Wrath—one of the most famous first words in all of world literature. The word sets the pace, the tone, the content of the Iliad, shaping the plot of all there is to come.
Wrath—Sing, Goddess, the wrath of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and the birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.
(Iliad, 1.1-8; trans. Robert Fagles with some changes)
The first word is menis. It is not just “anger” as the magisterial translation of Richmond Lattimore has rendered it. It is sustained anger, almost godlike in its intensity and singularity. Thus, Robert Fagles’ “rage” more clearly fits the bill. Yet I prefer the terminology of “wrath.” It reminds me of the wrath of God, which it approximates, that it is headed toward, and almost achieves, but never fully so, since Achilles is still only human. Yet it is a rage that in its legendary greatness cannot be replicated by any other human—it is the most godlike rage a human can achieve. Thus, I prefer wrath.
The wrath of Achilles defines him, and the entire plot of the Iliad unwinds from its vicissitudes. Achilles’ wrath is singular, flattening him as a character, making him nearly unidimensional (Achilles does have his other moments in which we see another side barely break through), but its focus and unidimensionality make him an unbeatable warrior. His monolithic quality makes him wrath’s embodiment; or, put another way, literally transfigures him into wrath. He becomes, as it were, a mortal god, defined by a singular characteristic, much like Ares is the personification of war, or Athena, wisdom or cunning. Unbeatable in combat, yet ultimately mortal. It is his greatest trait, and his ultimate doom, bringing down everyone with him into Hades.
It is his greatest trait, and his ultimate doom, bringing down everyone with him into Hades.
This wrath motivates the story. The plot unfolds based upon the direction that Achilles points his wrath. As the introductory stanza indicates, he points it first to his own side, Agamemnon, the son of Atreus. He is the king of
Hector is a much more interesting character in my opinion than Achilles. Hector clearly is the second greatest warrior in the Iliad, but unlike Achilles who is unidimensionally wrathful, Hector is multidimensional. He is Hector, the prince of Troy, the beloved son of old King Priam, devoted husband to Andromache, a father with a young child, and responsible for the safety of the entire city of Troy. They all depend upon his strength, his courage, and his leadership. He is universally beloved, and considered universally kind. Fighting for a cause that he does not believe in—the folly of judgment of Paris, his younger brother—he is now forced to defend all those he loves, and fights to the death to do it.
If there is any other shaper of events in the Iliad, it is the judgment of
Indeed, once Achilles equivocates, allowing his beloved Patroclus into battle, wearing Achilles’ own armor, Patroclus dies by the hand of Hector. It is this act that finally turns Achilles’ wrath from Agamemnon, the Lord of Men, to Hector, the Tamer of Forces. It is this act that transfigures Achilles’ adolescent wrath against Agamemnon to godlike wrath, complete with a fiery nimbus and a divine roar (with the aid of Athena), against Hector. This might explain why this takes place in the tenth year. Achilles nearly divine wrath had not been fully awakened by his enemy. Now no force can stop him, not even the Tamer of Forces.
Hector, realizing he had mistaken Patroclus for Achilles, knows what is coming, is driven back, waits for Achilles, and, in the end, loses his nerve. Eventually forced to take a stand, he fights Achilles. But he is no match for godlike wrath, so intense that almost nothing can abate it. Achilles, as wrath personified, kills Hector, presaging the destruction of