As the heroes of The Iliad are slain in blood, Homer gives each of them an epitaph in poetry, that they may die not as expendable masses, but as men with names. Even as they fall, death swirling round them, the blind poet looks for the monument of man, decrying its absence while railing at the meddlesome gods and goddesses that fly from the field of human carnage with scraped wrists and wounded feelings. But in singing his anti-war war epic, Homer maintains a reluctant, recoiling reverence for the gods. When the gods unleash their madness upon men, Homer captures a pre-Christian expression of the inscrutability of the gods and the human mistrust of divine benevolence. Though The Iliad shakes its fist at heaven, it ultimately offers submissive sacrifice to the gods and the godlike hero, Achilles. His is a character that Homer conceived as controversial as it is colossal—and its colossal controversy lies not in Achilles’ departure from the tradition of the Greek hero, nor in his adherence to the tradition of the Greek god, but in the divine tragedy of being a Greek hero who is like a Greek god.
In the tenth year of the Trojan War over the rape of Helen of Sparta, Chryses, priest of Apollo, implored King Agamemnon for his captive daughter, Chryseis. When Agamemnon spurns him, Chryses prays to the distant deadly Archer and plague ravages the army. As the corpses pile higher, Achilles urges Agamemnon to deliver the Argives from death by returning the slave-girl to her father. Agamemnon acquiesces, but commandeers Achilles’ concubine, Briseis, in an act of spite and the self-assertion born of inferiority. So began the wrath of Achilles, “that wrath which hurled to Pluto’s gloomy reign the souls of mighty chiefs untimely slain,” when he refused to fight for Agamemnon, who dared murder the honor of the godlike man fated to live a short life, but one of great glory on the battlefield of Troy.
Achilles’ choice to relinquish the fight until he was exalted by the victories of Hector and his Trojans is commonly interpreted as selfish and petulant. What man would leave his countrymen to die over a personal affront? It is, however, a decision demanded by Achilles’ godlike nature. When the gods rage, nations perish; and thus, in justice, godlike Achilles has no choice but to abandon the people whose king tore them away from his grace. The brutality of the divine nature is further corroborated in the Olympians that impel the war, divided as they are over the judgment of Paris, when he awarded the golden apple “for the fairest” to Aphrodite. Though Hera and Athena hold a strange objection that the goddess of beauty should not win a beauty contest, the gods and goddesses plunge into the resulting war, picking sides, swapping cities, and playing favorites. Over and over again, they blatantly proclaim the incompatible distance between the immortals and men who die, being “not of the same breed” in the taunting words of Apollo to Diomedes.
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This distant, divine nature that rages in the breast of Achilles soars on a higher plane of logic and law than the body it is housed in, evoking the struggle between heaven and earth together with the desire for some impossible resolution. In fact, Achilles’ heroism is challenged by his own godlike nature. While Achilles fulfills the characteristics of the Greek hero, such as being favored by the gods and a possessor of great strength, his requisite glory and honor is threatened by his also-requisite tragic fate and flaw. Achilles has a tragic fate, a brief life, and though his honor hangs upon this fate, it is at the same time imperiled by his tragic flaw—which is, and controversially so, that he is godlike. It is Achilles’ godlike nature that makes him hard to respect, hard to revere. It is his honor and his shame. It is his divinity that is his tragedy. Like the other immortals, Achilles is of a different breed, and men struggle to adore him even as they do their pantheon. The Iliad explores not only how hard it is to be a hero, but also how hard it is to be like a god among heroes. When the two are brought together, the result is tragic, divinity being the very reality that makes the heroic status difficult to achieve on a human level. In short, it is difficult to admire the divine, and admiration is central to heroism.
Achilles pours out his existential crisis to the Argive ambassadors when they come to persuade with him, given Hector’s rampage and his brazen bivouac outside the Achaean rampart. But Achilles, broiling in insult, rejects their arguments as he calls the entire heroic paradigm into question: “One and the same lot for the man who hangs back and the man who battles hard. The same honor waits for the coward and the brave. They both go down to Death, the fighter who shirks, the one who works to exhaustion.” The prophecy of Achilles’ glory suddenly seemed a lie, and thus Achilles becomes faithless, despondent; not knowing that the path to his glory would only become clear under worse circumstances. When the beloved Patroclus, wearing Achilles’ armor to win breathing room for the Argives, dies at Hector’s hands, his death allows Achilles to return without capitulating to Agamemnon. The king’s filthy prostitution price becomes a sacred blood-price, and Achilles reappears to avenge Patroclus, putting an end to Hector’s heart-breaking denial of fate—sealing at once his own glory and his own doom.
The Iliad is Homer’s vehement attempt to reconcile god and man, clairvoyantly musing on how terrible and wonderful it would be if a man possessed a divine nature. Though Achilles is fierce in his rage, the transgression put by, his character completes an unexpected arc after the death of Hector. At the funeral games for Patroclus, Homer suddenly presents a vision of godly benevolence as Achilles presides with majestic kindness, awarding prizes to all. Furthermore, when King Priam infiltrates the Argive camp to beg for the body of Hector, Achilles shows an empathy contrary to his unsympathetic withdrawal. Homer closes his epic, which often lambasts and bewails the gods, with a pious wish that the divine nature might become compassionate towards human nature.
The revolution from the City at War to the City at Peace involves reining in the impudence of kings who lash out against the inherent dignity of nature and society, refusing to accept that the ways of the gods are not the ways of men. As Agamemnon demonstrates, such impious, hot-headed behavior only plunges nations into unholy turmoil—though it can also call attention to man’s self-inflicted isolation and restore the humility that reunites man to the blessings of the gods. While Homer is certainly on to something when he suggests that war is the natural, unquenchable state of man—even the City at Peace suffers from bloodshed and blood-price—there is yet a dance beyond the clash of heaven and earth, a realm of harmony, where man can regain his proper place before his forsaken gods. The crisis of the forsaken god is the divine tragedy of Achilles. It is, in a way, the tragedy of Christ crucified and Christ-less society, when man murders Truth in brash, self-important pride that regards nothing as sacred. Beneath the divine, dramatic upheaval, The Iliad is seeded with the hope that God will not abandon the kings of the earth no matter how blinded they are by Ruin.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “The Triumph of Achilles” painted by Franz von Matsch in 1892.