Achilles' Armor and Identity in The Iliad

March 2008

The Iliad’s central figure contains a dazzling array of complexities and depth. The ways in which Homer’s Achilles has captured imaginations over the centuries are manifold, and add up to a character defined by conflict, fueled my emotion, fantastically rich and deeply resonant to many. That the Darwinian devices of oral tradition could arrive at so densely realized a character is at once magical and mundane, in much the same way that the production of an orchid or a primate through natural selection is mundane and magical. In the context of the generational nature of oral composition, peculiarities of narrative that remain through iteration after iteration can be interesting and illuminating to consider and explore. For example, the motif of the armor of Achilles as it is passed from him to Patroclus and on to Hector, on a straightforward surface level is slightly problematic, but under close scrutiny betrays a sophisticated psychology that is rife with layered meaning.

The problem arises in the idea of Patroclus disguising himself as Achilles by wearing his armor. Patroclus beseeches Achilles at the beginning of Book XVI to lend him his armor, just as he was told to do by Nestor in Book XI.1 Patroclus’ hope here is that, seeing him disguised as Achilles, the Trojans would, stricken with fear, give the Greek forces some reprieve. But, as Walter Leaf states so neatly, “The intention of the exchange can only have been to strike terror into the enemy; it not only fails at this, but passes absolutely unnoticed, for the belief of the Trojans that Achilles has joined the fight is only momentary, and is amply explained by the appearance of his troops.”2 In fact, the disguise is so transparent that it is mentioned only once3 and is not even attributed to any specific character but to “the Trojans” in general. The next reference to Patroclus is by Glaucus to Hector,4 and it is by name, with no mention of the armor or of any ruse.

In his article “Achilles and the Armor of Patroclus,” John A Scott explains “[the] assumed fright of the Trojans was intended as an argument for Patroclus to become a warrior,” that is: Nestor simply wanted another hero, Patroclus, to join the fray. While this is interesting, it is ultimately unsatisfying because Patroclus simply does not seem to qualify as a hero prior to Book XVI. He seems to have been known best, as Menelaus puts it, as “gentle and kind to all”,5 and Scott himself argues quite compellingly that Patroclus had not even bothered to bring armor with him to Troy.6 This was, of course, as Nestor tells us,7 because he is there only in an advisory capacity to Achilles. But Nestor himself represents a figure that is at once advisory and martial. There would seem to be some additional reason for Patroclus not to have brought armor, which in any form would seem to conflict with the interpretation that Nestor believed Patroclus alone could make a difference. It is conceivable that it was Nestor’s plan all along for Patroclus to die and thus draw Achilles into the melée, but this is a frighteningly craven interpretation. Ultimately, there does not appear to be a satisfying way to diegetically resolve the question of Patroclus’ “disguise.”

To complicate the issue, Mark W Edwards, in his “Neoanalysis and Beyond,” cites Friis Johansen’s study of Attic vases and Euripides to conclude that there existed a pre-Homeric account of Thetis’ gift of Hephaestan armor to her son which takes place in Phthia, before Achilles even leaves for Troy.8 Homer, then, appears to have adapted the story of Achilles’ new armor to fit with the disguise motif, but without any clear diegetic reason to do so.

The non-diegetic implications, however, are simultaneously more apparent and more interesting to consider. In a meta-textual sense, the “disguise” itself is a disguise for the poet’s real intention: to weave a more complex, multi-faceted, richer quality into the identity of the central figure, Achilles, son of Peleus and Thetis.

Taken alone, Achilles is a fairly unsympathetic character. He is almost sociopathic in his self-involvement, unmoved by exhortations from Patroclus and Phoenix, both old and respected friends. Indeed, he even goes so far as to supplicate his mother for the misfortune of his fellow Greeks. When he allows Patroclus to take the Myrmidons into battle, he makes the stipulation that Patroclus not take the victory too far, citing the reasons of Patroclus’ safety and his own honor in the same breath. Perhaps his single most human moment is his admission in Book IX of his longing to return home, and even then he responds to Phoenix’s exhortations rather childishly: “If you’re his friend/You’re no longer mine, although I love you./Hate him because I hate him. It’s as simple as that.” If Achilles is half-mortal, only his petulantly capricious divine half seems manifest.

Patroclus defines a stark contrast. He is in profound anguish at the misfortune of his friends. In Book XI, he stops to help the wounded Eurypylus to his tent and tends to his wounds. When he joins the fighting, it is, unlike for Achilles, out of concern for his comrades. Patroclus seems to be defined by empathy for his fellow Achaeans whenever he is mentioned.

Though in this sense the two seem diametrically opposed, the transfer of armor, armor that is so closely linked with the identity of Achilles, connects them in a somewhat cryptic semiotic way. Indeed, in Achilles’ armor, Patroclus seems to take on certain Achillean characteristics. He becomes, for a time, unstoppable on the battlefield, even defeating Sarpedon, a son of Zeus himself. He also foolishly ignores Achilles’ advice not to outdo himself. In the end, he is killed by, in his own words, Fate and Apollo, by Euphorbus and by Hector a distant third. Under the lens of Achilles’ armor, Patroclus’ death as a reflection and foreshadowing of Achilles’ own death becomes more poignant and more profound.

With the death of his manifest humanity, Achilles reaches the zenith of his menis, his divine rage, heretofore consisting only of passivity. His divine nature seems to coalesce, and he embraces it. It is telling that his purported reason for grief and fury is the death of his friend, yet he delays holding a funeral and laying his friend to rest until his thirst for vengeance is sated. He becomes almost unrecognizably inhuman and insanely violent, even fighting with the river Scamander in his fury, and callously executing Lycaon who begs to be spared his life. This fully realized divine aspect of Achilles, after laying waste to the Trojan forces, culminates at his meeting with Hector, who is, of course, clad in Achilles’ own armor.

George Devereux, in his “Achilles’ Suicide in the Iliad” draws several parallels between Patroclus and Hector, parallels that ring true. Their dying speeches are very similarly prophetic, for example, and Hector, like Patroclus, seems to take on Achillean traits when he dons the armor. Devereux notes, in fact, that “As soon as Hector puts on this armor, Zeus made his body fit the armor—rather than the reverse…”9 Hector then goes on to perform feats of battle prowess that seem to surpass his ability.

As a reflection of Achilles, Hector can be seen to represent a different aspect of his mortal humanity than Patroclus. Hector is in many ways the paragon of virtue in respect to being a son, a husband, and a father. He is beloved by his people, and ready to become king. What is so puissant about Andromache’s prescient lamentational exhortation10 is that all of the things she exhorts him to think about in order to persuade him to stay within Troy’s walls are precisely the reasons he must go and fight. All these aspects of Hector are things Achilles could look forward to if he would just choose to go home, and when he kills Hector, he effectively kills that possibility for himself as well. Devereux sees Achilles’ murder of his physical double as a psychological act of suicide, an expression of his guilt for his part in the death of Patroclus, but it is suicide in a very real sense as well, as this is what seals his fate, according to Thetis’ prediction.

The motif of armor also illuminates the parallel of both Patroclus and Hector to Achilles’ half-divine, half-mortal nature; while they both seem invincible within this illusory shell, they are ultimately mortal, though it takes the interventions of gods to bring them down. While the reflections and resonances listed here are by no means exhaustive, they add up to illuminate a crucial inexplicability in the Iliad: Achilles’ ultimate relinquishment of Hector’s body to Priam. After having lost the aspect of human empathy in Patroclus and the aspect of a hope for the future in Hector, only his blind, divine rage is left. But, as a ghost, his humanity haunts him until he finally lays his friend to rest. Having before only understood his own grief, and his grief only for himself, that is, his angst at his own mortality, he now at last understands and comes to terms with grief for another, and simultaneously subsumes the ability to empathetically feel the grief of others. By the end of the Iliad, he has become almost an arbiter of peace, among the Greeks at least, and acquiesces to the pleas of an old man, a small, but touching and undeniably human gesture of kindness.

Works Cited

  • Devereux, George. “Achilles’ Suicide in the Iliad.” Helios vol. 6 no. 2 (1978–79): 3–15.

  • Edwards, Mark W. “Neoanalysis and Beyond.” Classical Antiquity vol. 9 no. 2 (1990): 311–325.

  • Leaf, Walter. The Iliad. 2nd ed. London, 1902.

  • Scott, John A. “Achilles and the Armor of Patroclus.” The Classical Journal vol. 13 no. 9 (1918): 682–686.

Works Consulted

  • Wilson, John R. “The Wedding Gifts of Peleus.” Phoenix vol. 28 no. 4 (Winter, 197): 385–389.

  • Armstrong, James I. “The Arming Motif in the Iliad.” American Journal of Philology vol. 4 no. 316 (Princeton, 1979): 337–354.

  • Edwards, Mark W. Homer, Poet of the Iliad. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Notes

  1. XI.835–858

  2. Walter Leaf, The Iliad, 2nd ed. (London, 1902), 144.

  3. XVI.266–270

  4. XVI.576

  5. XVII.685

  6. John A. Scott, “Achilles and the Armor of Patroclus,” The Classical Journal vol. 13 no. 9 (1918): 685.

  7. XI.829–833

  8. Mark W. Edwards, “Neoanalysis and Beyond,” Classical Antiquity vol. 9 no. 2 (1990), 316–317.

  9. George Devereux, “Achilles’ Suicide in the Iliad,” Helios vol. 6 no. 2, (1978–79): 8.

  10. VI.427–461