“Rage–Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, / murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, / hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls” (Iliad 1.1-3). From these first lines to the very last, the Iliad by Homer is about Achilles, his rages, and their consequences. The crucial quarrel is the one with which the Iliad opens. After relinquishing his war prize and concubine Chryseis to appease Apollo, Agamemnon demands Achilles’ prize Briseis as recompense. Offended by this imperious treatment but forced to submit, Achilles breaks with Agamemnon and removes himself from the Achaean army. Although Achilles’ anger stems from an undeniable offense, Achilles should not have withdrawn from the conflict because the Achaean army needs him, the war is not about his personal quarrels, and he has agreed to help Agamemnon and Menelaus reclaim Helen.
As Homer reveals from the outset, the Achaeans need Achilles, and his absence has dire consequences for the Achaean army. Being Peleus’ son, Achilles leads a large army of Myrmidons, and when Achilles withdraws from the war, the Myrmidons follow him, depleting the Argive fighting force (Iliad 2.780-83). Additionally, Achilles is a valuable warrior, whom even Agamemnon describes as “worth an entire army” (Iliad 9.140). In fact, Homer seems to consider Achilles the only Argive capable of defeating the Trojan hero Hector (Iliad 7.326-34). And as Patroclus proves when he fights disguised as Achilles, defeating Hector and the Trojans requires more than merely the fear and awe that Achilles inspires. To conquer Hector necessitates the strength and skill only Achilles appears to possess. Ultimately, however, Achilles’ withdrawal proves the Achaeans’ need of him, for his absence prolongs the war – indirectly resulting in more Achaean deaths (Iliad 1.1-5). Although at first heroes like Diomedes bring the Achaeans success and fill the hole Achilles leaves, the Trojans soon gain the upper hand. No longer fearing an encounter with Achilles, the Trojans grow bold, thrust the Achaeans back to the beaches, and set fire to one of the Achaean ships (Iliad 16.148-50).
Not only do the Achaeans need Achilles, but the war is not about Achilles’ personal grievances. The ultimate purpose of the war with Troy is to regain Helen for Menelaus, and the secondary purpose is to punish Paris (Iliad 9.409-12; 3.30-33). Yet Achilles places his honor above the lives of his comrades and above the allegiance he owes Agamemnon and Menelaus. In fact, though Achilles considers submission to Agamemnon’s affront as shameful, it is actually Achilles’ selfish response that shames him. According to the Book of Proverbs, “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city” (Authorized Version, 16.32). Instead of demonstrating self-control, Achilles selfishly throws friends in harm’s way when he leaves the army in his attempt to avenge affronted pride.
In addition to owing his comrades loyalty, Achilles has agreed to help Agamemnon and Menelaus reclaim Helen. Achilles declares to Agamemnon, “We all followed you, / to please you, to fight for you, to win your honor / back from the Trojans – Menelaus and you” (Iliad 1.186-88). Achilles further owes Agamemnon his allegiance, for Achilles’ father Peleus has sent him to fight for Agamemnon (Iliad 9.306-7, 533-34). Additionally, the Achaeans and Zeus have appointed Agamemnon head of the armies, and even Achilles acknowledges Agamemnon and Menelaus are the “supreme commanders” (Iliad 9.114-16; 1.444). Achilles particularly owes Menelaus steadfastness in the war because it is on Menelaus’ behalf the Achaeans are fighting. For this reason, the actions of Agamemnon are an insufficient cause for Achilles to desert the entire war.
Some might argue that Achilles should have removed himself from the army because Agamemnon has wronged him. However, Achilles should not have withdrawn because he leaves out of pride, still owes allegiance to Agamemnon and Menelaus, and brings disaster on his allies as a result.
If Achilles leaves the army because Agamemnon has broken the law, his actions might be justified. As Homer makes evident, however, Achilles acts out of pride. What offends Achilles is that Agamemnon takes the prize which the Achaeans have given to Achilles as a symbol of his honor (Amos 29). Although Achilles repeatedly speaks as if Briseis is crucial in the quarrel, his actions argue otherwise, for he quickly yields to Agamemnon’s demands and even declares
“My hands will never do battle for that girl,
neither with you, King, nor any man alive.
You Achaeans gave her, now you’ve snatched her back.
But all the rest I possess beside my fast black ship –
not one bit of it can you seize against my will, Atrides.
Come, try it!” (Iliad 1.349-54)
By his tone and words, Achilles indicates he is more interested in displaying his superior prowess to Agamemnon than in avenging injustice. Achilles mentions his disgraced honor twice as much as his love for or loss of Briseis, and even his references to Briseis are colored with an interest in his own glory. For example, when laying his plight before his mother Thetis, Achilles says, “Agamemnon…disgraces me, seizes and keeps my prize” (Iliad 1.421). Achilles lists his disgrace first in his complaint and only refers to Briseis as “my prize.”
In addition to acting for the wrong reasons, Achilles still owes Agamemnon allegiance, for Agamemnon’s actions have not negated it (Iliad 1.186-88; 9.533-34). As the Argives’ supreme commander, Agamemnon acts within his rights when he takes Briseis, for “he was entitled to a special prize out of any booty taken” (Warry 11). According to one historian, “A consideration of the role which [Agamemnon] plays in the Iliad suggests that his apparent military and political supremacy was as much a question of honour as of jurisdiction” (Warry 11). Thus, losing Chryseis – if seen as a slight to Agamemnon’s honor – gives him the right to increase his honor with a replacement, even if doing so means dishonoring another man.
Above all, Achilles should not have punished the Achaeans for Agamemnon’s actions. To begin with, the Achaeans try to stop Agamemnon from taking Briseis from Achilles, despite the fact that Agamemnon is irascible and has the largest army (Iliad 1.329). Nestor pleads with Agamemnon not to seize Briseis (Iliad 1.320-23), and later the Achaeans are quick to urge Agamemnon to appease Achilles and give Achilles gifts to recompense him (Iliad 9.133-35). Most importantly, though, Achilles himself absolves the Achaeans from guilt, telling those who come to take Briseis, “You have done nothing to me. / You are not to blame. No one but Agamemnon” (Iliad 1.395-96). Yet despite these claims, Achilles willfully hurts his comrades, invoking Zeus to “mow them down” and let them all “reap the benefits of their king” (Iliad 1.485-90).
Although Achilles’ anger stems from a genuine outrage, he should not have withdrawn from the battle. As Homer proves again and again, Achilles’ comrades need his help and suffer in his absence. When he withdraws, Achilles punishes the innocent along with the guilty, breaks his allegiance to Agamemnon and Menelaus, and hinders the purposes of the war – to reclaim Helen and punish Paris. Through the Iliad, Homer reveals the nature of pride and its consequences. Those who are proud are self-centered, value the opinions, but not the lives, of others, and lead themselves and those who surround them to harm. In the Iliad, Homer exemplifies how detrimental pride can be, for Achilles’ pride and subsequent rage have unforeseen ramifications that prove destructive both to himself and to his comrades.
Amos, H. D. and A.G.P. Lang. These Were the Greeks. Chester Springs, Pennsylvania: Dufour Editions, Inc., 1996.
Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Robert Fagles. London, England: Penguin Books, 1990.
The Holy Bible: Authorized Version. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, n.d. Print.
Warry, John. Warfare in the Classical World. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004.