The death of Patroclus forms a turning point in Homer’s Iliad. Achilles had retreated from battle because he had been offended by Agamemnon. When Patroclus is slain by Hector, he goes bezerk and vows vengeance on Hector. Achilles receives new armour, crafted by the god Hephaestus, and goes on a bloody rampage that ends with the death of Troy’s champion.
Friends or lovers?
Already in Classical times, some regarded Achilles and Patroclus as lovers. Take, for example, the famous Attic red-figure plate of ca. 500 BC, which shows Achilles bandaging Patroclus; it is currently on display in the Staatliche museum in Berlin (here shown in black and white):
To an educated Classical Greek, the imagery leaves little to the imagination. These are men that also have a pederastic relationship. In this case, Patroclus is shown with a beard and is supposed to be the older of the two; Achilles is cleanshaven. Achilles is also shown subservenient to his older companion, bandaging an arrow wound on the upper left arm. Furthermore, their genitals are visible: Patroclus has spread his legs and Achilles’ genitals can be seen faintly through the bottom of his tunic. Patroclus’ appearance and pose make it clear that he would be the one to initiate sexual advances.
This image of Achilles and Patroclus as lovers has become thoroughly engrained. When Oliver Stone made his movie Alexander, the characters of Alexander the Great and Hephaestion are frequently compared to Achilles and Patroclus. Modern readers working their way through the Iliad are likely to regard Achilles as enraged because of the death of his lover.
But there is no suggestion in the Homeric poems that Achilles and Patroclus were anything but fellow warriors, close companions that happened to have also grown up in the court of King Peleus as brothers. (Patroclus had been sent to Achilles’ father after accidentally having killed another boy.) All love affairs in the Homeric world are strictly between men and women, with the one odd reference to Zeus kidnapping the beautiful boy Ganymede. Achilles’ great love in the Iliad, we are led to believe, was the girl Briseis, whom he had conquered by the sword.
Jonathan Shay, in his Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (1994), uses his experience as a psychiatrist treating combat veterans and presents an interpretation of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus that is more in keeping with the Iliad.
The grief shown by Achilles is, in fact, similar to the grief experienced by modern soldiers when they lose one of their comrades-in-arms. Upon hearing the news of Patroclus, he sinks into a heavy depression, forgoing food and even contemplating suicide. As with modern veterans treated by Shay, Achilles’ grief at losing a close companion in a combat situation quickly turns into uncontrollable rage: it is not without reason that the first word one reads in the Iliad is menis, “rage”.
Shay explains further (p. 53):
What I want to emphasize here is the rapid transformation of grief into rage. For many of the veterans in our treatment program for combat post-traumatic stress disorder, replacement of grief by rage has lasted for years and become an entrenched way of being. Much therapeutic effort aims at reawakening the experience of grief, which we regard as a process of healing, painful as it is.
Uncontrollable rage turns into slaughter in an attempt to get even for the death of his close companion. Even the other Myrmidons join in, killing Trojans to ease the pain in their heart. Achilles’ rampage causes the death of countless Trojans and their allies, such as Asteropaeus. The river Scamander even runs red with blood and gets choked with bodies.
Achilles eventually catches up with Hector and kills him in a brief duel. But Hector’s death is not sufficient to satiate Achilles’ grief, and thereby his rage. He is, as Shay also states, bezerk (pp. 77–81). Achilles loses all control; simply killing Hector is not enough: he must mutilate the corpse. He does so by tying Hector’s corpse behind his chariot and dragging it around Troy for twelve more days. As Shay states, referring to a veteran, Achilles simply “lost it” (p. 82).
Only toward the end of the Iliad do we see Achilles’ grief slowly displacing his rage. Priam has managed to sneak into the Greek camp and approaches the hero in his tent. Achilles does not recognize him. Priam sinks to his knees and kisses Achilles hands, then refers to Achilles’ aged father, Peleus, and asks the Myrmidon warlord to take pity on him (Il. 24.505–506):
I have gone through what no other mortal on earth has gone through; I put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my children.
Achilles finally breaks down and cries, both for his own aged father, left behind in Phthia, and for Patroclus, his close companion. This is the moment in the Iliad where Achilles slowly comes to terms with his grief. Talking and crying with Priam, he decides to return the body of Hector, and receives a wealth of treasure in compensation.
At last, Patroclus can be put to rest.