Sympathy for Achilles

“The Wrath of Achilles” by François-Léon Benouville, 1847, oil on canvas. Musée Fabré.

“The Wrath of Achilles” by François-Léon Benouville, 1847, oil on canvas. Musée Fabré.

“The “Iliad” may be a giant of Western literature, yet its plot hinges on a human impulse normally thought petty: spite,” Natalie Angier writes in the April 1st edition of The New York Times’ Science section.

Natalie Angier may be a brilliant science writer for The Times, yet she has a long way to go as a classicist and literary critic. In an essay on the possible benefits of spite – I say possible because I don’t think spite is good in any event – Angier goes on to explain that Achilles sulked in his tent, holding a grudge against Agamemnon in part because he took Achilles’ war prize, the woman Briseis. Oh, if it were only that simple.

In fairness to Angier – whose essay is all about the evolutionary role spite plays in fairness – she doesn’t have the time or space in the article to unspool the back-story that explains the bad blood between Agamemnon and Achilles, two of the key figures in the Trojan War.

So here we go: Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, is the commander-in-chief of the Greeks at Troy. It is his brother, Menelaus, whose wife, the beautiful Helen, runs off with the Trojan Prince Paris, starting all the trouble. So Agamemnon gathers all the kings of all the loosely allied Greek city-states – including the demigod Achilles, king of the Myrmidons – to avenge the adultery. But on the island of Aulis – a staging area for the coming war -- Agamemnon runs afoul of the goddess Artemis and has to sacrifice his oldest daughter Iphigenia to appease the goddess. The way he gets Iphigenia to the island and traps her into the sacrifice is to tell her and his wife, Clytemnestra (Iphigenia’s mother), that the girl is to be Achilles’ bride – without Achilles knowing anything about it.

Once Achilles realizes he’s been had, he’s furious but does the noble thing and tells Iphigenia, So be it. I’ll marry you, defend you and there will be no sacrifice. But Iphigenia is even nobler and more courageous and in one of the great moments in literature tells Achilles that she can’t allow him or the Greeks to forgo their destinies for her. The only thing she can control about death is her attitude toward it. And she goes off to die beautifully, with courage and without regret.

In some versions, the goddess Artemis whisks her off to be a priestess in a deus ex machine that’s supposed to be a happy ending. (This story is told in Euripides’ play “Iphigenia at Aulis,” which was made into the 1977 Greek film “Iphigenia.” I highly recommend both.)

Regardless of whether or not Iphigenia is saved, the seeds of bad blood have been sown between Agamemnon and Achilles before they even reach Troy – to say nothing of the hatred Clytemnestra has for her husband for taking her first-born away from her. (But that’s another story.)

After laying siege to the city of Troy for nine years, Agamemnon again runs afoul of the gods and the pious Achilles calls him on it, which leads Agamemnon to take his woman to show him who’s boss, which in turn leads Achilles to quit the battlefield – a gesture that will have disastrous consequences for the Greeks and Trojans alike.

Of course, Achilles is wrong. The boss is the boss. You don’t show up the boss. Or fume at his, or her, arbitrary decisions. But Achilles isn’t an employee or foot soldier. He’s a king in his own right and the Greeks’ best fighter, who’s come to help of his own free will and who ‘s taking a principled stand. He’s very much like the character Robert E. Lee Prewitt in “From Here to Eternity” – a James Jones novel and Oscar-winning movie clearly inspired by Homer’s “Iliad” -- who says, “A man don’t go his own way, he’s nothing.”

I myself have worked for my share of Agamemnons. Perhaps that’s why I sympathize with Achilles so. (He’s also the great ancestor and role model of my childhood hero, Alexander the Great, who figure in my series, “The Games Men Play.”) His greatest champion, however, may be a man who is neither a classicist nor a literary critic but a psychiatrist. Dr. Jonathan Shay has done brilliant work with Vietnam veterans and Persian Gulf War veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, using “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” to explore their inchoate rage and grief.  He chronicled that work in two books, “Achilles in Vietnam” and “Odysseus in America.”

His Achilles may be a sulking hothead but his wrath is designed to underscore the failure of Agamemnon’s leadership.

Achilles is, then, a rebel with a cause and, in the terrifying way of the games men play, a rebel without a pause as well.