Book Review: The Iliad
Learning from the Wrath of Achilles
I thought The Iliad was the story of the War of Troy. It’s not. It’s a small part of it, towards the end of the war but before the famous horse.
The story starts with the word “Wrath,” sometimes translated as “Anger” or “Rage,” because the “Wrath of Achilles” is what the story is really about.
I read The Iliad as part of my great books project, and one thing I’m trying to do is ask myself why this story has lasted, or why it may have had significant value at the time.
The Wrath of Achilles was originally an oral story by Homer, so we have to imagine it told to a small group, maybe around a campfire, maybe over the course of a week or longer. And of Homer’s works we really only have these two stories: The Iliad and The Odyssey, so what makes these stories special?
The Iliad is really the story of Achilles and the consequences of his wrath. The story opens with him arguing with Agamemnon, the leader of their siege against Troy, and as a result of their dispute Agamemnon takes Achilles's woman Briseis (who he won in conquest but also seems to have a romantic relationship with) and Achilles says he and his men will refuse to fight any longer. He then spends most of the story sulking and avoiding fighting.
There’s a strong theme of loss as a consequence of rage. The loss of Briseis is the first consequence, but later Achilles (friend? lover?) Patroclus also dies fighting while Achilles is still pouting, and many of Achilles’s friends (including Odysseus) are wounded to various degrees by the Trojans.
Among the most significant things Achilles loses from his rage is his honor. Early in the story, there’s a duel between Hector, the leader of the Trojans, and Ajax, one of the leaders of the Greeks. Their duel eventually ends in a tie, but look at the respect they show each other:
Great Hector of the flashing helmet said:
'Ajax, the god has given you size, strength and ability, and you are the best spearman on your side. Let us bring today's duel to an end. We can fight some other time, till the powers above decide between us, and one of us wins. Also, it is nearly dark. It is sensible to take that into account.
'Then you will bring joy to the Greeks back at the ships, your friends and relatives above all; while I too shall get a warm welcome in lord Priam's town from the Trojans and the Trojan ladies in their trailing gowns, who will enter the sacred assembly to offer up prayers in my name. But first let us both exchange prestigious gifts, so that Trojans and Greeks alike can say:
"These two fought each other in soul-destroying combat, but were reconciled and parted friends.”
They’re fighting on opposing sides and have been trying to kill each other for around 8 years at this point, but they still duel with honor and their armies respect the terms of engagement.
But in the story’s climax, Achilles's rage has reached its peak and he challenges Hector to a duel to try to avenge the death of Patroclus. He’s a little less civil about it.
But let us call on the gods to witness an agreement: no compact could have better guarantors. If Zeus grants me staying-power and I kill you, I will not violently maltreat you. All I shall do, Achilles, is to strip you of your famous armour. Then I will give up your body to the Greeks. You do the same.
Swift-footed Achilles gave him a black look and replied: 'Hector, I'm never going to forgive you. So don't talk to me about agreements. Lions don't come to terms with men, the wolf doesn't see eye to eye with the lamb - they are enemies to the end. It's the same and me. Friendship between us is impossible, and with you there will be no truce of any kind till one of us has fallen and glutted the shield-bearing god of battles with his blood.
'So summon up all the courage you possess. This is the time to show your bravery and ability as a fighter. Not that anything is going to save you now, when Pallas Athene is waiting to bring down with my spear.
Hector tries to have a respectful duel where their families can recover their bodies, but Achilles basically says “no fuck you” and proceeds to kill him, tie him to his chariot, then drag him back to camp in the dirt. Not nice.
It isn’t until Achilles is visited by Priam, the father of Hector and king of Troy, that he realizes how far he’s descended into his madness and is able to break out of it:
“Achilles, respect the gods and have pity on me, remembering your own father. I am even more entitled to pity, since I have brought myself to do something no one else on earth has done I have raised to my lips the hands of the man who killed my sons.
With these words he awoke in Achilles a longing to weep for his own father. Taking the old man's hand, Achilles gently put him from him, and they were both overcome by their memories: Priam, huddled at Achilles' feet, wept aloud for manslaying Hector, and Achilles wept for his father, and then again for Patroclus. The house was filled with the sounds of their lamentation. But when godlike Achilles had had enough of tears and the longing had ebbed from mind and body, he leapt at once from his chair and in compassion for the old man's grey head and grey beard took him by the arm and raised him.”
I can imagine a Santa-like Homer sitting by the campfire stroking his beard telling this story, and advising leaders to “remember the wrath of Achilles.” He would be telling them to remember the consequences of getting carried away by wrath and vengeance, and how even if we eventually repent, it may not be enough. Achilles does realize how lost he became and gives Hector’s body back to Priam, but it’s too late. The gods had sealed Achilles's fate, and he dies sometime soon after his redemption.
So is The Iliad a good book? Honestly not really. The story lags heavily in parts, there are long sections just describing ships and families, and if we think of Achilles's Wrath and its consequences as the main story arc then there is a lot that doesn’t particularly contribute to it. It is probably more useful as a tool for history, for understanding the era in which it was written, and for getting more context on some of the major characters.
That said, it is I think a worthwhile story to have gone through for the sake of respecting history, and for seeing what else can be gleaned from it. It’s also the first “superhero” story in some ways, so it’s interesting to see how timeless that idea is and how many aspects of it persist throughout history. I’m glad I read it.
You can also see the rest of my highlights here.
The hero image is “The Fury of Achilles” by Charles-Antoine Coypel.
After writing this I found “Great Books Guy” post on “What is the Rage of Achilles” and he makes a good point:
Notably the rage of Achilles, a natural outward impulse, is initially directed inward -toward the Achaeans. The greatest threat to Achilles’s power comes from within his own tribe. However, once his great passions are drawn externally, toward Hector, the killer of Patroclus, Achilles immediately relinquishes his rage toward Agamemnon. He, as the archetypal warrior, and can only direct his anger toward one kind of enemy: internal (against the city) or external (toward an enemy of the city).
I like this distinction, I hadn’t thought of that as the turning point for when Achilles ends his feud with Agamemnon and rechannels his rage externally.