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December 06, 2004

The Best of the Achaeans

My brother Chris watches "Troy" while flying back from London and says a bunch of smart things about The Concept of the Hero in Twenty-First Century Civilization:

First, he says that "Troy" is an excellent airplane movie. You know the plot, so if you get distracted you do not thereafter feel lost. And the supporting actors are uniformly excellent: there is always something wonderful going on onscreen.

Second, he says that the markers of the movie did not understand the story they were telling, or decided not to tell the story. The story they told was by and large one of the futility of war. The story that Homer wrote was one of the glory of Achilles (and, secondarily, Agamemnon).

This raises a bunch of interesting questions. So let me once again strap on my greaves, put on my shield, pick up my spears, mount my chariot, and take my place by the Scaean Gate alongside... who?

The Greeks view Agamemnon as glorious because he is a good king: at key moments, he listens to good counsel from his advisors; and when the chips are down he values victory in the common enterprise as more important than his own pride. By contrast, Priam's pride is overweening: he doesn't send Helen back--no Achaean is going to tell him what to do!--even though in a pre-feminist world it is a grave moral offense that puts you in the wrong for your wastrel younger son to steal a queen from a fellow monarch.

The Greeks view Achilles as glorious because he is preeminent in a crucial--the Greeks, at least the Greek aristocrats who paid Homer, would have called it the crucial--field of human endeavor: war. Without preeminence in war, no other form of human excellence can matter (for your cities are sacked, you fields burned, your people enslaved). And, on the battlefield, Achilles is the best of the Achaeans.

We can see how the Greeks viewed Agamemnon and Achilles by looking at the history of the Macedonian conquest. Alexander set out to consciously emulate Achilles. And his father Philip--After the battle of Chaeronea, he refused to allow the defeated Athenians to bury their dead. One of the Athenian prisoners then said: "Lord King, the Gods have cast you in the role of Agamemnon. But you are playing it as if you were Thersites." And Philip laughed and relented: to compare someone to Agamemnon in fourth-century Greece was high praise.

Now I think that the filmmakers' decision was conscious: that we cannot today--that nobody can, since World War I--see war as glorious, and see the skill of the warrior as as source of glory. We admire the honor of Hector. We admire the strategic genius of Odysseus. But we do not see sheer excellence in the techniques of war as glorious in itself. And an earlier generation would. An earlier generation would see the march of the 3rd Infantry Division from Kuwait to Baghdad as glorious, even though the strategic fruits of that operational victory were thrown away by the incompetence of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Franks, Bremer, and company. We do not.

And so, for us, it is Hector fighting to defend his home and family (even though the war waged by the Achaeans against Troy does, by their lights, have a just cause) who is the hero of the Illiad.

Is it a good thing that we modern American liberals have the mindset that we do--that we cannot even suspend our disbelief for long enough to enter into a frame of mind in which Achilles is glorious? For example, Armed Liberal wants to call Achilles a hero, but immediately steps back: "do we respond to Achilles as a hero, or as a kind of glorious monster?"

I am not sure whether our mindset is a good thing or not...

Let me put it this way: who would you rather have standing beside you when spear meets shield--Achilles, Hector, or Odysseus? With Hector, the man of honor, you will wage war when you should--but you may well lose. With Achilles, the man of skill, you will win--but you will wage war all the time, whether or not you should.

With Odysseus, the man of strategy, you will wage war only when you can win--but will you always be happy with your victories?

I think I would take my place beside Odysseus. But who should I take my place beside? It is an interesting question...

Posted by DeLong at December 6, 2004 08:59 AM

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Comments

I've never understood why the Trojans protected Paris and refused to return Helen. Was it simply the pride of Priam? It seems neither moral nor prudent. I've always assumed that there was some convention that our guys must be protected at all costs, or something related, which wasn't laid out in the text because everyone in the audience was assumed to know it..

At one point a deal was proposed which would have involved returning Helen and throwing Paris to the wolves in return for peace. IIRC, Hera torpedoed it because she wanted Troy destroyed.

Posted by: Jonathan Goldberg at December 6, 2004 03:41 PM


Homer is glorious.

Posted by: Michael Froomkin at December 6, 2004 04:33 PM


"But we do not see sheer excellence in the techniques of war as glorious in itself."

I disagree. "We" do see this, except instead of "glorious," we call it "cool" or "wicked." Rambo and Schwarzenegger are the modern-day Homeric heroes. Audiences thrill to the battlefield prowess of these and similar characters, enjoying every splatter.

I think the word "glorious" may be misleading. Glory to Homer, I submit, meant something along the lines of "being admired now and for time to come." By that standard, our gory action heroes reap plenty of glory.

Posted by: Anderson at December 6, 2004 04:54 PM


Of course you should stand next to Odysseus. Achilles was a perfect warrior -- violent to the point of madness. The Greeks understood this, as they understood that Odysseus would get the job done without the madness. The job itself can be devastatingly sad; that is war.

Posted by: Renee Leask at December 6, 2004 05:42 PM


Smart things said indeed, though this liberal Achilles-hater -- I just never got the Iliad, but loved the Odyssey -- still managed to admire the drive to Baghdad. Of course, I never had to experience the smells firsthand.

Posted by: trostky at December 6, 2004 06:12 PM



Another fact about Achilles is that he was self-centered and sulked in his tent for a considerable period because, IIRC, he didn't get what he thought was his proper share of the booty -- i.e., the hand (displaced metaphor) of a captured princess. (Smutty Beasty Boy humor falls naturally into place in this story). So Achilles was also the passionate, selfish man -- though he is ALSO the parvenu technician of low birth (and the whole problem arose because one of the high-born warriors, also passionate and selfish, latched on to the aforementioned booty.)

The fact that one man was as militarily important as he was shows a low and unrationaized level of military and political organization. Early warfare could break down into a sequence of individual combats, partly because individual honor was the main thing at stake for everyone there.

Helen's abduction was a premise of the story, but often in such cases the motive was to breed up a contender for the throne of the princess's state, or at least to produce a diplomatic link to that state via marriage. It really wasn't necessarily romantic or sexy.

Marriage relations (even forced ones) were more materially important in international relations then than they are in modern times, but medieval and early modern Europe provide us with examples somewhat comparable to those in Homer.

And if the Trojans had backed down, they would have been demoted in the international heierarchy, not only from losing the marriage tie but also for losing the war and being humiliated. So it wasn't just about booty.

Posted by: John Emerson at December 6, 2004 06:16 PM


Of course Hellen was not the real reason, that was just the excuse they needed. If he was so concerned about Hellen why did the young girl have to be murdered, and why did they run around other cities capturing them and taking slaves? Briseis (Sp) among others.

Posted by: big al at December 6, 2004 07:08 PM


I'm not so sure the Greeks thought Agamemnon was glorious. The Iliad depicts him as an inept leader. A decent general wouldn't take his best warrior out of action by insulting him needlessly. What's more, Agamemnon's army doesn't have faith in him--they're ready to head home as soon as they have a decent chance (see the test of the army in book 2). He's hot-tempered and is actually quite bad at taking advice, and he's incapable of assuming any responsibility for insulting Achilles, instead blaming it all on Zeus.

In tragedy, Agamemnon comes off even worse: in Aeschylus' Agamemnon, he's been corrupted by the desire for glory and possessions, and in Sophocles' Ajax, he's a brutal tyrant who's incapable of giving respect to a fallen warrior. I'm sure that a fifth-century Athenian would agree that Agamemnon was a "hero", whatever that meant to them, but I'm not sure that they would agree that he was admirable.

Posted by: Chris Lovell at December 6, 2004 08:03 PM


Aeneas. Troy has fallen, but Rome will rise and conquer Greece...
Aeneas (the grandnephew or something of Priam) led the remnant Trojans to found Rome (more of less), which eventually conquered Greece. Later the capital got moved to what is now Istanbul and the Greeks infiltrated and took it back and became what was called Byzantium. Troy was on the Anatolian mainland, which was conquered by the Ottoman Turks while they were conquering the Byzantines. This leaves the Trojans and the Greeks about even. Best three out of five?

Posted by: wkwillis at December 6, 2004 08:38 PM


A few names:

'Dirty' Harry Callahan
Josie Wales
Joe
Col. John Matrix
Ben Richards
Major 'Dutch' Schaeffer
Douglas Quaid (Hauser)
John Rambo

The modern liberal mind may not be able to glorify someone for 'sheer excellence at the techniques of war', but I dare say much of the rest of the country has no such limitation.

Posted by: setmajer at December 6, 2004 09:04 PM


I wish to God that DeLong would read the Odyssey.

If he were to do so, he would read about Odysseus' journey to the underworld, during which the shade of Achilles tells him that it is far better to be a "pthete" (a condition worse than that of a slave) than to be the most glorious of all the dead.

This is regarded by Homeric scholars as a rejection of the kleos ideal. (I do hope DeLong knows what "kleos" is. If not, he should consult with a member of the classics faculty.)

Posted by: Odysseus at December 6, 2004 09:17 PM


There are plenty of people who still find war glorious. I don't know if you mean the general public in the West by "we," but if so you're painting with too broad of a brush.

But Troy was directed by a German, and no German director after Riefenstahl would disagree. I recall looking at German language reviews of Saving Private Ryan (speaking of movies that portray the glory of war), and they seemed almost incapable of comprehending that a movie could be about war without having an anti-war message.

Posted by: rps at December 6, 2004 10:20 PM


Aside: How many epic poems have been written about the achievements of administrators, lawgivers, statesmen? The agon of holding the world together, which is a different order of heroic struggle, is just not that riveting.

Seems to me the preferred person to take one's place beside would be Patroclus. Being directly downwind of these choleric hero types is neither safe nor glorious.

Posted by: Rees Jones-Jones at December 7, 2004 12:13 AM


Aphrodite promised Helen's love to Paris in exchange for him designating her as the most lovely of the Goddesses. To repudiate Helen would have incurred Aphrodite's wrath. Priam was in a 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' situation, and chose a more probable path of avoiding ruin. The Goddess will definitely mess with your world, with the Achaeans you take your chances.

As to the post, I tend to respond to Achilles as both a hero and a glorious monster. The further he surpasses normal human excellence the more godlike, awesome, terrible and kind of bestial he is. I think you could substitute his excellence in war for excellence in any other endeavor and still have a character that you could see political reflections in: the zeal of a reformer or a revolutionary for example.

Posted by: Joshua at December 7, 2004 12:15 AM


I just wanted to say that I like your ancient-Greece-related posts best out of all of them. Great to read, and they keep bouncing around in my head as they day goes on, as I come up with new angles on them.

Thank you.

Posted by: Chris Warren at December 7, 2004 05:30 AM


Arguing that there is one way of readiing Homer in one age, a different one in another, can easily be pushed too far. Homer put all that stuff in there, all in his own age. It didn't wander in as our sensibilities evolved. The Iliad woundn't be a great work of art if there were not opportunities to see Hector as hero, Achilles and Agamemnon as ego-driven jerks. It is only when Greek ships are aflame that either relents, and even then Achilles does not.

Achilles is a breaker of cities, Hector a breaker of horses. Achilles' greatness results in destruction, Hectors in civilization. That contrast is maintained steadily throughout the tale. Hector needn't fight, but he does fight. He fights to protect his city, to protect and avenge his brothers. He exhorts Paris, and his troops, to fight when to do otherwise would mean ruin. Achilles watches the slaughter of his fellows with satisfaction. Hector is a loving father and husband (the only one in literature for a thousand years, I'm told - I haven't read all the literature fron a thousand years). Achilles wines to his mother about a fate that, in the end, is no different than any other man's. The easy conclusion that Achilles is the "real" hero, that Agammemon is the "real" king, because that is how the Greeks would have read it misses much of what is in the story. Achilles wins, and Homers audience surely approves, but Achilles had won before Homer was born. He could hardly change the story. What Homer does is to draw two great warriors - one great-hearted and responsible, the other cruel and self-serving - and let's us draw our conclusions. If Achilles was the "true" hero for the Greeks, certainly it was not that simple for Homer. (Pardon my intentionalism.) What we can see is that being a great fighter, the one who determines the outcome of battle, doesn't mean one is good, and that being good doesn't mean one wins. That message was there for listeners in Homer's day, as much as for readers in our own. We shouldn't pretend it isn't there.

Posted by: kharris at December 7, 2004 06:56 AM


If you stand by Odysseus, you're in some danger. Odysseus is skilled in war, but also (and primarily) a survivor. Don't forget that he's the only one in his ship who made it back home.

Posted by: BayMike at December 7, 2004 08:00 AM


I was reading Chris Hedges's piece in the latest NY Review. What struck me is that any of the Marines in Iraq are so far beyond Achilles that there's no comparison. They can deal out death (the official term is their lethality) casually, effortlessly. Rumsfeld's favorite image from the Afghan war--a SOF guy on a horse with a satellite phone calling in an airstrike on a target across the valley--beats Achilles all hollow: he cannot call down fire from heaven.

It is not just WW I that separates us from "swimmers into cleanness leaping." There's a whole development of mechanized warfare since then. The Marines island-hopping across the Pacific was probably worse than the Western Front.

In 1914, British youth flocked to the colours. Sixty three years ago today (yes, the day that will live in infamy), American young men rushed the recruiting stations. But in 2001, after the US had been attacked, there was no rush. We don't have enough volunteers to carry on our wars, but politicians know a draft is poison.

Who would we want to be? They cast Orlando Bloom as Paris.

Posted by: jam at December 7, 2004 10:38 AM


Brad, I usually find your observations to be astute, but on this I think you are way wide of the mark. Homer's audience well knew that Agamemnon had, by the fraudulent promise of marriage to Achilles, got his daughter Iphigenia out of the safety of the palace and had her sacrificed so his ships could sail for Troy. The audience also knew what ugly death awaited him because of this at the hands of his queen Clytemnestra upon his return, along with the ugly sad story of revengeful matricide that lay ahead for his children Orestes and Electra. The idea of unalloyed glory is not a Greek idea. The problem with modern viewers, as much as anything else, is that we cannot be presumed to know the stories that everyone took for granted back in the day.

Posted by: 2fair at December 7, 2004 10:50 AM


Let me suggest a clearer question, "Who would you go drinking with--Achilles, Hector, or Odysseus?


With Achilles, he'll start a fight and likely win, another night of brawling. No one wants to be around that bastard when he drinks.


With Hector, he'll stand by you if someone starts something. If the other guy doesn't have too many friends, you'll have a glorious tale to tell.

Odysseus will stand by you in a fight, but yell to run for it if the belligerent drunk has a dozen friends in the back room.

Posted by: Jim Lund at December 7, 2004 11:20 AM


It isn't just American liberals. The Romans thought Hector should be idolized and not the greeks.

Posted by: Me2d at December 8, 2004 07:23 AM


You want Hector as your Secretary of State, Odysseus as your Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Achilles on the battlefield.

Posted by: Eduardo at December 8, 2004 08:38 AM


Ebeneezer Scrooge is the hero of A Christmas Carol, not because Dickens celebrates miserliness or cruelty to the poor, but because in the end he has a change of heart. Likewise with Achilles.

Posted by: andyw at December 8, 2004 08:47 AM


The story they told was by and large one of the futility of war.
The story that Homer wrote was one of the glory of Achilles (and, secondarily, Agamemnon).

Which Iliad are you reading?

(Iliad Bk I)
"Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures...."

The story that Homer tells is of the destructive consequences of Achillies anger (and arrogance) and Agamemnon's arrogance (and incompetency). Each would rather see the Achaean army destroyed than have his "honor" besmirched.

Homer's message is that anger = madness; violence gets you nowhere. At the end of the Iliad, as well as the scene in the Odyssey (better to be a live slave than a dead hero), Achilles recognizes this futility and tries to make amends to Priam for his treatment of Hector's body.

Hector is set up as a contrast to this arrogance and anger. For him, unlike the Achaeans, war is about defense of home not collection of battle trophies. Homer sympathises w Hector, not Achilles. For Homer, Achilles is an exemplar of how not to behave.

Posted by: andyw at December 8, 2004 08:50 AM


Anyone out there know enough about ancient warfare to enlighten me on this question: how important was the prowess of single individuals in war? In modern times, no one is that much better than anyone who is any good at all. The greatest warrior can take out anybody one-on-one and might be able to take out a few tolerably well-trained adversaries, but the coordinated action of a small number of merely adequate soldiers should overcome even the Heavyweight Champion soldier.
So was it the loss of Achilles the individual that mattered so much, or was his sulking a metaphor for the loss of him and his Myrmidon troops?

Posted by: C.J.Colucci at December 8, 2004 11:50 AM


Well, to be sure, Agamemnon does not come off well in the film, but I think that's true of the Iliad as well. To say that Achilles was not accorded glory by the film seems a real stretch. From Achilles' opening fight, all the elements are in place. Both finding him sleeping one off in the tent, and killing the enemy giant with a single stroke, sets the tone.

Agamemnon can't stand Achilles, but he can't afford not to have him. Or so he thinks. This is a crucial problem for him.

When Bill Walton told his coach John Wooden that he was going to grow a beard, thereby disobeying Wooden's team rules, Wooden told him, "I've always respected someone who stood up for their beliefs. We're really going to miss you."

That was the end of that. Walton didn't grow a beard and didn't leave the team. This is what Agamemnon failed to do.

So, skill like Achilles' IS glorious; but that very glory is dangerous. It seduces us into doing things that we should not do, allowing things that should not be allowed.

Posted by: Jay Gischer at December 8, 2004 02:44 PM


Hector is a loving father and husband (the only one in literature for a thousand years, I'm told - I haven't read all the literature fron a thousand years).

Well, uh, there is Odysseus in the Odyssey. Beyond that, it becomes somewhat difficult. Creon in Antigone might fit the criteria, although his status as a husband is not particularly emphasized, and his status as father is, uh, conflicted at best.

Homer's audience well knew that Agamemnon had, by the fraudulent promise of marriage to Achilles, got his daughter Iphigenia out of the safety of the palace and had her sacrificed so his ships could sail for Troy.

Actually, this story is not part of Homer's continuum of the Troy story. In The Iliad, it is mentioned that Agamemnon has three daughters (Iphianassa seems to be the Iphigenia analog), and no mention of the death of any of them appears.

Posted by: John at December 8, 2004 10:58 PM


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