The hero of Homer’s Iliad may have been a remarkably accurate portrayal of a daring raider in 1200 B.C.
He is the first warrior of the Western world. Swift-footed, lionhearted, terrible in his war cry, a sacker of cities, a charismatic leader, a stunning physical specimen, unconquerable—except by an arrow to his heel—Achilles was the best of the Greeks at Troy. He chose glory over long life and learned to master anger and replace it with wisdom. He is the unforgettable hero of the first work of Western literature: Homer’s epic poem the Iliad.
But was Achilles real? Is there any historical truth in his story, or is he just myth? The short answer is that we don’t know. There is no proof that Achilles existed or that any of Homer’s other characters did. The long answer is that Homer’s Achilles may have been based, at least in part, on a historical character; the same is true of the rest of Homer’s characters. There are two reasons to believe this. Exciting new archaeological discoveries make it more plausible that the Trojan War really happened. And the more we learn about the nature of war at that time, the more Homer’s description of Achilles rings true.
What follows is a portrait of what the real Achilles might have been like if he truly lived. It describes a Greek warrior chieftain of about 1200 B.C. who took part in an expedition against a wealthy city in the northwest corner of what is now Turkey—Troy. But first some background.
According to Homer, the Trojan War lasted ten years. The conflict pitted the wealthy city of Troy and its allies against a coalition of all Greece. It was the greatest war in Western history to that time, involving at least a hundred thousand men in each army as well as 1,186 Greek ships. It featured heroic champions on both sides. It was so important that the Olympian gods played an active role. Troy was a magnificent city and impregnable fortress. The cause of the war was the seduction, by Prince Paris of Troy, of the beautiful Helen, queen of Sparta, as well as the loss of the treasure that they ran off with.
The Greeks landed at Troy and demanded the return of Helen and the treasure to her husband, Sparta’s King Menelaus. But the Trojans refused. In the nine years of warfare that followed, the Greeks ravaged and looted the Trojan countryside and surrounding islands, but they made no progress against the city.
In that ninth year the Greek army nearly fell apart. A murderous epidemic was followed by a mutiny on the part of Greece’s greatest warrior, Achilles. The issue, once again, was a woman: this time, the beautiful Briseis, a prize of war unjustly grabbed from Achilles by the Greek commander in chief, Agamemnon. A furious Achilles withdrew himself and his men from the fighting. The Trojans, led by Prince Hector, took advantage of Achilles’ absence and nearly drove the Greeks back into the sea. At the eleventh hour Achilles let his lieutenant and close friend Patroclus lead his men back into battle to save the Greek camp. Patroclus succeeded but overreached, and Hector killed him on the Trojan Plain. In revenge, Achilles returned to battle, devastated the enemy, and killed Hector. Achilles was so angry that he abused Hector’s corpse. King Priam of Troy begged Achilles to give back his son Hector’s body for cremation and burial, and a sadder but wiser Achilles at last agreed. He knew that he too was soon destined to die in battle.
So Homer tells the tale. Other writers continued the story to the war’s end, when the Greeks took Troy by means of the famous Trojan horse. These writers provide many additional details about the hero Achilles, from his upbringing by centaurs to his infamous heel—allegedly the only part of his body that could be wounded. We can dismiss such fantastic details or explain them as symbols.
We don’t know just when Homer composed the Iliad, but most scholars accept a date around 700 B.C. If the Trojan War really happened, it probably took place 500 years earlier, around 1200 B.C. That earlier date marks just about the end of the Bronze Age (circa 3000-1000 B.C.). In the Late Bronze Age the Greeks achieved a rich and powerful civilization that we call Mycenaean (after one of its main sites, Mycenae). Not long after 1200, Mycenaean civilization collapsed, to be followed by centuries of poverty (known as the Greek Dark Ages) until a new Greece rose again after 800.
Homer had no library, and in fact he was probably illiterate. How, then, did he know Bronze Age history? Part of the story of the Iliad is surely fiction, but some details of the Trojan War could have been preserved by word of mouth, in earlier poems from which the Iliad borrowed. Other details could have been put down in writing in western Turkey, but not in Greece, where writing disappeared from shortly after 1200 to about 750.
Consider a striking fact: Many words in Homer’s work, including names, came from the Greek language circa 1200 and not 700 B.C. The name “Achilles” itself appears in an early text as “a-ki-re-u,” a word that perhaps means “the man who wears armor” or more poetically “the grief of the army.”
Many of the places described by Homer later disappeared, but some have since been found by archaeologists. The site of Troy itself was discovered by Heinrich Schliemann in 1871 in the northwestern corner of Turkey. But until recently Troy looked a little shabby: It was a citadel without a city— and a poor citadel at that. New excavations at Troy now show that it was in fact a large and prosperous city when it was destroyed around 1200 B.C., possibly by the Greeks. Newly discovered documents show that the Mycenaeans traded, raided, settled in, made war on, and arranged royal marriages with the people of what is now western Turkey.
Sea power gave the Mycenaeans mobility. They were pioneers of the galley or oared warship. For more than 200 years beginning around 1450 B.C., they fanned out from the mainland, raiding and conquering the Aegean islands and parts of what is today western Turkey. They almost certainly fought the Hittites and their allies. The Hittites were the major military power of Late Bronze Age Turkey, which they ruled from their capital near the modern city of Ankara. The Mycenaeans went south to Egypt too, where they may have served as mercenaries.
Spectacular ruins of Mycenaean civilization were found long ago on the Greek mainland at places mentioned by Homer. Examples include Mycenae, capital of Homer’s King Agamemnon; Pylos, the palace of King Nestor; Argos, home of Diomedes; and the area around Sparta, home of Helen and Menelaus.
But Achilles’ kingdom had vanished—until now. According to Homer, Achilles ruled the land of Phthia, located in Central Greece. Until recently, there was no evidence of Mycenaeans in this region, but Mycenaean tombs have now been found there. Not far away, on the coast south of Phthia, archaeologists have discovered the probable site of Kynos, home of Ajax the Lesser in the Iliad. Pottery there illustrates ships, warriors, and battles at sea. And on the island of Salamis, near Athens, newly discovered Mycenaean ruins now lend credence to the story of that island’s legendary hero: Ajax the Great, Achilles’ cousin and comrade at Troy.
In short, there may well be more than myth to Homer. It is plausible that a coalition of Greeks crossed the Aegean Sea around 1200 B.C. and attacked the wealthy city of Troy. This does not mean, of course, that the Greeks had more than a thousand ships, or that the war lasted ten years, or that the cause of the war was a woman. The real Trojan War is likely to have involved a much smaller number of ships, employed far fewer than two hundred thousand men, and lasted no longer than a year or two or three. But by the standards of the day it might have been a big conflict.
It is also possible that one of the Greek leaders at Troy was a prince of Phthia named Achilles. Let’s take a closer look at him.
Achilles came from Central Greece. His father was the king of Phthia, Peleus, his mother the demigod Thetis. In the ancient world it was not unusual to chalk up extraordinary talent to divine ancestry, and Achilles was certainly extraordinary. In all the Greek army at Troy, no one could match him as a warrior. He was tall and striking, and his handsome face was crowned with a mane of long, dirty-blond hair. Mycenaean skeletons indicate that a member of the royal house, lovingly reared and well fed, could stand nearly six feet tall—a great height considering the average Mycenaean male stood about five feet five inches. Modesty was not a heroic virtue, and Achilles was a virtuous hero, so he doesn’t hesitate to call himself big and beautiful. He says, furthermore:
None of the bronze-wearing Greeks is my equal
In war, although some are better than me in the assembly.
Achilles was temperamental, but when he was in the mood, he couldn’t get enough of battle. Combat was his road to what every hero wanted: fame, glory, and honor. And as anyone who saw Hollywood’s 2004 movie Troy knows, Achilles says: “I want what all men want; I just want it more.”
Legend has it that young Achilles was sent to rugged Mount Pelion to be schooled in the arts of war by Chiron the centaur. Achilles’ stint on Mount Pelion recalls the later Greek practice of sending raw recruits to the mountains for two seasons of training before they were ready to fight with the rest of the army.
Centaurs were mythical creatures, half-man and half-horse. Perhaps they were just myth, and that’s the end of it, but centaurs might be a symbol for men who rode horses. In the Bronze Age, horse-riding was rare. The cavalry was made up of warriors in horse-drawn chariots, not mounted on horses, as they would later be. If the men of Mount Pelion actually did ride horses, that might have given rise to the myth of the “horse men” centaurs.
After returning from Pelion, Achilles was supposedly sent off to the island of Scyros on his mother’s command. Thetis knew the Greeks wanted Achilles to fight at Troy because an oracle had said they would not take Troy without him. But Thetis also knew that if Achilles fought at Troy he was destined to die there. So she hid him on Scyros and even insisted that he dress like a woman. Odysseus, the cleverest of the Greeks, found Achilles on Scyros and easily unmasked him—simply by tempting him with some weapons. The Greeks got their man.
Homer knows nothing of this story, but he places Achilles with the Greek army at Troy. Homer does indeed make it clear that Achilles knew he was fated to die young. But Achilles considered that a worthy price to pay in order to win glory. Honor before comfort: That is the hero’s credo.
At Troy Achilles proved his mettle on the battlefield, but not before going off to his tent to sulk over the dishonor of having his “prize,” Briseis, taken away. King Agamemnon, the Greeks’ supreme leader, had taken Achilles down a notch after a public quarrel by seizing the hero’s “blooming prize/…[His] loved Briseis with the radiant eyes.”
Achilles was outraged. Not only had he been publicly dishonored, he had been defrauded of his “valor’s prize,” as he put it. Agamemnon had deprived him of his glory, won through Achilles’ main military activity to date: raiding. This was typical of Bronze Age warfare, where the expense and risk of pitched battles made them rare. Raids were probably the bread and butter of Bronze Age military operations. The Greeks at Troy were no exception.
The Greek camp at Troy had several functions, among them serving as a naval station: It made a convenient jumping-off place for attacks. Because they commanded the sea, the Greeks could strike at the long Trojan coastline virtually at will. They carried out two sorts of operations: ambushes of civilians outside Troy’s walls and assaults on Trojan settlements and nearby cities friendly to Troy. The Greeks ransacked cities; carried off Trojan women, treasure, and livestock; killed some leaders, ransomed others, and sold most of the rest as slaves on the islands of Lemnos, Imbros, and Samos.
Achilles was a master of raiding. By the ninth year of the war, he claimed to have destroyed no fewer than twenty-three cities, or about two and a half attacks annually. If twenty-three is an exaggeration, it is not out of line with Bronze Age hyperbole. The raids brought loot and glory, but when there are spoils to divide, there is always the risk of a fight.
After Briseis was taken from him, Achilles sat on the beach and cried like a baby: tears of rage, to be sure, but perhaps of loss as well. He was not a happy man, but who could be happy knowing that he was fated to die young? Like many other men in the epics, Achilles weeps freely and regularly.
Some philosophers and critics, beginning with Plato, criticized Homer for making his heroes crybabies. But in doing so, Homer was following Bronze Age custom, found from Egypt to Turkey to Iraq. Not only did real men cry—sometimes they were punished for holding back their tears! Hittite King Hattushilish I (1650-1620 B.C.) disinherited his nephew and designated heir because the man failed to cry when Hattushilish lay sick and was expected to die.
In the Iliad, Achilles’ tears bring divine intervention. The gods hear his plea to punish the Greeks for allowing him to be insulted by Agamemnon. So the Trojans advance, the Greeks are pushed back, and many Greeks die. Meanwhile, Achilles sits out the war, sulking in his tent. He was frankly willing to see his side suffer if that’s what it took to restore his reputation.
Achilles eventually comes out and fights—to terrible effect. Battle is what he is known for. Three things make Achilles the Greeks’ greatest battle hero: his personal reputation, his leadership of the army of Phthia, and his prowess in champion combat.
As Homer tells it, a few dozen heroes at Troy lifted the morale of one hundred thousand Greeks sky-high. Simplistic, perhaps, but Bronze Age society was intensely personal. Unlike us, Bronze Age people had few or no abstract concepts. War was not about justice, security, or economics but rather about relations between kings and, in particular, about the respect or lack thereof they showed each other. In Egyptian chronicles, Hittite biographies, Canaanite letters, and Assyrian monuments, the explanation for a war often boils down to: “He dissed me!” Military success depended on divine favor, and the gods talked only to royalty. To the ordinary Greek at Troy, one Achilles was worth a thousand fresh troops.
But the Greek commanders had to take troop numbers into account, which brings us to Achilles’ second contribution: his men. In the Iliad, every Greek kingdom sends a contingent to fight at Troy. Most of them are led by a king; the men from Phthia are led by a royal prince, Achilles. But as a superb soldier, Achilles earned the respect of his men. Of all the Greek units, his is the only one to have a special name: the Myrmidons. From Homer’s description, it looks like they were an elite fighting force.
When they went into battle, the Myrmidons shouted their war cries and then fought like hungry wolves or angry hornets. They spent their free time working out, so we would expect that they were strong and fit. Achilles fired their spirits by pouring an offering of wine and praying to the gods before they went into a fight.
But we might suspect that neither fitness nor morale was the key to the Myrmidons’ success. Rather it was unit cohesion. The ability to maintain their organization on the battlefield gave the Myrmidons an importance far beyond their numbers—according to Homer, they filled only fifty of the 1,186 Greek ships at Troy (again, those are Homer’s numbers of Greek ships, not credible statistics). The poet says that the Myrmidons were divided into five battalions and their leaders were outstanding: two sons of gods, the third best spearman among the Myrmidons, a minor king who had helped teach Achilles the art of war, and a warrior knowledgeable enough to give tactical tips to Achilles’ charioteer.
The leadership of these battalion commanders might have made the difference because the Myrmidons were one of the only units at Troy that was able to fight as a closely massed force. Unlike the loose and unstructured groups that seem to make up most of the armies in Homer, the Myrmidons were solidity itself when they took the field:
Ranks wedged in ranks; of arms a steely ring
Still grows, and spreads, and thickens round the king.
As when a circling wall the builder forms,
Of strength defensive against wind and storms,
Compacted stones the thickening work compose,
And round him wide the rising structure grows:
So helm to helm, and crest to crest they throng,
Shield urged on shield, and man drove man along;
Thick, undistinguish’d plumes, together join’d,
Float in one sea, and wave before the wind.
No wonder the Greeks were devastated when Achilles forced the Myrmidons to sit out the war.
In the Iliad Achilles’ second-in-command is Patroclus, son of Menoetius. Patroclus was no mean commander in his own right. He was murderous on the battlefield but gentle away from it, having learned a thing or two since boyhood, when he killed a playmate in a fit of rage during a game of dice. A boyhood friend, Patroclus was Achilles’ closest comrade, according to Homer. Some ancient sources say they were lovers.
In one of the Iliad’s best-known scenes, Patroclus shows how the mere idea of Achilles’ presence could fire the Myrmidons into action. By donning Achilles’ armor, Patroclus leads them nearly over the walls of Troy. Then he loses the favor of the gods and falls to Hector’s spear. Patroclus’ death spurs Achilles to rejoin the fight, to avenge his comrade by killing many Trojans—above all, Hector.
Now the Myrmidons will be led by Achilles. After patching up his quarrel with the other Greek generals, Achilles prepares for combat. Homer says:
Then fierce Achilles, shouting to the skies,
On Troy’s whole force with boundless fury flies.
Achilles’ great voice was no mere symbol. In the primitive command and control conditions on the Bronze Age battlefield, a booming voice was a real advantage; small wonder the intensity of a man’s battle cry was taken as a sign of warrior prowess.
The word that best describes Achilles in battle is relentless. Although immensely strong, he was probably only the second strongest of the Greeks. At least some doubted whether Achilles could defeat his gigantic cousin Ajax in a hand-to-hand fight. But Ajax could never match Achilles’ speed. Again and again Homer calls Achilles “swift-footed” or “fast runner.” According to Mike Chapman, a wrestling historian who wrote a novel about Achilles, speed doesn’t win fights; technical skill, mental toughness, strength, and endurance are more important, and the ability to react quickly matters more than the ability to run fast.
But Achilles’ speed was a force multiplier. He could outrun any enemy and catch him. He could fight two men in the time it took others to fight one. Since Homer’s battlefield is dominated by hit-and-run fighting, these were gilt-edged skills. Facing Achilles, the Trojans got a terrible lesson in the truth of the saying “speed kills.”
What makes this even more impressive is that Achilles achieved his speed while wearing heavy armor. He was a human tank that moved at the speed of a sports car. Consider for a moment just how he was outfitted.
Achilles’ two suits of armor are a famous element of the Iliad. The first suit is lost in battle; the second is manufactured specially for the hero by Hephaestus, god of the forge. Homer says that both suits were made of bronze, and archaeologists know that Mycenaeans did in fact wear bronze armor. Based on archaeological evidence, we would expect Achilles to have worn a bronze breastplate, possibly strengthened by a linen lining; bronze shoulder, upper arm, and neck guards; and bronze girdle plates to protect his lower abdomen. The various parts were laced together via thongs. Homer says that bronze shinguards with silver ankle clips completed the outfit. The poet also claims that Achilles’ first suit of armor was decorated with embossed stars, while the second gleamed because of its gold and silver decorations.
In the Iliad, Achilles has two bronze helmets, each with a horsehair crest; the second helmet has golden plumes too. Bronze helmets have indeed been found from late Mycenaean times, but other types were more common: horned helmets, conical helmets made of leather, and “feather headgear,” that is, leather helmets held in place by metal rings and crowned with feathers. Some late Mycenaean helmets had cheek guards as well.
The shield that Hephaestus famously made for Achilles was round. Round shields are well attested to in Mycenaean times, some made of ox hide and some perhaps fashioned of or reinforced with bronze (as central and northern European shields were in this era).
Both sets of Achilles’ arms included a bronze sword with silver studs on the hilt. Achilles uses his sword often in the Iliad. He belonged to just about the first generation of Greeks who could rely on this sword, due to the introduction of a new type of weapon of central European origin shortly before 1200 B.C. The so-called Naue II sword was much more efficient at inflicting slashing wounds than its predecessor. Because the blade had roughly parallel edges for most of its length, rather than the tapered edges of a dagger, this sword was good at cutting. And with a single piece of metal for both blade and hilt, it was less likely to break than its forerunner. So this two-and-a-half-foot sword could do real damage.
But the spear is Achilles’ main offensive weapon in Homer, just as it had traditionally been in Mycenaean warfare. The Mycenaeans used a thrusting spear rather than a throwing spear. Yet Homer gives Achilles the strength and power to use his heavy spear as a javelin as well as a lance. This was not likely to happen in the real world. The most common material for a Bronze Age spear shaft was beech wood, but Achilles’ spear is made of ash. Several other Homeric heroes have ash spears, but Achilles’ spear had divine origins. Its wood came from Mount Pelion, home of the savage and warlike centaurs. Achilles’ spear arguably came from the large common European ash, which grows to a height of ninety feet, although only the smaller—but not too small, at fifty feet—mountain ash is found on Mount Pelion today. The centaur Chiron cut the ash wood shaft and gave it to Achilles’ father Peleus in order for the spear to be “the death of heroes.” Athena polished the shaft, and Hephaestus provided the bronze blade. Peleus eventually passed the spear on to his son Achilles. The spear was “heavy, long, and strong,” says Homer; no other Greek besides Achilles could wield it. Another poet says that the spear had a gold ring binding the socket to the shaft as well as a double point. In Roman times, a temple in southern Turkey displayed what it claimed was Achilles’ spear, which had a bronze butt in addition to the bronze blade.
Ash had both practical and symbolic value in Homer’s world. Because of its strength and resilience, ash wood was the most desirable material for spears and other weapons and tools. Greek mythology connects ash with burning and death—some Greek poets refer to ash as the “man killer.” Those are appropriate symbols of Achilles’ rampage at Troy.
To judge from art, the late Mycenaean spear was typically about five to six feet long. The spearhead was bronze, usually about six inches long, with sides bulging outward like a leaf’s. It could cause an extensive wound, especially if a man put his legs and back into thrusting it into an enemy. And the best of the Greeks knew how to get the most out of his powerful body. We can take it for granted that Achilles had mastered the various techniques needed to use his arms and armor to his bloody advantage.
Now that we have armed Achilles, let’s follow him into battle. The support of the Myrmidons and his reputation alone were enough to panic most enemies. But those who remained had to face a man whom they could neither outrun nor outfight. And a lot of them would have to fight Achilles face to face.
Single combat loomed large on the Bronze Age battlefield, either as an accidental encounter or as a prearranged duel. The Iliad is full of such contests; Homer surely exaggerates their number, but their existence is not in doubt. Cohesive units like the Myrmidons were rare, which meant that individual encounters were common on the battlefield. And the personal nature of war in the Bronze Age added incentive for individual warriors to prove themselves against a single enemy. The agreement to decide a conflict by one or a series of champion battles served practical purposes. This is hinted at in Bronze Age documents, but it is made clear in later periods of ancient history, during which champion battles are well documented.
For example, a Hittite text of about 1425 B.C. reports a battle in which there were apparently only two casualties: one enemy soldier and a Hittite, Zidanza. The focus on these two men suggests a champion battle or—more likely, since both men died—a series of champion battles.
Whoever won brought a wide range of benefits to his country. For a treasurer, a champion battle was a blessing, since it checked the risk of losing an entire army, which was costly to train, outfit, and feed. For the common soldier, victory by a hero in single combat was an inspiration to fight harder. This happened in northwest Greece in 291 B.C. when King Pyrrhus of Epirus defeated the Macedonian general Pantauchus in hand-to-hand combat. Pyrrhus’ army then broke the Macedonian line and killed and captured thousands of fleeing soldiers.
And so Achilles led his men into battle. The Greeks struck so hard and the enemy ran so fast that as soon as a Trojan found safety behind the walls, his first thought was not relief but thirst. Most Trojans fled at the mere sight of Achilles; of those who stood their ground, only a rare few like Aeneas lived to tell the tale, and then only thanks to divine intervention. More typical is Hippodamas the Trojan’s response:
This sees Hippodamas, and seized with fright,
Deserts his chariot for a swifter flight:
The lance arrests him: an ignoble wound
The panting Trojan rivets to the ground.
He groans away his soul: not louder roars,
At Neptune’s shrine on Helice’s high shores,
The victim bull; the rocks re-bellow round,
And ocean listens to the grateful sound.
Achilles’ success on the killing fields is what the Greeks called an aristeia, a hero’s deeds to win the title of bravest and best. In an afternoon on the battlefield, the Iliad’s Achilles kills at least 36 Trojans. This is no doubt an exaggeration, but the Bronze Age liked its heroes hot.
Achilles’ final victim was Hector. Courageous enough to stand and face him when he might have retreated behind his city’s walls, Hector nonetheless had second thoughts. Despite his fears of public dishonor, in the end Hector ran. Panicked by Achilles’ approach, he sprinted off, only to be chased by the great runner. Homer says they circled the city three times before Hector finally recovered his courage, stood, and fought. Of that confrontation Homer writes:
The Dardan hero shuns his foe no more.
Sternly they met. The silence Hector broke:
His dreadful plumage nodded as he spoke:
“Enough, O son of Peleus! Troy has view’d
Her walls thrice circled, and her chief pursued.
But now some god within me bids me try
Thine, or my fate: I kill thee, or I die.”
Before the duel begins, Hector asks Achilles to agree that whoever wins will treat his enemy’s body with respect. But the death of Patroclus has left Achilles in a savage mood. He refuses.
It is high noon on the plain of Troy. Achilles throws his spear and misses, but gets it back through divine intervention (or a dash to recover it). Hector strikes Achilles’ shield with his javelin, then draws his sword and rushes him, but the Greek is ready and drives his spear into Hector’s neck. The Trojan falls to the ground and, with a prophecy of Achilles’ approaching doom, dies.
In the aftermath, Achilles showed both the worst and the best of his character. First he attached Hector’s corpse to his chariot and dragged it around the walls of Troy three times. Then he refused to cremate Hector’s corpse (cremation was the custom at the time), keeping it in his camp as a kind of trophy. Meanwhile, he had Patroclus’ body cremated and held funeral games in the fallen hero’s honor.
Achilles’ barbaric treatment of Hector’s corpse was not out of line with Bronze Age military practice. The Assyrians, for example, bragged of blinding their enemies, and the Egyptians said they took thousands of hands and penises as battle trophies. But Homer held his heroes to a higher standard. Achilles achieved it.
Hector’s father, the aged King Priam, dared to go to the Greek camp to beg Achilles to let him bring Hector’s corpse home for cremation. Achilles the Terrible was moved to tears, reminded of his own father, Peleus. Thinking of his own death in the Trojan War, as had been prophesied, he contemplates the tragedy of the human condition. As Homer says:
These words soft pity in the chief inspire,
Touch’d with the dear remembrance of his sire.
Then with his hand (as prostrate still he lay)
The old man’s cheek he gently turn’d away.
Now each by turns indulged the gush of woe;
And now the mingled tides together flow:
This low on earth, that gently bending o’er;
A father one, and one a son deplore:
But great Achilles different passions rend,
And now his sire he mourns, and now his friend.
The infectious softness through the heroes ran;
One universal solemn shower began;
They bore as heroes, but they felt as man.
Achilles gave Priam permission to take his son’s body back to Troy, displaying a humanity that has echoed down the ages.
Hector’s death was the last combat in the Iliad, but not in the Trojan War. The Trojans found new allies, and Achilles killed their leaders: first, the queen of the Amazons, Penthesilea, and then the prince of the Ethiopians, Memnon. The Amazons were pure myth, as far as we know, although there were women warriors later in antiquity. Memnon might conceivably have been a black nobleman from Egypt’s African empire. A few such men rose high in Egypt, which had diplomatic relations with the lands of western Turkey. But this is speculation.
Greek tradition tells how Achilles died fighting at the gates of Troy. Paris, the Trojan prince who had started it all by seducing Helen, struck Achilles with an arrow. Perhaps the arrow was tipped with poison, as sometimes happened in ancient warfare. Perhaps Paris got in a lucky shot that struck a vital artery. Perhaps the wound grew infected. Perhaps Achilles really was vulnerable only in his heel, and Paris struck him there.
In any case, it was a sad end for the best of the Greek warriors. No doubt Achilles would have preferred to go down fighting in hand-to-hand combat and surely against a less shady figure than Paris. But there is a message in his fate: Wars are not won by glory or derring-do, but by cunning and luck.
For all his greatness, Achilles did not take Troy. None of the Greeks’ courage on the battlefield won the war. Instead, they achieved victory by means of a trick: the Trojan horse. The Greeks took Troy only when the enemy had let their guard down.
But maybe all this suits Achilles best. His greatest goal was not to take Troy but to win glory. Achilles’ credo is best summed up in the words of the Trojan ally Glaucus, who explains why his father sent him off to war:
“By his decree I sought the Trojan town;
By his instructions learn to win renown,
To stand the first in worth as in command,
To add new honors to my native land,
Before my eyes my mighty sires to place,
And emulate the glories of our race.”
Renown—preeminence—honor—glory: these were Achilles’ goals too. He wanted to be immortal. And he is.
Originally published in the Autumn 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.