The Iliad
Homer
Contributed by Joslyn Justiniano

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Book 2
Summary

In their quest to help the Trojans, as they promised to do, Zeus causes Agamemnon to have a dream in which a figure appearing to be Nestor pushes him to think that he is able to take Troy is he chooses to carry out a full-scale assault on the walls of the city. The following day, Agamemnon brings his troops together to attack, but, in order to test their courage, he lies to them and says that he has opted to give up the war and go back to Greece. He is dismayed when they are eager to rush to their ships.

When Hera observes that the Achaeans are fleeing, she tells Athena, who inspires the most eloquent Achaean, Odysseus, to call the men back. He shouts out encouraging words and insults to goad their pride and boost their confidence. He reminds them of the soothsayer Calchas’s  prophecy that was given when the Achaeans first began bringing together their soldiers in Greece. A water snake that had slithered to the shore had eaten a nest with nine sparrows. Calchas thought the sign meant that a period of nine years would pass prior to the Achaeans finally being able to take Troy. They are reminded by Odysseus that they at that time vowed that they would refrain from abandoning their struggle until the fall of the city.

Nestor now pushes Agamemnon to arrange his forces by clan and city so that they are able to fight by the idea of their friends and kin. The poet uses this chance to begin on a catalog of the army. Once he has invoked the muses to help strengthen his memory, he goes through the cities that have given troops to the Greek’s cause, the number of troops that each gave, and the person who leads every contingent. At each list’s ending, the poet points out the bravest individuals of the Archaean forces. Achilles and Ajax are two of them. When a messenger is sent to the Trojan court by Zeus, informing them of the incredible formation of the Greeks, the Trojans bring together their own troops that are under the command of Hector, Priam’s son. The poet then goes on to catalogue the Trojan forces.

Analysis

By the time we reach the end of Book 2, Homer has introduced all of the poem’s major characters on the Greek side. It is his catalogue of the troops of the Trojan forces at the conclusion of Book 2 that leads into introducing the Trojan leadership. This introduction occurs in Book 3. The poem has already introduced Achilles, who is strong but temperamental, and Agamemnon, who is headstrong and proud. Achilles and Agamemnon dominate this epic poem. The poet now describes Odysseus and Nestor, two supporting characters. While these figures are present in Book 1, the flight of the army to the ships in Book 2 is the motivation for the first significant speeches. This sets up a critical component of their roles in the story. We see that they are shrewd, have clarity of mind, are wise, and have foresight. This will maintain the Achaeans on their course. Additionally, in the successful restoration of the morale of the troops, Nestor and Odysseus confirm that they are the most gifted rhetoricians of the Achaean forces.

The flight of the Achaeans to the ships prompts Odysseus and Nestor’s speeches. It also serves other significant purposes in the poem. Firstly, it demonstrates exactly how difficult the Greek situation has grown to be. Even the foremost leader of the army, Agamemnon, has failed to see his troops’ low morale. He is entirely blindsided by the fact that his men are willing to give up the fight. The troops’ eagerness to go back to the harbor shows not only the suffering they have endured but also indicates that their future efforts will not be successful. Their future endeavors will be much more difficult because of their weak motivation and sense of homesickness. But secondly, and by contrast, by making clear the intense nature of the Greeks’ suffering, the episode illustrates the Greeks’ glory in their eventual victory. The poet’s audience was well aware that the conflict between the Trojans and Greeks ended in the defeat of Troy. This episode implies exactly how close the Greeks came to entire abandonment of the effort and a disgraceful return to Greece. The fact that the troops are able to transcend despair to reach military triumph communicates the immense significance of the achievement of the Greeks.

Thirdly, the men’s action of fleeing to the ships indirectly leads to the well-known catalogue of the Achaean forces. Nestor’s advice in favor of the arrangement of the troops by city makes sure that soldiers will feel a greater sense of motivation. They will have a greater emotional investment in the success of the army because they will be fighting alongside their closest friends. Also, their leaders will be better able to identify those who are courageous and cowardly. While modern readers often finds the catalog of forces to be a bit boring (although it does successfully build up tension by setting up a large conflict), it would have been seen as highly inspirational by the poet’s contemporary audiences. It seems like the effort needed for the recounting of the catalogue is grandiose and epic in itself. The poet appears to invoke the nine Muses as he says, “The mass of troops I could never tally… / not even if I had ten tongues and ten mouths” (2.577-578). Troy’s sacking was clearly a Panhellenic endeavor, with even the most inconsequential cities participating.  Every Greek who heard the story was able to feel pride when hearing his city’s name and learning about its mythic ancient leaders, who were mentioned as having participated in the tremendous achievement. By bringing these men to the readers’ minds, Homer stirs the audience rather than bores them. He is evoking an honorable cultural memory.

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