The Iliad

by: Homer

Books 23–24

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.