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Iliad - Book Two - Homer

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Themes: Leadership, Pride, Prophecy 

 

Book Two

 

Pondering how to accomplish what he promised to Thetis, Zeus decides that the best plan for bringing Achilleus honor will begin by sending “evil Dream” to Agamemnon. Zeus instructs this Dream to suggest to Agamemnon that “now he might take the wide-wayed city / of the Trojans” (2. 12-13). Following the instructions given by Zeus, Dream conveys this message to the leader of the Achaians, and then leaves “Agamemnon / there, believing things in his heart that were not to be accomplished” (2. 35-36). Convinced by the dream that he can conquer Troy immediately, Agamemnon decides to test the Achaians by telling them to “flee to their benched vessels” and go home (2.73-74).

 

The Achaians (also called the Argives) head to their ships, and the narrator indicates that for them “a homecoming beyond fate might have / been accomplished,” had not Hera told Athene to go down and prevent the soldier from returning to their homes in Greece. Exhorted by Athene, Odysseus, ruler of Ithaka and a man called by the narrator “the equal of Zeus in cousel” (2.168), takes Agamemnon’s royal sceptor to walk among the ships and persuade the Achaians not to sail home so hastily. Acting as mediator between the soldierrs and their Agamemnon, Odysseus stands before the multitude, and next to him stands “grey-eyed Athene / in the likeness of a herald” commanding the people to be silent. Addressing Agamemnon, Odysseus makes a speech that appeals to both sides; he admits that the Achaians break their oaths when they make to flee Troy before it has been taken, but he also allows for the suffering that being away from home for so long has caused the men. “In truth,” he points out, “it is hard thing, to be grieved with desire for going. /Any man who stays away one month from his own wife / with his intricate ship is impatient…And for us now / this is the ninth of the circling years that we wait here” (2.291-295). He tells the story of a portent, a snake swallowing eight sparrow chicks and then their mother; and he reminds them that Kalchas (the seer) interpreted the sign to mean that the Achaians would besiege Troy for nine years and then take it in the tenth year. 

 

The elderly counselor Nestor calls for the troops to be set in order, and then Agamemnon follows with a speech and a prayer; in his speech he admits that he and Achilleus “fought together for a girl’s sake / in words’ violent encounter,” and he owns his part, saying, “and I was the first to be angry” (2.377-8).  The king’s prayer, following a ritual sacrifice, is to conquer Troy that very day: “Zeus, exalted and mightiest, sky-dwelling in the dark mist: / let not the sun go down and disappear into darkness / until I have hurled headlong the castle of Priam / blazing” (2.412-415). The narrator warns, however, that what Agamemnon prayed for would not be accomplished. 

 

Agamemnon sends the heralds to assemble the Achaians, and so the “god-supported kings” (2.445) of each nation gather their soldiers. The goddess Athene moves among them, “urging them to go forward” (2.451): “She kindled the strength in each man’s / heart to take the battle without respite and keep on fighting. / And now battle became sweeter to them than to go back / in their hollow ships to the beloved lands of their fathers” (2.451-454). 

 

A series of lengthy similes follow, illustrating the movements of the Achaians. The first simile, like the others, is some version of a proportion, taking loosely the following format “as A is to B, so is C to D.” In this case, the image is fire lighting up a forest in a mountain, and the image in turn is compared to the shining of the bronze armor and weapons of the soldiers rallying for battle:“As obliterating fire lights up a vast forest / along the crests of a mountain, and the flare shows far off, / so as they marched, from the magnificent bronze the gleam went / dazzling all about through the upper air to the heaven” (2.455-458). 

 

Appealing to the divine Muses, the narrator proceeds to list the chief men of the Achaians. This is known as Homer’s “catalog of ships.” The Muse is again invoked (2.760) to tell the best and bravest men and horses among those fighting on the side of Adamemnon. The divine messenger Iris goes to the Trojans and exhorts them to assemble as well. The book ends with a list of the prominant soldiers and leaders on the Trojan side.

Opening questions:

 

Why does Agamemnon tell the soldiers to give up on conquering Troy and to go home?

 

What part does Zeus have in this decision?

 

Why does Athene tell Odysseus to convince the men not to flee?

 

What do the similes beginning at 2.455 reveal?

 

What does the catalog of ships show about the Achaeans?

Suggested Pairing:

 

Gods and Epics - Hamilton, Mythology; Homer, Odyssey; Homer Odyssey