Troy and the Bronze Age


Achilles' Wrath and the Plan of Zeus

Dr. Diane P. Thompson

 (Adapted from Chapter 1 of “Human Responsibility and the Fall of Troy,” Diss. CUNY, 1981 © Diane Thompson)

The Iliad 1 begins and ends showing people in a normal state, before and after the wrath of Achilles has precipitated the plan of Zeus. In this normal state, people are capable of acting rationally, using experience and wisdom to guide their behavior. However, during the main action of the Iliad, the wrath of Achilles and the plan of Zeus, people live in an extraordinary state of human/divine crisis, because human emotions have broken down those barriers which serve to protect them from the gods.2 In such a human/divine crisis, the disorder of human passion spreads outward, intensifying like a plague, affecting the gods themselves and disrupting the normal order of the cosmos. The resulting cosmic disorder is wonderfully represented in the Iliad by the chaotic battle of the elements between the river Xanthus (water) and the god Hephaestus (fire). 

The passions of the gods are stimulated and magnified by the emotions of human beings, producing an interactive intensification of violence that can only be ultimately controlled by the plan of Zeus, requiring the deaths of Patroclus and Hector. These deaths, carefully orchestrated by Zeus, serve to reestablish boundaries and distance between humans and the gods: their relationships are normalized; the barriers are restored; and the contacts between humans and the gods are once again carefully regulated by the prudence and rituals which serve to protect people from the gods.

Human actions initiate events in the Iliad. However, once the gods are involved, people become helplessly caught up in the terrible logic of a system of rules that operate as relentlessly as the laws of physics. This system is called the plan of Zeus; it is inexorable; it is deadly; it works itself out by causing many human deaths. It is a balance of powers rather than a system of morality. The golden scale expresses the essence of the law of Zeus--balance. Human actions upset that balance in the first place, causing the human/divine crisis of total war that governs the action of the Iliad.3

Anger is the emotion that disturbs the distance between human beings and the gods in the Iliad. Uncontrolled anger destroys orderly social relationships and upsets the balance of correct actions necessary to keep the gods away from human beings. Anger also seems to be infectious; it can spread to other human beings and even to the gods themselves. But anger can and should be controlled, in order to preserve human society and protect it from the wrath of the gods.4

Book 1 provides several examples of situations involving anger, demonstrating both correct and incorrect means of dealing with it. Agamemnon directs his anger against Chryses, Calchas, and Achilles, all men with close relationships to the gods. Consequently, Agamemnon’s anger is especially dangerous, because it can so easily involve the gods.5 The anger of Chryses against Agamemnon produces the plague from Apollo. The anger of Achilles against Agamemnon sets off the wrath. Once Achilles petitions Zeus for revenge, the plan of Zeus is put into action, which in turn sets off the anger of Hera against Zeus, as well as the anger of various other gods, each with his/her own agenda.

Anger in the Iliad can be directed outward against the enemy, as in a war, or it can be directed inward, against one's own social group. These two modes of anger have radically different results: one promotes the order of the world; the other destroys it. The anger of Chryses against Agamemnon is actually constructive. Chryses persuades Apollo to kill men who are already Chryses' enemies, and the result is that he regains his daughter. But the anger of Achilles is purely destructive, since he persuades Zeus, via Thetis, to destroy members of Achilles' own social group and glorify the enemies of that group, purely for personal honor.6

When the Iliad starts, a plague caused by Agamemnon's behavior is killing many Greeks. Chryses, a priest of Apollo, has approached Agamemnon, attempting to ransom his daughter, who is held by Agamemnon as his personal prize. Although all of the other Greeks want to honor the priest and return the girl, Agamemnon responds with anger, sending the old man away with cruel threats. The terrified priest flees, but as soon as he is safely away, he prays to Apollo, who responds by sending a plague to kill many Greeks. This is the Iliad's first example of the conjunction of human and divine anger creating a human/divine crisis. Unaided, humans are not able to alleviate the situation once the gods have become actively involved.

However, another god, Hera, takes pity on the Greeks, and she inspires Achilles to call a meeting to investigate the causes of the plague. There is a general awareness that the plague is sacred in nature, and Achilles suggests that they inquire of a seer or priest as to its specific cause. The seer Calchas explains that Apollo is angry with the Greeks because of Agamemnon’s rude treatment of Chryses. Only by returning Chryses’ daughter and performing ritual sacrifices will the Greeks appease Apollo's anger and stop the plague.

Agamemnon initiated this human/divine crisis of plague by his angry treatment of Chryses. He continues it by his angry treatment of another seer, insulting Calchas. Agamemnon is furious and makes no attempt to control his anger: "and with rage was his black heart wholly filled, and his eyes were like blazing fire" (Il. 1. 103-4). Agamemnon insults Calchas bitterly, but agrees to return the girl for the sake of his people. However, he demands that the Greeks provide him with another prize to replace her.

Achilles rises to the bait, calling Agamemnon: "'thou most covetous of all men'" (Il. 1. 122). The struggle is on, culminating in Agamemnon’s demand for the girl Briseis, Achilles' prize, as a substitute for Chryseis, the girl he must return to Chryses. Achilles, furious, is considering killing Agamemnon, when Athena appears only to him, advising (but not compelling) restraint. Hera has sent her, since she loves Achilles and Agamemnon equally.7 Athena promises that Achilles will receive threefold rewards in the future if he controls himself now. 

Achilles agrees to cooperate and sheaths his sword. However, he swears an oath to Agamemnon that will become the core of the plan of Zeus: "'verily shall a longing for Achilles some day come upon the sons of the Achaeans one and all, and in that day shalt thou in no wise be able to help them for all thy grief, when many shall fall in death before manslaying Hector. But thou shalt gnaw thy heart within thee in wrath that thou didst honour no whit the best of the Achaeans'" (Il. 1. 240-44).

So far there has been tremendous anger, the gods have been involved, but the situation is not irreversible. Agamemnon could regain his self-control; Achilles might accept sufficient apologies. It is at this point, when correct action is still possible, that the master of correct action, Nestor, rises to speak, giving good advice that could repair the situation. Nestor's age and experience are sources of wisdom that can teach men how they ought to behave. Nestor tells the two quarreling leaders:

"Neither do thou, mighty though thou art, seek to take from him the girl . . . nor do thou, son of Peleus, be minded to strive with a king . . . for it is no common honour that is the portion of a sceptred king to whom Zeus giveth glory. Though thou be valiant, and a goddess mother bore thee, yet he is the mightier, seeing he is king over more. Son of Atreus, do thou check thy rage; nay, even I beg thee to let go thine anger against Achilles, who is for all the Achaeans a mighty bulwark of evil war" (Il. 1.  275-84).

Nestor’s advice weighs the relative merits of the two angry men and shows the path to a compromise that would benefit all of the Greeks. Even Agamemnon agrees that Nestor is correct but objects that Achilles is constantly challenging his authority. Achilles replies with more angry words and they part. Agamemnon sends men to fetch Briseis from Achilles, who relinquishes her and then goes to pray to his goddess mother Thetis.

Agamemnon has made a fatal error. Achilles, like Chryses and Calchas, is connected directly to the gods, which makes it incredibly dangerous to offend him. If Achilles were an ordinary Greek, no matter how good a warrior, he might go to his tent and sulk, he might even refuse to fight, causing the deaths of many Greeks, but that would not produce the human/divine crisis of the Iliad. However, Achilles is not an ordinary warrior, he is semi-divine, and when offended he is able to approach the gods directly, precipitating the human/divine crisis that will result in the terrible wave of deaths that constitutes both the wrath of Achilles and the plan of Zeus.8

Achilles seeks the payment of a debt that Zeus owes to Thetis. Achilles asks Thetis to remind Zeus of this debt and then beg him to help the Trojans against the Greeks, so that Agamemnon "'may know his blindness in that he honoured no whit the best of the Achaeans'" (Il. 1. 411-12). Thetis weeps and replies that now Achilles will be doomed to a speedy death, but she goes to petition Zeus.

Meanwhile the Greeks return the girl to Chryses, perform the correct rituals of sacrifice, and Chryses prays to Apollo to stop the plague. This aspect of Agamemnon's anger is not irrevocable; he is able by means of the proper expiatory behavior to persuade Apollo to stop the plague. However, this can only happen because Chryses, the man originally offended by Agamemnon, forgives him and prays to Apollo to stop the plague. Agamemnon has to do several things to stop the sacred plague: expiate his offense to the priest, Chryses, by returning the girl; expiate his offense to Apollo by offering sacrifice; and gain the forgiveness of Chryses, who approached Apollo in the first place. If Chryses had been hardhearted, one can be sure that the Greeks alone could not have appeased Apollo sufficiently to stop the plague, which was produced to honor Chryses rather than merely to punish the Greeks.

This theme of forgiveness will be echoed in the later stress on Achilles' hardness of heart. The path to the god is via the man connected to the god; consequently forgiveness, or the resolution of a human/divine crisis, must be mediated by the emotions of human beings, just as the original offense was produced by human emotions.

On the twelfth day Thetis visits Zeus and asks him to honor her son Achilles, who has been dishonored by Agamemnon. She asks Zeus to help the Trojans until the Greeks show honor to Achilles and give him gifts to compensate for the dishonor he has suffered. Zeus agrees reluctantly to do what she requests and makes the promise irrevocable by bowing his head, saying "'no word of mine may be recalled, nor is false, nor unfulfilled, whereto I bow my head'" (Il. 1. 526-27). Now there can be no forgiveness, no good advice, no easy reconciliation. Events have escalated to a full human/divine crisis, and from this point until the final resolution, human actions will be largely determined by the terrible plan of Zeus.9

Once the distance between humans and the gods is collapsed, and the human anger of Achilles and Agamemnon has involved the gods, many humans must die until the wrath of Achilles and the plan of Zeus are fulfilled. Achilles has initiated the mass killing of his fellow Greeks by his petition to Zeus to give him honor. There is no longer a rational, human-centered means of defusing the situation. Agamemnon was able to return the girl to Chryses and end the plague. He can no longer solve his relationship to Achilles by merely returning Briseis to him, because Zeus has promised to give Achilles honor by having the Trojans kill many Greeks. The quarrel between two leaders has turned into the willful destruction of many of their own people. 

Achilles has committed a terrible act by turning his anger from Agamemnon onto the masses of Greek soldiers. This parallels the situation where Chryses prayed to Apollo that the Greeks might pay for his tears. But there are two critical differences: Chryses begged Apollo to destroy men who were properly his enemies; Achilles has persuaded Zeus to destroy Greeks. Strictly speaking, it is the Myrmidons who are Achilles' own people. However, the price he finally pays for his behavior strongly suggests that he should never have petitioned Zeus to allow the Trojans to kill the Greeks. Furthermore, Apollo is not Zeus. Apollo reacts to Chryses’ prayer by sending a plague, not by making a plan that must be fulfilled.

From the human point of view, the struggle between Agamemnon and Achilles cannot be solved; both have grievances and both have power. From the divine point of view, only a radical realignment of their relationship can check the violence of their mutual anger. The anger of Agamemnon has spread like an infection, first producing the plague, and then inflaming Achilles, leading to the events of Achilles' wrath and the plan of Zeus, paralleling the anger of Chryses and the plague of Apollo.

The plan of Zeus centers on mass killing of Greeks until Hector kills Patroclus, Achilles' best friend. The death of Patroclus is the price Achilles pays for his wrath; the death of Hector is the price the Trojans pay for the death of Patroclus; and Achilles' death will be the price for the death of Hector. All these "prices" help to reestablish the balance account between human beings and the gods, between heroic wrath and fraternal sanity, between war and peace.

Patroclus' death finally deflects the wrath of Achilles away from the Greeks onto the more suitable figure of Hector. Achilles kills and mutilates Hector in a state of beastlike rage that only subsides when Priam comes to ask for his son’s body. Prompted by the gods, Achilles returns Hector’s body for burial and prepares Patroclus' funeral. Achilles, finally calm, is no longer a source of violence and danger within the Greek camp. His wrath is over, and the plan of Zeus has been fulfilled.

Patroclus must die because he is a substitute for the deadly Achilles who has taken a step far more destructive than the anger of Agamemnon, by praying to Zeus to let the Trojans kill the Greeks.10 Patroclus dies instead of Achilles. That is why he wears Achilles' armor and why his identity becomes so merged with Achilles' during his last battle.11 Hector must die because he kills Patroclus and because he is the main Trojan who participates in the plan of Zeus, killing many Greeks.

Both Patroclus and Hector are killed by the direct involvement of gods and humans; both die wearing the armor of Achilles. Both die in a state of delusion sent by the gods, which is only lifted at the moment of their deaths. Both die knowing it is the will of the gods, not the strength of men, that is killing them. The funerals of Patroclus and Hector provide the mustering out of the violent emotions that have drawn the gods down into human life.

Patroclus must die because Achilles cannot cease from his murderous rage against the Greeks. Even as he prepares to send Patroclus out to fight in his stead, Achilles says: "`I would, O father Zeus, and Athene, and Apollo, that no man of the Trojans might escape death, of all that there are, neither any of the Argives, but that we twain might escape destruction, that alone we might loose the sacred diadem of Troy'" (Il. 14. 97-100).  Achilles is just as dangerous to the Greeks as he is to the Trojans, even though the wrath acts indirectly, by willing that the Trojans kill the Greeks, rather than by killing the Greeks directly. Achilles' wrath is violence run wild within the society of the Greeks.

Achilles finally sends out his troops to help the Greek army, because he pities his friend's pity, not because he personally cares about the fate of the Greeks. Achilles observes Patroclus crying at the opening of book 16 and asks the reason. Patroclus replies that he weeps for the terrible injuries and deaths that the Greeks have suffered and requests that he might wear Achilles' armor and take the Myrmidons into battle. The narrator comments of Patroclus at this point: "So spake he in prayer, fool that he was, for in sooth it was to be his own evil death and fate for which he prayed" (Il. 16. 46-47). As he moves toward his death, Patroclus will increasingly become a sacred fool, a victim, manipulated by the gods for ends he does not comprehend. Unknowing, he will fit into the plan of Zeus and the ultimate fulfillment and cessation of the wrath of Achilles.

Patroclus is a kind, gentle man.  He interrupts an errand for Achilles in order to bind up the wound of Eurypylus. He is the one who weeps for the dying Greeks. He is also the man closest to Achilles; they are like brothers. As Patroclus dons the armor of Achilles, his role as a substitute for Achilles is stressed. Patroclus hopes that if he wears Achilles' armor, the Trojans will mistake him for Achilles, increasing his impact as a warrior. Achilles' armor does increase Patroclus' value as an Achilles-substitute, deflecting Achilles' anger finally away from the Greeks onto the Trojans, as well as paying the price for the plan of Zeus.

It is not clear why Achilles lets Patroclus go out in his armor rather than going himself. Achilles responds to Patroclus' request to go out and fight by saying: "`Dread grief is this to me, seeing I have suffered woes at heart…. Howbeit these things will we let be, as past and done. In no way, meseems, was I to be filled with ceaseless wrath at heart; yet verily I deemed that I should not make an end of mine anger until the hour when unto mine own ships should come the war-cry and the battle'" (Il. 16. 55-63). 

Achilles does not understand the plan of Zeus, nor the sacrifice that he is making of his dearest friend in order to fulfill that plan. Before sending Patroclus forth, Achilles makes a ritual drink offering to Zeus, praying that Patroclus might drive the Trojans back from the Greek ships, and that he might return safely: "So spake he in prayer, and Zeus, the counsellor, heard him, and a part the Father granted him, and a part denied. That Patroclus should thrust back the war and battle from the ships he granted; but that he should return safe from out the battle he denied" (Il. 16. 249-52).

Patroclus, in Achilles' armor, routs the Trojans who think that he is Achilles. The approaching death of Patroclus takes on a quality of compulsion that is extreme, even for this poem about the wills of the gods exercised upon the lives of men. Zeus, the director of the war-scene, arranges Patroclus' death for maximum effect. 

[Zeus] ever looked down upon them, and debated in heart, pondering much about the slaying of Patroclus, whether in the fierce conflict even there over godlike Sarpedon, glorious Hector should slay him likewise with the sword, and should strip the armour from his shoulders, or whether for yet more men he should make the utter toil of war to wax. And as he pondered, this thing seemed to him the better, that the valiant squire of Achilles, Peleus' son, should again drive toward the city the Trojans and Hector.  (Il. 16. 646-54)

Patroclus had been warned by Achilles to drive the Trojans back from the ships, but not to pursue them across the plain to Troy. However, we see him doing just that, driven by Zeus, and yet somehow responsible for his behavior:

"Patroclus . . . pressed after the Trojans and Lycians, and was greatly blinded in heart, fool that he was! for had he observed the word of the son of Peleus, he would verily have escaped the evil fate of black death. But ever is the intent of Zeus stronger than that of men, for he driveth even a valiant man in rout, and robbeth him of victory full easily, and again of himself he rouseth men to fight; and he it was that now put fury in the breast of Patroclus."  (Il. 16. 648-91)

This extraordinary passage sums up the paradox of the death of Patroclus. Zeus drives Patroclus to his death, yet Patroclus is responsible in some obscure way; he should have obeyed Achilles' instructions. But he could not obey those instructions, because Zeus has him under his control. Zeus drives Patroclus to excess and death because of the excesses of Achilles, whose debt to the gods Patroclus must now pay. The odd blame attached to him really belongs to Achilles, who is generally not blamed at all. Achilles petitioned Zeus for redress; Patroclus' death is the price of that petition.

Driven by Zeus, Patroclus leads the Greeks in slaughtering the Trojans. Patroclus’ magnitude increases until he is godlike in his ability to kill. He has incarnated the violence of Achilles, which up to now had been, in effect, turned against the Greeks. As Patroclus reaches the full stature of his incarnation of Achilles as semi-divine violence, he also reaches the end of his life:

Patroclus with fell intent leapt upon the Trojans. Thrice then leapt he upon them, the peer of swift Ares, crying a terrible cry, and thrice he slew nine men. But when for the fourth time he rushed on, like a god, then for thee, Patroclus, did the end of life appear; for Phoebus met thee in the fierce conflict, an awful god." (Il. 16. 783-89)

He is the "peer of Ares" the war god; he is like a god. He is the violence of Achilles in a form that can and must be killed in order to fulfill Zeus' plan. He is, in short, a victim, the price Achilles must pay for his wrath. Patroclus, for all his glory as a warrior, dies the death of a victim, struck down first by Apollo:

And Patroclus marked him not as he passed through the turmoil, for enfolded in thick mist did he meet him; and Apollo took his stand behind him, and smote his back and broad shoulders with the flat of his hand, and his eyes were made to whirl. And from his head Phoebus Apollo smote the helmet, that rang as it rolled beneath the feet of the horses--the crested helm; and the plumes were befouled with blood and dust…. And in the hands of Patroclus the far-shadowing spear was wholly broken, the spear, heavy, and huge, and strong … and from his shoulders the tasselled shield with its baldric fell to the ground, and his corselet did Apollo loose--the prince, the son of Zeus. Then blindness seized his mind, and his glorious limbs were loosed beneath him, and he stood in a daze.  (Il. 16. 789-806)

After Patroclus has been stunned and disarmed by Apollo, Euphorbus, a Trojan, hurls a spear at him, and only after that does Hector thrust his spear into Patroclus' belly for the final stroke of death. The dying Patroclus realizes he has been killed first of all by the gods, and he tells the foolishly boasting Hector: "`Nay, it was baneful Fate and the son of Leto that slew me, and of men Euphorbus, while thou art the third in my slaying. And another thing will I tell thee … thou shalt not thyself be long in life, but even now doth death stand hard by thee, and might fate, that thou be slain beneath the hands of Achilles'" (Il. 16. 849-54).

Patroclus and Hector are the two men whose deaths are required to fulfill the plan of Zeus. Patroclus had to die to pay for the excesses of Achilles, and to deflect the anger of Achilles from the Greeks to the Trojans. Hector must die because he has been the murderous agent of Achilles' wrath, killing the Greeks so that Achilles might receive honor according to the bitter plan of Zeus. Hector’s death will complete the wrath of Achilles and the plan of Zeus.

Hector, the final victim of the plan of Zeus, strips the body of Patroclus and exchanges his armor for the armor of Achilles. This is essential so that he may more perfectly be the final victim of the wrath, killed by a conjunction of gods and men, as was Patroclus. Zeus observes doomed Hector donning the armor of Achilles:

"Ah, poor wretch, death verily is not in they thoughts, that yet draweth nigh thee; but thou art putting upon thee the immortal armour of a princely man before whom others besides thee are wont to quail. His comrade, kindly and valiant, hast thou slain, and in unseemly wise hast stripped the armour from his head and shoulders. Howbeit for this present will I vouchsafe thee great might, in recompense for this--that in no wise shalt thou return from out the battle." (Il.17. 201-07)

Zeus then makes the armor fit Hector's body, "and there entered into him Ares … and his limbs were filled within with valour and with might" (Il. 17. 210-12).  Hector, like Patroclus, is enhanced and glorified to increase the value of his death. Just as Patroclus had to become glorious in the immortal armor in order to be killed as a substitute for Achilles, now Hector, in the same armor, is glorified so that his death can better absorb the force of Achilles' violence.12

Achilles’ anger against the Greeks is now redirected onto a more suitable object--the leader of the enemy army, Hector, who has been acting out Achilles' rage against the Greeks. Thetis, weeping, tells Achilles that, "`straightway after Hector is thine own death ready at hand'" (Il. 18. 96). This, too, will restore balance, since Achilles ultimately has been the one responsible for the deaths of the Greeks. The death of Hector will be the next to final price for Achilles' wrath, since it is the precondition for Achilles' own death. 

Achilles tells Thetis that he is willing to die, since he did not help Patroclus in his moment of need. Further, Achilles accepts responsibility for the destruction his wrath has caused:

"`Now, therefore, seeing I return not to my dear native land, neither proved anywise a light of deliverance to Patroclus nor to my other comrades, those many that have been slain by goodly Hector, but abide here by the ships a profitless burden upon the earth . . . so may strife perish from among gods and men, and anger that setteth a man on to grow wroth, how wise soever he be.'" (Il. 18. 101-8)

After acknowledging the destructiveness of his anger, Achilles finally exercises self-control over his emotions, telling his mother, "`Howbeit these things we will let be as past and done, for all our pain, curbing the heart in our breasts, because we must. But now will I go forth that I may light on the slayer of the man I loved, even on Hector; for my fate, I will accept it whenso Zeus willeth to bring it to pass'" (Il. 18. 112-16).

Having accepted his responsibility and his fate, Achilles will dress in the immortal armor made for him by Hephaestus and complete the violence of the wrath, killing many Trojans in a bloody fury that leads up to the final killing of Hector wearing armor that makes him look like Achilles, like another self.

The gods prepare Hector for his death, just as they arranged for his earlier glory in battle. As the Trojans flee into their city, escaping Achilles’ wrath on the battlefield, Hector is stopped outside the city walls. "Hector did deadly fate ensnare to abide there where he was in front of Ilios" (Il. 22. 5-6). Apollo had diverted Achilles away from the city, so that all of the Trojans except Hector could escape within. Priam is the first to see Achilles finally approaching Troy, and he begs Hector to come within the gates, but Hector is "furiously eager to do battle with Achilles" (Il. 22. 36).

Hector resists Priam's tearful pleading--he is willing to die to pay the price for his error in not properly leading the Trojans and debates within himself: 

"Ah, woe is me, if I go within the gates and the walls Polydamas will be the first to put reproach upon me, for that he bade me lead the Trojans to the city during this fatal night, when goodly Achilles arose. Howbeit I hearkened not--verily it had been better far!  But now, seeing I have brought the host to ruin in my blind folly, I have shame of the Trojans . . . for me it were better far to meet Achilles man to man and slay him, and so get me home, or myself perish gloriously before the city." (Il. 22. 99-110)

This parallels the blame attached to Patroclus, who should have obeyed the instructions of Achilles, although he could not because Zeus drove him to fury. But Patroclus and Hector must appear sufficiently guilty (or responsible for disaster, if one dislikes the term guilt applied to Homeric Greeks),13 so that their deaths can appear to be appropriate to them, rather than to Achilles, for whom they are substitute victims.14

Hector is in a state of confusion before the walls of Troy. He quickly vacillates in his feelings from wanting to face Achilles like a hero to wondering if he can offer to return Helen and much treasure, ending the war then and there. Hector does not want to play the role of victim assigned to him, and when Achilles finally draws close, Hector begins to run away.

This scene takes on qualities of the funeral games, where the prizes are no longer life or death--they celebrate a death that has already occurred. This race is a game before the funeral, a rite made into a dramatic situation. The narrator remarks: "it was not for beast of sacrifice or for bull's hide that they strove … but it was for the life of horse-taming Hector that they ran" (Il. 22. 159-61). Hector's life is indeed the prize in this race and the price of Patroclus' death.

To be worthy of this role, Hector must be excellent, the best available. So at just this moment when Hector's race is most like a funeral rite, Zeus, knowing full well that Hector must die, addresses his fellow gods, as if Hector could be saved, and remarks on his excellence and piety:

"Look you now, in sooth a well-loved man do mine eyes behold pursued around the wall; and my heart hath sorrow for Hector, who hath burned for me many thighs of oxen . . . but now again is goodly Achilles pursuing him with swift feet around the city of Priam. Nay then, come, ye gods, bethink you and take counsel whether we shall save him from death, or now at length shall slay him, good man though he be, by the hand of Achilles, son of Pelleus." (Il. 22. 168-76)

Athena correctly replies that Hector has been doomed by fate and cannot be saved. 

Hector's excellence becomes that of a fleeing animal. First, he is compared to a racing horse, then to a fawn chased by a hound. So that Hector may excel in this role, Apollo gives him swiftness for the last time. This is necessary because Achilles is swift-footed and requires a victim who can excel at running, just as his violence requires a victim who can excel at violence. Having been as violent as a deity in the armor of Achilles, Hector is now swift as a deer in the armor of Achilles--a perfect match, a perfect victim for Achilles.

Hector's death proceeds with the finality of a funeral race. On the fourth circuit of Troy15 Zeus lifts his scales: "and set therein two fates of grievous death, one for Achilles, and one for horse-taming Hector; then he grasped the balance by the midst and raised it; and down sank the day of doom of Hector, and departed unto Hades" (Il. 22. 209-13). The scale is a perfect image for deciding the death of Hector because it functions to establish balance. The balance of human emotions and of the right separation between humans and gods has been disturbed by violence spreading outward from Agamemnon and Achilles; the death of Hector will being to reestablish this balance and separation.16

Hector must die to restore balance in the world. Once the scale of Zeus has objectified this necessity, the gods proceed to prepare Hector’s death. Apollo leaves Hector and Athena comes to Achilles. She will prepare the victim to die in a dignified manner. Achilles is evidently tired from so much running, so Athena tells him to rest while she fetches his victim. She then goes to Hector, and disguised as his brother Deïphobos, urges him to stand and fight Achilles. Deluded into believing he has help, Hector prepares to meet Achilles, offering to fight according to the covenants of civilized men.

Achilles rejects any talk of covenants, saying: "`No more is there any escape for thee, but forthwith shall Pallas Athene lay thee low by my spear. Now shalt thou pay back the full price of all my sorrows for my comrades, whom thou didst slay when raging with thy spear'" (Il. 22. 270-72).  The death of Hector, killed by both a god and a man, will be the price for the death of Patroclus, as well as for the many dead Greeks. Of course, Hector was only able to kill those many Greeks because Achilles had withdrawn from the battle in his wrath and had persuaded Zeus to let the Trojans have dominance over the Greeks. Hector's death is the final focus for all the violence and death caused by Achilles' anger and the plan of Zeus. Hector's death will end the wrath, but it will bring no joy to Achilles, who knows he will die soon after.17

Hector’s mutilation is a critical element of his death, beginning when he asks Achilles for covenants, and continuing throughout the rest of the Iliad. Achilles' wrath has gone beyond all possibility of covenants. Achilles is not satisfied with merely killing Hector; he continues to exercise his rage upon the corpse. After Achilles, aided by Athena, has fatally wounded Hector, but left the windpipe intact so that he can speak, Hector's one concern is that his body be returned to his family unmutilated, while Achilles' concern is that the dogs and birds shall rend Hector's corpse while Patroclus receives proper burial. Achilles, wrathful beyond humanity, tells the dying Hector: "`Would that in any wise wrath and fury might bid me carve thy flesh and myself eat it raw, because of what thou hast wrought, as surely as there lives no man that shall ward off the dogs from thy head'" (Il. 22. 346-48).

Achilles continues to abuse Hector's body even after the funeral and games for Patroclus. Every night he weeps for Patroclus, and at dawn every day he fastens Hector's corpse behind his chariot, drags him three times around the mound of Patroclus, and then leaves him lying in the dust. "Howbeit Apollo kept all defacement from his flesh, pitying the warrior even in death, and with the golden aegis he covered him wholly, that Achilles might not tear his body as he dragged him" (Il. 24. 18-21).

Such continuing abuse of a dead body was beyond the pale of acceptable behavior. On the twelfth day Apollo, the god of purification, speaks out among the gods against Achilles' behavior. Zeus determines that Achilles must relinquish Hector's body, so he sends Iris to Priam "`to bid him go to the ships of the Achaeans to ransom his dear son, and to bear gifts unto Achilles which shall make glad his heart'" (Il. 24. 118-19). Just as Patroclus and Hector paid the price for Achilles' wrath, now Priam must pay the price even more literally, with ransom to recover his dead son and release Achilles from his obsessive connection to the corpse. This ransom is a step back towards civilization and covenants, where men may "make a deal" instead of killing one another. 

After Achilles has killed Hector, other Greeks run up and gaze at the body; each speaks and inflicts a wound on the corpse. Hector's death is a community affair and the resulting funeral ceremonies will purify the entire community, which has been polluted by an excess of death. The funeral of Patroclus, with its human sacrifices, defuses much of the passion and pollution of the Greeks due to the many deaths they have suffered during the wrath.

The plan of Zeus has been completed, but the reestablishment of normal relations among men and between men and the gods requires careful rituals and elaborately civilized behavior in order to succeed. The funeral games for Patroclus are the focus for the reestablishment of human social order as the passions of men calm down and the gods recede from human affairs. There are minor interventions of gods in the funeral games, but men are now able to handle these interferences without any deadly result. Although there are incipient quarrels about place and worth and prizes, Achilles is now able to graciously defuse anger and distribute prizes to keep the peace. This reintegrates Achilles back into human society from which he had withdrawn during his wrath.

The plan of Zeus was a response to the wrath of Achilles. This plan shows a pattern of cause and effect which operates with the logic of the sacred, and the dual (or multiple) causation of a system that describes events as occurring for not one, but for two or more reasons, such as anger being produced by a man's emotions and by the influence of a god, or the combination of god-sent delusion and human folly leading to a disastrous action.

Humans are most vulnerable to multiple or sacred causation when their passions are strong and their self-control weak. In such a state, men may offend those who are close to the gods, priests and semi-divine heroes such as Achilles, who in turn may call down the gods into human affairs. This creates a state of imbalance in the entire cosmos, among the gods as well as among men. This imbalance not only causes human suffering, but discomfort to the gods, such as the wounding of Aphrodite and Ares and the struggle between Hephaestus and Xanthus. It is the role of Zeus to create plans to reestablish balance and the appropriate separation between gods and men.

Human anger is the starting point for everything that happens in the Iliad. The anger of Agamemnon and the responsive angers of Chryses and Achilles are the events that initiate the plague and the wrath. The Iliad was used for centuries much as the Bible has been used, as a source of historical information that provides sacred and moral instruction.18 At first this is difficult for us to understand, as indeed it became difficult for some Greeks to understand by the time of Plato. Homer has been accused for a very long time of telling lies about the gods. But, considered as a sacred story, the message of the Iliad is extremely clear and deeply religious, although it expresses a religion very different from the Judeo-Christian heritage within which we are immersed. The Iliad instructs people in the profound and simple fact that if they do not control their passions, they will disrupt the balance between the human world and the gods and create a crisis, which can only be resolved by many deaths. Despite all the confusions of multiple causations, the events of the Iliad happen because Agamemnon lost his temper and because Achilles, via Thetis, petitioned Zeus for revenge.19

Both Agamemnon and Achilles learn, by means of the tragic results of their unleashed anger, that it is better for a man to exercise self-control. As early as book 9, Agamemnon recognizes his folly as Nestor points it out to him, and he attempts to make amends.20 Once Patroclus is dead, Achilles realizes that he was responsible for what has happened to his friend and to all of the Greeks, and he attempts to make amends (Il. 18. 101-8). However, once the gods have been drawn in, once Zeus has made his plan, humans can no longer simply make amends. They must then act out the complex sorrows of passion and death until the plan of Zeus is fulfilled and normal life is restored.

The Iliad not only shows the catastrophic results of unleashed passion, but also gives clear examples of men exercising self-control and of an entire complex technology of correct behavior that serves to channel the sacred by means of proper rituals, thus keeping the gods at a safe distance from humankind.21

Nestor and Diomedes provide models of religiously and socially correct behavior, which are much the same thing in the Iliad, since anger can draw the gods down into human affairs. Both men know exactly how to behave in order to be excellent and yet not involve the gods in any improper and dangerous manner. Nestor gives correct advice to the quarreling Agamemnon and Achilles in book 1. Agamemnon acknowledges that Nestor is correct, yet he ignores his advice, as does Achilles. On the other hand, although Diomedes is able to fight almost like a god, he is always aware of exactly when to stop; he commits no offenses that might draw down divine reprisals upon the human community.22

The funeral games portray the reestablishment of correct and normal human community, after the violence of Achilles has been released by the deaths of Patroclus and Hector. Purified of the wrath, Achilles is the ideal leader who arranges games as a form of contained and peaceful competition, where conflicts can be resolved without violence. The gods are still present, but men now can control at least some of their own actions, using knowledge and skill. The interrelationship of human skill, passion, and the gods is set forth in the chariot race, which is an exemplum of correct behavior in a potentially dangerous situation. 

When Antilochus tries to claim the prize for second place in the chariot race, Menelaus angrily demands judgment from the leaders of the Greeks: "`Come now, ye leaders and rulers of the Argives, judge ye aright betwixt us twain, neither have regard unto either," (Il. 23. 583-84). The world is now sufficiently normalized that human judgment can be called for and applied effectively, which was definitely not the case during the wrath, when whatever men did merely fulfilled the plan of Zeus. 

When Menelaus demands that Antilochus swear an oath that he did not use trickery to pass him, instead of pursuing the conflict, Antilochus graciously backs down, which is prudent, since he had in fact used trickery to pass him. Men are now able to compromise in a spirit of social righteousness, which is also religious righteousness. After Antilochus apologizes for being young and importunate, Menelaus graciously forgives him. This is the human social order, as it ought to function and can indeed function so long as men control their passions and behave correctly and in a lawful manner.

The gods are always present as a potential for disorder.  Athena broke the chariot of one man in the race, and caused Diomedes' horses to win first place. This form of divine involvement, while important, need not be lethal. One man suffers a spill; no one dies. However, had Antilochus and Menelaus not been able to compromise and control their anger, that escalation of anger from one to the other and back again could have built up tensions that might have again shattered the boundaries between men and the gods.   

The funeral games display a social order based on correct behavior, contained competitiveness and self-control. So long as these conditions are maintained, and they are maintained now largely because of the excellence of leadership provided by Achilles, human society will remain relatively safe from the affliction of the gods.


1.   Homer, The Iliad, trans. A. T. Murray, 2 vols. Loeb Classical Library (1925; rpt. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U P, 1967). Cited as Iliad. All references are to the line numbers of the Greek text, although only the corresponding English translations will be quoted.

2.   W. C. Greene comments that “This instinctive feeling of a barrier between man and god, this fear that any presumption on the part of man may cause the gods to take offence, lines behind not only the ethical ideas of the Homeric age but the prudential morality of the historic period. Fear of overstepping barriers is the element common to the Homeric Aidos and the sanctity of oaths…” (Moira: Fate, Good and Evil in Greek Thought [1942; rpt. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1968], 20). Walter Otto remarks of Homer that “There is no doubt that all excess was repellent to him, and most of all where it seemed to achieve its greatest miracle: the removal of the bounds between the finite and the infinite, between man and god”  (The Homeric Gods, trans. Moses Hadas [1954; rpt. New York: Octagon Books, 1978], 158-159).

3.   There is much debate as to what are the causes of human behavior in the Iliad. Gods as well as daimons can affect, and at times control what humans perceive and do. E. R. Dodds, in The Greeks and the Irrational (1951; rpt. Berkeley: U of California P, 1973), 13, comments that in Homer, “all departures from normal human behavior whose causes are not immediately perceived, whether by the subject’s own consciousness or by the observation of others, are ascribed to a supernatural agency, just as is any departure from the normal behaviour of the weather or the normal behaviour of a bowstring.” According to Greene, Homer recognizes two reasons for excessive human behavior, or hybris: “…the abuse of human freedom of the will, resulting in a hardened character, which is atasthalie; and … the heaven-sent power of evil, which is Ate …” (20-21). Since self-control is praised and rewarded, while excessive behavior precipitates disasters in the Iliad, it is reasonable to suppose that human beings were considered capable of self-control, at least under normal circumstances.

4.   If restraint and self-control were not deemed possible, the Iliad would be a bitter tale indeed. Helen North comments in Sophrosyne: Self-Knowledge and Self-Restraint in Greek Literature (Ithaca: Cornell U P, 1966), 6-7: “That the poet of the Iliad was himself keenly sensitive to the need for such restraint, both to avert disaster in the life of the individual and to prevent a society made up of self-assertive heroes from destroying itself, is evident from the content of many individual episodes and from the very pattern of the poem, determined as it is by the sequence of cause and effect, beginning with the hybris of Agamemnon and the unbounded wrath of Achilles, and culminating in the scene where Achilles achieves a kind of tragic self-knowledge in response to Priam’s appeal to his aidôs (Il. 24. 503).”

5.   C. M. Bowra, in Heroic Poetry (1952; rpt. New York: St. Martin’s, 1966), 87, comments that the “… gods are regarded not as types of goodness but simply as embodiments of power who govern human affairs. There is nothing wrong in opposing them, but it is extremely dangerous.” If there is a wrong in this opposition, it lies not in a sin against the gods, but in the damages the gods may wreak, if angered, upon ones fellow men.

6.   A. W. Adkins remarks in From the Many to the One, Studies in the Humanities, ed. Max Black (Ithaca: Cornell U P, 1970) that “…in Homeric society … the most powerful terms of denigration are applied quite simply to failure to ensure the safety and well-being of the members of the group of which one is the head. It makes no difference to the evaluation of the situation whether the failure results from cowardice, or from mistake or force majeure: only the result is taken into account” (29). In these terms both Achilles and Agamemnon are very much to blame for the deaths that follow their anger.

7.   R. Girard, in Violence and the Sacred (1972, trans. Patrick Gregory [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U P, 1977]), commenting on the qualities of Greek tragedy, points out that the symmetrical equality of the protagonists is a crucial quality: “Whether the violence is physical or verbal, the suspense remains the same. The adversaries match blow for blow . . . it is impossible to predict the outcome of the battle. … Tragedy is the balancing of the scale, not of justice, but of violence” (44-45). One can easily imagine that if Hera had not loved Agamemnon and Achilles equally, the outcome of the quarrel would have quickly been settled by the victory of her favorite. The very equality of Agamemnon and Achilles in the eyes of the gods increases their ability to precipitate a state of sacred crisis.

8.   The deaths of masses of Greeks in the Iliad have a sacrificial quality, as do the more important deaths of Patroclus and Hector. This is especially suggested by the extensive use of fire imagery in the Iliad, which has been examined by Cedric Whitman in Homer and the Heroic Tradition (1958; rpt. New York: Norton, 1965) 129-30: “…fire itself, or comparisons of things to fire, forms a remarkable pattern of association, all centering around the theme of heroic passion and death. … It begins naturally enough, with sacrifices and funeral pyres. The first fire we hear of is in the prayer of Chryses, who reminds Apollo of the sacrifices he has burned.  Shortly thereafter the pyres of the dead blaze in the Greek camp. …” Fire, especially the fire of funeral pyres, provides a nexus of the relationship between men, death, and the gods.

9.   An example of this occurs in books 3 and 4 of the Iliad, when the Greeks and Trojans try to end the war reasonably, by means of a judicial combat between Paris and Menelaus, the contending parties in the war. But Aprhrodite snatches Paris out of danger and the council of the gods reinitiates fighting by sending Athene to provoke Pandarus, a Trojan, into shooting an arrow, thus breaking the truce. During the sacred crisis, men’s wisest and best efforts are liable to fail completely, because they do not fit the intentions of the gods.

10. Heroes are extremely dangerous, in life and in death. Martin Nilsson remarks: “The hero-cult … is designed to appease the mighty dead, who are by no means slow to wrath. … It is the rule, even in historical examples, that the [dead] hero’s wrath sends disasters, plague, and famine, and that he is appeased according to the instructions of Delphi” (A History of Greek Religion, trans. F. J. Fielden, 2nd ed [1925; rev. ed. 1952; rpt. New York: Norton, 1964], 194).

11. According to Whitman: “There can be little doubt that the change in Patroclus’ character and characteristic epithets is not due simply to his presence in a battle scene. … Patroclus is playing the role of Achilles. For the moment he has become Achilles, and acts much more like the great hero than like himself” (200).

12.  R. Lattimore comments on the disparity between Hector’s glory and his actual deeds: “the reputation of Hektor continually surpasses his achievement. … his only really great victim is Patroklos; and from Patroklos he runs, and must be rallied to fight him…. Much of what he does is by divine favour. Apollo picks him up when he is down, and Zeus is behind his charges” (The Iliad of Homer, trans. and intro. by R. Lattimore [1951; rpt. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1961]. 35).

13.  Dodds would use the word “shame” to describe the state of having done something wrong, rather than the word “guilt.” He argues that Homer’s society was a “shame-culture,” not a “guilt-culture” (17). Whatever the term used, the negative qualities of Achilles’ wrath are partially transferred onto Patroclus and Hector, as a part of their deaths.

14.  These obscure “guilts” or “shames” are the source of a long and confusing tradition of the genteel or minor faults of Hector, which are those of an otherwise blameless man, who yet consistently commits major errors producing woes for the Trojans in many future Troy stories.

15.  Patroclus had advanced killing Trojans three times. On the fourth advance, Apollo struck him (Il. 16. 783-89).

16.  Balance is a critical structural property of the entire Iliad. Whitman has shown how the Iliad is organized according to geometric principles of opposition and balance: “Concentric circles are a universal device in Geometric art…and the principle of balance around a central point which is implied in concentric circles is far and away the dominating formal principle in the Iliad. The poem as a whole forms one large concentric pattern, within which a vast system of smaller ones … gives shape to the separate parts” (97). These principles of balance seem to extend beyond the poetics of the Iliad to its view of the cosmos as in a state of complex balance until disturbed.

17.  Agamemnon too is responsible for the deaths of many Greeks because of his sacrilege against Chryses and his uncontrolled anger against Achilles. Agamemnon, like Achilles, received no direct punishment within the context of the Iliad, but there are many stories outside of the Iliad that describe his death, rather like the slaughter of an animal, at the hands of Clytemnestra and her lover. Agamemnon was really the starting point of all the murderous wrath of the Iliad, but he was too powerful to kill, so others died for him. The same is true for Achilles, the next in the chain of power and anger.

18.  Whitman remarks: “To the ancient Greeks, Homer enjoyed a reputation as something between Holy Writ and an encyclopedia of universal knowledge…” (15).

19.  Greene comments that “the Hybris and still more the Atasthalie of Homer represent the idea of sin, with the emphasis … on innate and growing proneness to mischief, no a deliberate choice of evil. They are the result of an aggravated willfulness, of a failure to observe Aidos; and they lead to Nemesis and the punishment of the gods” (24). Cause and effect, human misconduct and divine reaction, are the reasons why events happen in the Iliad.

20.  Agamemnon tells Nestor: “’Blind I was, myself I deny it not.… Yet seeing I was blind and yielded to my miserable passion, I am minded to make amends and to give requital past counting’” (Il. 9. 116-20). There is a real question of whether Agamemnon’s excuse that he was “blind” is meant to actually excuse him of responsibility for what he did, or merely to represent his version of why he behaved as he did according to his best self-interest. Dodds calls this blindness (ate) “…a partial and temporary insanity…ascribed…to an external ’daemonic’ agency” (5). Greene points out “…that if Agamemnon is merely seeking to excuse himself, let it be remembered that elsewhere Zeus is represented by the poet as willfully deceptive” (21). Yet Agamemnon and Achilles are not represented in their original quarrel as being victims of externally produced behavior, but as men unleashing their own rage, and Agamemnon does indeed learn that it is better to exercise self-control, if possible.

21.  Hugh Lloyd-Jones remarks: “If we strike a proper balance, we must acknowledge that Homer’s gods are effective and his religion real, but that his human characters are free to decide and are responsible for their decisions” (The Justice of Zeus, Sather Classical Lectures, Vol. 41 [1971; rpt. Berkeley: U of California P, 1973] 10). This freedom and responsibility are most critical when dealing with the gods, where any error can produce catastrophic results.

22.  Nilsson comments that Homer deliberately contrasted “…the self-assertion and obstinacy of Achilles with the loyalty of Diomedes to his suzerain and to the gods” (Homer and Mycenae [1933; rpt. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1968] 259).

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© Diane Thompson: 11/10/1998; updated: 01/28/2011