Monday, January 31, 2011


Achilles fighting with Hector, attic vase 490 BC
Photo Credit: Myth Image

Most scholars today believe that the Trojan War was a true historical event, one which probably occurred around 1250 BCE.  The war was memorialized in many myths and epic poetry from ancient Greece.  The stories were apparently written down for the first time roughly five hundred years after the war.  The most famous telling of the war is, of course, Homer's The Iliad.  (In my own reading of this story, I have relied principally on the fine translations by Robert Fagles and Stanley Lombardo.)

Although Homer placed his story in a real historical setting, the epic of The Iliad is in no way an attempt at early history.  Nor is it simply a retelling of myths that surround the Trojan War.  We don't hear about the abduction of Helen or the Trojan Horse, both events which may be rooted in history but are often believed to be mythic stories.  We don't hear about the initial volleys or early battles.  We don't even learn how the war turns out at its conclusion.

Instead, what Homer gives us is an enormously personal story of one man's emotional battles--and his personal transformation--during the course of one short episode in the war.  While Achilles was a mighty warrior, his physical strength is not at the core of the plot.  Instead, Homer focuses on his character's changing sense of rage and pain.

Achilles struggles with three kinds of rage over the course of the book:

1. Rage against Agamemnon:
       When the Greeks capture a Trojan-allied town, they enslave two women to be companions for commander-in-chief Agamemnon and his prized warrior Achilles.  When Agamemnon is forced to return his slave to her family, he claims Achilles's woman, the beautiful Briseis, as compensation.  Achilles is furious.  Some modern readers argue that his anger is rooted in real love for Briseis.  Others feel his rage is simply an expression of his wounded pride at having his reward stripped from him.  The anger of Achilles comes to such a boiling point that he refuses to reenter the battle against the Trojans until his concubine is returned.  Whether his pain is mostly from the loss of love or the loss of respect, Achilles feels his honor has been acutely insulted by Agamemnon.

2. Rage against Hector:
      While Achilles stays in his tent away from the battlefields, his beloved friend Patroclus enters the war clad in the armor of Achilles. He and the Myrmidons fight valiantly and successfully--so successfully that Apollo steps in to prevent Patroclus from gaining more honor than the gods have decreed.  Seeing this new weakness, Hector (fighting on the side of the Trojans) puts his sword through Patroclus and kills him.  Now, Achilles is drawn into the battle by his fury towards Hector (and perhaps his own shame for putting his friend's life in such danger).  Revenge rather than wounded pride motivates his rage now.

3. Rage against fate and expectations:
      Finally, Achilles must struggle against the fact that his culture casts him as a great warrior who will be sacrificed in war.  His mother Thetis, a goddess, tells Achilles that he has a choice: stay in Troy where he will be killed in the war but be remembered forever as a great hero, or go home and live a long and ordinary life.  That is, Achilles must choose between a long life that leads to anonymous death, or a death that leads to everlasting life.  In his rage at this unfair choice, he considers the option to go home without victory.  Eventually, however, Achilles comes to terms with his impending death in battle and joins the fight.

I will talk about each of these in more detail over the course of the week, as well as how Achilles comes to the point of redemption in each of these situations.  Join me as I try to make sense of how Homer is shaping our conceptions of war and humanity, as well as how he is contributing to the Great Conversation--a conversation that in many ways started with his voice.

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Don't miss Tony's clever tribute to Homer and the Iliad.  And be sure to follow the blog posts all over the web inspired by this month's Classics Circuit theme of Ancient Greek Literature.


  1. This sounds interesting. I remember doing an abridged version of the Iliad when in school...what I recall most about it was the role of the gods and godesses. But, since so much emphasis is laid on the tragedy of Troy in general, I assumed it WAS about that. I should try and read the original sometime. I had no idea this was only about Achilles...

  2. Well, perhaps I went too far when saying it was about only Achilles. While he is the focus of the story, certainly the war itself and the gods are highly important, as is what happened to some of the Greeks--and also the Trojans--during the war. But while all of that is in the book, it feels like the backdrop to the heartbreaking story of Achilles.

  3. I wonder if the contrast can be profitably be seen the other way, also, i.e., that the personal story of Achilles brings to the story of the war a human scale. It isn't only one city winning and the other losing, but all the individual lives of the participants. Maybe Homer is reminding us that this is what war always is. (Am I going too far, making Homer sound modern?)

  4. I read the Fagles translation of the Odyssey, and I have his translation of the Iliad sitting on the shelves, so one day I will finally read it in its entirety.

    What fascinates me is the focus on one man, one hero who rises above the rest. This individualist concept has certainly permeated Western civilization. While I do not believe that the origin of the concept was Homer, I do think he made it timeless. Beowulf, Gilgamesh, the one man army goes way back, but it is The Iliad and the Odyssey which took the idea of an individual warrior and placed him within the larger context of an army, blending the individual with the community in such a way that he is their savior in a sense (although Beowulf was sort of like this as well).

    Great discussion!

  5. Wow, you two. This is exactly what I hoped could happen on this blog. Thank you so much for your fascinating and thoughtful comments!

    As PJ says, focussing on one individual has the ability to open up our understanding of an event by seeing it as personal and concrete rather than abstract. Hearing that so many people suffered does not necessarily allow us the same emotional connection.

    And as Trisha points out, the creation of the individual--the hero?--is something that permeates our literature.

    I think when the individual is so obviously the savior/warrior, it makes that character unlikely to stand in for "every man" in the way I think PJ aludes to. And yet, here is a story where Achilles functions in BOTH ways, at least to modern readers. Despite his place as savior/hero, he's very much a real person with whom we identify, or even laugh at. Fascinating.

  6. Slow, Plot-Driven ReaderJanuary 31, 2011

    And how does the fact that the gods give Achilles the choice to go home to his family (Everyman) or stay, die, and gain immortality (Hero) affect our view of his role in the story? Do other authors follow Homer's lead on this or is the Illiad a classic because of how mastefully the storyteller creates Achilles as both Everyman and Individual Hero?

    PS - I think you sentence about the choice between anonymous death and everlasting life is breath-taking. I've turned it over in my head all day.

  7. Ah, so THAT'S why I've had a surprisingly high number of recent hits on my little attempt at epic poetry ;) Thanks for the mention :)

  8. I like your question, Plot, about how his choice affects our view of the story. My gut right now is that although Achilles chooses the role of hero, he only gets to that point because of his emotional every-man role. Does that make any sense? I'll think about this more and perhaps post about it later in the week.

    Tony: My pleasure. I loved your poem. The Iliad is not really a text that left me laughing, but your poem certainly did!

  9. Sounds like fun, I’ll join the ride. Interesting the way you’ve decided to analyze Achilles - a fresh perspective!

  10. As both you and earlier commenters have said, it's the emotion of the individual that makes this epic so powerful even today. I love the way you broke out the simple emotion rage into the parts that drive Achilles and the narrative. The story contains themes that today we can relate to.

  11. Alexandra: So glad to have you here. I'm afraid my perspective is probably not fresh at all. This is all quite new to me, though, and I'm thrilled at all I am learning.

    Red: I was astonished by how powerful and immediate the story is. I guess I was expecting a clear-cut war story--and it certainly is that, but still...there is something far more universal, isn't there?

  12. Continuing to think about Achilles on a snowy drive to nearby town the other day, I had second thoughts about the importance of the individual to the culture of and literature from this period. Heroes and gods we see as individual personalities with very human feelings, but this is quite different from the modern concern for ordinary individuals. "Everyman" is invisible in Homer. This observation isn't much of a contribution, but it was an important reminder to myself.

  13. I've been reading these Iliad posts out of order, but I love them! I really want to reread the Iliad now....

  14. Its seems the relased TROY on 2004 is littlbit different than the actual stroy. But any ways , I liked the situation in such a extent that, I watched it around 100 times till today...few times i got a dream that, I was roaming near the Main GATE of TRoy......will be really interested to visit that place in this life...

  15. I think this comment/observation of yours extraordinarily perceptive, "Homer focuses on his character's changing sense of rage and pain."

    "Rage". To me, The Iliad clearly speaks to the rage that Achilles feels at himself for letting Patroclus being placed in the position of being killed by Hector; and I think rage is the emotion that drives him in his pursuit (his vendetta, if you will) and killing of Hector. I am not so sure though that rage is the right descriptor for his feelings towards Agamemnon though. I have read four different translations of The Iliad over the past few weeks, and I am coming to the conclusion that really what is going on here is a 'crisis in command'. I think Achilles is firmly rebelling against Agamemnon as the commander of the pan-Achaean forces. Sure his pride and honor have been hurt with the removal of Briseis, but I think that act was just 'the straw that broke the camel's back'. It is more that Agamemnon has botched this campaign from the get-go, and many, many people (on both sides) have died.

    I wonder if we what we are all reading, when we read The Iliad, is the first recorded example of a what we now refer to as "conscientious objection"? Is Achilles, in fact, really rejecting the war with Troy outright? Is he really expressing his own personal recognition of the utter futility of this specific war? Achilles, and so many of the other Achaeans and Trojans, all express this overwhelming desire to leave this fight and simply go back to their wives and their pastoral existences.

    But in the end, in Book 24, Achilles wisely understands that the pragmatic reality is that he, or King Priam, have very little control of how this will play out. He attributes it to Zeus doling out 'good' and 'bad' and we all just have to try and do our best with what we have. Finally, Achilles has made peace with himself with his guilt over the death of Patroclus, and he finally understands the consequences of his slaughtering of Hector. As you say, Achilles finally comes to terms with what his role must be (i.e., resulting in his death).

    This is an incredibly thought-provoking posting, and one that I am going to continue to puzzle over for some time to come. Just through the act of writing this 'stream of consciousness' of mine, I realize that we are actually probably saying the same things. I am going to print all of this and take with me on my trip next week as I begin my reading of Stephen Mitchell's new translation of The Iliad. This poem is so incredibly important on so many levels...

    Great post! Cheers! Chris

    Long-winded perhaps, but I think what I'm getting at here is that given the chance for a 'redo', Achilles would have taken his Myrmidons and gone home to a long and peaceful life in obscurity in Phthia.


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