Book two of the Iliad is usually regarded as the dullest book of the entire epic. Although the story of the Iliad involves only about fifty days in the tenth year of the Trojan War, Homer–because he was the first great literary genius–manages to invoke or encapsulate the entire war at the same time that he concentrates on the ruinous quarrel between Greek heroes Agamemnon, the commander in chief, and Achilles, far the best of the fighters.
Book two opens with Zeus sending a ruinous dream to Agamemnon, telling him that if he attacks the Trojans with all of his force he will win the war. Actually, Zeus intends to let the Trojans win temporarily to honor a promise he made to the goddess Thetis, the mother of Achilles. In Book one she asked Zeus to honor and vindicate Achilles, who had been dishonored by Agamemnon, by making sure the Achaeans (the Greeks) lost the war in his absence. As a lover of Achilles, I hate it when commentators say he was sulking in his tent, but the fact is that he was sulking in his tent.
Now we see what a poor leader Agamemnon really is. Instead of following Zeus’s advice, Agamemnon decides to “test” the Achaeans by suggesting that the war is lost and they may as well pack up and sail home to their scattered homelands. Weary of war and longing for home, the Achaeans rise up en masse and stampede for the ships. Only the intervention of the goddess Athene, with the help of her favorite mortal Odysseus, prevents disaster.
Homer wants the reader to know that Agamemnon is a poor commander, selfish, erratic, prone to periods of deep pessimism. Homer wants us to know that in the quarrel of book one, Achilles was in the right, Agamemnon in the wrong. In book two, Agamemnon confesses that he was overtaken by a species of madness (at-e) when he quarreled with the best of his warriors over a woman.
The ancient (always right, but often tedious) adviser Nestor urges Agamemnon to gather the Achaean fighters tribe by tribe, geographic region by geographic region. This leads to the famous Catalogue of Ships, in which Homer enumerates each of the contingents who fought at Troy and their commanders. The catalogue totals 28 contingents and 1186 ships (“was this the face that launched one thousand ships”), and more than 100,000 men. Homer scholars are not quite sure what to make of the Catalogue, because the details of the contingents and their leaders does not always square with the narrative that follows for the next 22 books of the Iliad; and because some of the details are clearly later insertions (known as interpolations).
Agamemnon brought the largest contingent: 100 ships. Nestor (with 90 ships) was second. A nonentity named Nereus brought the least number of ships (3), and Homer dismisses him as a “lightweight,” even though he was the “handsomest man who came to Troy” with the exception of “wift-footed, swift-fated godlike Achilles.” Two of the greatest heroes brought modest contingents. Odysseus led just twelve ships, Achilles 50. Classical scholar Eva Brann (Homeric Moments) argues that Homer kept their contingents small to emphasize their individual greatness. In other words, Achilles and Odysseus were great individuals because of their brilliance in war (Achilles) and brilliance in counsel (Odysseus), rather than because they commanded great numbers of fighters.
The book ends with a briefer Trojan catalogue of contingents.
Notes. 1) When he undertakes the Catalogue of Ships, Homer invokes the Muses again, explaining that he could never command all the data he is about to provide without the help of divine inspiration. 2) The first of the famous Homeric similes occurs in book two. It compares the Achaean troops to bees swarming from a rocky crag to take advantage of the flowers that have bloomed in the springtime. 3) In fact, book two is full of similes. Fully five similes are piled up just as the Catalogue of Ships begins, each one pointing to a different quality of the massing troops: A) their bronze armor gleams like fire in mountain timber; B) as they gathered they seemed like flocks of cranes or geese circling marshes; C) their numbers were so great that they seemed like flies swarming over shepherds’ milk pails in the springtime when the milk flows most abundantly; D) the commanders separated the contingents in the way that goatherds separate flocks; and E)
and finally, Agamemnon had a “head like Zeus,” “girth like Ares (the god of war), a chest like the sea god Poseidon, and he lorded it over the rest of the men like a bull over a herd of cattle.
My daughter and I recently visiteda number of the places mentioned by Homer in the Catalogue of Ships. Not all of the sites mentioned by Homer have been identified. Some are now thought to be fictional. It would take half a year, a great deal of patience, and tremendous preliminary research, to visit every known site in Greece.
My goal is to take her to Troy, unearthed by Heinrich Schliemann in the 1860s. I’ve been there. I’ve run “thrice fugitive around Troy wall,” as Milton phrased it.