Part I: Honor, Wrath and Justice in the Iliad: A Hard-Learned Lesson in Human Finitude

In the opening lines of the Iliad, we confront immediately the interplay between the gods and humans.  More specifically, we are encouraged to pay particular attention to the relationship between the “will of Zeus” and the wrath of Achilles-a wrath, which is described as contributing to or in some sense even causing the deaths of thousands of Achilles’ own men.[1] Throughout the Iliad, we see divinities intervening in human affairs, humans supplicating and sacrificing to gods, and plans and goals contrived by both.  We have the impression that Zeus is the most powerful of the gods; yet, as I shall highlight, his power is not without limits.  Moreover, certain events, actions, and deliberations on the part of Zeus lead us to ask the following questions: In what sense (if any) may Zeus be deemed just?  Is the will of Zeus ultimate?  That is, does it overrule and make irrelevant the plans and desires of humans (as well as the other divinities), or does Zeus’ will somehow work (non-violently) with human agency?  Lastly, is Achilles’ moral improvement part of Zeus’ will, and if so, what role do Achilles’ own choices play toward such an end?  Achilles is by far the most complex human, that is, semi-human character.  Does this complexity arise from his nature as a demigod, or does it come about because of an irresolvable tension in his spirited-soul?  If so, to what extent do these inherent conflictions affect his decisions and motivate his desires (e.g., for honor, justice and self-sufficiency)?  In this essay, I examine selected passages from the Iliad in order to attempt to address at least some of these questions.  I offer no promise of being able to adequately answer them such that the relationship between the gods and humans form a coherent, tension-less whole; I do, however, pledge to raise additional questions and perplexities along the way.

Before turning directly to the Iliad, we must first address a hermeneutical issue centering on a myth that seems to be presupposed by Homer as common knowledge of his readers.  The myth concerns Zeus’s involvement in the marriage of Thetis to the mortal, Peleus, and is presented poetically by Pindar at least two centuries after Homer.[2] In Isthmian 8, an ode written by Pindar at least two centuries after Homer, we are told that a dispute between Zeus and Poseidon occurred regarding the goddess, Thetis, Achilles’ mother.  Apparently, both Zeus and Poseidon wanted Thetis as a bride; however, they had been warned by an oracle of Themis that marriage to Thetis by either Zeus or Poseidon would result in “a son mightier than his father” (Isthmian 8, line 34), who would then threaten the reign of the gods-perhaps Zeus’ reign more than Poseidon’s, given Zeus’ preeminent divine status.  Zeus was, no doubt, aware of the previous revolts of disgruntled divine sons, such as the Titan, Cronos, who deposed his father, Ouranos.  In fact, Zeus himself was situated in this line of ousting sons, as he deposed his own father, Cronos.  If (as I do) we accept the hypothesis that the “Thetis myth” was well-known to Homer’s audience, then it is reasonable to conclude that Zeus has decided to put an end to this tradition of overthrowing one’s father by convincing Thetis to marry a mortal, Peleus.[3] From the Iliad, we know that Thetis and Peleus do marry and that their marriage results in the birth of Achilles, whose fate, according to Pindar’s myth, is to die in battle. As Homer’s poem unfolds, Achilles is made aware of his fate; yet, he seems to have a choice in the matter.  That is, Homer presents Achilles as having a genuine choice between a brief, but glorious life as a warrior, and a long, ordinary and rather inglorious life in Phthia.  If Zeus in fact has an overarching plan or will for Achilles’ life, it seems that Achilles is in some sense an active participant who makes choices.

As I mentioned in the introductory paragraph, Zeus’ power is limited.  In book 1, we are told that Thetis aided Zeus during a revolt among the gods spearheaded by Hera, Poseidon and Athena.[4] Thus, Zeus is in some sense indebted to Thetis, which in addition to the Thetis myth mentioned above, helps to explain why Thetis has so much sway with Zeus in the Iliad.  With the revolt incident, we see that Zeus’ sovereignty can be challenged by the other gods, which means that he must be deal wisely with his fellow gods, lest they turn on him.  Hera, Zeus’ wife, presents perhaps the greatest challenge to Zeus’ reign.  Zeus has a pre-history of womanizing (both with female goddesses and female humans), and this causes a great deal of tension in his marriage.  Hera resents Zeus’ flings and the various offspring produced by his affairs, and her resentment often gives rise to schemes and ploys to avenge herself and her honor.[5] As the seduction scene in book 14 indicates, Hera is well-aware of Zeus’ weaknesses and exploits his desires as a way to further her own partisan alliances in the war.  The fact that Zeus can be seduced, duped and distracted demonstrates that his power is limited.  If Zeus’ power is limited, then we are pressed to ask whether his justice is limited as well.  Can we expect Zeus’ justice to extend to all humans when we know that he can be seduced, bound, and distracted for significant periods of time?  Would not such a state of affairs give his adversaries sufficient time and opportunity to thwart Zeus’ intentions regarding the lives of particular humans?  Whatever kind of justice may be attributed to Zeus-perhaps a level of impartiality not exhibited by the other unreflectively partisan gods-it must be a limited justice that does not extend equally to all.[6] To be sure, Zeus exhibits an ability to exercise a disinterested view of justice.  We are told that Troy is his favorite city because of its religious piety; yet, Zeus has decreed that Troy will fall.  Paris, in taking Helen from Menelaus, has violated international hospitality customs-customs that are of great concern to Zeus.  Thus, the Trojan War may be understood as a violation against international justice, and as such, would necessitate a response from Zeus.[7] Agamemnon then becomes an instrument in Zeus’ plan for retributive justice against Troy.  However, Agamemnon, in taking Briseis from Achilles, acts unjustly and creates what appears to be a setback for Zeus’ plan.  Now Zeus must deal with injustice on multiple levels, and this is perhaps why, upon hearing Thetis’ request, Zeus “made no answer but sat in silence a long time.”[8] With at least some awareness of the potentially problematic issues regarding Zeus’ rule, justice and causality in view, let us now turn to Achilles.


[1] The Iliad of Homer. Trans., Richmond Lattimore.  Chicago:  Univ. of Chicago Press, 1961.  All subsequent references to the Iliad are to this translation.  Iliad I.1-3, 59.

[2] Here the idea is clearly not a claim of drawing an inference from the text of the Iliad, but rather of the possibility that a myth which was considered by ancient hearers as worthy of retention was then later written down in poetic form by Pindar.  If so, it is reasonable to claim that the myth was part of the common heritage of Homer’s audience, just as the gods were presupposed as common knowledge rather than explained or argued for.  All references to Pindar’s ode are taken from Pindar’s Victory Songs, trans., Frank J. Nisetich [class handout].

[3] In Pindar’s ode, Themis proclaims, “‘Let her [Thetis] marry a mortal instead and see her son killed in battle, a son equal to Ares in might of hand or to the lightning bolt in speed of foot.  It is my counsel to give her as a wedding prize to Aiakos’ son Peleus'” (Isthmian 8, lines 35-40).

[4] Iliad I.396ff., 69-70.

[5] Hera in many ways stands for the institution of marriage; thus, when it is dishonored, Hera is likewise dishonored.

[6] Likewise, in book 15 Zeus, though it causes him distress, resolves not to intervene and spare the death of his own son, Sarpedon.  He also allows (wills?) his favorite human, Hektor, to die at Achilles’ hands. Is it possible that Hektor could have avoided his fate?

[7] Unfortunately, the solution that seems (at least on the surface) most reasonable-a dual between Menelaus and Paris-is interrupted by the gods (first Aphrodite intervenes, then Hera and Athene provoke a battle) such that a decisive outcome is rendered impossible. Interestingly, Zeus gives in to Hera’s complaints and even commands and incites Hera and Athene to “‘make it so that the Trojans are first offenders to do injury against the oaths to the far-famed Achaians'” (Iliad VI.71-72, 115).  Does this action speak against Zeus’ justice?  Perhaps one can make sense of Zeus’ decisions here as part of his overall plan in which the war simply cannot end at this point, because what he wants to achieve on a larger scale (which involves his promise to Thetis and his overseeing of Achilles’ destiny, as well as perhaps his desire to prevent the birth of future demigods who might detract from his glory) would be thwarted.   Yet, here again, we have to ask whether Zeus’ acting out of self-interest to prevent the future intermingling between gods and humans, which produce these glory and honor-seeking demigods (even if Zeus has been reformed from his philandering days) is consistent with justice?

[8] Iliad I.511-12, 72.  Zeus’ pause was perhaps also due to his anticipation of an unfavorable response by Hera.