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Achilles, Priam, and the Redemptive Power of Forgiveness

(Gavin Hamilton’s Priam Pleading with Achilles for the Body of Hector)

For all the battle scenes, violent sex, and rage that fills the poem, the most memorable scenes in the poem are moments of love—especially loving moments of embrace.”

The most infamous poem from antiquity about the most infamous war in our collective memory opens with the words “Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles.”

In the late 1800’s, most educated people believed the Trojan War—the very event at the heart of Homer’s epic—was a myth. That all changed when Heinrich Schliemann, a wealthy and amateurish archeologist, discovered the ruins of a citadel he believed to be the city of Troy. He was ridiculed by the institutional and educational elite of his day; the discovery was too small to be the magnificent city described by Homer. But his discovery sparked intrigue, and successive waves of archeological digs later revealed the walled city unearthed by Schliemann was just a very small portion of a much larger walled fortress, and city, with all the archeological pedigree of the fabled city sacked by the Greeks.

After the Nazis triumphantly marched through Paris, Simone Weil published her magnificent essay L’Iliade ou le poème de la force. It is hard to know when Weil started reflecting on Homer’s masterpiece, but most agree that it was influenced by the traumatic experience of the French Republic in the spring and summer of 1940 when the supposedly most powerful nation in the world was overrun by the forces of darkness in under two months. 

Weil wrote that the main subject of the Iliad was “force.” Force, she described—in a very Augustinian manner—was that which “makes the person subjected to it in a thing.” Hauntingly brilliant, Weil explains that force is the power that objectifies the person and strips them of their dignity, freedom, and subjectivity. 

Deconstructing Force and Violence

The Iliad certainly does have violent force coursing through its pages. “The Iliad accepts violence,” as Bernard Knox wrote, “as a permanent factor in human life and accepts it without sentimentality.” From the very onset of the poem, Agamemnon holds Chryseis captive and only frees her after the god Apollo sends a plague upon the Greek army. Agamemnon, the petty tyrant that he is, then steals Briseis from Achilles and causes the handsome warrior to sulk in his tent. And this begins the series of events that the Iliad subsequently covers, up to the funeral of Hector.

It is important, now, to remember the archetype of the hero as laid down by Hesiod. In the Theogony, Hesiod and the muses sing their songs of praise to bloodthirsty Zeus. Zeus is the archetypal hero for his martial prowess: his ability to usurp power and kill monsters. But the heroic violence of Hesiod gives way to a new heroism of love and compassion—the rare acts of truly noble energy—that concern Homer.

Far from celebrating the nakedness of violence, Homer deconstructs it and reminds us that the poor souls who were slain on the fields of Troy were husbands, fathers, sons, and lovers.

The reality of Homer’s deconstruction of force and violence is also subtly interwoven in his descriptions of violence. Homer does not celebrate violence for violence’s sake; his seemingly grotesque and painfully intimate descriptions of death are meant to expose us to the horror of war and false gospel of glory through violence. When the first description of mass battle begins, Homer tells us that the Greeks and Trojans were “mauling each other there like wolves.” The animalization of war is visibly seen, but, in this manifestation of carnage, we also see tenderness, love, and empathy from the hand of the poet:

“And Telamonian Ajax struck Anthemion’s son, the hardy stripling Simoisius, still unwed. His mother had borne him along the Simois’ banks when she trailed her parents down the slopes of Ida to tend their flocks, and so they called him Simoisius. But never would he repay his loving parents now for the gift of rearing—his life cut short so soon.”

Homer’s poem is not a celebration of violence but a critical unmasking of it. The death scenes are particularly vivid, and, at first glance, one might consider this an outright celebration of naked violence, especially masculine violence unleashed in war. This, however, would be wrong. Far from celebrating the nakedness of violence, Homer deconstructs it and reminds us that the poor souls who were slain on the fields of Troy were husbands, fathers, sons, and lovers. Homer gives the dead humans faces and human names, reminds us of their lineage, and how so many sons, daughters, mothers, and fathers, are now deprived of love because of the slaughter wrought in war. Even in death, as we have just witnessed, Homer juxtaposes beautiful imagery of peaceful landscapes and families to remind us of the true ideal—instead of the faux ideal of glory won in violence.

The chief subject of the Iliad is not so much force, as it is the slow and painful realization of love offering a serene refuge in the midst of force. More specifically, the love at the center of Homer’s grand poem is born of forgiveness and reveals how an act of forgiving compassion is the pulsating heart of true heroism and magnanimity. For all the battle scenes, violent sex, and rage that fills the poem, the most memorable scenes in the poem are moments of love—especially loving moments of embrace. 

This is not unintentional on the part of Homer. Two such embraces that stand out are Hector’s embrace of Astyanax and Andromache, where he calms his terrified son by stripping off his helmet and battle armor to cradle the infant babe in tender compassion, and Patroclus’ embrace of the injured Eurylypus, whom he helps to heal after being injured in battle. Both incidents, the studious reader will realize, are not merely self-giving acts to the Other but acts of free will independent of the commands of the gods or other human characters in the epic. The magnanimity of the self-giving act to the Other is also an act of free choice.

We must remember that for a poem which opens about the rage of Achilles, the rage of Achilles is not fully manifested until very late in the poem. It is only after Patroclus dies that Achilles flies into an uncontrollable rage, which sees him storm out of his tent and slaughter numerous Trojans and ending with his butchering of Hector and subsequent attempt to defile the body. In these sequences, we see the worst of Achilles, as Homer intended.

During the rage of Achilles, which drives the poem to its conclusion, Achilles encounters a young Trojan prince whom he and Patroclus— according to older legends—had captured earlier in the war. Lycaon was enslaved but spared. Now Achilles and Lycaon meet again. Foolishly remembering the compassion of Patroclus and the mercy of Achilles he had encountered before, Lycaon throws himself at the feet of Achilles in a position of objectified humiliation. Crying before the shins of the murderous Achilles, Lycaon implores the Myrmidon captain to have mercy on him. Homer describes what happens next in heart wrenching language. 

After Lycaon shamelessly begs for mercy, Achilles cruelly refuses, “At that Lycaon’s knees gave way on the spot, his heart too. He let go of the spear, he sank back down…spreading both arms wide. Drawing his sharp sword, Achilles struck his collarbone just beside the neck and the two edged blade drove home, plunging to the hilt—and down on the ground he sprawled, stretched facefirst, and dark blood pouring out of him drenched the earth.” Lycaon is pitilessly slaughtered, and then Achilles vows to wipe out the seed of Priam from the face of the earth. Afterward Achilles and Hector duel, with Achilles killing the great Trojan prince.

We have just witnessed the Homeric cosmos become consumed in rage and war, ending in dark bloodshed staining the fertile lands of the earth. With Hector dead, Priam’s love for his son compels him to venture into the tent of Achilles to ransom the return of his beloved son for proper funeral rites. So the monumental epic reaches its most emotional and tearful conclusion. 

…and, in this moment, we witness what Homer considers the truest and grandest act of heroism: compassion in the form of forgiveness.

The Voice of Homer: Forgiveness, Peace, and Redemption

The Iliad does not end with the burning of Troy, the death of Achilles, or the flight of Aeneas to Lavinian shores. Despite this, the ending of the Iliad is so perfect and powerful because we witness the purpose of the poem—the metamorphosis of Achilles from rageful and hateful killer to forgiving lover and compassionate hero. It is in the tent of Achilles with Priam begging the return of Hector’s body that the whole cosmic movement of the poem is made manifest; and, in this moment, we witness what Homer considers the truest and grandest act of heroism: compassion in the form of forgiveness.

Priam throws himself at the feet of Achilles, just as Lycaon had done earlier. Here, we witness a recapitulation of a familiar image to us: a helpless Trojan shamelessly and helplessly tossing himself at the feet of murderous Achilles and begging for compassion. We also know that Achilles has vowed to wipe out the seed of Priam. What better way to make good on this vow than to kill the father of the entire royal line?

Instead of killing Priam, as we would expect without any knowledge of the story, Achilles lifts up the Trojan king and—remembering the love of Peleus sparked by the weeping Priam—embraces the King of Troy in love. The two men weep together in an image of tender embrace. This tender embrace moved by compassion brings peace. Achilles hands over the body of Hector, and a temporary truce is announced. The city at war gives way to the city at peace. 

Here, we once more see the free choice in the midst of the self-giving embrace. Zeus had only demanded the return of the body of Hector. The embrace of Achilles and Priam goes far beyond that. Achilles weeps with Priam in a shared moment of love between the two bitter enemies. Moreover, the embrace of the two men leads to a brief truce between the Greeks and the Trojans. None of this was ever stipulated by Zeus. Achilles embraces Priam in love and offers him a truce on his own account.

At the end of the Iliad, we witness how an act of forgiveness heals the shattered world torn by hate, rage, and war. The poem ends so perfectly, even if we know—as the listeners of the poem during antiquity would have known—that Troy is still to be burned and many more heroes slain. Homer does not bother to tell us these details—not because he took them for granted but because that was not the purpose of his poem. The message that Homer lays bare for us is the power and heroism of forgiveness and how forgiveness brings peace to the world and saves it from further destruction. The magnanimity of forgiveness reveals forgiveness to be the ultimate expression of heroism. After all, the final act by the poem’s central hero is an act of forgiveness rather than an act of martial prowess.

Furthermore, Homer’s epic exposes the capriciousness and injustice of the gods. Homer does not locate the heart of justice with the cold gods of Olympus (as nearly all the human characters do in the poem through their prayers and invocations of the gods), but in the agency and heart of humans. The true nobility and justice of Achilles is in his free act of forgiveness extended to Priam which brings peace, a temporary peace to be sure, but peace nonetheless to war-torn Ilium at the conclusion of the poem. Homer’s love is a humanistic love; it is a love grounded in forgiveness and not in rage. 

The love that Homer sings is a love that reconciles not a love that sours into rage because of deprivation. As I’ve previously written concerning Homer’s epic, “The Iliad is a grand love poem on a cosmic scale. This epic of love moves heaven and earth…the love that Homer inserts into the cosmos is a love that heals and forgives.” Homer begins the near three-thousand-year creative enterprise in Western literature that extols the virtue of love in forgiveness, which is found so movingly in the writings of Dante, Shakespeare, Dumas, Austen, and Tolstoy, among so many others—not to mention the musical operas of Mozart and Wagner.

Homer’s monumental epic is a grueling pilgrimage through storm, trial, and strife; it is an epic pilgrimage through bloodshed, horror, and war. The end of the Iliad is peace, a peace brought about by that most heroic act of compassionate forgiveness. As the poem comes to an end, Troy still stands, and peace between bitter enemies is where Homer leaves us. Rather than fall back into the rage and hatred that killed so many, Homer leaves us the message that compassion and forgiveness (and how they are often intertwined) are the cornerstones on which international love are to be built. Nearly three millennia later, Homer’s message still reverberates and is even more relevant now than in times past.

Paul Krause is writer and editor with advanced degrees in philosophy and theology, and a B.A. in economics, history, and philosophy. He is an Associate Editor at VoegelinView and contributed to the book The College Lecture Today: An Interdisciplinary Defense for the Contemporary University (Lexington Books, 2019).

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If they ever tell my story, let them say I walked with giants. Men rise and fall like the winter wheat, but these names will never die. Let them say I lived in the time of Hector tamer of horses. Let them say, I lived in the time of Achilles.