poem. Book I Lines 1-7. I have chosen these because they comprise Homer’s introduction to his work*.’

And what I meant to add at the end of the post was ‘* I know that Homer, whom some say did not exist at all, is not the creator of The Iliad but the person who is believed to have written the poem, previously transmitted orally, down. I could have paid lip service to this by writing ‘the poet’ or indeed ‘the poets’ but as Homer is the conventionally accepted author of the written Iliad, I will stick with him.’

Alright, with that done, I would like to thank S. Abel-Smith and Silasaila for their comments after the first post. Both pointed out that the goddess to which Homer is referring in line 1 is the Muse. Which one? Perhaps Calliope, the muse of epic poetry.

***

Book 1 Lines 8-32
To the poem. And it is Apollo, a priest named Chryses and Agamemnon who take centre stage for these 24 lines.

In the first line of The Iliad, Homer asks the Muse to sing through him of the ‘rage of Achilles’ but it is Agamemnon and Apollo who are the first two to people get angry*.

The reason for Apollo’s anger is Agamemnon, and the fact that he has taken Chryses’ daughter, Chryseis, captive. We are not immediately told Chryseis’ age, but though Chryses refers to her as his ‘dear child’, I assume that she is a woman as Agamemnon has taken her to be his concubine. As he tells Chryses,

‘She will grow old in Argos… working the loom and coming to bed when I call her.’
(L.30-31)

If only Agamemnon knew that he would not enjoy too many visits to his bed when he did finally get home…

… but we are getting ahead of ourselves. Why is Apollo offended by Agamemnon’s actions? Well, as you might suspect, Chryses is not any old Tom, Dick or Achilles. He is one of Apollo’s priests, and Apollo looks after his own.

Thus, when Agamemnon refuses Chryses’ plea to release his daughter, Apollo, in his anger unleashes ‘a deadly plague to the [Achaean] camp’ (L.10).

Agamemnon has acted most unwisely. Chryses even came ‘with a splendid ransom’ (L.12), and was supported in his plea by the Achaean rank and file. But not only did Agamemnon refuse to hand Chryseis over, he threatened to kill Chryses should the priest ever return again. This is a level of disrespect that no Greek god could ever ignore and down come Apollo’s arrows.

Apollo’s response to Agamemnon’s hubris epitomises for me the relationship between the Greeks and their gods: You worship me, and I’ll look out for you.

If Agamemnon is hubristic, Chryses is plain pitiful. We aren’t told this, but I assume that the latter is a Trojan. If so, despite this, when making his plea to Agamemnon, the priest says,

may the gods allow you to plunder Priam’s great city,
then grant you a safe homecoming. But hear my plea.
(Line18-19)

Priam’s great city – Troy – will have been his life; his wealth, sacrifices, honour – all would have come from there. Now, he is forced to betray it.

Well, yes, he has, but only for love of his daughter. Chryses may be pitiful, therefore, but also noble and brave.

The Alexander Connection
Three aspects of this chapter put me in mind of aspects of Alexander’s life:

  1. Agamemnon’s preparedness to disrespect a priest
  2. Agamemnon’s intention to use Chryseis as a concubine
  3. The ‘disloyalty’ of the Achaean rank and file towards the will of the king

Unlike Agamemnon, Alexander was generally very respectful of religions. We often see him sacrificing to the gods. With that said, his attitude wasn’t of perfect submission to their will, as we see when he ignored the bad omens and crossed the Jaxartes river to fight the Scythians (Arrian IV.4). He was also capable of fighting foreign priests – as he did when he took on the Brahmins (Ar. VI.8, 17). In the last few days on Twitter I have also been reading about how Alexander put the Zoroastrians to the sword. I mention that advisedly as Alexander’s anti-Zoroastianism comes to us from (Zoroastrian) texts relating to Alexander  written a long time after the event – though they may bear witness to an authentic oral tradition.

Agamemnon’s enslavement of Chryseis puts Alexander’s treatment of women in mind. Plutarch (Life of Alexander 21), for example, tells us of the effort Alexander went to in order to take care of the Persian Royal Family. Alexander himself kept no concubine**. To the best of my knowledge, he ignored Darius’ harem after winning the Persian empire and may very well have married Roxane as much for for love as the political benefit that their union would bring (see Arrian IV.19-20).

Finally, the ease with which the Achaean soldiers turned against Agamemnon stands in very stark contrast with the fierce loyalty of the Macedonian army to Alexander. Of course, they revolted twice; once at the Hyphasis river and then at Opis. At the Hyphasis they were simply and very deeply worn out. At Opis they thought Alexander had lost faith in them. They revolted, therefore, for two profound reasons, not over whether Alexander should keep or send a woman away.

* Perhaps I should say ‘the first man and god’
** Bagoas the eunuch is as close as Alexander ever came to keeping a concubine, and I think Alexander loved him (see Athenaeus Deipnosophists XIII.80 here), even if not on the same level as Roxane or Hephaestion

Texts Used
I am reading Stephen Mitchell’s translation of The Iliad in e-book form (Phoenix 2013). The Arrian quotations come from my copy of the Penguin Classics (1971) edition

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