Zeus ponders how he might keep his promise to Thetis, to support Achilles in his argument with Agamemnon. He wants to see the Achaeans slaughtered near their ships. He decides to send a dream to Agamemnon to trick him into acting rashly. This is a little like the premise of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, in which an idea is planted into the mind of a sleeper. In this dream Agamemnon is made to believe that if he immediately attacks Troy with his full force he will be able to easily take the city. Furthermore, Zeus convinces Agamemnon through the dream that the gods of Olympus are now all in agreement about Troy’s fate. The dream appears to Agamemnon using Nestor’s voice. Nestor is older than other commanders and is usually looked to for wise council.
When Agamemnon wakes he takes the Royal Sceptre and summons a meeting of the ranking chiefs beside Nestor’s ship. He tells them in detail of the dream he has had, repeating the words of the dream, convinced they can now defeat Troy. However, he explains that he first wishes to test the men of their armies by suggesting that they return home. Agamemnon will rely upon his commanders to keep control. Nestor supports Agamemnon’s belief that they can win against Troy and is eager to mobilise their forces, but he has nothing to say of Agamemnon’s foolhardy test.
The troops are gathered on the beach and rumours fly through the ranks about the possible purpose of the gathering as the men wait. Agamemnon rises to address the troops holding the Royal Sceptre which is said to have come from Zeus, himself. He tells the troops that Zeus is a cruel god who made false promises. He says their campaign is a failure and that Zeus has ordered them back to Argos in disgrace. The Greek forces, he points explains, outnumber the Trojan forces by a great number, but the Trojans have many allies that have complicated the situation and have caused them to fail for nine years. Agamemnon emphasises the futility of their position while their families await them at home. He orders them to sail for home. Naturally, after this speech, the men run to their ships to prepare to sail home and there is chaos. The situation is so dire that Hera, seeing what is happening, orders Athena to go to the men and prevent their leaving. Athena finds Odysseus, who has stood fast, refusing to return to the ships. She encourages him to use his powers of persuasion to stop the flight. Odysseus seizes the Royal Sceptre from Agamemnon and goes amongst the men. He reminds ranking commanders that this is only Agamemnon’s test, and beats common soldiers who try to flee. Eventually, order is restored and the armies are returned to their meeting positions on the beach. But Thersites, a man whose character is defined by his misshapen grotesqueness, much like Shakespeare’s treatment of Richard III, taunts Agamemnon for his overwhelming desire for Trojan loot that keeps them on the shores of Troy. He says Achilles is a better man than Agamemnon, and that Agamemnon would have been dead, only that Achilles restrained his own hand. Thersites urges the troops to return to their homes. Odysseus abuses Thersites for his presumption to criticise a king, and points out that none of them know how things will end. He threatens to whip Thersites if he speaks out of place again, then hits him on his back with the Royal Sceptre, which causes the men to laugh and turn against Thersites.
Odysseus continues to address the men. He portrays men who wish to return home as effeminate cowards, and says it would be humiliation to return home empty-handed after nine years. He reminds the men of an incident that happened before they left Greece. They had been making offerings to the gods when a snake slid from under the alter and slithered up a tree to eat eight baby birds and their mother. Then the snake was turned to stone by Zeus as a sign. Odysseus interprets this omen as a prophecy that the Greek forces will prevail against Troy after the ninth year, the number of birds eaten by the snake, which represents the Greeks.
Nestor speaks next and implores the men to stay true to their purpose and never sail for home, “not till he beds down with a faithful Trojan wife.” Nestor also advises Agamemnon to order the forces according to their tribes and clans, commanded by their local captains, so that Agamemnon might see easily if any regions fight cowardly or seem to be against him.
Agamemnon next addresses the troops, saying he is certain of victory. He also recalls his argument with Achilles, and in a candid moment suggests it was pointless to have argued over a girl. He now calls for the men to prepare for battle and threatens death to any cowards.
The troops then returned to their tents and light fires to make sacrifices to the gods. Agamemnon makes sacrifices to Zeus and prays to him for victory, which is ironic, because Zeus plans to thwart his campaign.
After sacrifices are made, Nestor calls for the men to don full battle armour and march past Agamemnon for him to review them. As they march, Athena moves among the men and stirs awake their desire for battle. As the armies mobilise across the Scamander plain, Agamemnon strides among the men, a powerful presence which is enhanced by Zeus.
Homer now calls upon the muses to help give an impression of this vast force arrayed against Troy. The remainder of this book mainly describes the forces of the Achaeans: their commanders and where they come from. Many of the names will be unfamiliar. A general reader will find this section a little dull, while historians would be interested in the roll call of names and places that are said to contribute to the Greek force. In some instances, Homer adds flavour to this long list with short digressions about commanders. Some of these short narratives are detailed in the adjoining column of this page.
As this vast army marches out to attack Troy, Achilles and his men remain at their camp, idling the time away.
Meanwhile, Iris, a messenger of the gods, visits the Trojans to warn of the mobilisation of the Greeks. She urges Hector to marshal the troops. Troy is at a disadvantage because its army is comprised of troops from many different language backgrounds, so Iris tells Hector to let the local commanders each command their own men. What follows is another listing of troops, though much shorter than the list given for the Greeks. Aeneus, Pandarus, Chromis, Sarpedon and Glaudus are among the commanders on the Trojan side.
It is important to remember that the action of Book 2 is based upon a false dream sent to Agamemnon by Zeus. Zeus’s intention is that Agamemnon will fail as punishment for his argument with Achilles. Yet Agamemnon would seem to be just as capable of sabotaging his campaign all by himself. In the first book he provokes Achilles into retiring from the war. In this book he needlessly encourages his men to return home. It’s an action that could have destroyed all discipline in the army, if not for the intervention of Athena and Odysseus. Thersites feels emboldened to question Agamemnon for this reason.
Nestor, as an older commander, has a reputation for giving good advice. However, in this book he gives none. He does not question the providence or meaning of Agamemnon’s dream. Even worse, he says nothing at all to dissuade Agamemnon from conducting his ‘test’, which almost ends in the total breakdown of army discipline.
Odysseus appears to be the real hero of Book 2. Faced with the chaotic disintegration of the army after Agamemnon encourages his forces to return home, Odysseus is not tempted to break for the ships and return home. Instead, he remains steadfast. Homer describes him as “a mastermind like Zeus”, and it is Odysseus to whom Athena turns for help as she seeks to find a way to stop the chaos. She encourages him to stop the men with “your winning words”, suggesting that Odysseus is not only well respected, but he is charismatic and persuasive. This anticipates the character of Odysseus in The Odyssey. Odysseus’s actions are decisive. By taking the Royal Sceptre from Agamemnon, Odysseus shows himself to be a natural leader and focussed under pressure. His use of the sceptre as a weapon against deserters and, in particular, Thersites, shows he is capable of commanding respect and order either through persuasion or, if need be, through violence. His punishment of Thersites suggests he strongly believes in hierarchies and order in the army. He is a loyal follower of Agamemnon.
Thersites is a regular soldier who would not normally speak to the king. Yet in this book Thersites is emboldened to verbally attack Agamemnon in front of the troops after the chaos that has been caused by Agamemnon’s ‘test’ has been quelled. Thersites makes no criticism that Achilles has not already made, yet he is beaten by Odysseus and made keep quiet. It is interesting that Homer sets Thersites up as a villain by giving us a visual representation of him:
These lines reminded me of Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard III, a character physically deformed to suggest his inner villainy:
It is hard to account for Agamemnon’s ‘test’ – why he takes this risk – and the introduction of Thersites into the narrative is also curious, if somewhat more comprehensible. Thersites is the only critical voice of Agamemnon in this book, so he seems to act as a surrogate for Achilles in the narrative. His low status also makes him easy to dismiss. Agamemnon thereby ignores the weakness of his own position, even though he will later acknowledge that his argument with Achilles is counterproductive:
Lines 588 until the end of the book can be a bit tedious to read, given that this section is mainly a catalogue of commanders and their forces. Nevertheless, there are some interesting digressions made by Homer throughout this section, including an aside that adds detail to the story of Breseis and Achilles. The following is a brief outline of some of these asides:
King Eurytus from Oechalia is said to have boasted that he sang better than the Muses. They were so angered by this that they destroyed his ability to speak and wiped all musical ability from his mind. This story reflects a common theme in Greek mythology, of the gods’ punishment for mortals’ hubris. Oedipus and Icarus are two well-known examples. Another tale, not related here in The Iliad concerning Eurytus’s death, has him killed by Apollo after he boasts of his archery skills and challenges the god to a contest. His bow eventually becomes the property of Odysseus, the same bow he kills the suitors with in The Odyssey.
Tlepolemus is said to have come of age in Heracles’s palace and killed Licymnius, his father’s uncle. To escape punishment he quickly fitted ships and fled across the sea with supporters to Rhodes, where they settled as three tribes.
This section of The Iliad gives us new detail about the story of how Achilles came to have Briseis as a prize. It’s a question one might well ask, since Troy remained undefeated to this point, yet prizes are normally taken from defeated cities. Here, Homer tells us that Achilles took Briseis from Lyrnessus, a town near Thebes. This is not to be confused with the Thebes in Euboea, Greece. Rather, this Thebes is a town in western Asia Minor. This detail from a map shows the relative positions of Troy, Thebes and Lyrnessus:
This map detail is taken from an interesting map which details the information about the Greek forces in this section of Book 2. The entire map can be found by clicking here. Apart from tracing the purported origin of the Greek forces, there is also detail showing that the Greek force did not just limit its objectives to Troy, but was attacking along the coastline of Asia Minor. What this detail tells us is that apart from the popular story of the Greek force attacking Troy to recover Helen, the Greeks were actually attacking along the Ionian coast and north into Dardania, the region around Troy. The detail that Achilles acquired Briseis after defeating the sons of King Euenus, shows us that the campaign was a broader than the popular legend, if we believe Homer. This makes sense of the detail we find in Agamemnon’s speech (lines 153 – 156) and later in the book when Iris advises Hector how to marshal his forces (lines 911 – 914). First Agamemnon:
It would seem that the Greeks have been campaigning in this region, and Troy has become a focal point for the conflict, with other cities putting their support behind Troy against the Greeks.
Protesilaus is said to have been the first Greek commander killed in the campaign. He died even as he was jumping from his ship.
Philoctetes is said to have commanded seven ships in the contingent sailing to Troy. However, he was marooned by his men on the island of Lemnos when he was bitten by a deadly ‘water-viper’, and left to die.
Aeneas is the leader of the Dardanians. His first mention is on line 931 of Book 2. Aeneas survives the destruction of Troy and is later the subject of Virgil’s The Aeneid.
Homer refers to Nastes as a ‘fool’. He goes into battle “decked in gold like a girl”. Homer tells us he was killed by Achilles and stripped of his gold. This detail shows that this section is not entirely chronological, since Achilles has withdrawn from the fight: that Homer is also offering us some summary of the events in the first nine years of the war.
Agamemnon’s Sceptre features prominently in this book. It is a symbol of authority, and it is literally used as a weapon against Thersites by Odysseus. We are told that as Agamemnon seizes the sceptre on his way to the council of his commanders, that the sceptre’s “power can never die”. When Odysseus must act to save the Greek forces from the chaos Agamemnon’s speech has wrought, he takes the sceptre from Agamemnon, thereby assuming authority. We sense that the sceptre is imbued with the authority of Agememnon’s ancestors and even Zeus, himself:
This lineage, stretching back to Zeus, imparts legitimacy to Agamemnon as a king. However, there is evidence that Agamemnon may have also been worshipped as a minor deity. Representations of Agamemnon are often similar to Zeus. Agamemnon is often represented holding the sceptre, as is Zeus. In Sparta, Zeus was worshipped as Zeus Agamemnon.
Pausanias, a Greek version of a travel writer, believed that Agamemnon’s sceptre was a real artefact. He claims it was held in the town of Chaeroneia, Greece, where they worshipped it:
They have a cult of this staff, which they call the Shaft. There must be some divinity about it to explain the glory it brings to human beings. They say it was found at the boundaries of Chaeroneia . . . I am sure it was brought to Phokis by Agamemnon’s daughter Elektra. It has no public temple, but the priest in each year keeps the staff in his house. Sacrifices are offered every day, and it has a table full of every kind of meat and sweet-cake.
Pausanias, convinced of the staff’s authenticity as the sceptre of Agamemnon, goes on to say:
With the single exception of Agamemnon’s staff, not one of the works of Hephiastos in the songs of poets and the gossip of mankind trailing behind them can command belief.
While the sceptre features prominently in Book 2 of The Iliad, we should remember that Achilles oath in Book 1 is also sworn upon the sceptre:
It is therefore upon the authority and power of the sceptre that the entire action of The Iliad rests.