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Achilles' Heroism in The Iliad

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  • 0:04 Heroism
  • 1:02 Conflict With Agamemnon
  • 2:33 Grief
  • 3:37 Battle Against Hector
  • 5:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joseph Altnether

Joe has taught college English courses for several years, has a Bachelor's degree in Russian Studies and a Master's degree in English literature.

Achilles' actions in Homer's 'The Iliad' might be questioned as those of a hero in the modern day. To the Greeks, though, a hero was someone who performed extraordinary feats. Because of Achilles' prowess on the battlefield, his accomplishments can be viewed as acts of heroism.

Heroism

Heroism, or an action deemed to be above and beyond the normal moral capabilities of humans, at times seems to have altruistic behavior attached to it. Acting in one's own self-interest tends to tarnish certain heroic acts. Yet when we look at who our heroes are today, when they're athletes, performers, or leaders, there is a bit of selfishness in them. Their actions on the screen, playing field, or world stage, are prominent and noteworthy, but outside of this realm, a different side of their personality comes to light.

Achilles' character suffers from similar scrutiny for his role in Homer's The Iliad. He is by far the greatest warrior for the Greeks. His exploits on the battlefield are well-known, showing such strength and courage that his enemies fear even his presence. Achilles is in every sense of the word a hero. Yet when one thinks of his actions in The Iliad, such as his public humiliation and defilement of Hector's corpse, whether his actions can be defined as heroism is questioned.

Conflict with Agamemnon

Achilles knows no equal on the battlefield. He is admired by many, including Agamemnon, king and leader of the Greek army, who refers to Achilles as ''godlike.'' His skill and accomplishments make him a hero to the Greeks. Achilles, however, feels slighted by Agamemnon. He mentions that ''the greater par of the painful fighting is the work of/my hands.'' The efforts of Achilles prevents defeat by the Trojans. How does Agamemnon repay Achilles' efforts?

Agamemnon stays on the sidelines and reaps all the benefits. Achilles believes that he should be better compensated for his acts of heroism against the Trojan army. Agamemnon pays no heed to this claim, until Achilles declares that he is leaving. He will return home if others are going to take credit for all his work. Agamemnon sends Odysseus, another prominent leader in the Greek army, to soothe Achilles's feelings. Odysseus pleads with Achilles to ''rescue/the afflicted sons of the Achaians from the Trojan onslaught.'' Achilles can't be appeased with mere words.

To some degree, Achilles appears spoiled. If he doesn't get what he wants, he's going to pick up and leave. His declaration, however, takes courage, and sets him apart from others. Achilles shows how desperately his skills are needed. Despite an offer of a multitude of riches to stay, Achilles does not yield. This refusal shows heroism on his part. While Achilles may crave the fame and glory, it doesn't rule him. He still has principles and self-respect. If others trod on this aspect of his character, he doesn't tolerate it. He fights heroically, not only for his country, but himself.

Grief

Besides his fighting skills, how else does Achilles show heroism in The Iliad? One unexpected manner is through his display of grief. The death of his good friend Patroclus at the hands of the Trojan warrior, Hector, serves as a defining moment for Achilles. His grief is so great that it could prevent him from further participation in the Trojan War, and his friends are even concerned that Achilles may decide to ''cut his throat with the iron.'' There is the fear Achilles may decide to kill himself.

During moments such as these, heroes find a way to rise above their pain and accomplish the extraordinary. For Achilles, this moment means much more. The death of Patroclus signals his demise as well, as this is how his fate was foretold. Achilles accepts this. He mentions that he will go ''overtake the killer of a dear life...(and) then accept my own death.'' Achilles not only has to deal with the grief of his best friend's death, but also accept his death will soon occur. He accepts these responsibilities without question, proving an act of heroism since this act sets himself apart from others while demonstrating great courage and strength.

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