What did Achilles do in the Trojan War and how important was he in Greek culture?

Achilles from an ancient vase

The heroes of the Trojan War continue to fascinate audiences. Perhaps the most famous of all the Greek heroes who fought in Troy's 10-year siege is Achilles. His adventures, especially in Homer's work, are among the most memorable in all of Graeco-Roman mythology. The young warrior who was invincible in battle because of his swiftness and lived only for glory was the ultimate Greek hero and a cultural icon who inspired conquerors, politicians, poets, and artists. The myths of Achilles need to be understood, as they offer a unique window into the Greek World and mindset.

Origin of Achilles

Linear B tablets found at Mycenaean sites in Greece bear inscriptions with a name similar to Achilles. It appears that the name is ancient. There is no evidence that Achilles was a Mycenaean hero or god. Some argue that the legendary hero was once a water spirit or god. Achilles was probably transformed into a hero during the Greek Dark Ages.

Homer (if he existed) compiled his two great epics by the time Achilles was a glory-seeking invincible warrior. The Homeric epics played a crucial role in the development of the story of the great warrior. However, the myths were expanded upon by later poets, some of these in epics, part of the Trojan Cycle that has been lost. In a 4th century BC poem, the Posthomerica also added new elements to the story of Achilles.

The life of Achilles

Thetis dipping Achilles into the River Styx

Achilles was the son of the beautiful nymph Thetis. She was so beautiful that she won the admiration of Zeus and his brother Poseidon. However, when it was, prophesized that the son of the nymph would be greater than his father, the two Gods backed off, not wanting to be usurped.[1]

The gods avoided the nymph after this, and she ended up marrying a mortal, King Peleus of the Myrmidons. According to one source, his mother made him invincible and immortal dipped him into the River Styx. However, where she held him, his ankle was not dipped into the waters and was therefore vulnerable. However, this story comes from a much later source. Achilles was raised by the centaur Chiron and attended a school for heroes.[2]

Homer stated that he grew up in Pythia, and here he met Patroclus, his life-long companion. Thetis had the gift of second sight, and she predicted that her son would either young but gloriously or else live to old age. Achilles’ parents hid him on the island of Skyros. Just before the Greeks were heading off to Troy, a prophecy by Calchas told them that they would not take the city without the help of the young Achilles.

However, the King of Skyros did not want Achilles to go, disguised the youth as a girl so that the Achaeans would not find him. While visiting the court at Skyros, Odysseus had a trumpet blast, and immediately Achilles rushed to get a sword, showing his martial spirit. The wily Greek then recognized the young hero and persuaded him to join the expedition to Troy.

Achilles at Troy

Walls of Troy

Achilles soon became a crucial part of the Achaean army during Troy's siege in an effort to retrieve Helen of Troy. The young hero became one of the expedition’s most feared fighters. Such was his prestige that, on one occasion, he persuaded the Greeks to stay and continue the siege after a defeat. In the Iliad, he is shown as the favorite of the Goddess Artemis. Homer portrays him as being quick to anger and, at times lacking in self-control, and this was to have tragic consequences.[3]

However, despite this, Agamemnon angered Achilles when he demanded that Myrmidon hand over a slave girl. The son of Thetis reluctantly agreed, felt shamed and refused, to take any further part in the war, and this his anger leads to a catalog of deaths and disasters. In the words of Homer ‘Sing, O Muse, of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans.’[4] Odysseus and his old tutor Phoenix gave him gifts to stay. Ajax told Achilles that he was turning his back on his old comrade-in-arms.

The proud hero rejected them all and wanted to go home. Patroclus, his best friend, stayed, and Achilles gave him his armor. He was to be Achilles' replacement in the battles with the Trojans. In a duel with the great Trojan hero, he was killed. This devastated Achilles, and he vowed revenge and one more he re-joined the war against the Trojans. By this stage, the Greeks are beginning the lose the war because Achilles has refused to fight.

In Homer's story, the hero is shown as a man possessed and consumed by his anger and is likened to a raging river or a lion.[5] Achilles once more put on armor and sought Hector, the son of Troy's son, and he was almost insane with anger. He managed to kill Hector with an ash spear in front of the city's gates. He then dishonored Hector's body, and for nine days as he drags it around the city walls. However, the corpse of the Trojan was miraculously preserved by the Gods. Then King Priam appealed in person to Achilles to release the body of his son. Achilles relents at last and gives the Trojan king, the corpse which is taken into the city and given the appropriate funeral rites. Homer describes Achilles crying and recognizing that his anger had led to many needless deaths.[6]

The return of the corpse of Hector is the end of the Homeric account of Achilles. However, later sources state that Achilles continued to fight at the siege of Troy. The Aethiopis, a lost epic known only in fragments, tells us that the Amazons joined the Trojans after the death of Hector. The Queen of the Amazons, Penthesilea, and Achilles are attracted to each other. But they are enemies and must fight each other. The Greek hero fights the Queen, but at first, does not try too hard as he appears dazzled by her beauty. However, he does slay her, and he grieves for her, deeply.

After Patroclus's death, Achilles forms an intense friendship with Antilochus, the son of King Nestor. Memnon, the King of Ethiopia and son of the Goddess Eos, join the Trojans. This great African hero makes an immediate impact and causes panic in the ranks of the Achaeans. During this, he kills Antilochus, and this enrages Achilles. In scenes reminiscent of the earlier duel with Hector, Achilles and Memnon fight a duel, which ended in Memnon's death.[7]

The Death of the hero and its aftermath

In the Iliad, Hector, just before he dies, predicted the death of Achilles. He told his killer that he would be killed by Paris's arrow, the man who had kidnapped Helen of Troy. According to the oldest variant of the death of Achilles, he was scaling the gates of Troy when Paris shot an arrow at him that hit his heel. This was his most vulnerable part, and the hero died of his wound, and from this, we get the term ‘Achilles Heel.’[8] He was buried with great pomp on the Hellespont, and a daughter of the King of Troy was sacrificed at his funeral.

All the Greek leaders wanted the famed armor of Achilles. A competition was staged to determine who was worthy of it. Odysseus and Ajax made speeches to their Trojan prisoners, and they were asked to decide which one was the bravest. They found in favor of Odysseus, and this drove Ajax mad, and he committed suicide. Achilles makes one final appearance in Homers, the Odyssey, a sequel to the Iliad. While visiting Hades, or the realm of the dead, Odysseus meets the great warrior. The dead hero laments his fate and remarks with a great poignancy that he would rather be a living slave than dead. [9] This is often seen as a rejection of the heroic ethos that stressed glory at all costs. However, another tradition has Achilles spending the afterlife in the Island of the Blessed, a kind of Ancient Greek paradise.

The importance of the myth of Achilles

The Greeks are often portrayed as rationalists, but myths were crucially important in society, and they believed the figure portrayed in Homer to be a historical figure. A cult arose around the dead hero. He was seen as a semi-divine figure who could grant the wishes of the living or aid them in their struggles. Many of the heroes of the Iliad had cults around Greece.

The cults of Achilles were all associated with areas that claimed that he had a connection with them. One of the main cults was that at Troad, now in north-western Turkey. Among the other sites associated with the son of Thetis is one in Thessaly. In the Black Sea, Greek colonists established shrines to Achilles, perhaps to seek his protection from nomads from the Eurasian Steppes. Cult-sites dedicated to him have been found on the coast of Turkey and an island off Ukraine's coast. Many votive offerings and ceremonies in honor of Peleus's son are known to have taken place at these sites for centuries. In Romania, the city of Olbia had a cult center that attracted people from all over the Black Sea region.

Achilles and culture

Achilles dragging the body of Hector around Troy

The great Greek dramatists and poets often depicted Achilles and his life in their works. He is a central character in works by Pindar, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Sadly, many of these works are now lost. He was revered by many of the greatest figures in Greek history. He was the embodiment of the great warrior and, in many ways, was the ideal man. Achilles had all the characteristics that the Hellenes admired.[10]

The myth of Achilles inspired, among others, the Athenian general-statesman Alcibiades and Alexander the Great. Thetis son and the other aristocrats and kings in the Homeric epics were crucial in the development of the elite’s code of honor. Aristocrats were expected to win time or honor and display arete or excellence, just like Homer's characters. It is widely believed that Achilles inspired aristocrats who disliked the democracies that emerged in Greece from the 5th century BC.

However, for many Greeks, Achilles was a warning about the dangers of a lack of self-control and unrestrained anger. Romans had an ambivalent attitude to the son of Thetis. He was the enemy of the Trojans whom they believed were their ancestors. Every few years, there is a movie, tv-series, or book based on the Trojan War characters, and Achilles have been portrayed many times in contemporary popular culture. Even after almost three millennia, the son of Thetis and King Peleus continues to fascinate people. As portrayed in Homer, the hero is regarded as an influence on later heroes' development in literature and possibly even modern super-heroes.

Conclusion

Achilles was to the Greek’s the embodiment of the heroic ideal. He represented the virtues that they most admired. But he also represented to them the price of glory that was violence and early death. The warrior who slew Hector was central to the mythology of the Trojan War. A cult grew up around this legendary hero, demonstrating how influential myths were in the Classical World. Achilles was critical in the culture of the Ancient World. He was important in the development of the ethos of the aristocracy of the Greek world, and many famous figures modeled their conduct on the warrior.

Further Reading

Arieti, James A. "Achilles' Guilt." The Classical Journal 80, no. 3 (1985): 193-203.

Burgess, Jonathan. "Achilles' heel: the death of Achilles in ancient myth." Classical Antiquity 14, no. 2 (1995): 217-244.

Graves, Robert. The Anger of Achilles: Homer's Iliad. Rosetta Books, 2014.

References

  1. Burgess, J. S. The death and afterlife of Achilles (JHU Press, 2009), p. 45
  2. Burgess, p. 46
  3. Homer, The Iliad (London, Penguin, 2000), p 117
  4. Homer, p. 7
  5. Homer, p. 178, 234
  6. Homer, p. 345
  7. Clark, M. E., & Coulson, W. D. (1978). Memnon and Sarpedon. Museum Helveticum, 35(2), 65-73
  8. Burgess, Jonathan. "Achilles' heel: the death of Achilles in ancient myth." Classical Antiquity 14, no. 2 (1995): 217-244
  9. Homer, The Odyssey (London, Penguin, 1987), p. 154
  10. Michelakis, Pantelis. Achilles in Greek tragedy. Cambridge University Press, 2007