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“I know you and what you are, and was sure that I should not move you, for your heart is hard as iron; look to it that I bring not heaven’s anger upon you on the day when Paris and Phoebus Apollo, valiant though you be, shall slay you at the Scaen gates.”
The Iliad, Book 22
If you were going into a pitched battle, you’d be a fool if you didn’t want Achilles on your side. The guy was a one-man wrecking crew, capable of mowing down large swaths of enemy soldiers with reckless abandon. For example, about halfway through The Iliad, Achilles was carving up Trojans at such an alarming rate that he literally clogged up a river with their bodies. What’s more, his theatrical nature on the battlefield was highly demoralizing for the enemy. After defeating Hector, Troy’s best warrior, Achilles took a couple of “victory laps” around Troy–with the lifeless Hector in tow. It was a grizzly demonstration of Achilles’ prowess on the battlefield and his wanton lust to not only defeat the enemy but to humiliate them. While the high and mighty within the Greek army may have chaffed at such acts of barbarity, the rank and file soldier, who understood that the Trojans were just as savage, reveled in his bloodlust.
The problem with having Achilles on your side is that when you take him in, you get all of him, not just the soldier. The son of the sea nymph Thetis and Peleus (King of Myrmidons), Achilles had the general air of a spoiled frat boy. Virtually indestructible (his mother dipped him in the River Styx, rendering nearly all of his body invulnerable to injury), he had a sense of entitlement that was difficult to ignore. He could be petulant, moody, and sullen. At the beginning of The Iliad, he famously refused to fight at all unless his ego was satiated by the fawning attention of both his commanders and fellow soldiers. Achilles’ spear isn’t of much use when the pouting warrior refuses to brandish it.
There’s a reason that, when problems were complex, the Greeks turned not to Achilles but to Odysseus. A farmer that never really wanted to go to war, Odysseus was everything that Achilles was not: measured, thoughtful, clever, eloquent, even-handed, and articulate. He could certainly hold his own in a battle, but where Odysseus really shined was when his leadership came to the forefront. In The Iliad, Odysseus is constantly settling disputes, outmaneuvering the Trojans, and keeping his own soldiers’ eyes on the prize. There’s a basic truth revealed by this dichotomy: if you want to win a battle, bring Achilles; if you want to win a war, bring Odysseus.
Achilles met his end via an arrow fired Hector’s brother Paris, a Trojan soldier that was an equal mix of vanity and cowardliness. It was an ironic but fitting end for Achilles, laid low at the hands of someone just as flawed as he. Odysseus went on to devise the tactics that ultimately destroyed Troy and then made a harrowing journey of his own in order to get back home again. Odysseus’ journey was one that Achilles could have never made. His rashness and arrogance would have made any coordinated effort at success nearly impossible. No, Odysseus’ dark path required the light of wisdom, which something to ponder upon as we venture into our own current sea of uncertainty.Published in