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.

III.1. Crying in the Heroic Space of the Iliad

Then we should be right in doing away with the lamentations of men of note and in attributing them to women and not to the most worthy of them either, and to inferior men, in that those whom we say we are breeding for the guardianship of the land may disdain to act like these.

Plato Republic III 387e–388a

In Books 2 and 3 of the Republic, Socrates and Adeimantus discuss the program of education that would be implemented in their ideal city. The idea is proposed that the legislature should control the fables and myths of the poets, that they should “edit” a sort of orthodox Homer whose heroes do not cry. This conception of crying as a manifestation of weakness, vulnerability, and cowardice, while it is clearly formulated during the classical period, does not appear to be applicable to the world of epic.

The heroes of the Iliad, in particular, are very often presented in tears, suffering grief and pain. The tears of Achilles, just as his military exploits, are present throughout the poem, from his first appearance to his last. When he is not fighting, he is crying. All signs suggest that for an epic hero crying was not simply the expression of momentary distress, but rather a form of conduct that was a constituent part of his nature. On the other hand, how are the tears of exceptional warriors to be interpreted with regard to the crying of women, which might be expected? Why are intrepid warriors not called “women” (Achaiides, Iliad 2.235; 7.96) when they weep, as they are when they flee?

We have already observed the complex play of opposition, interference, alterity, and the blurring of the masculine and feminine in the Iliad. Is it possible to locate a similar oscillation in the expression of an emotion like suffering? Pain is indeed a cause, if not the only cause, common to the masculine and feminine spheres. It is therefore necessary to examine the details of tears in the epic and their distribution among the sexes to verify whether or not a discriminatory distribution of the type made by Plato exists.

If war is a necessary condition for men to prove themselves to be heroes through their exploits, it is nonetheless a source of fear and pain, given that it is specifically by falling in combat while still young that a warrior ensures his kleos.

War is thus the path to heroism and simultaneously the “source of tears” par excellence, since it results in death. The descriptions of war (e.g. Iliad 3.165; 5.737; 8.388; 17.512; 22.487; Odyssey 11.383), combat, and defeat (Iliad 11.601; 13.765; 16.436; 17.192; 16.568) all point in this direction.

Tears are not reserved for the families of warriors slain in combat; the heroes themselves cry, and the leaders first among them. Their nature is such that, even while accepting the outcome of a struggle, they are no less sensitive to the loss of a friend or merely the failure of a confrontation. With the exception of Diomedes, all the great heroes of the Iliad cry, most of them on the battlefield.

Diomedes is the only hero, in fact, to cry in a context outside of war. It is neither cruel combat nor the loss of his companions that causes him to shed tears, but his defeat at the chariot race during the funeral games in honor of Patroclus. At the moment when he is going to pass Eumelus, Apollo knocks the whip out of Diomedes’ hand. His failure is assured at that point, and “tears of anger fell from his eyes” (Iliad 23.385). These are tears of rage, mixed with frustration and anger. [1] For Diomedes, unlike the other heroes, the tears of grief seem inaccessible, as if his ambivalent nature, more savage than heroic, [2] desensitizes him to the spectacle of death.

It is Achilles’ honor that is at stake here; his distress must be understood from the perspective of the code of heroic values. Embittered, he withdraws from combat; the woman being only a pretext, what matters is the affront that has just been inflicted upon him. It is quite different than the excruciating pain he feels when Patroclus is killed: at that moment, his tears overtake him entirely. From that point forward, forgetting his oath never again to fight the Greeks (Iliad 1.233), his only reason to live is to kill Hector. Killing and weeping then characterize Achilles as he returns definitively to his role as the central character in the poem.

Iliad 18 and 19 are largely devoted to the story of Achilles’ tears (Iliad 18.35, 55, 78, 235, 318, 323, 354; 19.5, 304, 338, 345, etc.). Fighting no longer takes place, as if Patroclus’ death marks a gap in the progression of confrontations. Instead, the focus of the plot tilts and inverts. The tears of Achilles are followed immediately by reconciliation in the Greek camp and preparations for combat—with the magnificent interlude of Hephaestus’ crafting of Achilles’ armor in Book 18 (463–617). Achilles stops weeping to start a fight. Once Hector has been killed, he returns to camp to look after the funeral preparations for Patroclus; crying over his friend becomes the only conduct possible according to the logic of his character (after killing Hector: Iliad 23.9–10, 11, 14–17, 60, 98, 108, 153, 172, 178, 222, 224–225; with Priam: 24.9, 123–128, 507, 512–513, 591).

The “best of the Achaeans,” then, is also the one who most often experiences grief, the one who seems most inclined to tears and weeping. And this feature, far from being paradoxical, is, on the contrary, deeply rooted in his nature. The hero is not simply a killing machine; he is a hero as much for his courage facing death as for his close relationship with pain.

When Achilles weeps over Patroclus, he is also weeping for himself. Given that Patroclus is his “second self” (Iliad 18.81–82), the death of his closest com-panion obviously foreshadows his own. Returning to combat, he knows that he will die there and win great glory, as did Heracles, the archetypal Greek hero whom he chooses to evoke at the moment he becomes fully aware of his destiny (18.114–118):

I will go; I will pursue Hector who has slain him whom I loved so dearly, and will then abide my doom when it may please Zeus and the other gods to send it. Even Heracles, the best beloved of Zeus—even he could not escape the hand of death.

Heracles, when he appears in the Iliad, is also presented weeping: “He would weep till his cry came up to the sky” (8.364), Athena says of him, describing his pain and exhaustion during the labors imposed upon him by Eurystheus.

Achilles, the model of masculine courage, expresses himself the hard law of the heroic condition, where glory and pain are inseparable: “I can take thought of nothing save only slaughter and blood and the rattle in the throat of the dying” (Iliad 19.214).


[ back ] 1. Discussing the verb chōestai in the epic, A. W. H. Adkins compares this passage with Iliad 22.291, where Hector is frustrated to see his spear miss its target. Chōestai describes a state of mind related to the inability to hit a target; Adkins 1969:13 and following.

[ back ] 2. See the remarks in Schnapp-Gourbeillon 1981:95–131.

[ back ] 3. A number of other warriors cry in the Iliad: for example Antilochus (17.596, 700; 18.17, 32), Teucer (8.334), Deiphobus (13.538), the Trojans all together (22.408–409; 23.1; 24.664, 714, 740, 786), the Greeks (1.42; 2.288–289; 4.154; 13.88; 18.315–316, 355; 23.154, 211).

[ back ] 4. Nagy 1979; see, in particular, Chap. 5, “The Name of Achilles,” 69–83.

[ back ] 5. We will see below (pp. 125–133) the details of the physical manifestation of Achilles’ tears, and the specific connections that attach him to Patroclus.

[ back ] 6. Another significant example of the gap that separates the epic mentality from tragedy is found in Euripides’ Helen (947–949), where Menelaus says: “I could not endure to fall at your knees, or wet my eyes with tears; for if I were cowardly, I would greatly dishonor Troy” (trans. Coleridge).

[ back ] 7. Zeus cries over Sarpedon: Iliad 16.450; over Hector: 22.169. Ares cries when he is injured by Diomedes: 5.871; and by Athena: 21.417; he laments the loss of Ascalaphus: 15.114.