Achilles’ Choice

How do you feel about Achilles?

I’ve been surprised to notice how much animosity exists towards the ancient Greek hero Achilles. I’ve been trying to understand the source of it. Are people reacting to Homer’s Achilles, or are Roman and Hellenistic portrayals a contributing factor? Is it the way Achilles has been portrayed in popular media—films and literary retellings, modern anthologies? Are contrasting sensibilities, ancient against modern, the reason? Can I lay this at the feet of my favorite scapegoat, Madeline Miller and her insipid portrayal of both him and Patroclus (and Thetis and so many others who are so beautifully and tragically whole in Homer)?

Who/what is this Achilles who some find so offensive?

My understanding of Achilles is influenced by how I understand ancient Greek heroes: As described by Hesiod, they are an earlier tribe of mortals, who have divine ancestry and direct contact with the gods. Heroes are larger-than-life, and their extraordinary strengths can manifest in both positive and negative ways.

My feelings about and response to Achilles are also influenced by how I read the myths, which is not as a unified narrative that can be pieced together by collecting stories across the centuries and retrofitting them into a coherent chronology. Even if they have the same names, Homer’s heroes for me are not the same as Euripides’ or Virgil’s or Ovid’s. Yes, they are part of a larger tradition of storytelling that paradoxically preserves through innovation. But rather than thinking of them as a single narrative, I think of the different versions of the myths as parallel lives, existing in alternate universes, told from different points of view, in the service of different socio-political agendas.

When then I talk about Achilles, I am talking about the Achilles I meet in Homer: an angry young man who has been brought far from home to die for a cause that is not his own. If he sacrifices his mortal life at Troy, Achilles will be immortalized through epic song and honored in hero cult. The poem is so self-aware about this that I cannot think of Achilles as being unaware that he is a sacrificial offering.

The Achilles we meet in the Iliad still seems to believe he has a choice—to live a long, unremarkable life or to die bodily but be immortal in memory. This Achilles, I think, resists his fate, does not want to choose. But if Achilles does not choose, there is no song. If there is no song, there is no memory. Since the song (the Iliad) exists, we, who hear or read it, know what choice Achilles made. Patroclus’ death ensured that Achilles would also choose to die, granting both himself and Patroclus kleos, immortal fame through epic song.

The shade of Achilles that we meet in the Odyssey is no more happy about his choice-that-was-not-a-choice than he was in the Iliad:

“Do not try to comfort me about death, splendid Odysseus./I would rather be a land-labourer, bonded to another man,/one who owns no land, and with little enough to keep him/alive, than to be king over all the dead who have passed away.” 11.488-491, Anthony Verity’s translation

It seems that Achilles did not choose immortal fame for himself, though he did achieve it. It seems that he would have been more happy to have lived a long, happy, but unremarkable life. Yet he chose death and fame, not for himself, not for Menelaus and Agamemnon and Helen, but to avenge Patroclus, for whom he felt responsible. Ultimately, Achilles’ choice was motivated by his sense of responsibility to Patroclus.

I feel compassion for Achilles, as I do for all of us seeking meaning in life.

6 thoughts on “Achilles’ Choice

  1. This is such an interesting question.

    The way you see Achilles gives so much more depth to him than I found in “The Iliad” on my own.

    I think one part of it is what Homer (“Homer”) chose to focus on. For me “The Iliad” didn’t go into most characters’ motivations, etc, in a very elaborate way that gave me a ton of insight and sympathy towards them, except an overall sadness for their situation. If Homer had used some soliloquys or asides or dialogues, etc, to explain Achilles’ personality and struggle they way you do here, I think that would have hit me harder. It’s just a question of stylistic preference, I guess, in that case.

    For me, I think another part of it may be that his struggle is at once universally understandable and very specific to him. I found Hector, torn by family responsibility and the desire to live and see his own son grow up, much more relatable and sympathetic in that story, because his struggles are more relatable to me, maybe.

    I also think it could simply be the kind of hero that has mass appeal. Typically today we have “dark”, brooding heroes like Batman, or noble, fairly uncomplex heroes like Captain America or even Spider-Man (not to say Spidey doesn’t have his conflicts and struggles). Achilles, to me, in “The Iliad”, is this angry, moody dude who often acts irrationally. I get his pain, but in a way, his behavior to me isn’t heroic compared to some others’. That said, I personally don’t dislike him – I just don’t relate to him as hard as I do to some other “Iliad” characters.

    On the other hand, the way he’s portrayed in “The Odyssey” is heartbreaking.

    I’m not familiar with his portrayls in other ancient literature, so I can’t speak to that.

    For those who’ve seen movie/TV portrayals of him, I’m surprised it’s negative. I haven’t seen many films/shows that involve Achilles as a character, but Brad Pitt in “Troy” is one of the most beautiful human beings to ever live and be filmed, so I think my thoughts on him there are positive overall 😉 and I feel like most people who saw that movie as just an action flick and didn’t put too much thought into it, probably feel the same – but I could be wrong about that. It’s hard to put my thoughts on “Troy”-era Brad Pitt aside….

    1. I love reading your responses, Alysa, thank you! They somehow always trigger a realization in me. So for example, with Achilles’ portrayal in Homer, I’ve been struggling to understand and articulate what makes reading Homeric epic so challenging for modern readers, and of course it’s many things. But one thing in particular that has been on my mind lately is that it’s written for insiders. It’s not really written for people who outside this culture in which myths and heroes saturate every aspect of our lives, and we understand what their role and meaning are in relation to our lives. This, I think, reflects its oral composition and transmission: It was composed to be shared among people who know these stories and characters, not to be read far and wide by individuals, even though it eventually was. Ahh, thank you again for giving me a little “aha” moment 🧡

      1. Wow, I am also having an “aha” moment – I think you hit the nail on the head! I definitely don’t have the insights and background for Achilles, including a lot of cultural context, that I do for many other famous heroes. That is definitely a huge part of it – and I agree, it must be an issue for so many readers!

        I guess the question is, can someone “translate” Achilles to our modern world? Either through a nonfiction guide/book, or a novel – sort of the anti-Madeline Miller? I would love to see you have a go at this…especially based on things I’ve already read and heard from you about this subject! 🙂

      2. I am honored by your confidence in me! I do need to at least try to do this at some point, though, if only so I can stop complaining about it on public forums, haha 😅

  2. I can certainly see some animosity coming from Miller’s portrayal after reading her book this year. I’ve never had a negative opinion of Achilles but I certainly wasn’t fond of his character in her version of the telling. That’s been the most in-depth I’ve ever engaged with his story though so I feel I have less of a sense of who Achilles or his character is, besides feeling more drawn in my own bias to the thought of him being scared of this fate of being a hero with a short life and his desire for something different.

    1. I always somehow end up ranting about Madeline Miller. 😬 Funnily enough, I’ve read Song of Achilles twice and enjoyed it, as its own thing (a modern novel) rather than as an Iliad retelling. It was only after I’d attended one of her talks and experienced the way she speaks about mythology that I realized she was really rather harmful in that she presents herself as a person who understands this literature when it’s very clear that she doesn’t (not than anyone really understands it, but she doesn’t even really try). An author doesn’t need to, of course, and can tell the myths any way she wishes. But don’t then presented yourself as a historian or classicist who has studied these texts on their own terms.

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