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Ivo Ramirez

Professor Griffin

ENGL 211

4/9/2019

Achilles: The Iliad's Tragic Hero


Achilles is a complicated character. He’s described as rather powerful and strong, yet it’s clear

that as a person he’s flawed despite his extraordinary skills and abilities. After all, the first lines

of the work he’s featured in describe his rage, which is a trait we don’t admire as a society.

Despite his actions and the negative aspects surrounding his character, it can be argued that

Achilles fits perfectly into the role of a tragic hero. He may be a vain and petty murderer, but

above all, he is a human being. The story of Achilles and the circumstances surrounding his

character can be easily applied to most of Aristotle's major principles of Tragedy. Achilles is a

tragic hero because he's represented as larger than life, he faces a large dilemma that brings

drama into his life and forces his hand, he invokes the emotions of fear and pity throughout the

story, and ultimately shows traits of both a good and bad man simultaneously.

The representation of Achilles as a figure larger than life itself contributes greatly to his status as

the Iliad's tragic hero. One of Aristotle’s major principles of tragedy is about the imitation of life

in a sense. In tragedy, the story is based on real life but represents its figures as grander than in

real life. Specifically, “Tragedy...is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a

certain magnitude” (Section 1, Part 7). Certainly, Achilles’ actions show that he’s a human of a

higher type of great magnitude. Achilles shows special characteristics in both his physical and

mental faculties. His superiority and greatness are exemplified in his rejection of honor in book
9. He’s offered several gifts. He rejects them, however, stating that “The same honor waits for

the coward and the brave. They both go down to Death.” (Book 9, 385-388). Most men of that

time would do anything for honor. After all, Agamemnon’s whole struggle in the first book of

the Iliad is all about honor. Achilles, on the other hand, is on a different level. He’s greater than

Agamemnon. As far as physical feats go, there’s plenty of evidence supporting Achilles’

greatness. Agamemnon acknowledges this in the first book when he says “Forever quarreling is

dear to your heart, and wars and battle, and if you are very strong indeed, that is a god's gift”

(Book 1, 177-178). Achilles is clearly a great man who has to deal with circumstances as

striking and significant as he is.

Aristotle’s third principle of tragedy emphasizes action in relation to dilemmas, which is

what Achilles does when he finally joins in the war in reaction to the death of his friend.

Aristotle states “Tragedy emphasizes action; action reveals character” (Section 1, Part 6). The

character of Achilles as a tragic hero is revealed by the actions he takes in response to the tragic

dilemma he finds himself in, which makes him a tragic hero. Before the aforementioned

dilemma, Achilles was facing another problem. He had yet to become a tragic hero in the eyes of

Aristotle, for instance, because he was stuck in a situation of inaction. He says, “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…”

(Book 9, lines 499-505) which means that Achilles principal problem for some time has been

balancing the possibilities of glory and a short life compared to a long life with no glory. The

tragic event that happens to Achilles and makes him take action is the death of his friend

Patroclus, which rouses him into a great fit of sorrow and forces him to fight in the war he’d
previously ignored. “A black cloud of grief came shrouding over Achilles” (Book 17, line 25)

which leads to actions that reveal his true priorities as a character. As Aristotle says, “Character

is that which reveals moral purpose, showing what kinds of things a man chooses or avoids.”

(Section 1, part 6). Because the build-up to Achilles actions involve a dilemma and because these

actions finally reveal what he prioritizes as a moral man, Achilles can be said to be a figure

fitting of his role in this tragic work.

Achilles is further proven to be the primary tragic actor in the Iliad when he finally takes

his actions. His actions inspire partly pity and partly fear. The downfall of Achilles is ultimately

brought about by his actions in the face of the circumstances he finds himself in. Aristotle makes

a point about a character in regards to tragedy. He says that "There remains, then, the character

between these two extremes- that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose

misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty" (Section 1,

Part 9). The actions that bring fear and pity are twofold. His actions on the battlefield spell out

his eventual doom and bring great fear, while his actions after the death of Hector bring an

element of pity to the situations in the story. His insistence on following the path of war brings

him honor and takes many lives, but it will do nothing to bring back his friend or soothe his

conscious. The acts performed by Achilles for revenge can be seen as obscene and portray fear.

As soon as he dared enter the battlefield "An awesome trembling came to the limbs of every

Trojan in their terror when they saw the son of Peleus, the fast runner, blazing in his armor, the

likeness of man-destroying Ares" (Book 20, Lines 45-48). He spends the 21' st book of the Iliad

all but bathing in the blood of his enemies - causing terror and mayhem in his wake. He even

causes fear to strike the man responsible for the tragic events that forced Achilles' hand. One
they met, a "trembling came over Hector...And he did not dare to stay there any longer, but he

left the gates behind him and ran in fear" (Book 22, Lines 127-128). Before he was killed by

Achilles in a fight, Hector says that Achilles was the greatest evil facing Troy (Book 22, line

277.) The saddest part is that Achilles doesn't mean to be evil - he's only working to avenge his

closest friend's death. It's hard not to pity Achilles

Achilles tragic nature and actions can be explained by analyzing Aristotle’s 6th principal

of tragedy and seeing how it fits into the Iliad. Aristotle states that “The tragic hero is neither all

good or all bad—he is capable of both good and evil” (Section 2, part 13). Aristotle’s

relationship with Priam shows two sides of him - the hateful and evil side as well as the

compassionate and loving side. He’s seen committing a horrible act when, after slaughtering

Hector, rage gets the better of him. He drags the man’s body all around the town in front of

Priam, in fact, he does this for several days without stopping (Book 24. Lines 455-482.) Priam

appeals to Achilles to be humane and to give him back his son’s body. A more moral side to

Achilles is seen here for the first time in several books. He shows vulnerability, the pain of loss

finally settling in a non-violent way. After Priam’s appeal, “Both men gave way to grief. Priam

wept freely. For man-killing Hector, throbbing, crouching before Achilles' feet as Achilles wept

himself, now for his father, now for Patroclus once again And their sobbing rose and fell

throughout the house” (Book 24. Lines 495-500). After this, he finally decides to do the right

thing. Achilles declares “Your son is given back, old man, just as you requested” (Book 24.

Lines 557-592.) He even allows the Trojans time to bury Hector. He says, “It will be as you say,

old man Priam. Will suspend the war for as long as you say” (Book 24. Lines 654-655).

Achilles, as a true tragic hero, has ways of dealing with his dilemmas in both good and bad ways.
Achilles is the true tragic hero of the Iliad because he’s a larger than life man who has to

face difficult dilemmas that challenge his morality and force him to act. In addition, he can be

both moral and immoral as evidenced by the choices that he makes. Achilles suffers quite a bit

but that’s what makes him the tragic hero of the Iliad. Eventually, he will succumb to a fatal flaw

and die, but that’s not presented in the Iliad. However, there’s enough evidence in the epic to

frame him as the tragic hero regardless.