Ajax and Achilles

Did Achilles have a choice?

In Iliad 9, Achilles famously reveals that two options are available to him: either he can remain in Troy, die in battle, and be immortalized, or he can return home and live a long but unremarkable life. The debate over whether he actually has control is one of those delicious labyrinths that always seems to end, in my mind, with Achilles not having the choices that he thinks he has.

Achilles’ has been infamously described as ‘sulking’ in his tent, but I wonder, why has he not gone home? He claims that he will in his conversation with Odysseus during the embassy scene in Iliad 9, yet he never does. Why doesn’t Achilles pack up his Myrmidons and go home?

This weekend, I’ve been reading Sophocles’ Ajax, and it has me thinking over that embassy scene. Both Ajax in the play and Achilles in the Iliad experience destructive rage. Zeus weaponizes Achilles’ rage in his plan to end the age of heroes, while Athena redirects Ajax’s rage to ensure he does not harm the Achaeans. In both cases, too, rage is brought on by being denied their prizes, which represent their honor. Both subsequently ‘choose’ death. It seems that neither Ajax nor Achilles can return home to their fathers having been so dishonored as to be stripped of the physical manifestations of their achievements.

As with Achilles’ so-called ‘sulking,’ contemporary critics can be rather contemptuous of this desire for prizes (and, in the Odyssey, gifts). But while what we consider appropriate honors may not be the same, have we really, in our time, transcended the desire to be recognized for what we contribute?

What do you think?

4 thoughts on “Ajax and Achilles

  1. I don’t think we have transcended the desire for recognition. I think anyone who cares about doing the best they possibly can would want to be recognized for it. They already know they won’t be paid for it, at least they could get an award.

    I once worked for a company that every year gave out a chrome-plated A to the top 2 percent of worldwide employees. I worked my tail off for years trying to get one. I did get Employee of the Year one year and a really nice plaque, but it wasn’t the chrome-plated A of Excellence so I just “retired.” I know that’s dumb but I really wanted that award.

    1. Thank you for sharing this experience. It is exactly the perfect example of what not only the Iliad but many of the tragedies inspired by the Troy story illuminate, which is our desire to have our excellence and effort seen and appreciated. That really is what makes these works so timeless!

      1. Yes but why did Achilles have to get killed? I would have liked it better if it was a love story instead of being so tragic. The Iliad reminds me of Legends of the Fall, in both stories Brad Pitt tragically loses his girlfriend, just like in real life ☹️

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