Achilles Throughout the Ages: Bringing to Heel the Myths of Hollywood

Samuel C. Duckett White*, Australian National University
History in the Making, Vol 6 (December 2018)

As society develops, so do its myths and legends. Nowhere is this more so than the archetypal ‘hero’ Achilles, whose core Homeric values have survived – although loosely – into the modern era as Brad Pitt in Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004). While the movie deposes that it is based on, rather than a replication of, the Illadic tale, a bigger question emerges: when does ‘reel history’ begin to outweigh ‘real history’? This paper seeks to explore the literary and cinematic differences between the character of Achilles, and provide reasons why the West continues to idealise masculinity through martial prowess, yet denounce the violence that makes it so. This is achieved from pre-Homeric, Homeric, ANZAC and post-Iraq perspectives.

Within archaic Hellenic society, the interpretation of Achilles was one founded upon role modeling and idealism. Achilles within The Iliad is an idealised character who embodies four key heroic attributes: honour, glory, rage and grief. Achilles’ depiction of honour and glory are linked with his success on the battlefield; this continual reinforcement of Achilles’ martial prowess is highlighted by the consequence of his decision to abstain from combat.[1] His honour extends in The Iliad to the personal possession of women, as epitomized by the slight over Briseis, when his military commander offends his perceived proprietary interest in her.[2] By losing symbolic face in the community through the physical loss of property, Achilles’ behavior highlights another aspect of his character: wrath. Wrath – often translated as menis – is key to the Homeric epic, and synonymous of the archaic character.[3] Yet it exceeds the modern Western notion of anger, as modern academic Jared Calaway comments:

[menis] is sustained anger, almost godlike in its intensity and singularity… it is a rage that in its legendary greatness cannot be replicated by any other human. His [Achilles’] 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 likes Ares is the personification of war, or Athena, wisdom or cunning.[4]

Such wrath is demonstrated continuously throughout the epic, both on and off the battlefield. The infamous scene narrated by Homer on Achilles’ conflict within and against the river Scamander itself effectively highlights the overwhelming nature of the hero’s wrath. Ironically, the juxtaposition to Achilles’ physical wrath is his literal embodiment of grief.[5] Grief is an aspect of the hero’s character that only appears with the loss of Patroclus; subsequent regressions to utter despair are only matched by peaks of destruction and mutilation.[6] The Homeric hero is a paradigm: whilst human in his emotions, his monolithic emotions, actions and reactions are on a scale unmatched throughout Hellenic literature.[7]

A key issue in the analysis of Achilles’ character begins with Homer himself; whilst the hero is established within the Bronze Age as a Mycenaean, the nearly 500 year gap between the historical and latter literary narrative creates significant issues with interpretation. These issues emerge especially when one looks at the realities of Mycenaean warfare and society: human sacrifice, battlefield cannibalism; poison. The omission of such details by Homer is a veiled attempt to reflect his own, more civilised era.[8] Such disparities are commonplace throughout The Iliad.[9] The same leap in interpretation, in conjunction with Hellenic social development, is seen through subsequent delineations of the Trojan tale.[10] This archaic Achilles – the embodiment of honour, glory, rage and grief – thereby provided the basis for role modelling within Hellenic society.[11] Honour and glory, as epitomized by Achilles’ philotimia – his love and overarching desire for glory – are central to Hellenic identity and Homeric society. Indeed, ‘the choice of Achilles – a short, vigorous life and glory everlasting – was the expression of the age’s ideal’.[12]

Academic John Osbourne notes that public perception of such values conferred social influence on Hellenic polis members.[13] This conferral of influence is highlighted by Homer in the verbal intercourse between the low-standing commoner Thersites, and the respected warrior of Odysseus; the latter’s social standing consequently allows him to assault the former in public.[14] The courage exhibited by the Homeric hero upon the battlefield extrapolated within Hellenic society to all aspects of life. This is no more clearly demonstrated through Socrates’ commentary that his staunch belief in his righteousness – which would knowingly lead to his execution – was synonymous to Achilles’ demise.[15] The monolithic and unbending nature of the archaic hero provided a basis for members of Hellenic society to aspire to attain. The actions of his supposed progeny, Alexander the Great, lay testimony to his influential role.[16] In addition to carrying The Iliad on his conquest, Alexander continuously aimed to imitate and surpass his ancestor, from the landing on shores of Troy and sacrifice at the altars of Achilles and Patroclus, to the funeral rites after the death of Hephastion.[17] These sacrifices to Achilles highlights the integral nature of the demigod to Hellenic society, going so far as to become apart of the Pan-Hellenic cultural identify.[18] The far-ranging nature of cult worship thereby provided a focal point for the culmination of Hellenic cultural identity; whilst geographically dispersed and ethnically diverse, the foundations of Hellenic unity were essentially Homeric and none more so than the ideal of Achilles.[19]

In contrast to the Homeric Achilles, Brad Pitt’s adaptation and depiction of the hero absorbs the values associated with early 21st century Hollywood blockbusters. For example, the intended audience was presumably thought to be unready for the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus (the film predates Brokeback Mountain by a year, which itself was thought to be a ground-breaking film), and that relationship is instead replaced with a relationship between Achilles and Briseis. Starkly contrasting the social value as a role model within Hellenic society, the character of Achilles within Troy is one aimed at capturing the audience through entertainment. The ‘star power’ of Brad Pitt was a deliberate choice, and while his performance was well-received it fell short of critical acclaim. It bears taking notice of the cinematic environment in which Troy was produced and released: in the year 2000 the epic historical drama film Gladiator by Ridley Scott was the second-highest grossing film, with over US$457 million worldwide. It has lead to what is now colloquially dubbed the “Gladiator Effect”:

It’s called the ‘Gladiator’ effect by writers and publishers. The snob in us likes to believe that it is always books that spin off movies. Yet in this case, it’s the movies – most recently Gladiator two years ago – that have created the interest in the ancients. And not for more Roman screen colossals, but for writing that is serious or fun or both.[20]

While there is something to be said about the difficulty of adapting Greek epics, it is hard to entertain an audience when explaining the nuanced nature of Hellenic factions and origins, when compared to the clear-cut nature of slave-and-master in Gladiator. In this, Petersen attempts to focus on the story of the individual.[21] As such, one could claim that it is not the creeping epic but the Hollywood heartthrob that lies at the core of successful modern cinematic productions. From such an economic perspective, various characteristics, values and beliefs of the hero are thus substantially different to the Homeric hero of Achilles.[22] Indeed, such variations in interpretation are a key weakness in the portrayal of legendary literary characters, as opposed to contemporary or historical figures.[23]

The inclusion of the infamous beach-landing scene within Troy can correlate to the contemporary environment of the time; the links between an overwhelming military invasion against a foreign Eastern state draws parallels to the Coalition invasion of Iraq one year earlier, or – more true to the region – the landing of ANZAC troops at Gallipoli Cove on 25 April 1915. There has remained a link between Gallipoli and Achilles that was not lost on the Allied soldiers at the time – poetry and diary entries from the trenches record the myths were present in the minds of better-educated soldiers and officers, that the Australian public was becoming aware. In October 1915, E.C. Buley stated:

it was an additional joy for Australians to learn that they were to fight in the footsteps of Homer’s heroes and Alexander the Great’, calling Anzacs the ‘new Argonauts’.[24]

Arguably it is here perhaps that we see Wolfgang Petersen attempting to cater to the viewers’ wants and needs; the issues between Achilles and Agamemnon are synonymous to the issues in the relationship between George Bush Senior and George W. Bush.

Major differences between the modern depiction of the Hellenic hero and the Homeric idealism lay in omissions by Wolfgang Petersen. Whilst to an extent the wrathful nature of Achilles is attempted, the character himself is portrayed as something of a benevolent warrior whose desire for glory everlasting results naturally in martial involvement.[25] The psychotic episodes of the warrior – as described against the river Scamander – fail to appear in the film adaptation.[26] Moreover, scenes within Troy that do attempt to depict the battlefield brutality of the infamous warrior fail to align with the Homeric tale which, as noted, itself failed to depict the realities of Mycenaean warfare. Such omissions fail to accurately demonstrate the prolonged nature of the Trojan engagement and increasingly dangerous atmosphere within the Achaean camp.[27] Other examples of omissions from Petersen’s film include the continual reinforcement of the importance of Hellenic class structure and the constant interference of the gods in both narration and deeds.[28] Whilst arguably not relevant to a modern monotheistic, class-flexible audience, these themes are key to the character of Achilles.

This catering to social demand can explain the open-ended nature of the hero’s relationship with his cousin, Patroclus. Whilst the paederastic nature of the two is apparent throughout archaic Greek epigraphic and archaeological evidence, modern interpretations paint a different picture.[29] This difference in emphasis is perhaps indicative of a wider conservative Hollywood. In Troy, the homosexual relationship is replaced with a heterosexual love motif between the hero and his prized possession of Briseis; even in this, Petersen is forced to deal with Victorian conservatism which glosses over the actualities of Hellenic society, in particular the potential for the men to pursue non-consensual sexual relationships with their slaves without consequence.[30]

Regardless of such differences, there remain core aspects of the hero from Homer to Hollywood, in particular his embodiment of philotimia, martial prowess and lasting grief. Brad Pitt’s decision in Troy to attain a legacy that begets ‘stories about [his] victories for thousands of years’ is one such example of the immortality he seeks.[31] This theme is reinforced by scenes of combat, from the initial landing on the beaches of Troy to the death of Hector. Additionally, Pitt attempts to depict the overwhelming grief of the hero, lashing out at lover, friend and foe alike in an attempt to find inner peace through, once again, physical dominance.[32] Outside of Petersen’s Troy, whereby the character evidently aims to please the audience, Achilles immense physical strength provides the foundation his modern social interpretation: the role of the fearless soldier; feared in combat and forever glorified. The position and prestige of Achilles has allowed Dr. Jonathan Shay to link the wrathful nature of the Homeric hero to symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.[33] The overwhelming grief following these psychotic episodes correlates to aspects of the mental disorder. Through linking contemporary combat experiences and emotions experienced by returning veterans to that of Western civilization’s most renowned warrior, modern interpretations of the Homeric hero have alleviated feelings of guilt, weakness and trauma in Vietnam veterans.[34] Therefore, the adaptation of Brad Pitt’s Achilles in Petersens’ Troy is indeed one for modern audiences, aimed at ensuring entertainment through omission of apparent socially unwanted aspects of the character.

Achilles has remained relevant throughout Western civilisation because of his adaptability and relevance to soldiers from Homer to Iraq. The role of the soldier will often involve extremities not only in aggression and grieving but also social isolation and physical loneliness. The character on screen attempts to gain the essence of Homer and Hollywood: a monolithic warrior in a politically correct, insolent Western soldier-turned-lover. Yet it is instructive to note, for historical purity, how unequivocally modern the hero has become, both in perpetuating hetero-conservative elements of Hollywood culture and minimising the overtly masculine nature of the warmongering hero.


* GDLP (ANU), BA (Classics) / LL.B (UQ). The author is a Master of Laws candidate at the University of Melbourne. The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views or opinions of the University of Melbourne.

[1] Alexander Murray, trans. The Iliad of Homer (London: William Heinemann, 1924), 117-124.

[2] Ibid, 32-38.

[3] Ibid, 27-29.

[4] John Calaway, “The Wrath of Achilles” Antiquitopia 7, (2008): 7.

[5] Ernest Holland, “The Name of Achilles: A Revised Etymology” Glotta 32 (1993): 18-22; Hom. Il. 20.73

[6] Murray, Iliad, 182; see 192-198; see 207-209.

[7] Ibid, 208-212.

[8] George Murray, The Rise of Greek Epics, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924).

[9] Compare Jurgen Niese, The Homeric catalogue of ships studied as a historical source (Kiel: Kleirberg Ltd Publishing, 1873) 37-54 to Murray, Iliad, 42-45.

[10] See Reginald Jebb, trans., Sophocle’s Ajax (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1893).

[11] Alexander Dryden, trans., Plato’s Apology (London: J.M. Dent, 1910) 13; see also Murray, Iliad, 177-183.

[12] William Caldwell, The Ancient World (New York: Holt & Reinheart, 1960) 123.

[13] Osbourne, 1996: 155.

[14] Murray, Iliad, 32.

[15] Dryden, Apology, 13; see also Murray, Iliad, 108-112.

[16] For the death of Batis see John Rolfe, trans., Curtius Rufus (London: William Heinemann, 1946) 42-44; see Nicolo Machiavelli, The Prince, (London: Penguin, 1958) 11.

[17] For the Iliad see Harold Folwer, trans., Parralelle Lives (London: William Heinemann 1966) 32;; for Trojan sacrifice see Fowler, Lives, 63; for the death of Hephastion Murray, Iliad, 199.

[18] John Bostock, trans. Natural History, (London: Taylor & Francis, 1855) 64-65.

[19] Alexander Dominguez-Monedero, Hellenic Identity and Greek Colonization: Ancient West and East (Boston: Brill Leiden, 2006) 17-32.

[20] Martin, Arnold (July 11, 2002), Making Books; Book Parties With Togas, The New York Times, retrieved 7 April 2018

[21] Horst-Dieter Blume, Return to Troy (Boston: Brill Leiden, 2015) 143-181.

[22] Peter Green, “Heroic Hype, New Style: Hollywood Pitted against Homer” Arion 12, 2004: 177.

[23] Ibid, 184.

[24] Buley (1915): 59-61

[25] Troy, directed by Wolfgang Petersen (2003: Warner Bros. Entertainment) 55:13.

[26] Murray, Iliad, 184-186; see also 84-88 for desire of Hellenic failure.

[27] Troy, 48:15 – 64:30.

[28] George Grube, “The Gods of Homer” Phoenix 12, (1951): 68.

[29] See Alejandro Marzano, Roman Villas In Southern Italy: A Social and Economic History (New York: Brill, 2007): 147, Fig 18 for archaeological evidence of the paederastic relationship between Achilles and Patroclus.

[30] Michael Winkler, Troy: From Homer’s Iliad to the Hollywood Epic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007): 80; see Jeff Gill, “Greek Women in the Archaic Age” Antiquitopia 14, 2009: 3 for Hellenic perspective on women.

[31] Troy, 35:13 mins.

[32] Troy, 129:05mins.

[33] Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 2010): 17.

[34] Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: 97-132.