Analysis of Major Characters
Although Achilles possesses superhuman strength and has a close relationship with the gods, he may strike modern readers as less than heroic. He has all the marks of a great warrior, and indeed proves the mightiest man in the Achaean army, but his deep-seated character flaws constantly impede his ability to act with nobility and integrity. He cannot control his pride or the rage that surges up when that pride is injured. This attribute so poisons him that he abandons his comrades and even prays that the Trojans will slaughter them, all because he has been slighted at the hands of his commander, Agamemnon. Achilles is driven primarily by a thirst for glory. Part of him yearns to live a long, easy life, but he knows that his personal fate forces him to choose between the two. Ultimately, he is willing to sacrifice everything else so that his name will be remembered.
Like most Homeric characters, Achilles does not develop significantly over the course of the epic. Although the death of Patroclus prompts him to seek reconciliation with Agamemnon, it does not alleviate his rage, but instead redirects it toward Hector. The event does not make Achilles a more deliberative or self-reflective character. Bloodlust, wrath, and pride continue to consume him. He mercilessly mauls his opponents, brazenly takes on the river Xanthus, ignobly desecrates the body of Hector, and savagely sacrifices twelve Trojan men at the funeral of Patroclus. He does not relent in this brutality until the final book of the epic, when King Priam, begging for the return of Hector’s desecrated corpse, appeals to Achilles’ memory of his father, Peleus. Yet it remains unclear whether a father’s heartbroken pleas really have transformed Achilles, or whether this scene merely testifies to Achilles’ capacity for grief and acquaintance with anguish, which were already proven in his intense mourning of Patroclus.
Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and commander-in-chief of the Achaean army, resembles Achilles in some respects. Though not nearly as strong, he has a similarly hot temper and prideful streak. When Agamemnon’s insulting demand that Achilles relinquish his war prize, Briseis, causes Achilles to withdraw angrily from battle, the suffering that results for the Greek army owes as much to Agamemnon’s stubbornness as to that of Achilles. But Agamemnon’s pride makes him more arrogant than Achilles. While Achilles’ pride flares up after it is injured, Agamemnon uses every opportunity to make others feel the effects of his. He always expects the largest portions of the plunder, even though he takes the fewest risks in battle. Additionally, he insists upon leading the army, even though his younger brother Menelaus, whose wife, Helen, was stolen by Paris, possesses the real grievance against the Trojans. He never allows the Achaeans to forget his kingly status.
Agamemnon also differs from Achilles in his appreciation of subtlety. Achilles remains fiercely devoted to those who love him but devotedly vicious to those who do him harm; he sees no shades of gray. Agamemnon, however, remains fundamentally concerned with himself, and he has the cunning to manipulate people and situations for his own benefit. He does not trust his troops blindly, but tests their loyalty, as in Book 2. Although he reconciles with Achilles in Book 19, he shirks personal responsibility with a forked-tongued indictment of Fate, Ruin, and the gods. Whereas Achilles is wholly consumed by his emotions, Agamemnon demonstrates a deft ability to keep himself—and others—under control. When he commits wrongs, he does so not out of blind rage and frustration like Achilles, but out of amoral, self-serving cunning. For this reason, Homer’s portrait of Agamemnon ultimately proves unkind, and the reader never feels the same sympathy for him as for Achilles.
Hector is the mightiest warrior in the Trojan army. Although he meets his match in Achilles, he wreaks havoc on the Achaean army during Achilles’ period of absence. He leads the assault that finally penetrates the Achaean ramparts, he is the first and only Trojan to set fire to an Achaean ship, and he kills Patroclus. Yet his leadership contains discernible flaws, especially toward the end of the epic, when the participation of first Patroclus and then Achilles reinvigorates the Achaean army. He demonstrates a certain cowardice when, twice in Book 17, he flees Great Ajax. Indeed, he recovers his courage only after receiving the insults of his comrades—first Glaucus and then Aeneas. He can often become emotionally carried away as well, treating Patroclus and his other victims with rash cruelty. Later, swept up by a burst of confidence, he foolishly orders the Trojans to camp outside Troy’s walls the night before Achilles returns to battle, thus causing a crucial downfall the next day.
But although Hector may prove overly impulsive and insufficiently prudent, he does not come across as arrogant or overbearing, as Agamemnon does. Moreover, the fact that Hector fights in his homeland, unlike any of the Achaean commanders, allows Homer to develop him as a tender, family-oriented man. Hector shows deep, sincere love for his wife and children. Indeed, he even treats his brother Paris with forgiveness and indulgence, despite the man’s lack of spirit and preference for lovemaking over military duty. Hector never turns violent with him, merely aiming frustrated words at his cowardly brother. Moreover, although Hector loves his family, he never loses sight of his responsibility to Troy. Admittedly, he runs from Achilles at first and briefly entertains the delusional hope of negotiating his way out of a duel. However, in the end he stands up to the mighty warrior, even when he realizes that the gods have abandoned him. His refusal to flee even in the face of vastly superior forces makes him the most tragic figure in the poem.
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