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.

Preface to the English Edition

Hélène Monsacré

The greatest hero of all time, Achilles, has supernatural powers and fights with divine weapons, but he cries like a human. His tears do not, however, diminish his virility, but rather enhance and confirm his manhood. The sobs of his female counterparts are trapped in a stereotypical feminine passivity, while Achilles’ tears on the battlefield are powerful and effective. The warrior of the Iliad, crying the way he cries, conveys that suffering is the condition of his heroism.

The Tears of Achilles was written long before a reevaluation of the role of women and femininity in the Homeric epic under the influence of gender studies; my research is nonetheless the reflection of a turning point in the history of Homeric studies, and I am indebted to the innovative school of thought founded by Jean-Pierre Vernant (1914–2007), Pierre Vidal-Naquet (1930–2006), and Nicole Loraux (1943–2003). It is with emotion and gratitude that I remember these great scholars who are no longer among us. They introduced me to research, and I consider myself fortunate to have been taught by them. Our common interests inaugurated a long-lasting friendship based on mutual trust. It was an honor to maintain a close relationship to the very end with an exceptional scholar like Nicole Loraux; her premature death has been a great loss for classical studies.

This book was written quite a while ago, and some youthful naiveté may still show; but if it remains relevant today, it is because my research has helped bring the study of emotions to the fields of history and anthropology. It is with a certain tenderness that I recall Jean Pierre Vernant’s astonishment and perplexity when I first told him I would work on the expression of emotions, and on tears in particular. Reading the Iliad, I had discovered that when Achilles does not fight, he cries. Initially, Vernant was skeptical: “The great Achilles, the paradigm of virility, displays strength through his tears? That demands a closer examination…”

At the time I wrote this book, readings of the Homeric epic were dominated by a prevailing bias, which opposed virility to sensitivity. Hence, a close reading of the Iliad was necessary in order to understand the gendered division of labor and the role of Achilles’ heroic tears. Pierre Vidal-Naquet acknowledged the importance of my project when he insisted, in his generous foreword to Les Larmes d’Achille, on the necessity of going back to the original text: the anthropology of Homer is, above all, an anthropology of the text itself.

I would like to thank all those who have made the publication of this book possible, as well as those who made sure it would not be forgotten. Among the former is Francis Esménard, President and CEO of Albin Michel publishers, whom Claude Mossé, another great French figure of classical studies, had convinced to publish it. Among the latter is Paul Veyne, who wrote a warm review of the paperback edition, and who has been, for more than twenty years, a steadfast—and witty—friend. Who else but Paul Veyne could describe in such Homeric terms the furor that seized him during an encounter with a pack of wild boars on his estate in Provence? “I was like Achilles, ‘a brutal rage had taken hold of me,’ and I rushed for my rifle…”

Eva Cantarella and Pierre Judet de La Combe have, beyond the bonds of friendship, allowed me to remain in contact with Homer and the ancient world. And even though I have left academia, the ancient Greeks are still at the heart of my profession as an editor in Paris—in particular at Les Belles Lettres, with its emphasis on classical texts.

I am also deeply grateful for Richard P. Martin’s beautiful and generous Foreword. He deftly connects the book to contemporary issues by identifying my work as part of the history of structuralism, while at the same time highlighting the timeliness of the topics of emotion and gender, which were barely emerging at the time the book was first published.

I sincerely thank the talented Nicolas J. Snead, who has succeeded in converting my literary—rather than academic—style into beautiful English, and in subtly conveying the spirit of my essay.

My gratitude also goes to Jill Curry Robbins, whose patience and efficiency through the production process has been both enduring and reassuring; and to Noel Spencer, who will shepherd the electronic version of the book.

The American journey of The Tears of Achilles has benefited from the efficient and invaluable help of my friends Susan Rubin Suleiman, professor of French literature and comparative literature at Harvard University, and Astrid von Busekist, professor of political theory at Sciences Po Paris.

Finally, my affectionate thoughts go to a loyal friend and fellow student of Nicole Loraux, Ioanna Papadopoulou, who has put her exceptional weaving skills into motion, patiently creating a bond between my book and the Center for Hellenic Studies.

In 1984, I dedicated Les Larmes d’Achille to my parents. Today, thanks to the new life provided by the Center for Hellenic Studies, I am happy to offer The Tears of Achilles to Christophe, my husband, and our two children, Noémie and Emmanuel. They are “my sweet light.”

Paris, March 2017


[ back ] 1. Les larmes d’Achille. Le héros, la femme et la souffrance dans la poésie d’Homère, published in the series “L’aventure humaine” (Paris: Albin Michel, 1984), with a foreword by Pierre Vidal-Naquet; also reprinted in paperback by Editions du Félin (Paris, 2010).

[ back ] 2. Also published as The Children of Athena. Athenian Ideas about Citizenship and the Division between the Sexes (Princeton, 1993).

[ back ] 3. Also published as The Experiences of Tiresias (Princeton, 1995; reprinted 2014).

[ back ] 4. The address of the Center for Comparative Research on Ancient Societies (Centre de recherches comparées sur les sociétés anciennes, CNRS/EHESS).