Achilles, Warrior Hero
“Oh, brave Achilles” is a common refrain throughout the first book as Agamemnon speaks to Achilles. From the beginning, the audience is led to believe that Achilles is a brave warrior, especially since he appears to be so revered from the way that Agamemnon speaks to him. The question remains, is Achilles meant to be a hero for all time or is he nothing but a glorified savage? As we begin our journey through the Iliad, Homer would have the audience see Achilles as a warrior, no doubt, but through to the end, Achilles has succumbed to his rage and proves to have lost his heroic status as Homer completes the Iliad. Achilles embodies and challenges both the Greek concept of arete or excellence as a warrior hero. The definition of arete is more specifically the idea of living up to one’s full potential or fulfilling their purpose or function in life (Arete). Achilles does hold many qualities that would deem him heroic such as incredible strength and a close relationship with the Greek gods. He proves himself to be the strongest and most powerful man in the Achaean army, but what he has in strength, he lacks in integrity, which is ultimately the cause of his perceived downfall as he instead becomes laden with pride and rage. Upon beginning the Iliad, within the first five pages, it is clear that Agamemnon has such a reverence for Achilles. He even goes so far as to refer to Achilles as “godlike,” conjuring an image of a man that seems impermeable as the gods were seen (Caldcleugh, 13). This paints Achilles in such a light that he does seem to be heroic, especially since Agamemnon does not show anything but respect towards Achilles. The mere idea of a king showing respect and awe to another man that is not of royal stature, but a man of battle, brings the audience to believe that Achilles is aligned with the ranks of heroes. As the Iliad continues, however, the impressive view the audience is given of Achilles slowly deteriorates throughout the poem. It is not until the end of the fourth book that Achilles makes a significant appearance as he is not fighting in the first battles, “but at his ship remains, / Nursing his wrath, and brooding o’er his wrongs” (Caldcleugh, 83). Simply put, Achilles is in his ship sulking instead of raising arms against the opposing side. This is just one example of how Achilles begins to peel away his heroic covering piece by piece. No hero should ever sulk in a corner over what was or was not done for him or to him, but instead should conquer the emotion and rise above the rest. Obviously, at this point, that was not the path for Achilles. This is further explored in book 9 as Agamemnon chooses to attempt to reconcile with Achilles by offering him many gifts. Nestor agrees that they are “splendid gifts” and encourages Agamemnon to pick someone to deliver the news to Achilles (Caldcleugh, 158). A little later on, Odysseus is chosen to deliver Agamemnon’s offer to Achilles and is hoping that Achilles will come around back to Agamemnon’s aid. He attempts to rub Achilles’ ego by saying “Achilles, health! Well have we feasted here, / Even as when we banquet with a king” in order to hopefully be in Achilles’ favor (Caldcleugh, 160). Odysseus goes on to tell Achilles that without his help, they will most likely lose the battle. Achilles responds in kind essentially saying that he will not accept Agamemnon’s offer because of the insult he felt he had received from Agamemnon. He rejected the offer claiming that he would just as well enjoy his father’s wealth instead of accepting Agamemnon’s offer (Caldcleugh, 164). It is also at this point that the audience is exposed to Achilles ultimate goal in life, which is an immortality of sorts, “That should I at the siege of Troy remain / Immortal glory will my portion be, / But never shall I see my home again” (Caldcleugh, 165). Despite his desire to have his name live on, at this point it seems that Achilles has chosen to leave the war because he believes that Troy will never be captured. Patroclus attempts to appeal to Achilles’ better nature by bringing back memories of Achilles as a child on Patroclus’ lap and reminding Achilles that he viewed him like a son (Caldcleugh, 166). Achilles responds to Patroclus’ appeal by saying that “Thou must not love him and incur my hate; / Thou should’st annoy him, as he me annoys” (Caldcleugh, 170). Clearly, Achilles is not only refusing of Agamemnon’s gifts, but it is out of spite that he refuses especially since he encourages Patroclus to not care for Agamemnon, but instead to “annoy” him (Caldcleugh, 170). Achilles’ stance towards Agamemnon further reduces his status as a hero because a hero does not look a gift horse in the mouth or attempt to retaliate against someone who has done him wrong. A hero looks past all of the wrong simply to do what is right. Obviously, Achilles had the potential to be a hero, but due to his lacking in other areas, he could never really be a hero. Achilles losing his heroic status continues on through the eleventh book as Achilles believes that the Greeks will “kneel before me now, / To such a sad condition are they brought” (Caldcleugh, 206). He believes that the Greeks shall bow before him because of their losing battle with Troy now that so many have died and been injured needlessly. It is important to understand that although many lay wounded or dying, this does not matter to Achilles, who is still “wrapped in hostile flame,” , rather regaining honor and status is more important to him (Caldcleugh, 207). According to Nestor, “Old Peleus his son Achilles urged, / In deeds of valor, always to be first, / and above all, to be pre-eminent” but unfortunately, Achilles has not followed this path, for this path would have been the way of a hero (Caldcleugh, 211). Achilles does not put virtue first, but rather himself instead. Patroclus realizes Achilles would rather put himself rather than the armies first, so in book sixteen, Patroclus wants to disguise himself in Achilles’ armor in order to intimidate the Trojans. Patroclus begins by telling Achilles of the “dreadful woe” that has befallen the Greeks (Caldcleugh, 286). He reminds Achilles that “Hard-hearted man! Peleus was not they sire, / Nor did the gentle Thetis bring thee forth, / The stormy ocean bore thee and the rocks, / So savage and so merciless thy heart” (Caldcleugh, 287). Within his appeal to Achilles, he is attempting to remind him of his roots coming from the honorable Peleus and compassionate Thetis, the sea-nymph. He is willing to respect Achilles’ wishes if he so chooses to not go into battle, but begs Achilles to send him in his armor “That so the Trojans, taking me for thee, / May from the field fall back, and thus our friends, / O’ercome with toil, may have a little rest: / For we are fresh, and can with ease repulse / Our worn out foes, and drive them to the town” (Caldcleugh, 287). Patroclus knew he would likely meet his demise on the battlefield, but his death meant little to him knowing that disguising himself in Achilles’ armor might cause a better outcome for his army. Patroclus was more of a hero than Achilles as can be seen by Patroclus willingly being self-sacrificial for the sake of his army. Achilles goes on to say that he is bitter at the way that Agamemnon has “deprived me of my just reward” which was a woman that Agamemnon took from him. He also appears to begin to regain heroic status when he states “let it pass; anger must end at last” and he recognizes that if the armies were to see him in his armor, the Trojans would have retreated, and so consents to Patroclus’ request (Caldcleugh, 288). Despite what appears to be a selfless act, he agrees to Patroclus’ request only because he has ulterior motives of receiving gifts and the woman that had been taken from him (Caldcleugh, 288). Unfortunately, Patroclus dies at the hands of the Trojans and a fight breaks out over his dead body. In book eighteen, Achilles learns of Patroclus’ death and he finally seems to truly recognize that “anger, which the wisest oft invades! / Like smoke it rises in the breasts of men, / sweeter than honey – bitter in the end” (Caldcleugh, 333). He has apparently let go of his anger towards Agamemnon and is now focused on Hector, the “slayer of my friend,” Patroclus (Caldcleugh, 333). This feeling of vengeance drives Achilles for the rest of the Iliad as can be seen by his saying “I must slaughter still these perjured men, / Nor cease ‘till, chased within their city walls, / Hector I meet, and trial make of him” (Caldcleugh, 376). He held true to this as he faced Hector in battle in book twenty-two as “Filled with fierce rage, Achilles too rushed on” to meet Hector head on (Caldcleugh, 394). Achilles was filled with bitterness or vengeance at any give time throughout the Iliad. Despite the way in which Achilles was admired as a warrior, it does not seem likely that Homer intended Achilles to be a hero at all. Yes, he was a warrior that was fearless, but he fought for the sake of himself and not for others. His major character flaw was that of his being self-centered. A true hero would never put himself above the needs of the rest, but in his case, the needs of the one outweighed the needs of the many.
"Arete." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 17 Aug 2008. 24 Sep 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Arete&oldid=232449206>. Caldcleugh, W. G. Iliad of Homer. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1870. Google Books. 23 September 2008 <http://books.google.com/books?id=LR5MUzYd41UC&printsec=frontcover&dq=iliad>.