The Sacrifice of Patroclus: Glory Above Love

By Jeremiah St Thomas

In The Iliad, a poem detailing the rage of Achilles, two fates are offered to the hero: a long life or a glorious life. By refusing to fight for Agamemnon in defense of his own pride, Achilles paints himself into a corner, forcing him to find a means of obtaining glory without sacrificing his pride. Only the death of his dearest friend could allow for a change in heart that would justify the path to his violent young death and eternal glory within the walls of Troy. Achilles sends Patroclus to his death because he values glory and his pride more than Patroclus’ life. This mistake costs Patroclus his life, while necessary for Achilles to discover his own vulnerability and humanity.

The trap Achilles sets for himself is sprung when his pride sets his heart against Agamemnon. Upset at having to surrender his prize female to appease the god Apollo, and at Achilles’ insolence, Agamemnon takes ownership of Briseis from Achilles, which sparks Achilles’ rage towards Agamemnon. Achilles refuses to take up arms against the Trojans and threatens to return home with his troops. But Achilles’ goddess mother, Thetis, visits him and he asks her to go to Zeus and request his assistance in allowing the Trojans to inflict enough damage on the Achaeans to show them how much they need his services. At this point, Achilles had threatened to leave, and could have, but forgoes leaving to punish his detractors and force them to come begging for his service of violence. He must know of the two possible fates that await him based on this crucial choice. 

“If I voyage back to the fatherland I love, my pride, my glory dies…true. But the life that’s left me will be long.” (9.502–4)

Achilles’ plan works in that Agamemnon offers a large treasure to Achilles as a peace offering between the two, and as a means to request that he joins the battle, but without apology for the slight itself. After initially refusing the bounty, he was convinced to stay and fight if the Trojans reach his own ships only as the well-respected Phoenix convinced him to do so, or possibly as he knows what awaits his legacy if he returns home. The choice of the two fates maintains its hold on Achilles, and the conflict between fate and his rage at Agamemnon’s insult continue. Even as he is confronted with an opportunity for glory if he forgives the king and accepts the large bounty, he holds steady.

The battles against the Trojans raged on and moved closer to the ships which Achilles and his Myrmidons commanded. Upon returning from a reconnaissance mission to understand the situation, Patroclus informs Achilles of the horrible losses taken by the Achaeans. Although Achilles expresses regret at their fate, he holds on to his pride by reminding Patroclus of the oath he took to stay steady by the ships and not strike until the Trojans reached them. Instead, sensing Patroclus’ eagerness to assist the Achaeans, and possibly feeling a sense of guilt at the losses he could have prevented, he sends Patroclus into battle to stay the Trojan assault. Achilles arms Patroclus with his armor, but not his spear, and commands him to fight only to push back the Trojan assault, and to hold his rage during battle and resist any urge to push beyond and take the city itself. The glory of sacking the city must not be for anyone but Achilles. After killing many Trojan warriors, and inspiring the battle worn Achaeans, Patroclus is defeated by a combination of Apollo, a Dardan spear, and Hector, who taunts him as he finishes him off with a blade to the gut. 

“Poor, doomed…not for all his power could Achilles save you nowand how he must have filled your ears with orders as you went marching out and the hero stayed behind.” (16.977–979)

In reading the account of the incredible funeral Achilles demands in recognition of Patroclus, I was reminded of my son. As a means of deflecting guilt, he often feigns injury to gain sympathy. As soon as he sees my displeasure with his behavior, he often works to draw my attention to his injured knee, finger, or whatever body part that may have been bumped in the commission of his crime. For Achilles, the injury is to his heart. The guilt he must feel for sending his best friend into battle while he awaits a chance at glory, realizing the error of his ways, weighs heavy on his chest. If not for Achilles’ rage at Agamemnon, and his pride which held tight to it, he could have had glory and possibly obtained it with his friend by his side. His sadness and guilt is on full display during the extravagant funeral processions for Patroclus which include human and animal sacrifices, the parading of Hector’s body, Achilles’ refusal to wash blood stains from his own body until the cutting of his own hair and several traditional games. During one sleeping spell, Patroclus visits Achilles in a dream and asks to be laid to rest, as he cannot pass to the gates of Hades until he is burned on the pyre. Achilles’ display is for Achilles, and does not benefit the soul of Patroclus. It is this realization, and the humility of loss, that changes Achilles from simply a beast of violence to a human in the essence of the gods they are meant to reflect.

This newly connected version of Achilles is on full display as he interacts with Priam, the Trojan king. Hector, Priam’s son, is thoroughly washed and prepared for Priam as directed by Achilles, so to be buried and given the rights due a warrior and fellow human. Achilles shows a connection to humanity, which is likely a consequence of his self-reflection upon his flawed decisions that resulted in the death of his best friend. Achilles offers Priam his first meal as recognition to the end of mourning that they both must concede and return to the world of the living.

“Now, at last, let us turn our thoughts to supper.
Even Niobe with her lustrous hair remembered food, though she saw a dozen children killed in her own halls. Nine days they lay in their blood. 
. .
then on the tenth . . . Niobe, gaunt. Worn to the bone with weeping, turned her thoughts to food.” (24.707–22)

Did Patroclus have to die in order for Achilles to obtain glory? Not according to the fate of the two paths he acknowledged. But Patroclus did need to die in order for Achilles to obtain glory as a human connected to the suffering that is endemic of us all, and not simply as a beast of violence. He will eventually pass to the gates of Hades, joining his friend after sacking the city he was promised, but as a member of our society of suffering, and not an outsider.



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