Our Debt to Homer on Independence Day

Classically-educated colonial Americans learned to be wary of monarchy from the Iliad and the Odyssey.

It is very likely that, in July 1776, many Americans heard sermons based on the text of Psalm 143:6 -- “Put not your trust in princes….”  One suspects that ministers used words even more harsh than those in the Declaration of Independence, where “the present King of Great Britain” was assailed for “repeated injuries and usurpations, all having their direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.” 

George III had been much admired by colonials. They had erected an equestrian statue to him in New York’s Battery in 1770, but in what was probably our first statue take-down, it was toppled after the Declaration was read to Continental troops on July 9, 1776. 

Americans had blamed Parliament for the political crisis that began with the Stamp Act in 1765, and for the war which began in April 1775.  They hoped to reform relations between colonies and Britain,

Americans knew about many bad kings: John, Richard II, the Tudors, the Stuarts, and others, but Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, published in January 1776, argued that the problem was not the moral or intellectual weaknesses of individual kings; instead, the problem was monarchy itself, and the only solution was independence.  Paine’s arguments were convincing, but Americans’ classical education prepared them for Common Sense.

In Polybius, they learned about how the parts of government functioned.

In Livy, they saw Romans establishing their republic by throwing off Etruscan King Tarquin.  

In Tacitus, they saw Queen Boudicca raising the Britons in rebellion against abusive Roman colonizers. 

In Homer, they were thrilled by accounts of battles in which bronze-age battlefield weapons inflicted mortal wounds in every way possible, but he also gave them a political education. The Iliad and the Odyssey show how harm can result when power is conferred by circumstances of birth.  In the former poem the Greek army suffers harm from the presence of King Agamemnon; the latter, Ithaca suffers harm from the prolonged absence of King Odysseus.  

The Trojan War was caused by the need to satisfy royal honor:  Helen, the wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta, had been taken away by Paris, prince of Troy; Troy refused to return her, so  Agamemnon, brother of Menelaus and king of Mycenae, the leading Greek state, called on lesser kings to join his punitive war against Troy. 

Agamemnon sought to ensure victory by sacrificing his daughter, Iphigenia, but ten years have passed and Troy stands defiant, no doubt because of the incompetence of the supreme allied commander.  In a merit-based army, Agamemnon would have been a lance corporal at the very most.

The poem’s theme, the wrath of Achilles, was provoked by Agamemnon, who greatly dishonored Achilles.  One must not dishonor a Greek hero, let alone a most capable subordinate.  Having gone to war to defend his brother’s honor, Agamemnon risks losing the war by dishonoring the commander of a major contingent in his army.  Book I explains how this conflict began.

Agamemnon had left Troy to take the Greeks on a booty-seeking raid on Chryse, an island some 35 miles west in the Aegean Sea.  The operation eased pressure on Troy, and, in an application of the law of unintended consequences, led to tension between Agamemnon and Achilles. 

The Iliad begins as Chryses, a priest of Apollo and father of Chryseis, a girl who had been awarded to Agamemnon after the raid, comes to request her return. Although he offers treasures in compensation and the Greek soldiers see the justice of his appeal, Agamemnon ignores them, abuses Chryses, and unceremoniously evicts him although, according to custom, he should have been honored as a guest. 

Chryses responds with an appeal to Apollo, who sends a plague to the Greek camp.  Days pass.  Achilles summons an assembly of the Greek army to inquire into the cause of the plague and seek a remedy.  A prophet, Calchas, knows the cause, but because his explanation would anger Agamemnon, he asks Achilles for protection.  Achilles grants his request.  Calchas reveals that Agamemnon’s mistreatment of Chryses caused the plague; it would end by returning Chryses.  Agamemnon reluctantly agrees but demands compensation: Achilles’ prize from the raid, the girl Briseis.  Achilles, publicly dishonored, angrily complies, but his wrath is aroused.  He and his contingent will leave the army and sail home. 

Eventually, reconciliation eventually occurs but, first, we observe Agamemnon’s incompetence.  Though a courageous fighter, he is no competent general.  Agamemnon is boastful, vindictive, greedy for gain.  He insults subordinates, often in front of their own men.  Prudent he is not.

Twice Agamemnon issues the order for the army to retreat to its ships and depart.  The first time he foolishly decides to test the morale and obedience of the troops.  Odysseus and other counselors prevent disaster.  On the second occasion, Agamemnon has an all-is-lost panic attack.

An assembly of the army follows the first run to the ships.  A soldier, Thersites, rises to denounce Agamemnon.  Although Odysseus beats him down, Homer has allowed this lowly dissident to attack the king in terms that none -- troops, nobles, or readers -- can dispute.

One asks why the Greeks stood by Agamemnon for ten years in an inconclusive war.  Only acceptance of the principle of monarchy explains it.  Agamemnon possesses great formal power but he abuses it; without capable and loyal counselors, he would have lost all.  And the final victory, the result of the Trojan Horse stratagem, was Odysseus’s idea, not Agamemnon’s.  We learn from the Odyssey that Agamemnon was assassinated on his return to Mycenae.  One suspects that few Greeks mourned his passing.

The Odyssey tells of Odysseus’s ten-year return to Ithaca.  In his absence, his palace has been taken over by 108 men, suitors for the hand of Penelope, his queen.  Soon after she reluctantly agrees to select one, Odysseus returns in disguise. 

Telemachus, who was an infant when his father Odysseus departed, convenes the assembly for the first time since then.  He rebukes the people for failing to act against the suitors, ungrateful guests who dishonored Odysseus by their uninhibited consumption of their king’s food and drink.  The assembly votes Telemachus funds for a ship to use in search of his father.  Odysseus and Telemachus meet and attack the suitors in a scene that rivals the violence in the Iliad.

The fictional world of Homer’s poems shows how the parts of government function in wartime.  Monarchy is discredited by a bad king’s acts of commission (Agamemnon’s incompetent leadership), and a good king’s acts of omission (Odysseus’s twenty years’ absence from Ithaca).  The popular assembly provides in the Iliad a vehicle for a demagogue to speak against Agamemnon, but it is powerless to prevent Agamemnon’s foolhardy action against Chryses.  And in the Odyssey, the assembly was inert for twenty years.  Only the aristocratic advisory council proves its worth: with the wise Nestor standing out, it rescues Agamemnon from self-inflicted catastrophe. 

In the real world of 1776, the well-meaning King George III was ill-served by foolish advisers and catastrophe does result.  Paine’s evidenced-based arguments raised the wrath of Americans, who decided to leave the British Empire and its monarchy, much as Achilles decided to leave the Greeks.  Agamemnon prepared them for Paine.  But unlike Achilles, they did not return.  Far better, they concluded, to risk trusting the people, even if a Thersites might appear someday.

Image: Max Pixel