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Character Analysis in Iliad

Achilles: Son of the immortal sea nymph Thetis and Greek hero Peleus, Achilles is one of the most widely known heroes of myth. Commander of the Myrmidons, Achilles is the most powerful hero in the Iliad and was said to be invulnerable in all of his body but his heel, where his mother held him when she dipped him in the river Styx in an attempt to make him immortal. Characterized by his thirst for glory, Achilles is proud and easily offended, and the wrath that ensues when his pride is hurt becomes the driving force behind his every action throughout the course of the text. Achilles’ wrath is incited by Agamemnon’s claiming of his war prize, the concubine Briseis, and redirected to battle by the death of Patroclus at the hands of Hector. Any preexisting expectation of nobility and honor being present in Achilles’s personality is shredded by his selfish and often damaging reactions to the circumstances of the war. When Briseis is taken from him, Achilles abandons the Achaean forces and prays they’ll suffer at the hands of the Trojans and remains in this mindset until Patroclus is killed. After his friend’s death, Achilles’ primary goal turns to vengeance by way of killing Hector. At that point, nothing stands in the way of his bloodlust. Achilles is willing to kill anyone and sacrifice anything is his pursuit of glory so that his name may live on.

Agamemnon: The head of the Achaean army, Agamemnon is the King of Mycenae and the brother of King Menelaus of Sparta. Agamemnon is not a great warrior like the heroes who accompany him, but he is respected for his significant political power. Agamemnon possesses many of the same character flaws as Achilles, a few being his lack of forethought, selfishness, and excessive pride. These flaws have drastic consequences, such as when Agamemnon brings a plague down upon his entire army because he refuses to return the daughter of a priest that he has taken as a concubine. Only after the loss of soldiers has become crippling does Agamemnon acquiesce, but immediately follows by tactlessly claiming Achilles’ concubine as his own and gaining the wrath of his greatest warrior. Agamemnon repeatedly and stubbornly refuses to make concessions until circumstances have become dire for himself and his men, selfishly pursuing momentary passions without considering the greater good of his army or his cause.

Hector: The heir to his father’s throne and the greatest Trojan warrior, Prince Hector of Troy is the firstborn son of King Priam and Queen Hecuba. Hector is one of the only heroes in the Iliad portrayed with redeeming qualities, but he is brutally murdered and disrespected by Achilles. Hector is characterized by his prowess in battle, devotion to his family and city, and nobility and courage in the horrific events of war. In contrast, he is also victim of bouts of cowardice and impulsiveness that are the ultimate cause of his downfall. Hector and Achilles are the greatest warriors on their respective sides, and therefore act as foils to each other. While Hector is a mature, noble family man driven by his sense of responsibility to the city of Troy, Achilles is wildy passionate and impulsive, valuing glory over all else.

Paris: Prince Paris of Troy, brother to Hector and son of Priam and Hecuba, abducts Helen of Sparta. This is the very reason the Trojan War begins. Paris is cast in a shameful light because he is self-centered and unmanly, thus earning the scorn of his family and the hatred of his subjects. In the text, Paris fights well with a bow and arrow (viewed as a more cowardly weapon than a sword or spear), but lacks the will and courage for battle, preferring to stay within the city walls and make love to his wife while the rest of the men battle.

Character Analysis Examples in Iliad:

Book I

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"I shall have trouble if you set me quarrelling with Juno..."   (Book I)

Notice this passage is an example of the fickle and immature nature of the gods, who are always squabbling among themselves and meddling in human affairs. Many of the gods and goddesses take sides in the Trojan War, often opposing one another, which causes strife on Olympus that mirrors that of the battle. Zeus is like the father of an unruly family and is unwilling to create more discord among a group of willful, powerful, and childish gods. He is reluctant to anger Juno (Hera,) especially because he has had frequent affairs with mortals that produced children, both of which Hera is extremely jealous and brings frequent torment upon.

"SING, O GODDESS, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus..."   (Book I)

Homer begins his Iliad by bidding his Muse to sing of the wrath of Achilles and how his anger has done much more harm to the Greeks than the war with the Trojans over the abducted Helen. With this first line, Homer establishes one of the main themes in the Iliad: the implications and consequences of one’s pride. Achilles himself embodies this theme, for his anger at Agamemnon has made him refuse to fight, which has severely harmed the Achaean army.

"Juno..."   (Book I)

Juno (or Hera), the queen of the gods, is portrayed by Homer as strong and precocious. She is often seen conniving behind her husband Jove’s back as well as constantly disagreeing with him. Her habit of tormenting Jove’s other lovers and wives is referenced in the Iliad. An ironic contrast to Homer's Juno can be seen in other myths of the tradition, where she is often described as being in constant pain because of a character whose name literally means “the glory of our Hera,” namely Hercules. This pain is due to a wound in her chest that Hercules gave her with an arrow while working on his “labors.”

"Jove..."   (Book I)

As you can see from these few lines of introduction to this book of Homer’s Iliad, the god Jove (or Zeus) is very important. Jove is the head of the Greek pantheon and ruler of the gods. He is husband to Juno and often claims to be neutral in regards to the Trojan war.

"Patroclus..."   (Book I)

Patroclus is Achilles's favorite companion. Later, Patroclus, fighting in Achilles's armor, is killed by Hector, and Patroclus's death brings Achilles back into the fight against the Trojans.

"It was the son of Jove and Leto..."   (Book I)

Apollo is the god of the sun, and Troy's most powerful supporter among the gods.

"my abhorred and miserable self...."   (Book III)

Helen feels guilty because she is the cause of the Trojan War. However, her actions were not entirely her own. She was promised to Paris by the goddess Venus (in Greek, Aphrodite) after he judged her the fairest among goddesses Hera, Athena, and herself. Although Helen willingly went with Paris and continues to stay with him, it is questionable whether she really had the free will to make either decision. The paradox of free will existing in a world controlled and predetermined by the gods is explored frequently in the Iliad.

"They fought with might and main, but were reconciled and parted in friendship...."   (Book VII)

This exchange between Hector and Ajax supports another theme in the Iliad, which is mutual respect and dignity, even among enemies. This Greek value was thought to be of great importance and was held in great contempt when broken.

"Even now, however, be appeased, and put away your anger from you..."   (Book IX)

As the war progresses, the Achaeans realize that they need Achilles if they have any hope of defeating the Trojans. Odysseus (Ulysses) is sent to make an appeal to Achilles. Knowing that Achilles is prideful, Odysseus appeals to this characteristic, telling him that regaining the Achaeans respect means putting away his wrath for Agamemnon and returning to the conflict. Note how Odysseus carefully accuses Achilles of intentionally forgetting his own father's warning about checking his temper and avoiding vain quarreling.

"but you are older than he..."   (Book XI)

Because of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus—Achilles seems always to be the leader and protector—it comes as a surprise to many readers that Patroclus is the older of the two.

"the vein that runs all the way up the back to the neck..."   (Book XIII)

The vein referenced in this passage is an example of literary conceit; no vein in the human body matches this description. The vivid and gory descriptions of battle contrast with moments of kind and loving behavior, which humanizes many of the fiercest warriors in the Iliad. Hector loves and cares deeply for his family while Achilles shares a bond of brotherly love with Patroclus. This shows that both men have relationships they care for outside the glory and gore of battle. As readers, Homer allows us to sympathize with the characters by giving them depth, and we grieve when they die and suffer as the original audience would have.

"Folly, eldest of Jove's daughters, shuts men's eyes to their destruction..."   (Book XIX)

Known in Greek mythology as Atë, Folly is the spirit of delusion, infatuation, and recklessness, all of which lead men to ruin; Folly is also known as Ruin. Agamemnon is trying to deflect some responsibility for the violence that has slain many by claiming that no many is above Folly’s influence.

"Thus did he speak, and the Achaeans rejoiced in that he had put away his anger...."   (Book XIX)

Grieving over the death of Patroclos and realizing what he quarrel with Agamemnon has cost him, Achilles finally decides to rejoin the war against the Trojans. Achilles was able to see his own grief in Priam, and this allowed his heart to soften enough to not only forgive Agamemnon, but also gain the strength to ensure he will earn honor for generations to come. Achilles has embodied the theme of wrath and pride throughout the tale, and now he eschews his wrath and gains strength in forgiveness and honor.

"As a fire raging in some mountain glen after long drought—and the dense forest is in a blaze, while the wind carries great tongues of fire in every direction—even so furiously did Achilles rage..."   (Book XX)

Achilles is frequently compared to a fire because of his rage and impulsivity. Like an out-of-control flame, Achilles is capable of changing directions on a whim and leaving a wide path of destruction in his wake. Because he is unable to kill Hector due to divine interference, he takes out his anger on other Trojans, furious for being at the gods’ whims.

"I know you what you are, and was sure that I should not move you, for your heart is hard as iron..."   (Book XXII)

Though both Achilles and Hector are heroic figures, Hector is ultimately more sympathetic. Hector is compassionate and cares for his family, fighting because he feels honor-bound to his homeland, which he wants to protect. Achilles fights for more personal, selfish reasons: revenge and glory.

"Cassandra..."   (Book XXIV)

Cassandra is Priam's daughter. The god Apollo gave her the ability to tell the future, but because she would not repay him for his generosity, Apollo made it so that her prophecies would never be believed. She predicted the fall of Troy, but no one listened to her.

"The two wept bitterly—Priam, as he lay at Achilles' feet, weeping for Hector, and Achilles now for his father and now for Patroclus, till the house was filled with their lamentation..."   (Book XXIV)

Achilles returned to the battle to avenge the death of his best friend, Patroclos, who donned Achilles’s armor to fight Hector. However, having felt dishonored, Achilles has revenge on the Trojans in kind, dragging Hector’s body around the plains. When Priam appeals to Achilles’s sense of decency as a son, not a warrior, so Hector may be buried, Achilles finally make peace with his own internal struggle between pride and honor. His understanding of true honor is clarified, knowing that what one does after the battle is most important.

"Think of your father, O Achilles like unto the gods, who is such even as I am, on the sad threshold of old age..."   (Book XXIV)

Priam's plea for Achilles to think of his father sparks some compassion and sympathy in Achilles for the first time in the entire poem. Just as Priam has lost his son, Achilles knows that his own father will lose a son as well. This is because Achilles knows that he is fated to die soon. It is this knowledge which gives rise to Achilles's compassion.

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