The Best of the Achaeans
Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry
Revised Edition
Gregory Nagy

Copyright © 1980, 1997 The Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved. First edition 1979. Revised edition 1999. This document may be used, with this notice included, for noncommercial purposes within a subscribed institution. No copies of this work may be distributed electronically outside of the subscribed institution, in whole or in part, without written permission from the JHU Press.

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Chapter 15

The Best of the Achaeans Confronts an Aeneid Tradition

§1. Having finished with the diction surrounding the Thersites figure, we may now turn to another Iliadic passage, XX 246-256, which rivals the passage about Thersites in its wealth of information relating to the poetry of blame. For a proper understanding, however, we must begin with an Iliadic passage found earlier on in the action.

§2. In the heat of battle, the Trojan hero Deiphobos suddenly finds that he needs help from his ally Aeneas, and he goes to look for him:

... ton d' hustaton heuren homilou
hestaot': aiei gar Priamôi epemênie diôi,
hounek' ar' esthlon eonta met' andrasin ou ti tiesken

And he found him standing hindmost in the battle,
for he had mênis [anger] always against brilliant Priam,
because he [Priam] did not honor him [Aeneas], worthy that he was among heroes.
XIII 459-461

There is a striking thematic parallelism here between Aeneas and Achilles, who likewise had withdrawn from battle because he had mênis against Agamemnon (I 1, etc.). The king had not given the hero tîmê 'honor'--even though Achilles is not just "worthy among heroes" but actually the "best of the Achaeans" (I 244, etc.).[1] These themes of mênis/withdrawal/tîmê/excellence are not only present in the Iliad; they are in fact central to it, permeating the composition in its monumental dimensions.[2] It is the expansion of these central themes in the Iliad that makes us so aware of their compression in the mention of Aeneas at XIII 459-461. Moreover, this Iliadic mention contains a unique attribution of mênis to Aeneas. With the exception of XIII 460, the word mênis (and its derivatives) always applies to the reciprocal anger of Achilles as the individual warrior against Agamemnon as king of the collective Achaeans. This anger is the prime theme of the Iliad, and no other anger on the part of any other hero ever qualifies as mênis in the entire epic[3] --with the exception of XIII 460. Thus the microcosm of XIII 459-461 shares a distinctive pattern with the macrocosm of the Iliad. In short, the nature of the themes attributed to Aeneas in this passage suggests that they are central to another epic tradition--this one featuring Aeneas rather than Achilles as its prime hero.

§3. Let us reconsider the words describing the withdrawal of Aeneas:

ton d' hustaton heuren homilou

And he found him standing hindmost in the battle
XIII 459-460

This stance of the hero is in sharp contrast with his later involvement in the fighting:

Aineia, ti su tosson homilou pollon epelthôn

Aeneas! Why are you standing so far up front in the battle?[1]
XX 178-179

The speaker here is none other than Achilles himself, who has just been confronted in battle by this hero whose epic tradition is parallel in its themes to his own.[2] After this question alluding to the specific theme of a withdrawal by Aeneas, Achilles continues with another taunting question:

ê se ge thumos emoi machesasthai anôgei
elpomenon Trôessin anaxein hippodamoisi
timês tês Priamou; atar ei ken em' exenarixêis,
ou toi touneka ge Priamos geras en cheri thêsei:
eisin gar hoi paides, ho d' empedos oud' aesiphrôn

Does your thûmos urge you to fight against me
because you hope to be king of the horse-taming Trojans,
which is the tîmê of Priam?[3] But even if you kill me,
Priam will not place the geras [honorific portion] in your hand on that account.[4]
He has children,[5] and he is sound and not unstable.[6]
XX 179-183

There is a conflict going on here between Achilles and Aeneas as warriors in battle and also between the epic traditions about each of the two heroes. Moreover, the Iliad here is actually allowing part of the Aeneas tradition to assert itself at the expense of the Achilles tradition. We have just seen Achilles taunt Aeneas by predicting that he will never replace Priam as king of Troy. And yet, the god Poseidon himself then prophesies the exact opposite:

êdê gar Priamou geneên êchthêre Kroniôn:
nun de Aineiao biê Trôessin anaxei
kai paidôn paides, toi ken metopisthe genôntai

For the son of Kronos has already abominated the line of Priam.
And presently the might of Aeneas will be king of the Trojans
and his children's children, who are to be born hereafter.
XX 306-308

This destiny prophesied by Poseidon is part of a poetic tradition glorifying the Aeneadae, as we see from the independent evidence of the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite.[7] There we find Aphrodite making a parallel prophecy to the father of Aeneas:

soi d' estai philos huios hos en Trôessin anaxei
kai paides paidessi diamperes ekgegaontai

You will have a philos son who will be king of the Trojans,
and children will be born to his children, and so on forever.[8]
H.Aphr. 196-197

Moreover, Poseidon rescues Aeneas in the middle of his battle with Achilles precisely because, as the god himself says, "it is destined" (morimon: XX 302) that Aeneas must not die at this point. In this way, the line of Aeneas will not die out, and he will have descendants (XX 302-305)--as compared to the doomed line of Priam (XX 306). At XX 336, Poseidon personally tells Aeneas that his death at this point in the narrative would have been huper moîran 'beyond destiny'. In effect, then, it would be untraditional for the narrative to let Achilles kill Aeneas in Iliad XX, since there is a poetic tradition that tells how Aeneas later became king of Troy; accordingly, Poseidon intervenes in the narrative and keeps Aeneas alive for further narratives about his future.[9]

§4. One of the most obvious traces of a variant epic tradition about Aeneas in Iliad XX is this surprising rescue of a pro-Trojan hero by a decidedly pro-Achaean god, Poseidon himself. This is not to say, however, that the narrative about the rescue is out of joint with the overall composition of the Iliad. True, we may have expected Apollo rather than Poseidon to rescue Aeneas. And yet, if this pro-Trojan god had attempted such a rescue, then the timing of the other gods' respective interventions would have been thrown off, as the narrative itself says (XX 138-141). In other words, the Theomachia would have begun prematurely.[1] Whereas a rescue by Apollo would have been simply a pro-Trojan act, the rescue by Poseidon puts the act above taking sides; the figure of Aeneas thus transcends the war of the Trojans and Achaeans.[2] In this sense, Aeneas is beyond the scope of the Trojan War tradition in general, reflecting other themes and perhaps even other concerns of other times. The favorable relationship of Poseidon with Aeneas may in fact reveal a special cult affinity between the god and a dynasty of Aeneadae;[3] during the times that the Iliad and the Hymn to Aphrodite traditions were separately evolving into their ultimate forms, the current importance of such a dynasty could be retrojected into the Heroic Age by such poetic devices as the prophecy to Aeneas that his descendants, not Priam's, will be the ones who are to hold sway in the Troad (Iliad XX 302-308, H.Aphr. 196-197).[4] I avoid saying, however, that the Hymn to Aphrodite--let alone the Iliad--was expressly composed for an audience of Aeneadae.[5] Even when we take into account the observation by Reinhardt that Aeneas is the only attested Iliadic hero who is mentioned as having descendants in the present,[6] it does not necessarily follow that such descendants are the key figures in the poet's audience, nor that the "poet of the Iliad" had made an ad hoc reference to the presence of this audience by virtue of narrating a self-fulfilling prophecy.[7] Rather, we see from the evidence of Iliad XX and the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite that the perpetuity of the line of Aeneadae was itself a traditional poetic theme.[8] The Iliad does not invent something, even if it is historically true, just to please a given group. Of course, it can still please those in any given group by repeating something traditional about them.[9]

§5. Our Iliad, then, invalidates not only the prediction made by Achilles when he taunts Aeneas but also the actual combat between the two heroes. The divine intervention of Poseidon is a clear sign even to Achilles that Aeneas had not "boasted in vain" about his heroic identity (maps autôs euchetaasthai: XX 348).[1] Such an assertion of the Aeneas tradition at the expense of the Achilles tradition can only go so far, however. The heroic momentum of Achilles in the Iliad may be temporarily stalled but never deflected. Within the Iliad, the tempo of events after the death of Patroklos preordains that Achilles will win in any duel with any challenger. Within a composition from some other tradition, however, the outcome of a duel involving Achilles may not be inevitable.

§6. Ironically, Achilles himself conjures up the presence of other traditions when he tries to intimidate Aeneas by reminding him[1] of an incident that happened when Achilles was capturing the cities of Lyrnessos and Pedasos (XX 187-198). As Achilles tells it, Aeneas was handily routed by him (ibid.).[2] Moreover, Aeneas himself had earlier told Apollo that he was indeed intimidated at the prospect of facing Achilles in combat; the reason for his fear, he says, is that he remembers how Achilles had routed him when the Achaean hero captured Lyrnessos and Pedasos (XX 89-98). But now a curious thing happens: as he is being reminded of the same incident by Achilles, Aeneas is suddenly no longer intimidated. He replies to Achilles:

Pêleïdê, epeessi me nêpution hôs
elpeo deidixesthai, epei sapha oida kai autos
êmen kertomias êd' aisula muthêsasthai

Son of Peleus! Do not hope to intimidate me with words [epos plural] as if I were some child.
For I myself know clearly how to tell
reproaches [kertomiai] and unseemly things.[3]
XX 200-202

Aeneas is saying that he too can narrate kertomiai and aisula-- words that indicate the poetry of blame.[4] By implication, the words [epos plural] that Achilles had just narrated about the Capture of Lyrnessos and Pedasos--words that make Aeneas the object of blame--are not the only possible narration. It seems that Aeneas now has in mind other words [epos plural], words that Aeneas could in turn relate about Achilles--words that make Achilles the object of blame.

§7. The very word epos [plural] at XX 200 (also recapped at XX 256) indicates not just "words" in general but "poetic words" in particular,[1] as we can see from the lines that immediately follow XX 200-202:

idmen d' allêlôn geneên, idmen de tokêas
proklut' akouontes epea thnêtôn anthrôpôn:
opsei d' out' ar su emous ides out' ar' egô sous

We know each other's lineage, we know each other's parentage,
hearing the famed[2] words [epos plural] of mortal men.
But by sight you have never yet seen my parents, nor I yours.
XX 203-205

The words of Aeneas to Achilles here reveal the traditional conceit of the aoidos 'singer, poet', who knows nothing but hears the kleos 'fame' = 'that which is heard' from the Muses, who in turn know everything.[3] As the poet declares at the beginning of the Catalogue:

humeis gar theai este, pareste te, iste te panta,
hêmeis de kleos oion akouomen oude ti idmen

For you [the Muses] are goddesses; you are always present, and you know everything;
but we [poets] only hear the kleos and know nothing.[4]
II 485-486

When a poet starts his performance by asking his Muse to tell him the subject (cf. I 1, i 1), the composition is in fact being presented to his audience as something that he hears from the very custodians of all stages of reality. The poet's inherited conceit, then, is that he has access to both the content and the actual form of what his eyewitnesses, the Muses, speak as they describe the realities of remote generations. I should emphasize that this conceit is linked with the poet's inherited role as an individual performer, and that "only in performance can the formula exist and have clear definition."[5] The formulas are the selfsame words spoken by the Muses themselves: they are recordings of the Muses who were always present when anything happened. In fact, the frame in which these formulas are contained, the dactylic hexameter, was traditionally called epos by the poetry itself.[6] Since the dactylic hexameter, as well as all verses, has an inherited tendency to be syntactically self-contained,[7] the epos is truly an epic utterance, an epic sentence, from the standpoint of the Muses or of any character quoted by the Muses. The word introducing Homeric quotations is in fact regularly epos. There are even some subtle grammatical distinctions, in traditions of phraseology, between the epos the Muses quote and the epos they simply narrate.[8] In a medium that carries with it such inherited conceits about accuracy and even reality, we can easily imagine generations after generations of audiences conditioned to expect from the performer the most extreme degrees of fixity in content, fixity in form. In sum, the words of Aeneas to Achilles imply that they both have complete poetic access to each other's heroic lineage and, by extension, to each other's heroic essence.[9]

§8. It remains to be seen what sort of epos [plural] Aeneas had threatened to relate about Achilles at XX 200-202. The key is the epos [plural] related by Achilles about Aeneas--words that made the Trojan ally an object of blame. As we have already observed, these words [epos plural] of Achilles concerned the Capture of Lyrnessos and Pedasos. Significantly, this story comes from an epic tradition that is different from that of the Iliad. Whereas the Homeric Iliad is Panhellenic in scope, the Capture of Lyrnessos and Pedasos tradition is decidedly local. Its orientation is that of ktisis poetry, which is distinguished by its adaptability to the ever-shifting character of whatever local community it happens to glorify.[1] From place to place, the heroic themes of ktisis poetry can be expected to shift in accordance with local lore and ideology.[2] It may even be that different local traditions could present the same incident to the disadvantage of different heroes--so that different heroes would become the object of blame. In fact, the words of Aeneas himself allude to precisely this factor of local variation in theme:

esti gar amphoteroisin oneidea muthêsasthai
polla mal', oud' an nêus hekatozugos achthos aroito.
streptê de glôss' esti brotôn, polees d' eni muthoi
pantoioi, epeôn de polus nomos entha kai entha.
hoppoion k' eipêistha epos, toion k' epakousais.
alla tiê eridas kai neikea nôïn anankê
neikein allêloisin enantion, hôs te gunaikas,
hai te cholôsamenai eridos peri thumoboroio
neikeus' allêlêisi mesên es aguian iousai,
poll' etea te kai ouki: cholos de te kai ta keleuei.
alkês d' ou m' epeessin apotrepseis memaôta ...

It is possible for the two of us to tell each other very many reproaches [oneidos plural],[3]
and not even a hundred-benched ship could bear their burden.
But the tongue of men is twisted, bearing many stories
of all kinds. And there is a manifold range of epos[plural] from place to place.[4]
The sort of epos you say is just the thing that you will hear told about yourself.[5]
But why must there be eris and neîkos [plural][6] for the two of us
to make neîkos against each other, like women[7]
who are angry in a thûmos-devouring eris
and who make neîkos against each other in the middle of the assembly,
saying many true things and many false.[8] Anger urges them on.
But I am eager for battle and you will not deflect me from my strength with epos [plural] ...
XX 246-256

At verse 250, Aeneas is in effect saying that he could recount epos[plural] about Achilles as an object of blame, and that his narration would be the exact opposite of the epos [plural] Achilles had recounted about him. Instead of any further talk, however, the Trojan ally is now determined to start fighting (XX 244-245, 256 ff.). The ensuing narrative of the duel between Aeneas and Achilles may even reveal some details from a variant local tradition in which the hero of our Iliadwas actually injured by his opponent. At XX 291, the action of the duel is interrupted by Poseidon at the very moment when Aeneas has the initiative: he is about to throw a huge rock at Achilles (XX 285-287). On the basis of parallels in other narratives about duels where one hero throws a rock at another, we should expect Aeneas to win the encounter.[9] But then the thematic requirements of the Iliad take over: evenif Aeneas had succeeded in hitting Achilles with the rock (XX 288), the hero's shield or helmet would surely have withstood the blow (XX 289), and then Achilles would surely have killed Aeneas (XX 290)!

§9. To sum up: the war of words between Aeneas and Achilles reveals the presence of an independent Aeneid tradition within the Iliad. Moreover, it reveals Aeneas himself as a master of poetic skills in the language of praise and blame. On the one hand, he has the power to tell stories about Achilles that make him the object of blame. On the other, he actually tells the full story of his own genealogy--an exercise in heroic self-affirmation that amounts to the ultimate praise of the hero by the hero.[1] In view of these characteristics of Aeneas, we may consider the etymology of his name. As Karl Meister has argued,[2] Homeric Aineiâs is the Ionic reflex of *Ainaâs (by way of *Aineâs), derivative of a noun that survives as ainê. As a formal parallel, Meister cites Homeric Augeiâs (XI 701), the Ionic reflex of *Augaâs (by way of *Augeâs), derivative of a noun that survives as augê. Now this word ainê (as in Herodotus 3.74, 8.112) is a by-form of aînos, the semantic range of which has revealed a bivalence of praise and blame.[3] There is a parallel bivalence in the figure of Aeneas.


§2n1. Ch.2§§1-7.

§2n2. Ch.5§§7-8.

§2n3. Ch.5§8n2.

§3n1. Cf. also XVII 342.

§3n2. As the two heroes confront each other in combat, they are described as duo ... âneres exokh' aristoi 'two men who were by far the best' (XX 158).

§3n3. Compare the conflict between Aeneas and Priam over tîmê with the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon, as discussed at Ch.5§§7-8. {sy,be} Cf. Reinhardt 1961.453 and Fenik 1968.121-122.

§3n4. Compare the geras deprived from Achilles: discussion at Ch.7§19.

§3n5. An ironic understatement!

§3n6. The taunts of Achilles continue at XX 184-186: if Aeneas kills him, does he expect that the Trojans will assign him a temenos 'precinct' of fertile land? Perhaps this description is appropriate to the grove of a cult hero: see Ch.16§8n1 (cf. the notion of tîmê for Aeneas from the dêmos, at XI 58; discussion at Ch.8§11n5).

§3n7. The valuable work of Heitsch 1965 on the Hymn and its relationship with the Aeneas stories in the Iliad is for me marred by his persistent assumption that he is dealing with interrelationships of texts rather than traditions. I also value the interesting work of Dihle (1970.65 ff.) on the idiosyncratic diction of the Iliadic passages about Aeneas. But for me his evidence shows not that the passages about Aeneas are "non-oral" but that they reflect an Aeneas tradition that is significantly different from the Achilles tradition of our Iliad. I have similar problems with the admirable work of Lenz 1975, who offers a conscientious reassessment of the interpretations found in Heitsch and Dihle.

§3n8. The everlasting continuity predicted for the line of the Aeneadae is in compensation for the mortality of their ancestor Anchises, father of Aeneas; see Ch.7§1n5.

§3n9. For more on huper moîran as 'contrary to destiny' and kata moîran as 'according to destiny' (as at viii 496), where moîra is the 'destiny' inherited by the traditional poetic narrative, see Ch.2§17 and Ch.5§25n2; cf. also Pestalozzi 1945.40. Note too the traditional function of Dios boulê 'the Will of Zeus' as the given plot of a given epic narrative. Discussion at Ch.5§25n2 (with further references).

§4n1. See Scheibner 1939.6-7.

§4n2. Cf. Scheibner ibid.

§4n3. Note XI 58, where it is said of Aeneas himself that "he got tîmêfrom the dêmos, like a god"; this characterization of the ancestor of the Aeneadae is appropriate to a cult hero (Ch.8§11nn5, 6).

§4n4. Cf. Jacoby 1961 [=1933] I 39-48, 51-53; also Donini 1967.

§4n5. So Scheibner 1939.133 on the Hymn to Aphrodite. I also distance myself from any of the theories featuring the "poet of the Iliad" at the court of the Aeneadae (cf. Jacoby, ibid.).

§4n6. Reinhardt 1961.451. I would note, however, that there are other Homeric passages that refer to the present: see Ch.9§§15-16.

§4n7. Pace Reinhardt ibid.

§4n8. Cf. Kullmann 1960.283n1.

§4n9. Besides Iliad XX 306-308 and H.Aphr. 196-197, there are attestations of still other prophecies addressed to the Aeneadae: see Acusilaus FGrH 2.39 and the commentary by Jacoby I 383.

§5n1. The infinitive eukhetaasthai refers to the boast of Aeneas to Achilles at XX 206-209, as expressed by eukhomai 'I boast' at XX 209 (recapped at XX 241). As Muellner points out (1976.93), "When a hero eukhetai [boasts], he says the most significant facts he can about himself." From the diction of XX 206-209, Muellner (pp. 76-77) can also show that Aeneas is using words that formally assign Achilles to a heroic stature lower than his own. On the etiquette-rules of such eukhomai speeches, see Muellner, pp. 74-75n9.

§6n1. Note the expression ê ou memnêi 'do you not remember' at XX 188; for the poetic implications of mimnêskô 'remind' and memnêmai 'have in mind', see Ch.1§3n2 and Ch.6§§5-9.

§6n2. On the poetic traditions that told of the Capture of Lyrnessos and Pedasos: Ch.7§29.

§6n3. Note that kertomiâs êd' aisula mûthêsasthai at XX 202 is equated with oneidea mûthêsasthai 'tell reproaches [oneidos plural]' at XX 246, on which see further at §8.

§6n4. See n3. On kertomiai, see Ch.14§§11(n6) and 14. On aisula see Ch.19§6n6.

§7n1. See Ch.12§15n3. Compare also the use of epos in Theognis 16 and 18 as discussed at Ch.17§12.

§7n2. The epithet pro-kluto- 'famed', applied to epos [plural], is from the same root as kleos 'fame' = 'that which is heard' (on which see Ch.1§2).

§7n3. Again, Ch.1§2. As for the theme of hearing instead of seeing, compare the theme of the blind poet (Ch.1§§3-4) and the story of the poet who was taken beyond the field of vision (Ch.2§13n5).

§7n4. Compare the iste ... idmen in II 485-486 and the idmen ... idmen in XX 203 (recapped by isâsi at XX 214) with the idmen ... idmen of the Muses in Hesiod Th. 27-28 and the idmen ... idmen of the Sirens in Odyssey xii 189-191.

§7n5. Lord 1960.33.

§7n6. See Koller 1972; cf. also Ch.17§12(n4).

§7n7. Cf. Nagy 1974.143-145.

§7n8. Cf. Kelly 1974 on the different patterns of correption in quoted speeches compared to plain narrative.

§7n9. For lineage as essence in the etiquette of eukhomai, see again Muellner 1976.74-77.

§8n1. See Ch.7§§29-30.

§8n2. Ibid.

§8n3. On the word oneidos as an indicator of blame poetry, see Ch.12§§3 and 7 (usage in praise poetry) and §§6 and 11 (usage in Epos).

§8n4. On nomos in the metaphorical sense of a pastoral "range": Pohlenz 1965 [= 1948] 337.

§8n5. On the semantics of epi- in epakousais, cf. Ch.6§6n4.

§8n6. On the words eris and neîkos as indicators of blame poetry, see Ch.12§§3, 6, etc.

§8n7. Richardson (1974.215) provides a list of festivals and cults where aiskhrologiâ was restricted to women. On aiskhrologiâ as 'ritual jesting', see Richardson, pp. 213-217. On to aiskhron 'baseness' as a formal mark of blame poetry, see Ch.14§§4-5.

§8n8. From the standpoint of praise poetry, the words of the blame poet are conventionally false (cf. Pindar N.8.21-25 and 32-33); discussion at Ch.12§§5-7. By contrast, the kleos conferred by the praise poet is true (cf. Pindar N.7.63); discussion at Ch.12§3(n2), Ch.14§12(n3). The theme that blame can actually be true reflects an earlier time when the concept of a blame poet was not yet distinct from that of a praise poet: see Ch.16§10n6.

§8n9. See Merkelbach 1948.307-308; also Heitsch 1965.66-71, esp. p. 67. I do not agree, however, with their inferences about textual interpolation.

§9n1. Cf. again Muellner 1976.74-77.

§9n2. Meister 1921.156-157; cf. Perpillou 1973.186.

§9n3. Ch.12§§18-19, Ch.13§12.

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Copyright © 1980, 1997 The Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved. This document may be used, with this notice included, for noncommercial purposes within a subscribed institution. No copies of this work may be distributed electronically outside of the subscribed institution, in whole or in part, without written permission from the JHU Press.