Student Essay:
Achilles Atropos*

By Colton Kirby

Typical analyses of the Iliad identify his re-entry to the war upon Troy as the turning point of his character.
But does his character, in fact, turn?

The most important theme in Homer’s Iliad is the rage of Achilles. The entire plot turns on it: how it comes about, abides, and ceases. Many readers wish to see character development in Achilles, and believe that he does grow and change. But does he? The primary passage to examine this issue is that in which Achilles declares his decision to return to battle: Book XIX, lines 63-84.

To begin, let us examine a commonly-cited sentence in the passage in question: “How many fewer friends had gnawed the dust of the wide world, brought down by the enemy’s hands while I raged on and on? Better? Yes—for Hector and Hector’s Trojans! Not for the Argives.” On the face of it, it seems that Achilles recognizes what his actions caused: the death of his comrades. But is this repentance? Men were dying because of Achilles’ withdrawal all along; even when the ships were set ablaze, he would not go to battle. Why does Achilles only recognize that his anger caused destruction now? The reader sees here that Achilles does regret the results of his anger, but not the anger itself. Repentance would require seeing his wrong (the anger) as intrinsically evil. Achilles does not do this; as we will see, this is because he never actually repents from his anger.

How, then, does he keep a grip on his anger? “Despite my anguish I will beat it down,” Achilles declares, “the fury mounting inside me, down by force.” The language Achilles uses here is not that of release, but suppression. Repentance and the development of one’s character generally come with a recognition of wrong, and a turn away from it. That is not what we see here. Instead, Achilles desires to “beat” his rage “down by force.” The rage does not leave Achilles: he only suspends it. It remains as real as ever; he merely ceases its manifestation. This is not genuine repentance or change by any means. If Achilles were to repent, we would expect to hear different language from his own lips.

Of wrath, O goddess—sing of Achilles' wrath,
That slew ten thousand Greeks, who cast aside
Their noble lives, hurled into Hades' pit ...

Not only does Achilles not repent, he still rages—he just vents at something else. This is shown clearly in the very passage we are examining, which ends thus: “[Trojans will] gladly sink to a knee and rest at home, I say—whoever comes through alive from the heart of combat, out from under my spear!” If one were to argue that Achilles repents of his anger, it is curious as to why his “apology” ends in a battle cry. His only character development, only change, is toward active violence. His wrath has found a new object; he suppresses the rage he holds for Agamemnon, and replaces it with rage for the Trojans. A change of object does not make a change of character.

Furthermore, Achilles asks Agamemnon whether it was “better for both of us, after all, for you and me to rage at each other” and speaks of “the feud that flared between us both.” Achilles does not take sole blame for his rage but wants to lump in Agamemnon. It would be, dare one say, too shameful for Achilles to admit that he was the only one angry. Ironically, Achilles could blame Agamemnon for making him angry—but he does not even do that. We know from the text that Agamemnon is not angry with Achilles; what angry person would offer plenteous gifts to the object of their anger? Achilles not only shows no sign of genuine repentance, but he additionally blames Agamemnon for having “rage,” when it is only he himself who fumes.

As a final point, consider how Achilles disowns responsibility for his anger so much so that he wishes Briseis had died. This, perhaps, is the foremost example of Achilles’ unrepentance and lack of change: “… all for a young girl? If only Artemis had cut her down at the ships—with one quick shaft.” That is, he wishes death on Briseis, rather than admit that his anger is his own fault. We never hear Achilles say, or even imply, anything like: I shouldn’t have gotten angry. No. We hear, in terms that could not get much clearer: I wish that girl had died so that I wouldn’t have gotten angry. It is not something inside himself that causes rage, according to Achilles; rather, it is the existence of another human being. The rage of Achilles is Briseis’ fault (apparently her crime is being alive), not his own. This is yet another way in which Achilles tries to eschew responsibility for his anger, and lacks any character growth.

Achilles is a moral exemplar of nothing. He is childish, impulsive, evil, and unwise. He is not someone to be trusted or admired; he experiences no improvement in character, and does not repent of his wrong.

*Atropos (Ἄτροπος in the original Greek) means “unturning” or “unturnable”; it was also used as the name of the third Fate, she who cut the thread of life at its end.

Colton Kirby is a freshman undergraduate in George Fox University’s great books Honors Program, majoring in Theology & Philosophy and minoring in Literature. He is an Internship Fellow for the Cultural Enterprise at George Fox, and will be presenting a paper at The Undiscovered C. S. Lewis Conference in the fall. He married his lovely wife, Constance, last December.

Thank you for reading the Journal, and thanks again to Mr. Kirby for his contribution. If you enjoyed this piece, you might take an interest in some other essays by outstanding CLT students, including this extensive comparison between two other figures in Greek myth (Clytæmnestra and Medea), this examination of the ethics of the American prison system, and this essay applying just war theory to the Trojan War itself. You might also like our ongoing series on history and historiography, “Texts in Context,” which provides background to the lives and works of the names on the CLT Author Bank. Happy Friday!

Published on 31st May, 2024. Page image of a fresco from the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii, depicting Achilles (presumably the figure facing the viewer, center-left) ceding Briseis (right) to Agamemnon (between the other two); image contributed to Wikimedia Commons by user ArchaiOptix, and used under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license (source).

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