• Devin O'Donnell

Priam and Achilles become father and son

Consider perhaps the most moving scene in all of classical literature. In Book 24 of Homer's Iliad, Priam comes to Achilles to beg for the body of his dead son, Hector. He "puts his lips to the hands of the man who killed [his] son" (24.591). Consider the following passage:

The men did not see great Priam as he entered. He came up to Achilles, then with his fingers clasped his knees and kissed his hands, those dreadful hands, man-killers, which had slain so many of his sons. Just as sheer folly grips a man who in his own land 590 [480] kills someone, then runs off to a land of strangers, to the home of some rich man, so those who see him are seized with wonder—that’s how Achilles then looked on godlike Priam in astonishment. The others were amazed. They gazed at one another. Then Priam made his plea, entreating:

“Godlike Achilles, remember your own father, who’s as old as me, on the painful threshold of old age. It may well be that those who live around him are harassing him, and no one’s there 600 to save him from ruin and destruction. But when he hears you’re still alive, [490] his heart feels joy, for every day he hopes he’ll see his dear son come back home from Troy. But I’m completely doomed to misery, for I fathered the best sons in spacious Troy, yet I say now not one of them remains. I had fifty when Achaea’s sons arrived— nineteen born from the same mother’s womb, others the women of the palace bore me. 610 Angry Ares drained the life of most of them. But I had one left, guardian of our city, protector of its people. You’ve just killed him, as he was fighting for his native country. [500] I mean Hector. For his sake I’ve come here, to Achaea’s ships, to win him back from you. And I’ve brought a ransom beyond counting. So Achilles, show deference to the gods and pity for myself, remembering your own father. Of the two old men, 620 I’m more pitiful, because I have endured what no living mortal on this earth has borne— I’ve lifted up to my own lips and kissed the hands of the man who killed my son.”

Priam finished. His words roused in Achilles a desire to weep for his own father. Taking Priam’s hand, he gently moved him back. So the two men there both remembered warriors who’d been slaughtered. Priam, lying at Achilles’ feet, wept aloud [510] for man-killing Hector, and Achilles also wept 630 for his own father and once more for Patroclus. The sound of their lamenting filled the house.

The significance of the passage cannot be understated. In a stroke of masterful artistry, Homer blurs the roles of these two enemies to the extent that they almost exchange places, becoming the very things they themselves have lost. In this moment of grief, Priam becomes the father Achilles has lost by virtue of his choice to stay and fight and die young; Achilles becomes the heroic son which Priam has lost and will never see again.


  1. Prayer & Catechism

  2. Continue the Biblical Study of "Satan"

  3. Check annotations and discuss the reading

  4. Study Homer's Iliad (have your books!)

  5. Yesterday we read Book 23

  6. Tuesday we read Book 24 (and hopefully finish the Iliad)

  7. Wednesday we review all the books in a memory palace; we begin working through the Iliad Study Guide.

  8. Thursday we are tested on the Summary of Books 1-24. Use your memory palace! Then we review the study guide for next week's exam (3/16).


  1. Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect. Pray, that you may not stumble.

  2. Study for the The Iliad Exam: see Study Guide for the Iliad

  3. Iliad Exam next week (3/16)


Contemplate the following image, frozen in marble, just as Homer and all his glittering world is frozen in a Grecian urn of antique beauty and eternal recurrence.

Priamos bønfalder Achilles om Hektors lig. Marmor. Nordisk skulptur. København 1964, Foreningerne Norden.

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