This is a re-post of an entry I wrote for another blog a couple of years ago.
So The Iliad has been around in print for, what, 2,800 years, roughly? And then hundreds of years before that in oral form … that’s pretty old. Achilles has to be considered the most famous hero of all time, with literally millions upon millions through the centuries having been made aware of his exploits on the beach at Ilium and in front of the gates of Troy. And look at all the stuff named after him: foot tendons, of course, and giant mansions built by eccentric Austrian empresses; automobile companies and seven different ships of the British navy through the years; what are, I’m sure, really bad rock bands, and syndromes and dilapidated towns in Kansas. You get the idea — it’s a lot of stuff.
Generally, you don’t get a lot of things posthumously named after you unless people thought you were really great; ergo, tons of those millions of people thought — and still think — he was a magnificent warrior, and the ancient Greeks themselves called him one of their greatest heroes. All this is a little surprising, however, because by the time I had worked my way through The Iliad, all I could think was: wow, what a selfish, whiny, arrogant dick.
Achilles truly is — by today’s standards — a magnificent asshole. He’s the equivalent of a star quarterback, or almost supernaturally-gifted point guard, who refuses to play in the championship game unless he’s brought a mass of blue M&Ms in a bowl made of delicate imported jade, by the finest young, nubile virgins to be found, while his teammates all prostrate themselves before him in an incense-infused ritual of fawning and ecstatic worship. And his pique seethes on a level of genocidal proportions; after being slighted by Agamemnon, he beseeches his mother, the sea-nymph Thetis, to go to Zeus and ask for the Achaeans — his own people — to be slaughtered by the Trojans until Agamemnon apologizes (Book I: 410). Later, even after Agamemnon does apologize (not to mention offer Achilles the modern-day equivalent of a private island, jet, yacht, millions of dollars, and, of course, more of those fine, nubile young virgins), Achilles still refuses to fight, only deigning to do so once his good friend (or whatever he was), Patroclus, is killed.
I mean, even the narrator (Homer, or whomever actually wrote it) implies that Achilles is a giant douche; not only is The Iliad not about the Trojan War per se, but expressly ‘the wrath of Achilles,’ when Achilles kills Hector and drags his body behind the chariot (see the painting above, of Achilles in his glorious pose . . . did you notice there’s a corpse trailing along in the dust behind the wheels?) the narrator calls it a ‘monstrous act’ (Book 22: 495), and later says it was very disrespectful. And yet the people rejoiced at his name.
Why? Well, what we seem to have here is the first anti-hero in Western literature (and I’m sure this idea is not a new one — I’m not trying to lay claim to making some sort of new and brilliant statement of literary criticism). Although this point about him being an anti-hero would maybe only apply if you do decide to judge Achilles by today’s moral standards (which is why in the movie Troy, his personality and actions are altered to make him more palatable to modern audiences); again, going back to the Ancient Greeks, he was their greatest hero because they used different standards — he fulfilled everything on their checklist to the utmost, even though that checklist seems archaic to us now.
For them, to achieve greatness, you needed to have as much of two important things as you could:
Arete — ‘virtue’
Being virtuous is still within the modern schemata for a hero, except that the Greeks had a different conception of virtue than us. The word arete comes from the same root as ‘manliness,’ meaning that your virtue derived from how manly you were — namely, how many cities you had sacked and pillaged, how many women you had carried off, and how many times you had gotten even with people who had messed with you. So Achilles killing Hector in retribution for the death of Patroclus was considered a highly virtuous act (regardless of the cadaver-dragging that ensued afterwards . . . although it is telling once again that even the narrator comments on the barbarity of it, meaning that perhaps even arete had its limits — not that many of Achilles’s fans then or now seemed to mind).
Kleos — ‘fame’
What’s the point of earning all that arete if nobody knows about it? Arete was useless unless you doubled it up with a hefty dose of kleos, and in the days before social media (Facebook status update — ‘Achilles, son of Peleus, is SACKING CHRYSE AND HAVING A BLAST! ^-^) this basically meant that wherever you went, you had to tell everyone about all your wonderful exploits, all the time. This is why, I think, arrogance was considered so acceptable; it was just a normal part of building your kleos.
As potentially flawed as Achilles seems today, I still think it’s worth reading this giant, long-winded ode to his rage (which you can do here for free) if only for all the crazy wackiness that goes on when he’s just sitting around pouting by his ships; there’s the rampage of Diomedes, the comical ‘Twins‘ moments with Telemonian and Lesser Ajax, the ordeals of Hector (whom I actually rather liked, certainly much more than Achilles), and of course, best of all, the exploits — both powerful and ridiculous — of the gods themselves. You’ve got Zeus’s indecision and gullibility (the scene where Hera seduces him is hilarious), Athena and Poseidon’s courage, Aphrodite and Apollo’s selfishness, Ares’s shame, and Hephaestus just puttering about making a bunch of really cool shit. It is a little of a misnomer, in fact, that The Iliad opens with the invocation to the Muse that it does, considering that — although Achilles’s petulance is certainly a driving force behind the narrative — his rage itself doesn’t show up until Book 19. So there’s lots of other stuff to dig your teeth into.
Next up, The Odyssey, which someone once told me was kind of boring, despite it being the classic archetype for the quest narrative in all of Western literature. We’ll see.