8. Oaths and characterization: two Homeric case studies
Oaths and Swearing in Ancient Greece
Achilles has long been said by scholars to be an exceptional character in the Iliad, particularly in his use of language.1 This also applies to Achilles' oaths, which show several unique linguistic usages. This section will look at all three of Achilles' oaths in the Iliad, and analyse them both in terms of their oath features and of how they relate to Achilles' character more generally within the epic. There are two other scenes in the epic where an oath would be appropriate but Achilles does
... ot use one -an examination of these scenes proves that they also contribute to Achilles' extraordinary characterization.2 The first oath that Achilles swears happens very early in the epic. As the poem opens, a plague has struck the Achaean army, and Achilles calls an assembly of the leaders to find out what has caused Apollo's wrath. He calls upon the seer Calchas to reveal the cause, which is, of course, the fact that Agamemnon has taken Chryseis, the daughter of Apollo's priest Chryses, and refuses to give her back despite Chryses' supplication. Calchas worries that if he reveals Agamemnon as the source of the Achaeans' pain, Agamemnon will be angry, which would place him, as a man of lower status, in considerable danger. So he asks Achilles to protect him: "O Achilles, dear to Zeus, you order me to explain the rage of lord Apollo, the far-shooter. And I will tell you. But you agree, and swear to me, to willingly defend me, with words and with your hands. For I think I will anger a man, who greatly rules over all the Argives, and the Achaeans obey him. For the king is stronger, when he gets angry with a lesser maneven if he keeps his anger down in the moment, but he holds a grudge from then on in his chest until it comes to fruition. But say if you will save me."