This paper argues that Walter Benjamin’s reading of the Niobe myth clarifies the function of Achilles’ Niobe exemplum at Iliad 24.602-617. During their extraordinary meeting, Achilles tells the story of Niobe to encourage Priam to eat, but the exemplum’s imagery has generated critical controversy (Richardson; Pearce), particularly because Niobe’s violent fate contrasts with Achilles’ compassionate offer of a shared meal. Commentators, however, have recognized the barely suppressed possibility of violence between Priam and Achilles (Redfield, Lynn-George, Crotty, Felson). Building on their work and following Walter Benjamin’s interpretation in his essay “Critique of Violence,” I argue that Niobe in Iliad 24 is portrayed as an unwitting object of violence, punished for passing over the ambiguous threshold between gods and humans; the exemplum underscores that a similarly ambiguous threshold, charged with grief and anger, runs between Achilles and Priam. Each might unwittingly provoke violence from the other, just as Niobe provokes Leto’s children. The exemplum raises a larger set of questions about how characters in the Iliad use portentous images of violence to reflect on the violence that they suffer and perpetrate.
Benjamin adduces the myth of Niobe to illustrate the ambiguity of the violence committed by the Greek gods: Niobe is punished for transgressing a vague and inconsistently enforced boundary that becomes definite only after being transgressed (Hamacher). In secular terms, Benjamin identifies this kind of ambiguous violence with unpredictable outbursts of anger. Although Benjamin does not specify which literary instantiation of the Niobe myth he refers to (Ahmadi), his discussion pinpoints the ambiguity of Niobe’s fate in the exemplum in Iliad 24. In Achilles’ telling, Niobe is guilty of equating herself (isasketo, 24.608) with Leto and thereby rivaling the gods. But the division between gods and humans is indistinct and enforced inconsistently in the Iliad, where heroes routinely vie with the Olympians. Niobe’s punishment resembles other portents whose ambiguity prompts Iliadic characters to question their own relation to violence (e.g. 1.43-83, 2.301-32, 12.200-29; Bushnell; Collins).
Achilles’ use of the Niobe exemplum expresses his awareness that both he and Priam are vulnerable to ambiguous violence. Commentators have noticed the resemblance between Niobe and Priam, as bereaved parents, and between “child-slaying” Achilles and Apollo (Rabel). But the comparison extends to Priam’s situation in Book 24, where Achilles threatens to harm him twice (24.560-70; 583-86; cf. 508-9). The exemplum reiterates Achilles’ threats, subtly warning Priam not to anger him inadvertently, as Niobe angered Apollo. But the analogy can be reversed: Achilles might suffer retribution from Apollo if he should harm Priam and provoke the anger of the Olympians, who endorse Priam’s mission (24.135), a risk underscored by the resemblance between Priam and Chryses (Wilson; Minchin). Unlike Niobe, however, Achilles is aware of the Olympians’ will. By implicitly comparing his situation to Niobe’s, Achilles signals his effort to manage his and Priam’s anger and negotiate the intractable problem of violence, a central issue in the Iliad (Thalmann) that assumes greater urgency as Achilles broadens his ethical outlook in Book 24 (Segal; Crotty; Most; Hammer).
Homer and Hellenistic Literature