Triangular Relationships in the ‘Iliad’

[This is an example of what I think of as a “crazy” paper.  It is one that I labored over in the mid-seventies and early eighties, but was unable to place in any publication; yet I felt strongly enough about that I did not throw it away (as I have with some).  I’ve written several “crazy” papers in my career – I suppose most academics have.  But now, thanks to the wonders of web publishing and blogging, I can here belatedly present its riches to an eager world.]


For many years now scholars have recognized that patterns of one sort or another are deeply imbedded in Homeric poetry.  In the era that Parry’s monumental studies1
Now conveniently collected by Adam Parry in The Making of Homeric VerseThe Collected Papers of Milman Parry (Oxford 1971).
on formulas of Homeric language were coming out, a work such as that of Walter Arend 2
Die Typische Scenen bei Homer, Problemata:  Forschungen zur Klassischen Philologie, Heft 7 (Berlin 1933).
on thematic patterns was very much a logical continuation and extension of Parry’s notions.  The very concept of repetitions, verbal or other, has of course long been recognized as an integral part of not only Homeric but also much other Greek literature. 3
See the comments by Sophie Abramowicz, “Repetitions et Hantises verbales chez Homère.”  Eos 60 (1972) page 223.
In recent years we have seen many illuminating and useful studies on various aspects of pattern and repetition, particularly thematic ones, in Homeric poetry.4
The following papers will give an indication of some of the work produced within just the last decade:  Burton Feldman, “Homers andere Welt:  Der Schild des Achilleus,” Antaios 10 (1969) pages 76-90; Cynthia W. Shelmerdine, “The Pattern of Guest Welcome in the Odyssey,” CJ 65.3 (December 1969) page 124;  Barry B. Powell, “Narrative Pattern in the Homeric Tale of Menelaus,” TAPA 101 (1970) pages 419-31;  Charles P. Segal, The Theme of the Mutilation of the Corpse in the Iliad, Menmosyne Suppl. XVII (Leiden 1971);  William C. Scott, “A Repeated Episode at Odyssey 1.125-48,” TAPA 102 (1971) pages 541-51;  Valdis Leinieks, “A Structural Pattern in the Iliad,” CJ  69.2 (December 1973-January 1974) pages 102-7.
I should like to add my own observations about a strikingly common but, apparently, as yet unexamined example of thematic iteration in the Iliad.

Whatever their ultimate provenience in the psychology of human associations may be, triangular relationships are a pervasive feature of the Homeric Iliad; from almost the first line of the poem they inform our understanding of the ever shifting rôles that characters undergo and at the same time afford us a means for evaluating these transformations.  The triangular relationship is perhaps most readily thought of in an erotic context in which two men desire one woman (or vice versa).  In the encompassing world of Homer’s Iliad, however, this elemental relationship is, as we shall see, extended far beyond the merely erotic to embrace many of the fundamental arrangements in which human beings find themselves involved.

By ‘triangular relationship’ I mean, quite simply, a relationship involving three people or three positions, A, B and C, among two of whom there exists some point of dispute regarding the third.  This basic theme in the Iliad is subjected to a great many variations.  Each instance speaks to the original triangle that is seen as instigating the unhappy conflict leading to so much unnecessary misery for both Greeks and Trojans, and at the same time that each new triangular relationship comments on the first one, it is itself commented upon by all the other examples.  A kind of network of cross-references informing the entire poem is thus established as a comparative canon against which to measure and evaluate the choices that individuals are constantly making.  At no point, it will be seen, is there anything necessarily inevitable or ‘closed’ about the tracks along which individuals move.

It has long been recognized 5
See Cedric H. Whitman, Homer and the Heroic Tradition (Harvard Press 1958) page 259;  also Albert B. Lord, The Singer of Tales, Harvard Studies in Comparative Literature 24 (Harvard Press 1960), Chapter Nine.
that the Iliad opens with the attempt of a father (Chryses) to ransom his child (Chryseis) from an individual (Agamemnon) who has that child in his power, and ends with the attempt of another father (Priam) to ransom his child (Hektor) from an individual (Achilles) in whose power the child is.  In the beginning of the poem the attempt is initially unsuccessful and brings much unpleasantness in its train; the final concluding effort is successful and effects a reconciliation between great enemies.  Between these two triangular relations in which A (a father) wants B (a child) from C (a personal enemy) Homer spins out scores of similar but always varied relationships that comment in some way on the choices made at the start of the poem.

In order to make my discussion less clumsy, I shall employ throughout this paper the generic terms rogator, rogandus/a and rogatus/a for, respectively, the A who wants B from C.

It will be recalled that in the Chryses-Chryseis-Agamemnon triangle the rogator is initially rebuffed by the rogatus, and it is only after the fateful intervention of Apollo at Chryses’ request that Agamemnon finally returns the roganda, albeit with great reluctance and resentment.  This opening triangle itself becomes the occasion for the development of a second triangle involving the rogator Agamemnon, the roganda Briseis and the rogatus Achilles.  The situation is basically identical in both triangles in that A wants B from C, but C refuses.  In the case of Agamemnon-Briseis-Achilles the relationship is of course charged with the specific erotic component absent from the Chryses-Chryseis-Agamemnon triangle, for Chryses and Agamemnon in the first triangle do not stand in the same relationship to the roganda that Achilles and Agamemnon do in the second.  In both instances the rogator is at first unsuccessful in his suit, and where Chryses had to rely on divine power to effect the desired outcome, Agamemnon must resort to his kingly authority, backed by the forces of the heralds Eurybates and Talthybios, in order to achieve his initially frustrated end.  From a consideration of the reversal of roles which Agamemnon undergoes in these two opening examples of the triangle, it is clear that he has drawn no useful conclusions:

















Agamemnon is incapable of seeing himself as the perfect analogue to Chryses, despite the ironic comparison of his own request to that of Chryses (1.182).  If he were able to recognize not only the obviousness of the parallelism but also (and more important) its implications, the disastrous consequences which the Greeks must endure might have been obviated.  For when he was the rogatus his pervicacious refusal to accommodate the rogator Chryses seemed fully justifiable (1.26ff.), but when he has himself stepped into the role of rogator he changes the ground-rules and deems it proper that the rogatus should yield unquestioningly.  He is apparently incapable of appreciating that his own reaction towards Chryses would be replicated by Achilles (now the rogatus) towards him.  If Agamemnon flew into a rage at Chryses, why should not Achilles be wroth with Agamemnon?  This blindness, willful or not, by the leader of the Greeks is a fundamental feature of Homer’s characterization of him, and it will be underscored again in the second book of the Iliad.  The use of this clearly parallel narrative device, the triangular relationship, enables the poet to illuminate an aspect of Agamemnon’s character and reveal the man’s moral inconsistency.  Leadership should be made of more stable stuff.

The human drama in the first half of Iliad I is paralleled in the divine world at the conclusion of the book (493ff.), but with significant differences.  The most striking departure lies in the fact that the human world is left in a state of chaos as a result of human conflicts, but in the divine world the divine conflict precipitated by Hera’s suspicions regarding Thetis is brought to an amicable resolution.

What is the precise nature of the divine conflict?  Thetis has come to Olympus in order to extract a favor from Zeus: (500-502)

καί ῥα πάροιθ’ αὐτοῖο καθέζετο, καὶ λάβε γούνων
σκαιῇ, δεξιτερῇ δ’ ἄρ’ ὑπ’ ἀνθερεῶνος ἑλοῦσα
λισσομένη προσέειπε Δία Κρονίωνα ἄνακτα

And in front of him she proceeded to sit down, and she took him by the knees
with her left hand;  with her right she chucked him under his chin
and, begging, addressed lord Zeus the son of Kronos

One may readily appreciate how a wife with a jealous disposition might interpret such an action on Thetis’ part, and Hera indeed begins to pester Zeus about this matter.  Only when her husband threatens her with the possibility of physical violence (567) does Hera lay aside her ruffled feelings, and harmony is restored to the disrupted society of Mount Olympus.  Nor is it insignificant that sex is the emblematic reconciler (610f.).

For what we have in this Olympian altercation is a divine triangle that permits us to evaluate the earlier events in the human world.  The rogator in this case is Thetis; she wants Zeus (the rogandus) to help her, an act which Hera will construe as a serious infringement of her claims on Zeus (cf. 518, 522f., 539).  Hera, then, is cast as the rogata in this triangle.  If we view the divine configuration against the human ones already established earlier in the book, the following pattern becomes clear:



















We have already seen how the conflicts between rogator and rogatus in the human world eventuated in both a serious personal breach and, more important, a dangerous rift in the society to which the individuals belong.  For in both instances it is the social group which bears the brunt of the disruptive consequences that flow from personal intransigence (cf. 50-53 and 254-258).  The potential risks to the divine society are obviated by personal compromise on the part of the rogata (Hera), quite unlike the case for the two human rogati, Agamemnon and Achilles.  Furthermore, a certain irony derives from the clarification in the divine world that the demands of the rogator are in no fundamental sense dangerous to the continued integrity of the society, whereas those demands made by the human actors do threaten basic stabilities within the society.  It is, finally, an ironic point that sex becomes a means for reconciliation in the divine world, for in the second triangle among the humans it is quite clearly a compelling force for disunion.

There is, then, nothing intrinsically necessary about the outcomes of the human conflict, for the poet’s forcing us to draw a comparison with the divine discord underscores the fact that alternative choices for the settling of dissension are available.  The Iliad is not, in short, a closed world in which human beings are propelled helplessly along predetermined routes; at every stage choice is available to the human actors, and disaster is a product of incorrect choices freely exercised.

The origins of the Trojan war are to be sought in two erotic triangles.  The most immediate manifestation is in the conflict between Menelaus (A) and Paris (C) over Helen (B).  But prior to the development of this antagonism with its enormous social ramifications there was dissension among the three goddesses Athena, Hera and Aphrodite over securing a favorable response from the adjudicating Paris.  In terms of triangular structure Aphrodite (A) wanted Paris’ approbation (B) from, or at cost to, Hera and Athena (C); Hera wanted it from Athena and Aphrodite; and Athena from Aphrodite and Hera.  There is, then, a kind of triangular etiology imbedded in the very story of the Iliad, and this relationship stands forth with unmistakable clarity at countless turns in the narrative.  Indeed, the erotic triangle is so very common in the story because it speaks to the ultimate origins of the conflict whose development and temporary resolution the poem explores.

The opening of the third book of the Iliad invites the audience to consider in detail this archetypal triangle in the human world; Menelaus will fight Paris over Helen (3.69ff.).  The results of this duel will have bearing on the larger society of Greeks and Trojans, for the victor will take the woman and booty and go home, and the warfare between the two communities will cease (3.71ff., 92ff.).  This compromise is reasonable enough under the circumstances, and points up once more the folly of the triangular relationship Agamemnon-Briseis-Achilles in Book I.  The alternative solution suggested in Book III must be read as forceful commentary on the intransigence of Agamemnon compared to his brother Menelaus, for although the latter had as rogator by all rights more claim to be autocratic in the achievement of his request than did Agamemnon, he is willing to settle differences through compromise.  Compromise will affect the society as a whole much more favorably, for none of the social dissension (cf. 1.254ff.) arising from Agamemnon’s obduracy is foreseen here (cf. 3.73f., 94).

Since it is apparent (if one can believe Thersites) that Agamemnon has become involved in similar triangular conflicts with others (cf. 2.232f.) besides Achilles, his brother’s commendable yielding to compromise highlights the possibility of substitute solutions.  Menelaus and Paris are concrete exemplars of a generalized erotic triangle that is seen in the poem to obtain between Greeks and Trojans, for Greeks (A) want Trojan women (B) from the vanquished Trojans (C) (2.355, and cf. 3.301).  One may feel that the solution to fight over the women is meager compromise, but in the heroic world of the Iliad any compromise, Homer appears to be saying, makes a great deal more sense than Agamemnon’s contumacy before Chryses or his willful autocracy before Achilles.  In this way Homer can Indicate that where compromise is in fact acceptable even in matters of utmost importance, i.e. the very casus belli, the refusal to compromise over less significant altercations can only be viewed as a form of condemnation of the heroic code’s unbending rigidity.  It is, at any rate, hard to avoid drawing this inference.

Nor is the solution suggested by Menelaus and Paris the only one to which this type of conflict is amenable.  Examination of other erotic triangles which are scattered throughout the narrative bears eloquent testimony to the fact that the fundamental problem which the Iliad sets in the opening lines is capable of many different solutions.  There is, in short, nothing inevitable about Agamemnon’s non-solution that merely becomes the cause for even greater problems.  Agamemnon’s handling of the matter has been inept and clumsy.

We may, again, feel that other ways of dealing with the complications of an erotic triangle are not much better than Agamemnon’s, but it comes down to an appreciation of the need (as Homer seems to be saying time and time again throughout the epic) for solutions that will not destroy a society simply in order that abstract principles may be vindicated by obstinate and inflexible individuals.

What are some of these alternative solutions?  The story of Bellerophon which is told by Glaukos in Iliad VI is instructive, for it sets up a number of erotic triangles with potentially catastrophic outcomes.  Resolutions of a sort are, however, worked out in each case.  The very fact that one of them is a fabrication of the type Hippolytus-Phaedra-Theseus and not based on any real relationship underscores the need which is nonetheless perceived for some sort of solution that will not destroy the entire society.

When Bellerophon refused to respond to her mad passion (6.160-2) for him, the wife of Proitos, Anteia, falsely accuses him of trying to make love to her (6.165).  The contrived triangle thus suggests that Bellerophon (A) wants Anteia (B) to the detriment of Proitos (C).  On this analysis Bellerophon plays the same role of rogator that Agamemnon does in the second triangle of Book I, and Proitos is cast as rogatus, much as was Agamemnon in the first triangle of Book I.  Consider the variant actions of the rogator.

Agamemnon, we saw, simply bullied his way to possession of Briseis without any consideration for Achilles, the third party to the triangular relationship.  There were obviously other ways in which Agamemnon could have handled the situation, and Bellerophon points up one of them.  For although Bellerophon is not in truth at all interested in Anteia, his means of extricating himself from the imposed involvement demonstrates a possible out, a variation of which might well have recommended itself with more urgency to Agamemnon.  Bellerophon is in effect exiled, and this withdrawal from the field of erotic conflict is a most obvious and most successful way of defusing the violent passions that erotic conflict brings about and indeed has brought about for both Trojans and Greeks in the Iliad’s world.  This solution does require, however, the dampening of great egos, a central problem of the heroic type like Agamemnon and Achilles (but not, be it noted, of the heroic type here represented by Bellerophon).  What, one may ask, could have been a more sensible way for Agamemnon to solve his difficulties with Achilles than simply to let him keep Briseis?

Just as Bellerophon points up an alternative possibility for Agamemnon’s handling of his difficulties, so too does Proitos as rogatus suggest a different way in which Agamemnon might have treated Chryses.  For although great anger seizes Proitos (6.166) at the suggestion that Bellerophon wants Anteia (as wrath had come upon Agamemnon when Chryses said that he wanted Chryseis – cf. 1.25ff.), Proitos does not deal with the rogator in the peremptory fashion that Agamemnon had.  The latter had in fact threatened Chryses with dire consequences, but Proitos had too much a sense of reverence (6.167; σεβάσσατο) to kill Bellerophon.  Instead he

cleverly foist off the responsibility for this on his father-in-law and in effect exiles Bellerophon.  The intent of Proitos is surely as wicked and as rash as that of Agamemnon towards Chryses, but the point is that in the economy of the narrative device which we are here examining Proitos’ management of his opponent demonstrates that there might well have been an alternative for Agamemnon to the crude dismissal of Chryses with its consequent unpleasantness for the Greek camp.  This is not to imply that Agamemnon should have sent off Chryses to undertake feats of heroic daring as did Bellerophon, but simply to indicate once more the possibility of different ways and means.

The second part of the tale which Glaukos tells to Diomedes in a sense re-duplicates the first, for it narrates basically the same story with some different characters.  The role of Proitos has been taken over by his father-in-law, and the woman Anteia is replaced by her sister, another daughter of Proitos’ (unnamed) father-in-law.  The configuration is thus another triangle in which the rogator Bellerophon gets the roganda (the sister of Anteia) from the rogatus as a prize for his winning of the contests that were set him.  Here marriage becomes the happy solution (6.192) to the implicit conflicts in the triangular relationship.

We may note, furthermore, that Bellerophon is the rogator in both of these triangles just as Chryses was the rogator in the first triangle of Book I and also in the later triangle in which Agamemnon does grant his request for Chryseis (1.440ff.).  Bellerophon as rogator gets what he wants because he has earned it through heroic winning of contests, and Chryses gets what he wants because he is pious; Agamemnon, on the contrary, got what he wanted (Briseis) through the use of autocratic force, and the narrative deployment of parallel triangular relationships comments on the willfulness of Agamemnon that destroyed many Greeks because of Achilles’ withdrawal from battle.  And where both Proitos and his father-in-law as rogati were able to accommodate the rogator without destroying their societies, Agamemnon as rogatus brought down a great plague on his camp because he refused, despite the urgings of the other Greeks (1.22f.), to treat reasonably with the rogator.

Book IX provides more examples of this triangular structure that speak to the availability of optional solutions to the conflict arising between rogator and rogatus.  At the start of the book Nestor addresses himself to the stubbornness of Agamemnon which made him take Briseis away from Achilles (9.106ff.), and Agamemnon now recognizes his blind delusion (9.116: ἀασάμην).

He offers to try to make good his insult to Achilles by offering gifts along with the return of Briseis, but Achilles refuses.  This refusal now casts Achilles in the fresh role of rogatus who is able to decline the rogator.  For although Agamemnon could forcibly take Briseis, he cannot forcibly ‘take’ Achilles’ renewed participation in the war.  Here, then, Agamemnon is like Chryses and Achilles like Agamemnon is the first triangle in Book I.  We already know what Agamemnon’s refusal led to, and there will be a similar upshot to Achilles’ refusal:  death for the Greeks.  Agamemnon is here seen as radically different from the obtuse individual he was in Book I, and the inference to be drawn from the dynamics of the triangular relationship are that at some point Achilles too shall have to be a radically different rogatus from what he is here.  In short, what Agamemnon (rogatus) was to Chryses (rogator) Achilles (rogatus) now is to Agamemnon (rogator), and what a changed Agamemnon now is to Achilles a changed Achilles will be to somebody, i.e. Priam.  Just as Agamemnon has learned the enormous expense of his initial refusal to compromise, so too will Achilles discover how costly his own obstinacy will be to him personally.

Through the use of these parallel and contrasting triangular relationships the poet is able to inform the audience of the many variant possibilities for action and choice.  The characters in the narrative, however, seem incapable of learning from their observations of what happens to other men who, like themselves, made the very choices which they themselves, faced with similar situations, are now repeating.  Indeed, open protreptic seems equally useless as a means for alerting the individual to the need for more reasoned choice.  Certainly Agamemnon listened neither to the other Greeks nor to Nestor, and Achilles is equally deaf to the implications of Phoenix’s parallel narratives about triangular relationships.  The audience is, however, given the information necessary to make informed judgments about the choices that characters make.  Consider some points in Phoenix’s story.

Phoenix had himself become involved at one point in a nasty triangular relationship with his father over a concubine.  He tells the story in the course of reminding Achilles why the latter had been raised by him.  Again, it was anger (9.449-463) over a woman (a concubine) which brought on the conflict between father and son.  Amyntor, the father of Phoenix, was in love with his concubine to the dishonor of his wife (9.450), and the wife urged the youthful Phoenix to make love to the concubine so that she would no longer be enchanted with Amyntor.  In the terms familiar to us from the generalized triangular relationship, Amyntor (rogator) wants the concubine (roganda) back from Phoenix (rogatus), and we have a replication of the Bellerophon-Anteia-Proitos narrative of Book VI.  The specific resolution does not cause ruin for the society, but only for the individual line of Amyntor:  for the father pronounces a curse on the son that he should never have offspring (9.455f.).  Phoenix seeks a way out quite similar to that of Bellerophon, although Phoenix’s exile is self-imposed.  Now, this is by no means an ideal solution (which would be reconciliation and forgiveness) to the disagreement that has arisen between father and son, but it is a resolution, and one that must surely be considered more advantageous to the larger group of the principals’ society than the botched efforts of Agamemnon in his altercation with Achilles over Briseis.  Phoenix’s account, moreover, is a protreptic directed to Achilles and designed to induce him to react in a certain way to Agamemnon’s appeal.  The point of the Phoenix-concubine-Amyntor conflict was to make Amyntor yield his concubine to Phoenix so that the mother would once more be restored to her rightful place of honor in the household; the point of the Agamemnon-Achilles’ participation-Achilles discord is to make Achilles give his participation to Agamemnon and the Greeks whom he represents.  Achilles, however, follows the general pattern of the rogatus in that he obstinately refuses and, in this instance (as opposed to 1.182ff.), has the power to translate his obstinacy into action.  What is crucial for the audience to realize is that the poet is in no way suggesting that Achilles is bound to act as he does; indeed the implication of the numerous alternative means of coping with serious conflict that have been presented is that a world of choices was available to Achilles if only he could bend a little and change his rigid stance.

Even the mythical exemplum of triangular conflict to which Phoenix alludes in his speech (556-564) is lost on Achilles.  The lovely Marpessa, mother of Meleager’s wife Cleopatra, had once been snatched off by the god Apollo to be his own.  Unfortunately for him, however, Idas (rogator) wants Marpessa (roganda) from Apollo (rogatus).  A contest ensues in which bold Idas takes up his bow against the archer god and is sufficiently skilful to win the maiden back.  The rogatus of this triangle, the god Apollo, did, then, yield and give what was requested.  Is there a lesson here for mortal Achilles as rogatus?

Phoenix’s narration of the Meleager story in this speech is well known, and it is clear that the account is but one more version of the basic triangular tale that is being told over and over again in the Iliad.  The rogator in this instance is split into a large number of individuals such as the old men of the community (9.574), Oineus (9.581), his sisters and mother (9.584), and companions (9.585) and friends (9.586).  Meleager as rogatus refuses to yield the rogandum, his own participation, to any of the beseechers, but he does finally come to the realization that a different response must be given.  For when his wife Cleopatra becomes the rogator he does give in and suits up for war against the besieging enemy (9.596).  The parallel is obviously suited to the particular circumstances of Achilles at this juncture of the poem, but it is important for our purposes to recognize that the Meleager story offers one more indication that options are still available to Achilles and that he need not repeat the destructive pattern which Agamemnon as rogatus set in the first book.

We have seen that the general configuration A-wants-B-from-C manifests itself in a number of ways:  1) A wants something (e.g., help) from C; 2) A wants a woman from C; and 3) A wants a child from C.  Although the underlying pattern is always the same, the resolutions to the conflict engendered are quite varied.  By a kind for constant cross-referencing the solutions offered are to be seen as possibly applicable in every other specific appearance of the general pattern.  Thus, a solution that involves the granting of a request may be applied as paradigm to a triangle in which there are erotic complications, and compromise that untangles the difficulties of erotic relationships may in turn be transferred as paradigm to the sensible handling of a triangle in which parent wants a child.  It is constantly held before the audience that a multitude of solutions are available for the triangular conflicts in which characters become involved.  And clearly not all of these solutions are meant to be recommended by the poet, but are presented so that the audience may have a series of choices against which to evaluate those particular ones that protagonists make.

We saw, for example, the choice of Agamemnon when Chryses asked for his daughter.  This specific triangular relationship is repeated a number of times throughout the epic so that the audience may realize without equivocation that there is a variety of accommodations to be made under varying circumstances.

The case of Adrestos (6.37-65) is instructive.  The unfortunate Arestos is at Menelaos’ mercy; pleading for his life, he indicates that his father will offer fine ransom for the return of his son (6.46ff.).  The configuration is a familiar one, though somewhat displaced in that the father is represented as pleading for the return of his child rather than actually doing it personally.  We thus have a repetition of the basic patter:  a parent (A: Adrestos’ father) wants his child (B: Adrestos) from an opponent (C: Menelaos).  Unlike Agamemnon at the opening of the poem, Menelaos is persuaded by the supplications of Adrestos and is on the point of letting the warrior go (6.51ff.).  His brother Agamemnon is appalled at the prospect of a prisoner’s release, and prevails on Menelaos to let Adrestos be killed.  Homer’s comment about this bit of suasion on Agamemnon’s part is clear, for he tells us that what Agamemnon did is αἴσιμα παρειπών (6.62) – speaking out fittingly.  In this instance the killing of the child who is wanted by the parent is seen as appropriate because he is an enemy who has just tried to kill Menelaos and will, if allowed to live, go on to kill Greek warriors.  The case is quite different from Chryses asking for Chryseis, who is neither warrior nor potential slayer of Greeks.  Although the episode with Adrestos can be interpreted against the backdrop of that opening episode and in turn helps to evaluate it, the most important role of this triangular confrontation is its proleptic relationship in Priam’s ransoming of Hektor’s corpse from Achilles.  We shall return to the Adrestos incident at a later point in this paper.

In Book X, the Doloneia, a very similar scene takes place.  Dolon, the Trojan spy, has been caught out by Odysseus and Diomedes, and as the latter is about to cut him down Dolon makes the same plea that Adrestos had:  his father (A) would be happy to get his son Dolon (B) back from Diomedes and Odysseus (C) and would pay plenty of ransom (10.380).  Here the rogati do not respond as had Menelaus and Agamemnon is Book VI, but lead Dolon to believe that he will be spared if he will but advise them about the Trojan camp.  Despite the good information that he does offer (10.448), however, he is ruthlessly cut down by Diomedes.  It is, once more, another way of dealing with the rogandus in the triangle, and in view of the fact that Dolon’s booty is offered to Athena who has protected the two Greeks during the night foray one is inclined to conclude that the author of this book saw Diomedes’ behavior towards Dolon as not unreasonable.  Other triangular relationships of this type in which a parent actually or in supposition wants a child back from an enemy are sprinkled throughout the poem so that the audience may never forget the importance of this thematic sequence in the work.

It is clear from other passages in the Iliad, moreover, that even in the specific formulation of the triangular relationship of parent-child-enemy the course adopted by Menelaus-Agamemnon to Adrestos or Odysseus-Diomedes to Dolon is not in any sense invariable.  An obviously alternate solution here is in fact to ransom the child to his father, as Achilles had done in a passage that quite specifically adumbrates the encounter between himself and Priam over Hektor’s corpse in Bood XXIV.  For in Book XI we are told that Agamemnon slew two sons of Priam, Isos and Antiphos, one a bastard and the other genuine, who had once been captured by Achilles (11.101-106).  In the brief reference to their being ransomed (11.106: ἔλυσεν ἀποίνων) lies implicity buried the formal triangle with which we are here dealing; a parent (A: the father Priam) wants his children (B: the sons Isos and Antiphos) back from an enemy (C: Achilles).  In short, there is more than one way in which to deal with the request to be ransomed rather than killed, and it is surely significant that it is Achilles who does the ransoming.  For it points up a different facet of his character from that which we have been led to see as a result of his intransigence in Book IX.  The man is actually capable of compromising his rigid heroic code in the matter of prisoners, unlike Agamemnon, for example, whose exhortation to Menelaus that the prisoner Adrastos not be spared is characterized by Homer as αἴσιμα,’fitting’.  Although Isos and Antiphos do not attempt to get themselves ransomed from Agamemnon, Agamemnon’s consistency in this business of abiding by the heroic code that precludes any generous act to enemies is underlined a little later in Book XI.  He comes upon two warriors, Peisandros and Hippolochos, who sere the sons of the sharp-minded Antimachos, an opponent of returning Helen (and her gifts) to the Greeks.  The children are thus caught up in the father’s enmity with the Greeks and the Atreidae in particular, and though they beg for release on the payment of ransom by their wealthy father, Agamemnon is adamant (11.122-135).  The triangular constellation conjured up by the passage is the now familiar one:  a parent (A: the father Antimachos) is said to want back his children (B: the sons Peisandros and Hippolochos) from an enemy (C: Agamemnon).  Coming as it does only a few lines after the reference to Achilles’ different reaction to the pleas of two sons, this passage can only emphasize the ruinous uniformity of Agamemnon’s behavior when viewed against the reasonable pliancy of Achilles’ approach.  Agamemnon does not change, for he is here as unyielding as he was to Chryses in the opening of Book I.  It should be noted, too, that Agamemnon is making the children pay for the father’s enmity (11.142), whereas Achilles will not make the father (Priam) pay for the son’s (Hektor’s) enmity in Book XXIV.  The implicit parallel comments proleptically on the ultimate changeability of Achilles.

Accepting or not accepting ransom in exchange for the release of a child on the battlefield is analogical to the accepting or not accepting of wedding gifts for the giving of a child in marriage.  The dynamics are identical on the basis of the triangular relationship among suitors who bring gifts (A) to the father (C) of the child to be wedded (B).  The analogy cements the association in the Iliad between the eristic and the erotic, between the passions of war and the passions of love.  We have just seen that ransom may or may not be granted on the battlefield; in the sphere of marriage, too, wedding gifts may or may not be given, and yet the marriage will take place in either event.

In Book XIII we learn that Othryoneus from Kabesos (13.363) had made a bargain with Priam before engaging on the Trojan side against the Greeks.  Othryoneus wanted to marry Priam’s daughter without having to pay any wedding gifts (13.366: ἀνάεδνον), and offered in return to help thrust the sons of the Achaeans from Troy.  Othryoneus, then, in the basic terms of the triangular relationship plays rogator, Cassandra roganda, and Priam rogatus.  Priam grants the requests.

There are also examples of weddings based on the giving of gifts.  The maiden Polymele gave birth to a child fathered on her by Hermes, but she was married to Echekles (16.180-190).  Implicit in the mention of this wedding is the suit of Echekles (A) for Polymele (B) from her father Phylas (C), and explicit is the giving of many wedding gifts for the wife (16.190: πόρε μυρία ἕδνα).  In a sense this payment of the bridal price is analogous to Othryoneus’ offer to help the Trojans vanquish the Greeks.  Although the two triangular relationships manifest themselves differently, the underlying dynamics would seem to be identical.  And they, in turn, are at bottom identical to the other types of triangular relationships in which a child or thing is requested in return for some payment in kind.  For our purposes the point of these marriage triangles is seen to be the unequivocal assertion that the rogator (A) can in fact get his roganda/um (B) from the rogatus (C) on terms that are mutually convenient and supportive, and that do not in any sense threaten, but rather solidify, the cohesiveness of the larger community.

The mutuality involved in these resolutions of confrontation arising from a triangular configuration is evident not only in the human community, but is paralleled also among the gods.  In Book XIV Hera needs the help of Sleep in order to work her scheme on Zeus and the Trojans, and Sleep on his part will offer to help only under certain carefully prescribed conditions.  Hera (A) wants from Sleep (C) his promise (B) to keep Zeus asleep (14.236) while she allows the Trojans to be bested by her Greeks; Sleep (A) wants from Hera (C) the promise (B) that she will give up to him for a wedded wife Pasithea, one of the Graces (14.272-276).  In this example from the world of gods the audience is given to know that the amicable settlement between rogator and rogatus has divine legitimation.  Fruitful results for both parties may, in short, follow from this triangular relationship if the concerned parties can look to their own true advantages rather than the restricted and crippling substitutes fostered by a delusional ego-centricity.

There is certainly nothing inherently necessary, we seem to be told repeatedly, about rigid adherence to ideological principle even in the heroic world.  Options are always available.

The fact that an Agamemnon or an Achilles at times stubbornly refuse to avail themselves of those different ‘outs’ that the audience knows to exist as possibilities in the heroic world offers incisive commentary on the heroic characterization of both.  The very notion of openness and of alternative solutions is most magnificently displayed on the shield of Achilles in the contrast between the two cities of war and peace, and, more immediately pertinent to the present inquiry, the development of triangular relationships with definite bearing on the thematics of the poem as a whole.  The city of war (18.509-540) demonstrates the individual and social ruin that follows on the inability or unwillingness to compromise, and the city at peace shows how even the most serious conflict of a triangular nature may be resolved equitably if reason rather than naked passion is allowed to make itself felt in human affairs.

In gross terms of the triangular configuration the conflict in the city of war (18.509-540) can be represented as follows:  the ambushing armies (A) want either destruction or booty (B) from the besieged city (C).  Needless to say, the parallelism between the attacking Greeks and the besieged Trojans is primary; what might have happened if some kind of compromise could have been worked out (as the Trojans and Greeks had in fact themselves tried in Book III) by the attackers and the defenders?  The question is never raised, for the people of the city “were not persuaded” (18.513) of any course but that of moving out to meet the enemy.  It is certainly not a matter of cowardice or folly to make terms of some sort, for this possibility is already sanctioned by the events of Book III; but compromise is only one alternative, and it is not embraced in this instance.  The upshot of the savage encounter between the two armies is recounted graphically in lines 535-540.

Strongly contrastive is the development in the city of peace, where we again find the triangular arrangement, this time on a more personal level than that met in the city of war.  But the underlying pattern is the unmistakable one that we have been dealing with throughout, and its bearing on the ‘real’ events of the Iliad is as unmistakable as that which we found in the city at war.

Strife has broken out in the city at peace, for two men are contending over payment for the death of a third individual.  The malefactor has offered to make restoration (18.499f.), but the aggrieved party is refusing any form of restitution (18.500).  In brief, the relative of the murdered man wants from the murderer something that he is apparently not getting, or, in our framework, the rogator (A) wants a rogandum (B) from the rogatus (C).  Here, too, the antithetical parallelism with the world beyond the shield, that is, with the larger narrative of the Iliad, is as palpable as in the conflict in the city at war.  In this case, however, the incident looks quite unmistakable forward to the moving events of Book XXIV in which the kinsman Priam (A) of the slain Hektor does want something very specific (B) from the killer Achilles (C), and is in fact offering huge ransom for it.  This conflict on the shield, then, points up, first, an alternative resolution (arbitration before judges) to that which was invoked in the shield’s city at war, and, second, a different settlement from that which concludes the dispute over Hektor, another ἀνδρὸς ἀποφθιμένου (18.499):  a reckoning that is satisfactory to both parties without juridical involvement.

The development of the theme of triangular relationships on the shield, the great symbol of the world of possibilities (war and destruction or peace and harmony) which Achilles at last hefts (19.373f.), shows once more the open-endedness of the world of the Iliad.  There are no pat and predictable solutions, no fore-ordained and necessary outcomes, no choiceless predestination.  Choice is everywhere, and at every step of his career a man makes his own decision about that course among the many available ones which he will select.

Before considering in more detail the culminating triangular relationship of Prima (A)-Hektor (B)-Achilles (C), I should like to have a look at some examples in Book XXIII, a book which, like the great ekphrasis of the shield in Book XVIII, presents for the audience the unmistakable view of an alternate world with many different solutions to conflict, none of which compromises integrity.  For book XXIII is a kind of might-have-been.

The contests in this book are for prizes, nor for human lives, and the attitudes and behavior of the participants are in direct and courtly contrast to the churlish and devious violations of basic civilities in the other books.  The games become an opportunity for Homer to reveal how people might have behaved towards each other and in that way have spared themselves and their fellows untold misery.  Because the book does address itself to precisely this matter of what might have been it is quite natural that we should here find examples of the triangular relationship, which appears in the poem to be a major sustained device for looking into the alternative means of coping with inevitable conflict.

Achilles had appointed a mare as the second prize in the horse race (23.265f.), and when he subsequently offers to give this as consolation to the last man, Eumelos, objection is raised by Antilochos, who had come in second.  Antilochos’ argument to Achilles (23.543ff.) sets up a triangular relationship which is highly suggestive of the one in Book I.  There, we recall, Agamemnon (A: rogator) wanted Briseis (B: roganda) from Achilles (C: rogatus), although Briseis was in fact the very prize that had been bestowed (1.161f.) on Achilles the rogatus.  And now in Book XXIII we have a repetition of this primary triangular relationship that was the origin of such great destruction for the Greeks.  And now Achilles (A: rogator) wants the pregnant mare (B: roganda) from Antilochos (C: rogatus).  And as Agamemnon there wanted Briseis in order to make up for his loss of Chryseis (1.137ff), so Achilles here wants the mare so that it may console Eumelos for his loss of the race.  The parallelism is unmistakable:







Briseis (prize)



mare (prize)


When Antilochos makes it clear, moreover, that he will get extremely angry with Achilles (23.543: μάλα τοι κεχολώσομαι) if the latter carries through with his suggestion, one is hard put not to recall the wrath and anger (χόλος) of Achilles throughout Book I (cf. lines 1, 192, 217, 224, 283, 422, 488).  We have seen for 22 books what the effects were of Agamemnon’s execution of his threat to take Achilles’ prize from him, and in this parallel development of the triangular relationship a different and more sensible resolution of the conflict is effected by the rogator Achilles.  Without hesitation he avoids offending Antilochos and immediately makes other arrangements for making up to Eumelos his loss of the race (23.558ff.); potential disruptions arising from this confrontation are swiftly obviated by a pliable and accommodating rogator, quite unlike the case in Book I.  What if Agamemnon had behaved in this complaisant fashion in Book I?  The incident has given us a very clear view of what might have been, and as if to underscore the implications of this alternative solution Homer repeats the basic configuration immediately.

For a few lines later (23.566ff.) Menelaos stands up and directs forceful criticism at Antilochos for having won the mare through a ruse.  Menelaos feels that he himself should have won the horse, and wants the leaders of the Argives to adjudge the mare to one of them (23.573f.).  The triangular conflict which is being created here is already very familiar:  a rogator (A: Menelaos) wants a roganda (B: mare) from a rogatus (C: Antilochos).  Since Menelaos is the brother of Agamemnon, one thinks specifically of the triangle Agamemnon-Briseis-Achilles in Book I.  According to that pattern, Antilochos should here respond in sullen obstinacy and Menelaos should pursue his ambition with open force.  Each participant, however, disappoints these expectations.  Antilochos immediately adopts an extremely deferential tone towards the elder Menelaos and in effect excuses (23.587ff.) both himself and Achilles’ earlier behavior.  Like Achilles, Antilochos’ transgressions have been those of the typical young man, and his thoughts have been too swift while his sense of prudence has been slight (23.590).  Menelaos, in turn, does not react with the uncontrolled excitement that Agamemnon had displayed towards Achilles, but withdraws his hot-headed words of a moment ago and not only apologizes to Antilochos but yields to him the mare that was the point of dispute (23.602).  One can hardly conceive a resolution of triangular conflict that is more antithetical to the one that we met in Book I.

In our examination of some twenty examples in the Iliad of the basic configuration in which A wants B from C we have noted that there are many variations played on the fundamental theme.  The pattern is crucial to the Iliad in that it both opens and closes the poem, and a strict reversal has taken place.  Just as the dispute of Agamemnon with Achilles over Briseis in Book I has undergone a full reversal in the analogous dispute of Menelaos with Antilochos over the mare in Book XXIII, so the confrontation between Chryses the father and Agamemnon his enemy over the child Chryseis in Book I has changed completely in Book XXIV to the meeting between Priam the father and Achilles his enemy over the child Hektor.  In both of the concluding triangular relationships there is an amicable working out of the underlying conflict, relying in each instance on the good will and ability to compromise difficult positions.  The two opening relationships, on the contrary, did not end in amity, nor did they bring any sense of harmony or discharge of hostility to the large communities of which they were a part.  Agamemnon’s denial of Chryses brought a devastating plague, and Agamemnon’s confrontation with Achilles caused many Greeks to die; Menelaos’ backing down from his threats against Antilochos assured continued concord in the Greek camp, and Achilles’ granting of Priam’s request made for at least a temporary truce to bury the dead (24.658).

The turn-around in the characterization of Achilles from feral obstinacy to a humane pliancy makes the close of the Iliad into an open-ended comment on further possibility for change.  The elaborate preparations and burial of Hektor with which the poem ends may well prefigure the death of Troy that we know will follow, but this burial of Achilles’ great enemy and emblem of all his wrath over Patroklos’ death may also speak to the interment of those violent and destructive passions that have so long raged within Achilles.  For surely his final accommodation of Priam within the established paradigm of the triangular relationship must be seen as a radical uprooting on Achilles’ part of deeply imbedded patterns of action and response.  We have not been led to believe (e.g. from the hero’s response to the story of Meleager in Book IX) that Achilles would react as he in fact does to Priam’s request.

At the same time the audience has had presented to it in the larger context of the poem a great many exemplars of approximately the same type of situation (A wants B from C), and from an awareness of the many possible solutions that have been applied to the central conflict in any such triangular relationship it is clear that Achilles’ choice may be evaluated with some precision.  For in allowing himself to be swayed by ‘non-heroic’ considerations in returning Hektor’s body he has repudiated that stance of apartness from the human community which he adopted in Book IX and, to some extent, in Book XIX (cf. esp. lines 199ff.).  In this latter passage Achilles would like to deny that most binding of social rites, the communal sharing of bread, in order to pursue his heroic destiny.  His apartness from humanity is evident in that he “refuses mortal food; he has done with mortality.” 6
See Whitman op. cit. n. 5, page 206.
In yielding, finally, as rogatus to the rogator, he declares his allegiance not to all the Agamemnons in the triangular relationship, for the consequences of their choices are catastrophic; he indicates, rather, that the alternative solution, as typified by Meleager, is in the final analysis the only one that makes sense in society.  The implicit repudiation which this choice entails for the continued validity of a rigid heroic code necessarily follows, and in that sense the full exploitation of the triangular pattern gives expression to the poet’s suggestion that certain facets of the heroic code and the heroic personality stand in need of re-evaluation.

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One Response to Triangular Relationships in the ‘Iliad’

  1. heather says:

    I REMEMBER you telling the Classical Views class about this, and you telling us graduate students this. This must be a pattern that resonates with all people, and of course, Homer does it very well.

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