Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1428
Essential Passage 1: Book I
SING, O GODDESS, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.
Homer begins his tale with an invocation to the gods, specifically the Muse. He points to the fact that it is the anger of Achilles that has brought so much grief on the Achaeans, rather than the war with the Trojans over the abducted Helen. At this point, the ninth year of the Trojan War, tragedy breaks out. A quarrel erupts between Achilles, the leading hero of the Achaean army, and Agamemnon, whose brother Menelaus brought all of them together to reclaim his wife Helen from Paris, prince of Troy. Agamemnon has lost his war prize, the daughter of the priest, Chryses, whom he captured during the battle of Thebes. Hearing the grief of Chryses over his daughter, and seeing the rich ransom that he is willing to pay, the Achaeans agree that Agamemnon should indeed return Chryseis to her father. In humiliation at this loss, Agamemnon takes Briseis, Achilles war prize to replace his own. Because of this, Achilles’ wrath breaks out and the two camps of the Achaeans are split, even as they fight together against the Trojans.
My good friend, when your father Peleus sent you from Phthia to Agamemnon, did he not charge you saying, "Son, Minerva and Juno will make you strong if they choose, but check your high temper, for the better part is in goodwill. Eschew vain quarrelling, and the Achaeans old and young will respect you more for doing so." These were his words, but you have forgotten them. Even now, however, be appeased, and put away your anger from you.
As the war continues, the Achaeans are losing the battle. In a conference of the leaders, it is finally confessed that they need Achilles, who left the fighting early due to his quarrel with Agamemnon. Accepting the situation reluctantly, Agamemnon agrees to return to Achilles the girl Briseis, along with a humble request that Achilles return to fight alongside of his countrymen. The envoy sent to Achilles to make this appeal is led by Odysseus. However, Achilles is adamant that he will not return. Faced with Achilles’ pride, Odysseus reminds him of the words his father told him when he went off to join Agamemnon. His father, Peleus, warned him of giving way to his wrath, because maintaining the goodwill of those with whom one fights is of greater worth than whatever conflict might arise. Odysseus appeals further to Achilles’ pride, stating that the Achaeans will regain their respect for him if he puts away his wrath and return to the conflict. Odysseus accuses Achilles of purposefully forgetting his father’s warning and has clung to his pride instead.
Essential Passage 3: Book XIX
When the Achaeans were got together Achilles rose and said, “Son of Atreus, surely it would have been better alike for both you and me, when we two were in such high anger about Briseis, surely it would have been better had Diana's arrow slain her at the ships on the day when I took her after having sacked Lyrnessus. For so, many an Achaean the less would have bitten dust before the foe in the days of my anger. It has been well for Hector and the Trojans, but the Achaeans will long indeed remember our quarrel. Now, however, let it be, for it is over. If we have been angry, necessity has schooled our anger. I put it from me: I dare not nurse it forever; therefore, bid the Achaeans arm forthwith that I may go out against the Trojans, and learn whether they will be in a mind to sleep by the ships or no. Glad, I ween, will he be to rest his knees who may fly my spear when I wield it.”
Thus did he speak, and the Achaeans rejoiced in that he had put away his anger.
Patroclos, wearing Achilles’ armor, has re-entered the conflict, fighting Hector and losing his life. In his grief over at the death of his best friend, Achilles is in despair and all his company with him. His mother, Thetis, procures new armor from Hephaestus for him, which will protect him in battle should he choose to return. Realizing how his quarrel with Agamemnon has now lost him his best friend, Achilles decides to rejoin the war. He confesses to Agamemnon that the loss of his war prize was not worth the price of his friend, that his anger has come with too high a price. It would have been better, he states, if Briseis had died rather than cause so great a tragedy. He begs the Achaeans to forget the quarrel and join together once again to fight the Trojans, who have profited so much from Achilles’ wrath. Agamemnon puts aside his anger as well, once again offering to Achilles the great gifts that he had previously held out to him.
Analysis of Essential Passages
The Iliad begins with the topic of wrath. Homer bids the Muse to sing of the wrath of Achilles and all that resulted from it: the wrath of Achilles towards Agamemnon, the wrath of Menelaus against Paris, the wrath of the gods against each other and against mankind. The causes of this wrath are as varied as the effects. Whether pride or jealousy, whether presumption or betrayal, all have led to the wrath that is the driving force of the ten-year Trojan war.
The wrath of Achilles and Agamemnon is like two petulant children fighting over a toy. Yet in this case, the “toy” is a living human being, Achilles’ “war prize,” Briseis. Agamemnon has lost his own prize, so he takes the prize of another. In a way, Achilles’ wrath is justified. Briseis “belonged” to him and thus he was under no obligation to hand her over to Agamemnon on orders. Achilles joined in with Agamemnon as an equal, not as a subservient warrior. He had no duty to Agamemnon other than to fight the battles to retrieve Helen. As his mother Thetis warned him, Achilles was to die at Troy, but live forever in honor. By withdrawing from the battle, he is giving up his chance at honor, leaving him simply with his wrath.
Wrath is one characteristic that Achilles had perfected long before he joined forces with Agamemnon. This trait was evidently present since childhood, since his father Peleus warned him against giving into to his anger before he left home. As his mother foretold the consequences of his going to battle, so his father foresaw the cause of his downfall. Achilles was counseled to show strength by showing goodwill. By protesting against the loss of Briseis, he instead lost more—honor.
It is only at the death of Patroclos, the person he loved most in the world, that Achilles understands the full cost of his wrath. He has lost his best friend, and he will eventually lose his own life. As Achilles grieves for Patroclos, he is met by Priam, who begs for the body of his son. As Achilles sees his own loss mirrored in that of Priam, his heart begins to soften enough to gain the strength of forgiveness and eventually honor. He forgives Agamemnon, rejoins the battle, and ensures that he will indeed survive in tales of courage for generations.
Throughout the Iliad, wrath is the foundation of most of the actions of the leading players. It is this that has brought them to the brink of mutual annihilation. Perhaps in a sense Achilles would have wisely chosen to withdraw from this debacle, even if the cause was the slight to his own pride. It would be for this, as his mother prophesied, that would ensure his survival in this life. Yet by rejecting his place at Agamemnon’s side in the battle with Troy, Achilles might have saved his life, but instead lost his honor. It is this that was the highest goal for the ancient warriors. Better than life itself, it is one’s honor and that alone that justified their existence, both in this life and in the life to come as heroes in the annals of humanity.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support