The Embassy to Achilles

The letters and memoirs of John Addington Symonds are filled with references to authors whose work spans centuries, from his contemporaries to the Greek writers on which Symonds’ own early curriculum at Harrow was built. Exposure to these works began even before Symonds’ school days due to his easy access to his father’s extensive library. Among the material available to Symonds in that library were many works pertaining to the Homeric poems. Although it is hard to identify the exact date that a version of the engravings of John Flaxman’s illustrations of Homer arrived at Clifton Hill House, it is not unreasonable to assume that Symonds had access to them.

The versions of Flaxman’s drawings that Symonds likely grew up with were large, printed in the center of thick, heavy paper with plenty of space in the margins. Though the volumes’ decoration is understated, it is clear that the books were expensive items, and would have occupied a distinguished shelf in the library at Clifton Hill House.

Among the many pages of Flaxman’s simple, clean line drawings—detailing important scenes from the journeys and trials of Greek heroes, organized chronologically—is an image relevant to Symonds’ essay A Problem in Greek Ethics. In the Iliade d’Homere, a volume composed of Thomas Piroli’s engravings of Flaxman’s drawings first published in Rome in 1793, there is an image entitled The Embassy to Achilles. The image is captioned in swirling, handwritten French, and reads, “Ulisse, Ajax, Phenix, et deux Herauts viennent à la tente d’Achille pour traiter de la paix avec Agamemnon.” In English: “Odysseus, Ajax, Phoenix, and two heralds come to the tent of Achilles to treat peace with Agamemnon.”

Piroli, The Embassy to Achilles in Iliad d’Homere. Photo by Isabel Lardner via MSE Libraries.

The drawing, then, is an illustration of Homer’s Iliad, Book 9, where three of the foremost leaders of the Greek forces attempt to persuade Achilles to return to battle during the Trojan war. A translation of the original Homer reads:

And they came to the huts and the ships of the Myrmidons,

and found [Achilles] delighting his soul with a clear-toned lyre…

he sang of the glorious deeds of warriors;

and Patroclus alone sat over against him in silence,

waiting until Aeacus’ son should cease from singing.

But the twain came forward and goodly Odysseus led the way,

and they took their stand before his face; and Achilles leapt up in amazement

with the lyre in his hand, and left the seat whereon he sat;

and in like manner Patroclus when he beheld the men uprose.

Then swift-footed Achilles greeted the two and spake, saying:

“Welcome, verily ye be friends that are come—sore must the need be

—ye that even in mine anger are to me the dearest of the Achaeans.”

So saying, goodly Achilles led them in

and made them sit on couches and rugs of purple;

and forthwith he spake to Patroclus, that was near:

“Set forth a larger bowl, thou son of Menoetius;

mingle stronger drink, and prepare each man a cup…

So he spake, and Patroclus gave ear to his dear comrade.

Homer, Iliad 9.185-205.

Detail of The Embassy to Achilles showing Patroclus near Achilles’ lyre.

This scene is exactly replicated in Flaxman’s drawing, though the ceremony evident in Homer’s words seems subdued in the drawing. On the far left is Patroclus, positioned near the lyre set down by Achilles, who greets his visitors led by Odysseus. Following him are Ajax and Phoenix, and then two additional unnamed men. Flaxman’s faithfulness to the poem makes it easy to identify these characters as Odius and Eurybates, who are mentioned a few lines earlier in the Iliad during a portion that describes planning the delegation to Achilles:

First of all let Phoenix, dear to Zeus, lead the way,

and after him great Aias and goodly Odysseus;

and of the heralds let Odius and Eurybates attend them.

Homer, Iliad 9.168-170.

A Problem in Greek Ethics contains several references to the relationship of Achilles and Patroclus, mostly asserting that it took the form of heroic friendship rather than constituting an actual paederastic arrangement. Symonds writes that “Homer, who knew nothing about [paederastia] as it afterwards existed, drew a striking picture of masculine affection in Achilles. Friendship occupies the first place in his hero’s heart, while only the second is reserved for sexual emotion”(1). This image, then, may have been of interest to Symonds because of what it depicts: two men, a powerful older man and his subservient companion, living together in a situation that could very easily be interpreted either as paederastic or as the heroic friendship situation posited by Symonds. The fact that recognized Greek leaders come to ask Achilles for help serves to reinforce the normality of heroic friendship in Greek society: by mentioning it only in passing, the text makes clear that the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus follows typical custom.

This image is not cited in Symonds’ writing: as a mere visual interpretation of an important but brief scene in the Iliad, it would not have formed particularly strong academic proof of the kind needed by Symonds for his writing. The significance of the engraving lies instead in the fact that the idea of heroic friendship as an early form of paederastia was something Symonds may have been exposed to at an early age, perusing the books of his father’s library. It is easy to imagine a young Symonds stumbling across this image, wondering what it might mean for him.

Footnotes:

  1. John Addington Symonds and Sean Brady, “A Problem in Greek Ethics,” 58.

Works Cited:

Homer. The Iliad with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, Ph.D. in two volumes. ll.185-205. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1924.

Iliade d’Homere gravée par Thomas Piroli d’apres les desseins composés par Jean Flaxman, sculpteur á Rome. [Rome? 1793?] https://catalyst.library.jhu.edu/catalog/bib_2105108

Symonds, John Addington. “A Problem in Greek Ethics,” in John Addington Symonds (1840-1893) and Homosexuality: a Critical Edition of Sources. Edited by Sean Brady. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

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