Why does Achilles refuse to fight for Agamemnon and the Greeks until the death of Patroclus?

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In Book 1 of the Iliad , Agamemnon is forced to return the girl Chryseis to her father, a priest of Apollo, in order to end a mysterious plague that has been afflicting the Greek army. Agamemnon is resentful about losing his “prize,” and when Achilles tries to reason with...

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In Book 1 of the Iliad, Agamemnon is forced to return the girl Chryseis to her father, a priest of Apollo, in order to end a mysterious plague that has been afflicting the Greek army. Agamemnon is resentful about losing his “prize,” and when Achilles tries to reason with him, Agamemnon lashes out and declares that Achilles must also lose his prize, the girl Briseis. Achilles bristles at Agamemnon’s behaviour and an argument ensues, by the end of which both men are so angry that Achilles decides to quit the battlefield and go home with all his soldiers. Agamemnon has insulted Achilles’s honour, which was an extremely serious thing in Ancient Greek culture. It would take equally serious measures on Agamemnon’s behalf to repair the damage he has done by publicly insulting Achlles, and Achilles is not willing to accept any apologies Agamemnon makes.

Achilles is, of course, the pre-eminent soldier in the Greek army, so when he quits the battlefield, the Greeks lose their advantage against the Trojans. Patroclus is grieved to see how badly the Greeks are losing, and begs Achilles to let him go out and fight with them while wearing Achilles’s armour, to give the Greeks the impression that Achilles has come back to help them. Achilles reluctantly agrees, but is anxious that something will happen to Patroclus. When Patroclus is killed by Hector, Achilles’s rage and grief drive him to avenge his friend’s death. He makes the point to Agamemnon that he is not returning to fight for Agamemnon’s sake, but in order to avenge Patroclus.

It’s important to state that Achilles is unique in his ability to do this. The rest of the Greek leaders were all once suitors of Helen, the wife of Menelaus. When they were trying to win her hand in marriage, Helen’s father, Tyndareus, made all the suitors swear an oath to support Helen’s husband in the event that Helen was ever kidnapped. The rest of the Greek leaders are therefore honour-bound to support Menelaus (and his brother, Agamemnon) in the war to retrieve Helen from Troy. Achilles, however, was never one of Helen’s suitors – the only reason he is present at Troy is because it is his fate to die a glorious death in battle. When Agamemnon insults him, he is therefore able to walk away from the battlefield, because he has no obligation to fight.

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Achilles is a fierce, heroic fighter, but he is also a flawed human being. He lives emotionally and impulsively, likes to have his own way, and suffers from a good deal of pride or vanity. Perhaps like most superstars (and Achilles is undoubtedly a superstar of the battlefield), he is more than a bit of a prima donna.

Achilles therefore gets unduly insulted when Agamemnon takes Briseis, the young woman Achilles captured, as his own war spoil. Agamemnon's act enrages Achilles, who wanted her for himself. Feeling "dissed" and undervalued, he goes off and sulks in his tent, refusing to fight, even though the Greeks really need him. Just as a fight over a woman started the war, so too does a fight over a woman threaten to undo the Greeks by starting them squabbling amongst themselves.

When his good friend Patroclus is killed, however, Achilles's strong emotions again take over, this time in a different way. Now, he is more interested in avenging Patroclus against the Trojans than in avenging himself against Agamemnon, and he swings into battle. This shows that loyalty to a good friend and a brave solider is more important to Achilles than a quarrel over a woman.

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Achilles refuses to fight because his pride has been injured by Agamemnon. It was common in those days for victorious warriors to take captured women from the enemy as spoils of war. The women would then become concubines, or mistresses, for the men who'd captured them. Achilles's concubine is Briseis, but he's been forced to give her up to Agamemnon, whose own concubine had to be returned to her father to appease the wrath of Apollo.

Achilles is so angry at this, which he regards as an insult to his status as a noble warrior, that he sulks inside his tent for much of the action, even while his comrades are being comprehensively slaughtered by the Trojans. It's only when his dear friend Patroclus is killed by Hector that he emerges from his tent to do battle. This shows that for Achilles, the Trojan War is personal, and that his participation in the conflict has more to do with satisfying the needs of his own monumental ego than with achieving victory for the Achaeans.

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Achilles is enraged because Agamemnon quite arbitrarily takes possession of Briseis, his "maid of honor" (i.e. his concubine), a girl whom Achilles had kidnapped from a Trojan priest. Achilles in reprisal refuses to fight and withdraws his force of Myrmidons from the battlefield. He does not leave Troy but simply lounges in his tent while the Greeks, without his powerful assistance, are being driven back by the Trojans led by their hero Hector, until the Trojans are actually threatening to destroy all the Greek ships and some of the ships are actually in flames.

This is an artistic device on the part of Homer. He saves his most  fearsome warrior until near the end of his epic, thereby creating a powerful dramatic conclusion, especially since Achilles is so angered at the death of his good friend Patroclus that he drives the entire Trojan army off the battlefield and into the walled city, with the exception of Hector, who feels duty bound to stand and fight him. When Achilles slays Hector that is the beginning of the end for the Trojans.

In his play Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare wrote some amusing scenes about Achilles lounging in his tent with Patroclus.

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