The Iliad is more than a mere account of historical facts and events. It is rather a work that individuals are protagonists based on their behaviors, values, motives, and their decision-making that affect the flow of the story. Achilles is one of these protagonists, whose withdrawal from the battle and the resulting effects form a core component of the story. He has a complex system of values and ideals, which in some instances can only be understood by himself, thus making him one of the most complicated characters of The Iliad. This paper provides an in-depth analysis of the character of Achilles and what he learns in the course of the poem.
Throughout the poem, Achilles is depicted as a hero who is deeply in love with honor and glory. This is consistent with his historical context that is, being a Greek. Greek heroes are primarily driven by honour and glory and for this reason, epic wars are triggered, which take the lives of numerous men and shape the development at every stage (Texin 1). Even after death, this honour and glory lives on. For example, the fall of Troy is ‘a thing… whose glory shall perish never’ (Iliad 2: 324). Consequently, every action and decision that Achilles undertakes is primarily driven by this love. As such, the prizes obtained from his battles are revered as manifestations of his glory and their loss due to the orders given by Agamemnon strips him of this glory and disgraces him, he (Agamemnon ‘has done me dishonor, and has robbed me of my prize by force’ (Iliad 1: 355). In attempting to make King Agamemnon understand the grave mistake that he made, Achilles undertakes all possible measures to prevent the loss of Briseis and even goes ahead to pray for the Greek army and the King to be destroyed. His subsequent anger is not driven by the loss of his wealth or of Breisis but of the fact that he has lost his rightful spoils, which negatively affects his prestige and honor.
In his pursuit of obtaining glory and honor, Achilles’ efforts are not only limited to the battle field. He also exhibits other noble traits, such as courtesy, sincerity, and respect for parents and the gods. Mycenaean mean who possess these traits are held in high esteem. For example, he respects and obeys the orders of the gods even if they contrast his own wishes. When Athena orders him not to assassinate Agamemnon, he obeys even if it is his deepest desire to do so. He is also respectful towards his mother in addition to manifesting love and devotion towards his comrades. In the latter instance, he is concerned with the disorder in the Achain camp, for which Agamemnon has failed to act on. He upsets protocol by calling an assembly, and even though his efforts bear little fruits, this manifests his devotion and commitment to his comrades. Further, when Priam approaches Achilles with gifts for the release of his son’s corpse, he (Achilles) welcomes Priam warmly, exhibiting humanity, nobility, and respect for the elderly (Iliad 2). For him, this is also an opportunity to further his search of honor as welcoming a foreign king and entreating him with gifts makes him appear respected and important among his subjects and in foreign lands.
Achilles’ pursuit of honor and glory has however led to rigid and inhumane acts. He is unable to control his anger and pride when things fail to go his way. This is tragic, not only for him but also for other characters in the poem. For example, Paris is unable to control his lust for Helen, causing a fierce war to rage on like never before (Iliad 3). For Achilles, this negative aspect affects his relationship with other people. For example, his withdrawal from the battle due to his perceived dishonor from Agamemnon weakens the Greek army while emboldening the Trojans as the former have to continue fighting in the absence of one of their best soldiers. His prayers lead to a god-driven plague that affects many people. His primary drive is the achievement of his personal goals and objectives with little regard of the consequences on the larger community. His blind adherence to his value system makes him disrespectful and devoid of all noble traits. His lacks a balance between actions and the consequences on the society making him an anti-community man (Metsovitis v). Although he would consider himself a hero, not many in his society would regard him as such.
In the course of the poem, Achilles learns that there is more to life than warfare and a pursuit for heroism. This is manifested by scenes of youthful and joyful living. There are ordinary people striving to live harmoniously with their peers despite their disagreements and choosing to settle their disputes amicably in courts. They strive to make their lives comfortable without going into war. The paradigm of Nestor provides the best illustration for these qualities. In addition, Hector, other than being a war hero, is also a communal figure, thus obtaining additional respect. This is contrary to Achilles’ life, which is filled with chaos and violence. Although his boldness in pursuing honor and glory can be applauded, it makes his life devoid of love, social responsibility, and family warmth. Even Briseis is regarded as more of a prize than a wife. This value system has often led to his demoralization and dehumanization of his actions.
- Homer, Iliad 1: The Contention of Achilles and Agamemnon.
- Homer, Iliad 2: The Trial of the Army, and the Catalogue of the Forces.
- Homer, Iliad 3: The Duel of Menelaus and Paris.
- Metsovitis, Stathis. Is really Achilles a Hero? Ocw. Web Sept 13, 2017.
- Texin, Cheryl. Honor & Glory in the Iliad: Life after Death. Ocw. Web Sept 13, 2017.