Study Guide

The Iliad Friendship

By Homer


Book 1

These two terrified and in awe of the king stood waiting
quietly, and did not speak a word at all nor question him.
But he knew the whole matter in his own heart, and spoke first:
"Welcome, heralds, messengers of Zeus and of mortals.
Draw near. You are not to blame in my sight, but Agamemnon
who sent the two of you here for the sake of the girl Briseis." (1.331-336)

With these words, Achilleus sets at ease the two heralds who have come to take his girlfriend away from him. How do these signs of friendship and politeness fit in with everything else we know about Achilleus?

Book 6

He spoke, and Diomedes of the great war cry was gladdened.
He drove his spear deep into the prospering earth, and in winning
words of friendliness he spoke to the shepherd of the people:
"See now, you are my guest friend from far in the time of our fathers. […]
Let us avoid each other's spears, even in the close fighting.
There are plenty of Trojans and famed companions in battle for me
to kill, whom the god sends me, or those I run down with my swift feet,
many Achaians for you to slaughter, if you can do it.
But let us exchange our armour, so that these others may know
how we claim to be guests and friends from the days of our fathers." (6.212-215, 226-231)

For a full discussion of the Ancient Greek cultural institution of "guest friendship" or xenia (that's the term in Greek), turn to the relevant passage in our summary of Book 6. For the moment, though, isn't it amazing how this ritualized friendship, started generations ago, can make these two warriors put down their spears instead of killing each other?

Book 7

Come then, let us give each other glorious presents,
so that any of the Achaians or Trojans may say of us:
"These two fought each other in heart-consuming hate, then
joined with each other in close friendship, before they were parted."' (7.299-302)

These words spoken by Hektor to Aias are another example of the fine line between friends and enemies. Can you think of any other examples – either elsewhere in the Iliad or in your own life – of opponents gaining grudging respect for each other?

Book 9

"Welcome. You are my friends who have come, and greatly I need you,
who even to this my anger are dearest of all the Achaians.'
So brilliant Achilleus spoke, and guided them forward,
and caused them to sit down on couches with purple coverlets […]." (9.197-200)

In this scene, Achilleus welcomes Odysseus, Aias, and Phoinix, who have come to his tent to present Agamemnon's offer of a consolation gift. It seems similar to his lines in Book 1 above, where he shows that, even though he's mad at Agamemnon, he doesn't hold a grudge against those who have to carry out his orders.

The thing is, the Greek text here is actually a bit unclear. The end of line 197 really just says "there is great need," which could be interpreted as either "I need you" or "you need me." How would your interpretation of Achilleus's actions change if Lattimore (the translator we have been using) had translated it the other way?

Book 18

"Hephaistos, come this way; here is Thetis, who has need of you."
Hearing her the renowned smith of the strong arms answered her:
"Then there is a goddess we honour and respect in our house.
She saved me when I suffered much at the time of my great fall
through the will of my own brazen-faced mother, who wanted
to hide me, for being lame. […]
Now she has come into our house; so I must by all means
do everything to give recompense to lovely-haired Thetis
for my life. Therefore set out before her fair entertainment
while I am putting away my bellows and all my instruments." (18.392-397, 406-409)

Friends help out friends. Can you think of any other parts of the Iliad where this code is either followed or abandoned?

Book 19

[…] afterwards when the sun sets
make ready a great dinner, when we have paid off our defilement.
But before this, for me at least, neither drink nor food shall
go down my very throat, since my companion has perished
and lies inside my shelter torn about with the cutting
bronze, and turned against the forecourt while my companions
mourn about him. (19.208-213)

In most cultures, eating is a social occasion to join together with friends. Why do you think Achilleus would refuse food at this point of the story?

There was a time, ill fated, o dearest of all my companions,
when you yourself would set the desirable dinner before me
quickly and expertly, at the time the Achaians were urgent
to carry sorrowful war on the Trojans, breakers of horses.
But now you lie here torn before me, and my heart goes starved
for meat and drink, though they are here beside me, by reason
of longing for you. There is nothing worse than this I could suffer,
not even if I were to hear of the death of my father […]
or the death of my dear son, who is raised for my sake in Skyros
now, if godlike Neoptolemos is still one of the living. (19.315-322, 326-327)

In these lines, with his typical extreme emotion, Achilleus expresses the depth of his grief at losing Patroklos.

Patroklos, far most pleasing to my heart in its sorrows,
I left you here alive when I went away from the shelter,
but now I come back, lord of the people, to find you have fallen.
So evil in my life takes over from evil forever.
The husband on whom my father and honoured mother bestowed me
I saw before my city lying torn with the sharp bronze,
and my three brothers, whom a single mother bore with me
and who were close to me, all went on one day to destruction.
And yet you would not let me, when swift Achilleus had cut down
my husband, and sacked the city of godlike Mynes, you would not
let me sorrow, but said you would make me godlike Achilleus'
wedded lawful wife, that you would take me back in the ships
to Phthia, and formalize my marriage among the Myrmidons.
Therefore I weep your death without ceasing. You were kind always. (19.287-300)

This is the only time that Briseis speaks in the entire Iliad, revealing her touching relationship with Patroklos, based only upon kindness and respect. Often, one can learn a great deal about a person from looking at their friends (and romantic partners). What light, if any, does Briseis's speech about herself and Patroklos shed on Achilleus? Conversely, what insight, if any, does what we know about Achilleus provide into Briseis and Patroklos, two crucially important characters about whom we know so little?

Book 24

Hektor, of all my lord's brothers dearest by far to my spirit:
my husband is Alexandros, like an immortal, who brought me
here to Troy; and I should have died before I came with him;
and here now is the twentieth year upon me since I came
from the place where I was, forsaking the land of my fathers. In this time
I have never heard a harsh saying from you, nor an insult.
No, but when another, one of my lord's brothers or sisters, a fair-robed
wife of some brother, would say a harsh word to me in the palace,
or my lord's mother—but his father was gentle always, a father
indeed--then you would speak and put them off and restrain them
by your own gentleness of heart and your gentle words. Therefore
I mourn for you in sorrow of heart and mourn myself also
and my ill luck. There was no other in all the wide Troad
who was kind to me, and my friend; all others shrank when they saw me. (24.762-775)

This speech of Helen over the body of Hektor is similar to that of Briseis over the body of Patroklos (see above). Both speeches reveal how important it could be for a captive woman to have a friend in her new household – someone who didn't treat her as a possession, and who would stick up for her when the going got tough.

And the games broke up, and the people scattered to go away, each man
to his fast-running ship, and the rest of them took thought of their dinner
and of sweet sleep and its enjoyment; only Achilleus
wept still as he remembered his beloved companion, nor did sleep
who subdues all come over him, but he tossed from one side to the other
in longing for Patroklos, for his manhood and his great strength
and all the actions he had seen to the end with him, and the hardships
he had suffered; the wars of men; hard crossing of the big waters. (24.1-8)

Okay, so as you've probably noticed, it's hard to judge sometimes whether Achilleus's feelings for Patroklos fall into the category of "friendship" or something more. Either way, it's clear that spending time with Patroklos was an important part of Achilleus's day-to-day existence; with the loss of his companion, he is at loose ends and cannot move on to other activities – beyond abusing the body of Hektor.

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