BMCR 2021.09.28

Grief and the hero: the futility of longing in the Iliad

, Grief and the hero: the futility of longing in the Iliad. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2021. Pp. 203. ISBN 9780472132324 $54.95.

Preview [1]

Emily Austin’s Grief and the Hero argues that Achilles’ insatiable grief for Patroclus and the anger that follows from it are rooted in a strong desire (pothê) to restore his life with Patroclus. This unfulfillable desire makes his vengeance ultimately futile. Austin uses a ‘literary approach’, by which she means close reading, to reveal how Achilles’ grief, anger, and longing relate to each other. The book is exclusively concerned with Achilles’ grief and anger from Book 18 onward and refers only incidentally to Achilles’ emotional development in the first part of the epic.[2] Grief and the Hero is inspiring in inviting the reader to look with different eyes at the complex relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, and at the different roles that Achilles and Hector have in their respective communities.[3] That being said, some methodological issues arise upon reflection, which I discuss at the end of this review.

The book is divided into four clearly structured chapters that form a single argument. Austin provides two helpful appendices of occurrences of pothê, potheô, and pothos in both epics. The total occurrences in the Iliad (19 times) and Odyssey (20 times) are subdivided by part of speech, position in line, grief/non-grief context, and in narrative vs. direct speech. Cross-references to other chapters provided in the footnotes, index locorum, and subject index help the reader to navigate the book.

Chapter one (‘Pothê in the Iliad’) examines how pothê language marks a type of grief uniquely characteristic of Achilles.[4] In his case, his longing-grief refers to his intense relationship with Patroclus. Austin establishes four key elements of the Iliadic significance of pothê (p.17), in both non-grief and grief contexts. Pothê is (i) a physical, felt absence that has (ii) a psychological element as well since it is a desire to fill the absence. Moreover, (iii) it does not concern a generic longing but is directed toward a specific person, and (iv) it can refer to a desire for something or someone so intimately part of us that it creates a sense of wholeness. The latter two aspects in particular are convincingly illustrated with passages from the Catalogue of Ships (Il. 2.708–09, 2.726) where the heroes not only long for a leader per se, but for a specific individual as their leader. In the second part of the chapter, Austin shows how Achilles’ pothê-grief emanates from a sense of unity, even a ‘single identity’ (p. 49), with Patroclus. This insight shows a complexity and intensity to their relationship beyond mere (and potentially reductive) classification as either similar to that between parent and child or between lovers.

The second chapter (‘Longing, Anger and Futility’) explores how Achilles’ longing-grief, as established in chapter one, is ultimately unassuageable. Achilles’ true desire is to share his life with Patroclus. Yet, this desire can never be attained. Thus, his grief-driven anger effectively remains futile: neither killing Hector nor mutilating his corpse helps to alleviate his grief but they are only manifestations of his insatiate pothê-grief. Austin explains how this longing forms the common ground between Achilles’ expressions of grief and anger and how the use of pothê language underscores the sense of futility in all Achilles’ actions.

Less convincing is chapter three (‘How Pothê Changes the Story’), where Austin considers how the pothê-motif creates two instances of what Austin calls ‘narrative consequences’. First, she describes the ‘key markers of the daimonic scale of Achilles’ anger, particularly the narrative attention to his unusual relationship with divine power, the threat to the city of Troy, and the mixture of aimlessness and focus that grow from insatiable grief’ (p. 96). Pothê becomes the impetus of his increasingly extreme actions as they constantly fail to relieve Achilles’ human grief. The second narrative consequence concerns the cyclical nature of Achilles’ behavior which can only be ended by the release of Hector’s body. Austin argues that Achilles’ longing for a shared life with Patroclus ‘grounds Achilles enough to release the body and to share magnanimously in human activities with his enemy’ (p. 118). This conclusion is based on the frequent language of release (luô) used to refer to the release of Hector’s body in Book 24 that ‘imitates’ the end of Achilles’ desire to lament (himeros gooio) when he reconciles with Priam (24.513–15). In turn, himeros gooio recalls ‘earlier moments in Book 23, where the phrase pointed to Achilles’ desire for Patroklos’ presence and the various ineffectual attempts to regain it’ (p. 108). While the theme of shared life is overtly present in Achilles’ earlier laments, reading this desire as ‘moderating force’ (p. 118) for the release of Hector seems an over-interpretation.

In the last chapter (‘Grief for Hector’), Austin explains how the absence of explicit pothê-language in the Trojans’ grief for Hector is indicative of the contrast in the heroic roles of Hector and Achilles in the epic. The Trojans’ expressions of grief display the effect of Hector’s death on an entire community. Austin argues that the absence of pothê-language can be explained from term’s implications of a sense of individual loss. Whereas Achilles’ longing-grief erupts in aimless anger, the Trojans’ lamentations for Hector mostly serve to show their concern with the future. Their personal loss is subordinated to the inescapable fall of the entire city that is closely tied up with the death of Hector. While Achilles’ life is centered around his personal relationship with Patroclus alone, illustrated by his pothê-grief, Hector is the hero on whose life the entire city depends.

With this book, Austin persuasively shows the significance of the concept of pothê in understanding Achilles’ grief-driven behavior, in his relationship with Patroclus, and in the contrast in heroic type with Hector—although it is somewhat repetitive in posing these conclusions (e.g. pp. 63, 67, 71, 81, 85, 86, 115, 117, 118). While the relation between Achilles’ anger and his grief for Patroclus may not strike the reader as particularly new, Austin clearly reveals how pothê emphasizes and thematizes the uniqueness of Achilles’ grief for Patroclus.

Since Austin seeks to provide a coherent account of ‘why [Achilles’] anger arises from his grief, and why his anger fails to assuage that grief’ (p. 2), explicit engagement with current research on ancient emotions would have been helpful. This is particularly the case in chapter two, where Austin discusses the transition from grief to anger. For example, Austin occasionally refers to Glenn Most’s contribution in the volume Ancient Anger (2003) but does not discuss it in the relevant chapters. It remains unclear how her work relates to Most’s claim that it is the feeling of pity for a dead comrade that naturally leads Achilles to his anger-motivated violent actions.[5]

Moreover, discussion of previous research is important since the study of emotions currently tends to shift away from merely linguistic analysis. Austin, however, claims that the explicit use of pothê-terminology is crucial for understanding Achilles’ role as griever. In fact, the problem of Austin’s strong lexical basis becomes apparent in her argumentation. For example, she states on pp. 63–67 that ‘although no pothê term describes [Achilles’] grief in [the lament scene in Book 18], the same dynamics of grief and longing permeate his lament and the simile that precedes it (…)’. This remark hints at the importance of so-called (emotion) scripts: whereas the term for a given emotion does not occur, a description of specific behavior can nonetheless indicate the presence of the emotion.[6] So, as Austin admits, a sense of pothê may be present while the term is absent. Yet, while the occurrence and absence of the term is used to interpret Achilles’ grief and subsequent anger as rooted in longing, the entire fourth chapter is built on the absence of explicit pothê-language in describing the Trojans’ grief. Nonetheless, Austin notes that Andromache and Priam, for example, demonstrate behavior that evokes the ‘feeling’ of pothê-grief (e.g. pp. 80–81; 141; 145).[7] The reader is thus left wondering whether the use of the term is significant or not. Besides, Austin’s claim that explicit pothê-language gives ‘precision and emphasis’ (p. 122) relies on merely four occurrences that describe Achilles’ unique grief for Patroclus, two of which she has to interpret as extensions of Achilles (where pothê is ascribed to Achilles’ horses and the Myrmidons). When we take the concept of pothê as the basis of the argumentation, the overall claim would remain intact—even in chapter four, where the sense of individual loss is present yet subordinate to the city’s interest. Moreover, since Austin aims to explain how longing, grief, and anger play out in the narrative arc, the up and coming field of affective narratology might be helpful to underscore their significance. The sense of longing strengthens the plausibility of the narrative as Achilles performs his aberrant actions of grief and anger which in turn helps the audience to accommodate Achilles’ feelings and subsequent actions.

Austin has delivered a well-written and persuasive book based on the analysis of a considerable amount of textual evidence. While this book sheds new light on the intense relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, and the interplay and excessive eruption in display of emotions once Patroclus dies, it is an exaggeration to claim that the book provides a profound new insight into the Iliad as a whole.[8] Some minor editorial inconsistencies can be found but do not at all subtract from Austin’s argument.[9] On balance, the main argument holds, and the book leaves the reader inspired, although the lexical approach may not be entirely successful. Grief and the Hero makes a significant contribution to Homeric scholarship and is a must-read from which students and seasoned Homerists will benefit greatly.


[1] Apart from the preview (full open access), this book is available online under restricted access via

[2] See pp. 83–84 for Austin’s claim that Achilles’ anger at Agamemnon is qualitatively different from his aimless anger after Patroclus’ death.

[3] Austin’s book is stimulating for my own dissertation on ancient Greek conceptions of weeping. One of my chapters focuses on Achilles’ tears throughout the Iliad, using emotion theory and approaching these weeping scenes from an affective narratological perspective.

[4] Parts of this chapter were published in Austin’s 2015 article ‘Grief as ποθή: Understanding the Anger of Achilles, New England Classical Journal 42.3, 145–163. In 2020 the author also published ‘Achilles’ Desire for Lament: Variations on a Theme’, CW 114.1, 1–23, which was based on parts of chapters 2 and 3.

[5] Cf. Cairns, D.L. (2003) ‘Ethics, ethology, terminology: Iliadic anger and the cross-cultural study of emotion’ in: S. Braund & G.W. Most, Ancient Anger (Cambridge), to which Austin occasionally refers but with which she never engages.

[6] See, e.g., Cairns, D.L. (2008) ‘Look both ways: studying emotion in ancient Greek’, Critical Quarterly 50.4, 43–62.

[7] Cf. Austin’s discussion of the sense of a ruptured wholeness in Andromache’s lament in Book 6, although no pothê-terms are used to describe it (pp. 127–28). Cf. p. 133 and p. 135 for a similar claim that we can detect elements of Achilles’ longing-grief in grief for Hector, but that the absence of explicit language is significant.

[8] E.g. the title of chapter three and the claim on p. 77 that ‘The insight of the Iliad is to expose, through narrative, this gap between what is accomplished and what is desired, and to illuminate the nature of this gap by pinpointing, through language, Achilles’ underlying yearning for an irrecoverable wholeness.’

[9] Some cases I noted are Iliad not italicized (p. 12 n. 36, p. 14 n. 42), the passage 22.500–504 (p. 134) should be 22.500–503, inconsistent spelling of ‘Aeschylos’ (p. 33 and p. 73 n. 44), and mentioning some modern authors’ names with first name at the first mention (e.g. Katherine Derderian (p. 79)), some with surname only (e.g. Tsagalis (p. 73)), and some with initials (e.g. W.M. Clarke (p. 36)). It does not become clear why the author chooses sometimes to give terms in Greek and at other times to transcribe them, both in the main text and footnotes (e.g. p. 8 n. 26: Laertes’ πένθος, but Penelope’s thumos).