BMCR 2003.07.32

Ransom, Revenge, and Heroic Identity in the Iliad

, Ransom, revenge, and heroic identity in the Iliad. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 1 online resource (ix, 236 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 0511020392. $55.00.

One of the major themes of the Iliad concerns the question of proper compensation. How much is Achilles owed for the dishonor shown him by Agamemnon in Book 1? Donna F. Wilson (hereafter W.) has done Homeric scholarship a great service by reformulating this central theme as a question not of quantity but of the type of compensation the hero demands and is owed. Employing the resources of “cultural poetics” (philology and the analysis of traditional themes and formal patterns), narratology, and anthropological models for the analysis of social meaning (6), W. demonstrates that the Homeric vocabulary for compensation is more elaborate and intricate than has thus far been supposed. The Iliad and the heroes who inhabit its world distinguish between apoina (ransom) and poinê (reparations or revenge), and these terms signify two firmly demarcated ways in which compensation may be offered and either received or rejected. In Book 9, Agamemnon offers Achilles apoina, but he refuses the offer in favor of a desire for poinê, while leaving open the possibility that he might also accept apoina. In the end he manages to achieve both but in an unexpected way: poinê from Hector for the death of Patroclus and apoina from Priam in return for Hector’s corpse. W. is able to make clear the distinction between these two key terms by first studying rather simple exchanges of compensation occurring within the minor episodes or “discrete themes” of the Iliad and then applying the results of this analysis to the poem’s major plot, where the compensation Agamemnon offers Achilles is subject to “different and shifting definitions” (7). As Anthony Burgess once observed in regard to Joyce’s Ulysses, instructions on how to read and interpret the work are actually encoded within the work itself.

The discrete themes are discussed in Chapter 1, which demonstrates the differences between apoina and poinê and lays out the distinctive vocabulary associated with each. The two most significant verbal repetitions in themes of the apoina type are the neuter plural noun apoina and some form of the verb meaning “to release” ( luein or apoluein) (22f.). Apoina are “payments in prestige goods made to recover something that rightly belongs to a person or group: in almost all extant examples a subordinate member of one’s family, preferably alive” (40). An offer of apoina —with payment usually to be made by a father (30) — presupposes a situation of hostility between the parties to the deal (38); they are conventionally offered to enemies (38) or outsiders (101). Moreover, apoina entail no diminishment of honor ( timê) or status on the part of the person making the offer (10). Finally, the rhetoric associated with apoina is that they often are unlimited ( apereisia) (39). Where poinê is at issue, the vocabulary is more complex: poinê, timê, tisis, atitos (“unpaid”), and forms of the verb tinê occur frequently. The word poinê signifies the paying back of a loss that results from gratuitous harm, whether through the payment of goods or the inflicting of suffering (22-25). (According to Black’s Legal Dictionary, the technical legal term for the payment of goods for harm is “composition” [25 and 189, n. 47].) Rather than being offered, poinê is exacted or taken — usually by the victim’s father, brother, other relative, a companion in arms, or some other philos; rarely does a victim within the discrete themes exact poinê for harm that he himself has suffered (30). Unlike the apoina offered to outsiders, payment of poinê may reflect a settlement negotiated between men associated with one another as insiders or philoi (105). Also unlike apoina, the payment of poinê involves a transfer of honor ( timê) that corrects some previously existing disequilibrium in status (30). Finally, while apoina are often characterized as “unlimited,” the rhetoric associated with poinê is that of equivalent value. In other words, poinê is “limited” (19).

Having thus established the differences between the types of compensation represented by the terms apoina and poinê, W. turns in Chapter 2 to a consideration of the role of compensation in the conflict between the priest Chryses and the king Agamemnon in Book 1 of the Iliad, which is paradigmatic for the plot of the poem as a whole in its blending of themes of apoina and poinê (45). Chryses first offers Agamemnon “unlimited apoina” ( Il. 1.13) in exchange for the return of his daughter. When the king refuses, the priest activates the poinê theme, praying that Apollo make the Achaeans “pay back” ( teiseian, Il. 1.42) his tears, and the god sets about punishing Agamemnon with losses to his army. As a result, the king is compelled to give up the apoina he would have received and pay poinê (the girl and gifts) that has the effect of diminishing his honor ( timê) and status. In order to save face, however, the king offers to use Chryses’ daughter in payment as apoina in order to preserve the army rather than as poinê to redress the harm done to the priest, and he demands that the Achaeans compensate him with a replacement prize (51-52). The act of taking Achilles’ prize results in the hero’s withdrawal from combat, which in turn leads to the Achaean defeat that will later precipitate Agamemnon’s offer of compensation to the hero in Book 9.

Chapter 3, “The Quarrel: Men Who Would Be King,” considers the origin of the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles in Book 1. (W. playfully salts the book with oblique references to a number of films such as The Man Who Would Be King, Dead Man Walking, and In the Name of the Father. I have probably missed others.) Themes of apoina and poinê are once again merged, so that the quarrel between Chryses and Agamemnon emerges as a kind of paradigm and rehearsal of the issues involved in the poem’s major plot. The conflict arises initially from a problem in the social organization that features a fixed system, in which Agamemnon can legitimately claim preeminence and a fluid, timê -based system, according to which Achilles can claim to be the best (54-55). Achilles, regarding the taking of his prize as an act of gratuitous harm (61), withdraws from the fighting and takes Chryses as a model for how to exact poinê from Agamemnon. He “publicly projects a strategy of tisis through inactivity” (65) in order to enhance his own honor ( timê) and diminish the king’s.

Chapter 4 persuasively demonstrates how an appreciation of the distinction between apoina and poinê is crucial for a proper understanding of Agamemnon’s embassy to Achilles in Book 9, the interpretive key to the entire poem. W. argues against the views of those who claim that Achilles is unreasonable in refusing Agamemnon’s offer of compensation and that the position he takes in Book 9 is incompatible with the values of Homeric society. Similarly, she quite correctly, it seems to me, decisively refutes the idea that Achilles somehow steps outside the heroic code and rejects material compensation for honor altogether. Rather, the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles centers on the issue of the kind of compensation Agamemnon must pay. In Book 9, Nestor first repeats Achilles’ demand for poinê as the hero himself expressed it in Book 1 (74). Agamemnon, however, characterizes his offer to Achilles not as poinê but as apoina ( Il. 9.120), given in order to save his army ( Il. 9.120). He thereby places himself in the role of father to the Achaean host, signals his intent to allow no diminution of his own honor ( timê), and asserts his superiority over Achilles, who is put in the role of outsider or enemy of the Achaean host (77-79). Thereafter, the embassy itself — Odysseus, Phoenix, and Aias — must disguise the true nature of the offer. Therefore, they invoke in various ways the claims of friendship and family (81-82). But Achilles “unmasks and rejects the apoina” (83). At the end of Book 9 according to W., Achilles remains resolute in his desire to attain poinê and after that apoina (107).

Chapter 5 considers the theme of compensation as it is deployed after the embassy of Book 9. After the death of Patroclus in Book 16, Achilles’ anger is deflected from Agamemnon to Hector, from whom he exacts the poinê of “life for life” and flatly refuses any possible offer of apoina that might be made by Hector’s family (121). In the final book of the poem, however, Zeus “scripts” a final act of compensation wherein Achilles releases the body of Hector in return for apoina brought by Hector’s father Priam (127). According to W., the monumental plot of the poem thus reverses the order typical of mixed apoina/poinê scenes within the discrete themes, where apoina is usually first offered on the battlefield by a defeated enemy but the poinê of “life for life” is exacted instead (127).

In the final chapter, W. draws a number of conclusions from her study of the theme of compensation. Concerning the ideological slant of the Iliad, she reiterates the view that the poem presents two possible models of elite competition: a fluid, timê -based system that agonistically authenticates Achilles as best and a fixed system that legitimizes Agamemnon as aristos (142). Studying the funeral games for Patroclus in Book 23, she effectively argues that both internal and external audiences watch Achilles, a leader who has risen to the top through the agonistic system, preside over a community in which Agamemnon, the best man according to the fixed system, exercises no restraining force (124, 142). Hence the poem privileges the fluid over the fixed system.

The book closes with two appendices, the first a catalog of all occurrences of the theme of compensation in the Iliad grouped according to type ( apoina, poinê, and mixed) and the second a list of compensation themes in the order in which they appear in the poem. There is also an index of Homeric passages and a very brief general index.

My only major reservation about the argument of the book concerns how the theme of mêtis/biê (cunning intelligence/force) is said to be developed in relation to the theme of compensation in the Iliad. W. repeatedly posits the existence of an “alignment” between the theme of compensation and the Greek cultural opposition of mêtis/biê (11, 121, 131, 136-138). What exactly “alignment” means in this context is never made clear, but the alignment is traced to the character of Achilles, a hero who seeks and, however unexpectedly, eventually finds the compensation that eludes him until the conclusion of the poem. While seeming to eschew psychological approaches to the study of Homeric characters (3, 4, 5, 10), W. herself offers an interpretation of the character of Achilles in psychological terms, seeing him as maintaining a consistent strategy of mêtis through much of the poem (107), a strategy he only abandons at the death of Patroclus in Book 16, when he demonstrates alignment with unmitigated biê (121, 139). In the funeral games for Patroclus in Book 23, Achilles once again becomes associated with mêtis (125) and in the end proves himself an exemplary hero who, like the Odysseus of the Odyssey, “destabilizes the polarity between mêtis and biê (140).

In order to picture Achilles as persisting for so long in a strategy of mêtis, W. boldly attempts to make sense out of what has seemed to many commentators a strange bit of confusion marring his replies to the embassy from Agamemnon in Book 9. There the hero claims that he will not relent from his anger until Agamemnon “pays back all this heart-rending outrage” ( prin g’apo pasan emoi domenai thumalgea lôbên, Il. 9.387). W. dismisses the view of Adam Parry that “repayment of outrage” is impossible and that Achilles is making a demand that cannot be met. Similarly, she argues against M. D. Reeve’s conclusion that Achilles is putting forth a demand that amounts to a logical absurdity, as if he were saying “Undo what you did” (91). She claims, on the other hand, that the syntax of Achilles’ demand conforms to the logic of the discrete themes, where the verb apodidounai (“give back” or “pay back”) refers to poinê, more specifically to composition (the payment of goods in return for harm done) (91-92). If Achilles is indeed demanding composition in Book 9, he ought to be able to state his demands to the internal audience (the ambassadors Odysseus, Phoenix, and Aias), and, consequently, his position should be discernible to the external audience. Yet I can find no passage where Achilles frankly and openly makes known his wishes, nor does W. say what the hero wants Agamemnon to pay back. Poinê, she says, can either be offered by Agamemnon or exacted from him in the humiliation of defeat or torching of the ships (92). But what exactly is the king in a position to offer? Not gifts apparently since, in W.’s view, poinê in this case seems to be different from gifts (cf. 112), nor supplication, which she also seems to distinguish from the poinê owed (cf. 111). On the one hand, I am completely convinced by her arguments that Achilles wants poinê from Agamemnon and that he nowhere abandons allegiance to the traditional code of heroism. However, far from exhibiting a consistent strategy of mêtis or cunning intelligence, Achilles throughout the poem seems uncertain and subject to various changes of mind and strategy; he is, it seems to me, often frustrated by his inability to articulate just how he wants Agamemnon to pay him back. In this respect he bears little resemblance to the cunning and intelligent Odysseus of the Odyssey.

W.’s notes are numerous but always succinct and informative. I wish that Cambridge University Press had seen fit to print them as footnotes rather than endnotes.

Ransom, Revenge, and Heroic Identity is a truly remarkable book that effectively elucidates the poetics of compensation practiced by the heroes of the Iliad. The book will likely change the way many readers understand the character of Achilles and read and interpret the Iliad.