Is Really Achilles a Hero?
By Stathis Metsovitisc
Published Online (2005)
Introduction: The Iliad is not a work that gives a mere account of historic facts and events but one where persons are the protagonists by virtue of their behaviors, values, motives and decisions which affect the flow of the story. Achilles is one of these persons that play a primary role in the plot of Iliad; as Homer puts it in the first lines of this work, the anger (mênin) of Achilles, his withdrawal from the battles and the devastating effects that this has on the Greek army will be the core of the story. Achilles appears in the story as a complicated character with his own idiosyncrasy and system of ideals that sometimes no one else but him can understand. This system of values is exactly what I am going to explore in this paper. In particular, I will look at these values and examine how they affect Achilles’ dramatic decisions and the people around him. However, I will especially focus on the characterization of these values from the point of view of the following questions: Is it worth abiding by this system of values as firmly as Achilles does? What does Achilles not accomplish in his life by adopting these ideals? Is this the best way for one to live? My response to these questions will seriously question this system, for it leads to obdurate, cruel, mindless behaviors that do not befit either a humane, minded individual or an inspired leader.
The first step in this exploration will be to locate Achilles’ values in the text. In the Iliad, as a whole, Achilles reflects a paradigm of the hero that has fallen in deep love with honor and glory. Behind every action or decision of Achilles lies his thirst for everlasting timé (honor) and reputation, and this single-mindedness and persistence permeate the whole story. In A 302, and A 352-355, Achilles maintains that the prizes from his battles are evidence of his glory and the loss of these prizes as a result of Agamemnon’s orders disgraces him. As a result, he attempts to prevent the loss of Briseis at all costs; he does not even hesitate to pray for the destruction of the Greek army and Agamemnon, as a means of making the king understand his mistake and restore Achilles’ timé in the eyes of his fellows. The latter scene repeats in, I 374-409, however, here we have two more important facts. Achilles corroborates, in his response to the delegation that visited him, that the cause for his wrath is neither the loss of his wealth nor of Briseis, but the deprivation of his rightful spoils.
In his mind, this action degrades his achievements in combat and harms his prestige; this prestige is exactly what Achilles pursues in his life and he seems to lose it as an effect of Agamemnon’s behavior. Also, the acceptance of Agamemnon’s gifts to return to the battlefield may make him wealthier, but result in a greater loss of honor, therefore he rejects them. A few lines later, , I 398-402, Achilles becomes even more emphatic: he stresses that the motive for his participation in the Trojan War is not the love for wealth, since his father Peleus was rich enough, but his hunt for glory and pride, which would distinguish him from all others. In , I 415 he ends up saying that a life without timé is pointless and in , I 647-648 he proclaims to Aias that Agamemnon humiliated him. On the same note, on hearing about the demise of his intimate friend Patroclus, in, Σ 112-117, he defies death and swears to take revenge for the loss of Patroclus, because he believes that in this way he will receive even more glory.