Achilles

Achilles was a hero of the Trojan War, the greatest of all the Greek warriors, and is the central character of Homer’s Iliad. He was the son of the Nereid Thetis and Peleus, king of Phthia.

Parents: Peleus and Thetis
Children: Neoptolemus

Ancient Greek polychromatic pottery painting, c. 300 BC of Achilles killing the Ethiopian king Memnon, who fought as an ally of the Trojans during the Trojan War.

Birth and Early Life

Zeus and Poseidon had been rivals for the hand of Thetis until Prometheus, the fore-thinker, warned Zeus of a prophecy that Thetis would bear a son greater than his father. For this reason, the two gods withdrew their pursuit, and had her wed Peleus.

When Achilles was born, Thetis tried to make him immortal by dipping him in the river Styx; however, he was left vulnerable at the part of the body by which she had held him: his left heel.

Thetis Dipping the Infant Achilles into the River Styx by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1625, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam.

Peleus entrusted Achilles to Chiron the Centaur, on Mount Pelion, for his eductaion. Thetis foretold that her son’s fate was either to gain glory and die young, or to live a long but uneventful life in obscurity.

Chiron teaching Achilles how to play the lyre, Roman fresco from Herculaneum, 1st c. AD.

Hidden on Skyrus

In order to keep Achilles safe from the Trojan war, Thetis hid Achilles at the court of Lycomedes, king of Skyrus. There, Achilles was disguised as a girl and lived among Lycomedes’ daughters. Odysseus learns from the prophet Calchas that the Greeks would be unable to capture Troy without Achilles’ aid. Therefore Odysseus goes to Skyrus in the guise of a peddler selling women’s clothes and jewellery and places a shield and spear among his goods. When Achilles immediately takes up the spear, Odysseus sees through his disguise and convinces him to join the Greek war effort.

Achilles is defrocked. Roman Fresco from the House of the Dioscuri, Pompeii.

The Trojan War

The Iliad begins with Achilles’ withdrawal from battle after being dishonoured by Agamemnon, the commander of the Greek forces. Agamemnon had taken a woman named Chryseis as his slave. Her father Chryses, a priest of Apollo, begged Agamemnon to return her to him. Agamemnon refused and Apollo sent a plague amongst the Greeks. The prophet Calchas declared that Chryseis must be returned to her father. Agamemnon consented, but then commanded that Achilles’ battle prize Briseis, be brought to him to replace Chryseis. Angry at the dishonour of having his plunder and glory taken away, Achilles refused to fight or lead his troops alongside the other Greek forces. At the same time, burning with rage over Agamemnon’s theft, Achilles prayed to Thetis to convince Zeus to help the Trojans gain ground in the war, so that he may regain his honour.

Achilles cedes Briseis to Agamemnon. Roman fresco from the House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii, 1st c. AD, Naples National Archaeological Museum.

As the battle turned against the Greeks, thanks to the influence of Zeus, Nestor declared that the Trojans were winning because Agamemnon had angered Achilles, and urged the king to appease the warrior. Agamemnon agreed and sent Odysseus and two other chieftains, Ajax and Phoenix, to Achilles with the offer of the return of Briseis and other gifts. Achilles rejected all Agamemnon offered him and simply urged the Greeks to sail home as he was planning to do.

Patroclus

The Trojans, led by Hector, subsequently pushed the Greek army back towards the beaches and assaulted the Greek ships. With the Greek forces on the verge of absolute destruction, Patroclus led the Myrmidons into battle, wearing Achilles’ armour, though Achilles remained at his camp, oblivious. Patroclus succeeded in pushing the Trojans back from the beaches but is killed by Hector before he can lead a proper assault on the city of Troy.

The body of Patroclus borne by Menelaus. Roman sculpture, Florence.

After receiving the news of the death of Patroclus, Achilles grieved over his beloved companion’s death. His mother Thetis came to comfort the distraught Achilles. She persuaded Hephaestus to make new armour for him, in place of the armour that Patroclus had been wearing, which had been taken by Hector. The new armour includes the Shield of Achilles, described in great detail in the poem.

The shield’s design as interpreted by Angelo Monticelli, from Le Costume Ancien ou Moderne, c. 1820.

The Wrath of Achilles

Enraged over the death of Patroclus, Achilles ended his refusal to fight and took to the field, killing many men in his rage but always seeking out Hector. Achilles even engaged in battle with the river god Scamander, who had become angry that Achilles was choking his waters with all the men he had killed. The god tried to drown Achilles but was stopped by Hera and Hephaestus. Zeus himself takes note of Achilles’ rage and sent the gods to restrain him so that he would not go on to sack Troy itself before the time allotted for its destruction, seeming to show that the unhindered rage of Achilles could defy fate itself.

The Rage of Achilles. Fresco by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1757, Villa Valmarana ai Nani, Vicenza.

Finally, Achilles found his nemesis. Achilles chased Hector around the walls of Troy three times before Athena, in the form of Hector’s favorite and dearest brother, Deiphobus, persuaded Hector to stop running and fight Achilles face to face. After Hector realizes the trick, he knew the battle is inevitable. Wanting to go down fighting, he charged at Achilles with his only weapon, his sword, but missed. Accepting his fate, Hector begged Achilles, not to spare his life, but to treat his body with respect after he had killed him. Achilles told Hector it is hopeless to expect that of him. Achilles then killed Hector and dragged his corpse by its heels behind his chariot. Achilles then hosted a series of funeral games in honour of Patroclus.

Triumphant Achilles dragging Hector’s lifeless body in Troy. A fresco in the Achilleion, Corfu.

Death

Achilles was killed by Paris during the Trojan War with an arrow, which Apollo guided on its way. His bones were mingled with those of Patroclus, and funeral games were held.

Dying Achilles in the garden of the Achilleion, Corfu.