Being a Child in the Iliad

Mateusz Stróżyński

We don’t find many images of babies or toddlers and their parents or nurses in Homer’s Iliad, but we do find some. Not only are they fascinating in themselves but they also shed valuable light on the poem’s dominant heroes and its recurrent themes. There are two brief references to the maternal care of a baby in Homeric similes. When Pandarus, a Trojan bowman, shoots the Achaean king, Menelaus, in Book Four of the Iliad, Athena brushes the arrow “a little from the flesh”, just like “a mother brushes a fly from her child, as he lies sweetly sleeping” (4.130–1).[1] This is an exquisite image, evoking the physical intimacy by mentioning the baby’s skin (ἀπὸ χροός, apo chroos) and his relaxed sleep in the presence of a vigilant, loving mother.

In Book Sixteen, Achilles addresses the weeping Patroclus, his closest friend (Il. 16.7–11):

“Why are you all in tears, Patroclus, like a little girl running along by her mother and demanding to be carried, pulling at her dress and holding her back as she tries to hurry on, and looking up at her tearfully until she picks her up? That is what you look like, Patroclus, with these soft tears falling.”[2]

This image has the opposite quality: the child is in distress, desperately longing to be soothed by the mother who is in a hurry for some reason, and we don’t know whether the pulling and the tearful look succeeded. Moreover, this is a scene between two men, so it has a gently mocking quality. Achilles is said earlier to be moved to compassion by the tears of Patroclus (ᾤκτιρε, oiktire), but he clearly decided to express it in a masculine, teasing way. So we have a curious, intense image of a child’s desperate dependence on her mother expressed by a male hero. The whole matter is of course further complicated by the intense relationship between the two men in the Iliad: Patroclus is Achilles’ closest friend. When he is killed by Hector, Achilles wants to avenge his friend and kills Hector in turn, knowing that, according to a prophesy, he will never return safely home, if he does so. In later Greek poetry, Achilles and Patroclus were explicitly described as lovers. 

Achilles lamenting the death of Patroclus, Nikolai Ge, 1855 (National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus, Minsk).

The relationship between father and son in the Iliad is usually, but not exclusively, described in terms of the socializing function of the father, who helps the son to fulfil the masculine, cultural ideal. When, in Book Six, the Trojan hero Glaucus introduces himself to the Achaean Diomedes (6.206–11), he tells him about his family and ancestors, emphasizing that the father “gave me constant instructions, always to be bravest and best and excel over others, and not bring disgrace on the stock of my fathers.” This is quite typical in the Iliad. Similar instances of fathers instructing their sons to excel and to live according to the heroic code can be found also in other passages (e.g., Pandarus: 5.197–200; Achilles: 9.254–9; Patroclus: 11.785–90). The father in the Iliad is thus clearly a symbolic representative of the whole male community of warriors, of their morality and of the masculine identity as such. He is the ideal that has to be emulated by the son, if the son wants to be a good man.

Maternal love is described in the Iliad usually, but not exclusively, as focused not on the socialization and internalization of morality, but rather on protection from evil, on easing pain, on the gratification of needs and desires, especially, bodily ones. The most famous mothers to exemplify these features are Thetis (mother of Achilles), Aphrodite (mother of Aeneas), and Hecuba (mother of Hector, Paris, Troilus and many others). But the Iliad deviates from these patterns in very interesting ways.

For instance, in Book Five, when Diomedes wounds Aphrodite, her divine mother, Dione, comforts her, saying that: “for him [Diomedes] no homecoming from war’s grim struggle to have his children climb his lap with cries of ‘Daddy!’”(5.408–9). In fact, Diomedes was one of the Greek heroes who did return safely home, but we can read this as a variant of the typical scene in which a mother comforts her daughter (even though both are “grown up”, if that term applies to the gods at all!). In any case, the image of the love between Diomedes and his infant son who says “daddy” to him (the Greek word is here παππάζειν (pappazein), which means to call someone “pop”), is much closer to the tender, maternal pattern than to the typical father-son relationship in the Iliad.

In the same book, we have another, more poignant moment, when a Greek hero and the son of Zeus, Sarpedon, who is soon to die, says: “I was not destined after all to return to my home in my dear native land and bring joy to my dear wife and baby son.” (5.687–8).

Achilles meets Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons: detail from an Attic black-figure amphora attributed to Exekias, c. 525 BC (discovered in the Etruscan town of Vulci and now in the British Museum, London, UK).

Probably the most famous father-son scene, and one of the greatest scenes in world poetry, is that between Hector, his wife Andromache and their son Astyanax in Book Six. Astyanax is then being carried by his nurse, not his mother; but the nurse of course evokes the same image of maternal, tender care:

So speaking glorious Hector reached out to take his son. But the child shrank back crying against the breast of his girdled nurse, terrified at the sight of his own father, frightened by the bronze and the crest of horse-hair, as he saw it nodding dreadfully from the top of the helmet. His dear father and his honoured mother laughed aloud at this, and glorious Hector took the helmet straight from his head and laid it gleaming bright on the ground.

There is exquisite tenderness and intimacy between Hector and his little son. The father is pictured here not as an ideal to emulate, but as tenderly kissing and then dandling his son. The kiss of Hector in 6.474 is, according to Barbara Graziosi and Johannes Haubold, “the only loving kiss in the Iliad,”[3] followed by what seems to be bouncing Astyanax in a particularly paternal way rather than swaying him in the arms. In this very intimate moment between a father and a son, Astyanax is not just a genderless baby, but a young male. This is even more emphasized in the beautiful prayer of Hector, who asks the gods to make Astyanax first his equal, but then even a greater man than him. Thanks to Sigmund Freud, who emphasized the intense rivalry between sons and fathers, and described the prevailing sense of inferiority towards the father figure in neurotic men, we realize what a loving father Hector must be, if he can pray for his son to excel over and above him.

In this scene, we can see how, at first, Hector is a warrior in the relationship to his son, but then, when he sees that Astyanax is scared, switches to what in Homer is a more maternal attitude, before later reassuming his paternal position. A corresponding shift happens in Andromache. Hector prays: “May he carry home the bloody spoils of the enemy he has killed, and bring joy to his mother’s heart.” Graziosi and Haubold point out that in the Homeric world this is an “unlikely image”,[4] so in fact Andromache is assuming a paternal role at this point, just as Hector had earlier assumed a maternal one.

Fresco from the Etruscan ‘Tomb of the Leopards’, decorated in the early/mid 5th cent. BC, and discovered in 1875 near Tarquinia, Lazio, Italy.

After the death of Hector, in Book Twenty Two, Andromache imagines Astyanax as an orphan and a friendless, miserable child (22.490–506). Her son in this fantasy becomes like the little girl from Achilles’ previous simile, hanging his head, his cheeks wet with tears, pulling his father’s friends by their cloaks and tunics. But there is little comfort here, only mocking and rejecting by his peers. What is curious in this image is that Astyanax has a mother willing to soothe him: he comes back in tears to her to be comforted. But it doesn’t seem to help, which indicates that the main structure of the passage is not a maternal, but a paternal one. It is not about soothing emotions or gratifying bodily needs. It is instead about belonging to a male community: because the child is fatherless, he is rejected from the shared dining with adult men and their sons, rejected by other boys who shout: “Get out, and quick! You have no father dining with us here.” And his mother cannot help him, because his need is, symbolically, to be accepted by the male group, represented here by the father.[5]

A similar combination of the paternal and maternal patterns can be seen in the beautiful scene where Phoenix, Achilles’ old teacher, tries to persuade him to abandon his anger and help the Achaeans in battle. He says:

“I brought you up to your manhood, godlike Achilles, with heartfelt love. You would never want to go with anyone else to a feast, or eat in your house, until I sat you on my knees and fed you, cutting up the first of the meat for you and holding wine to your lips. And many times you soaked the shirt on my chest with the wine you dribbled out in your baby helplessness.” (9.485–91).

The old man begins by saying that he raised Achilles up, which seems to suggest that he is a father figure here, evoking a familiar pattern of moral and social education. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. For we learn here that Achilles, already as a child, seems to have had serious authority issues, so the whole scene can be interpreted as an ominous premonition of what is to come. The small Achilles didn’t want to be fed by his divine mother or a nurse and didn’t want to submit to social rules; instead, it was he who manipulated his environment into submission. And we have, in the context of the Iliad, a typically maternal image of Phoenix, who cuts the meat for Achilles and holds wine to his lips.

Phoenix and Odysseus meet the seated Achilles (behind whom Patroclus stands): Attic red-figure hydria attributed to the ‘Kleophrades painter’, c. 480 BC (Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich, Germany).

Phoenix complains lovingly that Achilles used to soak his shirt with the wine (as the word καταδεύω suggests), which invokes images of breastfeeding mothers whose clothes are often wet from their babies posseting milk. But the helplessness of a baby who unintentionally soaks the mother’s clothes in this intense physical intimacy, is only part of the picture here. Achilles is clearly older (since he eats meat and drinks wine, he may be more like four or five years old). What Hammond, captivated, as it seems, by the maternal atmosphere of the scene, translated as “baby helplessness” above, is actually ἐν νηπιέῃ ἀλεγεινῇ. The word alegeinos (ἀλεγεινός), like algeinos (ἀλγεινός), means “causing pain or grief”. In the Iliad it accompanies references to deadly violence, as at 5.658, where it describes the spear with which Sarpedon killed Tlepolemus, or at 18.248, where it describes the horrible battle in which Achilles showed himself to the Trojans for the first time since the death of Patroclus. And yet this is how Achilles is already described as a toddler on his tutor’s lap.

Mateusz Stróżyński is a classicist, philosopher, psychologist, and psychotherapist, working as Associate Professor in the Institute of Classical Philology at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland. He is interested in ancient philosophy, especially the Platonic tradition. He has previously written for Antigone on Plotinus and mindfulness.

Further Reading

W. Donlan, “The structure of authority in the Iliad,” Arethusa 12 (1979) 51–70.

L. M. Slatkin, The Power of Thetis: Allusion and Interpretation in the Iliad (Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, CA 1995).

G. Wöhrle, Telemachs Reise: Väter und Söhne in Ilias und Odyssee (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen, 1999).  

B. Graziosi and J. Haubold, “Homeric masculinity: ΗΝΟΡΕΗ and ΑΓΗΝΟΡΙΗ,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 123 (2003) 60–76.


1 Translations are adapted from Martin Hammond’s translation of the Iliad (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1987).
2 The text of this (and any other) passage of the Iliad can most conveniently be explored in Greek and English via the Chicago Homer.
3 B. Graziosi and J. Haubold (eds.), Homer, Iliad Book VI,  (Cambridge UP, 2010) 26.
4 Ibid., 216
5 As Irene de Jong points out, the image of men holding a cup to the orphan’s lips does not evoke care, feeding or gratifying needs, but is “a symbol of his not being fully accepted” (I. de Jong (ed.), Homer, Iliad Book XXII, (Cambridge UP, 2012) 189–90).