In Book 1 of the Iliad , Agamemnon is forced to return the girl Chryseis to her father, a priest of Apollo, in order to end a mysterious plague that has been afflicting the Greek army. Agamemnon is resentful about losing his “prize,” and when Achilles tries to reason with...
In Book 1 of the Iliad, Agamemnon is forced to return the girl Chryseis to her father, a priest of Apollo, in order to end a mysterious plague that has been afflicting the Greek army. Agamemnon is resentful about losing his “prize,” and when Achilles tries to reason with him, Agamemnon lashes out and declares that Achilles must also lose his prize, the girl Briseis. Achilles bristles at Agamemnon’s behaviour and an argument ensues, by the end of which both men are so angry that Achilles decides to quit the battlefield and go home with all his soldiers. Agamemnon has insulted Achilles’s honour, which was an extremely serious thing in Ancient Greek culture. It would take equally serious measures on Agamemnon’s behalf to repair the damage he has done by publicly insulting Achlles, and Achilles is not willing to accept any apologies Agamemnon makes.
Achilles is, of course, the pre-eminent soldier in the Greek army, so when he quits the battlefield, the Greeks lose their advantage against the Trojans. Patroclus is grieved to see how badly the Greeks are losing, and begs Achilles to let him go out and fight with them while wearing Achilles’s armour, to give the Greeks the impression that Achilles has come back to help them. Achilles reluctantly agrees, but is anxious that something will happen to Patroclus. When Patroclus is killed by Hector, Achilles’s rage and grief drive him to avenge his friend’s death. He makes the point to Agamemnon that he is not returning to fight for Agamemnon’s sake, but in order to avenge Patroclus.
It’s important to state that Achilles is unique in his ability to do this. The rest of the Greek leaders were all once suitors of Helen, the wife of Menelaus. When they were trying to win her hand in marriage, Helen’s father, Tyndareus, made all the suitors swear an oath to support Helen’s husband in the event that Helen was ever kidnapped. The rest of the Greek leaders are therefore honour-bound to support Menelaus (and his brother, Agamemnon) in the war to retrieve Helen from Troy. Achilles, however, was never one of Helen’s suitors – the only reason he is present at Troy is because it is his fate to die a glorious death in battle. When Agamemnon insults him, he is therefore able to walk away from the battlefield, because he has no obligation to fight.