In Book 9 of Homer’s The Iliad, Aias seemingly plays a very minor role in attempting to convince Achilleus to begin fighting again for the Greeks in the Trojan War. Enraged at Agamemnon’s unwarranted attack on his pride, Achilleus refuses to fight under his command until he receives a proper apology. Agamemnon has too much pride to ask for forgiveness, and so instead he sends Odysseus, Phoinix, and Aias to offer endless riches to Achilleus to persuade him to return to war. Out of all three ambassadors, Aias’s plea is the shortest. Even so, his input seems to have the greatest effect on Achilleus.
Aias, second in strength only to Achilleus (Duffy 2008), has only one distinction from Achilleus—he has no direct link to the gods. Aias knows this fact to be true, and instead of engaging in a power struggle like Agamemnon does with Achilleus, he pleads in humbled desperation, hoping that Achilleus will sympathize. Using Achilleus’s inherent nature to defend the powerless, Aias preys on Achilleus’s search for honor. Although he ultimately fails in persuading Achilleus to return to battle, Achilleus does not scorn him like he does Odysseus. Thus, Aias frames his argument by placing Achilleus on a pedestal and declaring that the fate of the entire Greek world ultimately depends on Achilleus’s participation in the war, appealing to this irresistible opportunity for the greatest honor.
Even though his mother’s status leaves Achilleus in the gods’ favor, human blood still flows through his veins, making him vulnerable to the influence of the unstable human emotions. Indeed, Homer begins The Iliad by proclaiming the power in Achilleus’s rage. He writes, “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus” (Homer, Iliad 1:1) as the opening line of this epic poem, representing the effect that emotion would play on the entire Trojan War. In fact, if Achilleus was not ruled by his emotions, The Iliad would have had a significantly different ending. His own concern for his personal pride and his anger that Agamemnon would take away his treasures simply because he had lost his own nearly costs the Achaeans the war. Consequently, his angry interactions with Agamemnon changed the destiny of an entire nation of people.
Unlike the gods, who are protected from their impulsive decisions by their immortality, Achilleus and the rest of the Greeks are susceptible to danger. Mortality is a recurring motif throughout this epic. After Agamemnon threatens to take away Briseis, Achilleus’s most treasured prize of war, Achilleus proclaims:
“I for my part did not come here for the sake of the Trojan spearmen to fight against them, since to me they have done nothing
…And now my prize you threaten in person to strip from me” (Iliad 1: 152-161).
Achilleus no longer represses the resentment he feels toward Agamemnon. Thus, he points out a fact that must have crossed many Greek soldiers’ minds: Agamemnon does not fight in battle, and thus he does not ever directly put himself in harm’s way; nevertheless, he receives the majority of the plunder they gather from the Trojans. This is a classic example of higher-rank corruption. In this way, without actually speaking this thought out loud, Achilleus challenges the practice of lineage determining the ruler of such a large mass of people. Furthermore, now that Agamemnon has been willed by the gods to give back his prized possession, he feels the need to also take away from Achilleus’s honor as well. Achilleus cannot stand for this injustice; while Agamemnon becomes upset with the gods for demanding that he return the maiden he won from Troy, Achilleus instantly obeys Athene’s request that Achilleus refuse to fight without question:
“Goddess, it is necessary that I obey the word of you two, angry though I am in my heart. So it will be better.
If any man obeys the gods, they listen to him as well” (Homer, Iliad 1:216-218).
As a result, Achilleus establishes himself as a moral character, obedient to the gods and unwilling to relent to Agamemnon’s persecution: “…I am minded no longer/to stay here dishonored and pile up your wealth and your luxury” (Homer, Iliad 1:170-171). To punish Agamemnon for his arrogant sense of authority and for taking away his honor, Achilleus then takes away Agamemnon’s greatest weapon: his own participation in the war.
The perceptive Aias observes this whole interaction and puppeteers an angle to slant Achilleus’s redeeming qualities that conveys him as a hypocrite. While Achilleus condemns Agamemnon for dishonoring him, Aias argues that Achilleus’s concern for his honor has corrupted his leadership:
“…it is best to go back quickly and tell this story, though it is not good, to the Danaans, who sit there waiting for us to come back, seeing that Achilleus has made savage the proud-hearted spirit within his body” (9:626-629).
In this way, Aias has cunningly labeled Achilleus’s activism for standing up to Agamemnon’s oppression as actual selfishness and egotism. The loaded word “savage” compares Achilleus’s actions to that of an animal, thereby branding Achilleus’s quest for honor inhumane. Aias also addresses the rest of the Greeks—he establishes that their morale depends on whether or not Achilleus can be persuaded to return to war. As previously explained in Book 1, Achilleus has already challenged the nature of the Greek hierarchy, believing that its leadership is corrupt. However, by pointing out that the Achaians see “swift-footed” Achilleus as their true leader, Aias implies that if he stands by and watches these men perish without even attempting to assist them, his leadership is equally as poor as that of Agamemnon. Essentially, in only a few words, Aias has called Achilleus a hypocrite. Not only does he pressure Achilleus to fight to motivate his fellow men, but he also insinuates that it is his moral responsibility as the real leader of the Achaians to contribute to the fighting as well.
Aias attempts to disgrace Achilleus’s fundamental values by diminishing his pursuit of honor and glory, a scheme that he ultimately hopes will cause him to seek redemption on the battlefield. When not even Achilleus’s father-figure, Phoinix, tells the ethos-loaded tale of Meleager can convince him to resume fighting for the Achaians, Aias notices that a direct confrontation will be ineffective against Achilleus. Thus, he tries a devious, more indirect approach. Aias never once directly addresses Achilleus. Instead, he calls to Odysseus: “Son of Laertes and seed of Zeus, resourceful Odysseus: /let us go” (Homer, Iliad 9:624-625). He addresses Odysseus with several signs of respect, yet he seems to ignore Achilleus, who, based on rank, would ordinarily warrant even more reverence. Since Achilleus seems to treasure his honor most of all, perhaps Aias is trying to aggravate Achilleus by showing deference to Odysseus instead.
However, he underestimates Achilleus’s stubbornness and obedience to the gods. In his response, Achilleus gives Aias the ultimate respect: “Son of Telamon, seed of Zeus, Aias, lord of the people: /all that you have said seems spoken after my own mind” (Homer, Iliad 9: 644-645). Achilleus is not at all offended by Aias’s accusations because they are true. Perhaps he has accepted that he puts too much emphasis on honor, a seemingly definitive flaw to his character. However, once again due to his close relationship with the gods, Achilleus is aware at this point that if he fights in the war: “Since, my mother, you bore me to be a man with a short life,/therefore Zeus of the loud thunder on Olympos should grant me honor at least” (Homer, Iliad 1:352-353). The only reason he has not yet sailed back home is because he is contemplating between choosing a meaningless life or an honorable death. Clearly, honor is very important to Achilleus, and so is not affected by Aias’s accusatory tone.
Aias also utilizes Achilleus’s infatuation with battle in a final attempt to say his decision. In Book 1, the narrator announces:
“Never now would he go to assemblies where men win glory,
Never more into battle, but continued to waste his heart out
Sitting there, though he longed always for the clamor and fighting” (1:490-492).
Achilleus demonstrates a resolute immunity to his desires by withdrawing from battle, when he clearly loves it so. He withholds his longings in order to demonstrate Agamemnon’s lack of definitive authority over him to the rest of the Greeks, who blindly follow his leadership even though his logic is corrupt. In this way, Achilleus conveys the concept of self-sacrifice for the greater good, making him a better leader than Agamemnon. Alternatively, Aias argues that this refusal to fight for the Greeks is an act of selfishness. He states, “…the injured man’s heart is curbed, and his pride, and his anger/when he has taken the price; but the gods put in your breast a spirit/not to be placated, bad, for the sake of one single girl” (Homer, Iliad 9:635-637). In essence, he argues that most men would be happy to be repaid in minimal treasures for the death of a child, yet Achilleus is ungrateful, unwilling to accept Agamemnon’s grand generosity. Aias goes on to seek affection from Achilleus: “from the multitude of the Danaans, we who desire beyond all others to have your honor and love, out of all the Achaians” (Homer, Iliad 9:641-642). This call to Greek unity once again puts a great deal of pressure on Achilleus’s choice.
Aias’s minimal interaction with Achilleus indirectly brings out the best in Achilleus. As a result, although Aias is a mastermind of deception, Achilleus is also mindful of his tactics. Aias preys on Achilleus’s most cherished qualities, and then skews the perspective so that Achilleus’s choices resemble that of Agamemnon, arguably the worst leader of the time. This does not influence Achilleus’s decision because of his humility; he already acknowledges that his leadership skills are not perfect. Achilleus’s resolute stance on withholding from war is not the result of stubbornness. On the contrary, this is the result of Achilleus’s respect for the gods’ wishes. Achilleus is thereby the perfect exemplar for Homeric heroes—he would sacrifice his life to please the gods.
Duffy, William. “Aias and the Gods.” College Literature. 35.4. (2008). http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE|A189706375&v=2.1&u=lom_inac&it=r&p=GPS&sw=w (accessed September 30, 2012).
Lattimore, Richmond, trans. The Iliad of Homer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.