Berkman Center for Internet & Society



Getting Started


Current topic


  Discussion area

•  Lecture Hall

•  Directory

•  Faculty & Staff



Dialogue Notes I

(Highlights of Dialogue One)

The topics of this four-week dialogue are:

  • Homeric poetry (and notice that some key Greek words are included within the translation we are using--we will be talking about those key concepts in context)
  • Concepts of justice as represented by Homeric poetry
  • Morality and law in the ancient Greek city (the focal point of ancient Greek civilization).

The big question: What is the price of a human life? For a modern parallel, consider the personal-injury lawyer's "scale" in A Civil Action, where the juridical system determines the worth of the victim's life. Just as in the end of that story that lawyer is asked in bankrupcy court what he is worth in terms of "the things you measure life by," we will be discussing "the things you measure life by" as viewed through the lens of Homeric poetry and Greek civilization in general.

Let us start by zooming in on the small picture in Scroll 18, Achilles' Shield. The world represented there is Achilles' own personal world. It is also a 'microcosm' that reflects the macrocosm of the Iliad, which is the story of Achilles. Continuing to zoom in, we see depicted in this world a City at War and a City at Peace, and it is in the City at Peace that we see a scene of litigation. There is a plaintiff, a defendant, an inner circle of elders judging the case, and an outer circle of the general population looking on. The defendant is claiming the right to pay full compensation for the death of a man, while the plaintiff claims the right to refuse compensation. The victim (the dead man) and the parties to the case are left anonymous on the shield.

The macrocosm, the Iliad as a whole, can help us identify who the parties are, and the microcosm, the scene on the Shield, helps us identify the juridical, legal, and moral issues of the Iliad.

Now we move back to the beginning of the Iliad: Scroll One. The first word of the Iliad is mênin (dictionary entry: mênis), which means 'supernatural anger'. This anger experienced by Achilles is then described as baneful and causing countless sufferings to the Achaeans (=Greeks). These first two verses encapsulate the plot of the entire epic, and this anger is also connected to what is at stake in the litigation scene. The first two verses and the litigation scene have the same agenda but different perspectives. Reading the Iliad from this beginning has a linear perspective, while the scene on the Shield has a circular one.

The picture presented through words on the Shield will be our point of entry into the larger questions of justice and morality in the epic as a whole.

Dialogue Notes II

(Highlights of Dialogue Two)

Scroll Nine presents us with more of the moral issues of the Iliad, for here we see what is at stake in Achilles' choice not to return to battle along with the other Achaeans. In the scroll, Agamemnon decides he cannot win without Achilles and sends an embassy of Achilles' friends, but he formulates the terms for the settlement of their quarrel in such a way that Achilles cannot accept the terms without compromising his own heroic identity.

When Ajax realizes that Achilles will not accept Agamemnon's offer, he tells Achilles that he is hard-hearted, for even someone who has lost a near and dear relative will accept compensation for that relative, but Achilles won't accept compensation for a "mere girl." Neither Achilles nor Ajax yet sees the big picture of what is at stake, but the fact that Achilles has to refuse this offer of compensation to maintain his heroic status will lead to his becoming a man of constant sorrow, and he will experience the most unbearable grief.

Achilles must make a choice between having a safe homecoming and a long life or, as he says at Iliad 9.413, his safe homecoming will be destroyed but he will have a glory that is unwilting (=preserved forever in poetic tradition like a beautiful flower that never loses its sheen, hue, saturation, aroma, and this flower is his epic). In return for being contained in this beautiful flower of a song, he will have to give up his homecoming, his life.

This is the choice Achilles must make as the central hero of his own epic. By making this choice, he will have to disappoint his best friends and comrades in arms, and this is why Ajax is so outraged. But at that moment, Ajax thinks that what is at stake is "just a girl."

Achilles has no choice: he may not see the implications of his choice, and Ajax certainly does not. We may start to see what the implications are because we have already read the litigation scene on the Shield. But we will still have to determine who the dead man in that scene is.

The stakes involved are becoming clear: Achilles must let down his friends and preserve his status as the central figure of this epic. But the cost will be high, for he will not only let his friends down, but he will lose the person who is nearest and dearest to him, his other self, Patroklos (whose name means 'the glory of the ancestors'). The loss will be great: once Achilles hears of the death of Patroklos, we will begin to appreciate how he has relearned his own value system and how he rethinks what the price of a life is. But for more on that, we will have to wait until next week's dialogue.

Dialogue Notes III

(Highlights of Dialogue Three)

Part I. In the first dialogue and in the discussion for the first week of Homer's Poetic Justice we explored the ways in which the shield serves as a microcosm for the Iliad as a whole. A successful decoding of the shield at the same time decodes the moral agenda behind the entire Iliad.

Micronarratives like that of the shield can be found throughout the Iliad. These micronarratives, like the shield, interact with the larger context or macronarrative and carry all kinds of messages for both the characters and the audience.

A good example of such a narrative is the story of Meleager, which the old man Phoenix tells to Achilles in the embassy of Iliad IX in attempt to bring Achilles back into the war. As you read Phoenix's story note the following:

1. There are multiple levels of narrative: Phoenix's story reaches even beyond the immediate context of scroll IX to encompass meaning for events that will happen much later. Phoenix' point in telling the story gets subsumed to the poet's larger goals.

2. Just as with the shield, we can make direct connections between the figures in the Meleager story, and the characters in the larger narrative in the Iliad.

3. The Iliad represents only one of countless epic traditions that once flourished in ancient Greece. In the Meleager story we can detect compressed references to a possible epic of Iliadic proportions about Meleager (cf. IX 555ff.: "He was incensed with his mother Althaia, and therefore stayed at home with his wedded wife fair Cleopatra, who was daughter of Marpessa daughter of Euenos, and of Ides the man then living.")

What is the story behind Meleager's anger? The poet and his intended audience know, because they know the larger epic tradition about Meleager. Depending on the mood of poet and audience, compressed stories\ like the one of Meleager in the Iliad could be expanded without limit.

Phoenix himself is represented much like an epic poet when he begins his tale: "I totally recall [memnmai] this event of the past - it is not a new thing - and how it happened. You are all near and dear [philoi], and I will tell it in your presence. The Curetes and the Aetolians were fighting..."

Phoenix' story revolves around the idea of compensation, but also the importance of one's nearest and dearest companions, that is his comrades, in a warrior's ascending scale of affection. Meleager's ascending scale got confused when he decided to stay home with his wife. Achilles' ascending scale seems to be similarly out of order. How can we relate these two important concepts to our discussion about justice? For the Greeks the idea of helping one's friends and receiving compensation for that effort are not as inconsistent with each other as we might think. When we read this story we should think about whether Meleager was treated unjustly. If so, what does that mean for Achilles?

Part II. As we continue to think about how micronarratives speak to the larger issues in the Iliad, we can look back at Scroll Three and the duel between Paris and Menelaus. This story, which logically belongs much earlier in the war than the tenth year that the Iliad focuses on, shows how the epic can reincorporate material outside its immediate context.

When Helen is brought to the walls to watch this duel, we also see another kind of micronarrative at work. Priam asks Helen about each of the Greek heroes (as though he wouldn't recognize them after ten years), and this gives Helen a chance to talk about Agamemnon and Odysseus in her own words.

And it is Helen's words in this scene which show us another aspect of the micronarrative. The scene begins with a buzz of excitement (the metaphor is the sound of cicadas) when Helen arrives, and Priam tells her to come and sit with him, for he doesn't blame her for the war. But as Helen tells him about the Greek heroes, she blames herself for the war in very harsh terms and in a way that no one else in the epic does. Thus this micronarrative is not only a way to bring in material that belongs outside of the epic's context temporally speaking, but it also allows a different viewpoint of what the issues of the Trojan War are to be expressed.

Dialogue Notes IV

(Highlights of Dialogue Four)

As we come to Scroll 18, Patroklos is already dead and Achilles is already in grief. He has become the man of constant sorrow, and he cannot be consoled, but needs vengeance against Hector, the hero who killed Patroklos.

Thetis arranges to have new armor made for Achilles by the divine smith Hephaistos, including the Shield which is our centerpiece for understanding the Iliad.

Achilles knows the consequences of his choice--the choice to stay within this flower of his own epic. The price to do so is not only the loss of his own life but the loss of his dearest companion.

Achilles is not happy to give up his life--in Scroll 9 we saw that he says that he loves his own life, his psukhê, for he has only one life to live and to lose. But he is willing to give up his life for his own epic. In a sense, however, he never thought he would have to give up Patroklos as well, and somehow experiencing Patroklos' death makes experiencing his own death even more painful.

It is in this context that the new armor is manufactured. And in a way, we actually get to see the building of the shield in progress as the divine smith makes it and shapes the City at War and the City at Peace. The litigation scene is in progress: it is a process, even in the juridical sense.

This shield gives off a significant signal to the warriors on both sides, and we see this in Scroll 19. This is when Achilles re-enters the war fully armed, and his return means all is lost for the Trojans, and all is regained for the Achaeans. In this moment of glory, a light reflects from Achilles' shield. This light is compared in a beautiful simile to the beacon light of salvation that shines from a lonely lighthouse on the Hellespont. The Hellespont is a notoriously dangerous place for Greek sailors, and the Greeks think of themselves as a nation of sailors. Through this simile, then, everything that the shield represents will be, as it were, a focal point for the very concept of Greek civilization.

The pictures on the shield radiate the very future of Greek civilization. What that future is, we still do not know because the full story of the Iliad has not been told. We must continue through the linear narrative to see if there is any resolution and whether the timeless litigation over the value of a human life helps us reach definition.