Iliad: Book 9 | The Embassy to Achilles

Deacon Harrison Garlick and Adam Minihan sit down to talk about the embassy to Achilles in Book 9.

In this episode we will discuss:

  • What happens in book nine?
  • Who is Phoenix?
  • What is the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus?
  • What effect does the embassy have on Achilles?
  • What else should be noted in the embassy to Achilles?

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Book Nine

The Embassy to Achilles

But now at last, stop, Achilles—let your heart-devouring anger go!

Odysseus (9.307)

47. What happens in book nine?

Night has fallen. As the Trojans set their watch, the Achaeans are distraught and panicked (9.02). King Agamemnon despairs and tells his men to sail home (9.31). After a long silence, Diomedes tells Agamemnon to “sail away” (9.49), but Diomedes and company will stay and fight until the “fixed doom of Troy” occurs (9.56). Nestor, the old Achaean war chief, exhorts Agamemnon to have the night sentries take their posts (9.76) and to throw a feast of “grand hospitality” for his senior chieftains (9.80). Agamemnon obeys and, at the feast, Nestor appeals to Agamemnon to make peace with Achilles (9.122). Agamemnon again follows Nestor’s lead. He sends Odysseus, Ajax, and Phoenix (9.201) with the promise that Agamemnon will return Briseis to Achilles along with hordes of treasure and more treasure to come when Troy falls (9.146).

The embassy finds Achilles playing the lyre by his ships (9.222). Achilles greets them warmly and each member of delegation attempts to convince Achilles to return to the war and save the Argives. But Achilles still harbors an undying rage against Agamemnon, stating: “I hate that man like the very Gates of Death” (9.379). Agamemnon has wounded the honor of Achilles and no gifts can undo that fact (9.470). Achilles even tells Odysseus that Agamemnon can keep and enjoy Briseis (9.407). The heart of Achilles “still heaves with rage” (9.789), and he will not even think of “arming for bloody war again” until Hector has slaughtered the Argives all the way to his own ship (9.795). The embassy reports back to Agamemnon and, as they were all “struck dumb,” Diomedes rallies the chieftains and tells Agamemnon to fight on the front lines tomorrow (9.865). The Achaeans, who are stirred by the speech, make their offerings to Zeus and go to sleep awaiting the dawn (9.866).

48. Who is Phoenix? 

Phoenix, an Achaean, was charged by Peleus, Achilles’ father, to train Achilles in war and rhetoric (9.533). Regarding his own background, Phoenix tells the story of sleeping with his father’s concubine, at his mother’s request, and his father finding out (9.549). Phoenix runs away from home, and Peleus welcomes him into his home as a son (9.583). One may observe the similarity that Phoenix’s past and Achilles’ present both hinge on a concubine or slave-girl. Phoenix claims to Achilles: “I made you what you are—strong as the gods… I loved you from the heart” (9.587). He expresses his love for Achilles, as a man who knew he’d never have his own son (9.595). In fact, he leverages this into an argument stating: “I made you my son, I tried, so someday you might fight disaster off my back” (9.600). He then gives an explanation of the Prayers of Zeus, personified, who “heal the wounds of mankind” (6.117). The explicit appeal to family and then to the gods (to save his people) invites another comparison between Achilles and Hector—whose piety toward family, polis, and the gods was on display in book six. Phoenix’s appeal to the ancient story of Meleager is such a close parallel to Achilles’ current situation that it is believed to be a Homeric invention (9.646). Despite his appeal that the Achaeans will honor Achilles “like a god” (9.734), Achilles only sees Phoenix as currying favor of Agamemnon (9.748). Though he rejects his arguments, Achilles invites Phoenix to spend the night with him and discern leaving for home in the morning (9.755).

49. What is the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus? 

Homer presents Patroclus as the “great friend” of Achilles (9.246). Similar to Phoenix, Patroclus was a runaway who found refuge in the house of King Peleus, Achilles’ father. Peleus assigned Patroclus as the personal attendant to the slightly younger Achilles, and this subservient relation between the “great friends” is notable in book nine (9.242, 246, 263, et al.). Homer does not at any point, however, present Achilles and Patroclus as homosexual lovers. It is a popular modern read of the text, but such a read cannot be reduced to simply a modern ideological rewrite—the idea that Achilles and Patroclus are homosexuals is an ancient one. Though completely absent from Homer, the idea that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers was popular over four hundred years after Homer in the classical Greek era. In that time, homosexuality and pederasty had become popular amongst the aristocratic class in Greece. The playwright Aeschylus (c. 525 B.C.) wrote a play, now lost, that presented the two Achaeans as homosexual lovers. The playwright is referenced by Phaedrus in Plato’s Symposium, and Phaedrus also presents Achilles and Patroclus as lovers. What happened in Greek culture between Homer and Plato to popularize homosexuality (including pederasty) in Greek culture is a matter of some debate, but it may align with the advent of the reworked cult of Dionysus.

It is also noteworthy that the classical Greek scholar on Homer and first librarian of the famous library at Alexandria, Zenodotus (c. 330 B.C.), held that presenting Achilles and Patroclus as lovers was a classical interjection into the Homeric text. 

50. What effect does the embassy have on Achilles?

Odysseus, Phoenix, and Ajax all present arguments as to why Achilles should rejoin the war. One may argue that the embassy was effective, as Achilles’ answer to each shows him moving closer to rejoining the war. For example, to Odysseus he states he is sailing home in the morning (and everyone else should as well) (9.437, 507); to Phoenix he states he will decide whether to leave in the morning (9.755); and to Ajax he states he will not fight again until Argives are being slaughtered and their ships are on fire (9.795). As such, one may argue that the embassy was effective in moving Achilles closer to rejoining the war. 

Another perspective, however, would be that Achilles has no intention of sailing home. One may question why, if Achilles was on the cusp of sailing home the next morning, he had not done so already. Therefore, the threat of sailing home is a pretense, and one that is dropped by the end of his dialogue with the Achaean delegates. The rage of Achilles will not be sated until his Achaean brothers are being slaughtered and almost all hope has gone. It is less that the embassy moved him to this position but more their arguments removed any veneer to Achilles’ rage and desire for glory. 

51. What else should be noted in the embassy to Achilles?

There are a few other noteworthy aspects of the embassy to Achilles. Agamemnon’s offer of one of his daughters to Achilles (9.170) recalls the horrific fate of Iphigeneia who was offered as a human sacrifice to Artemis after being tricked into thinking she was to marry Achilles (Question 9). Notice that Odysseus, as a messenger of Agamemnon, does not repeat the high chieftain’s statement that Achilles must a submit to him, the “greater man” (9.188, cf. 362). Achilles’ rage and its temptations seems to have been well-known to Achilles’ father, Peleus (9.307). Despite Achilles’ statement of loving Briseis with his whole heart (9.415), his vulgar offering of her to Agamemnon makes it difficult to see her as anything more than a proxy for Achilles’ sense of honor (9.407). Furthermore, it is notable that Hector and Achilles have fought before, and Hector “barely escaped” (9.430).

One of the most important aspects is the narrative of Thetis presenting the two fates to Achilles (9.498). In short, if he remains in Troy and fights, then he’ll die—but his glory will never end. If he sails home, his pride and glory die, but he’ll have a long life. The choice of the two fates informs why Achilles is more interested in glory and honor than Agamemnon’s treasure—as even if he was enticed by it, he knows he will not live long enough to enjoy it. Achilles seeks the immortality of fame.

52. What else should be observed in book nine?

Agamemnon lamenting the “brutal treachery” of Zeus and telling his men to sail home (9.24, 31) is reminiscent of him testing his men with similar language in book two (Question 15)—except this time it is not a rouse. Nestor will continue to play the role of the wise counselor, and it should be noted that he represents the ancestral assumption that age equals wisdom (9.70). One may observe that Agamemnon intuits that Zeus’ plan to glorify Achilles through a slaughter of the Argives (9.142). Finally, book nine is bookended by Diomedes speaking up when others are stunned or dumbfounded. The book opens with him rejecting Agamemnon’s call to abandon the siege of Troy and closes with him encouraging the Achaeans after Achilles’ refusal to fight (9.850).

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