The Consistency of Cruelty in Combat

The Iliad, in that it is more about the Greek hero Achilles than any other particular person, portrays the Achaean in surprisingly shocking light at times throughout the story. In his encounter with Lycaon, who had previously been taken prisoner by Achilles long ago, Achilles demonstrates the extents to which his warlike demeanor can go. Yet it is equally surprising that he is capable of impressive compassion, as is depicted elsewhere in the Iliad. What seems to be an almost unbelievable fluctuation in attitude and mood is far from unexplained or contradictory, however. In fact, there is a well-defined regularity in Achilles' actions and demeanors, to the point of being capable of systematic classification. Achilles is not a loose cannon or an unpredictable firebrand. The method to his madness can be applied to his encounter with Lycaon as it can with any of his episodes in the Iliad.

It is in Scroll XXI, at the height of his vengeful and destructive advance, that Achilles meets Lycaon. He has just captured twelve soldiers for sacrifice, and at the exact moment that he reaches Lycaon he is "thirsting for still further blood" (33). Lycaon entreats Achilles to have mercy on him. He mentions that he has been captured...

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