The tale of Achilles and Patroclus, first recounted by Homer in the Iliad, is one of the great archetypes of male friendship. It has been told many times since, most recently by the gifted novelist Madeline Miller in her bestseller The Song of Achilles.
Achilles was one of the great heroes of the Greeks in the war against the Trojans, which started after the Trojan prince Paris abducted Helen, wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta. As told in the Iliad, the war has dragged on for many years, when Agamemnon, king of the Greeks, takes from Achilles a Trojan maiden named Briseis, who had been awarded to him as a spoil of war. Insulted, Achilles refuses to fight any more; deprived of one of their great heroes, the Greek armies find the course of battle turning against them.
Nestor, king of Pylos, persuades Patroclus, with Achilles’ permission, to go to war in the latter’s armor, hoping to fool the Trojans into thinking that Achilles has rejoined the battle. Patroclus does so, but with the intercession of the god Apollo, he is disarmed and killed by the Trojan hero Hector. In book XVIII, Antilochus brings Achilles the sad news:
“Sad tidings, son of Peleus, thou must hear;
And wretched I, the unwilling messenger!
Dead is Patroclus! For his corpse they fight—
His naked corpse; his arms are Hector’s right.”
A sudden horror shot through all the chief,
And wrapped his senses in the cloud of grief;
Cast on the ground, with furious hand he spread
The scorching ashes o’er his graceful head;
His purple garments, and his golden hairs,
Those he deforms with dust, and these he tears:
On the hard soil his groaning breast he threw,
And rolled and grovelled, as to earth he grew.
Later in the book, Achilles’ laments Patroclus’ death to his mother, the goddess Thetis:
“Patroclus—ah!—say goddess can I boast
A pleasure now? Revenge itself is lost:
Patroclus, loved of all my martial train,
Beyond mankind, beyond myself, is slain….
Patroclus dead, Achilles hates to live.
Let me revenge it on proud Hector’s heart,
Let his last spirit smoke upon my dart;
On these conditions will I breathe: Till then,
I blush to walk among the race of men.”
Whether Achilles and Patroclus were lovers or “blood brothers” Homer leaves to the reader’s imagination, though later classical Greek authors portrayed their relationship as unambiguously romantic.
Miller’s retelling in The Song of Achilles clearly describes a romantic relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, but this is not the only way in which she departs from Homer’s version: The Trojan War, which occupies all twenty-four books and some 19,000 lines of the Iliad, is confined to the last two-fifths of Miller’s book.
More compelling is the first three-fifths of the book, which tells of Patroclus’ childhood as prince of Opus, his exile to Phthia for killing another boy, his encounter there with the young prince Achilles, and the blossoming of their friendship and love through their youth until fate and the machinations of the gods transport them to Troy.
This is a sensitive bildungsroman, in which the young Patroclus is enamored of the beautiful Achilles but kept from action by court protocol and his own insecurities. Achilles reciprocates Patroclus’ feelings, however, and much to everyone’s surprise—and sometimes annoyance—calls the Opuntian outcast to his side as companion, sharer of his bedchamber, and later lover.
The story is narrated by Patroclus, who tells of his awakening feelings for his comrade: “His eyes are deep green on mine. My pulse jumps, for no reason I can name. He has looked at me a thousand times, but there is something different in this gaze, an intensity I do not know.” They kiss.
The choice of narrator is unusual, and it creates a paradox—for how can a narrator narrate his own demise? Will the story end before Patroclus’ death in the battle for Troy, a “manuscript” found in the tent he shared with Achilles? Or will the book shift abruptly to third-person narration for the final duel? In the end, Miller chooses a defter course: “Achilles weeps. He cradles me, and will not eat, nor speak a word other than my name…. His tears fall, but I cannot wipe them away. This is my element now, the half-life of the unburied spirit.”
It may not be the most satisfying device, but something like it was necessary, and it is well worth the price to hear this great story in Patroclus’ own words.
Homer: The Iliad (Alexander Pope, tr.) • Madeline Miller: The Song of Achilles (Ecco, 2012) • Illustration: Achilles mourns the death of Patroclus, from A.J. Church’s The Story of the Iliad (1892), based on original by John Flaxman (1793)