{The Greatest Achaean on the Battlefield} “The Iliad” by Homer (762 BC)

Much ado has been made over the wrath of Achilles in Homer’s Iliad and deservedly so. It is the single most important feature of the poem in terms of narrative cohesiveness and dramatic structure. Achilles is such a grandiose figure that his influence reverberates throughout the narrative of the poem. But what are we to make of lesser characters and incidents involving them? What of Ajax and Odysseus? Do they depend on Achilles for their meaning in the poem? To a certain degree they do. There is a sharp contrast drawn between their personalities in the poem. One could even say that they are antithetical figures. Far from being ancillary characters, they seem to dramatize an opposition that lies at the heart of the poem.

It cannot be contested that Homer is dramatizing a heroic tradition in the poem, one that is likely much older than him. The opposition of Ajax and Odysseus seems to illustrate Homer’s understanding of that tradition. The difference between their personalities is nearly diagrammatic, perhaps not in league with the classical Dionysian and Apollonian dichotomy, but Ajax and Odysseus are easily and quickly distinguishable from one another. The reference to Dionysus and Apollo is not arbitrary one. In the Western literary tradition, Dionysus and Apollo have come to represent archetypal psychological and behavioural states. The relationship between Ajax and Odysseus seems to function on a similar dynamic; their separateness and opposition is elevated to the level of the archetypal.

Odysseus is a different type of warrior than Ajax, in the same way that Agamemnon is different from Achilles. One could even argue that Homer is doubling the character pairs in the poem: Odysseus mirrors Agamemnon, Ajax mirrors Achilles. Homer depicts the conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles early in the poem. The reason for their feud is made clear. The conflict between Odysseus and Ajax, however, is of a more subdued nature. It occurs more in the background of the poem, as subtext.

Homer’s doubling technique in the poem has various applications. For one, the poet can reveal aspects of an individual’s character through another character’s actions, like Ajax disclosing Achilles’ unspoken concerns regarding the battle of Troy in the Embassy scene, or Odysseus succeeding in stratagem where Agamemnon fails. There are dozens of others connections to be made between these characters, but for our purposes, it is only important to demonstrate that there is more than a superficial connection between the characters we have highlighted. It should also be noted that this doubling technique is reciprocal in effect: Agamemnon also reveals aspects of Odysseus’ character and where a limited characterization is available, such an understanding is essential.

Agamemnon clearly finds favor in Odysseus as a warrior and tactician: “I need not give you orders, knowing as I do that you are well disposed toward all I plan. Your thought is like my own.” He reserves a special kinship with Odysseus for the two are all too similar. They seem to carry a comparable world view. Cedric H. Whitman says in Homer and the Heroic Tradition that “Resourcefulness and trickery form the essence [of Odysseus]…both implying [his] survival by adjustment, either self-adjustment or skillful manipulation of circumstances.” Odysseus’ main concern is for himself; the same could be said for Agamemnon. His interest lies in accumulating wealth and commanding over land and armies. However, Odysseus and Agamemnon are not entirely cowardly individuals. They are more than able to earn their keep on the battlefield. But where they cannot win by “force,” they win by “trick.”

Whitman elaborates that “Part of the fascination of Greek Character, today as in antiquity, is the interplay of this quality with its opposite, heroic inflexibility.” Odysseus, and Agamemnon to a lesser degree, are rudimentary to the anti-hero tradition of the Western literary canon. One could hardly imagine Shakespeare’s Iago, Machiavelli’s Prince, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, or, more overtly, Joyce’s Leopold Bloom without the tradition represented by Odysseus. The opposite of Odysseus and Agamemnon is Ajax and Achilles.

Ajax and Achilles are the very embodiments of “heroic inflexibility.” They only operate at the heroic level as combatants; their value can only be measured on the battlefield, in action, as warriors and not as diplomats. Homer withholds no compliments in his depiction of Achilles. He is obviously the greatest Achaean on the battlefield: “the zenith, of the heroic assumption” says  Cedric H. Whitman. Ajax, if only because he garners the unreserved admiration of Achilles as compatriot would probably be ranked second along the heroic chart. But why the contempt for Odysseus and Agamemnon as heroes? With regard to Agamemnon it is obvious; his blatant disregard for Achilles is largely unforgivable. The ramifications of his treatment of Achilles extend far beyond his comprehension. Does he get the best of Achilles? In many ways, no, but in some ways, yes. Most important of all is the interplay between these personalities. As for Odysseus, contempt for him is a matter of taste. Homer’s characterization of Odysseus is shaded, but he is a sparkling counterpoint to the heroism Ajax typifies.

The tradition of enmity between Odysseus and Ajax is primarily located in sources other than the Iliad, specifically in the legend of Ajax’s madness and in Homer’s Odyssey. But there is analogues in the Iliad for the events narrated elsewhere, as well as decisive hints of their rivalry. What is wrong with Odysseus as a hero? The truth is that Odysseus is more than able to fulfill what is required of him on the battlefield. But the qualities he embodies—craft, diligence, shrewdness, wiliness, resourcefulness—do not seem typical or even capable of fulfilling the Greek ideal of arête. Then again, perhaps there never was a spiritual component to the Greek’s conception of nobility; perhaps Achilles is the exception, and Odysseus is the rule. But does power need to make itself felt immediately and directly in order to qualify itself as power?

Odysseus’ brand of heroism is certainly not of that type. His actions are usually measured and long in their impact, and usually steeped deep in subterfuge. There are a few examples that come to mind from the poem—his rhetoric to Achilles in Book IX, his predatory stealth in Book X, his appeal to Achilles to consider the stomachs of his fellow soldiers before engaging the Trojans in battle in Book XIX—and there are a few noteworthy scenarios from outside the Iliad: his feigned madness on the beach of Ithaca in order to avoid the war, his design for sacking Troy with the wooden horse, and numerous other occasions in the Odyssey.

Most men are different from each other in their worldview and especially in their behavior. From a Darwinian perspective, Odysseus is the survivor par excellence, but I wonder if survival or even material gain is the true foundation of the Greeks’ conception of arête. What is the reasoning behind this prejudice for the success Odysseus designates? Certainly Achilles and even Ajax partake of this dislike for the breed that Odysseus and Agamemnon represent. The Embassy scene is the key reference for Achilles’ dislike for Odysseus’ tactics. Whitman lists the elements of his speech to Achilles as consisting of “exordium, exposition, arguments and peroration,” and yet, the speech does not move Achilles at all despite its eloquence.

Achilles recognizes in the Embassy scene that Odysseus is trying to persuade him to accept Agamemnon’s proposal and return to the war. Not only does the cool oratory of Odysseus fail to persuade him, it angers him: “I hate as I hate Hell’s own gate that man who hides one thought within him while he speaks another.” Achilles senses the deception in Odysseus’ speech; he is able to see through the finery of his argument. It is Phoenix, the “embodiment of the rules of the heroic [age]” and Ajax, “the man of aidốs” who affect him, according to Whitman.

Whitman defines aidốs as a “responsibility to others, and[as] a sense of their importance to oneself.” He characterizes Ajax as such and his turn in Embassy scene attests the same: “[Achilles] hardened his great heart against us, wayward and savage as he is, unmoved by the affections of his friends who made him honored above all others.” Ajax is not doing the bidding of Agamemnon in confronting Achilles; his concern is for his fellow warriors. His appeal to Achilles is to honor the heroic brotherhood he is a member of, and not necessarily to renew his loyalty to Agamemnon. Achilles replies to Ajax, “lord of fighting men, you seemed to echo my own mind in what you said.” It is the second time we have come across such an exclamation in the poem: Agamemnon’s earlier praise for Odysseus, stating that they share a common mind, and here with Achilles’ similar pronouncement to Ajax.

To Achilles, simplicity is a characteristic he admires, at least he admires it in Ajax, and why should he not? He is removed, stuck in his camp, brooding over Agamemnon’s insult, his own mortality, and the meaning of existence (is it pleasure and peace, or war and toil?), so of course an alternative would seem appealing to him—and Ajax’s simple, earthly logic it just the antidote he is seeking. Achilles wants to think and feel like Ajax does; he wants to join the war and engage in what he does best. But his consciousness of Agamemnon’s violation, his trespass on Achilles’ honor and the sanctity of the heroic code—at the very least, his defilement of the brotherhood among the army—is something that cannot be ignored and forgotten. Achilles has internalized his grievance; it has made him doubt the entire fabric of his reality: what is the value of being the noblest warrior when nobility is a fallacy, a foreground valuation? Odysseus, Agamemnon, and even Ajax, because of his simplicity, are not able to understand Achilles’ anger—they do not possess the spiritual capacity  of Achilles, that is, his sense of right and wrong, his understanding of honour.

Should honour govern Odysseus and Agamemnon? Was there a heroic code worth upholding? Was arête only a product of material gain? There is not a sense of timidity among Odysseus and Agamemnon, they do not possess a spiritual conscience. There is nothing among them internally to reprimand or govern their behavior, except their instinct to survive: “Odysseus sees reality as the situation or problem before him; Achilles sees it as something in himself, and the problem is to identify himself with it completely, through action,” says Whitman.

Achilles faces the task of responding in a true way to Agamemnon’s trespass; his anxiety is the expression of the difficulty of his task. For Ajax, his simplicity and ignorance of Achilles’ struggle is not a handicap, for he exists in the world Achilles wants to remain in. Ajax’s value is measured according to his acts on the battlefield; he has completely identified himself with his actions. There is not a residue of spoiled consciousness or wily craft in Ajax. He is the second greatest on the battlefield, second only to Achilles. It is a station he is secure in. Is he being exploited by Agamemnon? Only to the extent that every other Greek warrior is as a result of engaging in a war they had no hand in starting. But Achilles’ exploitation at the hands of Agamemnon prefigures Ajax’s similar fate at the hands of Odysseus in the Judgment of the Arms, recounted in sources outside of the Iliad.

The tradition states that Odysseus was handed the armor of the dead Achilles by Agamemnon who denied Ajax’s claim. This decision led to Ajax’s madness and consequent death. The tradition states that Thetis, Achilles’ mother, decided to award the arms of Achilles to the most courageous Greek left alive before Troy; only Ajax and Odysseus dared come forward to claim them. The same conflict is foreshadowed and prefigured in the Iliad on two occasions: Ajax and Odysseus defending the dead body of Patroclus and their wrestling contest near the end of the poem.

Who in their right mind would award Odysseus a prize of valor and bravery over Ajax? To Odysseus? The man who never exposes himself to unnecessary dangers, who in Book VIII deserts the call of Diomedes to save the life of Nestor from the onslaught of Trojans. Who would dare? Agamemnon would. What justification could Odysseus provide in order lay claim to Achilles’ armor? Next to Patroclus, Ajax was his closest comrade in life, at least in kind and breed. His entitlement to the arms, especially considering his effort to return the body of the dead Achilles to the Greek camp, could not have been questioned, at least not if Achilles was still among the living or able to communicate from the realm of the dead. The travesty is owed to Agamemnon, again, who finds yet another way to injure the heroic tradition represented by Ajax and Achilles. It is one of the most arresting tragedies inspired and illustrated by the poem.

What is wrong with the qualities Odysseus possesses? He is a creature of adaptation and variation. He is not inflexible like Ajax and even Achilles. Why should he be? What is the merit of such a posture? Why is simplicity to be championed over complexity? Why should the gifts of the gods and nature determine one’s value in life when one is in possession of craft and the talent of self-creation? Are not Odysseus’ talents the gifts of the gods? The archetype of conflict exhibited between Odysseus and Ajax, Agamemnon and Achilles, by association, is a profoundly real scenario—one that exists with or without the record of literature, it is a reality and a dilemma stamped on the consciousness of all who have existed since the time of the ancient Greeks. Morality and honour are the offspring of that conflict.

I call attention to an episode occurring in the Odyssey as a closing thought. Odysseus confronts the ghost of Achilles at the mouth of Hades, as well as other allies from the Trojan War. Ajax stands apart. Odysseus describes what he has suffered through since the war and reminds Achilles of his glorious deeds in life, and also of his station among the dead as consolation. Achilles’ response is typically memorable: “I would rather work the soil as a serf on hire to some landless impoverished peasant than be King of all these lifeless dead,” Whitman takes Achilles’ statement to be ironic, marking his derogatory view of Odysseus and his instinct for survival at all costs. Some readers remain unconvinced.