To Home Page
To Course Notes Menu

The Presentation of Achilles in the Iliad
by John Porter

Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.

Translations from the Iliad are by R. Lattimore. Those from the Odyssey are by A.T. Murray.

The principal challenge posed by the Iliad lies in evaluating the character of Achilles and the nature of his downfall. For many modern readers, the tale of Achilles is relatively straightforward: led on by his overwhelming pride, Achilles refuses to make amends with Agamemnon, even when the latter offers more than ample recompense for the humiliations inflicted in Book 1, and so brings about his own downfall through his own stubbornness.

These readers find ready support for such a reading in the doctrine of the "*Tragic Flaw." This doctrine maintains that the true tragic hero (whether he/she appears in an actual tragedy or elsewhere) is an essentially admirable individual who nonetheless suffers from a fatal defect of some sort, one that does not render him/her altogether unsympathetic but does lead him/her in some way to bring about his/her own downfall — both physical and, often, moral (e.g., Macbeth's ambition and Othello's jealousy).

The notion of the Tragic Flaw can be traced back to the Greek philosopher *Aristotle, whose work, *The Poetics (dated to the third quarter of the fourth century BC), represents the earliest systematic work of literary criticism in the West, and one of the most influential. One of Aristotle's principal concerns was to counter the arguments of his famous predecessor, Plato. Plato had objected to tragedy (and to what we would call "popular entertainment" in general) on three main grounds: ontological/epistemological (it is a mere fiction, an imitation of reality without substance); sociological (it encourages people to indulge in "unmanly" emotions and thus makes them bad citizens); moral (it shows some people performing horrible deeds and others suffering undeserved wrongs, and so calls into question the justice of the gods). Aristotle counters by taking a "phenomenological" approach: tragedy involves a mere imitation [mimesis], but has a positive psychological effect in that it brings about a "purification" [catharsis], within the safe confines of a tragic fiction, of emotions that in life might be harmful. It does this by presenting an artistic fiction that, by design, encourages the audience to experience pity (i.e., an empathetic fellow-feeling) for the tragic hero's suffering, and, at the same time, fear (i.e., an acute awareness that they too, being mortal, could one day undergo suffering of a similar sort). [FN 1] Where Plato sees only "womanish" emotionalism and decadence, Aristotle finds a humane and quite healthy awareness of — and sympathy for — the human condition. (For a selection of relevant passages, see my Sophoclean Hero and Aristotle page.)

To counter Plato's argument that tragedy was morally repugnant (in that it showed bad things happening to good people and so called into question the justice of the gods), Aristotle proposed the notion of a tragic *hamartia (error):

Since, then, the plot of the finest tragedy is to be not simple but complex [i.e., is to involve some form of reversal of fortune] and is to involve an imitation [mimesis] of things that arouse fear and pity (for this is the proper effect of such a mimesis), it is clear, first of all, that good men must not be shown undergoing a reversal of fortune from good to bad — for that would arouse neither fear nor pity but revulsion — nor wicked men one from bad to good — for that is the most untragic of all, for it has none of the elements necessary for tragedy, since it neither displays a humane sympathy for the human condition nor anything worthy of pity and fear. Nor must a thoroughly villainous man fall from good fortune to bad: such a plot would display a humane element [i.e., is satisfying from a moral point of view] but nothing worthy of pity or fear, for the first [i.e., pity] we feel for one who suffers misfortune without deserving it, the other [i.e., fear] for one who is similar to us — pity for the undeserving, fear for the one like us — so that neither pity or fear will be the result [of the last mentioned type of plot]. There remains the sort of person who lies between those mentioned already — one who is not outstanding for aretê and justice, and yet does not suffer a reverse of fortune through wickedness and villainy but through a certain form of error [hamartia], and one of those of great renown and good fortune, like Oedipus and Thyestes and illustrious men of families of that sort. So, then, it is necessary that the properly constructed plot be single rather than double (as some claim), and that it involve a reversal of fortune, not to good from bad but the opposite, from good to bad, not through villainy but through a great hamartia on the part of one who is as described above or better, rather than worse, than the man described above. — Poetics 13.1452b30-53a17

Hamartia is derived from the verb hamartanô — "to miss the mark" (as in archery), "to fail in one's purpose", "to make a mistake." Greek usage, Aristotle's own use of the word elsewhere, and the specific examples that Aristotle cites (Oedipus, who unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother; Thyestes, who unwittingly eats his own children) make it clear that Aristotle is referring to an intellectual error or to an act performed in ignorance, not to a moral flaw. The moral element is not excluded, as is clear from the description of the tragic hero as in some way imperfect (note as well, e.g., that Thyestes was famous for his own acts of villainy), but is not the defining element in a tragic action (mimesis). As Aristotle distinctly says, the sight of a corrupt individual getting his or her comeuppance might be satisfying but it is not tragic. Thus Aristotle expressly rejects a story in which the hero receives his/her "just deserts" as in any way the stuff of tragedy. For a tragic plot to be effective, the audience must feel that (in Aristotle's words) they are witnessing the story of someone "who suffers misfortune without deserving it" and "who is similar to [them]"; at the same time, however (if Plato's objections are to be met), they must not feel that this misfortune is altogether arbitrary or senseless.

In the end, Aristotle's principal model is Sophocles' Oedipus, who is headstrong, overconfident in his own abilities, and, like Achilles, intensely protective of his own honor, but whose downfall is out of proportion to his failings and generates much more complex reflections than simply the question of how good a person Oedipus might be. (See my Sophocles' Oedipus page.)

The question of the degree to which Aristotle's theories provide a satisfactory account of the characters of Greek tragedy (or even Sophocles' Oedipus) is complex and contentious, but one thing is clear: Aristotle expressly denies that the hero's hamartia is moral in nature. [FN 2] Remember: Aristotle is arguing against Plato's objection that tragedy is reprehensible precisely because it tends to show bad things happening to good people; Aristotle needs to demonstrate that there is a way in which morally innocent individuals can bring about their own downfall without the result being repugnant. Yet it is the moral failings of the tragic hero that is precisely the focus of the "Tragic Flaw" doctrine; if Aristotle had shared this doctrine, he would not have had to work nearly so hard to define the peculiar effect of tragedy: he would merely have indicated that Plato was wrong in his basic assertion. In the end, the notion of the "tragic flaw" represents a Judaeo-Christian modification of Aristotle's theories, designed to satisfy the moral concerns of a later, non-Greek audience.

Regarding the Iliad, there is also the question of just what Achilles' tragic flaw might be. The term that often arises here is *hybris. The latter is a tricky word. Today it is frequently used to refer to "overweening pride" or "arrogance," often in very Christian terms, and in the classical period it will in fact play a prominent role in discussions of divine justice. (See my account of Solon's view of divine justice.) But its relevance to the downfall of Achilles becomes problematic when one examines how the term is employed by Homer (or, for that matter, in the later tradition). (For more background on the attitude toward "pride" in Homeric society, see my Homeric Society page.)

The term hybris (or a derivative) appears five times in the Iliad. The first two are in reference to Agamemnon's arrogant treatment of Achilles in Book 1. At 1.203, Achilles asks Athena whether she has come to witness "the outrageousness (hybris) of the son of Atreus Agamemnon" and declares that "by such acts of arrogance he may even lose his own life." Athena seems to agree with his assessment of Agamemnon's behavior, since at 1.214 she promises that "some day three times over such shining gifts shall be given you by reason of this outrage (hybris)." And Achilles repeats this charge in his grand speech in Book 9, when he refuses to be reconciled with the Greeks and once again denounces the act of hybris that Agamemnon, "in his arrogant pride" (Lattimore: "outrageously"), has committed against him (9.368).

In order to understand the significance of the term hybris in these three passages, we need to consider some other examples. At 13.633 Menelaus, having just killed the Trojan Peisander in battle, denounces the Trojans as a whole:

"So, I think, shall you leave the ships of the fast-mounted Danaans, you haughty Trojans, never to be glutted with the grim war noises, nor go short of all that other shame and defilement wherewith you defiled me, wretched dogs, and your hearts knew no fear at all of the hard anger of Zeus loud-thundering, the guest's god, who some day will utterly sack your steep city. You who in vanity went away taking with you my wedded wife, and many possessions, when she had received you in kindness. And now once more you rage among our seafaring vessels to throw deadly fire on them and kill the fighting Achaians. But you will be held somewhere, though you be so headlong for battle. Father Zeus, they say your wisdom passes all others', of men and gods, and yet from you all this is accomplished the way you give these outrageous people (andressi hybristaisi) your grace, these Trojans whose fighting strength is a thing of blind fury, nor can they ever be glutted full of the close encounters of deadly warfare. Since there is satiety in all things, in sleep, and love-making, in the loveliness of singing and the innocent dance. In all these things a man will strive sooner to win satisfaction than in war; but in this the Trojans cannot be glutted."

Notice how, in condemning the Trojans, Menelaus focuses on their lack of shame, their violation of basic human norms of behavior (such as those governing the relationship between host and guest), and their violence. Hybris here is revealed in the individual's actions, not in his or her attitude. It is characterized by an arrogant disregard for basic human moral standards, but a reckless violence is an essential part of the mix (in this instance, in the seizing of Menelaus' wife and property, and in the violence with which the Trojans then pursue the war).

In a similar vein, Nestor condemns a neighboring city with which his own home of Pylos was in continual conflict (11.695): after Nestor's eleven brothers had perished, we are told, "grown haughty over this the bronze-armoured Epeians despised and outraged us (committed hybris against us), and devised wicked actions against us." Here there is a similar emphasis on arrogant violence, as the Epeians see an opportunity to humiliate and dominate Nestor's city in its weakness.

The term hybris (or a derivative) appears 26 times in the Odyssey. (Those unfamiliar with this poem should consult the brief plot summary elsewhere on this website.) In three passages (6.120, 9.175, 13.201) Odysseus finds himself in an unknown land and wonders what kind of people he will find there:

"Woe is me! to the land of what mortals am I now come? Are they cruel (hybristai), and wild, and unjust? or do they love strangers and fear the gods in their thoughts?"

Note how the allusion to people who engage in hybris is associated with behavior that is both savage and unjust, not merely arrogant or inappropriate. Odysseus' anxiety in these passages is in fact based on his various experiences in his travels, where he comes upon (among others) the Cyclops, a one-eyed giant who traps Odysseus and his men in his cave and begins to devour them raw, one-by-one, and the Laestrygonians, a race of savage giants who welcome Odysseus and his men by eating his scouts and destroying virtually all of Odysseus' fleet with boulders. Both of these give a good sense of hybris in its extreme form: lawlessness attended by savage violence. [FN 3]

At 14.262 the disguised Odysseus, pretending to be a nobleman from Crete, tells a false tale in which he ascribes a similar lawless violence to his own men when they arrive in Egypt on a trading venture: "Then verily I bade my trusty comrades to remain there by the ships, and to guard the ships, and I sent out scouts to go to places of outlook. But my comrades, yielding to wantonness (hybris), and led on by their own might, straightway set about wasting the fair fields of the men of Egypt; and they carried off the women and little children, and slew the men" — behavior for which his men pay the price when the Egyptian forces retaliate. [FN 4]

And the suitors who have taken over Odysseus' home, along with their hangers-on, are repeatedly associated with hybris — some 20 times. At 15.329 the kindly swineherd Eumaeus warns the disguised Odysseus to put aside his intention to go to the palace, where the suitors are holding court:

"Ah me, stranger, why has such a thought come into thy mind? Verily thou art fain utterly to perish there, if thou wouldest indeed enter the throng of the wooers, whose wantonness (hybris) and violence reach the iron heaven." [FN 5]

At 24.282 the disguised Odysseus goes to meet his father Laertes, claiming to be a guest-friend of Odysseus who welcomed the latter and provided him with hospitality as he was making his way home from Troy. Laertes, who is unaware that he is speaking to Odysseus and that the suitors have in fact now been killed, attempts to warn the stranger against going to the palace:

"Stranger, verily thou art come to the country of which thou dost ask, but wanton (hybristai) and reckless men now possess it. And all in vain didst thou bestow those gifts, the countless gifts thou gavest."

As in other passages cited above, the suitors cannot be trusted to observe the basic human standards of decency (here, in their treatment of a stranger arriving at their court) and, as a result, are to be feared for the reckless violence of their actions.

In the bulk of the passages dealing with the suitors and their hangers-on, however, their hybris consists of their wantonly forcing themselves upon Odysseus' household in his absence, consuming his goods, and attempting to compel his wife to marry one of them. In employing compulsion upon Odysseus' weakened household, they recall the Epeians of whom Nestor complained at Iliad 11.695, while in their wanton and lawless violence (which includes, at one point, an attempt to assassinate Odysseus' youthful son Telemachus) they are typical of all those who engage in hybris. [FN 6]

Many of the above passages deal in some fashion with people who are willing to violate the sacred rights of the traveler/guest, while all of them present people who know no fear of the gods' ordinances and, as a result, behave with a violent and thoughtless arrogance.

In the classical period the term hybris was again employed to indicate a form of violent arrogance or aggression that displayed itself, not in one's attitudes, but in one's actions (see The World of Athens 3.15). The hybristic man was not simply proud or arrogant (as we have seen, the Greeks did not regard justifiable pride as a character flaw) but treated others with a violence that suggested that the latter were, in effect, mere slaves. Thus in the legal parlance of democratic Athens, hybris is employed to cover such crimes as assault and battery or rape — violent acts that involved one citizen treating another as if the latter was a lowly subordinate who enjoyed no personal rights. In myth, hybris is characteristic of the theomachus, who violently challenges the prerogatives of the gods; in the political realm, it is associated with the brutal tyrant. Consistently, it entails some form of violence or brutal compulsion, displayed by an individual who refuses to recognize universally acknowledged boundaries and accepted forms of behavior, and whose arrogant behavior humiliates and degrades those against whom it is directed. (For more, see my account of Solon's view of divine justice.)

If you turn to Homer's account of Achilles' actions, it is difficult to find much of a connection to the ideas associated with the Greek concept of hybris. When Agamemnon threatens, without just cause, to take Briseis from Achilles against his will and to publically humiliate Achilles by demonstrating just how much more powerful he is, he displays a wanton use of force, a tyrannical delight in oppression, and an intention to humiliate that more than merit the label of hybris. (Note in particular Iliad 1.184-87: "I shall take the fair-cheeked Briseis, your prize, I myself going to your shelter, that you may learn well how much greater I am than you, and another man may shrink back from likening himself to me and contending against me.") But it is difficult to find a similar action on the part of Achilles, nor is the term hybris ever applied to him. [FN 7] Achilles is indeed proud, [FN 8] and is willing to place the entire Greek expedition in jeopardy because of a slight to his personal honor. One does not find, for example, the younger Greek hero Diomedes behaving in this fashion, although he too is slighted by Agamemnon (4.365ff. — cf. Diomedes' own words at 9.31ff.: but the offence in this instance is of a much more trivial sort). And everyone agrees that Achilles is a hard man with whom to deal, and rather terrifying — even Patroclus attests to this (11.647-53; 16.29ff.). But the notion that Achilles, in the first 16 books of the poem, in some way exhibits hybris, or engages in actions for which he is later punished, is difficult to square with the evidence of the poem, or with the general moral order that Homer has set out. As we shall see, Homer's Achilles does indeed make a miscalculation (a hamartia, in fact), but his principal fault is the all-too-human one of not being able to foresee the consequences of his decisions. In the end, Homer's view of the significance of Achilles' downfall is much more austere, and more profound, than the easy moralizing that generally attends the "Tragic Flaw" approach.


[FN 1] The case that Aristotle makes for tragedy is thus very much in line with fifth-century Athenian morality: tragedy offers an aesthetic experience that endorses the self-reflective balance and restraint encouraged by the so-called Delphic Maxims. [Return to text]

[FN 2] For a good brief discussion of Aristotle on the tragic hero's hamartia, see E. R. Dodds' article, "On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex," pp. 38-40. [Return to text]

[FN 3] Cf. 17.487, where hybris is contrasted with eunomia. [Return to text]

[FN 4] Repeated at 17.431. [Return to text]

[FN 5] This line is repeated at 17.565, where it is likely spurious. [Return to text]

[FN 6] Odyssey 1.227, 368; 3.207; 4.321, 627; 16.86, 410, 418; 17.169, 245, 581, 588; 18.381; 20.170, 370; 23.64; 24.352. [Return to text]

[FN 7] Two others to whom, significantly, the term hybris is never applied are Thersites (2.211-277) and Pandarus (4.85-147, 5.166-296). In the case of these two, above all, one might expect a convergence of the ancient and the modern views: both of these characters are violent (one verbally, the other through his use of murderous force) and, to the degree that they are presumptuous, overly "proud." But neither has the power to effect their aims, and to that degree each lacks the ability to degrade and humiliate that is integral to the Greek notion of hybris. To simply aim above one's station, without the threat of effecting a violent and humiliating subjugation of one's opponents, does not, on the Greek view, suggest the notion of hybris. [Return to text]

[FN 8] Cf., e.g., Diomedes' assessment of Achilles response to the embassy (9.697-702):

… at long last Diomedes of the great war cry spoke to them: "Son of Atreus, most lordly and king of men, Agamemnon, I wish you had not supplicated the blameless son of Peleus with innumerable gifts offered. He is a proud man (agênor) without this, and now you have driven him far deeper into his pride (agênoriêsin). Rather we shall pay him no more attention, whether he comes in with us or stays away."

The term used here (agênor, and its derivatives) is complex. It is translated variously as "manly," "heroic," "valorous," "magnificent," but also "headstrong" or "arrogant." It can be employed of the "high-hearted" valor of the (admirable) hero: e.g., at 10.220 (Diomedes, of himself: cf. 9.398, 10.319), 10.244 (Diomedes, of Odysseus), 12.46 and 12.300 (in similes, of wild animals that are compared to spirited heroes in battle), 22.457 (Andromache of Hector's valorous spirit), 10.299 (the poet, of the Trojans), 20.406 (of a valorous Trojan as he dies). But it is also used by Poseidon of the "high-hearted" Laomedon, who defrauded him and Apollo (21.443) and by the Greek troops of the upstart Thersites (2.276). Perhaps most indicative are 9.635 (Ajax, of an angry kinsman who nonetheless accepts recompense for a relative who has been killed), 20.174 (the poet, of the angry Achilles seeking to confront Aeneas), and 24.42 (Apollo, condemning Achilles' savagery by comparing him to a ravening lion). Clearly the term refers to the bold, highly sprited self-assertion appropriate to the Greek hero (in the Odyssey it is repeatedly employed in this sense), but it can also be used of heroes (and of the non-heroic) who assert themselves in an inappropriate manner or context. (Thus it is also repeatedly used in the Odyssey of the "haughty" suitors.) This is indeed a form of "pride," but not that implied by the Judeo-Christian moralizing tradition. Nor is there a passage in the classical authors, to my knowledge, where agênor and hybris (or their derivatives) are brought into direct correlation as in some sense logically associated with one another, although it is true that both terms are employed of the suitors in the Odyssey.

But the audience's response to Diomedes' outburst would be tempered by their awareness that he is acting on imperfect information. In reporting the outcome of the embassy (lines 676-92), Odysseus had mentioned only Achilles' initial threat to return home on the following morning (lines 356-63). He said nothing of Achilles' later modification of this position at lines 617-19 and 649-55. What the audience is to make of this discrepancy is difficult to say, but they have seen an Achilles who is not in fact arrogantly refusing to return to the battle on any terms, but instead struggling to find some course that will allow him to maintain his honor and avoid submitting to Agamemnon's authority. In the end, Diomedes' understanding of the grounds for Achilles' actions is as inadequate (for different reasons) as is that of Ajax (lines 624-42). In his intense anger, Achilles is indeed agênor, and he will rashly bring about his own destruction, but he is not without morally and intellectually justifiable grounds for his feelings, nor do we give due weight to the complexity of his situation by merely labeling him as "proud." [See further: Barbara Graziosi and Johannes Haubold, "Homeric Masculinity: ÊNOREÊ and AGÊNORIÊ," The Journal of Hellenic Studies 123 (2003) 60-76.]

Compare as well the terms hyperoplia, hyperoplon, and hyperoplizomai. These are used a number of times in the Iliad and Odyssey to indicate arrogant, insulting, or untoward words or actions (most notably of Agamemnon in Achilles' speech at Iliad 1.205), but nowhere of Achilles: Iliad 15.185, 17.170, Odyssey 17.268. [Return to text]

Top of Page : Course Notes Page : Home Page

These pages were designed by John Porter.
Last Modified: Thursday, 25-Sep-2014 16:50:48 CST
Please send queries and comments to