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  • Achilles the Ally1
  • Walter Donlan

Returning from the Trojan War, Odysseus suffers one final blow from the gods when, in sight of the land of the Phaeacians, Poseidon sends a storm that swamps his raft. Odysseus laments that he had not died along with the Danaans who perished in Troy, , "doing a favor for the sons of Atreus" (Od. 5.307). With that phrase, Odysseus defines the nature of the Danaans' relationship with Agamemnon and Menelaus. They are allies; they were asked, and they consented, to gather followers and fight for the brothers. I emphasize this obvious fact because we (I include myself) usually store it in the background and proceed to treat the Achaeans as a single political entity when we analyze the politics of power.

Any consideration of the hostile between Achilles and Agamemnon for status and power () must acknowledge at the outset that Achilles and his Myrmidons stand in the same formal relationship to Agamemnon as Sarpedon and his Lycians to Hector. For a coalition of separate units has its own internal norms of rights and responsibilities, which, however much they parallel those of a single territory and people (), are not the same.2 I assume in this paper that eighth-century [End Page 155] auditors regarded the Achaean political drama as being played out under the rules of an alliance. Those protocols, I suggest, would elicit expectations and judgments different from the ones they would have if Achilles and the other leaders were understood to be permanent in Agamemnon's own chiefdom. So I shall try to put the Achaean political crisis in the context of a military alliance, giving particular attention to the dynamic features that most differentiate the two types of social organization: the relations of power and the sense of community.

Yet the Achaean narrative, even as it follows the practical and ethical trajectory of a coalition community, also blends in elements that fit the context of a single on campaign. It is an easy task for the narrator to conflate the two types of community, since an alliance army will replicate the institutions of the regional/ethnic contingents that make it up: apical leader, of chiefs, and of all the warriors (Greenhalgh 1972.533). The internal political relations of an alliance and of a single army also bear certain similarities. The other of a who follow the paramount to war enjoy a degree of independence by virtue of their local control and their own retinues of followers (though, of course, nothing like the independence of a foreign ally). Furthermore, friction between a paramount and a strong sub-chief over matters of respect and obedience, as with Achilles and Agamemnon, would not be uncommon.

Besides these structural analogies, there are other, rather broad, hints that serve to undercut the image of an alliance and give the impression that the context is a single . The Greek allies are never referred to as as are the allies of the Trojans, but are given shared ethnic identifiers (Achaioi, Danaoi, Argeioi), all used to designate the collective .3 And, although the text is careful to mention the individual homelands of the allies, Argos is often made their collective home (e.g., 2.287, 2.348, 9.246, 13.227, etc.; cf. 1.254, 3.75, 9.141). More qualitatively, as we shall see, the rhetoric used to describe Agamemnon's normative authority as the alliance leader sounds more fitting for the leader of a single people. [End Page 156]

The confusion cannot be accidental (there are no similar signs in the Trojan alliance), and I propose that the Iliad constructs an alternate social context, inviting the audience to experience a sort of double focus, viewing the situation from the vantage point of both types of community. The fused image confronts listeners with the problem of communal strife while allowing them to contemplate it from the comfortable distance of a legendary alliance. Only in light of this kind of indeterminacy, as I maintain at the end of my paper, may what happens from Book 16 on appear plausible and palatable to Homer's audiences. Let us turn, then, to that unique form of political community, the military...


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