Reciprocity in Homer

In my previous post, I mentioned that the Iliad is not a good guys vs. bad guys narrative. Why is this important to recognize? I would say that doing so allows us to consider that the Olympians, in the Homeric world, neither represent nor model moral truth in an absolute sense. Rather, the central concept that governs relationships is reciprocity.

Athena and Hera want the Trojans to suffer because Paris did not honor them when he bestowed the title of “most beautiful” to Aphrodite (see the Judgment of Paris). Aphrodite protects Paris because he honored her and the Trojans more generally because her son Aeneas is among them, as is Apollo’s son Troilius. Poseidon sides with the Greeks owing to an old grudge against the Trojans, whose king Laomedon had promised to reward Poseidon for constructing the city’s famous walls but then failed to deliver on that promise. In short, when mortals honor immortals, the immortals reward them with support. Hence Apollo delivering a plague on the Greeks for dishonoring Apollo’s priest and priestess, Chryses and his daughter Chryseis.

Because mortals’ relationships parallel those of immortals’, the principle of reciprocity also helps explain Achilles and Agamemnon’s conflict. The basis of their relationship is mutual benefit: Agamemnon gives Achilles an opportunity to demonstrate his military excellence and thus gain immortal glory; Achilles assures Agamemnon a successful expedition and the material rewards that follow.

Their fated quarrel occurs because each dishonors the other, according to the rules of their society. When the plague descends upon the Greeks, threatening the expedition’s success, Achilles’s “prize”/honor (immortal glory) is also threatened, thus he calls the assembly and publicly challenges Agamemnon. By suggesting that Agamemnon should relinquish his “prize” (Chryseis), which represents his honored position as expedition leader,, Achilles essentially challenges the stability of Agamemnon’s rule (paralleling the Olympians’ dynamic).

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