Sing, heavenly Muse, the wrath of Peleus’ son,
Achilles was angry and he withdrew himself from the battle. The Greeks with all their zeal and efforts fared badly. Achilles’ friend Patroclus was killed by Hector. Achilles sought to take revenge and joined the battle. The death of Hector concludes the epic. This is, in fact, the structure of The Iliad. And hence Achilles stands in the same relation to this epic as Hamlet does to Hamlet.
Unlike the other epics, Iliad tells the story of a hero, whose fate is yet to be accomplished. Ulysses after many wanderings for years returns home and is united with his wife and son. Aeneas flies away from Troy and founds the Roman empire. He is married to Lavinia, and is destined to propagate a healthy race. The action of the epic is complete. But in The Iliad, the hero kills the slayer of his friend. And suddenly the curtain is rung down. The unity of action is there, but the fate of the remains undecided.
The Iliad deals with the two passions of Achilles wrath of Agamemnon’s high-handedness and the love for Patroclus. In no other epic does a passion figure so prominently as in The Iliad. The action begins with the passion of wrath. The death of Patroclus rouses his wrath once again, though it is directed against Hector. His inordinate love for Patroclus reawakens his energy.
Achilles is essentially an impulsive person. It is because of his wrath and impulsiveness that he has a perpetual epithet ‘Sulking’. Never amenable to reason, he is always governed by passion That is because he is half-divine and half-human. The element of beast is also not to be ignored. Violent, haughty, proud, egotistical, Achilles has also many lovable qualities, which distinguish him from men like Agamemnon and Menelaus. Homer has given him an epithet-‘Lion-hearted’. He has not the softer and nobler qualities, which characterise Hector. He is a product of the heroic age, when to be soft and meek was unthinkable. The virtues extolled in a knight in the medieval age were an anachronism in the days of Achilles. Everything about Achilles is keyed to the highest pitch. He is strong in his likes and dislikes, passions and prejudices. He is intensely passionate in his love as well as in his hatred. He has completely expunged the words ‘moderation’ and ‘compromise’ from his life.
Though so haughty, Achilles is not failing in his generosity. When informed that the innocent Iphigenia was brought on the plea that she was to be married to Achilles, he grew furious and offered to defend her from her father, and the furious Greeks, bent on sacrificing her.
Achilles is, no doubt, blood-thirsty. But fighting is not the only thing he was interested in. He has taste for art and music. Faced with a crisis, Ulysses and a few others went to Achilles requesting him to join the battle and save the Greeks. They found Achilles playing on a lyre and singing the deeds of the heroes of the ancient times.
Hospitality is another notable trait in the character of Achilles. As the messengers, led by Ulysses came to him, he ended a hearty welcome to them. He set them down and offered choicest food and drinks. He carved the meat for his guests.
But in spite of his passionate nature, Achilles never became mean and vulgar. Agamemnon insisted on the surrender of Briseis in place of Chryses. It was not the loss of a beautiful girl. What distressed Achilles was the loss of honour. Extremely sensitive to self-respect, he felt shocked that he was humiliated by a person, whose family wrongs he had come to avenge. He had no stake. Moreover he knew that he heightens the pathos of his life. And yet he never wanted to shirk the battle. He told his mother:
Do not try however much you love me, to keep me far from battle,
Like a child, Achilles burst into tears and called for his mother, who was at that time by the side of her aged father in the deep ocean-caves. Too proud to be anybody’s friend, too haughty to seek anybody’s counsel, he always clung to his mother in his deep distress. In this crisis in his life, his mother came and consoled him. And he, on his mother’s advice, withdrew himself completely from the battle.
The Greeks faced reverses in the battle at the hands of Hector. And what Achilles had prophesied came true. Ulysses and others came with a message from Agamemnon with his pride humbled. Achilles remained from to justify his righteous indignation. Even this prospect of getting back Briseis did not move him. But his iron resolution broke only at the thought of avenging the death of Patroclus, whom he loved. It was then that he was roused from inaction by his own noblest passion. He has to choose between a long, inglorious life and a splendid death that assures him of glory.
The inflexibility of his will may appear to some as an expression of his egotism. But it is something more. It is an attempt to vindicate his honor. He and his Myrmidons did so much for the Greeks. Troy was in constant dread of him. It was he who saved the Greek ships from Hector and his hordes. A shout from him made the Trojans fly. And in return he was subjected to indignity, which flesh and blood could not tolerate. Achilles, therefore, had his justification for maintaining the firmness of his stand.
The wrath of Achilles was replaced by grief at the death of Patroclus. Had he been bribed by the gift of Briseis, it would e an expression of base lust. The ice melted when tears of grief rolled down his cheeks. He tore his hair and threw dust on his head. Love for his friend removed the impossible barriers and drove him headlong to the battle. And we know that love is a noble passion, to which the other virtues are subservient.
Thetis came again to caress and console the grief-stricken child. He donned the armor, made by Vulcan on his mother’s request and went ahead to earn glory and death at the same time. Endowed with a human voice, Xanthus, one of his horses said to him:
Verily shall we save thee yet this time fierce Achilles, but close at hand is thy doom’s day. Nor of this are we the cause, but great God in heaven and resistless fate.
As the dead body of Patroclus was being burnt in the funeral pyre, Achilles poured wine on it throughout the night.
Had the epic closed here, we would have seen the hero in a state of mental turmoil, and that would not have been compatible with spirit of a classical epic. But the poet must continue and leave us with a different impression about the hero, Vandalism was let loose when Achilles killed Hector. He unleashed all the forces of savagery, and killed the Trojans indiscriminately. Hector had appealed to him- and that was his lest wish- to give his dead body to his people. Achilles had replied what he would throw his corpse to the dogs and the vultures. He dragged the body to the ships and threw it on the dust, for dogs and vultures to feast upon it. Not contented with that, he lashed the corpse, and tying it to his chariot-wheels, dragged it along the dust. He sacrificed twelve Trojan suppliants to appease the disconsolate spirit of Patroclus. Even the gods and goddesses were horrified at the desecration of the body of Hector.
We would never like the hero of an epic stooping so low, and indulging in violent emotions bordering on sheer brutality. And hence Homer continues the story till we meet our hero with no more bitterness and rancour, no more revenge, no more fury and rapacity.
Jupiter asked Thetis to go down to the earth and pacify her untamable son. The savage hero became human when Priam came to him to ask for the dead body of his son. He relented at the sight of the old father. He remembered his own old father, Peleus, who was anxiously waiting for his return, but waiting in vain. The leonine ferocity was all gone. A new man was born full of generosity and even tenderness.
The Greeks, who read The Iliad with as much reverence as a Christian reads his Bible, regarded Achilles to be an object of emulation. For to them he was embodiment not of ferocity and egotism, but of courage and honor. We have it on the authority of Plutarch that Alexander the Great sought to emulate Achilles. He carried a copy of The Iliad, whenever he would set out on military expeditions. He visited the tomb of Achilles and offered libations and homage to him. To quote Plutarch:
ran naked about his tomb, and crowned it with garlands, declaring how happy he esteemed him in having, while he lived, so faithful a friend, and, when he was dead, so famous a poet to proclaim his actions.