Achilleus: An Evolving Character

During the first 125 lines of Book 18 in the Iliad, the character of Achilleus undergoes a metamorphosis as he responds to the death of his beloved friend, Patroklos. Tragically, Achilleus finally finds his role in the Trojan War just as he accepts the imminence of his own death. It is a decisive moment in the whole of the Iliad and especially in the evolution of Achilleus’ character. The Myrmidon hero seems to age suddenly as the pain of his companion’s death makes him realize the gravity of both his past faults and his destiny. Fundamentally, he recognizes his mistake in nursing his anger so unreasonably, and he submits to authority for the first time in the epic by recognizing the reality of his own death. The reader can also appreciate the loss of much of Achilleus’ selfishness, the sorrow that motivates his desire for revenge, as well as the misfortune of youth cut short after being blighted by rage.At line 109, Achilleus’ description of anger “that swarms like smoke inside of a man’s heart and becomes a thing sweeter to him by far than the dripping of honey” perfectly captures his own behavior in the Iliad up to that point. Despite the requests, apologies, and gifts that were offered to him by Agamemnon and other Achain leaders, Achilleus refused to admit his mistake until his friend paid the price for it. He chose instead to wallow in his pride and convince himself that the loss of Briseus was an unforgivable insult to his honor. In his bitterness and childish stubbornness, he watches his companions die and allows his friend to go into battle without him. Not until Book 18 does Achilleus realize to what extent anger had clouded both his reason and his heart. Furthermore, he accepts full responsibility for his actions, saying “I must die soon, then; since I was not to stand by my companion when he was killed” (18.98). Achilleus blames himself, not the gods, for the death of Patroklos. Unlike the other characters in the Iliad, Achilleus is able to analyze his own character objectively. Instead of complaining that Zeus has unjustly caused all his hardships, Achilleus stoicly faces the fact he is to blame for the anger in his heart and the hardships that it caused. Though he goes on to act under the influence of his anger perhaps even more than previously, he is at least aware of his tragic flaw.Achilleus also seems to suddenly gain wisdom through the necessity of accepting authority for the first time in his life. Before, he acted like a spoiled child, always following his selfish whims and asking his divine mother to solve his problems. When Agamemnon insulted Achilleus initially, he immediately embraced his anger, rejected the king’s leadership, and asked his mother to persuade Zeus to punish his own companions. Neither duty nor loyalty swayed his thinking in the least. Without considering consequences, he acted only on the basis of his desires. Though he knew that he was mortal, death always seemed distant because he knew he had no equal on the battlefield. However, when Achilleus learns from Thetis that he must die soon after Hektor (line 96), he is faced with a power that he cannot reject, escape, or ask his mother to reverse. Finally behaving like a man, he must bear the burden of this knowledge alone and submit to its reality. This is clearly a turning point in the character of Achilleus. When he states, “I will accept my own death, at whatever time Zeus wishes to bring it about” (18.115-6), the rebelliousness of his former self seems to have been replaced by a grim awareness of the futility of fighting destiny.Aside from the revelations that occur in Achilleus’ own mind, the reader can find points of further significance in this scene. First of all, it is clear that Achilleus is no longer living for himself or even for his own glory. His only wish is to avenge his friend’s death, for he says, “the spirit within does not drive me to go on living…, except on condition that Hektor…pay the price for striping Patroklos.” The resolution that he displays in facing his death perhaps denotes his awareness of the justice of dying for the sake of another after living his whole life for himself alone. Also, this scene clearly shows that it is a heart wrenching sorrow that motivates Achilleus’ desire for vengeance, not simply a bloodthirsty hatred of Hektor. In fact, when he makes the conscious decision to pursue the Trojan prince, he is under the influence of grief, but not yet anger. Furthermore, after the eloquence of Achilleus’ words and the depth of his self-analysis, the reader cannot help but mourn in advance the loss of a mind only beginning to show its subtleness. Only now when wisdom will no longer be of any use to him, Achilleus shows his intellectual potential and seems to acquire a perspective on life that is as comprehensive as a god’s but sensitive to the value of human life in a way that only a man can be.The opening pages of Book 18, though exhilarating in the depth of emotion and reflection that they capture, are among the gloomiest in the Iliad. Here, Achilleus suffers bitterly from the death of Patroklos, faces his own imminent death, and realizes that much of his life was wasted in anger and selfishness. Without help from his other companions, the gods, or even his mother, he must bear these blows alone and choose his course of action. The fact that Achilleus decides to fight for the honor of his friend and then willingly die, instead of simply leaving the conflict altogether, shows that his character is indeed heroic. However, he remains flawed to the end and bitterly aware of this fact. It is perhaps this very suffering that makes the character of Achilleus so unmistakably human. For as Zeus stated, “among all creatures that breathe on earth and crawl on it, there is not anywhere a thing more dismal than man is” (18. 446-7).

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