Discussion Series: Homer’s Poetic Justice

Schedule of Lecture, Readings, and Discussion Questions

Week 1

Background Lecture

Week 2

Lecture 1: The Shield of Achilles and Illiad 1


Central: The Shield of Achilles passage  (Iliad 18.478-608) and Iliad  1
Additional: Iliad 2-8, “The Shield of Achilles: Ends of the Iliad and Beginnings of the City-State” by Gregory Nagy.

Discussion Questions

1. The picture that is crafted by the divine artisan seems to represent the world as seen by Achilles. What is at stake in the litigation scene on the Shield? From what you know of Achilles from Scroll One, why would this scene be important in Achilles’ world view?

2. What is at stake in the quarrel in Iliad 1? Considering that none of the main characters has yet died, how might this quarrel relate to the litigation scene in the Shield? What are the considerations of justice in this quarrel (that is, what constitutes ‘justice’, and how is it guaranteed)? Are the conditions of ‘justice’ met?

3. In other traditional versions of the story of the Trojan war, the conventional way to start is by talking about the “Judgment of Paris,” in which Paris has to choose the goddess who should receive the golden apple inscribed “To the Fairest.” He must choose between Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, each of whom offers Paris a reward if he chooses her: Hera offers him great wealth, Athena offers him great power, and Aphrodite offers him the most beautiful woman in the world. Of course, he chooses Aphrodite, and his ‘reward’ of Helen of Troy is the immediate cause of the Trojan War. The Iliad, as we have   seen, begins instead with the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles. How does beginning with this quarrel instead of the Judgment of Paris relate to the overall ideas about justice in the Iliad?

Week 3

Lecture 2: The Embassy to Achilles in Illiad 9


Central: Iliad 9
Additional: Iliad 10-15

Discussion Questions

1. In scroll 9 of the Iliad, Phoenix tells the story of Meleager to Achilles in an attempt to bring Achilles back into the war. The overall message of his story is that Meleager, in a situation similar to that of Achilles’, stayed home and only returned when it was too late to get the gifts that were initially offered to him. Meleager receives no compensation for his efforts. How are the Greek ideas about compensation and reciprocity (kharis) and justice connected in this story? How does this story relate to other examples   of reciprocity and exchange that we have read in scroll I and on the shield? Does Meleager get justice?

2. After Phoenix tells the story of Meleager, Achilles continues to refuse to return to battle and help his comrades. Ajax, who considers himself one of Achilles’ nearest and dearest comrades, is outraged. He reacts to the words of Achilles by telling Odysseus that they might as well leave, since they won’t ever be able to persuade Achilles. Ajax says to Odysseus: “Achilles is savage and remorseless; he is cruel and cares nothing for the affection [philotês] that his comrades lavished upon him more than all the others. He is implacable — and yet if a man’s brother or son has been slain he [=that man] will accept a fine   [poinê] by way of amends from him that killed him and the wrong-doer having paid in full remains in peace in his own district [dêmos], but as for you, Achilles, the gods have put a wicked unforgiving spirit [thumos] in your breast, and this, all about one single girl, whereas we now offer you the seven best we have, and much more into the bargain.” (Iliad IX.628-639).

Several responders last week offered the suggestion that the scene on the shield is ‘in the future’ with respect to the strife between Achilles and Agamemnon and its mechanism for resolution. What do the words of Ajax, however, imply about the expectations of Achilles’ comrades for how this dispute should be settled? On the other hand, is the dispute about the affection of Achilles’ comrades, or about ‘one single girl’? What has Achilles come to see as at stake or the ‘price’ involved in his choice about whether to return to the war?

3. *Bonus question from optional reading* Scroll 3 presents the duel between Paris and Menelaus, the two husbands of Helen. In this scroll, the duel is described   as being for “Helen and all her possessions” (see 3.70, 3.91, 3.282, 3.285, and 3.458; see also 22.114). Last week, we saw how the argument over the woman Briseis between Agamemnon and Achilles is similar to the war over Helen between Paris and Menelaus (and all their friends). Is the one-on-one duel between Paris and Menlaus similar to litigation in any way? And in Scroll 9, Achilles is offered Briseis back with the addition of many material goods by Agamemnon to rejoin the fighting. What is the importance of material goods in these disputes, and how do they factor in to a ‘just’ resolution of either   dispute?

Week 4

Lecture 3: The Death of Patrokolos; Rethinking the Shield


Central: Iliad 16 and 18
Additional: Iliad 17, 19-21

Discussion Questions

1. How do the figures on the shield mirror or double the experiences of Patroklos (in Scroll 16) and Achilles (in Scroll 18)? What are the connections between Patroklos and Achilles, and are those connections made more clear by the representation on the shield?

2 (a follow-up). What prices and what values are being redefined in these two crucial episodes? Make certain to refer to specific passages.

3 (a follow-up). Hektor is now wearing Achilles’ old armor and the old shield, with the old pictures on it. As an experiment of the imagination (there are no right or wrong answers!), try to describe what might have been represented   in the older picture. How might this suit Hektor’s world-view now just as it   suited Achilles’ world-view before the death of Patroklos?

Week 5

Lecture 4: Priam’s Appeal and Achilles’ Decision


Central: Iliad 22 and 24
Additional: Iliad 23

Discussion Questions

1. In the fight between Hektor and Achilles in Scroll 22, Hektor asks for an agreement that whoever wins will return the body of the loser (22.250ff., compare similar terms in the duel between Hektor and Ajax at Iliad 7.76ff). Achilles refuses, saying that there can be no agreement between them, just as there cannot be between lions and men or between wolves and lambs, and ends his refusal by telling Hektor, “…you shall now pay me in full for the   grief you have caused me on account of my comrades whom you have killed in battle,” (See Iliad 22.260-272). What preconditions for the rules of battle   that we have seen before are missing, according to Achilles? Is he justified in refusing Hektor’s terms? Is Hektor justified in asking for these terms?

2. At the beginning of Scroll 24, Achilles is still treating the body of Hektor with contumely, and there is a discussion about this among the gods. Looking especially at Apollo’s speech (Iliad 24.31ff.), how would you say the idea of kharis or reciprocity plays into the gods’ decision? Also, look at Apollo’s characterization of Achilles. He says has a mind neither intent on what is right nor is flexible, and compares him to a lion who attacks flocks and gorges on them. (Many posters last week discussed the pastoral scenes on the Shield — any connection here?) Then Apollo seems to claim that Achilles mourns too much for Patroklos. Zeus agrees that Achilles should return the body, but instructs Iris to have Priam bring him great ransom for it — in whose honor is the ransom brought? What are the divine interests and values, and are they the same as the human interests and values?

3. Finally, a big, open question. How does the meeting between Priam and Achilles   affect our understanding of the litigation scene on the Shield and our discussion of justice and morality throughout the Iliad?