Two respected kings in the most heartwarming moment of a tough war conflict.
The first one is Achilles; young, stubborn and archetype of bravery. Son of king of the Myrmidons Peleus of Phthia and goddess Thetis. The main subject of the epic poem “Iliad” is “the wrath of Achilles” and the events it sparked off. In the scene you’re about to read, this famous wrath gives way to the greatness of his opponent and another aspect of the hero’s character is revealed. Achilles takes part in the siege of Troy carried out by the allied Greek cities army.
The second one is Priam, the old king of Troy; the glorious city under siege by the Achaeans now. His son Paris–Alexander fell in love with beautiful Helen, wife of king of Sparta, and took her with him to Troy. The Achaeans are here to take her back. Hector, his other son, killed Patroclus during a battle as he was wearing Achilles’ armor. Patroclus was Achilles’ dear childhood friend and he revenged his death by killing Hector in a duel. Then, blinded by rage and sorrow he dishonored the dead body of the prince by dragging it back to his camp fastened to his chariot. This impiety towards a dead person, and even more towards a great warrior and prince, came as surprise not only to the Trojans, but even to the Achaeans. But who would ever dare to stand up against Achilles? Anyone would tremble in fear before this irritable and stubborn semi-god. Anyone but one who had nothing more to lose!
Priam, as a child, had already experienced the destruction of his hometown by Hercules’ army. He grew up to be a skillful and fair king and his people loved him deeply. Now in his old age he was about to live through the same calamity. But before watching his city burn down to the ground, he witnessed his sons getting killed one after another. In Hector’s case, he did not only have to deal with his sorrow for losing his crown prince, but he even had to face his pain for witnessing his son’s corpse being dishonored. Hector was still lying unburied outside Achilles’ tent and Priam decided to go meet with Achilles himself and plead for his son’s body to be returned in exchange for ransom. He took off one night and sneaked into the Achaean camp. God Hermes, the one who accompanies the dead to the Underworld, helped him and he reached Achilles’ tent unnoticed and entered the tent of the king of Myrmidons without any hesitation. The scene unfolding between the two kings as described by Homer in Iliad (24: 485 – 676) is amazing!
Elderly and weathered king Priam kneels before the murderer of his child, touches his knees and kisses his hands. This was the traditional way to plead at that time. Achilles just lost it! All the others standing around were simply staring at each other full of surprise. Priam remains dedicated to his cause. He looks at Achilles and speaks out to him:
“Divine Achilles, remember your father who is, like me, on the grievous door step of senility. Maybe he, too, is all alone in sorrow and no one is there to defend him. But when he hears that you are alive, his heart is filled with joy. Because he still hopes that one day he will see his beloved son returning from Troy. But I, I am utterly unblest, seeing I begat sons the best in Troy, yet of them not one is left…”
He explains the purpose of his unexpected visit and pleads: “Show respect to the gods, Achilles, and pity on me, remembering your own father. I am far more piteous than he, and have endured what no other man has ever endured, to bring to my mouth the hand of the man who killed my sons…”
And while he is still on his knees bawling in grief for his child, Achilles gently takes the old man’s hand and surrenders to his own grief. It is not only Patroclus he is grieving for.
Achilles knew that if he went to fight in Troy, he’d never come back. His mother had warned him and that’s why she had tried to hide him. But Achilles would rather die young and glorious than live a long yet insignificant life. And so, he knows he won’t get to see his father again and Priam’s maneuver to begin the conversation talking about Pileus was right on target! Achilles weeps together with his enemy at a terrifying moment when both have to face the common fate of man. This enormous rage that made him cross all limits now freezes out of respect and compassion for the noble elder with white hair. He reaches out and raises Priam, who can barely stand on his feet now, by his hand:
“Ah unhappy man, too many are the evils you have endured in your soul. How did you find the courage to come here all alone and meet the eyes of me that have killed your sons? Your heart is truly made of iron! But come here, sit on the throne and despite our pain, let our suffers lie quiet in our hearts. For no profit comes with lament!
Because that is what the gods have arranged for the wretched mortals, that they should live in pain; and themselves are sorrowless. For two urns of gifts are set upon Zeus’ doorstep; one with ills and one with blessings. If you receive gifts from both urns, you will have good and bad things come your way. But whoever receives the ills only, will have a condemned life on this divine earth, hunted both by gods and humans.”
Digging up his memories, Achilles, who now is in a mental state similar to psychoanalysis, comes to realize that his father, Priam, is one of the luckiest people; one of those who have received Zeus’ gifts of both urns. He was king, wed to a goddess, and they had a son who grew up to be one of the greatest heroes of the Greeks. But now the time for sufferings had come. He won’t have his son by his side anymore, his son won’t take care of him in his old age and there will be no successor to his throne. Priam, who has lived a glorious royal life and was admired by everyone, has to face the same situation as Pileus. People said that Priam was the happiest man alive, and then evils knocked on his door; war, the loss of his children and soon the destruction of his city. Achilles does not say it directly, but maybe as he is describing the two elders’ fate, he might have noticed the tragic coincidence that both had crossed from happiness to sufferings because of a single wrong choice their sons made. Priam will be left all alone because Achilles disregarded death and chose glory, and Priam will suffer consequences because of Paris’ passionate love for Helen.
Achilles and Priam, conqueror and conquered, form a silent alliance for their own good. Both, knowing that they have no future, need to make amends with the past.
“Hold on strong and don’t let your heart break. Because grieving for your son will do us no good. You can’t bring him back to life”, Achilles says trying to comfort his new friend and sends his servants to wash Hector’s corpse and to take care of it as it is right to do. He announces a truce of eleven days for Priam to give his son the proper burial. As tradition states, ransom payment will seal the transaction. This way, the one who pleads preserves his dignity by paying for his son and not accepting any charity. As for Achilles, it gives him the right to say to dead Patroclus “don’t get mad at me Patroclus when you hear in Hades that I have freed Hector for his father’s sake, because the ransom were not humble. And you will get your fair share.”
Chaos was brought back to order and now these two men, who will be enemies tomorrow, can enjoy the inner peace they were looking for. Achilles invites Priam to dine with him. As he used to dine with Patroclus. While they are dining, Homer opens a small window for us to take a look at this moment of serenity as these two enjoy a moment of sacred friendship.
Light in Darkness
“… and Priam was admiring Achilles. He was so great and comely, like a god! But Achilles also was looking at Priam with admiration, for he was so noble and hearkening to his words!”
Iliad closes up with yet another supper when Priam holds a glorious feast at his palace following Hector’s funeral. What happened next when the war started again, we find out in later texts. Homer starts his poem with the famous phrase “Sing, goddess, the wrath of Peleus’ son, Achilles, that destructive wrath which brought countless woes upon the Achaeans” and ends with the verse “And such were the funeral rites of horse-tamer Hector”.
And this is how Homer honored the great and brave Hector. Two warrior kings enjoying the blessing of peace for a moment by his dead body. Two enemies had discovered virtues in each other’s eyes behind the atrocities of war. They both saw a peaceful man lost in the darkness of war. And they respected him.
If you’re interested in reading Homer’s Iliad, Homer’s Iliad at perseus.tufts.edu