There are many instances of ‘begging’ in the Iliad. A formal supplication can involve gestures such as grasping someone’s knees or touching their chin. There is usually an offer of gifts or favors, or a reminder of past gifts or favors, as well as arguments for granting the present request. Scenes of supplication are frequent in Homer, both in battle structures and in non-military interactions.
Examples of this type scene of supplication are early in the poem, when Chryses, the priest of Apollo, begs for Agamemnon to return his daughter; the scene between Andromache and Hector in book six, the scene between the Achain leaders and Achilles in book nineteen and late in the story, when Priam begs for his son’s body. In the Iliad, all of the supplications fail with the exception of one. The first scene occurs at the very beginning of Book One, and in effect gets the whole thing underway.
Agamemnon has captured a girl, Chryseis, the daughter of the priest Chryses, and he intends to keep her. He says in fact that “I rank her higher / than Clytemnestra, my wedded wife” (1. 132-133). Despite the fact that he is married, and he is taking the girl to make a slave of her, he is clearly besotted with her and refuses to give her up. Her father, who is a priest of Apollo, begs Agamemnon to release her, and even offers him gifts as ransom, but Agamemnon still refuses to let her go.
The two characters involved here, Chryses and Agamemnon are very different in stature. Chryses is a priest and Agamemnon is a king, so they are unequal in rank. But in The Iliad, the gods are a real, tangible presence and we would think that Agamemnon would know better than to anger them. Agamemnon says that he will give her up if it’s absolutely necessary, but then he wants something in return, because if he does lose her it’s a matter of honor. Achilles tries to reason with him and they quarrel, and Agamemnon says he’ll take Achilles’ girl, Briseis instead.
This particular scene is almost comical, with the women in question being more or less passed around from one man to the next, not because the men value them but because they’re playing one-upmanship. At the end of the confrontation, Briseis is taken from Achilles, who reacts by sitting down by the ships and crying. He sulks for quite a while, even when others beg him to fight. The tone here is one of farce. In Book Six, Andromache pleads with Hektor not to go into battle. n 6:431-432 Andromache says “Please take pity on me then, stay here on the rampart, that you may not leave your child an orphan, your wife a widow” Hektor, of course refuses. There are two ways to look at this scene itself: historically speaking, Andromache is selfish and thinks nothing of honor but of her well-being and the well-being of her child, who she hopes to grow to be her protector if Hektor indeed does die. However, if we look at it through our modern eyes, Hektor is the one who is selfish in seeking glory without thinking of his family.
In Book 19 lines 304-305, Achilles is mourning the loss of Patroklosin battle. He refuses to eat or drink and the achaian leaders plead with him to eat. But why do they plead? Is it for his own health and well-being or is because they need him to continue this battle? Historically speaking, I think that this would indeed have been a selfless act on the part of the achaians because honor is everything and it would be dishonorable for Achilles to waste away from sorrow. This is bolstered by the fact that Zeus sends Athene to nourish him.
Homer obviously favors the Achaians as the most honorable, however, Andromache’s plea may not be a trait of Trojan weakness, but just the weakness of women. The supplication scene in book 24 is very different. It is the only successful supplication in the Iliad. Hector, son of Priam and a champion of Troy, has been killed in battle, and Achilles is dragging his body behind his chariot as a gesture of defiance. This is particularly disturbing because the ancient Greeks believed that if the body wasn’t properly buried, the soul could not rest. Priam comes to Achilles to ask for the body of his son.
Priam is the King of Troy, and therefore of much higher rank than Achilles, who is the Greek champion but certainly not a king. In addition, Achilles and Priam are deadly enemies; after all, the Greeks have laid siege to Priam’s city for ten years and thousands of lives have been lost in that time. Then too, Priam is old and Achilles young. This old, broken man has seen his city fall, and now he has to come to the tent of his enemy, and ask him to give him Hector’s body. He is walking into the enemy stronghold and he must certainly know that it’s possible he could be killed.
But even worse, he will have to humble himself before his enemy; he, a king, will have to bow before someone who is not his equal. The Iliad has many stirring, memorable and/or sad speeches, but perhaps nowhere is there anything more pitiful than what Priam says to Achilles: “I have endured what no one on earth has ever done before– / I put to my lips the hands of the man who killed my son” (24. 590-591). This gesture is simple and powerful, and we read that Achilles was moved with a desire to grieve for his own father; Achilles moved the old man back “gently” and they both began to weep (24. 94). Then Achilles invites Priam to sit, but the king refuses, saying “Don’t make me sit on a chair, Achilles, Prince, / not while Hector lies uncared-for in your camp! ” (24. 648-649). And he begs once more for the body, saying that he has brought Achilles a king’s ransom, which we can take to be almost literally what it says. This time the supplication succeeds, although Achilles doesn’t want Priam to see the body until it has been washed, cleaned and dressed, since the sight of the wounds and mutilations might infuriate Priam into attacking, and Achilles would then have to kill him.
Instead he accepts the ransom and returns Hector to Priam, as well as giving his word that he will not attack, but will give the Trojans time to bury their hero. Although they are fearful that the Greeks will not keep their word, and post guards, the burial part is unmolested. The last line of the poem is simple: “And so the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses” (24. 944). All of the supplication scenes fail with the exception of the supplication of Priam by Achilles which succeeds.
It seems logical to conclude that the failure of the first lies in the idea that the captive women are not perhaps all that important; they are spoils of war. The supplication of Priam succeeds not only because it is a matter of honor to return Hector to his father, but also because Hector is a warrior, almost the equal of Achilles and has therefore earned his respect. Finally, Priam reminds Achilles of his own father, and of the duty a son owes to his father. With those things in mind, Priam’s supplication succeeds.