Ajax’s Frustration and Achilles’ Shield: Two Moments for ‘Justice’ in Homer’s Iliad

The Iliad provides two moments where some type of institutional (non-violent) conflict resolution is imagined. Note, though murder is mentioned, capital punishment is not. And Homer’s world is certainly a savage one…

At the end of the embassy in book 9, Ajax voices his frustration with Achilles (9.632-638):

“You are relentless: someone might even accept payment
for the murder of a brother or the death of his own child.
and after making great restitution, the killer remains in his country,
and though bereft, the other restrains his heart and mighty anger
once he has accepted the price. But the gods put an untouchable
and wicked rage in your heart over only a girl…”

νηλής• καὶ μέν τίς τε κασιγνήτοιο φονῆος
ποινὴν ἢ οὗ παιδὸς ἐδέξατο τεθνηῶτος•
καί ῥ’ ὃ μὲν ἐν δήμῳ μένει αὐτοῦ πόλλ’ ἀποτίσας,
τοῦ δέ τ’ ἐρητύεται κραδίη καὶ θυμὸς ἀγήνωρ
ποινὴν δεξαμένῳ• σοὶ δ’ ἄληκτόν τε κακόν τε
θυμὸν ἐνὶ στήθεσσι θεοὶ θέσαν εἵνεκα κούρης
οἴης• …

On Achilles’ shield, Hephaestus creates two cities, one at war and one at peace. He also creates an assembly where a killing is being judged Il. 18.496-508

“The people where gathered, crowded, in the assembly where a conflict (neîkos)
had arisen: two men were striving over the penalty for
a man who had been killed; the first one was promising to give everything
as he was testifying to the people; but the other was refusing to take anything;
and both men longed for a judge to make a decision.
The people, partisans on either side, applauded.
Then the heralds brought the host together; the elders
sat on smooth stones in a sacred circle
as they held in their hands the scepters of clear-voiced heralds;
each one was leaping to his feet and they pronounced judgments in turn.
In the middle there were two talents of gold to give
to whoever among them uttered the straightest judgment.”

λαοὶ δ’ εἰν ἀγορῇ ἔσαν ἀθρόοι• ἔνθα δὲ νεῖκος
ὠρώρει, δύο δ’ ἄνδρες ἐνείκεον εἵνεκα ποινῆς
ἀνδρὸς ἀποφθιμένου• ὃ μὲν εὔχετο πάντ’ ἀποδοῦναι
δήμῳ πιφαύσκων, ὃ δ’ ἀναίνετο μηδὲν ἑλέσθαι•
ἄμφω δ’ ἱέσθην ἐπὶ ἴστορι πεῖραρ ἑλέσθαι.
λαοὶ δ’ ἀμφοτέροισιν ἐπήπυον ἀμφὶς ἀρωγοί•
κήρυκες δ’ ἄρα λαὸν ἐρήτυον• οἳ δὲ γέροντες
εἵατ’ ἐπὶ ξεστοῖσι λίθοις ἱερῷ ἐνὶ κύκλῳ,
σκῆπτρα δὲ κηρύκων ἐν χέρσ’ ἔχον ἠεροφώνων•
τοῖσιν ἔπειτ’ ἤϊσσον, ἀμοιβηδὶς δὲ δίκαζον.
κεῖτο δ’ ἄρ’ ἐν μέσσοισι δύω χρυσοῖο τάλαντα,
τῷ δόμεν ὃς μετὰ τοῖσι δίκην ἰθύντατα εἴποι.

One thought on “Ajax’s Frustration and Achilles’ Shield: Two Moments for ‘Justice’ in Homer’s Iliad

  1. The curious part about this, to me, is how violent death off the field of battle ends in either the payment of blood money or exile for the killer (as had happened to Patroclos as a boy), but a killing on the field of battle leads to death for the killer. I suppose, to a certain extent, it’s only to be expected, since the purpose of a battle is to kill the enemy. But on the other hand, a murderer has done something he knows to be wrong, whereas in battle it’s right to kill, yet there it’s met with the more harsh penalty.

    I think I’m talking in circles. I can’t quite get at the nub of what I’m trying to say.

    Either way, though, it does seem like these earlier passages are trying to point up how far from his society’s norms Achilles’ behavior is when he will accept nothing less than death and post-death abuse for Hector in vengeance for Patroclos.

    But perhaps they’re also trying to justify (if that’s the right word) Achilles accepting Priam’s gold to return Hector’s body, making it a posthumous blood price of sorts. (Though I recall reading that some of the classical scholars thought it was wrong for Achilles to have accepted that gold for the body…)

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