Homer and His Age, by Andrew Lang

Chapter 4

Loose Feudalism: The Over-Lord in “Iliad,” Books I. and II.

We now try to show that the Epics present an historical unity, a complete and harmonious picture of an age, in its political, social, legal, and religious aspects; in its customs, and in its military equipment. A long epic can only present an unity of historical ideas if it be the work of one age. Wandering minstrels, living through a succession of incompatible ages, civic, commercial, democratic, could not preserve, without flaw or failure, the attitude, in the first place, of the poet of feudal princes towards an Over–Lord who rules them by undisputed right divine, but rules weakly, violently, unjustly, being subject to gusts of arrogance, and avarice, and repentance. Late poets not living in feudal society, and unfamiliar alike with its customary law, its jealousy of the Over–Lord, its conservative respect for his consecrated function, would inevitably miss the proper tone, and fail in some of the many nuances of the feudal situation. This is all the more certain, if we accept Mr. Leaf’s theory that each poet-rhapsodist’s répertoire varied from the répertoires of the rest. There could be no unity of treatment in their handling of the character and position of the Over–Lord and of the customary law that regulates his relations with his peers. Again, no editor of 540 B.C. could construct an harmonious picture of the Over–Lord in relation to the princes out of the fragmentary répertoires of strolling rhapsodists, which now lay before him in written versions. If the editor could do this, he was a man of Shakespearian genius, and had minute knowledge of a dead society. This becomes evident when, in place of examining the Iliad through microscopes, looking out for discrepancies, we study it in its large lines as a literary whole. The question being, Is the Iliad a literary whole or a mere literary mosaic? we must ask “What, taking it provisionally as a literary whole, are the qualities of the poet as a painter of what we may call feudal society?”

Choosing the part of the Over–Lord Agamemnon, we must not forget that he is one of several analogous figures in the national poetry and romance of other feudal ages. Of that great analogous figure, Charlemagne, and of his relations with his peers in the earlier and later French mediaeval epics we shall later speak. Another example is Arthur, in some romances “the blameless king,” in others un roi fainéant.

The parallel Irish case is found in the Irish saga of Diarmaid and Grainne. We read Mr. O’Grady’s introduction on the position of Eionn Mac Cumhail, the legendary Over–Lord of Ireland, the Agamemnon of the Celts. “Fionn, like many men in power, is variable; he is at times magnanimous, at other times tyrannical and petty. Diarmaid, Oisin, Oscar, and Caoilte Mac Rohain are everywhere the [Greek: kaloi kachotoi] of the Fenians; of them we never hear anything bad.” 48

Human nature eternally repeats itself in similar conditions of society, French, Norse, Celtic, and Achaean. “We never hear anything bad” of Diomede, Odysseus, or Aias, and the evil in Achilles’s resentment up to a certain point is legal, and not beyond what the poet thinks natural and pardonable in his circumstances.

The poet’s view of Agamemnon is expressed in the speeches and conduct of the peers. In Book I. we see the bullying truculence of Agamemnon, wreaked first on the priest of Apollo, Chryses, then in threats against the prophet Chalcas, then in menaces against any prince on whom he chooses to avenge his loss of fair Chryseis, and, finally, in the Seizure of Briseis from Achilles.

This part of the First Book of the Iliad is confessedly original, and there is no varying, throughout the Epic, from the strong and delicate drawing of an historical situation, and of a complex character. Agamemnon is truculent, and eager to assert his authority, but he is also possessed of a heavy sense of his responsibilities, which often unmans him. He has a legal right to a separate “prize of honour” (geras) after each capture of spoil. Considering the wrath of Apollo for the wrong done in refusing his priest’s offered ransom for his daughter, Agamemnon will give her back, “if that is better; rather would I see my folks whole than perishing.” 49

Here we note points of feudal law and of kingly character. The giving and taking of ransom exists as it did in the Middle Ages; ransom is refused, death is dealt, as the war becomes more fierce towards its close. Agamemnon has sense enough to waive his right to the girlish prize, for the sake of his people, but is not so generous as to demand no compensation. But there are no fresh spoils to apportion, and the Over–Lord threatens to take the prize of one of his peers, even of Achilles.

Thereon Achilles does what was frequently done in the feudal age of western Europe, he “renounces his fealty,” and will return to Phthia. He adds insult, “thou dog-face!” The whole situation, we shall show, recurs again and again in the epics of feudal France, the later epics of feudal discontent. Agamemnon replies that Achilles may do as he pleases. “I have others by my side that shall do me honour, and, above all, Zeus, Lord of Counsel” (I. 175). He rules, literally, by divine right, and we shall see that, in the French feudal epics, as in Homer, this claim of divine right is granted, even in the case of an insolent and cowardly Over–Lord. Achilles half draws “his great sword,” one of the long, ponderous cut-and-thrust bronze swords of which we have actual examples from Mycenae and elsewhere. He is restrained by Athene, visible only to him. “With words, indeed,” she says, “revile him . . . . hereafter shall goodly gifts come to thee, yea, in threefold measure. . . . ”

Gifts of atonement for “surquedry,” like that of Agamemnon, are given and received in the French epics, for example, in the Chanson de Roland. The Iliad throughout exhibits much interest in such gifts, and in the customary law as to their acceptance, and other ritual or etiquette of reconciliation. This fact, it will be shown, accounts for a passage which critics reject, and which is tedious to our taste, as it probably was tedious to the age of the supposed late poets themselves. (Book XIX.). But the taste of a feudal audience, as of the audience of the Saga men, delighted in “realistic” descriptions of their own customs and customary law, as in descriptions of costume and armour. This is fortunate for students of customary law and costume, but wearies hearers and readers who desire the action to advance. Passages of this kind would never be inserted by late poets, who had neither the knowledge of, nor any interest in, the subjects.

To return to Achilles, he is now within his right; the moral goddess assures him of that, and he is allowed to give the: reins to his tongue, as he does in passages to which the mediaeval epics offer many parallels. In the mediaeval epics, as in Homer, there is no idea of recourse to a duel between the Over–Lord and his peer. Achilles accuses Agamemnon of drunkenness, greed, and poltroonery. He does not return home, but swears by the sceptre that Agamemnon shall rue his outrecuidance when Hector slays the host. By the law of the age Achilles remains within his right. His violent words are not resented by the other peers. They tacitly admit, as Athene admits, that Achilles has the right, being so grievously injured, to “renounce his fealty,” till Agamemnon makes apology and gives gifts of atonement. Such, plainly, is the unwritten feudal law, which gives to the Over–Lord the lion’s share of booty, the initiative in war and council, and the right to command; but limits him by the privilege of the peers to renounce their fealty under insufferable provocation. In no Book is Agamemnon so direfully insulted as in the First, which is admitted to be of the original “kernel.” Elsewhere the sympathy of the poet occasionally enables him to feel the elements of pathos in the position of the over-tasked King of Men.

As concerns the apology and the gifts of atonement, the poet has feudal customary law and usage clearly before his eyes. He knows exactly what is due, and the limits of the rights of Over–Lord and prince, matters about which the late Ionian poets could only pick up information by a course of study in constitutional history — the last thing they were likely to attempt — unless we suppose that they all kept their eyes on the “kernel,” and that steadily, through centuries, generations of strollers worked on the lines laid down in that brief poem.

Thus the poet of Book IX. — one of “the latest expansions,”— thoroughly understands the legal and constitutional situation, as between Agamemnon and Achilles. Or rather all the poets who collaborated in Book IX., which “had grown by a process of accretion,” 50 understood the legal situation.

Returning to the poet’s conception of Agamemnon, we find in the character of Agamemnon himself the key to the difficulties which critics discover in the Second Book. The difficulty is that when Zeus, won over to the cause of Achilles by Thetis, sends a false Dream to Agamemnon, the Dream tells the prince that he shall at once take Troy, and bids him summon the host to arms. But Agamemnon, far from doing that, summons the host to a peaceful assembly, with the well-known results of demoralisation.

Mr. Leaf explains the circumstances on his own theory of expansions compiled into a confused whole by a late editor. He thinks that probably there were two varying versions even of this earliest Book of the poem. In one (A), the story went on from the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles, to the holding of a general assembly “to consider the altered state of affairs.” This is the Assembly of Book H, but debate, in version A, was opened by Thersites, not by Agamemnon, and Thersites proposed instant flight! That was probably the earlier version.

In the other early version (B), after the quarrel between the chiefs, the story did not, as in A, go on straight to the Assembly, but Achilles appealed to his mother, the fair sea-goddess, as in our Iliad, and she obtained from Zeus, as in the actual Iliad, his promise to honour Achilles by giving victory, in his absence, to the Trojans. The poet of version B, in fact, created the beautiful figure of Thetis, so essential to the development of the tenderness that underlies the ferocity of Achilles. The other and earliest poet, who treated of the Wrath of the author of version A, neglected that opportunity with all that it involved, and omitted the purpose of Zeus, which is mentioned in the fifth line of the Epic. The editor of 540 B.C., seeing good in both versions, A and B, “combined his information,” and produced Books I. and II. of the Iliad as they stand. 51

Mr. Leaf suggests that “there is some ground for supposing that the oldest version of the Wrath of Achilles did not contain the promise of Zeus to Thetis; it was a tale played exclusively on the earthly stage.” 52 In that case the author of the oldest form (A) must have been a poet very inferior indeed to the later author of B who took up and altered his work. In his version, Book I. does not end with the quarrel of the princes, but Achilles receives, with all the courtesy of his character, the unwelcome heralds of Agamemnon, and sends Briseis with them to the Over–Lord. He then with tears appeals to his goddess-mother, Thetis of the Sea, who rose from the grey mere like a mist, leaving the sea deeps where she dwelt beside her father, the ancient one of the waters. Then sat she face to face with her son as he let the tears down fall, and caressed him, saying, “Child, wherefore weepest thou, for what sorrow of heart? Hide it not, tell it to me; that I may know it as well as thou.” Here the poet strikes the keynote of the character of Achilles, the deadly in war, the fierce in council, who weeps for his lost lady and his wounded honour, and cries for help to his mother, as little children cry.

Such is the Achilles of the Iliad throughout and consistently, but such he was not to the mind of Mr. Leaf’s probably elder poet, the author of version A. Thetis, in version B, promises to persuade Zeus to honour Achilles by making Agamemnon rue his absence, and, twelve days after the quarrel, wins the god’s consent.

In Book II. Zeus reflects on his promise, and sends a false Dream to beguile Agamemnon, promising that now he shall take Troy. Agamemnon, while asleep, is full of hope; but when he wakens he dresses in mufti, in a soft doublet, a cloak, and sandals; takes his sword (swords were then worn as part of civil costume), and the ancestral sceptre, which he wields in peaceful assemblies. Day dawns, and “he bids the heralds. . . . ” A break here occurs, according to the theory.

Here (Iliad, Book II., line 50) the kernel ceases, Mr. Leaf says, and the editor of 540 B.C. plays his pranks for a while.

The kernel (or one of the two kernels), we are to take up again at Book II., 443–483, and thence “skip” to XI. 56, and now “we have a narrative masterly in conception and smooth in execution,” 53 says Mr. Leaf. This kernel is kernel B, probably the later kernel of the pair, that in which Achilles appeals to his lady mother, who wins from Zeus the promise to cause Achaean defeat, till Achilles is duly honoured. The whole Epic turns on this promise of Zeus, as announced in the fifth, sixth, and seventh lines of the very first Book. If kernel A is the first kernel, the poet left out the essence of the plot he had announced. However, let us first examine probable kernel B, reading, as advised, Book II. 1–50, 443–483; XI. 56 ff.

We left Agamemnon (though the Dream bade him summon the host to arms) dressed in civil costume. His ancestral sceptre in his hand, he is going to hold a deliberative assembly of the unarmed host. His attire proves that fact ([Greek: prepodaes de ae stolae to epi Boulaen exionti], says the scholiast). Then if we skip, as advised, to II. 443–483 he bids the heralds call the host not to peaceful council, for which his costume is appropriate, but to war! The host gathers, “and in their midst the lord Agamemnon,”— still in civil costume, with his sceptre (he has not changed his attire as far as we are told)— “in face and eyes like Zeus; in waist like Ares” (god of war); “in breast like Poseidon,”— yet, for all that we are told, entirely unarmed! The host, however, were dressed “in innumerable bronze,” “war was sweeter to them than to depart in their ships to their dear native land,”— so much did Athene encourage them.

But nobody had been speaking of flight, in the kernel B: that proposal was originally made by Thersites, in kernel A, and was attributed to Agamemnon in the part of Book II. where the editor blends A and B. This part, at present, Mr. Leaf throws aside as a very late piece of compilation. Turning next, as directed, to XI. 56, we find the Trojans deploying in arms, and the hosts encounter with fury — Agamemnon still, for all that appears, in the raiment of peace, and with the sceptre of constitutional monarchy. “In he rushed, first of all, and slew Bienor,” and many other gentlemen of Troy, not with his sceptre!

Clearly all this is the reverse of “a narrative masterly in conception and smooth in execution:” it is an impossible narrative.

Mr. Leaf has attempted to disengage one of two forms of the old original poem from the parasitic later growths; he has promised to show us a smooth and masterly narrative, and the result is a narrative on which no Achasan poet could have ventured. In II. 50 the heralds are bidden [Greek: kurussein], that is to summon the host — to what? To a peaceful assembly, as Agamemnon’s costume proves, says the next line (II. 51), but that is excised by Mr. Leaf, and we go on to II. 443, and the reunited passage now reads, “Agamemnon bade the loud heralds” (II. 50) “call the Achaeans to battle” (II. 443), and they came, in harness, but their leader — when did he exchange chiton, cloak, and sceptre for helmet, shield, and spear? A host appears in arms; a king who set out with sceptre and doublet is found with a spear, in bronze armour: and not another word is said about the Dream of Agamemnon.

It is perfectly obvious and certain that the two pieces of the broken kernel B do not fit together at all. Nor is this strange, if the kernel was really broken and endured the insertion of matter enough to fill nine Books (IL-XL). If kernel B really contained Book II., line 50, as Mr. Leaf avers, if Agamemnon, as in that line (50) “bade the clear-voiced heralds do. . . . ” something — what he bade them do was, necessarily, as his peaceful costume proves, to summon the peaceful assembly which he was to moderate with his sceptre. At such an assembly, or at a preliminary council of Chiefs, he would assuredly speak of his Dream, as he does in the part excised. Mr. Leaf, if he will not have a peaceful assembly as part of kernel B, must begin his excision at the middle of line 42, in II., where Agamemnon wakens; and must make him dress not in mufti but in armour, and call the host of the Achaeans to arm, as the Dream bade him do, and as he does in II. 443. Perhaps we should then excise II. 45 2, 45 3, with the reference to the plan of retreat, for that is part of kernel A where there was no promise of Zeus, and no Dream sent to Agamemnon. Then from II. 483, the description of the glorious armed aspect of Agamemnon, Mr. Leaf may pass to XI. 56, the account of the Trojans under Hector, of the battle, of the prowess of Agamemnon, inspired by the Dream which he, contrary to Homeric and French epic custom, has very wisely mentioned to nobody — that is, in the part not excised.

This appears to be the only method by which Mr. Leaf can restore the continuity of his kernel B.

Though Mr. Leaf has failed to fit Book XI. to any point in Book II., of course it does not follow that Book XI. cannot be a continuation of the original Wrath of Achilles (version B). If so, we understand why Agamemnon plucks up heart, in Book XI., and is the chief cause of a temporary Trojan reverse. He relies on the Dream sent from Zeus in the opening lines of Book II., the Dream which was not in kernel A; the Dream which he communicated to nobody; the Dream conveying the promise that he should at once take Troy. This is perhaps a tenable theory, though Agamemnon had much reason to doubt whether the host would obey his command to arm, but an alternative theory of why and wherefore Agamemnon does great feats of valour, in Book XI., will later be propounded. Note that the events of Books XL.-XVIII., by Mr. Leaf’s theory, all occur on the very day after Thetis (according to kernel B)’ [79] obtains from Zeus his promise to honour Achilles by the discomfiture of the Achaeans; they have suffered nothing till that moment, as far as we learn, from the absence of Achilles and his 2500 men: allowing for casualties, say 2000.

So far we have traced — from Books I. and II. to Book XI. — the fortunes of kernel B, of the supposed later of two versions of the opening of the Iliad. But there may have been a version (A) probably earlier, we have been told, in which Achilles did not appeal to his mother, nor she to Zeus, and Zeus did not promise victory to the Trojans, and sent no false Dream of success to Agamemnon. What were the fortunes of that oldest of all old kernels? In this version (A) Agamemnon, having had no Dream, summoned a peaceful assembly to discuss the awkwardness caused by the mutiny of Achilles. The host met (Iliad, II. 87–99). Here we pass from line 99 to 212–242: Thersites it is who opens the debate, (in version A) insults Agamemnon, and advises flight. The army rushed off to launch the ships, as in II. 142–210, and were brought back by Odysseus, who made a stirring speech, and was well backed by Agamemnon, urging to battle.

Version A appears to us to have been a version that no heroic audience would endure. A low person like Thersites opens a debate in an assembly called by the Over–Lord; this could not possibly pass unchallenged among listeners living in the feudal age. When a prince called an assembly, he himself opened the debate, as Achilles does in Book I. 54–67. That a lewd fellow, the buffoon and grumbler of the host, of “the people,” nameless and silent throughout the Epic, should rush in and open debate in an assembly convoked by the Over–Lord, would have been regarded by feudal hearers, or by any hearers with feudal traditions, as an intolerable poetical license. Thersites would have been at once pulled down and beaten; the host would not have rushed to the ships on his motion. Any feudal audience would know better than to endure such an impossibility; they would have asked, “How could Thersites speak — without the sceptre?”

As the poem stands, and ought to stand, nobody less than the Over–Lord, acting within his right, ([Greek: ae themis esti] II. 73), could suggest the flight of the host, and be obeyed.

It is the absolute demoralisation of the host, in consequence of the strange test of their Lord, Agamemnon, making a feigned proposal to fly, and it is their confused, bewildered return to the assembly under the persuasions of Odysseus, urged by Athene, that alone, in the poem, give Thersites his unique opportunity to harangue. When the Over–Lord had called an assembly the first word, of course, was for to speak, as he does in the poem as it stands. That Thersifes should rise in the arrogance bred by the recent disorderly and demoralised proceedings is one thing; that he should open the debate when excitement was eager to hear Agamemnon, and before demoralisation set in, is quite another. We never hear again of Thersites, or of any one of the commonalty, daring to open his mouth in an assembly. Thersites sees his one chance, the chance of a life time, and takes it; because Agamemnon, by means of the test — a proposal to flee homewards — which succeeded, it is said, in the case of Cortès — has reduced the host, already discontented, to a mob.

Before Agamemnon thus displayed his ineptitude, as he often does later, Thersites had no chance. All this appears sufficiently obvious, if we put ourselves at the point of view of the original listeners. Thersites merely continues, in full assembly, the mutinous babble which he has been pouring out to his neighbours during the confused rush to launch the ships and during the return produced by the influence of Odysseus. The poet says so himself (Iliad, II. 212). “The rest sat down . . . only Thersites still chattered on.” No original poet could manage the situation in any other way.

We have now examined Mr. Leaf’s two supposed earliest versions of the beginning of the Iliad. His presumed earlier version (A), with no Thetis, no promise of Zeus, and no Dream, and with Thersites opening debate, is jejune, unpoetical, and omits the gentler and most winning aspect of the character of Achilles, while it could not possibly have been accepted by a feudal audience for the reasons already given. His presumed later version (B), with Thetis, Zeus, and the false Dream, cannot be, or certainly has not been, brought by Mr. Leaf into congruous connection with Book XI., and it results in the fighting of the unarmed Agamemnon, which no poet could have been so careless as to invent. Agamemnon could not go into battle without helmet, shield, and spears (the other armour we need not dwell upon here), and Thersites could not have opened a debate when the Over–Lord had called the Assembly, nor could he have moved the chiefs to prepare for flight, unless, as in the actual Iliad, they had already been demoralised by the result of the feigned proposal of flight by Agamemnon, and its effect upon the host. Probably every reader who understands heroic society, temper, and manners will, so far, agree with us.

Our own opinion is that the difficulties in the poem are caused partly by the poet’s conception of the violent, wavering, excitable, and unstable character of Agamemnon; partly by some accident, now indiscoverable, save by conjecture, which has happened to the text.

The story in the actual Iliad is that Zeus, planning disaster for the Achaeans, in accordance with his promise to Thetis, sends a false Dream, to tell Agamemnon that he will take Troy instantly. He is bidden by the Dream to summon the host to arms. Agamemnon, still asleep, “has in his mind things not to be fulfilled: Him seemeth that he shall take Priam’s town that very day” (II. 36, 37). “Then he awoke” (II. 41), and, obviously, was no longer so sanguine, once awake!

Being a man crushed by his responsibility, and, as commander-inchief, extremely timid, though personally brave, he disobeys the Dream, dresses in civil costume, and summons the host to a peaceful assembly, not to war, as the Dream bade him do. Probably he thought that the host was disaffected, and wanted to argue with them, in place of commanding.

Here it is that the difficulty comes in, and our perplexity is increased by our ignorance of the regular procedure in Homeric times. Was the host not in arms and fighting every day, when there was no truce? There seems to have been no armistice after the mutiny of Achilles, for we are told that, in the period between his mutiny and the day of the Dream of Agamemnon, Achilles “was neither going to the Assembly, nor into battle, but wasted his heart, abiding there, longing for war and the slogan” (I. 489, 492). Thus it seems that war went on, and that assemblies were being held, in the absence of Achilles. It appears, however, that the fighting was mere skirmishing and raiding, no general onslaught was attempted; and from Book II. 73, 83 it seems to have been a matter of doubt, with Agamemnon and Nestor, whether the army would venture a pitched battle.

It also appears, from the passage cited (I. 489, 492) that assemblies were being regularly held; we are told that Achilles did not attend them. Yet, when we come to the assembly (II. 86–100) it seems to have been a special and exciting affair, to judge by the brilliant picture of the crowds, the confusion, and the cries. Nothing of the sort is indicated in the meeting of the assembly in I. 54–5 8. Why is there so much excitement at the assembly of Book II.? Partly because it was summoned at dawn, whereas the usual thing was for the host to meet in arms before fighting on the plain or going on raids; assemblies were held when the day’s work was over. The host, therefore, when summoned to an assembly at dawn, expects to hear of something out of the common — as the mutiny of Achilles suggests — and is excited.

We must ask, then, why does Agamemnon, after the Dream has told him merely to summon the host to arm — a thing of daily routine — call a deliberative morning assembly, a thing clearly not of routine? If Agamemnon is really full of confidence, inspired by the Dream, why does he determine, not to do what is customary, call the men to arms, but as Jeanne d’Arc said to the Dauphin, to “hold such long and weary councils”? Mr. Jevons speaks of Agamemnon’s “confidence in the delusive dream” as at variance with his proceedings, and would excise II. 35–41, “the only lines which represent Agamemnon as confidently believing in the Dream.” 54 But the poet never once says that Agamemnon, awake, did believe confidently in the Dream! Agamemnon dwelt with hope while asleep; when he wakened — he went and called a peaceful morning assembly, though the Dream bade him call to arms. He did not dare to risk his authority. This was exactly in keeping with his character. The poet should have said, “When he woke, the Dream appeared to him rather poor security for success” (saying so in poetic language, of course), and then there would be no difficulty in the summoning of an assembly at dawn. But either the poet expected us to understand the difference between the hopes of Agamemnon sleeping, and the doubts of Agamemnon waking to chill realities — an experience common to all of us who dream — or some explanatory lines have been dropped out — one or two would have cleared up the matter.

If I am right, the poet has not been understood. People have not observed that Agamemnon hopes while asleep, and doubts, and acts on his doubt, when awake. Thus Mr. Leaf writes: “Elated by the dream, as we are led to suppose, Agamemnon summons the army — to lead them into battle? Nothing of the sort; he calls them to assembly.” 55 But we ought not to have been led to suppose that the waking Agamemnon was so elated as the sleeping Agamemnon. He was “disillusioned” on waking; his conduct proves it; he did not know what to think about the Dream; he did not know how the host would take the Dream; he doubted whether they would fight at his command, so he called an assembly.

Mr. Jevons very justly cites a parallel case. Grote has remarked that in Book VII. of Herodotus, “The dream sent by the Gods to frighten Xerxes when about to recede from his project,” has “a marked parallel in the Iliad.” Thus Xerxes, after the defection of Artabanus, was despondent, like Agamemnon after the mutiny of Achilles, and was about to recede from his project. To both a delusive dream is sent urging them to proceed. Xerxes calls an assembly, however, and says that he will not proceed. Why? Because, says Herodotus, “when day came, he thought nothing of his dream.” Agamemnon, once awake, thought doubtfully of his dream; he called a Privy Council, told the princes about his dream — of which Nestor had a very dubious opinion — and said that he would try the temper of the army by proposing instant flight: the chiefs should restrain the men if they were eager to run away.

Now the epic prose narrative of Herodotus is here clearly based on Iliad, II., which Herodotus must have understood as I do. But in Homer there is no line to say — and one line or two would have been enough — that Agamemnon, when awake, doubted, like Xerxes, though Agamemnon, when asleep, had been confident. The necessary line, for all that we know, still existed in the text used by Herodotus. Homer may lose a line as well as Dieuchidas of Megara, or rather Diogenes Laertius. Juvenal lost a whole passage, re-discovered by Mr. Winstedt in a Bodleian manuscript. If Homer expected modern critics to note the delicate distinction between Agamemnon asleep and Agamemnon awake, or to understand Agamemnon’s character, he expected too much. 56 The poet then treats the situation on these lines: Agamemnon, awake and free from illusion, does not obey the dream, does not call the army to war; he takes a middle course.

In the whole passage the poet’s main motive, as Mr. Monro remarks with obvious truth, is “to let his audience become acquainted with the temper and spirit of the army as it was affected by the long siege . . . and by the events of the First Book.” 57 The poet could not obtain his object if Agamemnon merely gave the summons to battle; and he thinks Agamemnon precisely the kind of waverer who will call, first the Privy Council of the Chiefs, and then an assembly. Herein the homesick host will display its humours, as it does with a vengeance. Agamemnon next tells his Dream to the chiefs (if he had a dream of this kind he would most certainly tell it), and adds (as has been already stated) that he will first test the spirit of the army by a feigned proposal of return to Greece, while the chiefs are to restrain them if they rush to launch the ships. Nestor hints that there is not much good in attending to dreams; however, this is the dream of the Over–Lord, who is the favoured of Zeus.

Agamemnon next, addressing the assembly, says that posterity will think it a shameful thing that the Achaeans raised the siege of a town with a population much smaller than their own army; but allies from many cities help the Trojans, and are too strong for him, whether posterity understands that or not. “Let us flee with our ships!”

On this the host break up, in a splendid passage of poetry, and rush to launch the ships, the passion of nostalgie carrying away even the chiefs, it appears — a thing most natural in the circumstances. But Athene finds Odysseus in grief: “neither laid he any hand upon his ship,” as the others did, and she encouraged him to stop the flight. This he does, taking the sceptre of Agamemnon from his unnerved hand.

He goes about reminding the princes “have we not heard Agamemnon’s real intention in council?” (II. 188–197), and rating the common sort. The assembly meets again in great confusion; Thersites seizes the chance to be insolent, and is beaten by Odysseus. The host then arms for battle.

The poet has thus shown Agamemnon in the colours which he wears consistently all through the Iliad. He has, as usual, contrasted with him Odysseus, the type of a wise and resolute man. This contrast the poet maintains without fail throughout. He has shown us the temper of the weary, home-sick army, and he has persuaded us that he knows how subtle, dangerous, and contagious a thing is military panic. Thus, at least, I venture to read the passage, which, thus read, is perfectly intelligible. Agamemnon is no personal coward, but the burden of the safety of the host overcomes him later, and he keeps suggesting flight in the ships, as we shall see. Suppose, then, we read on from II. 40 thus: “The Dream left him thinking of things not to be, even that on this day he shall take the town of Priam. . . . But he awoke from sleep with the divine voice ringing in his ears. (Then it seemed him that some dreams are true and some false, for all do not come through the Gate of Horn.) So he arose and sat up and did on his soft tunic, and his great cloak, and grasped his ancestral sceptre . . . and bade the clear-voiced heralds summon the Achaeans of the long locks to the deliberative assembly.” He then, as in II. 53–75 told his Dream to the preliminary council, and proposed that he should try the temper of the host by proposing flight — which, if it began, the chiefs were to restrain — before giving orders to arm. The test of the temper of the host acted as it might be expected to act; all rushed to launch the ships, and the princes were swept away in the tide of flight, Agamemnon himself merely looking on helpless. The panic was contagious; only Odysseus escaped its influence, and redeemed the honour of the Achaeans, as he did again on a later day.

The passage certainly has its difficulties. But Erhardt expresses the proper state of the case, after giving his analysis. “The hearer’s imagination is so captured, first by the dream, then by the brawling assembly, by the rush to the ships, by the intervention of Odysseus, by the punishment of Thersites — all these living pictures follow each other so fleetly before the eyes that we have scarcely time to make objections.” 58. The poet aimed at no more and no less effect than he has produced, and no more should be required by any one, except by that anachronism —“the analytical reader.” He has “time to make objections”: the poet’s audience had none; and he must be criticised from their point of view. Homer did not sing for analytical readers, for the modern professor; he could not possibly conceive that Time would bring such a being into existence.

To return to the character of Agamemnon. In moments of encouragement Agamemnon is a valiant fighter, few better spearmen, yet “he attains not to the first Three,” Achilles, Aias, Diomede. But Agamemnon is unstable as water; again and again, as in Book II., the lives and honour of the Achaeans are saved in the Over–Lord’s despite by one or other of the peers. The whole Iliad, with consistent uniformity, pursues the scheme of character and conduct laid down in the two first Books. It is guided at once by feudal allegiance and feudal jealousy, like the Chansons de Geste and the early sagas or romances of Ireland. A measure of respect for Agamemnon, even of sympathy, is preserved; he is not degraded as the kings and princes are often degraded on the Attic stage, and even in the Cyclic poems. Would wandering Ionian reciters at fairs have maintained this uniformity? Would the tyrant Pisistratus have made his literary man take this view?

48 Transactions of the Ossianic Society, vol. iii. p. 39.

49 Iliad, I. 115–117.

50 Leaf, Iliad, vol. i. p. 371.

51 Leaf, Iliad, vol. i. p. 47.

52 Ibid, vol. i. p. xxiii.

53 Iliad, vol. i. p. 47.

54 Journal of Hellenic Studies, vol. vii. pp. 306, 307.

55 Iliad, vol. ii. p. 46.

56 Cf. Jevons, Journal of Hellenic Studies, vol. vii. pp. 306, 307.

57 Monro, Iliad, vol. i. p. 261.

58 Die Enstehung der Homerische Gedichte, p. 29.


Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 22:03