BMCR 2003.06.45

Achilles in Greek Tragedy

, Achilles in Greek tragedy. Cambridge classical studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. xiii, 218 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm.. ISBN 0521818435 $55.00.

Character/personality and the role of myth in ancient literature have been a source of productive work in the last decade. Michelakis’ (hereafter M.) book, which is a revised version of his 1998 University of Cambridge Ph.D. thesis, tackles both in an imaginative and successful manner. His topic, as the book’s title indicates in a refreshingly clear and concise manner, is Achilles in Greek tragedy. M. examines how tragic poets appropriated Achilles to address contemporary concerns of their society. He is not concerned simply with tragedies in which Achilles appeared as a character, but also examines plays where Achilles’ character has an important bearing on themes and/or plot. His work is arranged around a series of three themes which he calls “the problematic hero”, “the dead hero” and “the hero to be”. While M. takes a fairly comprehensive look at the entire corpus of Greek tragedy, the three themes are examined in particular tragedies. The bulk of the work consists of chapters on a fragmentary tragedy of Aeschylus, Myrmidons, and two extant tragedies of Euripides, Hecuba and Iphigenia at Aulis. Another chapter examines a number of other extant and fragmentary plays under the themes of “the dead hero” and “the hero to be”. Under the former, M. examines five extant plays: Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes; Euripides’ Andromache and Electra; and the Rhesus. He examines three fragmentary plays under “the hero to be” theme: Sophocles’ Lovers of Achilles and Those who Dine Together; Euripides’ Telephus.

Achilles in the fifth century

At the outset, M. states that he will not concentrate on the reception of the Achilles from Homer’s Iliad, but on a variety of episodes from Achilles’ mythological biography. In the first chapter, M. discusses some general aspects of Achilles in the fifth century. M. notes that Achilles was a figure in cult worship and that he was a figure of pan-Hellenic significance in literature. His cults were associated with places on the periphery of the Greek world rather than the central city states. Although Achilles never became identified with Athens, he was used as a tool for propaganda. The thrust of M.’s remarks about Achilles and Athens concern the intellectual use of his character, particularly the character of Homer’s Iliad, by the philosophers. In a way, this sounds the programme note of the book — Achilles was a paradigmatic figure for poets and intellectuals. The introduction concludes with a consideration of Achilles in Greek tragedy that outlines the three main thematic approaches in the book. M. believes that only the Achilles of Aeschylus’ Achilleis trilogy made “a great impact in classical Athens” (p. 15). Certainly, this trilogy appears to be the only one which covered similar ground as the Iliad and, as such, it is the only tragic production which allows an appreciation of the powerful and problematic hero in action. M. argues that the absence of Achilles, or rather the pressure of the dead hero, is an important theme in several tragedies that had particular resonance in the last quarter of the fifth century when the Peloponnesian War was bringing social upheaval to the city. Another category of Achilles’ play which M. identifies is the potential presence of the future hero. This embraces plays based on Achilles’ adolescence or set in the build-up to the Trojan War.

Aeschylus’ Myrmidons

In the second chapter, M. examines the fragmentary tragedy Myrmidons, which was the first play in Aeschylus’ Achilleis trilogy. The main interpretative approach taken by M. is that Aeschylus portrayed “the protagonist of Iliad as an early fifth century Athenian aristocrat” (p.22). M. highlights the clash between Achilles and the collective body of the Greek army, which he sees as a deliberate move away from the clash between the individual figures of Achilles and Agamemnon in the Iliad. He rightly stresses the importance of the social and political practices of the original spectators of the play. He believes that the threat of stoning in the play, which is the appropriate collective punishment for treason, ought to be compared to the Athenian practice of ostracism. M. then suggests that the concept of tyranny in the play is associated with the collective body of the Greeks rather than an individual, i.e. Agamemnon. While this is a possible interpretation from the surviving fragments, I find it difficult to accept that Aeschylus would not have concentrated on the treachery of Agamemnon. (Indeed, fr. 132.7-8 suggests that this to be the case.) Nonetheless, M. makes some excellent observations about contrasts and comparisons between the fragments and the praise poetry of contemporary lyric poets such as Pindar and Bacchylides, which give a good idea of the way Aeschylus had Achilles defend himself against the accusations. In the next section, using evidence from contemporary Athenian vase painting and Aristophanes’ Frogs, M. argues that the dramatic arrangement and meaning of the initial immobility and silence of Achilles can be reconstructed. Achilles’ silence and immobility are important aspects of the portrayal of both power and conflict on stage. M. also illustrates how Achilles might have broken his silence with an outburst in a manner not unlike Aristophanes’ depiction of Aeschylus in Frogs. In the penultimate section of the chapter, M. considers the homosexual relationship of Achilles-Patroclus in Myrmidons in the cultural context of fifth century BC Greece and the reception of Aeschylus’ portrayal in some fourth century philosophers and orators. In the former category, M. provides an excellent overview of the tragic nature of the relationship in the drama. He argues that the relationship in Myrmidons provides a different picture of homosexuality than it acquires in military societies or the literature of the symposium “where homosexuality and social obligations feature as mutually supportive practices” (p.42). While it is possible, as M. believes, that the play questions this, Aeschylus’ resolution of Achilles’ separation from the collective Greek cause is not unlike Homer’s — Achilles’ personal tragedy is due to his failure in respect of his social obligations to Patroclus — except that he gave it a contemporary Athenian explanation. The chapter concludes with the briefest of looks at the other two tragedies in the Achilleis trilogy and some remarks on the trilogy overall.

Euripides’ Hecuba

In chapter three, which is the shortest of the three main chapters by some one third, M. examines Euripides’ Hecuba under the theme of the dead hero. The tragedy deals with consequences of the appearance of Achilles’ ghost which lead up to the sacrifice of Polyxena. M. begins by noting the puzzling variety of ways in which the appearance of the ghost and its demands are presented and proceeds to examine six of them — Polydorus’ ghost, the chorus, Hecuba, Odysseus, the Achaeans and Polyxena — in the section called “Figure perspectives”. Although the various perspectives offer the audience several interpretative positions, M. thinks that the sacrifice of Polyxena “is not for the benefit of Achilles, but for the Achaeans themselves” (p. 65). The sacrifice ultimately creates social cohesion and solidarity through the control of the production and meaning of symbols. Polyxena corroborates this through her own actions which appropriate the honour and glory of Achilles. The remainder of the chapter examines other aspects of the tragedy. Noting that the transference of Achilles’ tomb from Sigeum to Chersonese and its odd location in the Achaean camp are not explained in the play, M. argues that its relocation focuses attention on the importance of Achilles for the plot. While the appearance of Achilles’ ghost belongs to the time before the beginning of the play itself, this highlights the Greek delay in honouring Achilles. Both have an important effect on the dramatic narrative by calling attention to Achilles, but, as M. argues, this emphasis and importance is actually used to shift the dramatic focus onto Polyxena. In discussing Achilles’ supernatural power, M. argues that, although such power may be read implicitly into the text, the ghost does not compel the sacrifice: Achilles is not a cause of action, but of an instrument of validating action. The plot displays a human proclivity towards injustice, which is disguised as the need for divine retribution. In the final section, M. discusses Achilles’ ghost in terms of its literary tradition and grave monuments. The appearance of Achilles’ ghost had a long literary tradition before Hecuba. Its appearance in Sophocles’ Polyxena was the reason why Euripides does not have the ghost appear in his tragedy. In light of archaic and classical Greek funerary cult, in which items mark the tomb of the deceased, the sacrifice of Polyxena on Achilles’ tomb means that the tomb comes to represent Polyxena and not Achilles.

Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis

In the fourth chapter, M. examines Iphigenia in Aulis under the theme of the hero to be. M. outlines the significance of the (mis)use of Achilles’ name, and considers it indicative of the interest in the contrast between words and deeds in late fifth century drama. The inability of Achilles to either save Iphigenia or protect his name and body suggests that he is unable to live up to the heroic status with which he is normally associated. The possibility of Achilles’ anger having a bearing on the dramatic action is raised near the start of the play, but, as M. shows, this Achilles decides to act according to reason rather than on impulse, and this traditional feature of his personality is dropped entirely from the play. However, as this new Achilles is unable to save Iphigenia, Euripides is dramatising not the virtues of the new Achilles but his limitations as a hero. The play displays a fascination with patronymics and matronymics, which evoke a world of glamour, glory and power, against which the characters must aspire. M. highlights the focus on Achilles’ family background and how Clytemnestra, who is preoccupied with social status, is enthralled by Achilles’ divine parentage. However, this emphasis only serves to outline the gap between the heroic world of myth and unheroic world of the play. While the play includes his mythical education by the centaur Chiron, this Achilles, as M. notes, displays a mixture of old and new (= sophistic) education. This Achilles has much in common with the young pupils of sophists in other tragedies and comedies, i.e. problem making decisions. Consequently, this Achilles suggests that persuasion should prevail over violence. The notion of heroism in the play is transferred from the male to the female in the scene between Achilles and Iphigenia. Achilles’ precarious heroism is also evident in his relationship with the Myrmidons and the Greek army. The Myrmidons are dissatisfied with his leadership and the Greek army dominates the off-stage events and the choices made on-stage. As Achilles is unable to assert his personal desire against the will of the many in this tragedy, the play describes the limits of his physical power. Achilles’ failure to wear the armour, which is an important stage prop, especially as he exits before the sacrifice of Iphigenia, indicates his inability to assume his heroic role. In the final section of the chapter, M. examines several passages from the text of Iphigenia in Aulis where authorship is contested or are considered, by some, to be interpolated. M. believes that these passages can help reconstruct ways in which the character of Achilles and the plot of the tragedy have been read in ancient and modern times. Greatest space in M.’s discussion therein is given to the sacrifice in which he believes Achilles does participate.

Achilles in other plays

In the penultimate chapter with the subtitle “Mapping the Heroic Absence”, M. considers briefly several extant and fragmentary tragedies under the themes of the dead hero and the hero to be. The first tragedy considered under the dead hero theme is Sophocles’ Ajax. Although noting that “Achilles’ impact on the play remains limited” (p. 150), M. recognises in Ajax a similarity in concerns about heroism between the tragedy’s eponymous hero and the Achilles of the Iliad. He also outlines areas of similarity between the Sophoclean play and Aeschylus’ Myrmidons. Then M. considers Euripides’ Andromache, in which Neoptolemus is identified with his father Achilles. Although there is a focus on the gruesome but glorious past (of Troy), Euripides presents a sanitised version of Neoptolemus in which both he and Achilles are victims of divine envy. Then M. considers the first stasimon in Euripides’ Electra, suggesting that Achilles represents the heroes who fought at Troy and contributed to the glory of Agamemnon. In a fine, though brief, analysis of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, M. argues that Achilles is employed as a model of values and standards against which Neoptolemus is evaluated. Although Achilles belongs in the background in a fictitious world, he is represented onstage by the figure of Philoctetes. M. rightly brings attention to a frequently overlooked theme in the play: “heroism is not the prerogative of an individual but of a group of people” (p. 165). The final play considered in this section is the Rhesus, where the living but off-stage Achilles is defined from the point of view of his enemies and their limitations. In the next section of this chapter, M. examines three fragmentary plays under the hero to be theme. The plays are the Lovers of Achilles and Those who Dine Together by Sophocles and Euripides’ Telephus. M. makes some perceptive comments about the likely content of this lost satyric drama Lovers of Achilles and its literary context. M. then discusses Sophocles’ Those who Dine Together and Euripides’ Telephus because both plays, as M. observes, “belong to a tradition of texts which explore the implications of Achilles’ anger in his relations with his social environment” (p. 184).


The book concludes with a brief Afterword summarising M.’s position.

Achilles in Greek Tragedy is an excellent book which provides a very systematic, sensitive and intelligent study of its subject. The use of specific themes to analyse Achilles is most successful and allowed M. to articulate clearly how the tragic poets appropriated Achilles to address contemporary Athenian social issues and concerns. As indicated very occasionally in this review, I take slight issue with some of the positions advanced, but M.’s argument overall is well stated and persuasive. My only complaint is that M. did not allocate a more detailed discussion to a Sophoclean tragedy. Any generic study of Greek tragedy ought to include detailed treatment of each of the three great tragic poets. Sophocles’ Philoctetes could have been discussed instead of or, at least, in equal measure with Euripides’ Hecuba; it certainly merited fuller discussion than the handful of pages in the penultimate chapter. In the eyes of this reviewer, the book was generally free of errors — though Pherecydes was not a Lesbian (p. 4); he was from Athens — and typological mistakes. M. has shown us how and why Achilles was good to think with for tragic poets. Most importantly, the methodology and approach in Achilles in Greek Tragedy suggests the potential for similar studies of other mythological figures in Greek tragedy.