The greatest warrior in the Achaian army. The Iliad is about the Trojan War, but it is primarily about the war as it is affected by Achilles' wrath, or anger. Achilles is the main character, and his inaction, or withdrawal from the fighting, is crucial to the plot. He is a complex warrior who sometimes ignores the cultural norms of his society because he sees through some of its fallacies — in particular, he sees many of the faults in the often narrow and contradictory heroic code. Achilles is also the greatest warrior and fighter among the Achaians. He is invulnerable (except on the heel) because his mother dipped him in the River Styx as a baby. Furthermore, no warrior comes close to being his equal as a fighter.
Achilles has a strong sense of social order that in the beginning, manifests itself in his concern for the disorder in the Achaian camp; a deadly plague is destroying the soldiers, and Achilles wants to know the reason why. His king, Agamemnon, will not act, so Achilles decides to act: He calls for an assembly of the entire army. In doing this, Achilles upsets the order of protocol; only Agamemnon can decide to call an assembly, but Achilles does so to try to return order to the Achaian camp. He succeeds, partially. He finds out why the plague is killing hundreds of Achaian soldiers, but in the process, he creates disorder when it is revealed that Agamemnon is responsible for the deadly plague. Thus, Achilles' attempt to return order to the Achaian camp does little, ultimately, to establish order. Apollo lifts the plague, but after Achilles withdraws himself and his troops from the Achaian army, disorder still remains among the Achaians.
Agamemnon, of course, is as guilty of creating the ensuing disorder as Achilles is, but Achilles seems petulant and argumentative. He is undermining the little harmony that does exist. In his argument that Agamemnon receives all the best war prizes and does nothing to earn them, Achilles forgets the valuable prizes that he has received. His rage even causes him to almost attempt to kill Agamemnon, but the goddess Athena saves him from this deed.
It should be noted that Achilles does not leave the Achaian army without sufficient reason: Agamemnon demanded to have the maiden Briseis, Achilles' war prize, and Achilles saw this act as a parallel to Paris' kidnapping of Helen — he sees himself in the same position as Menelaos. Consequently, the quarrel between himself and Agamemnon is as righteous to him as is the war against the Trojans. But even after Agamemnon offers to return Briseis, along with numerous other gifts, Achilles remains angry, indicating that one of Achilles' major character flaws is his excessive pride. The gifts that Agamemnon offers do not compensate for the public affront, the public insult Achilles believes he has suffered. A concern for gifts, the reader realizes, is far less important to Achilles than his concern for a proper, honored place in the world. After all, Agamemnon had previously given gifts and then taken them back. He could do so again, so the promise of more gifts is possibly an empty promise.
This idea of social status is in keeping with the heroic code by which Achilles has lived, but in his isolation, he comes to question the idea of fighting for glory alone because "A man dies still if he has done nothing." The idea developing in Achilles' mind is that the concept of home (or family) and the individual are both important to society and to a heroic warrior. (Hektor is the embodiment of this view.) Some critics see these ideas slowly developing through Achilles' ability to relate to others on a personal basis, as he does with Patroklos, and as he does in his guest-host relationship with the ambassadors from Agamemnon.
However, it is only after Patroklos' death that these relationships and broader concepts of love begin to become significant for Achilles. Ironically, with the death of Patroklos, Achilles begins to see life and relationships with other people from a mortal point of view, and at the same time, he is drawing ever closer to the divine aspects of love. He has an obligation to avenge Patroklos' death, and he realizes his own shortcomings as Patroklos' protector. He also sees that his sitting by his ships is "a useless weight on the good land," something that is causing the deaths of many Achaian warriors. Unfortunately, however, Achilles is unable to see that the Achaians feel his withdrawal as keenly as he now feels the loss of Patroklos.
It is Achilles' anger, whether he is sulking or whether he is violent, that is paramount throughout most of the epic. In fact, his battle with the river is probably one of the most savage scenes in the Iliad. It shows us Achilles' insane wrath at its height. On first reading, the scene may seem confusing, but it is important to the reader's view of Achilles and to the mutilation theme. Mutilation of bodies and Achilles' excesses prompt the river god to charge him with excessive evil. He charges Achilles with not merely killing, but "outraging the corpse."
Homer so vividly personifies the river god that he describes the battle between them as being a battle between two beings, even though, at the same time, it is a vivid description of a man caught in a flood, literally fighting for his life. If the reader can visualize this scene, seeing a thick debris of trees, powerful rocks, and strong waves lashing against Achilles, the scene becomes more powerful and meaningful.
Achilles has over-reached himself, and as he attempts to punish all the Trojans for Patroklos' death and to deny them burial rites for Hektor, so the river god now attempts to drown Achilles, bury him in the mud, and deny him glory and proper burial rites. It is also significant that the river god is the only god to confront Achilles with excessive cruelty and lack of pity. Later, however, the other gods come to view Achilles as the river god does.
Achilles' violence closes with the death of Hektor and with Achilles' mutilation of Hektor's corpse. By now, under Zeus' firm hand, the gods have moved from their own state of disorder to order. When the gods see Achilles act without any sense of pity for Hektor or his family, they come back into Zeus' all-wise fold of authority. And eventually, through his mother, Thetis, even Achilles is finally persuaded to accede to Zeus' will. In the end, Achilles is exhausted. His passions are spent, and he consents to give up Hektor's corpse.