Although the Trojan War in Homer’s The Iliad was based on a real war between the Greeks and the Trojans, much of the oral tradition he incorporated was altered with a great deal of Greek mythology. However, it is noteworthy to recognize that fictional texts carry lasting lessons to be learned. As historians continue to make claims over what was real or made up, it is worth exploring the facts. The Iliad was written by a great writer of the 8th century B.C., and like any other great epic, it contained conflict, heroes, love, and tragedy. As the war continued to unfold, debts were paid, lives were taken, and Kings would rise and fall. Helen of Sparta, Paris and Hector of Troy, Odysseus – King of Ithaca, Agamemnon – King of Mycenae, and Achilles – King of the Myrmidons are just some of the few that played a role in the poetic tragedy. Homer’s The Iliad shows how Achilles played a role in the outcome of the war, and how the epic as a whole became influential in future literary texts and other mythological tales. Achilles proved to be of paramount importance on the ultimate victory over the Trojan’s, for without his strength in battle, the war may never have been won. Despite his internal conflict and rage, he was both a strong and prominent frontrunner of the soldiers that battled for something truly worth fighting for: textbook names worthy of remembrance in the generations yet to come. Homer’s tale has carried its inspiration throughout many centuries to some very popular works of modern literature, film, and television.
In order to understand both the outcome of the war and the impact it has had through the ages, it is first necessary to discuss the heroism in Achilles, for his character inspired many yet to come. Within The Iliad, many thematic instances of fate, perseverance, and the immortality versus mortality of man and woman are portrayed. What truly made Achilles a hero was his preexisting knowledge of his fate (his death). Even so, he persisted in leading the Greeks to victory. These thematic prose are demonstrated with military soldiers in many wars throughout history. “In Achilles, however, Homer chooses to create a character who has, through his mother, unique and privileged access to the will of Zeus and knows his fate from the very start of The Iliad” (Jones 115). It was through Achilles’ mother, Thetis, that his doom was revealed to him. If he chose to fight in the Trojan War, as he had, he would meet his end shortly after the death of Hector. On the other side, if he chose to remain at home, he would live to a fruitful old age. Choosing the first of the two, Achilles made it known that it was his wish to be remembered throughout history that mattered more than anything else. And what a wish it was he had. His character has indeed influenced many great works of modern day literature and culture, as will be discussed further in this study.
Now what defines a hero? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, and in the context of The Iliad, the definition of a hero is as follows: “a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength of ability” (Hero). As Achilles was bathed in the River Styx prior to the war, he was granted the gift of invulnerability, save for the ankle. In this case, the Styx was the mythological aspect, while his gift in combat fulfills the legendary aspect. As most studiers of literature know the nature of the story behind the Achilles’ heel, his invulnerability was gifted to him by his mother, Thetis. Her intention was, in fact, to make her son immortal, but this failed since not all of his body was dipped into the Styx (Burgess 220). The two terms are in fact different. Immortality is the ability to never die, while invulnerability is the ability to not be harmed though mortality is still present.
As mentioned earlier, Achilles made a variety of decisions within the epic tale. With his discrepancies and arguments with Agamemnon throughout the stages of war, Achilles was driven to withdraw his Myrmidons from the fighting, following Agamemnon’s taking of Briseis, cousin of Hector and Paris (1.240-44). Achilles’s love affair with the young princess proved to be a driving factor of the hero throughout the course of the war. Later on, when Patroclus put on the armor of Achilles to lead the Greeks in an overnight assault on the Trojan’s, his death would cause Achilles to retake his position in the battle to kill Hector out of justice and love (23.19-23). By doing so, he secured the victory for the Greeks. The relationship between Patroclus and Achilles, as presented by Homer, has been up for discussion amongst scholars and writers since the fifth century B.C. (Mariscal and Morales 292). In the 2004 adaptation of the Trojan War in the movie Troy, featuring Brad Pitt as Achilles, the two warriors are cousins. Still, Mariscal and Morales believed the relationship was more intimate (292). Regardless, it is well known that people have fought their battles for loved ones since the beginning of time. Love is a powerful tool to have, just as fear is. A touch of both can go a long way in making proper decisions, especially in a time of war.
The decision to overcome his grief and honor his fallen friend led to the ultimate defeat of the Trojan’s, despite knowing he would die in the process. His ability to still move forward was an act of a true hero and is one that is seen in modern times. Achilles knew it was what Patroclus would have wanted (24.509-15). Courage and bravery are hard qualities to live by in certain circumstances, but to him, they had been a part of him since choosing to go to war. Knowing his death approached, Achilles overcame this and became the hero of the war. His name became worthy of remembrance and became the character that so many others in literature have been based on. He revealed the idea that heroes do not fret at the thought of death, nor do they back down from what is necessary to do.
Flashing forward to modern times, this theme echoed in late twentieth century films including Saving Private Ryan, and Black Hawk Down. In Saving Private Ryan, a whole squadron is slaughtered in an effort to find the young Private, and yet they carry on. No man can be left behind. It is seen throughout the entirety of the movie. In the search for the young private, each character creates their own journey and showcase their unending strength to persist, despite baring the burden of dead brothers. In Black Hawk Down, a great many soldiers are killed, and yet the soldiers do not give up (Torgovnik 1839). After the Somalian forces strike down their helicopters, the soldiers are forced to continue their goal of providing food and aid to the starving population in the very same country as the attackers. In both films, the U.S. soldiers prove they have the same sort of perseverance and grit that Achilles displayed when honoring his dead friend, Patroclus, in The Iliad.
Additionally, the world of film has opened up to several adaptations of the Trojan War. Examples include Helen of Troy (a TV series), 2003, Helen of Troy (movie), 1955, Ulysses (movie), 1954 (Myrsiades 21). Troy, 2004, as previously mentioned, has been the latest of them thus far and portrays how the story has passed on from one generation to the next. All take a different route in the portrayal of the story, which makes it all the more prominent. And it is not just in film. Essay writers and scholars have explored the influences of The Iliad for centuries. Film directors and writers’ abilities to interpret the Trojan War in so many different ways show the true significance and longevity of the epic tale. There is much and more to be explored to this day. Homer can be seen, in some ways, as the father of epic poetry.
In modern society, there have been many adaptations and incorporations of the hero Achilles into literary fictions. For example, in a popular young adult book titled Percy Jackson and the Last Olympian, Percy Jackson is dipped into the River Styx and proceeds to come out with the same gift as Achilles in Homer’s epic. In Percy’s story, it was a small portion of the back that remained vulnerable in battle (Riordan 135-136). He chose to enter the river, seeing as it was the only way to stop Kronos from bringing destruction to Olympus. The siege at Troy was adapted into an older audience fiction series called Adventures of Odysseus, which follows the war from the perspectives of Eperitus, a young Greek warrior, and Odysseus, instead of Achilles. A comparison can even be made between Achilles and Romeo from Shakespeare’s tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Both are affected by the death of loved ones, and both end up dying for those very same people.
Even to this day, students all over the world are continuing their study of Homer’s great work. The Iliad and Odyssey, both written by Homer, are over 2700 years old. Over two dozen translations have been created in the past 50 years of both works (Myrsiades 21). The legacy of the Trojan War has even made its way to the graphic novel, which has “appropriated Homer in the projected seven volume series of Eric Shanower” (21). The legacy of Homer’s The Iliad has made its way to a relatively new genre of today’s culture, which is quite impressive. Pop culture has heavily been influenced by Homer’s work, for the legacy has been immense. The lessons to be learned, the tales to tell, and the magnificence of those involved in such a heroic battle are almost infinite.
As the events of the Trojan War unfolded, Achilles emerged as a central figure of the tale. For without him, the death of Hector and the proceeding events to follow may never have happened. The actions fell into line as they did so that the war would be in favor of the Greeks, despite death and destruction. The death of Patroclus and the persistence of Achilles to honor his death would ultimately lead to the outcome of the war and the redemption of his character. In the midst of a decade long conflict between two countries, heroes were born, princes were unmade, and tales were told of the greatness and might of the bravest of warriors. Homer created a tale that would inspire many yet to come in the world of literature. As both literary and cultural studies of the 21st century continue to explore The Iliad’s poetic beauty, more interpretations will aid in the belief and tradition of the Trojan War and those involved, whether it was real or not. All stories serve a purpose, whether mythological or not. The legacy of Achilles will surely live on for many millennia to come.