The Tears of Achilles

  Monsacré, Hélène. 2018. The Tears of Achilles. Trans. Nicholas J. Snead. Introduction by Richard P. Martin. Hellenic Studies Series 75. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.


“Since when is it that men (and not women) no longer cry? Why was ‘sensibility,’ at a certain moment, transformed into ‘sentimentality’?” [1]

Initially this line of questioning from Roland Barthes referred to the romantic hero. But we can go further still: on the threshold of history and Western literature, an immense poem, the Iliad, recounts both the accomplishments and the weeping of the heroes of the Trojan War; within this poem, an immense hero, Achilles, displays both his strength and his tears. Could we today imagine even the idea of a heroic sensitivity? We who forbid the tears of young boys and who see in a sobbing man the negation of masculine values, having inherited these ideas from the Greeks of the time of Pericles, who reserved crying for women, an activity on par with weaving wool …

The clearest difference between the system of values in Classical Greece (fifth century BCE)—which forbids men’s tears—and a Homeric ethic—which demands that the heroes of the Iliad express their pain with a violence similar to that which drives them on the battlefield—raises questions about a codified form of expressing emotion and heroic suffering in the Iliad.

To discover how roles were distributed, how the masculine and feminine domains were drawn up (first in themselves and then in relationship to one another), and to verify the existence of a “code” of femininity—a network of terms that together defined a system other than the official code of masculinity: this was my project.

Of course, the danger of anachronism is great. What, in fact, is the role of our modern sensibility in this analysis? Is it relevant to propose, to presuppose rather, an opposition as simple as that of masculine and feminine in the epic universe of the Iliad? To all these questions, I had no preconceived theoretical response.

By studying the ambiguities of each pole and by bringing to light an interplay of interferences, oscillations, transgressions, and inversions at the heart of the global system, which tends to place the masculine on one side and the feminine on the other, I attempted to determine the positive and negative aspects of each term of the pair. Following this initial examination, I asked if it were possible—and, if so, at what point—to establish a gendered code of epic values? The answer is both yes and no.

Yes, in the sense that a certain number of characteristics belonging to each sphere were easily classified; and no, in the sense that I unfailingly encountered one motif that blurred the distribution of masculine and feminine values: tears. In fact, tears belong as much to men as to women in the epic. How are we to make sense of this?

The weight of modern ideas about the distribution of men’s and women’s roles had led me to simply ignore the question of crying in the heroic male figure that I was trying to define. On the map of masculine and feminine, the continents were poorly placed. I therefore began anew—working now from the opposite direction—by placing the status of heroic suffering at the center of my research.

Roland Barthes’s questions only became essential for me in hindsight. This book deliberately retains a record of these two approaches, neither of which would work without the other.

In the end, the very nature of my conclusions remains to be examined: does the system of values that was outlined over the course of this inquiry only apply to one literary work, or does it represent a real society? The old problem of the relationship between a literary work and society, between literature and history (a question that I do not wish to address in depth here), takes on different forms with the Iliad than with, for example, The Princess of Clèves—forms that are related to the specific place of the Homeric poems in Greek literature and history.

There is, then, a distance between the time when the narrative is elaborated and the indefinite past to which it refers. But how can one speak of the double relationship that the work maintains, first with the society that produced it and then with the society that it represents, when we know little more about either than what the work tells us?

Imagine that we would like to consider the relationship of The Princess of Clèves to the seventeenth-century society of the time of its composition, as well as to the society of Henry II, the fictitious setting of the novel. Imagine that we have no other documentation for these two periods than The Princess of Clèves. Historians of customs and institutions would certainly find things to draw upon, though they would have trouble separating out the two eras; so, too, the historian working on Homer. But when attempting to locate a system of values, how does one tease out what belongs to Madame de La Fayette herself, what to the literary genre in which she chose to express herself, what to her own narrow, aristocratic circle, and what, finally, to the common base of seventeenth-century French society? The probability of error is high if one draws conclusions carelessly about the society on the basis of the work. One must remain even more cautious with the Iliad when studying the expression of emotion, the theme that—among other difficulties that I will return to—is most susceptible to highly literary stylization.

Of course, the Homeric scholar is in a slightly better position than our hypothetical scholar of The Princess of Clèves, because the epic, without a doubt, held a more central place in its society than did the précieux novel in seventeenth-century France, at least if we judge by the poems themselves and the status of the bards, their audience, and their social role.

A still more important matter remains. There is indeed a relationship between The Princess of Clèves and seventeenth-century society, and the historian studying the history of the system of values during the time of Louis XIV would not be able to ignore this novel. The historian of antiquity, on the contrary, has no choice: other than Homer, there is no access to the society of the “Dark Ages.” Thus this work is not just a literary study; it is also an exploration of the mentality of a historic society.

It is a limited exploration, however, when we are dealing with emotion. In an epic text, how were poets able to represent emotion? How can we understand today their way of speaking? Did Achilles “copy” the behavior of warriors from those distant times? Or might it be the reverse: did the epic influence certain real behaviors? We are missing a Don Quixote to measure the distance; we will never know.

What is crucial to me is that in Homer’s Iliad, one of the foundational texts of Western culture, men—because they are heroes—are arrayed with all capabilities. And among these is the ability to externalize pain through tears without at all weakening the preeminence of men over women. Values are not fixed, and the behaviors they require are even less so. Sensitivity in Homer is not sentimentality, and, in this idealized world of heroes, masculine strength is also expressed in tears. Images of masculinity are constantly shifting.


[ back ] 1. Barthes 1978:180–181.

[ back ] 2. This book began as a doctoral thesis defended at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in May of 1983. The jury was composed of Cl. Mossé (president), J.-P. Vernant, and P. Vidal-Naquet.

[ back ] 3. For an introduction to the subject, see for instance Vidal-Naquet 1975 or, more recently, Schein 1984.

[ back ] 4. See esp. Parry 1928a and 1928b; see also the contributions assembled in Kirk 1969 as well as Russo 1963 and Hainsworth 1968.

[ back ] 5. See especially Finley 1983, Finley 1973a, and Finley 1973b. For a more recent treatment, see Mossé 1980:7–19.