Achilles’ Decision Between Vengence and Mercy

My favourite book, which was also adapted into the 2004 film Troy, is Homer’s Iliad. When asked what the Iliad is about, my short answer is that it’s an Ancient Greek epic that details 52 days during the final year of the Trojan War, a mythological ten-year conflict between the Archaeans and the Trojans. My long answer is that it’s a tale of war and tragedy, wherein hundreds of men die, all of which builds to the penultimate point where we witness a single grieving man – Achilles – make the decision to choose mercy over vengeance.

In the Iliad, Achilles is a demigod that possesses superhuman strength and great prowess in battle. He has all the marks of a great warrior, but despite being the mightiest man in the Achaean army, his deep-seated character flaws constantly impede his ability to act rationally. He is unable to control his pride or rein in his rage when that pride is injured. This attribute is ultimately what poisons him, as he abandons his comrades and refuses to fight, motivated by his anger towards his commander.

Because of Achilles’ refusal to fight, his best friend Patroclus volunteers to wear his armour and lead the troops into battle. Patroclus, mistaken for Achilles, was killed by the Trojan prince Hector on the battlefield. This unwittingly sets Achilles’ character development into motion. Prior to Patroclus’ death, Achilles was characterised as merciful in battle, noted as the only figure to ransom his enemies as opposed to killing them. Following Patroclus’ death, Achilles loses the humanity he was once known for and descends into a rage. In his anger, Achilles captures and sacrifices twelve Trojan captives around Patroclus’ barrow. He slays Hector, Patroclus’ killer, and drags the body behind his chariot in a sign of disrespect. He buries Patroclus and adorns the tomb with gifts. Yet, none of these acts bring him peace.

It isn’t until the final moments of the Iliad, coming face to face with King Priam (father of Hector), that Achilles reaches a point of clarity. The old king kneels, kisses Achilles’ hands and feet, and begs for Hector’s body back. Here, Achilles has a crucial decision to make: he could either cling to his anger and refuse, or he could agree to return Hector’s body for a proper burial. Ultimately, stunned by the bravery of Priam, Achilles chooses the latter. It is in this very moment that, as the readers, we see him acknowledge the humanity of his enemy and achieve peace over Patroclus’ death.

Achilles’ decision is one that I wholeheartedly agree with. In fact, I think that this one decision is what defines the Iliad, a text that has been studied over and over again by scholars and readers alike. The Iliad is structured as a tragedy, taking an arrogant hero and reducing him to a grieving man. It illustrates Achilles’ imprisonment in his quest for vengeance, wherein his decision to ultimately return Hector’s body marks his subsequent return to human stature. This one merciful decision, made in the midst of a bloody war, was what helped Achilles come to accept that vengeance was not going to ease his pain. By sympathising with the old king over their shared humanity and suffering, Achilles comes to understand himself, his mortality, and his anger, showing the heavy price that war entails. I believe that this decision is an incredibly powerful one, as Achilles chooses to do the right thing despite his grief, ultimately giving up on vengeance by choosing to see the humanity in his enemy and extending mercy.

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