reason and rage of Achilles after gazing on Polyxena

Achilles fighting Hector; illumination from archaic Attic vase

In the Trojan War, the eminent Greek warrior Achilles killed the famed Trojan warrior Hector, son of Trojan King Priam. The Trojans honored with great festivals and a solemn ceremony the anniversary of Hector’s death. Renowned men of the Greek army, including Achilles, were allowed to attend that commemoration. There Achilles gazed upon King Priam’s daughter Polyxena:

There Achilles saw Polyxena’s
face in full view.
That was the cause and the way
leading to the loss of his life
and his soul’s departure from his body.

The great beauty and manner
that Achilles saw in the young woman
ignited in his heart a spark
that would never be extinguished by him.
In his heart it inscribed and depicted
her very lovely bright eyes and her forehead
and her beautiful hair that was so blond
that it resembled pure gold in his estimation.
He took note of all her beautiful features.
Nothing about her was there that he missed
and nothing failed to wound him mortally.
The splendor that came from her face
infused his body with cold and ice.
Her nose, her mouth, and her chin
ignited within him such a fire
that it would burn from then on within his body.
Love pinched and bit him.
Her very beautiful body and her chest
made him to endure such torment
that he would not cease by night nor day
to feel Love’s rods striking him,
often with more than fourteen blows.
From now on he would be so distraught
that he couldn’t think clearly.
From now on he necessarily would lie awake
through long nights without closing his eyes.
Quickly love had vanquished his pride.
So his shield to him would be useless
and likewise his hauberk of fine mail.
His sharp, steel sword
wouldn’t have any use in this encounter.
Neither strength, virtue, nor courage
have any value at all against love.

{ Veüe i a Polixenain
Apertement en mi la chiere:
C’est l’acheison e la maniere
Par qu’il sera getez de vie
E l’ame de son cors partie.

La grant beauté e la façon
Qu’Achillès vit en la pucele
L’a cuit el cuer d’une estencele
Que ja par li nen iert esteinte.
En son cuer l’a escrite e peinte:
Ses tres beaus ieuz vairs e son front
E son bel chief, qu’ele a si blont
Que fins ors resemble esmerez,
Totes denote ses beautez;
N’a rien sor li qu’il ne retraie
E ne li face mortel plaie.
La resplendor qu’ist de sa face
Li met el cors freidor e glace.
Sis nes, sa boche e sis mentons
Le resprenent de teus arsons,
Dont ardra mais dedenz son cors:
Pinciez sera d’Amors e mors.
Sis tres beaus cors e sa peitrine
Li font prendre tel decepline
Que ja n’iert mais ne nuit ne jors
Ne sente le verjant d’Amors
Sovent plus de quatorze feiz.
Dès or sera mais si destreiz
Qu’il ne se savra conseillier,
Dès or li estovra veillier
Les longes nuiz senz clore l’ueil.
Tost a Amors plaissié orgueil:
Poi li vaudra ci sis escuz
E sis haubers mailliez menuz.
Ja s’espee trenchant d’acier
Ne li avra ici mestier:
Force, vertu ne hardement
Ne valent contre Amors neient }

In the archaic Greek Iliad, Achilles raged at the Greek leader King Agamemnon for taking for himself Achilles’s war-prize Briseis. In Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s influential, twelfth-century French Romance of Troy {Roman de Troie}, Achilles gazing upon the Trojan woman Polyxena prompted him to fall madly in love with her. Benoît apparently intuited the backstory for Achilles’s rage. It wasn’t simply a matter of honor and shame. Achilles had been madly in love with Briseis, too.

According to Benoît, Achilles himself recognized his love madness. Achilles lived long before the Roman general Gallus made love madness a conventional feature of Roman love elegy. Achilles thus declared:

I don’t believe that in this way
any man ever loved. I am mad
and lacking my senses so deplorably
that I don’t know what I’m doing.

{ Onc mais ne cuit qu’en tel maniere
Amast nus hom: jo sui desvez
E de mon sen si forsenez
Que jo ne sai que jo me faz. }

Men today who haven’t read any fiction written before this century might also think that they are suffering the first ever case of love madness. That’s utterly false. Throughout history many men have suffered love madness, usually to their great loss if they don’t come back to their senses quickly.

Achilles in his love madness for Polyxena found treacherous reason. Recognizing the de facto Trojan leader in matters of marriage, Achilles secretly sent a messenger to the Trojan Queen Hecuba. Betraying his Greek allies, Achilles proposed a love-alliance with the Trojans:

Greet Hecuba in my name
and tell her that I’m very eager
to come to terms with her immediately.
Towards her I have acted very badly.
My heart is saddened by this.

I wish to make it right, if she allows,
such that she will take me for a friend.
Let her give me her daughter as a wife,
and if she can make it so that
King Priam and Paris offer her to me,
I’ll return to my country.
I’ll take my Myrmidon army with me.
Then no Greek will be bold enough
to remain here after I’ve left.
I offer her in all faithfulness
that I will make the Greek army depart.
In good peace the Trojans will be able to keep
henceforth their city and their country.

{ Salue la de meie part
E di que mout me sereit tart
Qu’o li eüsse acordement.
Vers li me sui trop malement
Meslez: trist en ai le corage.

Dreit l’en vueil faire a sa merci
Tel dont me tienge por ami:
Sa fille me doint a moillier,
E s’el la me fait otreier
Al rei Priant e a Paris,
Jo m’en irai en mon pais.
Merrai en mes Mirmidoneis:
Ja puis n’iert si hardiz Grezeis
Que ici remaigne après mei.
Trestot leiaument li otrei
Que jo ferai l’ost departir:
En bone pais porront tenir
Lor cité mais e lor païs. }

In ancient warfare, men of a defeated tribe were commonly massacred. Women were taken as captives to be incorporated into the victorious tribe. These captive women, in addition to having the gender benefit of not being dead, could become well-regarded companions like Ausonius’s Bissula. Achilles promised to love and honor the Trojan Polyxena if she were given to him:

Their lovely-bodied daughter will come
to be protected and honored,
for she will enter into a splendid marriage.
I will place a crown on her head,
and if God so grants me long enough life
such that she will be my wife,
I will have accomplished all my desires
and will be enriched above all others.

{ Lor fille o le cors avenant
Sera guarie e honoree,
Quar richement iert mariëe:
El chief li aserrai corone.
E se Deus tant vivre me donc
Que jo de li saisiz me veie,
Toz mes buens acompliz avreie;
Tant me sereie amanantiz
E sor toz autres enrichiz }

Queen Hecuba convinced Polyxena, King Priam, and Paris of the merits of this proposal. It would fulfill Achilles’s and Polyxena’s desires. More importantly, this proposal would save the lives of many thousands of Greek and Trojan men by ending the Trojan War. All that remained was for Achilles to convince the Greek army to depart.

Briseis leaving Achilles; wall painting from Pompeii

Achilles argued strongly that the Trojan War was foolhardy and should be ended immediately. The day after he heard that Hecuba had accepted his proposal to marry Polyxena, Achilles managed to summon an assembly of the Greek leaders. To that assembly he declared:

“My lords,” he began, “I wish to explain to you
that through our excesses and arrogance
we are daily causing our own deaths.
Already have died about thirty thousand men
who were very bold and valiant.
And this is what will befall all of us.
By the faith I owe you, know that
not a single one of us will escape
going to his death here
before this realm is conquered,
if we do not adopt a different strategy.
We have undertaken too foolish an enterprise.
For the cause of one woman
we have left so many noble realms,
so many kingdoms, so many good countries.
More than five years we have been here,
yet we haven’t accomplished anything
that can make it well-worthwhile.
With great anguish and great suffering
we have stayed here most of this year.
Our men are very impoverished
and very badly chilled.
I am extremely amazed
that here among us so many wise men
have not decided on a different course.
and that none of them see what I see.
Very contemptible is the cause
of our enormous destruction.
Men from Europe and men from Africa and
men from beyond the ports of Salonika
have come together to await death.
And I call to your fine attention
that never has there been a greater folly,
nor greater arrogance, nor greater outrage,
than for us to die for one woman.
For her we are destroying ourselves.”

{ “Seignor,” fait il, “mostrer vos vueil
Que par sorfait e par orgueil
Nos faisons chascun jor ocire:
Jan i a morz teus trente mire
Qui mout erent hardiz e proz;
A ço revertirons nos toz.
Par cele fei que jo dei vos,
Ja n’en eschapera uns sous
Qu’il ne seit a la mort aquis,
Ainz que cist regnes seit conquis,
Se autre conseiz n’en est pris.
Trop fol plait avons entrepris,
Qui por l’acheison d’une femme
Avons guerpi tant riche regne,
Tant reiaume, tant bon pais.
Plus de cinc anz avons ci sis:
Ancor n’i avons chose faite
Que en bien puisse estre retraite.
A grant angoisse, a grant ahan
Somes ici le plusde l’an;
Nostre gent est trop bosoignose
E trop malement sofraitose.
Mout me merveil estrangement
Que tant a ici sage gent
Qui n’en ont pris autre conrei,
Tuit n’i veient ço que j’i vei.
Mout est mauvaise l’acheison
De nostre grant destrucion:
Cil d’Europe e cil d’Aufrique,
Cil d’outres porz de Salenique
Sont asemblé a mort receivre;
E si vos sai bien amenteivre
Ne fu onc mais graindre folages
Ne graindre orguieuz ne graindre outrages,
Que por une femme morons
E que por li nos destruions.” }

Achilles urged Menelaus to leave Helen at Troy and find another woman among the many noble, loyal Greek women. Achilles spoke about the joy of being at home. He declared that he and his men would no longer participate in the massive violence against men of the Trojan War. Men’s lives should matter. But Achilles spoke out for the value of men’s lives only because he wanted to marry Polyxena.

The withdrawal of Achilles and his men from the Trojan War was disastrous for their Greek allies. The Trojans slaughtered thousands of Greek men. They pushed the Greeks back to their tents and ships and then burned the Greeks’ ships. Greek leaders pleaded with Achilles for help. He paid no attention to them. He played chess while the Greeks continued to be slaughtered. Again and again Greek leaders begged Achilles for help. He finally allowed his Myrmidons to fight for them, but he himself refused to fight. Lacking Achilles’s leadership, many Myrmidons were killed in the fighting.

The Greeks again were driven back to their tents. The fighting came close to Achilles’s tent. There he was still languishing in love for Polyxena. Greek soldiers yelled to Achilles:

your enemies are already so close
that, if you wish to wait for them here,
soon you will see a thousand dismount,
not one of whom wouldn’t strike you,
so increasing our shame and scandal.
Today you have lost your men.
They are hacked to pieces, dead, covered in blood.
You have failed us in our hour of need.
But those will render you thanks —
your enemies who have no peace or truce with you.

{ Achilles,
Vostre enemi sont ja si près
Que, se ci les volez atendre,
Jan i verreiz teus mil descendre,
N’i avra cel qui ne vos meisse,
Honte e damage nos i creisse.
Perdu avez hui vostre gent:
Detrenchié sont, mort e sanglent.
Al bosoing nos estes failliz,
Mais cil vos en rendront merciz
Qui o vos n’ont ne pais ne trieve. }

Achilles was in anguish at the thought of dying without a fight. In a daze he took up his weapons and armor. Then he acted madly in a different way:

Cruel and maddened and inflamed with anger,
Achilles sallied forth amid his enemies.
He dealt with them as a wolf with lambs:
more than two hundred heads he bloodied
in only a little time.
He was like a wolf that devours all.
In the thickest fighting he thrust himself,
striking with sword and lance.
He received many blows, but what did they do?
He took the blows as nothing, nor did they bother him.

{ Fel e desvez e d’ire espris,
Sailli entre ses enemis.
D’eus fait ensi com lous d’oëilles:
Plus de dous cenz testes vermeilles
Lor i a fait en petit d’ore;
Il est li lous qui tot devore.
Es greignors presses se treslance,
Fiert de l’espee e de la lance.
Mout rest feruz, mais ço que vaut?
Rien nel prise ne ne l’en chaut. }

With Achilles’s help, the Greeks staved off annihilation. King Priam in turn declared that Achilles had betrayed them, and that he would never allow him to marry Polyxena. This didn’t please Polyxena, because she would have liked to be Achilles’s wife. Achilles himself knew that his love for Polyxena was now doomed. He felt deep sorrow. He kept fighting, driven by his anger at Trojan warriors killing Greeks warriors in institutionalized violence against men. He even killed Troilus, another of Queen Hecuba’s sons.

Achilles killing King Memnon during Trojan War; decoration on grave amphora

Queen Hecuba plotted revenge against Achilles. She summoned her son Paris. She told him that she would die unless he did what she asked him to do. Before knowing what she wanted him to do, Paris declared:

My lady, why
do you have this doubt about me
and assume, whether it be good or foolish,
that I would reject anything you desire?
Command me. I am ready to do
whatever you order me to undertake in obligation to you.

{ Dame, por quei
Avez de ço dote de mei,
Seitmaus, seit biens, sens o folie,
Que de rien nule vos desdie?
Comandez mei, prez sui del faire,
A quel que chief j’en deie traire. }

Paris didn’t even care what his father would think about what his mother would ask him to do. Mothers rule under gynocentrism. Hecuba in fact asked Paris to kill Achilles by betraying an agreement. She would tell Achilles to come secretly at night to Apollo’s Temple to take Polyxena as his wife. There Paris and his Trojan accomplices would surprise Achilles and kill him. Paris recognized that such action was shameful:

I see that you are dying. I don’t know how
I can turn down your request.
I don’t dare refuse what pleases you.
I know well that I must obey you,
but here lurks a very great wrong.
Once an affair has turned to betrayal,
he who does it brings shame upon himself.
I will suffer much reproach because of this.
I fear losing esteem and becoming less worthy.
Yet above all I haven’t the strength to oppose
anything, mother, that pleases you.
Therefore I will carry out what you ask.
However it turns out, you will have me ready to act.

{ Morir vos vei: ne sai coment
Jo ne face vostre talent;
N’os desdire vostre plaisir.
Bien sai que vos dei obeïr,
Mais ci a mout grant mespreison:
Puis qu’uevre torne a traïson,
S’i a honte cil qui la fait.
Trop me sera en mal retrait:
Baissier en criem e meins valeir.
Ensorquetot n’os desvoleir
Nule rien, mere, que vos place:
Por ço vos otrei que jol face.
A que que tort, prest m’i avreiz }

Paris was Hecuba’s adult son. Yet he was an obedient child in relation to his mother. Is it any wonder that under gynocentrism no affirmative action addresses the gender disparity of 90% of elementary school teachers being women?

Despite his education with King Lycomedes’s daughters at Scyros, Achilles didn’t suspect treachery in Trojan Queen Hecuba’s offer of Polyxena to be his wife. He instructed a messenger to tell Hecuba:

From now on, I will be her loyal son,
faithful and without deception
for all the days of my life.
Through me, if I can live for a long time,
Troy will be completely free.
This I assure her by swearing and vowing
that I shall never again seek more my own interest
than seek what is to her advantage.

Go there and greet Hecuba in my name.
Say to my lady and my beloved Polyxena
that I am entirely hers and will be forever.
By her, this kingdom will be at peace.

{ D’ore en avant serai sis fiz
Leiaus, feeiz e senz boisdie,
A toz les jorz mais de ma vie.
Par mei, se longement puis vivre,
Sera Troie tote delivre.
Ço li afi e jur e vo,
Ja ne voudra mais plus mon pro
Que autretant le suen ne vueille.

Va t’en, e si la me salue.
Di a ma dame e a ma drue
Que toz sui suens e serai mais:
Par li iert cist regnes en pais. }

When Achilles and his close friend Antilogus arrived without armor at the temple of Apollo, Paris and his twenty heavily armed accomplices attacked them. Achilles and Antilogus fought strongly, killing many of the Trojan men. But eventually they fell and died. Paris hacked their bodies to pieces and threw the pieces out of Apollo’s temple.

Achilles’s mad love, his “courtly love {fine amor}” for Polyxena, perverted both his reason and his rage. Achilles ultimately recognized his self-destruction:

I have been maliciously deceived.
Love set up this whole affair for me.
Love has made me feel deadly pain.
We are not the first,
nor will we be the last,
to die or to have died for love.
Beautiful sweet friend, there’s no comfort in this.
Alongside you, like it or not,
I must die in this place.
I can scarcely defend myself any longer.

{ Deceüz sui trop malement.
Tot cest plait m’a basti Amors:
Sentir m’en fait morteus dolors.
Ne somes pas des premerains,
Ne ne serons des dererains,
Qui en morront ne quin sont mort.
Beaus douz amis, n’i a confort:
Dejoste vos, o peist o place,
M’estuet morir en ceste place.
Ne me puis mais guaires aidier }

Achilles’s grief in love for Antilogus parallels his grief in love for Patroclus and for Polyxena. Achilles was intimately associated with Patroclus and Antilogus, yet he never even spoke personally with Polyxena. Men’s mad love is most typically and most ridiculously oriented toward women. Men’s mad love and men’s glory-seeking in war too often come together in death, predominately men’s deaths.

To end epic violence against men, men most love better than the best of the Achaeans, Achilles. The wise, ancient Roman dispeller of delusions Lucretius long ago satirized gyno-idolatry. The great ninth-century Christian cleric Walahfrid Strabo promoted love for men and for gardening. Women and men are earthly beings. They must love each other within the mud of ordinary life.

* * * * *

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All the quotes above are from Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s Roman de Troie. Quotes from the Roman de Troie show Old French text from Constans (1904) and English translation (modified slightly) from Burgess & Kelly (2017). Benoît wrote the Roman de Troie about 1165. It enormously influenced subsequent understandings of the matter of Troy and Achilles. For an alternate, non-meninist account of Achilles’s relationship with Polyxena, Thompson (1981). On the development of Achilles’s character through literary history, Radin (1983) and Gödde (2016).

In ancient Greek, the name Polyxena literally means “entertaining many guests.” That name thus associates Polyxena with courtesans. Benoît extravagantly praised both her beauty and her character:

She was tall and gracile and full-grown and upright,
and by the hips she was slender and narrow.
Her head was blond, and her hair long,
extending down to her heals.

She was the loveliest, the best raised,
and the most highly esteemed of all women.

{ Haute ert e graile e longe e droite,
Par les flans deugiee e estreite;
Le chief ot bloi, les cheveus lons,
Qui li passoënt les talons.

Plus bele ert e mieuz enseigniee
E de totes la plus preisiee. }

Roman de Troie, vv. 5545-8, 5575-6. Men throughout history have tended to admire women’s long hair. See note [5] in my post on Paul seducing Thecla.

Benoît, who didn’t have access to the Homeric Iliad, explicitly drew upon the Latin account of Dares Phrygius, The History of Troy’s Fall {De excidio Troiae historia}. Dares only briefly addressed Achilles’s love for Polyxena:

He gazes on Polyxena, transfixes her in his mind, and he begins to fall vehemently in love with her. Then, compelled by his burning passion, he wastes away his hated life in unrequited love.

{ Polyxenam contemplatur, figit animum, amare vehementer eam coepit. Tunc ardore conpulsus odiosam in amore vitam consumit }

Dares, De excidio Troiae 19, my English translation.

Achilles wept after Hector killed Patroclus. Just as for Antilogus, Achilles referred to Patroclus as his “beautiful sweet friend {beaus douz amis}” (v. 10335) and lamented:

The love I bore for you was very poor.
Well I recognize that I did wrong
since you have died without me,
because, if I had been beside you
in this grievous fighting,
you would have feared no living man.
As I depart from you from now on,
I will have neither love nor companionship
at all for the rest of my life.
To you belonged my heart entirely,
because you were very handsome and worthy,
loyal and noble and of a good family.
I believe that I will never again do
anything that gives me joy or happiness.
All my days I will henceforth be sorrowful.

{ Mauvaise amor vos ai portee:
Bien reconois miens est li torz,
Dès que vos senz mei estes morz;
Quar, se jo fusse delez vos
Al torneiement doloros,
Ne crensisseiz home vivant.
Quant jo de vos depart a tant,
N’avrai amor ne compaignie
A rien que seit mais en ma vie.
En vos esteit mis cuers trestoz,
Quar mout estiëz beaus e proz,
Leiaus e frans e de bon aire.
Ja mais ne cuit nul jor rien faire
Dont aie joie ne leece:
Toz jorz serai mais en tristece. }

Roman de Troie, vv. 10338-52. Achilles got over his love for Patroclus and went on to love Polyxena and Antilogus with similar intensity.

When Achilles rejoined the fighting and King Priam renounced Achilles’s proposal to marry Polyxena, she was upset:

Polyxena heard this news.
Know that it did not please her.
Many conversations, much advice,
much deliberation, and much thought
she had had with her mother.
It had pleased her very much and was to her liking
that Achilles was to take her as his wife.

{ Polixena sot cez noveles:
Sacheiz ne li furent pas beles.
Maintes paroles, mainz conseiz,
Mainz parlemenz e mainz segreiz
Aveit o li tenu sa mere:
Mout li plaiseit e bel li ere
Qu’il la deveit prendre a moillier. }

Roman de Trioe, vv. 21227-33. The killing of Achilles caused Polyxena much grief:

She was very angry towards her mother,
who had contrived the plot to kill him.

In her heart she was thus greatly upset
because Achilles had died for love of her.
She never got over these feelings
and never stopped blaming her mother for it.

{ Vers sa mere en fu mout iriee,
Que l’uevre aveit apareilliee.

En son cuer ot puis grant iror
De ço qu’il ert morz por s’amor:
Onc puis ne fu ne l’en pesast
E que sa mere n’en blasmast. }

Roman de Troie, vv. 22449-50, 22457-60. To reduce violence against men, more women must confront their mothers and insist on social justice for men.

The above quotes from Roman de Troie are from vv. 17540-4, 17552-84 (There Achilles saw Polyxena’s…), 17684-7 (I don’t believe…), 17757-61, 17767-79 (Greet Hecuba in my name…), 17788-97 (Their lovely-bodied daughter…), 18163-98 (“My lords,” he began…), 21057-67 (Achilles, your enemies…), 21097-105 (Cruel and maddened…), 21887-92 (My lady, why…), 21943-55 (I see that you are dying….), 22026-33, 22047-50 (From now on I will be her loyal son…), 17547 (courtly love), 22256-66 (I have been maliciously deceived….).

[images] (1) Achilles fighting Hector. Painting on Attic red figure volute-krater made in Athens about 490 BGC. By artist known as Berlin Painter. Preserved in British Museum (London, UK) as inventory # 1848,0801.1. Source image thanks to ArchaiOptix and WikimediaCommons. (2) Briseis being lead from Achilles to Agamemnon. Wall painting from Pompeii VI.8.5. (House of the Tragic Poet, atrium), made in first century GC. Preserved as inventory # 9105 in Museo Archeologico Nazionale (Napoli, Italy). Image thanks to ArchaiOptix and Wikimedia Commons. (3) Achilles killing King Memnon. Decoration on grave amphora made in southern Italy about 330 BGC. Source image thanks to rob koopman and Wikimedia Commons.


Burgess, Glyn S., and Douglas Kelly. 2017. The Roman de Troie by Benoît de Sainte-Mauré: a translation. Gallica, 41. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer. Reviews by Sylvia Federico and by Cristian Bratu.

Constans, Léopold, ed. 1904-12. Le roman de Troie, par Benoît de Sainte-Maure, publié d’après tous les manuscrits connus. Société des Aanciens Textes Français. Paris: F. Didot. Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

Gödde, Susanne. 2016. “Modern Achilles: The Beauty of War and the Battle of the Sexes.” Pp. 229-258 in Caston, Victor, and Silke-Maria Weineck, eds. Our Ancient Wars: rethinking war through the classics. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Radin, Alice Pauline. 1983. The Romance of Achilles: from Homer to Benoit de Sainte-Maure. Ph.D. Thesis, University of California at Berkeley.

Thompson, Diane. 1981. “Love Destroys Achillès in Benoit de Sainte Maure’s Roman de Troie.” Adapted from Diane P. Thompson. 1981. Human Responsibility and the Fall of Troy. Ph.D. Thesis, CUNY.

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