Once upon a time, long ago, a great Greek army, assembled from numerous cities, and led by King Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, sailed across the Mediterranean Sea and besieged the city of Troy in Asia Minor (now Turkey). A semi-permanent tent city grew up, between the city and the Greeks’ ships, beached on the nearby shore. The men were accompanied by women, captured in previous battles, and enslaved; and they had animals with them too.
The Greeks’ war aim was to take back the beautiful Helen, wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta, and brother of Agamemnon. Helen had been abducted by the Trojan Prince Paris and taken to Troy. The two armies were well matched; but true it is that the Trojans, led by the great Hector, would often take the offensive and sally forth through the city gates. Sometimes they would reach the enemy’s ships and threaten to set them on fire. Finally, repulsed by the Greeks, who desperately defended their camp, they would retreat into safety behind Troy’s impregnable walls. The Greeks felt obliged to build their own wall, to protect their camp. They found that they were making no progress in their campaign.
Then real disaster struck the Greeks: first, their mules died, unaccountably, in great numbers, next their dogs, and finally their men sickened and died. What, they wondered, was the cause?
The funeral pyres continued for nine days. Then, the redoubtable Achilles called the Army commanders, to a council: and so they all met.
When all had assembled, Achilles spoke first. “The way our losses are continuing,” he said, “we shall soon have to give up the fight and return to our own homes. Perhaps we have offended the gods. I suggest that, with no more ado, we should consult a priest or prophet for advice.”
Calchas, the augur, responded to this and stood up to speak, in turn. “The gods are angry,” he claimed, “because Agamemnon has taken the fair daughter of the priest Chryses as his concubine. When the father appealed to the king, and offered him a ransom, he was insulted and driven away from our camp. We must give her back, in short order, and without conditions.”
Agamemnon was enraged by this. At first he struggled to find his own words, but at last he spoke up. “Calchas,”he said, “You never have a good word to say for or about me! If needs must, I am willing to return the girl to her father. However, I demand to be compensated: I want another young woman, to take her place.”
Achilles, in turn, grew angry. “The booty won has already been shared out fairly among the troops and the commanders,” he said. “If you give the girl back, we will compensate you – once we have conquered Troy.”
Agamemnon retorted that he was not prepared to wait so long, and indeed that he was considering taking a concubine from one of his fellows, such as Achilles himself.
Achilles grew hotter. “I came here of my own will,” he said. “I am under no obligation to you. Indeed, we are all volunteers, come here to support you and your brother and to restore Helen to her lawful spouse. And now you have the audacity to take away what belongs to me! We do the hard fighting, with myself in the vanguard; but you get more than your fair share of the spoils! I may as well go home straight away and spare myself all this trouble.”
“Go! Go now!” replied Agamemnon. “We can manage without you. You show yourself in your true colours. Your disloyalty is on display, for all to see! I am in charge here! How dare you defy me! I shall send for your own girl, Briseis, and give her a home with me.”
Achilles felt driven to take immediate revenge upon the king by stabbing him with his sword. But he hesitated and thought better of it. His parting shot was: “I am going! And I refuse to fight for you ever again. You’ll miss me! You’ll never defeat Hector without my help!”
The venerable Nestor tried to reconcile the two men. He urged Agamemnon not to take Briseis away from Achilles. He urged Achilles to fall into line and to follow Agamemnon, appointed leader of the Greek campaign. But neither listened. For his part, the wise Odysseus understood both sides of the argument; but he chose to remain silent, especially as nobody was asking his advice.
The meeting ended. Agamemnon instructed the men of his household to go to Achilles’ tent at first light next day, to fetch Briseis.
Chryses’ daughter was duly returned to him; and the spate of sudden deaths ceased.
Seeking solitude, Achilles sat on the shore and looked out to sea, in the direction of his home. He pondered the prediction that he had heard from his mother, that he was fated either to have a short and heroic life, with everlasting fame, or else to have a long and uneventful one. He said to himself that his opportunity to win fame and honour was being denied him, by Agamemnon’s arrogance. Moreover, he was genuinely fond of Briseis; and he believed that his feelings were reciprocated. How, he wondered, could he break the news to her?
Quietly, Odysseus joined him. He too stared longingly over the sea. Wistfully, he said, half to Achilles and half to himself, “I wish I could be back home with my family. I miss them so.” Turning to Achilles, he added, “I’ve hardly seen my son Telemachus since he was born.”
There was a pause.
Achilles said, “I ask myself whether our cause is noble, and whether it justifies the great loss of life we are witnessing.”
Odysseus replied, “Our aim is noble, in principle. But we need to be practical too. The war has taken a heavy toll, on both sides. Young men have died, who should not have done.”
Achilles asked, “What, then, should we do?”
“I don’t know. My loyalty to the cause, and the promises I have made, keep me here.”
“As you have just seen, my loyalty is being tested severely.”
“Why are you still here, then?”
“I came here in the hope of winning fame and honour, through my valour, even at the cost of my life. Till now, I’ve retained the hope.”
“I’d argue that, once men have died, they are soon forgotten, however brave they’ve been.”
“So,” Achilles sighed, “I’m wasting my time. I’ve been misled. I’ve come here on false pretences.”
“I place a high value on loyalty – to friends and to one’s wife. Part of me itches to get back home to Penelope. But I am fulfilling a promise, and I can’t let down my friends. Your friends need you and rely on you. Stay loyal to them – stay here.”
“I give your words the weight they deserve.”
And there the conversation ended; and they went their separate ways.
Early next morning, Agamemnon’s men made their way to Achilles’ tent, pitched by his ship. They looked and looked, but neither tent nor ship, neither Achilles nor his followers, was anywhere to be seen. They were incredulous but had to believe the evidence of their own eyes. “Achilles has sailed away,” they said to each other. “What shall we say to Agamemnon? How shall we tell him?”
They sought out Odysseus: they imparted their news and asked his advice. Odysseus sighed heavily. He thought back to his conversation with Achilles, the previous day. He also thought of his loyalty to Agamemnon and Menelaus. Swiftly, he made his decision: “I shall tell him myself,” he said.
The result of the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles was that the Trojans won the war; Hector was triumphant; Paris kept Helen. The Greeks (bedraggled and licking their wounds) admitted defeat, and the survivors all went home. Troy remained standing for many centuries: it was eventually abandoned, but it was never destroyed by hostile forces. As for Achilles, he enjoyed a long and happy life, with Briseis at his side, and his close friend Patroclus nearby; and he never went to war again.