Achilles in The Iliad

This is a second post on The Iliad by Homer, focusing on the central character, Achilles.

In the world as it was described by Homer, Greek men took their position in society from the concepts of honour and shame. These concepts depended not so much on a man’s view of himself, but on how he was seen by others, and how he was spoken about by them; what other people said about you was more important than what you thought of yourself.

At the beginning of The Iliad, the young warrior Achilles has been given the slave woman Briseis as a reward for his services, a gift that demonstrates how highly he is regarded by Agamemnon and his fellow Greeks. When the dispute occurs and Agamemnon takes her back, this is not just a simple redistribution of spoils, it brings great shame on Achilles because the honour previously bestowed upon him has been withdrawn. It is this shame and the effect on Achilles honour that he protests as much as having the woman taken away.

Achilles has another burden to bear. As a great warrior he is fated to die young, in battle. His mother, Thetis, is a goddess, and he has been assured by the gods that his early death will be compensated by having great fame and honour bestowed upon him. It is in turn this bargain that makes Achilles fight; he fights for the fame and honour it will bring to future generations of his family, not because he is a patriotic Greek saving the honour of his king. Achilles doesn’t care about rescuing Helen of Troy, he cares about personal fame and everlasting glory. When Agamemnon takes Briseis away, Achilles asks why he should die young if he is not going to be bathed in glory? He isn’t just a spoiled brat metaphorically throwing his toys out of his pram, nor is he a surly youth angry that his girlfriend has been stolen from him, Achilles argues that since he is not getting the rewards he was promised he no longer has any reason to fight.

At first sight this dispute over spoils might seem a rather odd place to start telling the story, but that view only makes sense if you think the story is about the Trojan War. If The Iliad is a story of the Trojan War then Homer has started not merely in the middle of the story, but right at the end, in the tenth year of the war, and his story ends before the war is concluded. The Latin term for this is in media res (in the midst of things) which has the same function as punctum, a concept developed by the French semiotician Roland Barthes (1915 – 1980).

Barthes suggested that there can be in a picture one small detail that communicates to the viewer the meaning of the whole picture. Subsequent writers have transferred this idea from visual images to images described in stories, poetry or even in song lyrics where we might be told only that the woman has slim wrists and wore yellow and yet we can picture her in our minds. By focusing on one small element of the Trojan War, one detail in the overwhelming mass of details, Homer’s story illuminates the whole war, so that by knowing how these six weeks of warfare were conducted the reader can imagine the relentless slaughter and interminable drudgery that has brought the two armies to this point.

Homer then repeats the trick, and after focusing on one detail in the whole war he magnifies that image even more by focusing on one detail within this new picture. Within the profusion of things happening on that distant beach Homer concentrates on the character of Achilles and his personal struggle to reconcile his humanity with his mortality. By showing us how Achilles deals with the conflict inherent in his desires Homer illuminates all of humanity, and that really is the triumph of The Iliad, that in telling a story that is notionally about one man’s personal struggle within a distant and fictional war Homer tells us something about what it means to be human.

It is also interesting that at the point when Homer narrows the focus a second time we get a second story of a woman being stolen away. The Trojan War started when Paris stole Helen from Menelaus, and the story of Achilles started with Briseis being stolen by Agamemnon. This mirror image of the opening to the two stories illustrates exactly why Homer started where he did. Helen being stolen by Paris might be the start of some other story, but it surely prefigures the start of the story that Homer wants to tell.

Achilles is a mortal, and as such he will surely die. The question is whether he should live gloriously, fight valiantly and earn great honour but die young in battle, or should he spurn the chance for glory in return for a long life and possibly acquire honour in some other way. This is in many respects the same question that the hero faced in the Epic of Gilgamesh. In that story, the answer that Gilgamesh found was, “that although a man might be mortal, the things he does can live after him,” so that he can, somewhat perversely, become immortal by dying. The gods, on the other hand, can never die, so that although they may have physical immortality their deeds may not always be remembered. At the beginning of The Iliad Achilles considered himself pledged to seek honour in battle and risk dying young. When he was forced by Agamemnon to reconsider that bargain he had to decide what were the things that really mattered to him.

At first, he asked his mother to remind the gods about the deal they had struck, and she did get Zeus to favour the Trojans so that the Greeks might discover how much they relied upon Achilles for their victory. This seemed to work, and the Greeks were gradually pushed back into a defensive position until Patroclus, Achilles friend and companion, asked permission to rejoin the fray. Achilles agreed, and Patroclus entered the battle dressed in Achilles armour only to be slain by Hector.

This gave Achilles a new motive to fight; now he wanted revenge, and fueled by anger he went back to war and in turn killed Hector. Although warfare is bloody and brutal there are certain customs that soldiers observe but Achilles ignored the conventions of the day and dragged Hector’s body round the town behind his chariot again and again for day after day to inflict upon it more and more pain in the hope that doing so would expiate his anger and satisfy his thirst for revenge. But it didn’t work, and weary with the effort he retreated to his camp.

I feel sure that Homer intended Achilles change of heart to represent emotional growth. In the beginning he was motivated by an essentially selfish desire for honour and glory but when he donned his armour to avenge the death of Patroclus he transcended his selfishness and fought not for himself but for his loved ones. That it brought him nothing but pain eventually taught him something about himself.

Hector was not just Achilles foe, he was also his opposite in that Hector fought not for personal honour or glory, but out of duty, to save his town, his people, and to protect and preserve his family and their way of life. This contrast in their motives not only invites the reader to consider which of them deserves to prevail but also highlights the struggle that Achilles had to determine what life is for. Hector was in no doubt what his life was for, but Achilles, after being so certain at the beginning, was plagued by doubts and uncertainties. He would gladly have died to avenge the death of Patroclus, but he did not die and no matter how hard he tried, how defiantly he defiled the body of Hector he could not find the solace he sought and retreated instead to his camp, disconsolate, confused, and alone.

Hector’s father, king Priam, a man plagued by the folly of his younger son Paris in bringing about this war, a man forced to witness events he can no longer control, a father mourning his dead son and saddened beyond belief by the manner not just of his death but of his treatment by his victor, a man with the weight of expectation of his whole people upon his old shoulders, went alone to Achilles camp to ask for the return of his son’s body.

The thing that joined them together was grief. Achilles grieved for his dead friend Patroclus and Priam grieved for his son Hector. Priam sat beside Achilles and as they discussed these things the young soldier came to realise how his own father would feel were he to die, and that what Priam was suffering was the same thing. They were enemies, with seemingly irreconcilable differences, but they were also alike in many ways. This realisation allowed Achilles to move on from his earlier position, to continue to grow emotionally, as a human rather than just as a warrior or a son, and allow Priam his wish. When the two men shared food together that signaled the point at which they shed their mutual grief and rejoined the land of men.

The lesson that Achilles learned is something we can learn from The Iliad, too. Just because Homer was writing almost three thousand years ago does not mean that he is different from us. Although he would not recognise our world of aeroplanes, space rockets and mobile phones we share with him the same connection that Achilles and Priam found, and the themes of his story are as relevant to us today as they were to the men fighting the Trojan War.


You might also be interested in:

The Iliad – Homer

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