Achilles: Tragic Hero of the Trojan War

Achilles may be another of ancient Greece’s dashing heroes, but there is more to this soldier than a pretty face and mean right hook. As a hero, Achilles symbolized both mankind’s excellence and its extreme vulnerability. The Greeks of eld venerated this man: the bravest, most handsome, toughest of the Achaean forces. However, his sensitivity and pitiful circumstances are what left a lasting impact.

After all, at the age of his death, Achilles was a mere 33 years old. He entered the official war at 23, and for a decade knew nothing of anything else. He was impulsive and let his emotions get the best of him, but damn – could the kid fight. 

Youthful Achilles represented the best and worst of mankind. His identity was a heavy burden to bear. Above all else, Achilles became the embodiment of what grief and war could drive one to do. The rage directed at forces beyond one’s control and the knee-jerk reaction to loss are all too familiar in today’s day and age.

It is true that while Homer may have given life to the Greek hero known as Achilles, his legendary death in Troy did not mark the end of him. 

Who is Achilles in Mythology?

Achilles was a renowned hero in Greek mythology, predominantly during the Trojan War. He had the reputation as the strongest soldier of the Greeks. Few could match his might and many fell to his blade.

In Greek mythology, Achilles was the son of Thetis, a sea nymph, and Peleus, an aged Greek hero that became the king of Phthia. When Achilles was born, Thetis became obsessed with keeping Achilles safe. She went to extreme lengths to ensure that her son was nigh untouchable, regardless of his destined mortality.

A young Thetis actually held the affections of Zeus and Poseidon until a pesky little prophecy (you know how it goes) ruined their romantic relationships for good. Yeah, apparently the child born to Thetis would be greater than his father, so having the literal king of the gods be that guy isn’t a good idea. At least, not for Zeus.

Once Prometheus spilled the prophetic beans, Zeus saw Thetis as nothing more than a walking red flag. He let Poseidon in on the not-so-secret secret and both brothers lost feelings fast.

So, what else were the gods to do except marrying off the pretty nymph to an old, mortal hero? After all, the child (ahem, Achilles) would be the son of an average Joe, meaning he would pose no threat to the gods. That should fix the problem…right? 

It was at the wedding of Thetis and Peleus that Eris, the goddess of discord and strife, crashed. She tossed in the Apple of Discord between goddesses Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena, which led to the judgment of Paris. When the unsuspecting princeling awarded Aphrodite the golden Apple of Discord, his fate – and the fate of Troy – was all sealed. 

Is Achilles a God or Demi-God?

Achilles, despite his supernatural fortitude, was not a god or a demi-god. He was the son of a sea nymph, who despite being long-lived are not immortal, and a mortal man. Thus, Achilles was not born of divine stock. Achilles’ mother, Thetis, was unfortunately very aware of such a fact.

Achilles’ birth and death both act as evidence of his mortality. After all, in Greek myths, gods do not die. Also, while demigods certainly can die, Achilles’ known parentage disqualifies him from being a demigod. 

Was Achilles in the Greek Army?

Achilles was in the Greek army at the time of the Trojan War much to the displeasure of his mother, Thetis. He led a contingent of Myrmidons during the 10-year conflict, arriving on the shores of Troy with 50 ships of his own. Each ship carried 50 men, meaning that Achilles alone added 2,500 men to the Greek army. 

The Myrmidons were soldiers from the Phthiotis region of Thessaly, which is believed to be Achilles’ homeland. Today, the capital city is Lamia, though during the time of Achilles it was Phthia.

Was Achilles a Suitor of Helen?

Achilles was not a suitor of Helen. He had not yet been born during the selection of suitors or was an infant at the time. Such a fact makes him stand out against other characters central to the Trojan War. 

Since the Oath of Tyndareus could not be exacted with Achilles, the hero wasn’t required to fight. Or, he wouldn’t have been if there wasn’t for that prophecy stating that he was vital to the success of the Greek campaign. In all, Achilles was not obligated to obey Agamemnon on the account of the oath taken by the suitors of Helen.

Achilles in Greek Mythology

Most knowledge we have on Achilles’ role in mythology is from the epic poem, the Iliad. Achilles is then expanded upon in Aeschylus’ fragmented trilogy, the Achilleis. Meanwhile, the unfinished Achilleid written by Roman poet Statius in the 1st century CE is meant to chronicle Achilles’ life. These sources all explore Achilles as he was in Greek mythology, flaws and all.

Achilles is still revered as the greatest warrior of his time despite his early death at Troy. He was infamous for being a thorn in the Greek gods’ side and a fearsome opponent on the battlefield. His divine armor, unmatchable determination, and merciless ferocity all came to support his legend.

Throughout his related myths, Achilles is shown to be impulsive. Although it is clear that he can perform his duty as an Achaean warrior, most of Achilles’ most notable feats are those that are emotionally charged. While these are the myths that live on in infamy, we’ll start at the beginning with Achilles’ birth.

A Mother’s Love

When Achilles was born, his mother was desperate to make her beloved son immortal. Since Thetis had wed a mortal and she was a simple nereid herself, her son had the same fleeting lifespan as any other human. She lamented the fact, despairing that she would be holding Achilles, “a glorious star,” in the Heavens if her marriage were to an immortal. If such an arrangement had been made, Thetis would not “fear the lowly Fates or the destinies of Earth.”

In an attempt to grant her son immortality, Thetis traveled to the realm of Hades. Once there, Thetis dipped Achilles into the River Styx, holding him by his ankle. The Stygian waters washed over infant Achilles, making the boy practically untouchable. That is, all except his heel that his mother held him by. 

In another variation of this myth found in the Argonautica, Thetis anointed Achilles with ambrosia and burned away the mortal parts of him. Peleus, her husband, interrupted her before she could finish, explaining how Achilles had a vulnerability in his heel. 

Achilles being a god-like man with a single vulnerability in his heel emerged from the writings of Statius. When the Trojan War rolls around in the Iliad, Achilles does get wounded in skirmishes, unlike in later literature.

Getting the Hero Treatment

When Achilles became old enough, his parents did what any parents in ancient Greece would do if they had high hopes for their kiddo: drop them off for hero training. Chiron, a kindly centaur, was usually the go-to guy for training Greek heroes. He was the son of Cronus and a nymph, Philyra, which made him markedly different from other centaurs local to Thessaly.

Luckily, Peleus had a long history with Chiron (who may or may not have been his grandfather) so he knew Achilles was in safe hands on Mount Pelion. It also comforted Thetis, who was glad that her son could now defend himself. When his training was complete, Achilles taught everything he knew to his companion, Patroclus.

A Mother’s Love (Remixed)

Tensions began to rise with Troy and it soon became clear that war was inevitable. As it turns out, Paris was not keen on returning his newfound bride. 

At the first signs of conflict, Thetis sent Achilles off to the island of Skyros. There, Achilles hid among the daughters of Lycomedes. He went by the name Pyrrha and was flawlessly disguised as a young woman of King Lycomedes’ court. During his stay, he fathered a child with a princess of Skyros, Deidamia: Neoptolemus.

This plan to protect and keep Achilles away from the frontlines probably would have worked, if not for Odysseus. Ah, clever, crafty Odysseus!

A prophet had claimed that Troy would not and could not be captured without Achilles’ help. Alas, when Achilles was a no-show, Odysseus was charged with searching for the great warrior.

While there was suspicion that Achilles was in Skyros, Odysseus needed hard proof. So, he dressed as a merchant visiting the court, bringing gowns, jewels, and weapons (sus) to the court. When the sound of a war horn rang out according to Odysseus’ plan, Achilles was the only one to react. Without hesitation, then 15-year-old Achilles grabbed a spear and shield to protect the court that had been harboring him since he was 9 years old

Although he was still under the guise of Pyrrha, the jig was up. Odysseus removed Achilles from King Lycomedes’ court and brought him before Agamemnon.

Iphigenia

In the Iliad, not everything was smooth sailing for the Greeks at the start of the Trojan War. Actually, they weren’t sailing at all. 

Agamemnon had insulted the goddess Artemis and as revenge, she stilled the winds. At these early stages of the war, the Greek gods and goddesses were still divided amongst themselves. The Trojans were supported by a third of the Olympian gods, including the Greek god Apollo, Artemis, Poseidon, and Aphrodite. Meanwhile, the Greeks had the backing of the goddess Hera, Athena, and (of course) Achilles’ mother. 

Other deities were either uninvolved or routinely playing both sides during the war.

Since Artemis was wronged by Agamemnon, the Greek fleet was stuck in the Aulis harbor. A seer is consulted and advises that Agamemnon had to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, to appease Artemis. Although disturbed by the request, Agamemnon had no other lead to follow. As long as the ends justify the means, anything was on the table…including sacrificing your child.

Suspecting that his daughter and wife wouldn’t be down with the sacrifice, Agamemnon lied. He claimed that a wedding would be held for Achilles to marry Iphigenia, thus requiring her presence at the docks. Since Achilles was the most handsome of the Achaeans and was already considered a great warrior, there was no debate. 

At the hour of the supposed wedding, it became clear that Iphigenia was tricked. The deceit angered Achilles, who was unaware that his name had even been used. He tried to intervene, but despite his best efforts, Iphigenia agreed to be sacrificed anyway. 

The Trojan War

During the fabled Trojan War, Achilles was considered to be the greatest warrior of the Greek forces. His staying in the fight was crucial to the success of the Greeks, as per a prophecy. Though, it was also well-known that if Achilles were to participate in the war, he would come to perish in far-off Troy (another prophecy). 

It was a catch-22: to fight meant that he would die, but if Achilles refused then his comrades would die. Thetis knew, Achilles knew, and so did every one of the Achaeans.

From the Top

Homer’s Iliad begins by calling upon the Muses to tell the tale of Achilles’ wrath and its unavoidable consequences. He is, undoubtedly, the main character of the story. The decisions Achilles makes affect everyone else, no matter if they were Achaean or Trojan. 

In the war, Achilles commanded the Myrmidons. However, he pulls out of the fight after butting heads with Agamemnon over the ownership of a captive, Briseis. It isn’t the first time that Achilles disagrees with Agamemnon, and it wouldn’t be the last. 

Achilles felt such anger over the slight that he encouraged his mother to tell Zeus to let the Trojans win during his absence. That was the only way for Agamemnon to recognize his folly. As the Greeks began to lose, nothing seemed to be enough to convince Achilles to return to the fray. 

Eventually, the Trojans grew dangerously close to the Achaean fleet. Patroclus requested Achilles’ armor from him so that he could impersonate the hero, hopefully scaring the enemy away from their ships. While Achilles concedes, he tells Patroclus to return as soon as the Trojans begin their retreat to the gates of Troy. 

The Death of Patroclus

Patroclus does not listen to his dear Achilles. While pursuing the Trojans, Patroclus is killed. He is struck down instead by Hector, who was aided by the god Apollo. Hector then strips Patroclus of Achilles’ armor.

When Achilles discovered Patroclus’ death, he threw himself weeping to the ground. He tore at his hair and wailed so loudly that his mother – then among her nereid sisters – heard his cries. The anger he had towards Agamemnon is promptly replaced with heavy grief over his friend’s death. He agreed to return to the war only to avenge Patroclus.

Achilles’ wrath was unleashed upon the Trojans following his friend’s death. He was a one-man killing machine, fighting all who stood against him. The object of Achilles’ ire was none other than Hector: the Trojan prince that fell Patroclus.

The hero even throws hands with a river god since he told Achilles to stop killing so many Trojans. Of course, the Scamander River won, nearly drowning Achilles, but the point is that Achilles had a bone to pick with everyone. Not even the divine was spared his wrath.

During this mourning period, Achilles refuses food and drink. Sleep evades him, though in the small moments of shut-eye he does get, Patroclus haunts him.

Bittersweet Revenge

Eventually, Achilles does get the chance to meet Hector on the battlefield. Hector is aware that Achilles is hell-bent on killing him, though still attempts to reason with the Greek hero.

It’s…an awful encounter, really. 

Achilles chases Hector around the walls of Troy three times before Hector faces the raging man. He agreed to a duel on the chance that the victor would return the other’s body to their respective side. Hardened by the death of Patroclus, Achilles looks Hector in the eyes and tells him to stop begging; that he would rip apart his flesh himself and devour him, but since he couldn’t, he would throw him instead to the dogs.

The two men duel and Hector is killed. Achilles then dragged Hector’s body behind his chariot to humiliate him and the Trojans. It isn’t until King Priam comes to Achilles’ tent begging for the return of his son’s body that Hector’s corpse is returned to his family.

A Vision from the Underworld

In Book 11 of the Odyssey, Homer’s second epic, Odysseus encounters the ghost of Achilles. The voyage home from the Trojan War had not been an easy one. Many men were already lost by the time the crew had to travel to the gate of the Underworld. However, if they desired to return to Ithaca then they needed to consult with a long-dead seer.

There was no other way.

Many spectors appear when Odysseus performs a chthonic sacrifice to summon the seer. One of these spirits was that of Achilles, Odysseus’ former comrade. Alongside him were shades of Patroclus, Ajax, and Antilochus. 

The two Greek heroes converse, with Odysseus encouraging Achilles not to grieve his own death since he had more leisure in death than he did in life. Achilles, on the other hand, is not so convinced: “I’d rather serve as another man’s laborer, as a poor peasant without land, and be alive on Earth than be lord of all the lifeless dead.”

They then discuss Neoptolemus, Achilles’ son with Deidamia of Skyros. Odysseus reveals that Neoptolemus was as much a skilled warrior as his father. He even fought in the war that killed Achilles, likewise fighting in the Greek army. Upon hearing the news, Achilles receded to the Fields of Asphodel, pleased with the success of his son.

How was Achilles Killed?

The death of Achilles took place before the end of the Trojan War.  In the most common retelling of the myth, the Trojan prince Paris pierced Achilles’ heel with an arrow. Apollodorus confirms this in Chapter 5 of Epitome, as well as in Statius’ Achilleid

The arrow was only able to strike Achilles’ heel because it was being guided by the Greek god Apollo. In nearly all iterations of Achilles’ death, it is always Apollo that leads Paris’ arrow.

Throughout many myths regarding Achilles, Apollo always had a bit of a thing against him. Sure, the god was partial to the Trojans but Achilles also committed some ire-worthy acts. He kidnapped a daughter of a priest of Apollo which led to a plague sweeping through the Greek camp. He also may or may not have killed Apollo’s speculated son, Troilus, at a temple of Apollo. 

Since Thetis managed to convince Zeus to bring honor to Achilles, the man died a hero’s death. 

Achilles’ Armor

Achilles’ armor has quite the significance in the Iliad. It was crafted by none other than the Greek god Hephaestus to be impenetrable. More than being magically enchanted, Achilles’ armor was also a sight to behold. Homer describes the armor as being polished bronze and decorated with stars. The set, according to Achilles in the Iliad, was gifted to Peleus at his wedding to Thetis. 

After Achilles withdraws from the battle because of his dispute with Agamemnon, the armor ends up with Patroclus. Homer mentions Patroclus to have requested the armor for a single defensive mission. Other sources have suggested that Patroclus stole the armor since he knew Achilles would deny him a return to the battle. Regardless, Patroclus wears Achilles’ armor into battle against Hector and his men.

The armor of Achilles was taken by Hector after Patroclus’ death. Next time it appears Hector is wearing it to face off with Achilles. After Achilles loses possession of the fabled armor, Thetis petitions Hephaestus to make a new set for her son. This time around, Achilles has a spectacular shield made by the god as well.

Was Achilles Worshiped in Ancient Greece?

Though not a god, Achilles was worshiped within select hero cults of ancient Greece. Hero cults involved the veneration of heroes or heroines among specific locales. This interesting facet of Greek religion is oftentimes equated to ancestral worship; a hero cult was normally established at the site of a hero’s life or death. As for the heroes in Homer’s works, they all were likely worshiped in local hero cults throughout ancient Greece.

When Achilles fell in battle, his death marked the beginning of a hero cult. A tomb was established, the Tumuli of Achilles, where the bones of the hero were left with those of Patroclus. The tomb had been the location of numerous ritualistic sacrifices in the ancient past. Even Alexander the Great stopped by to pay homage to the late heroes on his travels.

The heroic cult of Achilles was bordered on being panHellenic. Various locations of worship were spread throughout the Greco-Roman world. Of these, Achilles had cult sanctuaries established in Sparta, Elis, and his homeland of Thessaly. Worship was also evident throughout Southern Italian coastal regions.

Is the Story of Achilles a True Story?

The story of Achilles is compelling, although likely a complete legend. There is no proof, outside of literary sources, that an invincible Achaean soldier by the name of Achilles existed. It is far more plausible that Achilles originated as a symbolic character in Homer’s Iliad.

Achilles embodied the collective humanity of the Greek warriors that laid siege to ancient Troy. He was their success as much as he was their failure. Even if Troy could not be taken without Achilles’ aid, he was nonetheless reckless, arrogant, and short-sighted. Though, despite living a life steeped in legend, there is a possibility that there was an inimitable warrior of the same name. 

The Iliad originally had Achilles be far less supernatural than his later variations, suggesting that he could have been based on a once-famous warrior. He suffered injuries in the Iliad, rather than suddenly dropping dead from an arrow wound to his ankle. 

This theory does lack concrete evidence, but there is a chance that Homer had heard a more diluted version of the Trojan War and its tragic cast. Nothing can be said entirely for certain, except that as of now, Achilles was nothing more than a literary creation of Homer.

Did Achilles have a Male Lover?

Achilles was thought to have openly taken both male and female lovers during his life. He fathered a child with Deidamia of Skyros during his formative years and allowed his affection for Briseis to tear a rift between himself and Agamemnon. In some variations of Greek mythology, Achilles even had romantic relations with both Iphigenia and Polyxena. Regardless of his confirmed (and implicit) trysts with women, there are at least two people of the male sex that the Greek hero reportedly fell in love with.

It is valuable to note that homosexuality in ancient Greek society was viewed differently than it is today. Same-sex relationships, especially amongst those in military service, were not unusual. With all things considered, the elite Sacred Band of Thebes was established during the Peloponnesian War, thereby making such intimate relationships somewhat beneficial in that aspect.

As it was, same-sex relationships were viewed differently throughout different regions of ancient Greece. Whereas some city-states encouraged these relationships, others (like Athens) expected men to settle down and have children.

Patroclus

The most well-known of Achilles’ list of lovers is Patroclus. After having killed another child in his youth, Patroclus was passed off to Achilles’ father, who then assigned the boy to be his son’s attendant. From that point on, Achilles and Patroclus were inseparable. 

During the war, Patroclus followed Achilles to the front lines. Despite the prince being in a position of leadership, Patroclus displayed a greater sense of awareness, self-control, and wisdom. Much of the time, Patroclus was regarded as a role model for a young Achilles despite being only a handful of years older.

When Achilles left the fighting after being disrespected by Agamemnon, he brought his Myrmidons with him. This left the outcome of the war bleak for the Greek army. A desperate Patroclus returned to combat impersonating Achilles, donning his armor and commanding the Myrmidons. 

Amid combat, Patroclus was robbed of his wits by the Greek god Apollo. He was dazed enough to allow an opening for the Trojan prince Hector to strike a killing blow.  

Upon hearing of Patroclus’ death, Achilles went into a period of grieving. The body of Patroclus went unburied until Patroclus manifested in Achilles’ dreams asking for a proper burial. When Achilles eventually died, his ashes were mixed with those of Patroclus, the man he “loved as my own life.” This act would fulfill a request of Patroclus’ shade: “don’t place my bones apart from yours, Achilles, but together, just as we were brought up together in your home.”

The actual depth of Achilles’ and Patroclus’ relationship has been placed under the microscope in recent years. Its complexity is a point of controversy amongst scholars. Truthfully, it was not until later interpretations of Achilles’ story that a romantic relationship between the men was suggested. 

Troilus

Troilus is a young Trojan prince, the son of Queen Hecuba of Troy. According to legend, Troilus was so beautiful that he may have been fathered by Apollo rather than Priam. 

As the standard myth goes, Achilles happened across Troilus and his sister, the Trojan princess Polyxena, outside of Troy’s walls. Unluckily for Troilus, his fate was inexplicably tied to that of the city, which made him a target for enemy attacks. Even worse was that Achilles became immediately taken by Troilus’ youthful beauty. 

Achilles pursued Troilus as the boy fled from his advances, eventually capturing and killing him at a temple to Apollo. The sacrilege became the catalyst for Apollo’s desperate desire to see the Greek hero killed since murder on sanctuary grounds was an insult to the Olympian gods. Also, if Troilus was Apollo’s kid, the god wouldn’t take the offense sitting down.

The specifics regarding the circumstances of Troilus’ death are not clearly stated in the Iliad. It is implied that he had died in combat, but the finer details are never touched on. When Priam calls Achilles an “andros paidophonoio” – a boy-slaying man – it can be inferred that Achilles was responsible for murdering young Troilus.

What is an Achilles Heel?

Something that is an Achilles heel is a weakness, or a vulnerability, in an otherwise mighty thing. More often than not, an Achilles heel can lead to destruction. If not complete destruction, then certainly a downfall.

The idiom itself comes from the myths of Achilles where his lone weakness was his left heel. Therefore, calling something an “Achilles heel” is acknowledging it as a fatal weakness. Examples of an Achilles heel are varied; the phrase can be applied to anything from a serious addiction to a poor football pick. Usually, an Achilles heel is a fatal flaw.

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