Wandering Warriors

Bill Beck '11

Two jars of gifts lie on the threshold of Zeus.
One holds evils, the other blessings.  When
Thundering Zeus mixes the jars for a man,
That man will at times meet with an evil,
Other times with a blessing. But when Zeus' gifts
Come only from the evil jar, he makes the man hated. 
A wicked devouring madness drives him across the holy earth.
And he wanders far and wide, honored by neither gods nor men.  (24.527-33)

The Iliad is a poem of wandering. Achilles, already on the fringes of society, is driven to isolation by his μηνις (wrath).  Hector, the quintessential community-man, is driven to isolation by his recklessness. This paper will focus on the characters of extremity: Achilles, who stands on the outer edge of society, and Hector, who stands at the center of society. Through their contrasting yet complementary characteristics, the poet emphasizes the isolation created by the inside-outside distinction upon which community is based.


Achilles has been on the fringes of society since his birth. He is the son of a goddess and a man, and was very nearly the son of Zeus. [1] Not only is Achilles the only hemitheos (half-divine) in the Achaean camp, he is a constant reminder of what could have been, had he been fully divine. He surpasses the other Achaeans in all but one regard-political leadership; he is the best fighter, the most eloquent speaker, and he is protected by the gods. Perceiving that he is both different from and better than his political equals and even his superiors, Achilles is acutely aware of the honor due to him, and is constantly preoccupied with procuring immortal glory. When Agamemnon's envoys take Briseis,  Achilles' female companion, he cries:

Olympian, high-thundering Zeus ought to hand me my
Honor. But as it is he doesn't honor me a bit.
For Atreus' son Agamemnon, the wide-ruling lord,
Dishonored me. (1.353-356)

His first and most poignant grievance is not that he has lost Briseis (whom, we learn at 9.343, he loves) but his due honor. When the embassy finds Achilles, he has been easing his spirit by singing the glories of men (τη ο γε θυμον ετερπεν, αειδε δ' αρα κλέα ανδρων) (9.189). When Agamemnon insults his honor, he hits Achilles where it hurts most; the dishonor invokes Achilles' μηνις, which drives him into further isolation.

Two conclusions can be drawn: (1) Achilles' isolation and (2) his greatest strengths push him further to the fringes of society. Achilles' strength and isolation go hand in hand. His greatest strength derives from the divergence between him and the other Achaeans, differences which distinguish him and therefore divide him from his community. If Achilles were not both the best fighter and hemitheos—if, in other words, he were not superior to his political superiors—he would not have been so outraged to be overruled by Agamemnon. He is outraged because he feels that Agamemnon and his subordinates do not appreciate him as he deserves; he is outraged that they do not recognize that he is both different and better than any other Achaean.

As Achilles removes himself from the community and broods on his dishonor, he grows more isolated. Though the nature of Achilles' views has not changed during his time apart from the community, they have intensified. When the embassy finds Achilles sitting alone with Patroclos, he has grown more morbid and removed. In his rejection speech to Odysseus, he says,

Fate's portions are the same whether a
Man fights or stays behind;
The coward and the brave man receive equal honor.
The idle man and the laborer die alike. (9.318-320)

Achilles has so thoroughly removed himself that he feels no obligation to the Achaean warriors, and in fact plans to abandon them and sail from Troy the next day (9.360-70). Agamemnon offers gifts and riches—the same variety of gifts the Lycian King offered Bellerophon [2]—but Achilles does not remain in Troy for the material goods. Like Bellerophon, he rejects the society that has rejected him, even when offered gifts in recompense. Gifts are worth nothing more to Achilles than "sand and dust" (9.385). He would be uninterested even if the gifts had come from someone other than Agamemnon, for his concerns are no longer of this world. When Phoenix implores him to accept the gifts, he explains, "I have no need at all of such honor; I believe I've been honored by decree of Zeus" (9.608). Though "such honor" invoked his wrath days earlier, during his time in isolation he has rejected Agamemnon and the warrior society wholesale. His decision to remain in Troy stems not from his desire for wealth but from his preoccupation with immortal glory. He reveals where his mind has wandered during his days in seclusion:

For my mother Thetis, the silver-footed goddess,
Tells me that I bear two fates that will end in death:
If I remain here and besiege the Trojans' city,
My hope for return perishes, but my glory will never die;
If I come home to my beloved fatherland,
My great glory perishes, but I will live a long life,
And death will not soon overtake me. (9.410-6)

Achilles is not concerned with the Achaeans' distress, but with his own honor and mortality. He suffers an existential crisis that no community could help him resolve.

Only the death of Patroclos—Achilles' closest and only companion—could drive Achilles further to society's fringes. Tragically, it is ultimately Achilles' isolation that accomplishes this. As he has receded deeper into isolation, the Trojans have driven the Achaeans perilously close to their ships. Concerned for their fate, Patroclos suits up in Achilles' armor, runs to the front line and dies at Hector's hands.

Just as the Trojans gather around Hector's kin after his death, a small community emerges around Achilles when he grieves for Patroclos. While communities naturally seem to gather around the bereaved, the communities imagined in the poem are consistently unable to assuage their grief. The female slaves shriek and beat their breasts as they run a ring around Achilles; Antilochus weeps and holds Achilles' hands; all the Nereid sisters beat their breasts and wail while Thetis explains that no community can bring Achilles comfort: "even if I go to him, I will not be able to help him at all" (18.28-63). Achilles will suffer whether or not others join him in mourning.

Upon Patroclos' death, he takes his previous preoccupations to their logical extreme. He shuns all attachments to the mortal world—not only gifts but food and drink as well (19.210). When Thetis comes to him, he exclaims, "my spirit bids me neither to live nor remain among men" and wishes to "die at once" (18.90-91; 18.98). Achilles has chosen from his two fates; he has decided to reenter battle and die for "great glory" (18.121).

Though he rejoins the Achaeans on the battlefield, Achilles does not rejoin the community. He is as isolated and singular as ever. When he runs into battle, Athena crowns him with a golden fire-blazing cloud and infuses his scream with power enough to kill twelve Trojans on impact (18.205-231). When he enters battle the second time, he bears god-given arms, which induce "trembling" and "terrified flight" (ετερσαν) in all but Achilles (19.14-5). Given an appearance to match his prowess and birth, Achilles embraces his divine half and ascends to a non-mortal world—the realm of honor, art, and immortality. The poet frequently likens him to cosmic forces—the moon (19.374), a star (19.381), the Sun god (19.398), and supernatural (θεσπιδαες) fire (20.490)—as if to apotheosize Achilles.

It can be said (without cliché) that when Patroclos dies a part of Achilles dies too. The circumstances of Patroclos' death scene make this symbolic death explicit. In death he is a mirror image of Achilles, covered head to toe in his armor. When he appears on the battlefield the Trojan army mistakes him for Achilles and falls back in fear (17.279-81). Their identities merge as Patroclos becomes increasingly Achillean in his battle-frenzy. Patroclos' death severs Achilles' only remaining link to the community. Though "before Patroclos meets his day of doom, it pleases [Achilles'] heart a bit to spare Trojans," he now "feels no pity" to slaughter suppliants at his feet (21.100-2; 21.147). When Achilles finally meets Hector in battle, he has rejected community and all its attachments wholesale. Cut off from community, he has become the anti-community; he has become lawless and beastly. When Hector begs Achilles to respect his rights, Achilles declares: "there are no true oaths between lions and men" (22.262).


Hector is the foil to Achilles. While Achilles is always on the fringes of society, Hector is always at the center. Though they both strive for immortal fame, Hector seems more preoccupied with shame (αιδώς), the mainstay of heroic society. His obligations extend to every level of the community; he is a son, brother, husband, father, the commander of the army, the guardian of the women and children, and the principal defender of the city. His values (and greatest strengths) are community-oriented. Hector's preoccupation with shame and civic virtue are immediately apparent. When he sees that Paris, neglecting his duty on the battlefield, lingers in the city,

Hector rebuked him with shame-causing words:
Wretch! It's wrong to store that anger in your heart;
The men fight and perish for our city and its towering walls.
Battle and the din of war rage around this city
Because of you! Even you'd fight a man whom you saw abandoning hateful battle.
Up! Or our city will go up in flames. (6.325-331)

Hector's primary concerns are for the city. Anyone who neglects it deserves "shame-causing words" (αισχροις επέεσσι). When Hecuba, Helen and Andromache implore him to refrain from battle, he emphasizes the same values. He declares to Helen,

                                                You won't persuade me.
For my spirit now urges me to come to the defense
Of my Trojans. They need me dearly, yet I am away from them.
Rouse Paris, and let him too feel burdened. (6.360-3)

After Andromache reminds him that he is her only barrier from total isolation, she too begs him to stay in the city (6.429-32). Hector explains that shame compels him to fight:

Indeed all these things burden me, but the shame (αινως) –
I'd be ashamed before the Trojan men and women,
If, like a coward, I shirk from war, apart from the rest.
My spirit doesn't urge me that way, since I have learned to be good
And always to fight beside my Trojans at the front line. (6. 441-5)

While Achilles' strengths were bestowed as his birthright, Hector has been raised and bred on the civic ethos; his virtues both derive from and center on the community.

But Hector, like Achilles, is burdened most by his own strengths. His obligations are the indications of his virtue, but they stretch him too thin. Driven by civic virtue, he extends himself too far—ultimately into isolation. Helenus encapsulates this well when he addresses Hector and Aeneas: "the burden (πόνος) weighs most upon you of the Trojans and Lycians because you are the best men" (6.77-79). Even when Hector leaves the city, Achaean warriors remind him of his duties. Hitting Hector where it hurts, Glaucus blames him for the deaths of his Trojan comrades: "You've abandoned your allies. Because of you they perish far from their beloved fatherland, since you don't wish to defend them" (16.538-540).

Believing victory to be the only pacifier, Hector becomes increasingly unwilling to retreat, even when the voice of reason opposes him. His declining relationship with Polydamus marks the progression of his error. Even before Hector rejects his advice, Polydamus identifies the shortcoming that will drive him into isolation: "But you yourself won't be able to grasp hold of everything at the same time" (13.729). Shortly thereafter a rift opens between Hector and his community. As Hector hems the Achaeans against their ships, he blames the "cowardly elders" for restraining him in the past (15.721-2). He achieves his greatest success in this battle but does so against the wishes of his community. Hector's monomania compels him to reject Polydamus' council and ignore Zeus' omens.  Polydamus urges him to retreat to the protection of the walls (18.255-6), but Hector rejects his advice: "You command us to wander (αλημεναι) back home. Aren't you all tired of being cooped up within the walls?" (18.286-7). Hector not only rejects his community's wishes, he can no longer bear to remain within its confines, where he feels his burdens most acutely. Regardless, civic virtue is the driving force behind his actions. Justifying his urge to press on, Hector explains that Priam's wealth will soon be depleted if they do not capitalize on their advantage. Though Hector has distanced himself from his community, he has remained committed to its best interests. He remains too long on the battlefield and decides—against his better judgment but in accordance with his role in society—to fight alone (αμύνεσθαι περι πάτρης) and die (μη μαν ασπουδί γε και ακλειως απολοίμην) for his city (12.243; 22.304).

Hector and Achilles are opposites who share a similar fate. When he meets Achilles in battle, Hector is literally and figuratively isolated. Like Bellerophon, Hector has spent his lifetime striving to win the approval of his community but finds himself alienated from it nevertheless. He has driven himself into isolation both by adhering to the virtues taught by his community and by remaining outside the walls. The poet places particular emphasis on the walls, the division between community and isolation, law and savagery. Book 22 opens with a poignant image: the war-weary Trojans rest on their walls (επάλξεσιν) from within the city, the Achaeans advance toward the walls (τείχεος), and "there ruinous fate bound Hector to remain, in front of Troy and the Scaean Gates" (22.1-6). Terrified to see Hector in the no-man's land "alone, far away from others," Priam implores Hector to "come inside the walls...so that you may save the Trojan men and women" (22.39, 22.56-7).

Alone, Hector must not only face Achilles, he must confront the contradictory commands of his community. On one hand, his community begs him to retreat in order to save the Trojans but on the other it has driven him beyond his capabilities and shamed him from retreating. When deliberating with himself, Hector's first consideration is shame: "If I enter the walls and gates, Polydamus will be the first to heap shame (ελεγχειην) on me" (22.99-100). He declares that it would be better to die alone, in front of the city, than to enter the city and stand before the Trojans in shame (22.105-10).

As the quintessential community-man, Hector has always been located and identified by his community. Alone in his moment of existential crisis, Hector loses himself. He imagines himself as his opposite: first as an unarmed pacifist and second as a naked young girl (22.111-28). In both imagined scenarios he exchanges communal bonds with Achilles—riches, oaths, division of spoils, and flirtatious gossip. But then he realizes the significance of his isolation: there are no laws outside the community. Indeed, "there are no true oaths between lions and men" (22.262).


For both Hector and Achilles, community is worthless when they need it most.  Community offers Achilles no relief from grief and paralyzes Hector with contradictory demands.  As all the characters eventually learn in their grief, community is, at its core, a divider.  While it locates, identifies and gives meaning to its participants, it survives by dividing inside from outside and pushing those on the fringes into isolation.

Whether by choice, recklessness or helplessness, whether mortal or divine, whether committed to or critical of the community, the central characters are, by the conclusion of the poem, isolated.   Each is forced into isolation by his greatest strengths and each is driven further into isolation by his own alienation.  Achilles' pride, divine birth and unmatched military prowess add fuel to his outrage, which separates him irremediably from Agamemnon and his Achaean subordinates.  Hector's virtues as the quintessential society-man—the defender of Troy, the protector of the women, the marshal of the army, the good son, brother, husband, and father—obligate him to duties that stretch him too thin; with the interest of his city and army in mind (18.285-309; 22.286-9), Hector remains too long on the battlefield, where he is cut off from his army, alone with Achilles.  The Iliad is framed around these stories of isolation; the poem opens at a time when Helen is isolated, follows the story of the wrath that drives Achilles into isolation from his community, and ends at the intersection of their three fates, when Hector, alone, duels Achilles before his city's walls.


  1. Zeus and Poseidon courted Achilles' mother Thetis until Prometheus revealed to them the prophecy that the son born to her would be greater than the father.  In a sense, Achilles should have been Zeus' son.
  2. Bellerophon, a minor character whose story is told in a short vignette, is exiled from Argos, welcomed warmly into Lycia, expelled again, welcomed back, and finally leaves of his own accord, as though seized by an isolation-impulse.  The community bestows on him many honors, but he ultimately rejects the community and its gifts: "he angered all the gods when he wandered (αλατο) out alone down the Aleian plain, gnawing at his heart, shunning the trodden path of men" (6.200-2).  Bellerophon spends his entire life striving to win his community's acceptance, but alienates himself when he finally achieves it.

Bill Beck is a Junior majoring in Greek and Latin. He wrote this for Bruce King's (excellent) course on Homer's Iliad.  The assignment: pick any theme and trace it through the poem. It took him forever and a day to sift through the poem, find and translate specific passages in Greek, but he was into it.