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?

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