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Achilles, Aeneas, and Odysseus are the heroes of their respective books. Odysseus played a cameo role in the Illiad and later was the main character of his own epic. They all are the quintessential Heroes of their respective peoples. All that is true, good, and heroic for the Greeks and Romans are idealized in them. A look at their traits quickly reveals the values that make one heroic in the eyes of their people. Odysseus was the wise king of Ithaca who lent much-needed intelligence to the otherwise testosterone-driven campaign of Agamemnon. Swift footed Achilles was lord of the Myrmidons whose deeds of valor are the focus of the Illiad. Finally, pious Aeneas drew forth from the ashes of Troy the folk who would one day rise to become the Romans.
“The Goddess Sings of the Wrath of Achilles, Son of Peleus” Begins the Illiad. Chronicled within are the deeds of Achilles, how the Greeks were raised up when he joined them and how misfortune befell when they had not his aid. When Achilles is deprived of maid of honor he abandons the Greeks and they are hapless before Hector and the Trojans. Only when his friend Patroclus is slain is his wrath stirred past his wounded honor and he again fights for the Greeks.
That Aeneas was valiant and skilled in warlike Achilles there can be no doubt. Beyond deeds of bravery, the overarching theme of the Aeneid is Pietas, Piety, which in this case is piety to one’s destiny. Upon entering the underworld, Aeneas is introduced to his mighty progeny, the future leaders of Rome. Had he remained in the arms of Dido he would deny them the chance to live and doom the greatness that would be Rome.
As mentioned earlier Odysseus brought much-needed intelligence to Agamemnon’s mad crusade. The 2006 movie Troy does little justice to the futility and hubris of the Trojan war. According to Homer, the war was actually a long-winded siege lasting over 10 years. Like Achilles, he was specifically sought by Agamemnon because of the skills he could bring the host. The Illiad notes that Odysseus was unwilling to join the army and pretended to be a madman sowing his fields with salt instead of wheat. However, he was outsmarted and soon his Ithacans were numbered in the host of Greeks.
Achilles is the mightiest of all the Greek warriors. Even Hector did not withstand his onslaught. All Trojans fled before his face. His valor and warcraft surpass that of all Greeks, only Ajax is near his peer. In fact, in the Illiad whenever Achilles fought with the Greeks the Trojans were driven before them. When he left the field the tide of battle turned against his fellow Greeks. Much ado in the Illiad tells of the dishonor he suffered from Agamemnon, his decision to quit the field because of it, and the futile efforts of the Greeks to appease him and draw him back to war. He fears not his doom, as shown by his willingness to do battle with Hector despite the counsel of his mother than Hector and He will die soon after the other. Moreover, Achilles is a true friend, upon learning of Patroclus’s demise he sets off to challenge Hector to avenge his death.
In the Illiad, Aeneas does not really stand out among the valiant of Troy. In fact, at one point the son of Venus / Aphrodite is thrown to the ground by Ajax and nearly slain. It is Virgil who elevates Aeneas to the level of a demi-god. In the Aenid’s final chapter he is superhuman in his skill in war and even the mighty King Turnus is turned into a meek lamb before him. Note that this final confrontation is similar to the battle between Achilles and Hector where Hector is humbled by the power of Achilles.
Odysseus’ valor is never questioned in the Illiad. However, his true virtue is his intelligence. After the death of Achilles, the Greeks were all too willing to quit the field. It was his idea to build the horse that would later become the Trojan’s downfall. In his own Odyssey, his wit and intelligence deliver him time and again from perils which no other Greek King had to endure. For example, in the meeting with the Cyclops, he was the one who thought of giving the wine to the beast rending it drunk. It was also Odysseus who thought of riding the Cyclops’ sheep in their bellies so as to escape the blinded monster.
Achilles is not beyond his flaws. He is hidebound to his own code of honor. When his pride is wounded by the taking of his maid of honor, he refuses to sortie with his countrymen, holding himself dishonored. Even as the Trojans come upon the Ships of the Greeks he does absolutely nothing. It is said in the Illiad that the Trojans might well have burned those ships at the port had the gods not intervened. His pride is such that even when Odysseus comes to seek pardon for the misdeed of Agamemnon he remains unmoved. He is also over passionate in his wrath, after defeating Hector he scoffs the corpse by dragging with his chariot much to the dismay of the Trojans.
Likewise, Odysseus was not a perfect warrior. Like all the Greeks he was tinged with bloodlust after the sack of Troy. He too was held guilty by Athena for the rape of her temple in Troy and hence cursed to wander for a decade seeking his precious Ithaca in vain. Immediately after he set off he and his men go off to plunder a nearby island sacking and plundering like pirates. They say that this was because they had become so used to war that they lusted after it. Flawed also was the discipline of his warriors. For example, Circe managed to drug his men into pigs because he could not control their waywardness. Apollo’s wrath visited them because he allowed his men to roast Apollo’s sacred caves. Compared to Achilles his flaws are more on the level of being unable to act in time or lack of foresight. Ironic considering that he was the wisest of the Greek kings. However, like Achilles, he is wrathful and terrible when by the power of Athena Penelope’s suitors were delivered to him he slew them all mercilessly hewing down even their priest to cleanse Ithaca of their dishonor.
Aeneas’ flaw comes from his tendency to be lost. Once only does Aeneas become wayward, when bribed by the charms of Dido he almost forsook his quest to found his brave new kingdom. His loins overcame his piety for a while, preferring the ease and comfort of Carthage over the rigors of the sea and the uncertainty of his path. In this regard, he is like Achilles letting his ‘other head’ do the thinking. Fortunately thanks to Mercury he is set straight back on his course if he had remained in Carthage, and Virgil is to be believed, then there would be no Rome.
His blissful stay in Carthage would be the lowest point in the Aeneid. Forsaking the perils of the road he took up with Dido and lived like a King. Yet in doing so he came furthest from achieving his goal of finding a new home for the Trojan exiles. The time he spent was wasted time, an intermission away from his pious quest.
Araya, greatness, summarizes Achilles. For the Greeks, the ideal is to be the best in whatever one is called to do. Odysseus may have more wit, Agamemnon the greater power over Greeks, But none equal Achilles’ prowess on the battlefield. They value honor and principle sometimes to the point of foolhardiness. Heedless of Doom or Mortality, the wrath Achilles is indeed worthy of song and praise. In this regard, Achilles was sacred to all warrior Greeks, which encompassed pretty much all the citizens. Spartans no doubt respected his myth dearly. Alexander the Great of Macedon set off on his world-conquering crusade precisely because he wanted his legend to rival that of his idol Achilles.
Odysseus represented what was missing in many Greek heroes; Wisdom. Just as Achilles would be prefixed “Swift-footed” of Aeneas called “Pious” he was always “Wise” Odysseus. His journey was terrible and in the end, all his men were slain and he alone returned to Ithaca. But if he lacked the glory that Achilles basked in, at least he lived to have a happily ever after with his wife Penelope.
Aeneas too would have a happy ending, marriage to a Latin princess, a new kingdom, and a goodly war to end all wars, for a while, in Latinum. More importantly, Aeneas foreshadows the daring of the would-be Romans. Despite the wrathful devices of Juno he eventually comes upon Latinium to establish his new realm. Even as Juno loses war upon his weary people, Aeneas stands tall eager to do deeds of valor in defense of his people. The Aeneid speaks often of Pious Aeneas. Pious to his father, bearing him on his back at the sack of Troy. Pious to his people in not forsaking their quest for the bliss of Carthage. But most of all Pious to his Destiny in founding Rome. The perfect exemplar for the Roman people who in the days of Virgil would seize the day and forge an Empire whose legacy endures to this day.
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Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Vintage Books, 1962.
Parry, Adam. “The Two Voices of Virgil’s Aeneid” Virgil: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Steele Commager. Englewood Cliffs, Prentice-Hall, 1966. 107-123.
The Iliad by Homer Project Gutenberg Version. Web.