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.