The Achilles of ancient Greek legend is often counted among the greatest of epic heroes for his fantastical exploits during the Trojan War as depicted by Homer in the Iliad. While it is easy to become seduced by the power and might of invincible Achilles we must remember to not confuse unchecked power with heroism. While Achilles is indeed powerful, a master warrior by all qualifications, he fails as a hero to be imitated or idolized due to his lack of restraint, his barbarity, his lack of a code of conduct, his impiety and his dishonorable behavior. Achilles wields great courage and fortitude but he is also is critically deficient in the other (perhaps more important) cornerstones of the epic hero: temperance, prudence and a sense of justice or magnanimity. It is the intemperance of the man, famously referred to as the “rage of Achilles,” which is perhaps his tragic flaw, a failing which resulted in the unnecessary deaths of untold scores of Greeks and Trojans and nearly spelled complete destruction for the Greek fleet. Driven by his ill-tempered thirst for glory and prizewinning, Achilles is unable to control himself in the face of humiliation and defeat. It is this character flaw which makes the son of Peleus an unacceptable role model.
We begin the Iiad with Achilles already in a rage as victory in the Trojan War, the epic confrontation between Ilium and Hellas sprung from the Trojan abduction of Helen of Troy from her lawful Greek husband Menelaus, looms overhead, the Greeks having finally sacked one of the last remaining Trojan allied towns and now preparing to march on the glorious city of Troy itself. In the looting of the town the Greek King Agamemnon had claimed Chryseis as a war prize while Achilles claimed Briseis. The father of Chryseis, a man by the name of Chryses who was a priest of Apollo, having pleaded for his daughters return and having been rebuffed by Agamemnon soon called upon his god for aid who unleashed a series of plagues on the Greek fleet in retribution for the theft. While Agamemnon stubbornly refused to return the girl, Achilles called forth a council of the Greek officers to come to a solution in hopes of relieving the fleet from the wrath of Apollo. Agamemnon opted to return Chryseis but also demanded Achilles surrender Briseis and in doing so dishonored him publicly and stole his glory.
The reaction from Achilles was immediate, “the son of Peleus was furious, and his heart within his shaggy breast was divided whether to draw his sword, push the others aside, and kill the son of Atreus, or to restrain himself and check his anger.” Achilles and his myrmidons, the only force capable of defeating the Trojan prince Hector and his host, would stubbornly refuse to fight in order to spite the king. Achilles spent the next months brooding with fury in his beachside command tent accompanied by his dear friend Patroclus as the Greeks were pushed further and further from the walls of Troy and to the brink of destruction by the seemingly unstoppable Hector. When it became clear that Hectors forces would soon completely overrun the Greek beachhead and burn the landing ships, leaving the Hellenes stranded, surrounded by enemy and cut off from supply, Achilles still refused to flinch and allowed his countrymen to be slaughtered rather than defend them. Instead of meeting the responsibilities which accompanied his demigodhood Achilles was content instead to remain idle, even after in book IX Agamemnon pleaded to surrender all of his prizes if just the warrior would return to the field. Nor would even the grave concerns of Ajax, Odysseus and Phoenix, Achilles’ “very dear friends” and champions of the Greek federation in their own right, would sway the proud Achilles to action who exclaimed “[he would be] appeased neither by Agamemnon son of Atreus nor by any other of the Danaans, for [he saw] that [he had] no thanks for all [his] fighting” (Homer). Achilles only responded after Patroclus, in an effort...
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