In the Iliad, Agamemnon and Achilles both have a desire for power and honour. How does power and honour ultimately divide the two?

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There is a strange and fundamental imbalance between Achilles and Agamemnon that is introduced in the opening scenes of Book I.

Agamemnon clearly holds some kind of supreme political power, as shown at two key moments:

First, Agamemnon gets his own way, keeping the daughter of the priest even though...

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There is a strange and fundamental imbalance between Achilles and Agamemnon that is introduced in the opening scenes of Book I.

Agamemnon clearly holds some kind of supreme political power, as shown at two key moments:

First, Agamemnon gets his own way, keeping the daughter of the priest even though all the Greeks want to give her back (lines 22–25). In fact, he doesn't even have to explain himself to the rest of the men—he simply ignores what they have said and answers the priest according to his own desires, and there seems to be nothing the other Greeks can do about it.

Second, in the meeting to find out why Apollo is sending disease against the Greek army, the soothsayer Calchas appears too afraid at first to mention Agamemnon by name, saying:

I think I will anger a man who rules greatly over all the Argives and whom the Achaeans obey (lines 78–79).

He continues with a general statement that clearly refers to Agamemnon as a king, even though Calchas still doesn't dare to mention him by name:

A king is greater when he is angry at a lesser man, for even if he swallows down his anger for one day, still afterwards he holds resentment in his heart until he fulfills it (80–83).

But it is here that we come to a twist, as Calchas asks Achilles for his protection, and Achilles agrees, promising:

No one, while I live . . . will lay heavy hands on you beside the hollow ships...not even if you name Agamemnon, who now claims to be far the best of the Achaeans (89–91, italics added).

Unlike Calchas, Achilles is not at all afraid to name Agamemnon and potentially oppose him. Notice how the italicized words undermine Agamemnon in two ways: 1) that he is the best is only a claim, not a reality, and 2) it is only for now—it could change, if Achilles decided to take him on. Thus, Achilles implicitly asserts his own power, a power of true excellence rather than of political position.

Once Calchas, under Achilles' protection, names Agamemnon as the cause of Apollo's anger, the ensuing debate between him and Achilles highlights this tension between Agamemnon's political power and Achilles' well-known physical prowess in the epithets the poet uses for each of them. Agamemnon is called "wide-ruling," (102) "ruler," (130) and "lord of men," (172) while Achilles is called "divine" (120) and "swift-footed" (120 & 148).

Each of them, on the basis of their own particular type of power, expects the honor due to the most prominent member of the army. This honor is measured by specific gifts bestowed out of the spoils of war, which are first pooled and then distributed (124–126, cf. Odyssey, 9.40–42). Agamemnon, after first refusing, relents and is willing to return the priest's daughter, with a condition:

But for me make ready a prize at once, so that I may not be the only one of the Argives without a prize, since that is not right (118–119).

When Achilles claims that all the spoils have been distributed, Agamemnon reiterates his demand:

Do you really intend, so long as you yourself keep your prize, that I sit here like this lacking one . . . ? Let the great-hearted Achaeans give me a prize, suiting it to my heart so that the recompense is equal! But if they do not give it, I will come myself and take your prize (133–138).

This final threat enrages Achilles, who responds in two ways:

First, he implies that if Agamemnon takes away a prize already given, it will threaten his political power:

how can any of the Achaeans eagerly obey your words either to go on a journey or to do battle? (150–151).

Secondly, and more importantly, Achilles brings up a fundamental inequality that has been there all along:

Never do I have a prize like yours...My hands bear the brunt of tumultuous battle, but when the distribution comes, your prize is far greater, while I go to my ships with some small things (163–168).

Agamemnon take this as a challenge to his authority and responds by threatening action to establish that authority:

I will myself come to your hut and take the fair-cheeked Briseis . . . so that you may well know how much mightier I am than you and another too may shrink from declaring himself my equal (184–187).

This is Agamemnon's crucial mistake: although Achilles is stopped by Athena from killing him on the spot, Achilles withdraws from the fighting and asks the gods

to help the Trojans, and to pen in . . . the Achaeans among the sterns of their ships and around the sea as they are killed, so that . . . the son of Atreus, wide-ruling Agamemnon, may know his blindness in that he honored the best of the Achaeans not at all (408-412).

The failure to bestow honor is an attack on Achilles' power, and the resulting tragedies of the lliad are the price he demands to prove that he is the best and thus deserves the most honor.

[Quotes are given from A.T. Murray's translation in the Loeb Classics edition, with occasional modifications by the educator]

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Power and honor divide Achilles and Agamemnon because both men feel that they are not given their due respect from the other.

Homer shows power and honor in a distinctive way.  In the Classical society that Homer describes, both are external.  For example, power is shown through outward displays and honor is depicted when an individual deferentially concedes it to the other.

This construction underscores the relationship between Agamemnon and Achilles.  Agamemnon believes that Achilles is not showing honor towards him.  It is for this reason he establishes his power over the warrior with his claim on Briseis. Doing so is a way for him to display his status.  For his part, Achilles does not feel that Agamemnon shows respect to warriors.  Achilles believes that Agamemnon does not merit respect because he does not sacrifice on the battle field as a soldier or warrior does.  Achilles believes this to be dishonorable because the king takes that for which he has not labored. Recognizing that the only power Achilles has over the king resides in his fighting, he withdraws from battle. This significantly weakens Agamemnon's desire to claim Troy as his own.  Achilles' withdrawal is a power play to maintain his integrity.  This reality helps to explain the division that takes place between both men.

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