115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Apollo’s Plan Was Also Being Completed: Phoebus versus Achilles in the Iliad

Victor Castellani, University of Denver

Besides Zeus’ “plan” and aims of Athena to glorify her heroic friends, Iliadic Apollo has both plan and strategy.  While Fate allows he defends Troy and elevates Hector, who accepts mortality. Through deaths of Patroclus and Hector Phoebus reduces demigod Achilles, not immediately to death but painfully to understanding how he, too, is mortal.


Apollo initiates and steers the Iliad ’s course. Jealous of mortal grandeur, Phoebus brings Achilles to understand and accept mortality. His cruel strategy deploys both his protégé Hector and Achilles’ humane alter ego Patroclus.

At Iliad 1.8 “Homer” asks the Muse which god provoked quarreling between Achilles and Agamemnon. She answers “Leto’s and Zeus’ son” (1.9). Zeus himself has boulē (1.6), a long-range plan to glorify Troy and Hector before the inexorable doom of both. A shorter-term one ordained in Book 1 honors Achilles at Thetis’ behest. Cronus’ son mainly controls “big” events—ups and downs for either side during prolonged warfare.  

Athena opposes but cannot block her brother. She has goals—glory for darling mortals, destruction of Ilium—rather than plans. Pallas promises Achilles’ honor, but saves the Achaean cause (e.g., personally intervening in Books 1 and 2). 

Her antithesis Apollo checks mighty Achaeans, restraining Athena’s friend Diomedes, whom he shoves away from Aeneas in Book 5; using archer Paris to wound Diomedes in Book 11; thrusting reckless Patroclus down from walls of Ilium in Book 16 before he knocks him silly, separating him from presumptuous divine armor.

Apollo strategizes elaborately against Achilles.  He has scores to settle since the Phthian’s sacrileges in his Thymbraean precinct. This god can see and plan ahead. He instrumentalizes Patroclus and Hector alike in order to reduce high and mighty Peleus’ son to resigned acknowledgment of mortality, to comprehending acceptance of death.  Previously Achilles’ only concept of mortality was abstract.  Patroclus did all the pair’s mortal chores. Achilles bartered death for glory only theoretically. However, Patroclus’ and Hector’s deaths compel him to appreciate what it is to die and to be dead.

Apollo’s strategy is clear. Priest Chryses’ mistreatment leads to Achilles’ dishonor and withdrawal from the war. Achilles’ supremacy of glory is threatened when Diomedes becomes de facto “best of the Achaeans” (5.103). Tydeus’ son overcomes wounding and enjoys such support from Athena as Achilles had. Diomedes’ aristeia prompts Helenus—Apollo’s believable Trojan prophet—to declare that Achilles was never dreaded so (6.99). Odysseus, the Achaean most closely associated with Apollo, adduces Achilles’ desired chance to meet Hector in combat (9.303-306), thereby recovering heroic preeminence.

If Thetis knows that Achilles’ death ensues soon after Hector’s, so must Apollo.

When Achilles returns to battle Athena lends him superhuman glamour, even infuses him with ambrosia and nectar (18.203-221). He acquires godlike being, exempt from human needs; like model hero Heracles, most glorious of all yet likewise mortal (18.117-119), he is careless of dying, indeed suicidal.  

Athena, little mentioned in Book 24 (24.100), is forgotten when Achilles, honoring his dead foeman, surrenders Hector’s corpse and even gives a funeral gift of shrouds. He acknowledges shared humanity—likening bereaved enemy Priam’s old age with that of his soon-to-be-bereft father Peleus. That Iliad ends with the honorific funeral of Hector, Apollo’s friend who accepted his own mortality and was Apollo’s instrument in bringing Achilles down, is therefore unsurprising.  

While Athena can raise Thetis’ son briefly to virtual godhood, Apollo with Patroclus and Hector as unwitting agents reduces Peleus’ son to actual human status, humane sensitivity.  Tolerating grave “collateral damage,” Phoebus wages against Achilles (and Pallas) a campaign structurally paralleling Aphrodite’s against Hippolytus (and his patroness Artemis) in Euripides’ extant play. 

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