Tuesday, October 9, 2012


Richard Holway, Becoming Achilles: Child-Sacrifice, War, and Misrule in the Iliad and Beyond. Greek Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches. Lanham, MD; Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books, 2012. Pp. xiv, 255. ISBN 9780739146910. $29.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Sonya Nevin, University of Roehampton (sonya.nevin@roehampton.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site


There exists a view that in order to be truly great you must sacrifice domestic happiness, perhaps even your life, in pursuit of your goal. In this interesting work by Richard Holway it is argued that the Iliad encourages this unhealthy acceptance of self-destruction as the natural pre-requisite of greatness. Using a psychology-based approach, with particular reference to infant attachment theory, Holway dissects the familial patterns in and around the Iliad to explore why its warriors willingly risk death.

Infant attachment theory, established by John Bowlby and developed by Mary Ainsworth, remains one of the most influential theories about child wellbeing.1 Its position is that when parents are negligent, the child is deeply traumatised, whether neglect takes the form of abandonment, abuse, or emotional unavailability. Fearing to protest against lack of loving care, children in this situation are prone to idealising the neglectful parent, displacing their anger onto others and, ultimately, themselves. Following Philip Slater's Glory of Hera, the introduction to Becoming Achilles begins the application of psychological theory to mythic families, outlining a dysfunctional parenting pattern in which mothers with superiority complexes attempt to rear superhuman sons in order to prove their own worth.2 Holway reads Achilles as a child of just such a family: abandoned by Thetis, becoming a hyper-aggressive adult, rageful against surrogate parents (Agamemnon), and ultimately willing to sacrifice his human need for nostos, dying as the superman his mother always wanted. Holway, a political scientist and lecturer in interdisciplinary studies, goes further, arguing that the Iliad fosters a perpetuation of neglectful parenting by disguising the extent to which parents contribute to the creation of maladjusted adults. He claims that the Iliad is the ultimate self-validating text of a 'child-sacrificing' culture in which the creation of self-sacrificing men was essential to meet military demands. Scholars and postgraduate students are likely to find this a thought-provoking read, though they may find the overarching ideas more pleasing than certain aspects of the source usage.

Chapter 1, The Quarrel, continues the exploration of familial patterns prior to the Trojan War. It is argued that old quarrels on Olympus are as important as those in the Achaean camp, and the spectres of Zeus' castrated forefathers loom large. We are reminded that (in some traditions) Zeus preferred the daughter-like Thetis to his wife Hera, until he was warned away by prophecies about her father-surpassing son. The subsequent Trojan War is read as a displacement of cosmic tensions – tensions which are re-enacted in the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon. The reader is immersed in a fascinating psychological analysis of the Iliad's heroes, but even at this stage methodological concerns emerge. The argument is uncomfortably dependant on Thetis being desired by Zeus, then abandoning Achilles. Though a case can be made for both these points, the Iliad does not support them unambiguously and other traditions exist. We are required to accept that there is one 'real' version of events that can be deduced, a position many will find unsatisfactory.

Chapter 2, Heroic Psychology, revisits infant attachment theory in more detail, combining it with theories about incest cycles to present a troubling picture of the psychological make-up of Greek warriors. And the term 'Greek' is deliberate here, as Holway argues that the dynamic he describes goes beyond Homer to ancient Greek society across periods. These very involved theories are outlined clearly by Holway in what is a more readable chapter than might be expected. Mythobiographies then develops the connections between the dynamics outlined in chapter 2 and the characters of the Iliad. Beginning with Peleus' troubled background, we move on to Thetis' child-rearing practices, and attempts to immortalise Achilles by dipping him in the Styx, anointing him with ambrosia, and/or abandoning him to Peleus are read as more or less figurative ways of attempting to remove human weakness. As the Iliad makes no mention of attempted immortalisation, Holway turns to Apollodorus, Apollonius of Rhodes, and Statius. The similarity of these traditions to the story of Demeter and Demophoon is cited as further evidence of Greek culture endorsing neglectful mothering. It is problematic that the sources about Achilles are so much later than the Iliad and the Homeric Hymns. Holway argues nonetheless that the traditions in them informed the Iliad and that they are absent from the epic because they would be too plain an admission of Thetis' violence towards Achilles, something 'too close to the bone' to acknowledge (57). Although myths from beyond Troy are certainly meaningful in the Iliad, Holway does not address what is surely likely – that traditions about attempts to immortalise Achilles were inspired by those about Demophoon. That the Demophoon story was transferred to Achilles may be significant, or it may be that this was just one way to expand Achilles' mythobiography. With this in mind, and as the Iliad is ambiguous about Thetis' relationship with Peleus, it is difficult to accept that Thetis' mistreatment of Achilles is as fundamental to the Iliad as Holway suggests.

Chapter 4, Catharsis and Denial, argues that the Iliad is comprised of 'a structure of denial to cathartic effect' (61), with all references to bad parenting focused on a scapegoated Agamemnon. This offers catharsis to the Achaeans and to the Iliad's audience, who join in the anger against Agamemnon while avoiding the punishment Achilles absorbs. This displaces the audience's own anger (induced by 'the dominant child- rearing patterns' of ancient Greece (77)), venting the real-life anti-parent anger that could undermine military culture. At a subconscious level, it is argued, this is what made the Iliad so indispensable to ancient Greek society. The discussion in this chapter is intriguing, but a strange shift has taken place in it. By now there is talk of Thetis' 'grotesquely inflated sense of her worth' (71). Such futile criticism only highlights the problems of psychoanalysing mythical, literary figures. Whether or not we believe Thetis to be an immortal, there is no 'real' Thetis who is not. The Thetis given to us in literature is divine; in parts of Greece she was worshipped. Her sense of superiority is not a complex, and raising the prospect that there were 'functional equivalents' of divinity in the real world does not explain how real mothers, across all periods, came to have the proliferation of superiority complexes necessary to create the society of damaged warriors Holway imagines. Slater created methodological problems by mixing real and mythic indiscriminately. Holway replicates these problems but does less to establish a link between the mythic and the historic, arguing simply that mothers pitting sons against fathers must have been 'all too common.' (33)

Chapter 5, Fathers and Sons, revisits the difficulties in ancient Greek father-son relationships in greater detail. Chapter 6, Mothers and Sons, argues that Achilles' maternal experience must have been 'common to virtually all,' who encountered the Iliad in antiquity (107). Hera and Thetis are said to reflect the split perception of a parent that is common to neglected children, with Hera embodying the negative aspects, leaving Thetis idealised. In discussing this split, it is stated that 'empirical studies' prove that only abused children create split parent figures and that Thetis/Hera therefore prove that Greek culture was fractured by attachment trauma (110). 'Empirical studies' are rarely cited in humanities, which gives the phrase an air of authority, yet this expression masks the casual conflation of modern US and UK case studies with the relationship between an ancient society and its literature, when the applicability is far from self-explanatory. Treatment of the death of Patroclus raises further questions about the application of psychological theory. The discussion of the effect on Achilles is insightful, yet when Patroclus is referred to as Achilles' 'beloved friend', it recalls the fact that infant attachment theory, on which this work depends, argues that those who are damaged by parental neglect find it difficult to form close adult relationships. Achilles' relationships with Patroclus and Briseis do not indicate someone with this problem. Similarly, Ainsworth's development of Bowlby's theory demonstrated that mothers are not the only source of healthy infant attachment; where mothers are neglectful or absent, other carers, including fathers, can function equally well in their place. The Iliad alone gives Achilles Peleus, Phoinix, and Chiron as important nurturers. Even accepting that Thetis did abandon Achilles, he need not have developed attachment trauma. If we are to read the Iliad through the lens of infant attachment theory, we should be prepared to consider all aspects of it before arriving at the diagnosis.

Parental anger is terrible for a child. Chapter 7, Departures from the Maternal Agenda, examines what happens when the Achaean (pseudo) children temporarily abandon their divine (pseudo) parents' plans. Chapter 8, Self in Crisis, includes compelling examples from second-self theory and works through the final psychological stage in which 'responsibility and anger for the sacrifice of Achilles' nostos is shifted away from his parents or their surrogates and towards himself.' (154)

The Epilogue, Achilles and Socrates, is important to the book as a whole. Holway draws attention to a passage in Plato's Apology in which Socrates invokes Achilles and declares that he will stand by his conviction though it cost him his life. In an interesting discussion re-visiting previous scholarly debates, Holway attempts to dismantle the image of Socrates the selfless champion of philosophy. Plato represented Socrates' death as a failure of democracy. In reality, Holway argues, Socrates was simply clinging to a self-destructive heroic code. Through Plato, the dominance of the Achillean model has undermined the image and growth of democracy, fostering generations of self-sacrifice and war.

Becoming Achilles is an interesting and provocative work that offers a fresh way of thinking about warrior psychology. Given the complex associations being traced, it is also commendably readable, and typographical errors are very few. The major difficulties of the work are ones of methodology. The absence of essential material from the Iliad is termed denial, and a selection of different traditions is employed to establish a 'real' history of Achilles. Surely there is too much positivism and circularity here. The agressively selective use of sources is most apparent in the tradition that is notable by its absence, namely, that in which Thetis conspired long and hard to keep Achilles from Troy, hiding him as a girl on Scyros. The second methodological problem is the use of Homer to analyse a homogenous mass of 'ancient Greeks'. With little explanation, Becoming Achilles moves from presenting Achilles and Agamemnon's psychological states as unfortunate and idiosyncratic, to presenting this as the default state of the Achaeans and finally of the historical Greeks as a whole. Greek culture certainly produced plenty of stories about dysfunctional families, and this book is a useful prompt for thinking about what that means. Nonetheless, there is an over-reliance on Homer and a combination of myths for conclusions about the rest of Greek history. Jason Crowley's The Psychology of the Athenian Hoplite, for example, is more successful for having analysed a wide variety of social evidence to approach combat motivation.3

Given the wealth of themes that the Iliad addresses and the range of social functions it performed, the sacrifice of children to parental and societal need need not be the reason it was so universally lauded. Becoming Achilles is an engaging read but has not fully convinced the reviewer of the 'real' reasons that men took their places in the front ranks of the Lycians and flung themselves into the flames of battle.


1.   Ainsworth, Mary. Patterns of Attachment. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1978; Bowlby, John. Attachment and Loss. Basic Books, 1969-80
2.   Slater, Philip. The Glory of Hera: Greek Mythology and the Greek Family. Boston, Beacon Press, 1968
3.   Crowley, Jason. The Psychology of the Athenian Hoplite: the Culture of Combat in Classical Athens. Cambridge, CUP 2012


  1. For the most part, this review fairly and accurately represents my book's argument (which I appreciate!), and it makes some good points, pro and con. Sometimes, however, it loses sight of the fact that I was writing about (1) a poem [the Iliad] and its relationship to (2) its implied audience (a hypothetical audience inferred from and tested against the poem). At various points I indulged in limited speculation about possible correspondences between this implied or ideal audience and (3) contemporary and later Greek audiences, which obviously differed from one another and changed over time—even as the poem and its implied audience did not.

    As a professional editor, I know where responsibility for these and other confusions and misunderstanding lies, and it is not with the reader.

  2. The review makes a fundamental error in not realizing that many of the Trojan War traditions are rejected by the Iliad. Achilles was not hidden on Scyros; Thetis willingly gave him to Agamemnon.


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