In this paper I explain how at Il. 1.234-239 Achilles manipulates the description of the scepter he is holding to strip it of its conventional associations with stability and royal power. I argue that in his oath Achilles appropriates the scepter and tree-simile—the very images that the narrator conventionally uses to praise Agamemnon and the Achaeans—in order to excoriate the king for stealing Briseis.
To craft his criticism, Achilles manipulates his description of the scepter in two ways. He deviates both from the narrator’s customary treatment of scepters and from the narrator’s standard form for tree-similes. First, he describes the scepter as the wooden product of a mutilated tree, breaking from the narrator’s habit of describing the scepter as metallic (regularly golden). Furthermore, by turning the scepter from a metallic object into a wooden one, Achilles creates here a quasi tree-simile (on tree-simile families, see Scott, 1974: 70-71 and 2009: 22-27). The verses about the mutilated tree (234-237) resemble a simile, as Kirk and Latacz duly note. In this paper, I call attention to two subtle but crucial differences between Achilles’ speech and the tree-similes of the Iliadic battle narrative. Whereas the typical battle narrative tree-simile depicts a woodcutter or craftsman successfully felling a tree to manufacture something useful (cf. Fränkel: 35), Achilles’ excursus has no woodcutter nor does he describe the scepter’s manufacture. These changes to the tree-simile, which constitute Achilles’ second departure from the narrator’s standard practice, transform an image redolent of Achaean martial success into a symbol of the death and suffering the Achaeans will endure.
Scholarly commentary on Achilles’ speech has focused more on the scepter than the tree—especially how the scene represents injustice when Achilles throws the scepter to the earth (Benardete, Griffin, Mondi, Easterling). Scholarship on the image itself has linked the mutilated tree to Homer’s conception of heroism (Nagy), to Achilles’ life story (Schein; Lowenstam), and to Homer’s fixation with the violence of combat (Lynn-George). Building on recent interest in the relationship between similes in speech and similes in the narrative (Pelliccia, Ready), I am interested to show how Achilles changes the image of the mutilated tree used by the narrator to praise the Achaeans into one that blames Agamemnon.
In the first part of this paper, then, I contrast Achilles’ description of the scepter with the narrator’s descriptions of Agamemnon’s metal scepter at Il. 2.41-46 and 2.100-108, showing that the narrator treats the metal scepter as a weapon duly handed down from generation to generation. Achilles breaks from the narrator’s practice in order to suppress the themes of power and stability associated with a metal scepter.
In the second part, I contrast the tree imagery in Achilles’ speech with the tree-similes of the battle narrative. Here I argue that tree-similes in the battle narrative celebrate the superior martial prowess of the Achaeans through the figure of the woodcutter or craftsman, who always stands for the heroic Achaean successfully overpowering tough Trojan resistance to achieve glory on the battlefield. A close reading of the elaborate simile associated with the death of Simoesius (4.482-489), in which a chariot-maker fells a poplar to make the rim for a wheel, shows that the narrator uses the simile to glorify Ajax. And so the woodcutter and the story of his fashioning a useful object from the tree he cuts down comprise the elements that make tree-similes vehicles for praise. Achilles’ oath, devoid of such a character and lacking such a story, turns the cutting of the tree from something productive and admirable into purposeless violence.
When, therefore, Achilles eliminates the woodcutter from his excursus, then omits the story of the creation of the scepter itself, he accomplishes a rhetorical tour de force, using imagery designed for praise to criticize Agamemnon.