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How the Iliad Narrates Military Command

John Esposito

no current academic affiliation

It is widely recognized that Iliadic armies are neither democratic nor crudely autocratic (Albracht 1886; Latacz 1977; Finley 1978; van Wees 1986, 1992), and that treatments of the source of and limits on authority recur throughout the poem (Finsler 1906; Stanford 1955; Finley 1957; Donlan 1979; McGlew 1989; Hitch 2009).  The neikos of Iliad 1 raises (and does not answer) such questions as: what makes warriors fight? and what makes some do what others tell them to do?

In this paper I argue that, although the poem never answers these questions explicitly (despite many discussions in direct speech, most notably in books 1, 2, and 9), the poet does paint a definite picture of command. Drawing on a tabulation of human leadership acts in the Iliad, I consider two words commonly used to signify two different types of military command – κέλομαι and ὀτρύνω – and two rare usages (ἀγείρω and λίσσομαι) that, respectively, indicate authoritarian and supplicatory extremes.

I present two major conclusions. First, when heroes lead groups of warriors, they so do by persuasion and encouragement, never appealing to any hierarchical system of command and control. Second, when control is abnormally lopsided, the asymmetry that locates control in the commanded leads to victory, while the asymmetry that locates control in the commander leads to disaster.

In the Iliad, κέλομαι means “exhort” or “encourage” without any coercive force (e.g. 11.91; 13.489; 15.501; 16.268, 524; 18.343). Two passages make this particularly clear. The first appears in book 12, where Ajax exhorts the nearby Achaeans to κέλομαι one another (269-274). Ajax divides the warriors into “outstanding, middling, and worse” (ὅς τ’ ἔξοχος ὅς τε μεσήεις / ὅς τε χερειότερος) and explains the tripartition by appeal to the inequality of humans with respect to war (ἐπεὶ οὔ πω πάντες ὁμοῖοι / ἀνέρες ἐν πολέμῳ). Despite natural inequality, warriors must exhort one another (ἀλλήλοισι κέλεσθε). The stronger are not ipso facto granted any authority to command. The second illustrative use of κέλομαι comes in book 11, just before Agamemnon’s aristeia begins (91-92). As Agamemnon appears, the Achaeans “exhort the hetairoi by row” (κεκλόμενοι ἑτάροισι κατὰ στίχας). Again the exhorters are plural, and nobody is set apart to do the exhorting.

Compared with κέλομαι, ὀτρύνω indicates a more aggressive but less directive kind of exhortation. The specific meaning of Homeric ὀτρύνω is something like “excite” or “stir”; that is, it drives the listener to increased intensity without suggesting a new object or direction. The meaning of both κέλομαι and ὀτρύνω is clear in Glaukos’ prayer to Apollo, just after Sarpedon’s death (δὸς δὲ κράτος, ὄφρ’ ἑτάροισι / κεκλόμενος Λυκίοισιν ἐποτρύνω πολεμίζειν: 16.524-525). Glaukos is seriously wounded, but he must protect Sarpedon’s corpse. In order to do this, he must call on and rouse (κεκλόμενος…ἐποτρύνω) the Lykian hetairoi; and to do this, he needs additional strength (κράτος) from the god.

While κέλομαι and ὀτρύνω express the normal in-battle relationship between commander and commanded, ἀγείρω and λίσσομαι represent abnormal extremes. When ἀγείρω (gather, collect) takes warrior-companions (hetairoi) as object, the context is accusatory and the result is catastrophic. When λίσσομαι (beg, entreat, supplicate) takes hetairoi as object, the context is anticipatory and the supplication of the commanded is successful. Both uses of ἀγείρω encode serious accusations. In the first (3.46-51), Hector accuses Paris of ruining Troy. In the second, Paris accuses Hector of destroying his own men (13.775-780).

The two instances of λίσσομαι with hetairoi as object also form a pair.  In the first passage (12.49-50), Hector entreats his companions to begin a particularly ambitious attack (Ἕκτωρ ἀν’ ὅμιλον ἰὼν ἐλλίσσεθ’ ἑταίρους) – and they do. In the second (19.305-307), Achilles entreats his companions not to make him eat before he avenges Patroclus – and they do not. A third in-battle supplication (15.660-663) appeals to filial piety: Nestor entreats retreating Achaeans by their parents (λίσσεθ’ ὑπὲρ τοκέων), and the rout is (temporarily) stayed.

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War and its Cultural Implications

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