The story of Achilles and Patroclus is central to the story of Iliad. It is the death of Patroclus – when clad in Achilles’s armour – that ends the feud between Achilles and Agamemnon. It is the death of his friend that ignites Achilles into action, and sets into motion a sequence of events that eventually lead to the fall of Troy.
There isn’t much evidence in the Iliad that the relationship between the two is anything more than friendship. But various poets have painted the pair in a romantic light. More recently, Madeline Miller, in her novel The Song of Achilles, explores this angle of romance with great depth. She says that the most compelling piece of evidence that there was ‘more’ to Achilles’s relationship with Patroclus was how he grieved. There is a very physical element in how he receives Patroclus’s death:
A dark cloud of grief fell upon Achilles as he listened. He filled both hands with dust from off the ground, and poured it over his head, disfiguring his comely face, and letting the refuse settle over his shirt so fair and new. He flung himself down all huge and hugely at full length, and tore his hair with his hands.
And then when Thetis, his mother, descends from heaven to console him, he says to her:
Mother, Olympian Jove has indeed vouchsafed me the fulfilment of my prayer, but what boots it to me, seeing that my dear comrade Patroclus has fallen—he whom I valued more than all others, and loved as dearly as my own life? I have lost him; aye, and Hector when he had killed him stripped the wondrous armour, so glorious to behold, which the gods gave to Peleus when they laid you in the couch of a mortal man. Would that you were still dwelling among the immortal sea-nymphs, and that Peleus had taken to himself some mortal bride. For now you shall have grief infinite by reason of the death of that son whom you can never welcome home—nay, I will not live nor go about among mankind unless Hector fall by my spear, and thus pay me for having slain Patroclus.
Unable to see her son grieving so, Thetis goes to Hephaestus and gets him to fashion an armour fit for the Gods.
There he made the earth and there the sky and the sea;
And the ever burning sun and the moon rounding full;
And there the constellations, all that crown the heavens;
The Pleiades and the Hyades, Orion in all his power too;
And the Great Bear that mankind calls the Wagon:
She ever wheels on her axis, watching the Hunter;
And she alone is denied a plunge in the Ocean’s baths.
We all know the rest of the story, of course. Donning that armour fashioned on Olympus, Achilles sets forth into battle the next day, vowing to meet and kill Hector in battle. Towards the evening, he finds him standing at the foot of the Scaean Gate. When Hector realizes that battle with Achilles is inevitable, his nerve fails him and he breaks into a run. After chasing the Trojan prince around the walls of Troy, Achilles slits his throat, rips Patroclus’s armour off his body, and with his revenge yet unslaked, ties him to his chariot and drags him around the battlefield.
Of either foot he pierc’d the tendon through,
That from the ancle passes to the heel,
And to his chariot bound with leathern thongs,
Leaving the head to trail along the ground;
Then mounted, with the captur’d arms,
his car, And urg’d his horses; nothing loth, they flew.
A cloud of dust the trailing body rais’d:
Loose hung his glossy hair;
and in the dust Was laid that noble head, so graceful once;
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