I caught a few minutes of a discussion on radio this morning about the video of four Marines urinating on the corpses of three Taliban fighters. Most of what I heard revolved around the notion that war is hell, that soldiers might do terrible things because they are encouraged to think of their enemy as radically Other, and that — of course — these are the terrible actions of a tiny, unrepresentative handful of American soldiers.
It’s also worth noting that, no matter how vile the behavior, it’s really nothing new. The above image is of Achilles dragging Hector’s corpse behind his chariot, one of the most famous scenes from the Trojan War. In the book that I’ve just finished on heroism, I look at Achilles’ repeated attempts to defile Hector’s body and make the argument that, even within the context of a brutal war in a far more brutal time period than our own, Achilles’ behavior was out of step.
He has avenged his friend Patroclus by killing Hector, but still Homer (XXIV.3-13) says that “Achilles / thought of his friend, and sleep that quiets all things / would not take hold of him. He tossed and turned / remembering with pain Patroklos’ courage…He lay / on his right side, then on his back, and then / face downward—but at last he rose, to wander / distractedly along the line of surf.” It is at this point that Achilles begins his daily desecration of Hector’s body, the savagery of which is even noted by the gods; Apollo, arguing that the corpse be taken from Achilles, says that he “shows no decency, implacable, / barbarous in his ways as a wild lion…The man has lost all mercy; / he has no shame” (Homer: XXIV.47-52).
Zeus determines that Achilles should accept ransom from Priam in exchange for Hector’s body, and he sends Thetis and Iris as messengers to inform both parties of his will. And so the great king of Troy departs for the Achaean camp “to do what no man else / has done before—to lift to my lips the hand / of one who killed my son” (Homer: XXIV.606-609).
When Priam arrives at Achilles’ tent at Zeus’ behest, a personal connection between the old king and the young warrior can finally made: “Remember your own father, / Achilles, in your godlike youth: his years / like mine are many, and he stands upon / the fearful doorstep of old age. He, too, / is hard pressed, it may be, by those around him, / there being no one able to defend him / from bane of war and ruin” (Homer: XXIV.82-87). Achilles, at this moment, takes pity on the king through a recognition of all that has been lost by both of their families. Achilles, after all, knows that Priam’s comparison is particularly apt; in the end, neither Priam nor Peleus will have a son to comfort him in his old age. As Seth Schein (160) points out, “the two old men are linked in their sorrows through Achilles.” The great warrior knows what Priam does not: Peleus will not see him alive again, precisely because of his decision to fight against and kill Priam’s son.
As Homer (XXIV.609-611) writes, “Now in Achilles / the evocation of his father stirred / new longing, and an ache of grief. He lifted / the old man’s hand and gently put him by.” Moved by the circumstances in which they find themselves, both men are overcome by emotion: “the old king huddled at Achilles’ feet / wept, and wept for Hektor, killer of men, / while great Achilles wept for his own father / as for Patroklos once again” (Homer: XXIV.613-616). Having shed these tears together with Priam, Achilles seems transformed; he is neither the daimon who killed so many Trojan warriors nor the beast that dragged Hector’s corpse around Patroclus’ tomb. But the change is an incomplete one as yet; although he is impressed that Priam has come to the Achaean camp and emotional about his father’s similar sorrow, the dangerous and savage killer rages just below Achilles’ exterior.
When Priam refuses to sit down with Achilles, saying that he cannot rest while Hector’s corpse lies in the dust, the warrior reminds the king that his pleas have only succeeded because Zeus has commanded it. And, even then, his position is a precarious one: “I have intended, in my own time, / to yield up Hektor to you. She who bore me, / the daughter of the Ancient of the sea, / has come with word to me from Zeus…Therefore, let me be. / Sting my sore heart again, and even here, / under my own roof, suppliant though you are, / I may not spare you, sir, but trample on / the express command of Zeus!” (Homer: XXIV.671-674, 680-683). It is unlikely that Achilles would actually defy Zeus –- especially as he immediately agreed to the god’s order when it came to him from Thetis (Homer: XXIV.165-167) –- but it is telling that Achilles continues to vacillate here between the daimon who challenges the gods and the mortal hero who understands his place in the community of other men.
At the same time, Achilles leaves his tent to make ready Hector’s body for Priam’s return journey; although he departs “like a lion” (Homer: XXIV.685), he takes great care in preparing the corpse. Homer (XXIV.697-699) says that Achilles “ordered the body bathed and rubbed with oil— / but lifted, too, and placed apart, where Priam / could not see his son.” He does so, notably, out of concern for Zeus’ order and also for Priam, “for seeing Hektor / he might in his great pain give way to rage, / and fury then might rise up in Achilles / to slay the old king, flouting Zeus’s word” (Homer: XXIV.699-702). Having done as Zeus commanded, Achilles apologizes to Patroclus’ spirit for agreeing to the return of Hector’s corpse.
He then returns to his tent and convinces the king to join him for a meal. It is at this point, his rage spent and his feelings of fellowship with Priam ascendant, that Achilles fully returns to the moral community. After Patroclus was killed, he insisted on abstaining from food and when he fought with Lycaon on the battlefield, he refused to acknowledge the cultural significance of breaking bread together.[i]
These two important incidents signaled the difference between Achilles and all other men; now, however, he returns to the traditional fellowship of the shared meal. Schein (161) argues that “The two break bread together in an expression of their shared humanity; this takes precedence of their previous enmity and acknowledges the necessities of a life that goes on even after such deep losses as they have suffered.” He is once again fully human, no longer more -– daimon –- or less -– bestial or symbolically dead -– than other mortals.
Having eaten together, Achilles and Priam are once again overwhelmed; this time, however, it is not their grief but their awe of one another that causes them to share a very intimate moment. Homer (XXIV.753-758) writes that “When thirst and appetite were turned away, / Priam, the heir of Dardanos, gazed long / in wonder at Achilles’ form and scale— / so like the gods in aspect. And Achilles / in his turn gazed in wonder upon Priam, / royal in visage as in speech.” While a bed is prepared for Priam, who says that he has not slept since his son’s death, Achilles asks how long the Trojans will require in order to conduct a proper funeral for Hector. The king asks for eleven days and Achilles agrees to suspend the fighting for that time, both men knowing that a resumption on the twelfth day will lead to their deaths.
With this, the Iliad comes to a close; Achilles goes to sleep and Priam, awoken by Hermes, returns to Troy to conduct Hector’s funeral. Schein (159) argues that, in Priam, “Achilles finally finds a ‘father’ whom he can accept, one with as great or greater a need than his own for consolation and elemental human solidarity.” Achilles, then, is brought back from the brink of infamy by Priam, a most unlikely savior. In making plain their intimate connection, Priam not only succeeds in claiming his son’s body but also restores Achilles to the human community from which he has been divorced by what he thought was his singular grief and the brutal warfare to which it led him.
The desecration of corpses has a long history but it has always been regarded as the most vile behavior, out of step with even the many brutal deeds committed on the battlefield (for which a warrior could earn acclaim). For most of the warriors who fought at Troy, the Other was not so radically different; they generally recognized the conventions of the day because they recognized the humanity in one another. And when Achilles — the greatest of the warrior of his time — acted reprehensibly, he needed to be corrected, reminded that his enemies were like him and deserved respect and pity.
The American people generally need to be reminded too, as do our politicians who send troops all over the world and clearly those soldiers themselves. Who will be our Priam?
[i] The fellowship found in the relationship between guest and host -– which involves ceremonial gift-giving and, often, a shared meal -– is a theme that is featured prominently in the Iliad and with good reason. While the cleartest example can be found in the battlefield conversation between Diomedes and Glaucus (Homer: VI.253-275, who choose not to fight because their ancestors exchanged gifts with one another and broke bread together, it is noteworthy that a particularly egregious example of broken fellowship –- Paris’ stealing of Helen from the house of Menelaus after the former receives the latter’s hospitality -– provides the context in which all of the poem’s action takes place.