Achilles as Tragic Hero:

(notes from Bernard Knox's Introduction to the Fagles translation of The Iliad (1990), pp. 46-64)


The action of the poem follows the tragic course of Achilles rage and his final brief recognition of human values. In the background we experience the unrelenting violence and carnage of the war's grim progress. Yet Homer intersperses his descriptions of battle with reminders of peace. (Description of the shield Hephaestus forges for Achilles (18.693- 707)) We are left with a great sense of waste, not balanced by the greatness of the heroic figures and the action.

"Homer's Achilles is clearly the model for the tragic hero of the Sophoclean stage; his stubborn, passionate devotion to an ideal image of self is the same force that drives Antigone, Oedipus, Ajax and Philostetes to the fulfillment of their destinies…. Homer's Achilles is also, for archaic Greek society, the essence of the aristocratic ideal, the paragon of male beauty, courage and patrician manners."

Ironically,  Socrates, who said that the unexamined life was not worth living, invoked the name of Achilles on his deathbed. Perhaps he was more like Achilles than not in "defying the community, in hewing to a solitary line, and in loyalty to a private ideal of conduct, of honor." (64)

"The Iliad shows us the origin, course and consequence of Achilles' rage, his imprisonment in a godlike, lonely, heroic fury and his eventual return to human stature. The road to this final release is long and grim, strewn with the corpses of many Greeks and Trojans, and it leads finally to his own death." (46-47)

In the key sections of the poem (Book 1, Book 9, Book 24), Homer's method is dramatic rather than epic…. Like a dramatist, Homer shows us character and motivation not by editorial explanation but through speech and action.

Book 9: The Embassy to Achilles

  1. Agamemnon realizes that unless he mends his conflict with Achilles, then the Achaeans will be driven into the sea. However, in his embassy to Achilles he still demands the great warrior's submission and obedience despite the slight he inflicted upon Achilles by taking his concubine from him. Agamemnon offers him a great gift of horses and treasure and even offers to return his concubine if Achilles will return to battle, but he will not apologize. His offer merely reflects the power of a magnanimous leader; it is not contrition, and by accepting the gift Achilles would be acknowledging his subservient place.
  2. Achilles passionately rejects Agamemnon's offer (9.462-473). He quickly recognizes the backhand of Agamemnon's 'compliment', and his honor will not brook such an insult. "Without an apology, an admission of equal status, [the offer] is one more symbol of subordination." (49) Achilles would retire from the fight without glory, without fame rather than compromise his devotion to honor. Achilles will not stay and fight if Agamemnon takes the glory of battle from him. Many Achaean chieftains plead with Achilles to relent. Phoenix argues that eventually he will have to fight, and then there will be no gifts from Agamemnon, the tangible symbols of honor. This is speaking Achilles' language. Ajax reminds Achilles of the great respect and affection held for him by the warriors. Achilles is moved and announces that he will stay at Troy and fight only if the Trojans succeed in burning any of the Achaean ships. (51)

Book 16: Patroclus Fights and Dies

  1. Patroclus, Achilles closest friend, goes to his tent with news of the battle that satisfies Achilles' wounded pride. Many of the Achaean leaders, including Agamemnon, Diomedes, and Odysseus have been wounded and forced to retire from the battle. This is dramatic proof of Achilles' superiority in battle. Patroclus pleads with Achilles to return to the battle before the Achaeans are destroyed, but Achilles still will not relent until the Trojans have set fire to Agamemnon's ships. He does agree to allow Patroclus to give heart to the troops by going into battle wearing Achilles' armor. Achilles yearns for the complete destruction of his former allies and dreams of battling the Trojans alone with his friend Patroclus so that all the glory of victory will accrue to themselves and no one else. (16.115-119)
  2. However, Hector kills Patroclus in battle and strips him of Achilles' armor. Too late, Achilles agrees to enter the battle. He has not recognized the recklessness of his inflexible stand; now he has a new focus for his depthless capacity for anger: Hector. Achilles' mother, Thetis, pleads with him not to confront Hector: she tells him that if he kills Hector, his own death will soon follow. Achilles will not be swayed. If his friend dies unavenged, Achilles' honor will be forever sullied. Unless he proves his superiority in single combat and achieves universal recognition of his prowess, Achilles' life will have no meaning. (53)

Book 19: Achilles Arms for Battle

Agamemnon gives a speech to the assembled Achaean chieftains in which he promises to deliver the gifts that were offered to Achilles and refused. Achilles ignores him. He demands that the exhausted troops return immediately to battle. "He is not interested in ceremonies of reconciliation that will serve to restore Agamemnon's prestige; he is not interested in Agamemnon's excuses, still less in food; he thinks of one thing and one thing only: Hector." (55) Until he has tasted revenge for Patroclus' death, he will not eat or drink. Achilles resolution ignores the limitations of normal humanity. There is something god-like in the intensity of his passion.

Book 22: The Death of Hector

When Achilles enters the battle, the Trojans are routed and flee to the walls of the city. 
Only Hector has the courage to turn and face Achilles' fury. When Achilles confronts him, Hector offers him a pact: after their fight to the death: the victor will agree to give up the dead warrior's body for honorable burial. Achilles will have nothing to do with Hector's civilized offer. Achilles rages beyond any restraint. His anger is not human: Achilles is godlike in both his power and his self-absorption. When Achilles kills Hector, he exults in his own glory. None of it can be shared with the other Greek warriors. Achilles has been fighting for himself alone: "he is still shut off from humanity, a prisoner of his self-esteem, his obsession with honor which he defines as the imposition of his own identity on all men and all things." (56) Instead of surrendering Hector's body, Achilles considers hacking away his flesh and eating it raw. His rage is implacable and unappeasable: godlike in its dark grandeur. (57) He lashes Hector's body to his chariot and drags it around the walls of Troy.

Book 23: The Funeral of Patroclus

After the funeral pyre is lit and his friend's body is consumed by flames, Achilles commands that the warriors honor Patroclus' life by engaging in games and competition: chariot races, a boxing match, wrestling, a foot race, weight throwing, and archery, the origin of the Olympic games. Achilles behaves with great courtesy and honor to all the participants during these games. Despite his grief, he thinks first of the others. Here we have a vision of the innate nobility of Achilles at peace, what might have been if he (and the ancient world) had not been consumed by the passion of war. 
Aristotle's Politics: 
"The man who is incapable of working in common, or who in his self-sufficiency has no need of others, is no part of the community, like a beast, or a god." (57-58)

Book 24: Achilles Surrenders Hector's Body to Priam

Achilles' mother Thetis comes to him and tells him that Zeus himself has commanded that Hector's body be surrendered, for ransom, to the Trojans. Achilles will obey, but he is coldly indifferent to the offer of gifts. His anger remains unassuaged. However, that night Priam, the King of the Troy himself, appears in Achilles tent to plead for the return of his son's corpse for proper burial. Achilles begins to soften when Priam offers to kiss the hand of the man who killed his son. 
He finally breaks out of his prison of self-absorbed, god-like passion. Thinking of the approaching grief of his own father (since he knows that his own death is now fated to occur), Achilles looks at the war from Priam's point of view. Empathy is an entirely new experience for Achilles. This moment of compassion briefly humanizes Achilles. He suddenly sees into his own heart and glimpses his own nature, but at any moment his thoughts can be over whelmed by a return of his self-centered rage. (60)