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Helen, Achilles and the Psuche: superlative beauty and value in the Iliad.

Was this the face that lancht a thousand shippes? And burnt the toplesse Towres of Ilium? (1)

Such is Christopher Marlowe's calculus of Helen's beauty in Dr Faustus, a scale by which to measure a face that Homer can only compare to divinity. Helen's extraordinary beauty motivates an equally extraordinary effort to reclaim it once she has been abducted by Paris. A reader of Homer's Catalogue of Ships as literal-minded as Thucydides might quantify this beauty precisely in terms of the scale of this effort, deriving the formula 1 face = 1,000 ships. (2)

For Marlowe and the tradition on which he draws, "a thousand" is less a precise quantity than a hyperbolic figure that suggests a number past counting, matching the immeasurable height of towers without tops. (3) The hyperbolic language of what seems at first to be a scale thus indicates the ultimate incommensurability of the beauty of Helen's god-like face, a "peareless" beauty that earlier in the same scene prompts a failure of descriptive language (scene 12, lines 16-20):

2 SCHOLAR. Too simple is my wit to tell her praise, whom all the world admires for majestie

3 SCHOLAR. No marvel tho the angry Greekes pursude with tenne yeares wane the rape of such a queene, whose heavenly beauty passeth all compare.

Not even metaphor, the last refuge of that which exceeds ordinary description, can convey beauty that literally "passeth all compare". The only sense of scale the third scholar can offer is the expansive effort to win her back.

In Dr Faustus, Helen's excessive beauty is one reward among the powers and pleasures unbounded in scale or scope and limited only by time--the twenty-four years stipulated in the contract with Lucifer--for which Faustus forfeits his soul. For Marlowe, then, Helen is implicated in an economy within which she both represents a notional limit as a singularly superlative beauty and at the same time exceeds that limit, incomparable to any other prize bought for the price of Faustus' soul. But in this moralizing tale even the most excessively beautiful prize is of course no fair exchange for the immortal, Christian soul. The play suggests that the soul, in much the same terms as Helen herself, whose famous visage it evokes for exactly this end, is incomparably valuable, a possession so precious that is exceeds any system of exchange.

In raising these questions of commensurability around the figure of Helen, Dr Faustus provides entry into the Iliad's own troubled representation of Helen as an excessively valued object of desire and the cause of the Trojan War. Moreover, Faustus' forfeiture of his soul points to the price the Greeks pay for Helen's return, measured in lives (psuchai) lost in their struggles with the Trojans. Taking its cue from Marlowe, then, this essay explores the Iliad's representation of value and exchange through an examination of two superlatively valued individuals, Helen and Achilles. In Part I, I argue that Helen plays a doubled role in this Iliadic discourse of value: as an object of desire, Helen embodies an ideology of superlativity that seeks to justify the loss of many lives for a single woman; at the same time, as a desiring subject, she raises sinister doubts about this ideology of superlativity. Part II turns to Achilles, who not only represents Helen's counterpart in superlativity as the best of the Achaeans but also, like Helen, has a troubled relationship to the Iliadic discourse of superlativity. Although his strike, which itself costs many psuchai, depends upon the recognition of his own superlative value, Achilles mounts a powerful critique of Agamemnon's justification of the effort to retrieve Helen, which culminates in the assertion that there is nothing so valuable that it can adequately compensate for the loss of the psuche.

Part I. Regretting Helen

Limit case

The failure of description expressed by Marlowe's third scholar above echoes Homer's single attempt to describe Helen's face in Iliad 3. Marlowe's "no marvel" reflects the exclamation of the Trojan elders upon seeing Helen in the scene that marks her first appearance in the epic, the Teichoscopia (View from the Walls), where she will be a subject as well as an object of viewing. When the old men see her approaching they remark (3.156-158):

   No wonder the Trojans and well-greaved Achaeans
   suffer pains for so long for the sake of such a woman:
   her face is terribly like the immortal goddesses. (4)

But the expression [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is stronger than "no marvel": the old men mean that it would be wrong to find fault with the Trojans and Greeks for fighting over Helen, that anyone would consider her extreme beauty somehow worth the suffering they continue to endure ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) before the very walls from which they now gaze upon her god-like appearance.

Just before, when the goddess Iris summons her to the wall, Helen has been weaving her own commentary on this same theme of many sufferings (3.125-128):

   [Iris] found her in the hall. She was weaving a great purple web
   of double thickness and representing on it the many struggles
   of the horse-taming Trojans and the bronze-clad Achaeans,
   struggles which they were suffering at the hands of Ares because of

Thus Helen herself emphasizes the magnitude of the effort to win her by weaving many ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) struggles into her large web, described in language directly echoed by the elders (their expression "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]" answers her "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). This diction is connected in turn with both the scale and the central thematic elements of epic, the many-ness (polus) and suffering that the programmatic openings of both the Iliad and Odyssey bring to the fore. (5)

This suffering endured by the Achaeans that Helen and the Trojan elders highlight is capped by the loss of life on a grand scale. As Nestor tells Telemachus in Odyssey 3, looking back on all they endured at Troy, the best of the Achaeans died in numbers past counting (102-117). After a short catalogue of the best and brightest of the dead, the usually long-winded hero marks another, grimmer failure of language in a well-known recusatio: "And we suffered many (polla) other evils in addition to these; who among mortals could ever tell them all?" (6)

Many for One

The Iliad repeatedly emphasizes this theme of the magnitude of suffering, connecting it explicitly with Helen by contrasting the many lives lost with the one woman in the eye of the storm. In book 2, when Agamemnon raises the possibility of flight for home to test the men, Hera intervenes, to prevent the lives thus far lost in pursuit of Helen from becoming sunk cost. She urges Athena to help her prevent a premature homecoming for the Greeks, lest they "leave as a boast for Priam and the Trojans Argive Helen, for whose sake many (polloi) Achaeans have perished at Troy, far from their dear fatherland." (7)

This problem of many lives sacrificed for a single, prized individual is embedded in a larger thematization of the question of how to value or to set a price on a life or--most poignantly at the end of the epic--on a corpse. The Iliad is structured around acts of exchange of money or goods for people, beginning with the unsuccessful attempt of Chryses to ransom his daughter for "recompense past counting" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 1.13) at the opening of book 1 and ending with Achilles' agreement to return Hector's body to Priam for a sum described in identical terms in book 24. (8)

This rhetoric of ransom introduces from the outset of the Iliad the terms of the question begged by Helen's incommensurable beauty, since ransom is formulaically described as apereisia, literally without a limit (peirar). What determines the limits of value set on an individual, living or dead, for the ones who want her or him back? And how can that value be converted into other terms or goods, or fixed at a price and thereby integrated into a comprehensible economy? The excess of the epic struggle for Helen explores these questions, taking her as an extreme case wherein there may be, as the old men on the wall suggest, no limits.

Just how striking this limit case is can be seen by stepping outside the frame of the Iliad and Odyssey. Removed from the economy of epic, this excess becomes inexplicable. Herodotus, for example, from his historicizing perspective, cannot make sense of paying for one woman with so many lives. He disbelieves Homer's account in favor of an alternative version of the story, in which Helen never arrived at Troy but remained in Egypt:

If Helen were in Troy, she would have been given up to the Greeks whether Paris was willing to do so or not. For neither Priam nor the other leading Trojans were so deranged that they would be willing to risk their lives, their children and their city so that Paris could live with Helen. (Histories 2.120.1-2)

No single woman, no matter how extraordinarily beautiful, could be worth the high stakes that Homers poems repeatedly emphasize, depicting the ruin of lives, children, an entire city for Helen. Herodotus continues by putting his objection in precisely the terms of excess that structure the epic struggle, juxtaposing many lives for one woman:
   Even if this was their intention in the first years of the war,
   after not only many of the other Trojans perished ([TEXT NOT
   REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) each time they engaged the Greeks, but two
   or three or even more of Priam's own children died in battle--if
   the epic poets are to be taken seriously in any of this at all--in
   such circumstances, I expect that even if Priam himself had been
   living with Helen, he would have given her up to the Greeks in
   order to escape the evils that were befalling him. (2.120.3)

What is for Herodotus an unbelievable motivation is in the context of epic an essential conceit. In order for the epic to make sense of itself, it must grant credibility to the astonishment expressed by the Trojan elders in the Teichoscopia. We have to believe that Helen is somehow worth it all because she is simply that beautiful. This is not beauty of any normal order: the Iliad requires her to be both superlatively and singularly beautiful in the most precise sense of both these terms. She is the most beautiful and there is no other beauty with which she can be compared; if no other woman measures up, she cannot be replaced. This is exactly what Herodotus finds impossible to believe, a concept antithetical to the historicizing logic behind the sequence of kidnappings of women at the opening of his work, which manifests the cyclical hostility between east and west: Phoenician traders take Io from Argos; Greeks take Europa from Tyre; Greeks take Medea from Colchis; Alexander takes Helen from Sparta (1.1-3). Herodotus' serial exchange of rape for rape makes Helen anything but singular.

The Iliad itself recognizes this credibility gap, since it depicts a social world where little distinction is made between individual women as currency in an economy of honor among men. In the quarrel of book 1, Agamemnon sees little to set his legitimate wife, Clytemnestra, apart from Chryseis, whom he describes as "in no way inferior" to her "in bodily form (demas), stature (phuen), intelligence (phrenas) or in women's work(erga)" (1.114-115). (9) When it becomes inevitable that he relinquish Chryseis, Agamemnon simply seeks another woman to take her place, making it clear that any woman invested with the value of a war prize (geras) will suffice. After Achilles rejects the idea that the army might redistribute the allotment of captive women in order to give the king a new geras to replace Chryseis, Agamemnon threatens to take another's by force (1.135-139):

   Either the great-hearted Achaeans give me another prize, suiting it
   to my desire so that it will be of equal value (antaxion), or if
   they do not, then I will myself take yours, or Ajax's prize, or
   Odysseus', going myself to fetch her, though the man to whom I come
   will be angry.

The term antaxios, "of equal value," stresses the exchangeability of women designated as prizes, eliding the individual value any particular woman might have had prior to being converted into a geras. Later, when Agamemnon tells Achilles that he will in fact take his prize, Briseis, the language he uses suggests an interchangeability of these women that verges on complete elision of difference: their very names are virtually identical and metrically equivalent patronymics that fall in the same sedes of the hexameter two lines apart, as Agamemnon describes losing the one and seizing the other. (10)

In this context where women are captured, bought, sold and traded as signifiers of rank, the possibility that Menelaus take a cue from his brother and simply get another wife just as good as the one he lost must be banished from the realm of possibility in order not to undermine the logic of the extraordinary efforts undertaken to win Helen back, which are the very substance of the Iliad and the epic cycle. This possibility is foreclosed if there is simply no woman who can properly be described as antaxios with respect to Helen.

Something of this need can be seen in the way Helen's absolute superlativity is jealously guarded in the catalogue of gifts to Achilles in the Embassy, when other women are mentioned in a context that focuses on their value as prizes (9.139-140):

   Let him choose twenty Trojan women,
   whichever are--after Argive Helen--most beautiful (kallistai).

The application of the superlative kallistai requires immediate qualification: "after Argive Helen." Thus Helen's beauty is allowed to explain her extraordinary value because her superlativity in this regard is absolute, making her entirely singular, beyond all compare in fact as well as in language. For Menelaus, the loss of something so highly valued and the concomitant loss of status cannot go unredressed. Hence the expedition, ten years of toil, countless griefs, innumerable lives: in short, the Iliad itself in its entirety, according to its understanding of itself as the memorialization of these extraordinary deeds and experiences, owes its existence to the value placed upon Helen's singular and superlative beauty.

A basic conceit of Homeric epic, then, must be that the pursuit of Helen is somehow "worth it," as the Trojan elders suggest, and the Iliad goes to great lengths to emphasize this point. Thus, if the Iliad seeks a calculus of Helen's beauty, it is to be found in the scale of epic itself. But one need only scratch the surface of the text to uncover an anxious doubt. Helen and Achilles, the two figures at the heart of the problem of superlative and singular value in the Iliad, pose, in different ways, significant challenges to the economy that values them so highly. Following the movement of the Teichoscopia, we now turn away from Helen as an object of valuation in order to view the problem of value through her eyes and to discern therein the first troubling crack in the epic's confidence in its conception of superlativity.


As we have already seen in her first appearance in the Iliad, weaving at the loom, Helen is acutely aware of her position as a prize for which much suffering is endured. This is only one manifestation of the highly self-reflexive characterization of Helen in the poem. Elsewhere, she shows herself uniquely able to consider her fate from a perspective other than her own. In book 6, she expresses regret that Hector must bear the brunt of war because of her, offering him a moment's rest in her chamber when he returns to the city (6.354-358):

   Come in now and sit down on this chair, brother-in-law, since the
   toil of war rests most heavily on your mind because of the blind
   folly of me, bitch that I am, and of Alexander, on whom Zeus set an
   evil fate in order that, in the future, we should be the subject of
   song for generations to come. (11)

Helen thus connects a sense of personal tragedy with the scale of epic song represented by the Iliad. She gives the name ate, a divine blindness or madness, to the "evil fate" that has befallen her and Paris and that will become the subject of epic poetry. The primary sense of ate in the Iliad is a state of being "out of one's mind" or having one's perception confounded. It is often linked, as here, with the expression of regret, from the perspective of having been returned to one's senses and thus being able to recognize the fact of having been out of them.

Helen further connects ate as a problem of perception to an estimation of value that forms the core of a tragedy on a more personal scale. Returning to the Teichoscopia, we see the contrast of many and one in Helen's own narrative, as she describes to Priam the exchange that brought her to Troy, an exchange she now bitterly regrets as a miscalculation (3.173-176):

   Would that death had pleased me at that time when I followed your
   son here, leaving behind my marriage chamber, my relatives, my
   late-born child, and my lovely age-mates! But that is not what
   happened and I am worn out with weeping over it.

Death, however, was not the lady's desire that fateful day. Paris was. Here Helen catalogues the other objects of value in her life that she gave up in order to pursue him, casting the whole equation in terms of pleasure ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), familiarity and love: her marriage to Menelaus, her family, her late-born ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), and therefore especially beloved, daughter Hermione, and the pleasures of the company of the women her own age. On that day, in Helen's calculus of value, all these things somehow failed to add up to the pleasure afforded by Paris. In other words, she valued Paris highly enough to compel her to abandon the multiple objects of value she enumerates here in exchange for the single object of desire he represented, making her personal tragedy parallel to the greater epic catastrophe that surrounds her. Helen sacrifices many for one (Paris), just as individual Greeks sacrifice their other objects of care (wife, parents, home) for her sake; the expedition as a whole, in turn, sacrifices many lives for the pursuit of a single woman. The difference is that Helen, unlike those now fighting for her, recognizes this exchange of many for one as folly. In connecting ate with the perception of value in this way, Helen raises a sinister possibility: what if, when the stakes are extremely high, you simply get it wrong, with grave consequences for your own life as well as the lives of others?

The question of what one might exchange for a superlative object of value emerges clearly in one of the most acute readings of the Homeric description of Helen, Sappho's fragment 16 V, which directly engages with the Teichoscopia. The poem opens with an answer to the (proto-)philosophical question, ti to kalliston, "what is the most beautiful/best thing?" Sappho formulates this question as a tripartite comparison followed by an emphatic foil, the most celebrated instance of the priamel structure in Greek literature:

   Some say a host of cavalry, others a host of foot soldiers
   and others a fleet of ships is the most beautiful thing
   on the dark earth. But I say it is whatever
   one desires.

In order to substantiate this assertion, Sappho adduces Helen as an exemplum. "It is very easy to make this understood by everyone," she continues (16.5-11 Voigt),

   ... for she who by far stood out
   for beauty among mortals, Helen, her husband,
   who was the best of men,
   she abandoned and set off sailing for Troy,
   and neither for her child nor her dear parents
   gave a thought at all, but [] led her astray ...

Sappho misdirects us by focusing on Helen's beauty at the beginning of this section of the poem, leading us to expect that Helen as an object of desire will illustrate her point, drawing on the motif of extraordinary depense for the sake of a single beauty that I have emphasized above. Instead, the poem takes us inside Helen's psychological perspective, the state Homer's Helen describes as ate, shifting, as Homer also does in the Teichoscopia, from Helen as the object of desire to its subject.

From this perspective, Sappho portrays Helen's judgment as clouded in such a way that the value she ordinarily places on other people in her life is warped or obscured. The agent of this clouding has fallen out of the final garbled lines of the Sapphic stanza, but most critics agree (and it is hardly a leap) that Aphrodite is lurking in the lacuna, a divine force working from without to alter Helen's perception of the things she values and their worth in comparison with Paris, the object of her desire. Sappho is interested in this psychological effect of the desired object: in the presence of Paris, Helen forgets about her child and parents ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Their mention here picks up Helen's speech in Iliad 3, constituting an abbreviated but equally poignant catalogue of the objects of love she leaves behind. Sappho places special emphasis on Menelaus, ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), in contrast to Helen's speech in the Iliad, which referred to him only metonymically as the thalamos, the marriage chamber. Sappho accentuates his value to Helen with the adjective aristos (best) echoing another Homeric account of Helen's regret in Odyssey 4. Here Helen describes Odysseus' daring one-man mission into Troy, at the end of which he steals out of the city by night and kills a number of Trojans on his way back to the Greek camp (4.259-264):

   The the rest of the Trojan women cried out shrill, but my heart was
   happy, since it had changed by that point and was for going back
   home again, and I grieved for the madness (ate) that Aphrodite
   bestowed when she led me there away from my own dear country,
   forsaking my own daughter, my bedchamber and my husband, a man who
   lacked nothing with respect to intelligence or looks. (12)

These catalogues represent a transformation of the many-for-one theme that I argued is fundamental to the Iliadic plot, making Helen's experience of desire and sacrifice parallel to the experience of her pursuers, of which she shows herself to be so profoundly aware. Thus Sappho exploits a well-developed Iliadic motif--the strength of Helen's former attachments and the value she places on them--in order to make Helen's story a good illustration of her claim about the power of desire and its relationship to objects of value. That Helen was willing to give up so much that was of real and recognizable value to her in order to pursue Paris supports her claim that whatever one desires ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is kalliston.


If the Homeric Helen looks back on her own choice as a terrible mistake, what prevents the possibility that the Greeks might do the same? If their pursuit of Helen might be revealed as a case of misplaced value on an epic scale, they might well accuse themselves of folly even greater than Helens. Every warrior gathered into Agamemnon's host is, in a sense, asked to imitate Helens pursuit--to reproduce her journey across the sea from Greece to Troy, leaving behind his "dear fatherland" and all he values there, just as she has done, in order to risk everything for Menelaus' singularly beautiful wife, as if she constitutes for each of them to kalliston. Of course other incentives are held out to the Greeks at Troy, both material (plunder) and immaterial (kleos). Nonetheless, as Achilles emphasizes in book 9, the rationalization of the war against Troy as a just crusade to right Paris' wrong and return Helen, the ultimate prize, remains essential, while the bitter attention paid Helen in other texts that draw on the Iliad, especially Aeschylus' Agamemnon and Euripides' Trojan Women, reinforces her centrality. That it may be a mistake to value Helen above wives and children left at home, above nostos (homecoming), above life itself, is the repressed thought of the Greek warriors that erupts in their attempted flight when Agamemnon imprudently tests them in book 2.

This anxiety is also retrospectively explored in Euripides' Helen, in the words of Menelaus' attendant when he discovers that the prize they had believed to be worth fighting and dying for at Troy was no more than dust and smoke, a phantom that took the place of Helen, while she remained in Egypt in this version of the story that Euripides shares with Herodotus and Stesichorus (744-751):

      Now I know about prophecy,
   how worthless it is and how full of lies.
   For Calchas said nothing and gave no indication to the men
   though he saw his comrades dying for the sake of a cloud,
   nor did Helenus. Instead a city was sacked for nothing.

Here is a tragic assessment that the magnitude of suffering, so strongly emphasized in the Iliad and Odyssey, simply was not worth it. When asked to choose, ate confounded the perception of all and they chose a mere cloud over wives, children, parents and home.

However, we need not go so far as this alternate version of the story that has the men fighting for a nonexistent prize in order to see the danger of doubts about the value of what the Greeks and Trojans are fighting for; it is not merely the case that, as Norman Austin succinctly puts it, "[w]ithout Helen at Troy, the Iliad and the Odyssey would fall to pieces" (3). Rather, if we allow the possibility that Helen is no more than a wayward wife, exchangeable for another just as good (antaxios), then the the war at Troy will turn out to be just as much a waste as if it were a struggle over an empty phantom. This challenge to the central logic of Agamemnon's expedition and whether or not it is worth the suffering it creates leads us to Achilles' powerful critique in Iliad 9.

Part II. Achilles' Claim

Kallistos and Aristos

Like Helen, Achilles both embodies the Iliad's ideology of superlative, singular beauty and value and challenges it, though his challenge takes a different form. Again, like Helen, Achilles is emphatically marked in the Iliad as superlatively beautiful. As a male warrior, however, his status as kallistos must be contextualized differently from Helen's, as it is ultimately a reflection of his status as aristos: he is the best warrior at Troy. Long before the elaboration of the Classical, and especially Athenian, political discourse of the kaloi k'agathoi, which correlates physical beauty directly to class and character, Homeric epic exhibits the expectation that (male) beauty should reflect the virtues of the heroic warrior class. The contrast between Achilles and Thersites, whose base, servile and cowardly character is perfectly and unmistakably reflected in his fantastic ugliness, already establishes the points of reference for the ideology of kalokagathia in the Classical period, which celebrates male beauty in the context of the palaistra, gymnasium and the euandreia, while, in contrast, the enemies of Timarchus can point to the condition of his body and claim that his "very flesh," as James Davidson puts it, "contained a record of his morals"(219). Generally speaking, epic considers the connection of beauty and character to be irrepressible, as Odysseus' "large and beautiful thighs" and broad shoulders attest, the visible signs of his kalokagathia showing through the rags of his disguise in Odyssey 18. (13)

Despite the marked difference between male and female beauty, there is an important parallel with Helen in the function of Achilles' superlativity, which is just as crucial to the epic plot and guarded with equal jealousy. (14) Achilles' strike, the core of the Iliad, is designed to demonstrate his superiority by showing the Achaeans how much they need him and, crucially, that no other warrior can take his place. Achilles explicitly cites Agamemnon's failure to recognize that he is by far the best warrior and to treat him accordingly as the reason for his strike, which, he hopes, will force Agamemnon to see this failure. He asks Thetis to intercede with Zeus on his behalf precisely to this end (1.408-412):

   See if he is willing to aid the Trojans
   and to hem in the Achaeans among the ships and at the shore
   as they are slain, in order that they all reap the rewards of their
   and that Agamemnon, the wide-ruling son of Atreus, recognize
   his folly (ate), that he failed to honor the best of the Achaeans.

The Iliad conspires with Achilles to prove his point, as a series of heroes come close to his standard in battle, but ultimately fail. In book 5, Diomedes temporarily seems to fill the void left by Achilles. He receives special strength from Athena, who also allows him to distinguish between gods and mortals, something Achilles does naturally in book 1 and characterizes his privileged relationship with the divine through his goddess mother. Athena's intervention results in Diomedes' long aristeia, which earns him the temporary designation aristos (5.103, 839). He is ultimately prevented from engaging Hector, for whom only Achilles is a match, as Zeus presses the Greeks back to the ships in book 8. (15)

Similarly, Agamemnon himself tries to fill Achilles' shoes in book 11, where the narration of an elaborate arming scene (beginning at 11.15), complete with a detailed description of his shield, invites comparison with Achilles' aristeia when he later returns to battle. Agamemnon falls short when he is wounded in the very same line that he is ironically described with the epithet most characteristic of Achilles, dios (11.251-252).

Finally, Patroclus' tragic aristeia provides both the closest approximation of Achilles and the most poignant failure to take his place. Donning Achilles' armor, he goes into battle in book 16 with the explicit intention of imitating Achilles in order to frighten the Trojans and grant the Achaeans some respite from their seemingly unstoppable momentum. Forgetting Achilles' warnings against engaging Hector in battle, Patroclus is of course killed, failing to replace his comrade, despite his role as double or surrogate, and precipitates Achilles' return. The failure of these three heroes underscores the singularity that Achilles quite literally embodies, as each in turn proves less than antaxios with respect to him. Like Helen, Achilles is singular and superlative and thus irreplaceable; this is the core of his value to his comrades, the value his strike brutally demonstrates.

Before his strike claims the life of Patroclus, however, the dire situation of the Greeks prompts Agamemnon to send the embassy of book 9 in order to persuade Achilles to return to battle. Agamemnon not only offers to return Briseis but attempts to redress the slight of the quarrel with a catalogue of gifts, whose excess adds particular force to the formulaic description of them as apereisi' apoina (9.120), further emphasized by the full 35 hexameters it takes to describe them and the repetition of the catalogue almost verbatim by Odysseus. When Agamemnon announces his intention to win Achilles over with these gifts, he suggests that he has begun to see the mistake he made in disregarding his need for Achilles, playing on the many-for-one theme (9.116-118);

   I was overcome by ate--I won't deny it. Worth many men, after all,
   is the man whom Zeus loves in his heart,
   as he now honors this man and beats down the host of the Achaeans.

Agamemnon's language thus connects Achilles' singularity and superlativity, manifested as irreplaceability in battle, to the singularity and superlativity that characterizes Helen in the Iliad and Odyssey. Like her, Achilles has no substitute; and, like her, Achilles' singularity is connected to the fact that he costs many lives, as the first lines of the epic indicate (1.1-4):

   Sing, goddess, the wrath of Peleus' son Achilles,
   the destructive wrath, which laid countless sorrows on the Achaeans
   and sent many sturdy souls of heroes to the god Hades ...

The plot of the Iliad--the withdrawal and return of Achilles--may be understood, therefore, as a variation on the theme of many lives lost for the sake of Helen, the theme that unfolds across the epic cycle's narrative of the Trojan war. The Iliad makes much of the parallels between Achilles and Helen, united by their superlative beauty and brought together as man and wife in later tradition on the island Leuke (Philostratus, Heroicus 54). Achilles' role as object of desire (pothe) enriches this connection, as he is pursued with gifts and persuasion in book 9 like a sought-after bride, in a context that poses similar questions about measuring the value of a superlative individual in terms of material goods and social esteem. (16)

The Challenge of Achilles

In addition to sharing with Helen the role as singular and superlative object of the Achaeans' desire and as the cause of the loss of many lives, Achilles simultaneously threatens the system of value from which these roles derive no less disturbingly than the doubts introduced by Helen's regret. Even as his strike relies upon the idea of many-for-one, Achilles openly challenges its logic as it is mobilized by Agamemnon and others to justify the expenditure of the Greek expedition for the sake of Helen. As Michael Lynn-George has elegantly shown, Achilles is a hijacker of language, most strikingly in book 9, where he raids Agamemnon's discourse and turns his words against him. Achilles uses his rhetorical acumen as a "speaker of words" to cut to the heart of the contradictory tensions inherent in the rigid structures that define the culture of the Homeric world and the hierarchical order of the Achaean camp.

In book 1 Athena creates an expectation that Achilles will eventually relent when he receives, as she puts it, "three times as many shining gifts ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII])" because of Agamemnon's insult (1.213-214). However, by the embassy of book 9, even the extravagant gifts Agamemnon offers are not enough. It is initially unclear whether Achilles rejects these gifts because he perceives them as incommensurable with the magnitude of the insult he received at Agamemnon's hands or rather, as I will argue below, because Achilles has come to the conclusion that there is no way to measure his own value in terms of material goods.

In his great speech in response to the catalogue of Agamemnon's gifts, Achilles mounts a rhetorical attack on the central logic of the entire expedition so forceful that it stuns even Odysseus to silence (9.430-431). Achilles begins by recapitulating his criticism of Agamemnon in the quarrel of book 1, accusing him of unfairly distributing prizes and booty and claiming that he makes no distinction between a man who fights bravely and a coward. Achilles claims that he himself receives nothing worthy of his disproportionate efforts in battle (9.318-327). He highlights his own achievements and claims that Agamemnon keeps the lion's share of what he, Achilles, risks his life to win (328-333). The king's failure to compensate Achilles with the greatest share indicates, for Achilles, that Agamemnon fails to recognize his superlative status, as he suggests in his complaint to Thetis, cited above.

What follows shows that Achilles' position has shifted and his strike no longer depends solely on Agamemnon's insult of book 1. Though his anger remains vivid, as his response to Ajax makes clear (9.646-648), he now includes a broader critique of the expedition as a whole in his refusal to return. As in the case of Helen, Achilles moves from object of value to subject, comparing his love for Briseis to that of Menelaus for Helen (9.337-343):

      Why must the Argives make war on the Trojans?
   Why did the sons of Atreus gather the host and lead it here?
   Wasn't it for the sake of fair-haired Helen?
   Do the sons of Atreus, then, alone among mortal men love their
   wives? Surely any man who has sense
   loves and cares for his own wife, as I, too, loved that girl
   with all my heart, though she was won with my spear.

Thus Achilles appropriates the logic at the heart of the Trojan war's rationale for his own prized object, Briseis. In so doing, he introduces a relativism to the question of value posed by the quest to retrieve Helen: why should Briseis, he asks, not have the same value for him that Helen has for Menelaus? And why should he not, in that case, make war on Agamemnon now that he, like Paris, has taken away this woman that he claims to value so highly? Unlike the challenge represented by the free exchange of women like Chryseis and Briseis described above, which threatens to cancel Helen's value by making all women interchangeable objects of little individual worth, Achilles now threatens Helen's particular worth by making every woman superlatively valuable to someone. Agamemnon, in Achilles' view, cannot have it both ways. If it is right to expend tremendous effort to win Helen back because she is valued so highly, it must also be right for Achilles to do the same for his own highly valued object.

This rhetoric of relative value, echoing Sappho's claim that "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]" is kalliston, however, creates a cascade effect that is potentially devastating to the rationale of the Iliad. Just as he disrupts the coherence of the social world of the Achaean camp through his withdrawal, Achilles now openly calls into question its structuring bonds of mutual obligation among philoi by introducing competing claims on the loyalty of individuals based on their own values. If every warrior considers whatever ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is of superlative value to him, why should he remain at Troy fighting for Menelaus' wife instead of going home to his own?

Such a relativistic approach to the value of individuals is also crucial to Achilles' own tragic narrative, as he puts an end to his strike only in response to the death of Patroclus, when excessive grief leads him to excessive violence. Patroclus is an object of superlative value for Achilles, called by the narrator "by far the dearest companion to him" (17.411 and 655) and addressed by Achilles as "dearest of companions" (19.315). As such, Patroclus brings the logic of superlativity and singularity tragically home to Achilles when he falls in battle to Hector. Something in the finality of the loss of this dearest companion, the inability to bring him back once his life has been taken, contains a lesson for Achilles. This lesson plays out during the hero's fitful night on the sea shore, when Patroclus' shade approaches and Achilles tries to embrace him but grasps only insubstantial air (23.97-101). Nothing Achilles does--the stunning brutality of his extended aristeia, fighting against the gods, defiling Hector's corpse, human sacrifice--can bring about adequate "payment" for the death of Patroclus, as his fantasy of a still more brutal, cannibalistic requital suggests (22.345-354). Not even Zeus' intervention can bring Patroclus' back when once "his psuche flees his limbs, setting off for Hades' realm, bewailing its fate as it leaves his manhood and youthful vigor behind" (16.856-857).

This finality points to a different facet of the value Achilles places on Patroclus. Not only can Patroclus not be replaced because he is valued above all others, so that there is no one equivalent (i.e., there is no one who could be described as antaxios), a status he shares with Helen; but also once he is dead, he quite simply cannot come back. And it would be perverse to expect Achilles to find another friend just as good. Beyond this simple fact of mortality, however, Patroclus' irretrievability stands in meaningful contrast with the case of Helen, who, in principle at least, can be won back. This is more than a trivial difference, which further complicates the already troubled paradigm of superlativity and singularity embodied by Helen. Both Achilles' rhetoric and his tragic story suggest a crucial difference between the value placed on three kinds of objects: 1) those that can be replaced with something (or someone) else considered antaxios-, 2) those that cannot be replaced (because there is nothing that can appropriately be described as antaxios) but can be retrieved; 3) those that can neither be replaced nor recovered once lost. In his great speech in book 9, Achilles argues that anyone might be put in the second category, depending on whom you ask, and he points out the contradiction in Agamemnon's logic when he asserts, on the one hand, that Helen, because of her superlative status, belongs in the second category, while Briseis, on the other, should be placed in the first. The death of Patroclus points to something beyond the value Achilles places on him as a superlatively beloved companion to an essential fact of mortal life that draws it into the third category. This is, of course, not specific to Patroclus and humanist readers of the Iliad suggest that this is precisely the universal lesson Achilles shows he has learned when he pities Priam in book 24, seeing the old man's loss of his beloved son is parallel to his loss of Patroclus and his own father's eventual loss when he meets his fate after killing Hector.

Valuing the Psuche

But this is getting ahead of ourselves--for this focus on the one-way movement of mortal life already, and not without irony, provides the cornerstone of Achilles' argument in book 9. In fact, it represents Achilles' most radical appropriation of the Iliad's discourse of value and constitutes the ultimate reason for rejecting Agamemnon's gifts. He tells the ambassadors that he would not accept Agamemnon's terms of reconciliation even if he were to offer ten or twenty times as much, not even if he gave "as many gifts as grains of sand or dust"--even this would not be enough (9.379-380, 384-385). Why? Because, he asserts (9.401-409),

   not of equal value (antaxion) to me with life (psuches) is all they
   was hoarded in the well-peopled citadel of Ilium
   as it was before, in peace time, before the sons of the Achaeans
   nor again as much as the stone threshold of the archer,
   Phoebus Apollo, holds within it in rocky Pytho.
   For cattle can be stolen, as can sturdy sheep,
   and tripods can be won and russet horses, too,
   but the life (psuche) of a man cannot come back by stealing
   or winning, when once it has passed his teeth's barrier.

All other objects of value, Achilles claims, simply cannot add up to the value of his life to him: his psuche lies outside any economy of exchange, no matter the scale. Having turned the logic of Helen's superlative value against itself in the earlier part of his argument, Achilles now appropriates this logic and applies it not to a woman or a comrade like Patroclus but to his psuche. Such valuation, he argues, is more appropriate to the psuche because of its mortal nature: it is unlike any other object of value--material wealth, livestock, prestige objects, horses, women, even Helen--in that its loss is always final and excludes the possibility of return. This irrecoverability, he asserts, is a source of incommensurable value, which places his psuche outside an economy, even the exchange that provides the ultimate justification of epic, the exchange of life for song, of nostos for kleos.

Thus in Iliad 9 Achilles repudiates the logic of the expedition, in part by taking it to its ultimate conclusions. For the time being at least--and he will reverse himself in the wake of Patroclus' death--he chooses to value his psuche above all other objects, material or immaterial. In order to make his claim, as we have seen, he appropriates and applies to the psuche the logic governing Helen's superlative value, both in the rhetoric of Agamemnon and in the narrative of the Iliad itself.

In this refusal, Achilles brings Helen and the psuche into proximity in order to refuse the terms reflected in a later exchange, the exchange with which I began, Faustus' deal with the devil: his soul for a plethora of objects, among which Helen once again serves as a paradigm. Faustus himself makes this connection, asking for an immortality that turns out to be instead the loss of his soul (scene 12, 83-87):
   Sweete Helen, make me immortall with a kisse:
   Her lips suckes forth my soule, see where it flies:
   Come, Helen, come give mee my soule againe.
   Here wil I dwell, for heaven be in these lips,
   And all is drosse that is not Helena.

Here Faustus states his willingness to forgo the Christian heaven for the heaven "in these lips," to give up his soul, which Helen's beauty causes to flit away, like Patroclus' psuche fleeing his body as he is slain in Iliad 16.

Of course a gulf of cultural history separates Marlowe's "soule" from Homer's psuche. The translation of psuche into the English "soule" with its unavoidable Christian resonance (as in Chapman's "many brave soules losd / From breasts Heroique" in the proem of his Iliad), facilitates Marlowe's use of the Iliadic Helen as a touchstone for his exploration of the value of that Christian soul. (17) In a sense, however, "soule" and psuche remain precisely balanced opposites. The problem for Faustus is the immortality of the soul, which will live for eternity in either paradise or damnation, the latter being the wages of his pact with Lucifer. Faustus thus trades unbounded pleasures in a limited span of time for eternal torment. In contrast, Achilles identifies the psuche above all with mortal life, precious because limited in time, while the shadow of life that continues in the underworld, no matter what privileges are afforded him there, is valueless (cf. Odyssey 11.488-491). Across this divide, Helen provides a troubling mirror for both the "soule" and psuche, a figure of incommensurable beauty that marks the extremes of superlative value and the limits of exchange.

Works Cited

Allan, William, ed. Euripides: Helen. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.

Austin, Norman. Helen of Troy and her Shameless Phantom. Ithaca: Cornell, 1994.

Blondell, Ruby. ""Bitch that I Am": Self-Blame and Self-Assertion in the Iliad" Transactions of the American Philological Association 140 (2010): 1-32.

Davidson, James. Courtesans & Fishcakes. London: Harper Collins, 1997.

Gill, Roma, ed. The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe, vol. 2: Dr Faustus. Oxford: Clarendon, 1987.

Hude, Charles, ed. Herodoti Historiae. vol. 1, 3rd edition. Oxford: Clarendon, 1927.

Lynn-George, Michael. Epos: Word, Narrative, the Iliad. Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1988.

Munro, David and Thomas Allen, eds. Homeri Opera, vols. 1-2. 3rd edition. Oxford: Clarendon, 1920.

Suzuki, Mihoko. Metamorphoses of Helen. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989.

Voigt, Eva-Maria, ed. Sappho et Alcaeus: Fragmenta. Amsterdam: Polak & van Gennep, 1971.

Wilson, Donna. Ransom, Revenge and Heroic Identity in the Iliad. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002.

Worman, Nancy. "This Voice Which Is Not One: Helen's Verbal Guises in Homeric Epic."

Making Silence Speak. Ed. Andre Lardinois and Laura McClure. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001. 19-37.

Nicholas C. Rynearson



(1.) Dr Faustus, scene 12, lines 81-82. Citations are from Gills edition. On the difficulties of the text and information about early performances, see Gill (xv-xxxvii).

(2.) Thucydides estimates the size of the expedition in his History (1.10.4) as 1,200 ships, drawing on Homers Catalogue of Ships, which totals 1,186.

(3.) Marlowe had already used the round figure of a thousand ships in The Tragedy of Dido Queen of Carthage (act 5, scene 1, line 204), based on Aeneid 4. As early as Aeschylus (Agamemnon 45) a thousand is a standard number for the expedition. The number recurs in key Latin texts for Marlowe: Virgil's Aeneid (2.198) and Ovid's Heroides (8.23,13.97) and Metamorphoses (13.182).

(4.) Citations of Homer are from the text of Munro and Allen. All translations of Greek are my own.

(5.) Hence scholars have connected Helen's weaving with the Homeric singer's poetic activity since antiquity; see Suzuki (40-43).


(7.) 2.160-162: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Athena repeats the point at 2.176178. Compare Agamemnon's words of (feigned) distress at 2.114-115, which also combine the polus with the verb ollumi, when he says that Zeus "bids him to sail home ignominiously, having lost a great host of men ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII])," language he repeats in (actual) despair before sending the embassy at 9.21-22. The theme is taken up for the disastrous sequel to Agamemnon's Iliadic story in Aeschylus' Agamemnon (1455-1458): [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("Mad Helen, a single woman destroyed many, exceedingly many souls at Troy").

(8.) 24.276, 502, 579. Cf. 6.49, 427; 9.120; 10.380; 11.134; 19.138. On the term apoina, see Wilson.

(9.) Although at first Agamemnon claims to prefer her to Clytemnestra, his expression of preference turns out instead to be a failure to distinguish between the two women and, as what follows suggests, between any women with the appropriate symbolic value.

(10.) 1.182-184: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. ("As Phoebus Apollo deprives me of Chryseis, whom I will send with my ship and my comrades, I shall take the lovely-cheeked Briseis.")

(11.) On Helen's self-blame, see Worman and Blondell.

(12.) I leave aside any special pleading from Helen, who is, after all, telling this story in front of her husband. Nonetheless, she is strikingly candid, perhaps aided by her "good drug," and openly talks of assisting and bathing Odysseus--a charged interaction, to be sure.

(13.) 18.67-69; cf. Odyssey 8.134-137. Beauty and size go together; witness Achilles' less than subtle statement to Lycaon at Iliad 21.108: "Don't you see how big and beautiful I am?," in the context of the relative worth of Patroclus, Achilles and Lycaon. Beauty, size and worth are all equally plain to see.

(14.) Compare the mention of Helen in the catalogue of gifts in book 9, cited above, with the description of Nireus in the Catalogue of Ships at 2.673-674: "Nireus, the most beautiful (kallistos) man who came to Troy of all the other Danaans--after blameless Achilles."

(15.) The closest any Greek comes to matching Hector is Ajax, who engages him in a duel that ends in a draw in book 7.

(16.) To be desired was his wish in book 1: "One day longing (pothe) for Achilles will come upon all the sons of the Achaeans" (1.240-241).

(17.) Chapman's Iliad appeared a few years after the first performances of Dr Faustus in 1593.
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Author:Rynearson, Nicholas C.
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUGR
Date:Mar 22, 2013
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