When King Priam and Helen are on the Trojan ramparts, and Helen is describing the leaders of the Achaian forces to him, Priam is able to distinguish the kingly aspects of Agamemnon. He envies Agamemnon for his position as a "warrior-king," calling him a "blessed child of fortune and favor." As king of the Trojans, Priam is bothered by his not having a duality of roles. Agamemnon, it seems, has the best of both worlds; he is both a warrior and a king. Priam is only a king. He is no longer a warrior, and he must depend upon his son Hektor for prowess, as well as for continuing the kingship of Troy. In Priam's speech from the wall, before Hektor's duel with Achilles, the reader has a glimpse of Priam's torn feelings for Hektor, as well as his vision of Troy's destruction. Priam knows that Hektor is the only force that can save Troy, and if Achilles kills Hektor, then Priam cannot preserve his family or his city. As a king, he must use Hektor's "force," his warrior prowess to save Troy; as a father, though, Priam realizes that if his "force" is destroyed, he will lose a son.
As one critic points out, Hektor symbolizes Troy's security, and he must fight to remain the "symbol of Trojan stability." Priam knows this. He must act as king to save his city, but in doing so, he must sacrifice a son. Priam knows that Troy's destruction is imminent, and as a father, he does not want to sacrifice his son for a lost cause.
Watching Achilles abuse Hektor's body, Priam bemoans the loss of so many sons whom Achilles has cut down, but of all the sons whom he has lost, he mourns most for Hektor. Wishing that Hektor might have died in his arms is a wish for a stable society, one in which the family functions as a microcosm of society. At the same time, Priam realizes that by overprotecting his son Paris, he undermined the social fabric of Troy. His error led to Hektor's death, his only son with a sense of social order.
Hekuba, Priam's wife, fears for her husband's safety when he tells her that he is going to Achilles' camp; she does not believe that the gods will protect Priam, but he is adamant about going. He has seen the goddess Iris, and he trusts her message. He warns Hekuba not to be a "bird of bad omen in my palace." Furthermore, if it is to be his destiny to die beside the Achaian ships, then so be it. Before leaving, and at Hekuba's suggestion, Priam purifies himself; he asks for a sign, and Zeus sends a black eagle to give Priam assurance that his mission has divine approval.
Priam's journey to Achilles' camp takes on a surreal, dream-like quality as Priam and his herald leave. Darkness descends while they water the horses at a river, and the scene seems to suggest a journey to the underworld; in fact, Zeus sends Hermes to conduct Priam to Achilles' camp. The appearance of Hermes gives the impression that Priam is symbolically "crossing over" (symbolically, entering Hades) as he goes to meet Achilles, who also symbolically "crosses over" to meet Priam. As a result, both men discover new spiritual values by exploring the spiritual world. Priam specifically learns a kind of humility in going alone to plead for the body of his son. He also seems able to face the certainty of future ruin because he has succeeded on a personal level with Achilles.
Until Priam comes to him, Achilles has felt sympathy for no one, except Patroklos. Priam's visit gives both men an understanding of the common bonds of humanity.
Priam follows Iris' instructions of going to Achilles as a suppliant, where he plays the role of a father and not that of king of Troy. Were Priam to go to Achilles as king of Troy, the meeting would be purely for negotiating, and neither Achilles nor Priam would gain spiritually from the encounter. However, going as a suppliant, Priam falls into the category of a guest-friend, and as such, Achilles receives him as the father of Hektor. Kissing Achilles' hands, Priam lays aside his kingly role and pleads with Achilles to remember his own father, who is also old. Priam says that his sons are dead and the only son who could help him (that is, Hektor) now lies dead in Achilles' camp. Priam adds that he has kissed the hands of the man who killed his children. By kissing Achilles' hands instead of avenging Hektor's death, Priam breaks a taboo, and by this act, Priam humbles himself before Achilles.
Priam's act causes Achilles to see Priam as he sees his own father, and the awakening of sympathy within Achilles begins. While Priam mourns for Hektor, Achilles mourns for what his father will endure when he, Achilles, is dead. By their mourning together, Achilles' wrath becomes anguish, and Priam's anguish becomes forgiveness. Together, the two men form a special kinship through suffering.
Through their mutual suffering, Priam and Achilles leave the social sphere of the Homeric world behind and enter the divine sphere of human understanding. With new insight, Achilles begins his purification; he begins anew to understand his world and his relationship to the world and its social mores. As Priam's character is reviewed, one sees a figure for whom she can feel much sympathy. There is often the feeling that he does not deserve all that happens to him. Priam is apparently a good man who follows social norms and who worships the gods as he should. However, his son Paris presents a problem when he asks his father to condone the violation of a social norm by kidnapping a married Greek woman and thus violating the concept of "hospitality is obligatory." By forcing Priam to accept Helen into his own house, Paris causes Priam to accept the wrong Paris committed. Paris' action tests the social norm of the Trojans and ultimately brings total destruction to Priam's family, to the whole social structure of Troy, and to Troy itself. What Paris did was wrong. But no one can say that Priam himself is evil; it can be said, simply, that he was unwise to violate a social norm so fraught with contradictions that no answer other than total destruction was possible.