Son of Peleus (a mortal), and Thetis (a sea nymph), Achilles' mother was given a choice by the gods (Greek) as to how his life should be: short but glorious or long but obscure. Fearing for her son's safety, Thetis chose the latter, and to this end bargained with the gods to protect her son from harm. This they granted, by advising the nymph to immerse the child in the waters of the Styx, which would immunize him from all harm. This Achilles' mother did, but having to hold on to her son by the ankle, that he would not be dragged away by the current, this part of the boy did not receive the protection of the gods, and indeed was to prove the death of Achilles.

Fearing further for the boy's safety, Thetis disguised Achilles as a girl and sent him to the court of King Lykomedes on the island of Skyros. There he was brought up as a girl, among the king's daughters, falling in love with one of them, Deidamia, who bore him a son, Neoptolemos, who later fought in the war against Troy. However, another Greek hero, Odysseus, was sent to Skyros, his mission to locate Achilles and enlist him in the coming Trojan War. Gaining admittance to the court of King Lykomedes under a false pretext, Odysseus recognized Achilles, and ordered a magnificent suit of armour to be brought before the boy. Seeing the breathtaking splendor of the suit, Achilles' head was turned, and he yielded to the call to arms that Odysseus sounded on his battle-horn. The boy offered his services to the war, and was enlisted, as had been Odysseus' intention in the first place.

On the way to Troy, the Greek party mistakenly landed in Mysia, which was ruled by Telephos, a son of Hercules. Telephos fought the invasion of his country, and in the battle was wounded by Achilles' spear. Achilles had studied healing and medicine under the Centaur Cheiron, and this knowledge had stood him in good stead when he had had to heal a wound that his friend Patroklos suffered. Telephos found that his wound would not heal, and on consulting an oracle, was advised that it would only be healed by he who had caused it. With the Greek fleet beached at Aulis, Telephos made his way there, where he presented himself to King Agamemnon, in disguise. He then abducted Agamemnon's infant son, Orestes,and threatened to kill the child if his wound were not seen to. Thereupon Odysseus scraped some of the rust from the spear of Achilles, applied it to the wound, which then healed. Delighted with the results, Telephos offered to lead the Greeks to Troy, which was in fulfillment of another oracle.

Achilles then went on to distinguish himself in the long and hard-fought Trojan War, leading the Greeks to the brink of victory, and fulfilling the fate laid out for him by the gods, his mother's choice of which he had himself superseded, once having given in to the call of the warrior, there in Lykomedes' court. In the course of the Trojan War, Achilles gained great fame and respect, killing the Hero of Troy, Hector, as well as the Amazon Pentheselia, before finally being killed himself by Paris, instigator of the Trojan War by his stealing of the beautiful Helen from her husband Menalaus. Paris killed Achilles by means of a poisoned arrow, which by chance hit him in his unprotected heel.

It is implied (but never explicitly told) in the Iliad, that Achilles' and Patroklos' relationship was more than just friendly. This is strengthened by the name of a lost play by Aeschylus "Achilles' Lovers" with the word 'lovers' in the masculine, which of course might lead you to the question why loverS in the plural? (Alas! why is it that the really good stuff always gets lost?). In later eras he is almost always depicted as homosexual.


The legend of Achilles is among the richest and oldest in Greek mythology. It owes its fame largely to the Iliad, which has as its main theme not the capture of Troy itself but the wrath of Achilles during the campaign which almost led to the loss of the Greek army. Other poets and popular legends seized on the figure of Achilles and strove to complete the story of his life by inventing legends to fill the gaps left by the Homeric accounts, and so an Achilles cycle gradually came into being, overlaid with incidents and legends which, though frequently inconsistent with each other, continued to be an inspiration to tragic and epic poets throughout antiquity until the Roman period.

Achilles was the son of Peleus, king of Phthia in Thessaly. On his father's side he was a direct descendant of Zeus, while his mother was the goddess Thetis, daughter of Oceanus (Table 30). There are varying accounts of his upbringing. One version depicts him as being brought up by his mother in his father's house, under the guidance of his teacher Phoenix or the Centaur Chiron, which another says that he was the involuntary cause of a quarrel between his father and mother and tells how, after Thetis hed left her husband, Achilles was put in the care of the Centaur Chiron, who lived on the mountain of Pelion. The match between Thetis, a goddess, and Peleus, a mortal, could not last, for too many differences separated them. Achilles was said to have been the seventh child of the marriage and Thetis had tried to purge each of her offspring in turn of the mortal elements which indicated that Peleus was their father. She did this by thrusting them into a fire and so killing them, but when she come to the seventh child Peleus awoke and saw her actually engaged in this dangerous enterprise. He snatched the child from her and Achilles was found to have suffered nothing worse than the scorching of his lips and of a small bone in his right foot. Thetis, in her anger at such behavior, went back to live with her sisters in the depths of the sea. Peleus asked the Centaur Chiron, who was skilled in the art of medicine, to replace the scorched bone and to meet this request Chiron exhumed the body of a giant called Damysus, who in his lifetime had been a notably swift runner, and replaced the missing bone with the corresponding one from the giant. This explains the runner's gifts which Achilles possessed to an extraordinary degree.

Another legend asserts that in his infancy Achilles was bathed in the Styx, the river of Hell, whose waters had the power of making invulnerable all who were steeped in them, but the heel by which Thetis was holding him was untouched by the magical waters and remained vulnerable.

On Mount Pelion Achilles was looked after by Chiron's mother Philyra and his wife the Nymph Chariclo. When he was older he began to practise hunting and breaking horses as well as medicine. In addition he learned to sing and play the lyre and talked with Chiron about the ancient virtues - contempt for worldly goods, a horror of lying, a sense of moderation, resistance to evil passions and grief. He was fed on nothing but the entrails of lions and wild boars (to instil in him the strength of these animals), honey (intended to give him gentleness and persuasiveness) and bear's marrow. Chiron named him Achilles: previously he had been called Ligyron.

Departure for Troy
According to the Iliad Achilles decided to take part in the Trojan expedition in response to an invitation to him personally in Thessaly by Nestor, Odysseus and Patroclus. He led a fleet of fifty warships sailed by a body of Myrmidons and was accompanied by this friend Patroclus and his teacher Phoenix. As he left, Peleus made a vow to dedicate the hair of his son to the River Spercheius (which flowed through his kingdom) if he returned safe and sound from the expedition. Thetis, for her part, warned Achilles of the fate which awaited him: if he went to Troy he would win dazzling reputation but his life would be short, whereas if he stayed at home his life would be long but inglorious. Achilles had no hesitation in choosing for former alternative. This is the Homeric version of the story but later poets, and especially the tragic ones, give a very different account.

According to them an oracle had disclosed to Peleus (or, in some versions, Thetis) that Achilles was fated to die at the gates of Troy. When the Greeks were discussing whether to go to Asia to fight against Priam's city, Peleus (or Thetis) had the idea of hiding the young Achilles by dressing him in women's clothes and making him live at the court of Lycomedes, king of Scyros, where he shared the life of the king's daughters. He is said to have stayed there for nine years. He was known as Pyrrha (the red-haired girl) because of his fiery auburn locks and while in this disguise he married Deidamia, one of Lycomedes' daughters, by whom he had a son, Neoptolemus, who was later to take the name of Pyrrhus. This disguise was of no avail in trying to cheat Fate however as Odysseus had learned from the soothsayer Calchas that Troy could not be taken without the active help of Achilles. He immediately set himself the task of seeking Achilles and eventually learned where he had taken shelter. Odysseus then presented himself at the court of Scyros and, offering a pedlar's pack, made his way into the women's quarters. The women choose some embroidery implements and materials but Odysseus had mixed up some valuable weapons with them and these were the immediate choise of 'Pyrrha'. Odysseus had no difficulty in persuading the young man to reveal his identity.

In another version Odysseus, in order to compel Achilles to disclose his warlike instincts, arranged for the sound of the trumpet to be heard in the middle of the harem of Lycomedes. While the women fled in terror, Achilles, so strong was his martial spirit, stood his ground and called for weapons. Peleus and Thetis had therefore to resign themselves to what was beyond their power to prevent, and Achilles' warlike vocation was no longer thwarted. On his departure from Aulis, where the Greek fleet had assembled, Thetis gave the hero a divine suit of armour, given by Hephaestus to Peleus as a wedding gift, and she added the horses which Poseidon had given on the same occasion. In a final effort to change the course of fate, she placed near her son a slave whose only duty was to prevent Achilles from killing a son of Apollo; for an oracle had affirmed that Achilles was bound to die a violent death if with his own hands he killed a son of Apollo (who was not further described).

The First Expedition
According to the Iliad, the Greek army made its way directly from Aulis to Troy, but later legends speak of a first attempt at landing which completely failed. The first time the fleet left Aulis to attack Troy there was a mistake in the navigation and instead of landing on the Troad the army came ashore much further south, in Mysia. Under the impression that they were in the Troad the Greeks set about laying the country waste, but Telephus, the son of Heracles and king of the country, advanced to meet them and a battle ensued in the course of which Achilles wounded Telephus with his spear. The Greeks then realized their mistake and re-embarked to head for Troy but a storm scattered the fleet and each contingent found itself back where it had started. Achilles, among others, was driven ashore on Scyros, near his wife and son. The Greeks made a fresh start and reassembled at Argos, and there Telephus, on the advice of the oracle of Delphi, came to ask Achilles to heal the wound he had inflicted, for, according to the oracle, only Achilles' spear could heal the wounds it had made.

The Second Expedition
From Argos the Greek fleet made its way to Aulis where it lay becalmed, an event said by Calchas to have been caused by the goddess Artemis who demanded the sacrifice of Agamemmmon's daughter Iphigenia. Agamemmon agreed to this demand and in order to transport his daughter to Aulis without arousing the suspicions of herself or her mother Clytemnestra, he pretended that he wanted to betroth her to Achilles. By the time the unwitting Achilles discovered what the king had planned Iphigenia had arrived at Aulis and it was too late to take any action. He tried hard to resist the sacrifice, but the soldiers, roused in opposition to him, would have stoned him to death, and he was forced to resign himself to the inevitable. This episode seems to have been treated in unusually great detail by the tragic poets. Favourable winds sprang up and the army, led by Telephus, arrived at the island of Tenedos where during a feast Achilles and Agamemmon fell into a quarrel for the first time. It was also in Tenedos that Achilles killed Tenes, a son of Apollo, whose sister he tried to abduct. Realizing too late that he had fulfilled the oracle which his mother had warned him of, he arranged a magnificent funeral for Tenes and he killed the slave whose duty it had been to prevent the murder.

The Greeks besieged Troy for nine years before the events which form the story of the Iliad began. These years were full of exploits, some of which were familiar to the writer of the Iliad while others were invented at a later date. The Iliad speaks of a whole range of deeds of piracy and brigandage against the islands and cities of Asia Minor, in particular against Thebes in Mysia which was captured by Achilles who killed King Eetion, the father of Andromache, together with his seven sons, and abducted the queen. To the same group of stories belongs the episode of the campaign against Lyrnessos during which Achilles captured Briseis while Agamemmon captured Chryseis in the Theban operation. With Patroclus, Achilles attempted a raid on the herds of oxen which Aeneas grazed on Mount Ida. Other episodes connected with the skirmishes of the first nine years include those which took place during the Greek disembarkation when the Trojans, initially victorious, were routed by Achilles who killed Cycnus, the son of Poseidon. It was also said that Achilles, who was not among the suitors of Helen before Manalaus was chosen as her husband, was curious to see her and that Aphrodite and Thetis arranged for them to meet in a remote spot. No one, though, seems to have tried to portray Achilles as Hellen's lover.

The real Homeric stories and the quarrel over Briseis begin with the tenth year of the war. When a plague caused widespread destruction among the Greek ranks the soothsayer Calchas revealed that this calamity was a manifestation of the wrath of Apollo, sent as the request of his priest Chryses whose daughter Chryseis had been abducted and allotted to Agamemnon as his share of the booty of Thebes. Achilles summoned the chiefs to meet and compelled Agamemnon to surrender the girl. In retaliation Agamemnon demanded that Achilles should give back his own prize, Briseis. Achilles retired to his tent and refused to take any part in the struggle as long as anyone contested his right to the girl. When the heralds came to reclaim her from him he returned her, but made a solemn protest against the injustice. Then, going to the seashore, he appealed to Thetis who advised him to let the Trojan attack get as far as the ships, in order to prove the indispensability of his presence for, as she well knew, he was the only man who could inspire enough terror in the enemy to prevent them from attacking the Greeks effectively. Thetis, re-ascending into heaven, went to Zeus and asked him to grant the Trojans victory as long as Achilles kept well away from the fighting. Zeus agreed and for several days the Greeks suffered a series of defeats. Agamemnon in vain sent a mission to appease Achilles, promising him Briseis and a magnificent ransom, as well as twenty of the most beautiful women in Troy and the hand of one of his own daughters, but Achilles remained unmoved. The battle came close to the camp but Achilles watched from the upper part of the deck of his ship. Patroclus could eventually hold out no longer and asked Achilles to let him help the Greeks, whose ships were in danger of being burnt. Achilles agreed to lend his armour, but Patroclus (after a certain degree of success, which lasted as long as the Trojans believed him to be Achilles) fell under the weight of Hector's blows. Achilles was overcome by indescribable grief. His cries were heard by Thetis, who hastened to him and promised him a fresh suit of armour in place of that which Hector had just stripped from Patroclus' body. Though unarmed, Achilles arrived on the scene of the battle and his voice put to flight the Trojans who were struggling against the Greeks for possession of the corpse of Patroclus.

The next morning Achilles asked Agamemnon to regard their quarrel as over and said that he was ready to fight at his side. Agamemnon in his turn asked Achilles' forgiveness and returned Briseis, whom he had not harmed; Achilles soon rejoined the fighting, whereupon his horse Xanthus ('the Chestnut'), which had been miraculously and momentarily endowed with the gifts of prophecy and speech, foretold the immenent death of his master. Achilles, disdainful of this warning, advanced to fight and the Trojans fled before him; Aeneas alone, under the inspiration of Apollo, stood up to him. Achilles' spear pierced Aeneas' buckler; Aeneas brandished a huge stone and Poseidon rescued both of them by enveloping them in a cloud. Hector also wanted to attack Achilles, but in vain: the gods were against it and fate for the moment did not allow the two heroes to meet face to face. Achilles continued his advance towards Troy. After fording the river Scamander, he took twenty young Trojans prisoner intending to sacrifice them at Patroclus' tomb. The river god wanted to stop the bloodshed and kill Achilles, whose victims were blocking his course. The river became swollen, overflowed its banks and pursued the hero, but Hephaestus obliged it to return to its course. Achilles continued his attack towards the gates in order to cut off the Trojan retreat. He was diverted into a fruitless pursuit of Apollo, and when he finally began to make his way towards Troy he had lost his opportunity. Hector was alone in front of the Scaean Gate, but, just as Achilles was drawing close and they were on the point of fighting, he took fright and Achilles chased his enemy round the walls until at last Zeus, raising the scales of fate, weighted Achilles' lot against Hector's, whose scale tipped towards Hades. This was the moment at which Apollo abandoned Hector. Athena appeared and, assuming the likeness of his brother Deiphobus, she inspired Hector with the fatal wish to confront his opponent; he was quickly disillusioned and soon killed, uttering a warning to Achilles that he himself had not long to live. On the point of death he asked Achilles to return his corpse to Priam, but Achilles refused and, after piercing his heels and binding them with a leather thong, he dragged the corpse behind his chariot into the Greek camp. Such were Patroclus' obsequies.

Each day Achilles dragged round the camp the corpse of the enemy who had robbed him of his friend Patroclus, for whom he wept. After twelve says Thetis was bidden by Zeus to let Achilles know that the gods were angry at his lack of respect for the dead, and whem Priam came to ask for Hector's body, he was kindly received by Achilles, who gave him back the corpse though he demanded a heavy price for it. That is the story that in the Iliad.

In the Odyssey we find Achilles in Hades, where he wanders with long strides over the fields of asphodel. He is surrounded by heroes, his friends during the war - Ajax, the son of Telamon, Antilochus, Patroclus and Agamemnon. The last of these told Odysseus of the death of Achilles, but he did not give the name of his killer. The Odyssey gives an account of the games held to commemorate Achilles' funeral, and the subsequent quarrel caused by the way in which the hero's arms were awarded (see AJAX, son of TELAMON and ODYSSEUS).

The later stories in the Homeric poems bring the cycle to its close. First there is the tale of the struggle against Penthesilea, the queen of the Amazons who, having come to help Troy, arrived just as the funeral of Hector was taking place. Initially she forced the Greeks to retreat to their camp, but Achilles gave her a mortal wound and just as she was on the point of death he exposed her face. Confronted by such beauty he was stricken with a sorrow so obvious (for he was incapable of concealing his emotions) that Thersites derided his love for the corpse. With a single blow of his fist Achilles killed him.

A further story records Achilles' struggle against Memnon, the son of Aurora, which took place in the presence of their respective mothers Thetis and Eos. Finally comes the tale of Achilles' love for Polyxena, one of Priam's daughters. After he set eyes on Polyxena during the recovery of Hector's body Achilles fell so deeply in love with her that he promised Priam that he would betray the Greeks and come over to the side of the Trojans if he would agree to give her to him in marriage. Priam accepted these terms and the agreement was to be signed in the temple of Apollo Thymbrius which stood not far from the gates of Troy. Achilles came to the appointed place unarmed and there Paris, hidden behind the statue of Apollo, slew him. The Trojans seized his corpse and demanded the same ransom for it as they had had to pay to recover Hector's body.

This romantic version of the hero's end seems to be a late one: other authors say that Achilles met his end in battle at a moment when he had once again driven the Trojans right back to the walls of their city. Apollo confronted him and ordered him to withdraw and, when he refused to obey, killed him with an arrow. In some versions the actual archer is said to be Paris, but Apollo is said to have guided the arrow to strike Achilles at his only vulnerable place, his heal. A struggle took place round Achilles' body, no less bloodthirsty than that which had marked Patroclus' death. Ajax and Odysseus eventually managed to intimidate their enemies and were able to carry the body back to the camp. The funeral was celebrated by Thetis and the Muses, or the Nymphs. Athena anointed the body with ambrosia to preserve it from decay. Later, after the Greeks had erected a tomb in Achilles' honour beside the sea, there was a story that Thetis removed his body to the White Island at the mouth of the Danube where he had a mysterious existence. Sailors passing close to the island heard by day the incessant clashing of weapons and by night the clinking of cups and songs from a feast that never ended. And in the Elysian Fields Achilles is said to have married Medea, or Iphigenia, or Helen, or Polyxena. There is also a tale that, after Troy had been taken but before the Greeks had left the country, a voice from Achilles' tomb had been heard demanding that Polyxena should be sacrificed in his memory.

The memory of Achilles remained very fresh in the popular Greek imagination and his cult was widely practised in the islands, as well as on the Asiatic mainland, the scene of his achievements.

As depicted by Homer Achilles was a very handsome young man, fair-haired, with flashing eyes and a powerful voice, who did not know the meaning of fear. His greatest passion was fighting: he was impetuous and loved glory above all else, but he also had qualities of mildness and even tenderness. He was musical and could charm away care with lyre and song; he loved his friend Patroclus, and shared a loving life with Briseis. He could be cruel, as he was when he ordered the execution of the captured Trojans, and when, from beyond the grave, he demanded that Polyxena should be sacrificed at his tomb, but he was nevertheless hospitable and could weep with Priam when the latter came to recover his son's body. In the Elysian Fields he rejoiced to learn that his son Neoptolemus was a man of courage. He revered his parents, confided in his mother, and, when he knew the gods' will, lost no time in carrying it out. Despite all these civilized characteristics, Achilles was taken by Hellenistic philosophers, and by the Stoics in particular, for the archtype of the man of violence, a slave to his emotions, and they were very ready to contrast him with Odysseus, the perfect example of the man of judgement. We also know of the cult consecrated to Achilles by Alexander who took him as his pattern. Both of them died young.

Achilles was the source of inspiration of many works of ancient literature, starting with the Iliad and ending with the Achilleid of Statius. He plays a part in many tragedies, notably Euripides' Iphigenia in Aulis.


Table of Sources:

  • Birth and Childhood: Hom, Il. 2, 681ff.; 11, 771ff; schol. on Il. 9,668; 16,37; 19,326; Eustath. on Hom. p. 14; Stat, Achill. 1,283ff.; Apollod. Bibl. 3,13,6ff.; Apit. 3,14; Apoll. Rhod. Arg. 4,869ff. and schol. 816; schol. on Aristophanes Clouds 1068; Euripides Women of Scyros (lost tragedy,Nauck TGF, edn 2, pp. 574f.); Paus. 1,22,6; Hyg. Fab. 96; Sophocles fragments ed. Pearson II, 191ff.; Ovid, Met. 13, 162ff.; Ptol. Heph. Nov. Hist. I, p. 183 and 6, p. 195 Westermann; Lyc. Alex. 178ff. with Tzetes ad loc.; Etymol. Megn. s.v.
  • First Expedition: Hom. Il. 11,625; Proclus' summary of Cypria, Hom. Oxf. Class. Text V, p. 103; schol. on Il. 1,59; Apollod. Epit. 3, 17; Philostr. Heroicus 23 (de Lannoy); Dictys Cret. 1,16; 2,1ff.; Hyg. Fab. 101; Prop. 2,1,63ff.; Ovid, Pont, 2,2,26; see also Telephus.
  • Second Expedition: Hom. Il.; Od. 11,477ff.; 24, 36ff.; Proclus' summary of Aethiopis, Hom. Oxf. Class. Text V, pp. 105ff.; Pind. Ol. 2,81ff. (147ff); Apollod. Epit. 3,22; 3,31ff; Plutarch Quaest. Gr. 28,297; Diod. Sic. 2,46; Philostr. Heroicus 46ff. (de Lannoy); Tzetzes, Antehom. 257ff.; Posthom. 100ff.; on Lyc. Alex. 174; 999; Quint. Smyrn. Posthom. 3,26ff.; 4,468ff.; schol. on Theocr. 16,49; Ovid, Met. 12,70ff.;597ff; Dictys Cret. 2,12; Hyg. Fab. 107; 110; Virgil, Aen. 6,57ff.; schol. on Apoll. Rhod. Arg. 4,815; schol. on Euripides Hec. 41; on Euripides Tro. 16 Pseudo-Lact. Plac. on Sta. Achill. 1,134; Nonnus in Westermann Mythogr. p. 382. Number 62; Paus. 3,19,11ff.; 3,24,10ff.

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