The god Panic grips the Achaeans that night, and Agamemnon calls the chieftains to council. He weeps, suggesting that they go home. Diomedes speaks out against that plan, saying that he and his co-commander Sthenalus will fight, if needs be, alone. The chieftains shout their approval of his words. Nestor speaks next, suggesting that they take their evening meal as usual and that Agamemnon should give a feast for the chieftains. Nestor also proposes a plan for keeping careful watch during the night. Agamemnon follows the old chieftain's advice.
After the chieftains have had their fill of food and drink, Nestor advises Agamemnon to make peace with Achilles so that he will rejoin the fighting. Agamemnon agrees that it was madness that made him insult their greatest warrior, and prepares an offer for Achilles. He will give the great warrior fabulous riches, including one of Agamemnon's own daughters as wife and seven of Agamemnon's citadels, if only he will return and "yield place to me, inasmuch as I am the kinglier" (9. 160). Nestor proposes sending Phoenix, Great Ajax, and Odysseus, as well as the heralds Odius and Eurybates.
The ambassadorial party goes to the Myrmidon encampment, and they find Achilles playing his lyre and sitting with his beloved companion Patroclus. The two men rise on seeing the party, and Achilles treats his guests with great courtesy, asking Patroclus to ready food and drink for them. A good meal is prepared, with sacrifices to the gods, and Odysseus makes his proposal to Achilles. He tells him that the Achaeans are in trouble and need their greatest fighter, and he gives Achilles Agamemnon's offer. The offer is repeated verbatim from Agamemnon's own speech until the end, where Odysseus leaves out Agamemnon's statement about Achilles needing to yield to Agamemnon's kingly majesty. Odysseus also adds one final, important argument: if Achilles still hates Agamemnon, he should rejoin the fighting out of pity for his friends and fellow soldiers, who are being slaughtered for want of their greatest warrior.
Achilles responds that he will not return, nor would he even if he were offered treasures far richer and greater than those offered by Agamemnon. The possessions, Achilles argues, are not worth his life. His mother has told him that he can either stay and fight and gain great glory, or he can return home and have a long life. Achilles says that he will choose the latter option. He and the Myrmidons will sail for home. He asks Phoenix to return with them, if he wishes. Phoenix, now an older man, was an exile taken in by Achilles' father Peleus. Phoenix helped to raise Achilles, and he asks Achilles to listen to him now. He tells the story of Meleager, a man who was wronged and then out of pride refused to defend his country. He retired to his room with his beloved wife and stayed out of the fighting until the enemy was closing in and his own wife begged him to rejoin the fighting. Because he realized that his wife's own safety would be threatened if his countrymen lost the war, he finally went to battle. He drove the enemy away, but because of the suffering he had allowed to fall on his own people Meleager won little honor. Phoenix urges Achilles not to make a similar mistake. Achilles is still not moved. Ajax makes a final, angry entreaty, and Achilles responds that he will only fight if Hector comes and threatens the ships of the Myrmidons. The ambassadorial group returns to Agamemnon, without Phoenix, who stays with Achilles. Back at Agamemnon's encampment, the news of Achilles' continued withdrawal from the war is disheartening, but Diomedes tries to raise the men's spirits.
In the beginning of Book 9, we see Agamemnon crumble under the burden of leadership. Although at times Agamemnon seems weak or overbearing, the audience should remember that he feels most fully the responsibility for the lives of the Achaean troops. Agamemnon weeps until Diomedes manages to invigorate the chieftains with his enthusiasm and loyalty, and the commander-in-chief's tears are the honest tears of a man who understands the impact of his decisions. At the same time, he is limited by pride just as Achilles is. The theme of pride runs is an important part of all of the interactions between Achilles and Agamemnon. Although the king attempts to draw Achilles back into the fighting, he offers no apology to the warrior. He offers fabulous riches and holdings, but these gifts mostly reflect the glory and kingly magnanimity of the giver. And he closes his offer with the command that Achilles yield to him and his majesty: notice that Odysseus, always the strategist, delivers most of Agamemnon's offer to Achilles verbatim, but omits the king's command to yield.
Achilles is aware of what is missing from Agamemnon's offer, and he responds in the terms that Agamemnon has set. Not all of the material wealth in the world could move Achilles to return to battle. His pride is worth more than that. Note that although Achilles says that these riches are not worth his life, he does not weigh the value of his life against the value of a man's honor. Referring to his mother's prophecy for him, he tells the embassy that he will choose long life over glory, but he does so without making a value judgment about which is better.
Phoenix's story about Meleager foreshadows what will happen to Achilles, and parallels Achilles current situation. As Meleager shut himself away with his wife, Achilles has shut himself away with his closest companion, Patroclus. Meleager was persuaded back into battle in part by his wife's description of what would happen to her if he continued in his refusal to fight; Achilles will return to battle one step later, after his closest companion has died. Achilles will refrain from fighting until situation forces him back into battle, and by then much needless suffering will have taken place.
Achilles carries pride too far in his refusal to be moved by the suffering of his fellow soldiers. That self-absorption is part of his greatness, but it is his greatest sin as well. The bitterness that his mother has promised will not come because of Achilles' own death, but because there is one man that Achilles will not be prepared to sacrifice. When Patroclus dies, Achilles will become frenzied with a new kind of rage, a rage that has its source in grief. Part of that grief will be the realization that he is in large part responsible for Patroclus' death.
Late at night, Agamemnon and Menelaus both find themselves unable to sleep. They decide to bring together a few of the greatest chieftains to decide a course of action. A handful of the greatest among the Achaeans gather, and Nestor asks if anyone is willing to make a nighttime scouting mission against the Trojans. Diomedes volunteers first, but asks that someone go with him. Many of the heroes are willing to go with him, but Diomedes chooses Odysseus. The two men arm themselves, and as they set out for the enemy's camp, Athena, who has a special love for Odysseus, sends a heron as a sign of her favor. The men offer their prayers to Athena, who is the goddess of craft and cunning, and she listens to them with favor.
On the Trojan side, Hector likewise calls together a group of the Trojans and their allies, asking for a man to scout out the Achaean positions and intentions. Dolon, Eumedes' son, is the only volunteer. He asks that as reward he be given Achilles' horses, which have not yet been won. Hector promises him the great prize, and Dolon sets off for the Achaean camp, although the narrator tells us that he is destined to die.
Along the way, Diomedes and Odysseus intercept and capture Dolon. Odysseus assures Dolon that they will not kill him. They interrogate the terrified man, who reveals to them the Trojan positions. Most importantly, he tells them about Rhesus, chieftain of the Thracians. Rhesus has a chariot drawn by a team of snow-white horses, the finest Dolon has ever seen, and Rhesus' armor is fit for the gods. Despite the earlier promise not to kill Dolon, Diomedes decapitates him. Odysseus praises Athena, lifting Dolon's armor and weapons and offering them to her. They hide them before setting on their way for the Thracian encampment.
When they reach the Thracian encampment, Diomedes kills the sleeping men. He murders twelve of Rhesus' cohorts and then Rhesus himself, while Odysseus pulls the corpses out of the way and readies Rhesus' splendid chariot and horses. After killing Rhesus, Diomedes faces a moment of indecision, torn between killing more and escaping, but Athena tells him to get on the chariot with Odysseus and escape. Apollo, angered by Athena's interference, wakes Hippocoon, cousin of Rhesus, and his wailing wakes the Trojans, who come to gape at the havoc wreaked by the Achaean marauders. During the run back to the Achaean camp, Diomedes and Odysseus stop briefly to pick up Dolon's weapons and armor. They return to the Achaeans to meet the praise of their comrades. Finally, Diomedes and Odysseus bathe, eat, and give thanks to Athena.
This exciting book is a welcome deviation from the battlefield exploits we have seen so far. Facing grim odds, Menelaus and Agamemnon search for a way to boost the Achaeans' morale and gain some small advantage over the enemy. What begins as a scouting mission becomes an exciting hit-and-run attack. We see Agamemnon's initiative in bringing together the chieftains, and we also see Odysseus' cunning in action. This book also stresses the favor bestowed on Odysseus by Athena. It is favor he takes care to remember, praying to her and giving offerings to her in gratitude for her help.
This section, in addition to providing variety and an exciting episode to the Iliad, shows the importance of the psychological element in war. In an epic where brute force plays the decisive factor in battle, where single warriors by their sheer strength drive the entire opposing army backward, and where we seldom, if ever, see the commanders of the opposing armies plan out anything we might call battlefield strategy, Book 10 shows an appreciation for a very different kind of warfare. Unable to bring Achilles back to the battlefield, the Achaean chieftains strive to gain another kind of advantage. Odysseus and Diomedes go to gather intelligence, but it quickly becomes clear that they are intent on winning some kind of psychological victory. These guerilla tactics are akin to the psychological warfare analyzed in Sun Zi's Art of War; the death of Rhesus and twelve of his men, even granting that his horses and armor are magnificent, is probably not a decisive victory in terms of destruction of manpower or matériel. A later play entitled Rhesus, attributed with some uncertainty to Euripides, dramatizes this nighttime raid, adding the element that Rhesus is newly arrived. In the play, he is a warrior so great that not even Achilles would be able to oppose him. This embellishment is foreign to Homer, and it seems to miss the point of the nighttime raid. The psychological factor is the vital part of this victory. Odysseus and Diomedes intercept and destroy the enemy's scout; they also win great glory by stealing magnificent horses and armor, while terrifying the enemy with the sight of a bloodily slaughtered ally. With little effort, they create uncertainty and fear in the enemy's ranks while boosting morale among their own forces. The same holds true for the audience; after the disappointment and suspense of the failed embassy to Achilles, the nighttime raid is a welcome and exciting victory for our Achaean heroes.
But although Book 10 is exciting, the adventures of Odysseus and Diomedes can also be interpreted in ways that are dark and unsettling. The raid is not any bloodier than daytime battle in terms of sheer numbers of death. But as with all psychological warfare, the cold-bloodedness required is chilling. The image of valiant Diomedes slaughtering sleeping troops is, to say the least, unnerving, particularly when Rhesus' kinsman awakes and cries out Rhesus' name in grief and horror. And the pathetic image of Dolon begging for his life (life, incidentally, that is promised to him in good faith by Odysseus) and then being brutally murdered gives a somewhat darker cast to the character of Odysseus. As we saw earlier in Book 6, the Trojan War has escalated to new levels of brutality. The gentler practice of taking men captive and holding them for ransom has vanished. Time and time again throughout the epic, men on the Trojan side ask to be spared and captured for later ransoming. This practice shows the enormous wealth of the Trojans, referred to repeatedly throughout the Iliad. These repeated requests also show that the Trojans are accustomed to a gentler form of warfare. As a wealthy and civilized people, they believe that money can solve problems even during wartime. It is the Achaeans who do away with these niceties, bringing the war to a new pitch of ferocity.
The next day, only the goddess Hate is allowed to attend the battlefield. The rest of the gods must watch from afar, forbidden to interfere by Zeus. Agamemnon fights ferociously, slaughtering many Trojans and Trojan allies, driving their forces all the way back to the Scaean Gates. Zeus sends Iris to Hector to tell him to hold back from the fighting and concentrate on making his troops hold their ground against the Achaean onslaught. Once Agamemnon has been wounded, Hector will be able to drive the Achaeans back. Hector obeys. Agamemnon kills warrior after warrior, including two of Antenor's sons. He is wounded while killing Coon, and though he fights on for a while, he is forced to retreat. He calls for a chariot and is taken back to the ships. Hector seizes the initiative and urges the Trojans forward. Hector slaughters many great Achaeans, scattering their forces, while Odysseus and Diomedes struggle to stem the tide of Hector's onslaught. Diomedes and Odysseus fight fiercely, killing many warriors, until Diomedes gets a clear shot at Hector. He throws his spear but it glances off of Hector's helmet. Hector is stunned, but he recovers, and a moment later Diomedes is hit by one of Paris' arrows. His charioteer brings him back to the ships. Odysseus faces a choice: should he stay and fight or fall back? Surrounded, he fights valiantly for a moment, killing a number of warriors, but he is wounded horribly in the side. Only Athena's intervention preserves his life. With Odysseus wounded, the Trojans close in for the kill. Odysseus cries out for help, and Menelaus and Ajax come to rescue him.
Paris hits Machaon, one of the Achaeans' best healers, with an arrow. Nestor brings Machaon back to the ships. Cebriones tells Hector that while the Trojans have some advantage now, Ajax still routs part of their force. He and Hector go in that direction, battling the Achaeans fiercely but avoiding man-to-man combat with Ajax. Ajax, fear driven into his heart by Zeus, retreats. Ajax makes a slow, tortured retreat, harassed by countless Trojan spears and arrows. Eurypylus tries to defend him, but is wounded.
Achilles, watching the battle from atop his beached ship, realizes that his request to his mother is being brought to pass. He calls Patroclus and sends him to ask Nestor who he is bringing back, wounded, from the battlefield. Patroclus goes to Nestor, from whom he learns of the Achaeans' dire situation: Machaon, Agamemnon, Diomedes, Eurypylus, and Odysseus are all wounded. Nestor tells Patroclus a story about brave exploits undertaken during Nestor's youth, and then he asks Patroclus to try to persuade Achilles to rejoin the fighting. Patroclus feels great pain when he sees the suffering of his comrades, and he goes to entreat Achilles to return to battle. On the way back, he meets Eurypylus, who has been wounded by an arrow. Patroclus postpones meeting with Achilles to tend to Eurypylus' wounds himself.
Like many impersonal forces, Hate is represented in Greek myth as a deity. She is the only goddess allowed to attend personally to the battlefield because of Zeus, and her presence says much about Homer's understanding of war. The brutality of war is certainly one of the poem's themes, but the Iliad is not a pacifist's epic. Homer accepts war as a fact of life, and recognizes that war brings out some of the most admirable qualities of men. He also has no illusions about war's brutality. The impersonal deities associated with the battlefield are very different from the more humanized Olympian gods like Athena and Apollo. Hate, Terror, Panicthese are the gods that hold sway in war. Note that the positive characteristics of men are not represented so directly by deities. Homer makes Hate, Terror, and Panic seem like impersonal, mysterious forces that come from somewhere alien and beyond human comprehension. But there is no such impersonal deity for valor or courage. These virtues ultimately have a human origin, even when divinely inspired by gods like Zeus or Athena.
Initially, Agamemnon fights well and fiercely. In his capacities as warrior, Book 11 is his finest hour. But disaster soon follows: all of the major heroes except Ajax are wounded, and Ajax is caught in a grim situation. Homer still depicts his Achaean heroes as unmatched fighters. Note that most of the Achaean champions have been wounded by arrows rather than bested in man-to-man combat. In an epic where the efforts of a single warrior turn the tide of war, the loss of all of their champions is a terrible blow for the Greek forces.
As Achilles watches the scene unfold, we see more of his unbelievable pride. He seems barely to notice the suffering of his fellow soldiers; he instead thinks about his mother's promise that the Achaeans will lose until he returns to fight. Patroclus is his closest companion, but the two men are very different. Patroclus is deeply concerned about the Achaean losses and the wounded champions. From the tone of his greeting to Nestor, we know by implication that Patroclus does not approve of Achilles' excessive anger. Patroclus is by far the more softhearted and compassionate of the two men; he is stirred to try to persuade his friend to return to battle. On his way back to Achilles, Patroclus shows his compassion once again. When he runs into the wounded Eurypylus, he cannot help but tend to Eurypylus' wounds himself, postponing his meeting with Achilles.
Polydamas advises Hector to order the troops to dismount in order to cross the ditch and line of stakes built by the Achaeans. Hector takes the advice, and the Trojans dismount except for one commander named Asius. He and his troops charge forward but are soon pinned down in vicious fighting, unable to storm the rampart. As the Trojans move forward, they receive a sign: in the sky, an eagle is grasping a serpent in its talons. The serpent fights back, and the eagle, bloodied, is forced to release the snake. To Polydamas, the meaning is clear. Although the Trojans have the advantage, they will fail if they press their luck and attempt to burn the Achaean ships. The Trojans will be forced to retreat, with disastrous consequences. Hector ignores the omen, scolding Polydamas with the memorable line, "One bird sign is best: to fight in defense of our country" (12. 243).
The two Aeantes walk up and down the ramparts, rallying the troops. On the Trojan side, Sarpedon and Glaucos, princes of the Lycian contingent, lead a forceful attack. Hard-pressed to stop them, Menestheseus sends a herald to get help from the Aeantes and the great bowman Teucer. Great Ajax obeys the summons, instructing Oilean Ajax to hold his ground, with Lycomedes as aid, until Great Ajax can return. Great Ajax and Teucer rush off to help Menestheus defend the rampart from the Lycians. Glaucos is wounded by one of Teucer's arrows, and he falls back. Sarpedon struggles on, ripping a gap into the rampart with his bare hands. The struggle is fierce, with neither side able to push the other from the gap. It is Zeus's decision to give the greatest glory to Hector. He calls for the Trojans to fight harder, and they attack the rampart with renewed strength. Hector smashes through the gates of the fortifications with a boulder, and, at his cries of encouragement, his men swarm over and through the wall. The Achaeans are thrown back, scattering in terror.
The interaction between fate and human agency is a key theme here, as the will of Zeus puts a definite cap on what can and cannot be accomplished. Although the Lycians fight with incredible ferocity, Homer tells us repeatedly that Zeus chooses to give the greatest glory to Hector. Hector will be the first to smash through the rampart. It is important to remember that this is no random choice. It seems unfair to say that Hector is the greatest Trojan champion just because Zeus favors him; instead, it is possible to argue that Zeus favors Hector because he is the greatest Trojan champion. However, either statement is less than the complete truth. Always, the forces of fate and free will coexist in an uneasy, sometimes paradoxical combination. This enigmatic combination presents itself again when Hector chooses to ignore the omen of Zeus. Zeus plans defeat for the Trojans, and yet he sends a sign to warn them against taking a disastrous course of action. When Hector decides to ignore the omen, is he dooming his people? Or is it truly his decision at all? The sign seems like it was meant to be ignored, but in that case why send it? No definitive, systematic answer emerges.
Proud Asius and his hapless troops give us yet another lesson on the consequences of excessive pride. Refusing to heed orders to dismount and proceed on foot, Asius is pinned down in a horrifying melee that dooms his contingent. This error also shows that building the fortifications was not an effort in vain. To pass the rampart, the Trojans will need a mixture of strategy and ferocity. Asius' proud, all-out, head-on assault has much in the way of brute force, but sheer force is not enough to take the wall.
Hector, wise enough to heed Polydamas' advice, is the leader with the strategy to enable the storming of the rampart, and he is ultimately the man with the strength and courage to carry out the plan. But he commits a grave error when he proudly ignores the omen of the gods and Polydamas' interpretation. The theme of pride is here again, and Hector's actions in Book 12 show with great clarity how pride is both strength and weakness. Polydamas, the audience knows, is right. The sign is clear, and it is consistent with the plan the audience has already heard from Zeus. Yet at the same time, Hector's response is one of the most memorable lines of the Iliad. He ignores the sign and chooses to make his love for Troy and his determination to defend his people the most important determiners for his action. His valor defies fate itself. He makes an error in judgment, but if he had heeded Polydamas' words he would not have won great glory by smashing through the wall.