One of my weaknesses as a writer is dialogue, particularly dialogue that needs to carry subtext. I’m not good at writing the kinds of things that people say when they’re not actually saying what they’re saying. When I need inspiration for how to write a scene in which people say one thing while really conveying something else, the place I look is the argument between Achilles and Agamemnon in book 1 of the Iliad (lines 101-244).
There are a lot of good translations of the Iliad available if you want to check it out. I’m especially fond of the Robert Fagels translation for the strength of its poetry. Richmond Lattimore’s version is good if you really want to get close to the rhythms and patterns of the original Greek. The translation on Perseus is older and less readable, but you can pick up the scene I’m talking about around the middle of this page (start after ). There are plenty of other choices.
To set the scene: As the Iliad opens, the Trojan war has been going on for ten years and has come to a stalemate. The Greeks are not able to breach the high walls of Troy while the Trojans cannot dislodge the Greeks from their camp on the shore. To break the impasse, the Greeks have begun trying to put pressure on the Trojans by raiding the smaller towns nearby that are allied with Troy. One of these raids carried off a young woman, Chryseis, who was awarded to Agamemnon as his prize. Chryseis’ father Chryses, a priest of Apollo, comes to the Greek camp to ask for his daughter’s return, but Agamemnon refuses and sends him away. Chryses prays to Apollo for aid and Apollo obliges by spreading plague through the Greek camp. After ten days of suffering, the Greek kings gather together to discuss the situation. The seer Chalcas reveals the cause of Apollo’s wrath.
Agamemnon finds himself in an impossible situation. He is commander of the Greek forces, but not because he is the best warrior or because he is the aggrieved party (Helen was his brother Menelaus’ wife), but simply because he has the most warriors under his command. He has no right of command over the other Greek kings; they follow him only because they have agreed to let him take charge of the expedition. They could withdraw that support at any time and choose a new leader in his place.
If Agamemnon doesn’t give up Chryseis, the other kings will turn against him because he failed to protect them, but if he does give up Chryseis, he looks weak. A king who can be pushed around by an old priest is no king worth following into battle. It will only be a matter of time before someone challenges Agamemnon’s position.
This where the argument between Agamemnon and Achilles begins. Agamemnon promises to hand Chryseis back to her father, but demands:
But furnish me a prize at once so that I alone
of the Argives am not dishonored, for that would not be right.
(My own translations. Argives, like Achaeans, is one of the words Homer uses for the Greeks.)
Achilles, the greatest warrior in the army, objects:
Most worthy son of Atreus, most grasping of all,
how can the great-hearted Achaeans give you a treasure?
We know of no common store of wealth
but only what we have taken in plunder.
Agamemnon bristles at Achilles’ rebuke, but he seizes on a plan to save face while giving up Chryseis:
If they will not give me a prize I will seize one –
yours, or Ajax’s, or Odysseus’ –
and snatch her away
Achilles reacts in rage:
O, you, cloaked in shamelessness, wealth-hungry!
Never does my prize equal yours when the Achaeans
sack a prosperous stronghold of the Trojans.
Most of the furious fighting
I take in hand, but when it comes time to share out the loot,
the biggest prize is yours while I carry back to my ship
something small but dear to my heart.
Finally, Achilles threatens to abandon the war effort and sail home with his troops. After all, the Trojans never did him any harm.
Agamemnon snaps back:
Go ahead, run away, if your heart so moves you. I, for one,
will not beg you to remain. …
I hate you the most of all the kings dear to Zeus,
for wars and battles and squabbles are always dear to your heart.
If you are very strong, that was the gift of some god.
But I will come and lead away your prize,
lovely Briseis, from your bedside. Then you will know well
how much mightier I am than you and other men
will shrink from measuring themselves against me.
This is too much for Achilles and he is on the point of drawing his sword and attacking Agamemnon when the goddess Athena intervenes and holds him back. Achilles accepts the goddess’s command and relents, but he has a parting warning for Agamemnon:
Wine-soaked, dog-eyed, doe-hearted!
Be certain: the longing for Achilles will come upon all the sons of Achaea,
when you cannot shield them, no matter how you grieve,
and so many fall dead before
man-killing Hector. You will claw your heart out
in fury that you scorned the best of the Achaeans.
With that final word, Achilles returns to his tent to sit out of the fighting.
Look at what’s going on in this scene. On the surface, it’s a scuffle over how to handle the Chryseis problem. That Agamemnon was going to give her up was never seriously in doubt. The problem for him was how to do it without losing face. He solved his problem by making it Achilles’ problem.
Under the surface, though, there is a power struggle playing out here. The terms in which the two kings insult each other are significant. Achilles calls Agamemnon weak and greedy. He accuses Agamemnon of shirking the fighting but claiming the best loot anyway. “Look at this man,” he is saying to the other kings. “He’s not a warrior like I am. Do you want to be led by a man like this? What if he comes after you next?” Without ever directly challenging Agamemnon, he presents a threat. Why wouldn’t men who fight for a living want a leader who fights alongside them and lets them claim their fair share of the loot? Achilles is such a man.
Agamemnon comes at Achilles from a different angle. Achilles is a fighter to be sure, but that’s all he is. A leader has to be more than a good fighter. He has to be someone who can get people to do things they don’t want to do. Achilles is so focused on his individual honor that he misses the big picture. “Sure, you could lead an army when things are going well and there’s plenty of loot to go around,” Agamemnon is saying, “but what are you going to do when you’ve got a warrior who deserves a prize and you don’t have one to give to him? Can you pull everyone into line when things go badly? That’s what a general has to do.”
Aside from the politics, there’s also a human layer to this interaction. Here are two men who cannot stand each other and they’ve been cooped up in camp together for ten years. We can hear old grudges bursting out in the argument over Chryseis. Notice how the exchanges get more raw and vicious as the squabble goes on. You can tell that these men have been just waiting for an excuse to go at each other’s throats. By the end, they’re not talking to each other any more so much as belting out every angry comeback they’ve stifled over the years.
All of this action is compressed into a scene that plays out over no more than a few pages. In six fairly short speeches, Homer gives us the set-up of the epic, the volatile political situation in the Greek camp, and the dangerously frayed nerves of two mighty warriors who have been pushed to the breaking point.
Thoughts for writers
One of the great qualities of ancient literature is economy: a lot of meaning is packed into a very small space. It is a characteristic of oral literature. Every line of the Homeric epics took time to perform and so every line has weight and purpose. Nothing is wasted.
In today’s world of written literature, it is easy to waste words, and this can be good. We get to know modern characters intimately and in detail in ways that ancient characters never open up to us. Still, there’s something to be said for looking back to the swift but weighty lines of Homer, especially when writing characters who mean more than they say.
Image: Achilles and Agamemnon via Wikimedia (House of Apollo, Pompeii, currently Naples National Archaeological Museum; 1st c. BCE-1st c. CE; tile mosaic)
Post edited for clarity.
History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.