Homer’s Iliad begins with a tribute to the forcefulness of its hero. “Rage- Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles” (I: 1), writes the poet. And though rage is hardly considered a praiseworthy characteristic in our society, the dynamism that brings it about, through which Achilles directly and indirectly drives practically all of the action in The Iliad, makes him a hero. The Ancient Greek Heroic code presents four attributes that a hero must exemplify- Aristos (supremacy in every situation), Arete (respect based on collected spoils), Aristeia (prestige, based on exploits), and Kleos (desire for glory and remembrance). Of course, these have the immediate counterparts of egocentrism, mercurialness, and the aforementioned rage, traits all clearly visible in Achilles, a character often distasteful to current audiences. But through his prowess in battle, his renowned strength, and his pursuit of further credit, he proves himself the quintessential Greek and Homeric hero.
In the first episode of the poem, Achilles’ consort Briseis is seized by Agamemnon, triggering his prayer to his mother Thetis for that king’s downfall. The fact that Achilles is so insufferable that he cannot bear the slight of a small loss of property (which a woman seized in battle would have been to him) is an outgrowth of Aristos, the need to be the best in any situation. The Achilles-Agamemnon feud is compounded by the fact that Achilles actually does consider himself the superior of the local monarch, as evidenced by the fact that he pledges to protect the prophet Calchas “even (from) / …Agamemnon here who claims to be, by far, / the best of the Achaeans (I: 106-108)” (italics mine). And so, when the Achaeans go to war with Troy, Achilles refuses to fight:
I swear, a yearning for Achilles will strike
Achaea’s sons and all your armies! But then, Atrides
harrowed as you will be, nothing you do can save you-
not when your hordes of fighters drop and die,
cut down by the hands of man-killing Hector! Then-
then you will tear your heart out, desperate, raging
that you disgraced the best of the Achaeans! (I: 281-287)

And the finality of this resolution stands until Achilles finally agrees to fight for the Achaeans in Book 19. He bears the distinction of being a hero who does nothing but sulk over the above insult for 18 books. This is because his reputation, the ultimate criteria in a heroic code grounded in others’ perception of a character, has been conveniently established before the action of the poem takes place (this because The Iliad continues an existing mythology). His Aristeia due to prowess in battle has already been proven (the Trojans use him as a standard by which to judge their own warriors in XIII: 311) and the spoils (such as the all-important Briseis) representing his Arete have already been acquired. His presence is such that all he has to do is wait. The Achaeans need him so much that they approach him repeatedly and beg him to “take pity/ on all our united forces mauled in battle here (IX: 364-365)” and battle the Trojans with them. And the Trojans fear him so much that “all their courage quaked, their columns buckled, / thinking swift Achilles (XVI: 328-329)” had emerged to battle, when they are faced with Patroclus attired in his armor.
Achilles’ dual drives for Aristos, for being better than and never giving in to Agamemnon, and Kleos, success in battle and the resulting honor, contend with each other for much of this time. In a telling aside, the poet notes that, when they come to ask him to relent, Ajax and Odysseus find Achilles
…delighting his heart now,
plucking strong and clear on the fine lyre-
beautifully carved, its silver bridge set firm
he won from the spoils when he razed Eetion’s city.
Achilles lifting his spirits with it now,
singing the famous (“klea”) deeds of fighting heroes (IX: 223-228)
In six short lines, Homer has encapsulated Achilles’ Arete- collected spoils (specifically the lyre), and his poignant Kleos- desire to be remembered in song. He (Achilles) will still refuse to fight, for now, but this is because of his pride, because Agamemnon has “torn honor from my hands, / robbed me, lied to me… / …he’ll never win me over! (IX: 417).”
Achilles’ underlying motives are complicated by the death of Patroclus. He tells his mother Thetis (whom we have no cause to believe he had reason to lie to) “I’ve lost the will to live, / …unless, / before all else, Hector’s battered down by my spear / and gasps away his life, the blood price for Patroclus (XVIII: 105-108)”. Of course the loyalty and humanity that he displays is immediately submerged in a vigorous claim that he will battle to “seize great glory! (XVIII: 144)”, and this too is doubtless of tremendous importance to him. But it is notable that Kleos alone is never enough to overcome his resentment towards Agamemnon. Achilles’ real impetus is the death of his friend and comrade.
In portraying this weakness, The Iliad transcends an archetype and paints a three-dimensional character. To the Ancient Greeks, a need for revenge (as opposed to a desire for glory or spoil) was an improper reason for fighting. In fact, a slain warrior’s memorial was a day of “funeral games” (XXIII), an almost perversely festive opportunity for other warriors to fill the void left by his passing and acquire glory for themselves. No trace of loyalty there. Indeed, once he is resolved to battle the Trojans, Achilles returns to heroic form. He “shook his head at the armies, / never letting them hurl their sharp spears at Hector- / some might snatch the glory, Achilles come in second. (XXII: 245-247).” In the end, this is all-important: Achilles cannot come in second. The Ayn Randian system in which he lives in one in which the highest moral goal is self-advancement. And, barring an isolated lapse, Achilles epitomizes the values of this system through his pervasive obsession with his image.


  • Homer. The Iliad (Fagles, Robert, trans.). New York: Penguin Book USA Inc., 1991.

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