making sense of a hero's motivation

Thetis takes achilles from the centaur chiron, by batoni pompeo, 1770

Thetis takes achilles from the centaur chiron, by batoni pompeo, 1770

Mother tells me, the immortal goddess Thetis with her glistening feet, that two fates bear me on to the day of death. If I hold out here and lay siege to Troy, my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies. If I voyage back to the fatherland I love, my pride, my glory dies…true, but the life that’s left me will be long, the stroke of death will not come on me quickly.

Achilles, the Iliad IX, 500-506

Perhaps no mythological figure has aroused more controversy, both in ancient and modern times, than the Thessalian warrior Achilles. In Classical Greece, Achilles was widely admired as a paragon of male excellence and virtue. Later, during the height of the Roman Empire, his name became synonymous with uncontrollable rage and barbarism. Alexander the Great, the primary subject of the Achilles Gene, treated the hero as both his idol and his competition. In this article, I try to make sense of the somewhat contradictory interpretations of Achilles' motivation for returning to battle during the Trojan War. 

First, a brief explanation of who Achilles and his fellow Greek heroes were. The ancient Greeks believed that a heroic age took place in the distant past. During this age, a collection of exceptional mortal men, whom they called heroes, accomplished a variety of superhuman feats. They outsmarted the gods, escaped treacherous terrain, and defeated magical beasts. 

Of all these heroes, Achilles was considered the most skilled on the battlefield. He is the protagonist of Homer's epic poem the Iliad, which documents the events of the tenth and final year of the Trojan War. The basic narrative arc of the epic is this: Agamemnon, the supreme commander of the Greek armies at Troy, dishonors Achilles by taking his share of the spoils won in battle. In response, Achilles withdraws from the fighting altogether and contemplates returning home to live a peaceful life. He is aware of a prophecy, made before he was born, which said he would either live a short, glorious life or a long, obscure one. So, with his honor called into question, Achilles is tempted to take the latter option. However, just as he is preparing to depart for good, his dearest friend Patroclus is killed by the Trojan prince Hector in battle. This infuriates Achilles to the point that he takes up his arms once again and goes on an unparalleled rampage through the plains outside Troy. After killing Hector, he ties his body to his chariot and drags him around the city's walls in a show of animalistic rage. 

Achilles knew that, by returning to battle, he was sacrificing his own life. This decision to choose eternal glory (kleos aphthiton) over long life was seen as the ultimate sign of heroism by many in Classical times and beyond, including Alexander the Great. In his brilliant book The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours, Harvard professor Gregory Nagy explains Achilles' motivation:

He chooses kleos (glory) over life itself, and he owes his heroic identity to this kleos. He achieves the major goal of the hero: to have his identity put permanently on record through kleos. For us, a common way to express this goal is to say: “you’ll go down in history.” For the earliest periods of ancient Greece, the equivalent of this kind of “history” is kleos (Part I, Hour 1)

Bernard Knox, former Director of the Center for Hellenic Studies, echoes this sort of explanation, writing that Achilles is driven by "his obsession with honor" and only cares about his own glory. According to Knox, the hero is "a prisoner of his own self-esteem" (56). 

But is this really an accurate characterization of Achilles' pivotal decision? Is he really driven to sacrifice his life by an obsessive quest for honor and glory? One scene in the Iliad suggests the answer to both questions is no. 

When Achilles leaves the battlefield after his dispute with Agamemnon, the Trojans gain the upper hand on the Greeks. Desperate to convince their best warrior to return, Agamemnon sends an envoy of Achilles' closest friends to his tent to persuade him to reconsider his decision. During this scene, Achilles calmly informs his friends that he is no longer interested in giving up his life for the sake of heroic ideals. His exact words are below:

The same honor waits for the coward and the brave. They both go down to Death, the fighter who shirks, the one who works to exhaustion (IX 386-388).
Cattle and fat sheep can all be had for the raiding, tripods all for the trading, and tawny-headed stallions. But a man's life breath cannot come back again - no raiders in force, no trading brings it back, once it slips through a man's clenched teeth (IX 493-97).  

Not only does Achilles reject the envoy's offers of material reward, but he rejects the entire premise that glory is worth a man's life. His confrontation with Agamemnon at the beginning of the Iliad seemed to have caused him to reconsider his reasons for fighting in the first place. He questions the inherent value of honor as a function of how many spoils of war one is awarded. He also calls his fellow Greeks - whose respect he is expected to earn - "worthless husks" for not standing up to Agamemnon. Later, during the embassy scene, Achilles' former mentor Pheonix tells him that he will be forgotten if he does not fight. Achilles responds by saying he no longer needs to be remembered. His honor comes through "the decree of Zeus", not his legacy among men. In other words, his value is innate, not earned. Achilles makes it clear that he now values his own life over the opinions and recognition of others. Guided by this newfound perspective, he begins making preparations to sail back to Greece the following morning. 

The scene described above clearly contradicts the notion that Achilles sacrifices his life in order to secure everlasting fame and glory. He may have been motivated by glory before he withdrew from battle, but afterwards his priorities shift. Through his own words, we can infer that his subsequent killing spree is motivated chiefly by anger and revenge, not concern for his legacy. If this is so, it appears that at least one popular characterization of Achilles - the man who gave everything up in pursuit of his legacy - is flawed.  

However, there is one alternative explanation that may reconcile these two interpretations. It has to do with the nature of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. According to Gregory Nagy, the name "Patroclus" can be literally translated as "the one who has the glory of the ancestors". Nagy makes the case that Patroclus was a kind of alter ego of Achilles and that the hero's quest to avenge his friend's death and his quest for glory are one in the same. Knox makes a similar argument, based on a confession Achilles makes about his deepest desire - that everyone besides he and Patroclus perish. 

Oh would to god - Father Zeus, Athena, and lord Apollo - not one of all these Trojans could flee his death, not one, no Argive (Greek) either, but we could stride from the slaughter so we could bring Troy's hallowed crown of towers toppling down around us - you and I alone! (XVI 115-119). 

"Clearly what he (Achilles) really wishes for is a world containing nothing but himself and his own glory, for Patroclus, whom he now sends out in his own armor, he regards as part of himself," Knox writes (53).  

So it appears there are a few possible answers to the question of what motivated Achilles to return to battle at Troy:

  1. It was a straightforward matter of anger and revenge. Achilles is characterized his extreme abilities - both positive and negative. He still wished to return to Thessaly and live in peace, but his rage toward Hector was overwhelming. If this is true, Achilles did not ultimately value his glory over all else. 
  2. There is no coherent explanation for the hero's return to battle. Adherents of this theory remind us that the final form of the Iliad was developed through oral performance, which often included improvisation. With this in mind, it is unrealistic to expect characters to contain fully-developed inner lives. Their actions and words are the product of theatrical and narrative imperatives, not a genuine appraisal of an individual's emotions. 
  3. The Iliad is a more sophisticated and layered story than proponents of #2 give it credit for. The meaning of Patroclus' name and the nature of his relationship with Achilles gives credence to the idea that, by avenging Patroclus' death, Achilles was simultaneously seeking eternal glory. From this perspective, the character of Patroclus served as a symbol of Achilles' glory. 

So, which answer is correct? I'm not sure. The more I read about Achilles and contemplate his actions and words, the more  human he seems. But maybe that stems from some underlying desire I have to humanize him. It's hard to resist the urge to believe that Achilles and the other heroes were more than symbols or the product of narrative devices. Like the Classical Greeks, we want to believe these heroes were real. That, had we been on the shores of Troy three thousand years ago, we could have had a conversation with them. We want to believe that we could have sat beside Achilles, as Patroclus did, while he strummed his lyre and sung the sad songs of the heroes who died before him. 
 

Sources: 

  • The Iliad, Homer, translated by Robert Fagles
  • The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours, Gregory Nagy