What set Achilles apart as a Homeric Hero?

Was Achilles in any way different to other Heroes in the Iliad?

Homer’s heroes played some of the most important roles in the Iliad and alongside the Olympians, controlled the storyline of the Trojan War. They were depicted as superhuman, possessing traits beyond the limits of regular people owing to their divine lineage. Amongst the heroes of the Iliad, Homer clearly presents Achilles as greatest and most independent of them all, but regardless of his apparently unusual responses to the War’s impetuses, Achilles should not be considered unique as a hero, but rather prone to heroic excesses. In other words, Achilles embodied to the extreme what should be perceived as Homeric heroism but is not all that different.

The most valuable reward a hero could strive for was the prospect of eternal fame, or kleos. It was the tragic fate of Homeric heroes to die, setting them apart from their Godly ancestors. Thus earning kleos immortalised them in legend even as they themselves progressed on to the Afterlife. This fame could be earned through demonstrating such things as martial prowess[1], exceptional cunning[2] or athletic success[3]. Nestor is a good example of this, the aged-charioteer being greatly respected for his wisdom despite his current inability to fight. However, within the Iliad, earning kleos was most notably presented as a conflict between a long, inconspicuous family life and short-term martial glory. Thetis’ revelation to Achilles of an unambiguous prophecy intensified this conflict for him. ‘If I stay here and fight it out round Ilium, there is no homecoming for me, but there will be eternal glory instead.’[4] Though other heroes like Ajax and Diomedes also leave their homes for war with the desire to earn kleos, they do so with uncertainty. Thus Achilles is not unique in why he fights or not, but the need to actively decide which route to take cast him and his choice as most extreme of the Homeric heroes. It is important to note that this is similar to the choice of the Trojans, as though they are ignorant of a specific prophecy, those heroes could safely assume that if they were not to fight, they and their city would fall. When Andromache attempts to convince Hector not to fight, he said he would ‘feel nothing but shame’[5]. Furthermore, by dispelling the mists of ignorance from Achilles, Thetis actually contributed to the image of Achilles as more of a God-like figure who is aware of that which only the reader and the Gods know. This does not make him a God, especially since he is fighting for the same kleos as other heroes, but he does so from an elevated position.

A hero’s accumulation of time, or honour, also set them apart from other mortals. Postulations that time can be expressed in terms of tangible spoils of war seem accurate given Achilles’ anger at Agamemnon’s claiming of Briseis. In addition to this, a hierarchy of the Gods in terms of how much is sacrificed to them can be seen, with more sacrifice equating to more time. Achilles claims his own lack of time to be unique amongst other heroes on multiple occasions because his ratio of work put in to spoils earned was so much worse[6]. However, the embassy to Achilles bearing Agamemnon’s materially generous offer of reconciliation provides another view of time which presents Achilles as not only still having time, but more than other heroes. Rather than defining time as those spoils of war which the hero already has, it should be thought of as the honour, or rewards, that the hero in question is worth, whether or not he possesses them. This would explain the ridiculous amount of wealth Agamemnon is willing to offer Achilles to re-enter the fray. It is Agamemnon’s evaluation of Achilles’ worth as a fighter; perhaps if Ajax had abstained from combat as well, an offer for his abilities would be a lesser amount. Upon these assumptions of time, Achilles, despite his protests that the loss of Briseis was a loss of honour[7], is shown to have more time than any other hero as displayed by the desperate pleas and gifts of the embassy.

Something marking heroes apart from other fighters in the Iliad, quite worryingly, was that they were prone to disastrous fits of rage. Agamemnon demonstrated this in his first conflict with Achilles over Chriseis, and the havoc Diomedes wrought in book five was the product of a god-fuelled berserk rage[8]. However, yet again Achilles’ rage superseded them all. In fact Homer emphasised this by presenting the Iliad’s main theme as the anger of Achilles: ‘sing, goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that accursed anger’[9]. It was Achilles’ anger which led to his desertion of the Achaeans and temporary success of the Trojans, demonstrating just how much impact it had on the course of the war. Similarities can be seen between the anger of Diomedes and Achilles, but again Homer presents the latters’ actions as even more destructive. Diomedes, with the favour of Athena manages to intimidate nearly the entire Trojan army, wounding Ares and Aphrodite in the process, stopping only out of respect for Glaucus. Such a feat was presented as remarkable at the time in the book, with him tossing about giant rocks and such, but later, following the death of Patroclus, Achilles unleashes his anger even more potently. He is depicted as nothing less than a killing machine, ‘bent on slaughter’[10] and single-handedly routed every Trojan soldier before him. Whereas Diomedes caused fear amongst the Trojans, Achilles had them in a blind panic, again a cut above other heroes. Even within the Greek camp, Achilles’ anger superseded that of Agamemnon. The leader of the Achaeans was able to take Briseis, the spoils of Achilles, but Achilles takes the possibility of victory from Agamemnon by withdrawing from battle. In every instance, the product of Achilles’ anger is greater, or more destructive than the anger of other heroes.

Homeric heroes were often marked out by the favour they held from the Gods. Diomedes and Odysseus claimed Athena as their guardian, Ajax is rejuvenated by Poseidon, Hector could rely upon Apollo, and Aeneus, Aphrodite. This favour enables them to constantly evade death in battle, and the Gods endow them with considerably greater abilities on occasion, seen by the hurling of boulders and miraculous healing of wounds. Firstly, Achilles is shown to have personally the favour of more than one God, which sets him above the other heroes. Athena calms him in book one, he can rely upon the maternal guardianship of Thetis throughout the story, Hephaestus saves him from Scamander and much of the story revolves around Zeus’ appeasement of Achilles’ wish for the Greeks to suffer.  These names mark Achilles as typical in the sense that as a hero, he is favoured by the Gods, but the length of the list augments his status as a hero; not unique, but greater. Secondly, the results of Olympian favour can be seen in heroic deeds throughout the Iliad, already mentioned in the heightened prowess of Diomedes from Athena, the whisking away of Aeneas by Aphrodite and the rallying of the Achaeans by Poseidon. These deeds are an integral element of a hero’s makeup, without them, they would be but regular mortals. They need the Gods to be considered heroes in the Homeric sense. This idea can be used to demonstrate that in this regard as well, Achilles embodies the extremity of Homeric heroism. The aforementioned deeds of Diomedes and Aeneas kept the war in motion, with the advantage oscillating between the Achaeans and the Trojans, ensuring it would not end swiftly. The constant factor was the absence of Achilles. Owing to the pleas of Thetis, and Achilles’ existing reputation as a hero, Zeus granted Achilles’ desire to prolong the Greeks’ suffering from Troy whilst he abstained from combat. As seen when he finally enters combat, the Trojan army was shortly vanquished, suggesting all suffering and death in between was caused by the absence of Achilles, and the favour shown to him by Zeus. This suffering was far greater than that at the hands of Diomedes, Hector or Ajax combined, demonstrating the devastating effects of Zeus’ acquiescence of the request of Thetis.

It is also commonly held that is not befitting for a hero to indulge in excessive cruelty which could be seen to cast Achilles as unique as a hero, given his mutilation of Hector’s corpse.[11] However, the famous scene of the supplication of Priam, and Achilles’ response therein is one revelation that Achilles’ attitude was less atypical than assumed. It has already been seen that heroes are susceptible to bouts of rage, and the death of Patroclus was a particularly tragic impetus which helps to explain why Achilles acted in such a deplorable way with Hector’s body. This was merely Achilles responding to calamity in a human, mortal fashion. Yet with Priam, his hut was ‘filled with the sounds of their lamentation’[12], and Achilles conceded that his actions had been excessive by describing Priam as having a ‘heart of iron’[13]. Regret is clearly demonstrated here, it having been said that Achilles was at his ‘most compassionate’[14] in this scene. Therefore, the mutilation of Hector should be viewed as nothing more than a product of Achilles’ vast grief at the death of Patroclus. His subsequent regret helps to portray the anger prior to that as a very human failing, which after all, is what set heroes apart from the Gods, thus making Achilles less unique in his actions. Furthermore, other heroes in the war committed what could be viewed as cruel actions. Agamemnon, in taking from Achilles his spoils of war, acted unfairly and his brutal imposition of authority is simply another form of cruelty. Patroclus also laughs at the death of Cebriones as he fell from his chariot with the words ‘I never knew the Trojans had such acrobats’[15], entirely disregarding the fact he’d just killed a man. Moreover, Homer described the spears of Hector and Patroclus as ‘cruel’[16] and depicted the two heroes as akin to bloodthirsty animals. There was also the almost ritualistic stabbing of Hector’s body immediately after his death by many Greek soldiers, suggesting that excessive cruelty in war was not as taboo as is assumed. This also makes Achilles’ actions appear less unique when put into perspective.

Finally, though a comparatively minor point, most heroes had a similar set of physical traits, being described as good-looking and great in stature. The Greeks ‘gazed in wonder at the stature and marvellous good looks of Hector’[17], Achilles is described as handsomest of all the Achaeans[18] and Ajax as a ‘tower of strength’.[19] This provides a possible correlation between good looks and stature, and ability as a hero. Upon this assumption Achilles, by not having a drastically different appearance to other heroes, but simply being better looking and stronger than them, is placed at the top of the ‘heroic hierarchy’.

To call Achilles unique as a hero is overstating his role in the Iliad. He shares most of the traits idiosyncratic of the Homeric hero, and is clearly distinct from the Olympians. What sets him apart from the other characters is that in him, such traits are augmented. His rage is greater than Diomedes, he holds the most divine favour, and is best looking of all. His impact on the events of the war are also greater than the other heroes, even when he is not involved. All these points make Achilles the most distinguished hero, not a unique entity within the Iliad.

Bibliography:

Bowra, C. M. and Pindar.  The Odes of Pindar. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969. Print.

Rieu, E. V. and Homer. The Iliad. Baltimore, MD: Penguin, 1950. Print.

Rieu, E. V. and Homer. The Odyssey. Baltimore: Penguin, 1946. Print.

Selva, R. The Growth of Achilles.

[1] Homer, Iliad

[2] Homer, Odyssey

[3] Pindar, Olympian 2

[4] Homer, Iliad IX.411-413

[5] Ibid VI.442-443

[6] Homer, Iliad IX.329-337

[7] Ibid I.352-358

[8] Ibid V.1-2

[9] Ibid I.1-2

[10] ibid XXI.139

[11] Homer, Iliad XXIII.24

[12] Ibid XXIV.513

[13] Ibid XXIV.521

[14] Selva, The Growth of Achilles         

[15] Homer, Iliad XVI.750

[16] Ibid XVI.762

[17] Ibid XXII.370-371

[18] Ibid II.674

[19] Ibid VI.6-7

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