The Rhetoric of Homer's Embassy - by Katrina Millett

What is rhetoric and why is it in Homer?

The themes of the Iliad have been studied for generations; its portrayals of honour, heroism, and tragedy, shown in both the invading Greeks and the Trojans, have captured audiences and critics for thousands of years. The image of an ‘epic hero’, in figures such as Achilles, Odysseus, or Hector, is ingrained into society and provides a complex model for current societal heroes ­– the superheroes so often depicted in film and TV. However, an aspect of Homer’s genius which is often overlooked is his mastery over rhetoric and the art of persuasion and can be seen almost as an anticipation of Aristotle’s own work on the topic.


Rhetoric is the name for a style of writing that is designed to persuade someone to agree or disagree with a certain viewpoint; it is the technique of making an argument more persuasive. What is most interesting about rhetoric, as mentioned by Aristotle, is that it can be applied to any subject matter whatsoever and therefore has the capability to appear in all manner of writing. This flexibility allows us to locate the rhetorical inventions of Aristotle in Homeric epic, despite the 200-year time difference.


Book 9 of the Iliad demonstrates these techniques best, when Odysseus, Ajax, and Phoenix make an embassy to Achilles, bringing gifts and speeches in an attempt to persuade the hero back to battle. In Achilles’ absence, the Greek army had been suffering. They needed him to return in order to turn the tide back to victory against the Trojans. It is for this reason mainly that Agamemnon decides to apologise to Achilles and try to make amends, judging the Greek victory to be more important than his personal pride in his feud with Achilles.


Ethos, pathos, and logos

In the Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle suggests that one of the most important methods of persuasion is the implementation of ethos, pathos, or logos into a speech; ethos appeals both to morality and the national or societal sentiment of comradery as persuasion, pathos appeals to personal emotion and the evocation of sympathy, and logos appeals to the irrefutability of a logical argument. These tactics are present in abundance throughout the embassy to Achilles. However, the lack of rigid definitions, like in the work of Aristotle, often causes the lines between each technique to blur.


On the surface, it seems that the characters of each of the speakers align nicely with the three rhetorical techniques: Ajax the warrior is ethos, Phoenix the former carer is pathos, and Odysseus the cunning is logos. The embassy is, therefore, able to approach Achilles from three key angles; he has connections with Ajax as a fighter, he knows the intelligence of Odysseus, and he was previously looked after by the elderly Phoenix. However, Homer does not continue to categorise them so distinctly but uses their established positions to employ a range of tactics in each speech, creating a complex and layered display of persuasion to coax Achilles back. It is still best to look at each technique in turn and see how Homer implemented ethos, pathos, and logos into Iliad 9.

The Embassy To Achilles, 1805, by John Flaxman (1755­–1826)
The Embassy To Achilles, 1805, by John Flaxman (1755­–1826)

Ethos

Ethos seems like the most natural and effective form of persuasion; due to the closeness of the Greek camp and the nature of a militaristic society, comradery and reliability in battle were highly valued traits. As fellow warriors, it would be effective for the embassy to appeal to a moral sense of duty to persuade Achilles to rejoin the fight. Such tactics are seen in the make-up of the embassy: close and respected friends of Achilles who accept an invitation to dinner despite having already eaten, and thus show respect and adherence to societal customs of xenia (the Greek custom of the sacred relationship between guest and host).


Ajax also represents a character of ethos; he is second only to Achilles in strength and thus embodies the ideal soldier. As a friend of Achilles, Ajax is more likely to persuade him to return to battle. The masculine portrayal is contrasted by the opening of Ajax’s speech, in which he presents himself as defeated and suggests to Odysseus that they should leave. The inversion of his expected portrayal of ethos communicates to Achilles the extreme and defeated nature of the situation and the Greek army. In this vein of gentle ethos, Phoenix’s own approach sees him utilising his societal position as Achilles’ childhood carer to implore him to return to battle. This differs from pathos as both characters play upon of invert their accepted position of ethos to persuade Achilles.


Pathos

Pathos is still used by the embassy. The already established friendships between the characters, as well as the absence of Agamemnon, means there is ample opportunity for emotional manipulation between all. Odysseus most effectively plays on this pathos as he evokes pity from Achilles through a description of the suffering Greeks at the hands of the Trojans and implores him to save the army. In modern terms, he attempts to ‘guilt trip’ Achilles by creating a dynamic that presents the soldiers as weak and helpless and Achilles as heartless and uncaring. Odysseus emphasises this emotional play by bookending his speech with a kind of ring composition of pathos; he begins by imploring Achilles for help and ends with the same sentiment, adding that Achilles would be honoured greatly – thus also playing on Achilles’ own desires and his emotional connection to them.


However, the major character to ‘embody’ pathos is not Odysseus, but Phoenix; he cared for Achilles when he was a child and so Achilles feels an emotional tie to him as a pseudo-father figure. Due to this emotional connection and Achilles’ respect to listen to him, it is no surprise that Phoenix gives the longest speech of the book to remind Achilles of his duty. The final punch of pathos from Phoenix is the tears which well in his eyes before he even begins to speak. For Achilles, seeing this must surely have moved his heart in an effective portrayal of emotional persuasion.


Logos

These moral and emotional arguments would have little effect without the support of the undeniable logic of a logos argument. Even without the sake of ‘doing the right thing’, there are a number of logical reasons for Achilles to rejoin the fight. Without Achilles’ help, more Greeks will die, bringing greater danger to Achilles, his men, and his honour. Odysseus’ evocation of pity when he mentions the need for Achilles to save the Greeks shows an overlap between pathos and logos – there are both emotional and logical arguments for Achilles’ safety.


Odysseus represents the best figure of logos. His epithets of ‘wily’ or ‘quick-witted’, alongside his reputation for extreme intelligence and verbal prowess, make him naturally equipped as an effective rhetorician and he is, therefore, able to construct logically sound arguments. This is seen in his speech when he lays out the offer of gifts and riches from Agamemnon. Not only does he set out ‘Agamemnon’s offer with eloquence and clarity,’ but he frames it as ‘a lavish offer, and Achilles will be well advised to accept it.’ (Griffin, 21) It is clear from Odysseus’ speech that he is using the logos of the situation (i.e. the imminent danger and the riches offered in apology) to force Achilles to return to battle. He will seem irrational or unreasonable if he declines.


Why the Embassy had to fail

And that is exactly what happens; despite the effective employment of these rhetorical techniques from the embassy, Achilles refuses them all, rejects Agamemnon, and stays in his tent. It is this response that has often led scholars to alter their opinion of the epic hero, arguing that this is the moment that Achilles’ anger became ‘unjustified’. However, does this rejection necessarily make Achilles arrogant, and, more importantly, does Achilles’ rejection negate the effectiveness of the rhetoric?


It seems fair to agree that Achilles’ ‘majestic refusal speech that follows is, of course, no reflection on Odysseus’ persuasive powers, but is rather a rejection of Agamemnon and his gifts’ (Knudsen, 163). As Achilles remarks himself, ‘Not even if he offered me gifts unnumbered like the sand or dust – not even so could Agamemnon yet turn my mind, until he pays me the full price for all this wrong that pains my heart.’ Achilles’ refusal does not show a failure of rhetoric, but instead exposes his disappointment at an apology he deems unworthy; if he were to return so easily, he would be sacrificing his own dignity and self-respect and jeopardising his honour (the main motivation for his presence in Tory to begin with).


Therefore, while Homer anticipates Aristotle’s three proofs of rhetoric and employs them most effectively in the embassy to Achilles, through each character’s portrayal and by littering them throughout their speeches, the ultimate failure of the embassy is not a reflection of the ineffectiveness of the rhetoric, but of the complexity of Greek honour and the conflicting situation in which Achilles finds himself throughout the poem.


Further Reading

Homer, Iliad. Translated by Martin Hammond, Published by Penguin Books, England, 1987.

Aristotle, The Art of Rhetoric. Translated by W. D. Ross (ed.), Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1959.

Griffin, Jasper, Homer Iliad IX, Published by Oxford University Press, United States, 1995.

Gunderson, Erik, The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Rhetoric, Published by Cambridge University Press, United States, 2009.

Knudsen, Rachel, Homeric Speech and the Origins of Rhetoric, Published by John Hopkins University Press, United States, 2014.

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