Summary: Book 23
At the Achaean camp, Achilles and the Myrmidons continue their mourning for Patroclus. Achilles finally begins to accept food, but he still refuses to wash until he has buried Patroclus. That night, his dead companion appears to him in a dream, begging Achilles to hold his funeral soon so that his soul can enter the land of the dead. The next day, after an elaborate ceremony in which he sacrifices the Achaeans’ twelve Trojan captives, Achilles prays for assistance from the winds and lights Patroclus’s funeral pyre.
The day after, following the burial of Patroclus’s bones, Achilles holds a series of competitions in Patroclus’s honor. Marvelous prizes are offered, and both the commanders and the soldiers compete. The events include boxing, wrestling, archery, and a chariot race, which Diomedes wins with some help from Athena. Afterward, Achilles considers stripping the prize from the second-place finisher, Antilochus, to give as consolation to the last-place finisher, whom Athena has robbed of victory so that Diomedes would win. But Antilochus becomes furious at the idea of having his prize taken from him. Menelaus then adds to the argument, declaring that Antilochus committed a foul during the race. After some heated words, the men reconcile with one another.
Summary: Book 24
Remember your own father, great godlike Achilles—
as old as I am, past the threshold of deadly old age!
Achilles continues mourning Patroclus and abusing Hector’s body, dragging it around his dead companion’s tomb. Apollo, meanwhile, protects Hector’s corpse from damage and rot and staves off dogs and scavengers. Finally, on the twelfth day after Hector’s death, Apollo persuades Zeus that Achilles must let Hector’s body be ransomed. Zeus sends Thetis to bring the news to Achilles, while Iris goes to Priam to instruct him to initiate the ransom. Hecuba fears that Achilles will kill her husband, but Zeus reassures her by sending an eagle as a good omen.
Priam sets out with his driver, Idaeus, and a chariot full of treasure. Zeus sends Hermes, disguised as a benevolent Myrmidon soldier, to guide Priam through the Achaean camp. When the chariot arrives at Achilles’ tent, Hermes reveals himself and then leaves Priam alone with Achilles. Priam tearfully supplicates Achilles, begging for Hector’s body. He asks Achilles to think of his own father, Peleus, and the love between them. Achilles weeps for his father and for Patroclus. He accepts the ransom and agrees to give the corpse back.
That night, Priam sleeps in Achilles’ tent, but Hermes comes to him in the middle of the night and rouses him, warning him that he must not sleep among the enemy. Priam and Idaeus wake, place Hector in their chariot, and slip out of the camp unnoticed. All of the women in Troy, from Andromache to Helen, cry out in grief when they first see Hector’s body. For nine days the Trojans prepare Hector’s funeral pyre—Achilles has given them a reprieve from battle. The Trojans light Hector’s pyre on the tenth day.
Analysis: Books 23–24
The games at Patroclus’s funeral serve primarily as a buffer between two climactic events—the death of Hector and his burial. Accordingly, they serve little purpose in the story’s plot. Some of the competitions, however, especially the chariot race, provide some drama, but none of the events of Book 24 hinge on their outcome. In a scene that strongly echoes the incident that provokes Achilles’ initial rage at Agamemnon, Achilles—ironically—tries to strip the second-place charioteer, Antilochus, of his rightfully won prize. Just as Antilochus finishes second to Diomedes, so does Achilles rank second to Agamemnon; Antilochus, as Achilles does earlier, refuses to suffer the injustice and humiliation of having his achievements go unappreciated. Unlike the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon, however, this matter is settled peacefully and has no lasting results for any of the characters. Ultimately, the games function for the reader much as they do for the characters—as a diversion from grief.
The Iliad ends much as it began: just as Chryses does in Book 1, Priam now crosses enemy lines to supplicate the man who has his child. This time, however, the father’s prayers are immediately granted. Priam’s invocation of Achilles’ own father, Peleus, forges a momentary bond between him and Achilles. Achilles knows that he is fated never to return to Phthia, meaning that one day Peleus will be the bereft father that Achilles has made Priam, mourning a child snatched from his grasp in enemy territory. This realization that his own father is doomed to suffer what Priam is now suffering finally melts Achilles’ rage, bringing a sense of closure to the poem.
The bond between Achilles and Priam proves entirely transitory, however. No alliances have shifted; Agamemnon would surely take Priam prisoner if he found him in the Achaean camp. Achilles and Priam remain enemies, as Hermes soon reminds Priam. Achilles’ first loyalty is still to Patroclus, as he needs to remind himself after giving up the body of Patroclus’s murderer. The fate of Troy is still sealed, a city destined to fall violently at the hands of the Achaeans, as Andromache reminds us when she sees Hector’s body being carried into the city. Nonetheless, while Achilles and Priam remain enemies, their animosity has become a nobler, more respectful one.
This change seems to stem from the development of Achilles’ character. Having begun the epic as a temperamental, prideful, selfish, and impulsive man, Achilles shows himself in Book 24 to possess a sense of sympathy for others. Throughout the poem, Homer charts Achilles’ inability to think beyond himself—his wounded pride makes him stubbornly allow the other Achaeans to suffer defeat, and his rage at Patroclus’s death makes him utterly disrespect the noble Hector’s corpse. Now, however, Achilles not only respects Priam’s plea by returning Hector’s body but also allows the Trojan people a reprieve from battle in order to honor and grieve their hero thoroughly and properly.
That Achilles’ change of heart occasions the poem’s conclusion emphasizes the centrality of Achilles’ rage to the poem. Homer chooses to conclude The Iliad not with the death of Achilles or the fall of Troy but rather with the withering of Achilles’ mighty wrath. The lack of emphasis given to dramatic climax in favor of an exploration of human emotion complements the poem’s anticlimactic nature as a whole. Homer’s audience would have been very familiar with the plot’s outcome, and even a modern audience learns relatively early on how things turn out; because the element of suspense is gone, it makes perfect sense for the poem to wrap itself up when its original conflict—Achilles’ rage at Agamemnon—has been suitably resolved.
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