Achilles in The Iliad: Character Analysis & Description

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  • 0:04 Achilles' Role
  • 0:33 Wishes of Revenge
  • 1:27 Rejection of Peace Offerings
  • 2:00 Violent Rage
  • 3:07 Achilles as Every Soldier
  • 4:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Catherine Smith

Catherine has taught History, Literature, and Latin at the university level and holds a PhD in Education.

Achilles is the central figure in Homer's epic ''The Iliad,'' and his brooding personality and combative behavior drive much of the plot. This lesson looks at Achilles's character and the way it affects the action in the epic.

Achilles' Role

Achilles is the central character in The Iliad, and the story of the Trojan War is largely told with respect to his experience of it. The Iliad begins with Achilles getting into an argument with Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek troops, because Agamemnon has publicly shamed Achilles by taking away his war prize, a woman named Briseis. Achilles responds to this insult to his pride by withdrawing himself and his men from the conflict, which means that the Greeks will continue the fighting without their greatest warrior.

Wishes of Revenge

Not only does Achilles decide to sit out the war, which immediately puts all the Greek troops at risk, but he also prays that disaster will strike them. In Book One, Achilles asks his mother, the goddess Thetis, to ask Zeus to help the Trojans:

''…Bid him give succour to the Trojans. Let the Achaeans be hemmed in at the sterns of their ships, and perish on the sea-shore, that they may reap what joy they may of their king, and that Agamemnon may rue his blindness in offering insult to the foremost of the Achaeans.''

It's noteworthy that Achilles is asking this not because he is angry with his fellow warriors, but because he bears a grudge against Agamemnon and he wants him to suffer. Furthermore, Achilles wants to demonstrate that the Greeks cannot do as well in the war if he's not fighting alongside them. This demonstrates a particularly vengeful part of Achilles's character; it's not everyone who would be happy to see so many people suffer and die simply to prove a point to one man.

Rejection of Peace Offerings

One might think that Achilles would be pleased, then, when the Greeks start to lose and Agamemnon attempts to make peace with him in order to bring him back to the fighting. However, Agamemnon's apology and gifts, which are offered to Achilles in Book Nine, are not enough for Achilles, who decides not to return to the fighting after all. Achilles's rejection of Agamemnon's attempt to reconcile with him makes it clear that Achilles is not simply concerned about saving face in front of his fellow soldiers. At this point, it's obvious that Achilles is holding a grudge and seeking to punish Agamemnon beyond what is reasonable.

Violent Rage

Although Achilles is largely concerned with his own suffering, he does care very much for one of his fellow soldiers: Patroclus. When Patroclus is killed in battle at the end of Book 16 while wearing Achilles's armor, Achilles flies into a rage and kills so many Trojans that the rivers become blocked with their corpses. We read this description of Achilles's rage in Book 21:

''Forthwith the hero left his spear upon the bank... and plunged into the river like a god, armed with his sword only. Fell was his purpose as he hewed the Trojans down on every side. Their dying groans rose hideous as the sword smote them, and the river ran red with blood... Achilles' arms grew weary with killing them…''

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