The Iliad
Contributed by Joslyn Justiniano
Book 19-20

Summary: Book 19

The armor forged for him by Hephaestus is presented by Thetis to Achilles. She undertakes to take care of Patroclus’s body and prevent it from rotting while Achilles goes to fight. Achilles makes his way alongside the shore, calling to his men to have them assemble. Agamemnon and Achilles reconcile with one another at the meeting. Agamemnon bestows gifts on Achilles, the ones he promised he would give him if she should ever return to battle. He also gives back Briseis. Achilles declares that he intends to go to war immediately. Odysseus urges him to allow the army to eat before they go, but Achilles himself refuses to take any food until he has killed hector. As breakfast progresses, he sits and mourns Patroclus. Briseis even mourns, as Patroclus has treated her well when she was taken away from her homeland. Zeus is emotionally moved by the scene, and he sends Athena to put nectar and ambrosia directly in Achilles’ stomach. This is to stop him from getting hungry. Achilles puts on his armor. As he mounts his chariot, he chides his horses, Charger and Roan Beauty, for abandoning Patroclus on the battlefield. Roan Beauty says that it was a god and not him who allowed Patroclus to die. He says that Achilles will have the same fate. However, Achilles doesn’t need any reminders of what his fate will be, as he is already aware of it.

Summary: Book 20

While Achaeans and the Trojan forces prepare themselves for battle, Zeus requires his fellow gods to come to Mount Olympus. He is aware that if Achilles comes onto the battlefield unchecked, he will be able to destroy the Trojans and perhaps even make the city fall before it is fated to do so. In accordance, he takes back his earlier instructions against divine interference in the fighting. The gods come down to earth, but they quickly opt only to watch the fighting rather than get involved in it. They sit on hills looking down on the battlefield. They are curious to see how each team of mortals will do without their help. Before taking a passive role, though, Aeneas is urged to challenge Achilles by Apollo. The heroes come together on the battlefield and they insult one another. Achilles is getting ready to stab Aeneas. However, Poseidon suddenly feels sympathy for the Trojan, and he takes Aneas away. Hector approaches after that, but Apollo says that he must not have a duel in front of the soldiers. He must wait until Achilles approaches him. Hector obeys at first, but when he witnesses Achilles so easily killing the Trojans, including a brother of Hector, he challenges Achilles. Hector does poorly in the fight, and Apollo comes to his rescue for the second time.


While Achilles and Agamemnon have reconciled, the other things Achilles does in Books 19 and 20 show that he has not made much progress in his development as a character. He continues to show that he tends toward mindless rage, and this has caused the death of many Achaeans. He remains determined to have vengeance, so much so, that he at first intends that the men will go to fight without eating first. This could have proved disastrous. In a similar way, on the battlefield Achilles shows that he is obsessed with being victorious. This obsession causes him to neglect other equally important concerns. He kills the Trojan Tros despite the fact that Tros begs for his life. Achilles has clearly done very little soul-searching. While he does become reconciled with the Achaean forces, this isn’t enough to soothe his rage. In fact, it simply causes it to have a new focus. He lashes out in fury at the Trojans, showing his anger. His passion overwhelms him, and he  casts aside all thoughts of level-headed reflection. The poem says that he is like an “inhuman fire.” When he puts on his armor, he is compared to the sun (20.554). This kind of imagery is similar to how he is portrayed in Book 1, where he is called the “blazing Achilles” (1.342). The internal dilemma Achilles experiences continues to be very much the same as it was at the beginning of the poem. Achilles has always known that his fate will be either to have a glorious life that is short or a long and obscure life. He must now choose between these options. While he still feels a bit of confusion, the shock he feels when Patroclus dies has changed the balance making it seem a better choice to stay at Troy. It seems that Achilles needed a catalyst like a death such as this one to force him to make his decision.

This section of the work focuses not merely on the motivation of the characters’ actions as well as the consequences, but also forces that are at work beyond human control. Specifically, Agamemnon talks about the powers of Fate and Zeus, putting the blame on them for the stubbornness he showed when quarrelling with Achilles. He points out that many have said that he is responsible for all the destruction that his decision to insult Achilles has led to, but he says that the “savage madness” he exhibited earlier was forced into his heart (19.102). He additionally points out the force of “Ruin.” This is a translation of Ate, a Greek word that refers to madness and delusion. It also refers to the problems that these kinds of mental states can cause (19.106). however, Agamemnon as well as other characters throughout the work describe Ruin as an element external to human psychology rather than a something mortal. Ruin is said to be, in itself, a sentient being. In Book 9, for instance, Ruin is described by Peleus as a woman who is “strong and swift,” roaming over the earth and creating havoc (9.614). Agamemnon here talks of Ruin as Zeus’s daughter. She is described as having delicate feet that lightly walk on the earth, causing men to become entangled. She is even able to entangle Zeus. Fate is another force that is frequently invoked at this point and throughout the work. However, in spite of the many references to it, we are never able to achieve clarity in our sense of the properties of Fate. The poem’s first few lines suggest that Zeus’ will overpowers everything else, yet Zeus occasionally appears to be constrained by Fate. For instance, in Book 15, he agrees to stop helping the Trojans because he is aware that it is Troy’s fate to fall. There are other occasions, though, when Zeus and Fate seem to work together. This is seen in Book 20, when Zeus urges the gods to stop Achilles from destroying Troy before the sacking is fated to happen. However, it must be wondered how much Fate is truly fate, if Achilles is able to so readily cheat it. Additional questions are present in what Poseidon says about Fate. His justification for saving Aeneas from the hands of Achilles is made on the grounds that it is Aeneas’ fate to live. This way of thinking seems paradoxical. Aeneas ought not to require rescuing if he is truly fated to live. The hierarchy of cosmic powers that The Iliad gives is not entirely clear. We remain unsure whether Fate is controlled by the gods, or if the gods are made to follow Fate’s dictates. The obscurity of external forces like the gods, Fate, and Ruin is equal to that of the human psyche’s workings. Therefore, while Homer and the characters of the story may believe that specific events are attributable to a personified Fate or Fury, these beliefs are inadequate in explaining events. In fact, they achieve an effect that appears to be the opposite, showing that the universe and human actions are full of mystery. Invocation of the gods or Ruin seems to suggest not merely that some parts of our world are beyond human control but additionally that many other things are beyond our understanding, too.

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