Throughout the Iliad, the theme is rage. Specifically, the Iliad is about the rage of Achilles, the almost-invincible hero of the Achaeans. The plot of the story follows Achilles’ decisions, as he is one of the central characters and responsible for pretty much everything that happens in the story. From beginning to end, the Iliad illustrates how choices shape not only the individual who makes them, but everyone around the individual as well.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines rage as “violent, explosive anger” and “furious intensity, as of a storm” (Morris).
This is a quite accurate description of Achilles and his attitude throughout the Iliad. Achilles’ rage will not be calmed and is the cause of practically everything that happens in the story. Because of Achilles and his rage, many people die, both Trojans and Achaeans. Achilles’ rage is definitely violent and explosive, and much like a storm in its furious intensity, not stopping for anyone or anything.
During the Trojan War, the Achaean army takes the city of Chryse, a town allied with Troy.
Achilles, the son of hero Peleus and sea-nymph Thetis, is one of the major heroes, second only to the leader of the Achaeans, Agamemnon. While the army takes Chryse, they capture Chryseis and Briseis, two beautiful maidens of Chryse. Agamemnon and Achilles each claim one maiden, with Agamemnon claiming Chryseis and Achilles claiming Briseis.
Soon afterward, however, Chryseis’s father Chryses asks the Achaeans to return Chryseis to him. He offers a huge ransom, but Agamemnon refuses to return her.
Unfortunately for Agamemnon, Chryses is a priest of Apollo. After Agamemnon spurns Chryses, Chryses prays to Apollo, who sends a plague on the Achaeans. Many Achaeans die, and after ascertaining from the prophet Calchas that Chryseis is the cause of the plague, Agamemnon unwillingly returns her to her father.
To make up for losing Chryseis, Agamemnon insists that Achilles give him Briseis. Achilles is furious, but agrees and sends Patroclus to take Briseis to Agamemnon. Achilles then proceeds to storm off and sulk in his tent rather than fight in the war. While he is there, Achilles prays to his mother, Thetis, to petition Zeus for him (Homer 91). Achilles, in a fit of spite, wants to see the Achaeans dead because of the wrong Agamemnon did to him.
Zeus decides to grant Thetis’s plea and reverses the course of the war for two weeks, during which time most of the Iliad takes place. The tide of the war changes and now the Trojans are gaining ground against the Achaeans, much to the Achaeans’ dismay. Since Achilles is angry and acting like a child, the Achaeans must send out other warriors to take his place. Menelaus and Ajax duel Paris and Hector, but to no avail. The Achaeans are still no closer to victory than they were before. In fact, they are even farther away as the Trojans are driving them back from Troy.
Eventually the Trojans push the Achaeans back far enough that the Achaeans must take shelter behind the ramparts protecting their ships. That night, Diomedes and Odysseus conduct a mission to see what plans the Trojans may have for the next day. The two men succeed, but it is all for nothing as the next day goes even worse for the Achaeans. The Trojans wound Achaean commanders and break through the ramparts behind which the Achaeans are hiding. Soon enough, the Trojans set fire to one of the Achaean ships and the Achaeans begin to despair.
Achilles, still sulking, takes notice. He is still angry with Agamemnon and, by extension, all of the Achaeans, but he wants to help them somewhat. Thus, instead of actually going out to help the cause of the Achaeans by fighting, he accepts a plan Nestor makes. In Nestor’s plan, Achilles’ dear friend Patroclus takes Achilles’ place in battle, wearing Achilles’ armor and pretending to be Achilles (Homer 421).
Patroclus manages to help the Achaeans push the Trojans back to the city gates, while everyone still thinks he is Achilles. Unfortunately, Apollo is on the side of the Trojans and knocks Achilles’ armor off Patroclus. This exposes both Patroclus’s body and the fact that Patroclus is not Achilles. Hector kills Patroclus, and both sides begin to fight for both Patroclus’s body and armor. Hector wins the fight for his armor, but Menelaus and a few other Achaeans manage to retrieve Patroclus’s body and take it back to Achilles.
After this tragic occurrence, Achilles finally decides to rejoin the battle and make up with Agamemnon. However, before he can do that, Achilles must have new armor. He asks Thetis to, once again, entreat a god on his behalf. Thetis goes to Hephaestus and convinces him to make Achilles another suit of armor. She gives it to Achilles the next morning and Achilles goes out to lead the Achaean army to what he hopes will be victory. Achilles is a remarkable warrior, and just the sight of him sends the Trojans running for safety. He kills every single Trojan he sees. This angers Xanthus, the god of the river, because Achilles is choking his waters with dead bodies. Achilles fights Xanthus and wins, as in all Achilles’ other fights up to this point.
Hector decides to be brave and confront Achilles outside the walls of Troy, even though all Hector’s men are scared and have fled inside the city walls. Though Hector is brave enough to confront Achilles, he is not brave enough to stand his ground. Thus, Hector runs from Achilles and Achilles chases him around the city three times.
Finally, Athena has had enough of all of the men’s delays and decides to put an end to it all. She tricks Hector into turning around and facing Achilles, a fatal mistake. Achilles and Hector duel and Achilles wins, avenging the death of his beloved friend Patroclus. After Achilles kills Hector, he ties him to the back of his chariot and drags him around. Achilles holds a festival of athletic games in honor of the dead Patroclus, and every day for nine days drags Hector’s body around Patroclus’s funeral pyre.
The gods get fed up with Achilles and decide that someone needs to bury Hector properly. Hermes escorts Hector’s father, Priam, into the camp to plead with Achilles for Hector’s body. Priam brings Peleus, Achilles’ father, to Achilles’ memory, and Achilles relents and releases Hector’s body to the Trojans. Both sides call a temporary truce and the Trojans give Hector the funeral of a hero, as he was the greatest hero in all of Troy, and perhaps the greatest in the history of the city.
Thus, one can clearly see how Achilles’ rage and decisions shape the entire story of the Iliad. Achilles is the reason the Trojans advance so much against the Achaeans and kill so many of them. Achilles is also the reason Patroclus died, because Achilles did not want to actually go into battle to help the Achaeans against the Trojans. After Patroclus dies, Achilles’ heart fills with grief and anger, causing him to go fight Hector and the entire Trojan army.
Achilles’ decisions shape the entire plot of the Iliad, from his decision to stop fighting in the war to his decision to drag Hector’s body all over the place and anger the people of Troy. Achilles’ decisions cause many deaths over the course of the story. Some of these deaths may have been preventable if Achilles was not so angry. However, the story is about rage, not reason. Thus, though Achilles’ decisions accounted for most of the deaths in the Iliad, they laid the foundation for Troy’s defeat at the hands of the Achaeans.