HUMA 313: Stories of War

Dr. Amy Lewis

Fall 2017, Junior Year

Assignments:

  • Essay on a character from The Iliad
  • Essay on something from The Iliad
  • Essay on a New York Times Article

Achilles: The Man and the Temper

The Iliad features many great warriors in its tale.  Diomedes, Odysseus, Agamemnon, and Ajax are all well known for their prowess in battle, whether it be for their trickery, strength, or strategy.  Yet, none of them are strong enough to defeat the Trojans and reclaim Menelaus’ honor or wife.  The only man destined to end the Trojan war is Achilles, a Myrmidon and the greatest warrior of them all.  Unfortunately for the Greeks, their champion is a hot-tempered mortal whose pride drags out the Trojan war far longer than it needs to.

The book begins with “The Rage of Achilles,” clearly defining the depth of emotion that Achilles carries and the problems that begin to stack up.  The conflict that spurs the Greeks to war begins with the kidnapping of a woman, Helen of Sparta.  Similar to how Helen is stolen from Menelaus, Agamemnon claims a concubine from Achilles, causing another conflict among the Grecian armies.  Men are prideful creatures that take no slight with a level head.  Achilles puts everything to a higher level of pettiness as he not only pulls his troops from the fight, but he also calls on his mother to worsen the fighting for the Greeks.  He tells her to go to Zeus:

“…persuade him, somehow, to help the Trojan cause, to pin the Achaeans back against their ships, trap them round the bay and mow them down.  So all can reap the benefits of their king—so even mighty Atrides can see how mad he was to disgrace Achilles, the best of the Achaeans!” (91).

Because he desires to heal his pride, Achilles is willing to sacrifice his fellow Greeks to make a point.  To drive an even harsher fact, Achilles is the only one able to leave while everyone else has no choice but to fight.  He was too young to be a suitor among the others; therefore, he was unable to sign the oath to Tyndareus which entrapped the majority of Greece into fighting Troy.  Achilles was only fighting for glory and self-gain.

Because of Achilles vengeful pride, he causes a vast number of Greeks to die.  The poem begins with a reflection on how he spurned his comrades.  Homer writes, “Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls…” (77).  They fought valiantly, but with Zeus rigging the Trojans to win the battle until Achilles joins the fray, they never stand a chance.  Achilles is aware that he is the one destined to end the Trojan War, not just because he has Zeus pulling strings to ensure the conflict lingers on, but because he was prophesied to die in glory of Troy:

“…two fates bear me on to the day of death.  If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy, my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies.  If I voyage back to the fatherland I love, my pride, my glory dies… true, but the life that’s left me will be long, the stroke of death will not come on me quickly” (265).

Despite his prophecies, he ponders abandoning the battle all together to further spite Agamemnon for taking his concubine.  He has no real stake in the battle other than his looming death.  Fighting for glory is tempting, but so is the possibility of settling down.

By today’s standards, Achilles emotional state would be frowned upon.  Society recommends that emotions remain in constant check, especially for those with positions of authority.  If he would be in an army of the present day, he would be on trial for treason for abandoning the battle and more than likely written up for many occasions of gross disobedience.  Achilles is an arrogant, hot-tempered man.  That does not bode well for the strict standards of the military.  I can picture him running into heated arguments with superiors, which I believe is enough cause to have him discharged.  His strength and prowess in the battlefield is admirable, as well as his loyalty to Patroclus, but his issues in control is questionable to a soldier of today.

Yet, we still remember Achilles for the great warrior he was.  His high emotional state is part of what made him so powerful in battle—he called upon his rage to burn his enemies.  Even though he caused the Greeks to endure greater losses, Achilles did eventually rejoin the fight and bring the war to an end, saving the few Greeks that survived.  He is remembered for his death in battle, fulfilling the prophecy of his name going down in history.

Works Cited

Homer, The Iliad. Translated by Robert Fagles, New York, NY, Penguin Books, 1991.