Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.
The first lines of an ancient epic poem typically offer a capsule summary of the subject the poem will treat, and the first lines of The Iliad conform to this pattern. Indeed, Homer announces his subject in the very first word of the very first line: “Rage.” He then locates the rage within “Peleus’ son Achilles,” delineates its consequences (“cost the Achaeans countless losses . . .”), links it to higher forces and agendas (“the will of Zeus”), and notes its origin (when “the two first broke and clashed, / Agamemnon . . . and brilliant Achilles”). Interestingly, although these lines purport to focus on a human emotion, they interpret this emotion as unfolding in accordance with the expression of Zeus’s will. Similarly, Homer conceives of the entire epic as the medium through which a divine being—a Muse—speaks.
As evident in this passage, the poem emphatically does not undertake to deal with the Trojan War as a whole. The poet does not even mention Troy here, and he specifically asks the Muse to begin the story at the time when Agamemnon and Achilles first “broke and clashed”—nine years into the ten-year conflict. Nor does he mention the fall of Troy or the Greek victory, referring only to a vague “end” toward which Zeus’s will moves. This does not mean that the Trojan War does not play an important role in the poem. Homer clearly uses the war not just as a setting but as a wellspring for the value system he celebrates, and a source of telling illustrations for his statements on life, death, and fate. Nonetheless, the poem remains fundamentally focused on the conflict within a single man, and this opening passage conveys this focus to the reader.
We everlasting gods . . . Ah what chilling blows
we suffer—thanks to our own conflicting wills—
whenever we show these mortal men some kindness.
Ares voices this lament after being wounded by Diomedes in Book 5. His plaint concisely captures the Homeric relationship between gods and men and, perhaps, Homer’s attitude toward that relationship. Homeric gods frequently intervene in the mortal world out of some kind of emotional attachment to the object of that intervention. Here, Ares describes this emotion as simply a desire to do “kindness,” but kindness toward one mortal often translates into unkindness toward another—hence Ares’ wound at the hands of Diomedes.
Divine intervention in The Iliad causes conflicts not only in the mortal sphere but between the gods as well. Each god favors different men, and when these men are at war, divine wars often rage as well. Ares thus correctly attributes the gods’ “chilling blows” to their “own conflicting wills.”
Ares’ whining does not make him unique among the gods. Homer’s immortals expect to govern according to their wills, which are in turn governed by self-interest. Correspondingly, they complain when they do not get their way. Ares’ melodramatic and self-pitying lament, which is greeted with scorn by Zeus a few lines later, probably implies some criticism of the gods by Homer. Ares’ appearance here as a kind of spoiled child provides just one example of Homer’s portrayal of the gods as temperamental, sulky, vengeful, and petty—a portrayal that may seek to describe and explain the inequities and absurdities in life on earth.
Cattle and fat sheep can all be had for the raiding,
tripods all for the trading, and tawny-headed stallions.
But a man’s life breath cannot come back again—
. . .
Mother tells me,
the immortal goddess Thetis with her glistening feet,
that two fates bear me on to the day of death.
If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy,
my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies.
If I voyage back to the fatherland I love,
my pride, my glory dies. . . .
With these words in Book 9, Achilles rejects the embassy of Achaean commanders come to win him back to the war effort. His response here shows that Agamemnon’s effrontery—which he discusses earlier in his speech—does not constitute the sole reason for his refusal to fight. Achilles also fears the consequences in store for him if he remains in Troy. His mother, Thetis, has told him that fate has given him two options—either live a short but glorious life in Troy or return to Phthia and live on in old age but obscurity. As he confronts this choice, the promise of gifts and plunder—cattle, fat sheep, stallions—doesn’t interest him at all. Such material gifts can be traded back and forth, or even taken away, as his prize Briseis was. In contrast, the truly precious things in the world are those that cannot be bought, sold, seized, or commodified in any way. These include glory and life itself.
The choice that Achilles must make in this scene is between glory and life; it is not merely a matter of whether to accept the gifts or to continue protesting Agamemnon’s arrogance. At this point in the epic, Achilles has chosen life over glory, and he explains that he plans to return to Phthia. However, the allure of glory later proves irresistible when he finds a compelling occasion for it—avenging the death of his beloved friend Patroclus.
Zeus speaks these words to the horses of Achilles’ chariot, who weep over the death of Patroclus in Book 17. Grim as they are, the lines accurately reflect the Homeric view of the human condition. Throughout The Iliad, as well as The Odyssey, mortals often figure as little more than the playthings of the gods. Gods can whisk them away from danger as easily as they can put them in the thick of it. It is thus appropriate that the above lines are spoken by a god, and not by a mortal character or the mortal poet; the gods know the mortals’ agony, as they play the largest role in causing it.
While gods can presumably manipulate and torment other animals that “breathe and crawl across the earth,” humanity’s consciousness of the arbitrariness of their treatment at the hands of the gods, their awareness of the cruel choreography going on above, increases their agony above that of all other creatures. For while the humans remain informed of the gods’ interventions, they remain powerless to contradict them. Moreover, humans must deal with a similarly fruitless knowledge of their fates. The Iliad’s two most important characters, Achilles and Hector, both know that they are doomed to die early deaths. Hector knows in addition that his city is doomed to fall, his brothers and family to be extinguished, and his wife to be reduced to slavery. These men’s agony arises from the fact that they bear the burden of knowledge without being able to use this knowledge to bring about change.
Remember your own father, great godlike Achilles—
as old as I am, past the threshold of deadly old age!
No doubt the countrymen round about him plague him now,
with no one there to defend him, beat away disaster.
No one—but at least he hears you’re still alive
and his old heart rejoices, hopes rising, day by day,
to see his beloved son come sailing home from Troy.
With these words, spoken in the middle of Book 24, Priam implores Achilles to return Hector’s corpse for proper burial. He makes himself sympathetic in Achilles’ eyes by drawing a parallel between himself and Achilles’ father, Peleus. Priam imagines Peleus surrounded by enemies with no one to protect him—a predicament that immediately mirrors his own, as a supplicant standing in the middle of the enemy camp. Moreover, the two fathers’ situations resemble each other on a broader scale as well. Hector was the bulwark for Priam’s Troy just as Achilles was the bulwark for his father’s kingdom back in Phthia, and with the two sons gone, Priam’s enemies—the Achaeans—will now close in on him just as those of Peleus will. Priam claims that the parallel fails in only one respect: Peleus can at least hope that his son will come home one day.
But it is this one alleged hole in Priam’s comparison that truly summons Achilles’ pity and breaks down his resistance, for, unknown to Priam, Peleus is also destined never to see his son again. Achilles knows, as Priam does not, that he is fated to die at Troy and never return home to Phthia. He realizes that one day Peleus will learn that his son has died at the hands of enemies and that he will never see his body again, just as might happen to Priam if Achilles doesn’t return Hector’s corpse to him. Priam’s comparison turns out to be more true than he knows.
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