- Jonathan S. Burgess
Achilles is the grandson of Aeacus of Aigina and son of Peleus and the Nerei.d Thetis. He rules the Myrmidons of Phthia in southern Thessaly and is generally considered the best (aristos) of the Greeks in the Trojan War. In Homer’s Iliad he is said to have led fifty ships to Troy (2.681–685). The Iliad’s plot turns on his withdrawal from battle in anger at the Greek commander Agamemnon and his return to take vengeance on Hector for killing his close friend Patroclus. Many episodes in the life of Achilles, including his early life and death at Troy, were popular in Greek and Roman literature and iconography. Summaries of mythological events found in the life of Achilles can be found in the Epitome of Apollodorus and the Fabulae of Hyginus (1st century bce to 1st century ce). Reception of myths about Achilles has continued in post-antiquity.
- Greek Literature
- Greek Myth and Religion
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Early Greek Epic and Iconography
Achilles (Ἀχιλλεύς) is a hero in Greek and Roman myth. The name “Achilles” is probably of pre-Greek origin and appears in Linear B as a-ki-re-u; the ancient hypothesis (occasionally endorsed by modern scholars) that his name means “a grief to the army” is unlikely.1 The Iliad identifies as its topic the mênis (“rage”) of Achilles against Agamemnon, who takes Achilles’ concubine Briseis in Book 1.2 Achilles announces his withdrawal from battle and then asks Thetis to persuade Zeus to help the Trojans. In Book 9 he rejects an embassy from Agamemnon offering generous compensation. When Hector slays Patroclus, the therapôn (“attendant”) and close friend whom Achilles allowed to fight in his stead, Achilles returns to the battlefield. After routing the Trojans, he kills Hector (Il. 22) and repeatedly mistreats his corpse. At the funeral of Patroclus in Book 23 he sacrifices twelve Trojan youths whom he had captured for this purpose. When Priam, king of Troy, seeks to ransom his son’s body in person, Achilles eventually relents, and the epic ends with the funeral of Hector.
Despite his anger and violence, Achilles is often thoughtfully eloquent in the Iliad. In response to Agamemnon’s embassy (Book 9), he questions the rationale for the Greek expedition, challenges the “heroic code” (honorific distribution of war booty, including concubines), and threatens to return home rather than meet his fated death at Troy and thereby acquire kleos, “fame.” After the death of Patroclus, he expresses regret over his failure to protect his comrades and staunchly accepts his destiny, despite the warnings of Thetis (Book 18). After returning to battle he kills the suppliant Lycaon after speaking generally about the human condition (Book 21). As host of the funeral games for Patroclus, he adroitly manages conflict among the competitive Greeks and is respectful of elders, including his former antagonist Agamemnon (Book 23). In Book 24 Achilles eventually accepts ransom from Priam for release of the body of Hector, in accordance with the will of Zeus (as reported by Thetis), but also in sympathetic response to Priam’s comparison of himself to Achilles’ father Peleus.
The Iliad often refers to Achilles’ actions in the early years of the Trojan War and foreshadows his coming death at Troy; the Odyssey references his post-Iliadic career and death. Many of these episodes were present in the Trojan War section of the Epic Cycle, which survives in an ancient summary.3 The Cypria began with Zeus planning the Trojan war, which a scholiast on the Iliad (fr. 1 West) reports included the birth of Helen (cause of war) and Achilles (destructive force for both sides). The summary by Proclus, which does not cover Achilles’ prewar childhood, first mentions the hero as a member of the first Greek expedition to Troy. Achilles wounds Telephus at Teuthrania (and later cures the wound). Subsequently he is blown by a storm to Scyros, where lives Deidamia, the mother of his son Neoptolemus (in the Iliad Neoptolemus resides at the island, which was sacked by Achilles [9.666–668; 19.326–333; 24.467]). Iphigenia is summoned to a second muster at Aulis on the pretence of a marriage with Achilles. At Lemnos on the way to Troy Achilles and Agamemnon quarrel. At Troy Achilles kills Cycnus, son of Poseidon; meets Helen by means of Aphrodite and Thetis; and then stops the Greeks from returning home. In raids within the Troad the hero seizes the cattle of Aeneas (cf. Il. 20.89ff., 187ff.), kills Troilus, and sacks several towns (a common theme in the Iliad). Iliadic material then arises with Briseis becoming his prize and Zeus planning the hero’s withdrawal in order to help the Trojans.
In the Aethiopis Achilles kills the Amazon Penthesilea and then Memnon (mentioned at Od. 4.187–188; 11.522) after the Aethiopian king killed his friend Antilochus. While attacking the city of Troy he is then killed by Paris and Apollo (as predicted by Hector at Il. 22. 358–360). His body is rescued by Ajax and Odysseus (referenced at Od. 5.308–310, 24.36–42); Thetis with her Nereid sisters and the Muses attend his funeral (cf. Od. 24.43–84). Achilles is snatched from the pyre by Thetis and taken to an afterlife on Leuke (“White Island”; cf. the shade of Achilles in the underworld at Odyssey Books 11 and 24). In the Little Iliad Ajax and Odysseus argue over Achilles’ armor, which is awarded to Odysseus. In the Little Iliad the shade of Achilles appears to his son Neoptolemus when he arrives at Troy from Scyros. In the Sack of Troy Polyxena is sacrificed at Achilles’ tomb, and in the Nosti the shade of Achilles warns the Greeks concerning their return home.
Greek artists of the Archaic Age employed non-Iliadic scenes earlier and more frequently than Iliadic scenes, but Homeric scenes include the confiscation of Briseis, the embassy to Achilles, Achilles dueling with Hector and dragging his corpse, Achilles presiding over the funeral games of Patroclus, and Priam supplicating Achilles. These arguably reflect the growing influence of the Iliad.4 Images of the hero before the Trojan War include the young Achilles with Chiron and perhaps Thetis. Chiron is said to have taught Achilles medicine at Il. 11.831–832 (though Phoenix claims to have nurtured the hero at 9.485–495), and the centaur’s education of the youth was the theme of the Hesiodic epic Precepts of Chiron. It is not always clear if early images of Thetis and the Nereids conveying armor to Achilles are situated at Phthia or Troy. Trojan War episodes outside of the Iliad in Archaic Age iconography include Achilles killing Troilus, Penthesilea, and Memnon. Images of Ajax rescuing his corpse were also early and common, and artists often depicted Polyxena in scenes of the Troilus ambush, as well as her sacrifice over the grave of Achilles. Narrative context is unknown for a popular scene of Achilles and Ajax playing a board game and an image by Sosias of Achilles binding a wounded Patroclus. The famous François Vase from the early 6th century thematically references Achilles in its depiction of the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, the ambush of Troilus (and Polyxena), Achilles presiding over the chariot race at the funeral games for Patroclus, and Ajax carrying his body.
Achilles in Greek and Roman Culture
Charismatic yet complex, the Homeric Achilles inspired different reactions down through time, though ancient authors rarely retold the Iliadic story of his wrath. Episodes featuring Achilles from the Epic Cycle, notably various sexual or romantic liaisons, offered much material for authors and artists to retell. In general Greek culture respected Achilles’ divine pedigree and heroic excellence, whereas Roman culture (tracing its lineage to the Trojans) tended to characterize the hero less charitably. The Roman perspective influenced portrayals of Achilles in post-antiquity, with much attention given to his various sexual relationships.
Hero Cult of Achilles
Achilles was the recipient of cult worship at his tomb in Troy and especially in the Black Sea area (Philostr. Her. 52.3–57.17 provides stories about both cult locations). Achilles’ tomb (usually located at the Sigeion cape) was reportedly visited by Alexander the Great (Arr. Anab. I 11; Plut. Vit. Alex. 15), as well as the Roman emperors Julian (Ep. 79) and Caracalla (Herod. 4.8.4; Cass. Dio 78.16.7). In the Black Sea Achilles’ afterlife location on Leuke was localized at modern Zmiinyi Island (“Snake Island”). Material culture and inscriptions attest to cult activity at Leuke and in the vicinity of the Milesian colony Olbia in the sixth century bce. Alcaeus, fr. 354 V, calls Achilles “Lord of Scythia,” and the hero was addressed as “Pontarches” (“Lord of the Black Sea”) in Olbia during the Roman imperial period. Worship of Achilles was practiced as well at other locations in the Greek Mediterranean world.5
Achilles in Greek culture
Lyric poets generally described Achilles positively. For example, Sappho compliments a bridegroom by comparing him to Achilles (fr. 115 V). Alcaeus celebrates the birth of Achilles to Peleus and Thetis (fr. 42 V) and depicts a prayer by Achilles to Thetis that is similar to the one in Iliad Book 1 (fr. 144 V). Pindar extensively refers to Achilles as a symbol of excellence, notably in odes for victors from Aegina, the home of Achilles’ grandfather Aeacus. He reports the story of Zeus and Poseidon refraining from pursuit of Thetis after Themis predicted her son would be greater than his father (Pind. Pyth. 3.91–93; Pind. Isthm. 8.32–47) and details the training of Achilles by Chiron (Pind. Nem. 3.43–63). The poet often celebrates the hero’s many victories over Hector and “cyclic” antagonists (Pind. Ol. 2, 79–83; 9.70–119; Pind. Nem. 3.56–63, 6.51–55; Pind. Isthm. 5.38–42, 8.48–58), and describes Thetis conveying her son to the Isles of the Blessed, a multiform for Leuke (Pind. Ol. 2.79–80). Perhaps less positive is the description of Trojan success when Achilles withdraws from battle in Bacchylides’ Iliadic Ode 13, but the stress is on the foolhardy optimism of the Trojans.
The lost trilogy Achilleis by Aeschylus also covered the material of the second half of the Iliad, with fragments suggesting a sexual relationship with Patroclus. Achilles even in his absence lies in the background of contested heroic values in Ajax and Philoctetes. Though the multi-perspective works of Euripides can praise of Achilles (such as the choral ode at Electra 432–486, sometimes found foreboding), Hecuba suggests that the sacrifice of Polyxena at the tomb of Achilles was demanded by the hero’s shade. Though it is not known if Achilles requested her death in the Cyclic Nosti, the atrocity is not uncharacteristic of the hero. In the Iliad Achilles fulfils his promise to Patroclus to sacrifice twelve Trojan youths over his grave (23.174–176), and much later in Philostratus’s Heroicus Achilles’ shade is said to have torn apart a descendant of Priam (56.6–10). In Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis Achilles is not complicit in the deception that brings Iphigenia to Aulis on the promise of marriage to him, but despite his initial protestations he turns out to be rather ineffective and ordinary. Euripides both expands upon troubling aspects of the epic Achilles and explores innovative characterization of the hero that will prove to be influential.
The Iliadic Achilles might seem proto-philosophical in his magnificently articulate speeches, but his behavior usually found little favor with ancient philosophers. The inconsistencies of Achilles lead to various reactions in Plato. Socrates admires the Homeric Achilles’ steadfastness in the face of fated death (Ap. 28b–d) and has a dream when facing his own death that features a phrase of the hero (Cri. 44a–b). But in the Republic the Homeric Achilles is faulted for lack of emotional self-control and other perceived failings (379d–391e).6
Achilles in Roman Culture
Roman culture, which traced its lineage to the Trojans, presented mixed views of Achilles. In Catullus 64 (344–370) the Fates at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis speak of the future violence of Achilles, including the sacrifice of Polyxena at his tomb. In Virgil’s Aeneid Achilles is characterized as a supremely destructive warrior. Described as “ferocious” to both the Atreidae and Priam (1.458), the hero appears repeatedly in the Trojan War scenes displayed on Juno’s temple (1.453–493). The Sibyl foresees Turnus as “another Achilles” (6.89–90), a comparison that Turnus welcomes (9.742), though Virgilian intertextuality eventually makes an angry Aeneas reminiscent of the Greek hero. Ovid’s retelling of the Trojan War (12.1–13.622) also features the Homeric and Cyclic military career of Achilles, with the sacrifice of Polyxena again emphasized. Quintus of Smyrna in the later Roman Imperial Age provides a Greek epic retelling of post-Iliadic cyclic events, with Books 1–4 focusing on the defeat of Penthesilea and Memnon, followed by the death and funeral of Achilles.
Achilles’ childhood was an especially popular topic in Roman culture.7 At least as early as the lost Scyrians by Euripides and images by Polygnotus (Paus. 1.22.6) and Athenion (Plin. HN 35.134) Thetis attempts to forestall Achilles’ fated death at Troy by disguising him as a girl at Scyros. A relationship with Deidamia follows (which produces Neoptolemus, as in Homer and the Cycle), as told in the 1st century bce by Epithalamium of Achilles and Deidameia (Bion or an imitator), and eventually Achilles is exposed by a recruiting Odysseus (memorably reported by Ulysses at Ov. Met. 13.162–179). The Achilleid by Statius, though incomplete, is the most detailed surviving account of the episode. Achilles violently rapes Deidamia (at Ov. Ars am. 1.681–704 it is claimed she secretly desired his forceful attentions). The “Achilles’ heel” story referenced by Statius (Achil. 1.133–134, 269–270, 480–481) is apparently late, though a multiform of it (explaining why Thetis left Peleus) exists in the Apollonius of Rhodes (Arg. 4.869–872) and perhaps earlier (cf. Hom. Hymn Dem. 237–240; Hes. Aegimius fr. 300 M–W; and Lycoph. Alex. 178–179; some early vase scenes indicate or suggest a lower leg wound).
The Roman fascination in Achilles’ childhood and love affairs continued through the Medieval Age and beyond. A romantic intrigue with Polyxena arises in Latin prose war diaries (probably 2nd century ce) purportedly authored by the Trojan War veterans Dictys of Crete and Dares of Phrygia. Under the influence of Dares this love affair was expanded in subsequent Medieval Troy stories, notably the influential Le Roman de Troie by Benoît de Sainte-Maure (2th century ce). As in the Epic Cycle, the Medieval Troy stories marginalize Achilles as just one character in the long Trojan War, and the Iliad’s central theme of his wrath against Agamemnon loses importance or vanishes entirely. In Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, a conceited and indolent Achilles is in love with Polyxena and derided by his fellow Greeks for his sexual relation with Patroclus.
Achilles in Love
The friendship between Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad is intense but not specifically portrayed as sexual. Comparative reference, however, may be made to the homosocial friendships of Gilgamesh and Enkidu in the The Epic of Gilgamesh or David and Jonathan in the Hebrew bible.8 In the Classical Age their relationship was conceived in pederastic terms, as fragments from Aeschylus’s trilogy and passages in Plato (Symp. 180a) and Aeschines (In Tim. 141–150) indicate. Achilles is also sometimes portrayed as a sexual partner of Patroclus in reception of post-antiquity, notably in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida and the novel The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.9
Achilles fathers Neoptolemus with Deidamia, whatever the nature of his relationship with the princess of Scyros (sexually violent at Ov. Ars am. 1681–1704; and Stat. Achil. 1.689–880). In the Iliad Agamemnon’s seizure of his concubine Briseis instigates Achilles’ wrath. In reply to and embassy in Book 9 seeking his return to battle, Achilles rhetorically speaks of her as his “wife” (336–343). But her confiscation is primarily regarded by the hero as an insult to his honor and he rejects Agamemnon’s offer to return her. After the ambassadors leave Achilles sleeps beside another concubine, Diomede (and Patroclus sleeps with another concubine who was captured by Achilles). Mourning over the body of Patroclus, Briseis surprisingly claims that he had encouraged her to think of marriage to Achilles back in Phthia (19.282–300; cf. her “letter” to Achilles at Ov. Heroides 3). Shortly before Achilles had publicly wished that Briseis had died before his quarrel with Agamemnon (19.56–62). The two are depicted sleeping side by side near the end of the Iliad (24.675–676).10
Some of Achilles’ possible sexual attachments are less than clear. In Proclus’s summary of the Cypria it may be suggestive that Aphrodite with Athena arranges for him to meet Helen (see Lycoph. Alex. 139–174). Though the evidence is obscure or late, sexual attraction to Polyxena or Troilus may have been one aspect of the ambush of Troilus by Achilles (see Lycoph. Alex. 308–313). In the Aethiopis Thersites was killed by Achilles for claiming that the hero loved Penthesilea, which is perhaps signaled by the locking of eyes at the moment of her death on the famous vase by Exekias (6th century bce). In Quintus of Smyrna (Heroicus, Book 1) Achilles pities the death of the Amazon as much as he had the death of Patroclus, and Thersites taunts him as “woman-mad” (1.726), a not uncommon charge against Achilles. Various consorts were linked to Achilles in the afterworld, including Helen (Lycoph. Alex. 171–179; Paus. 3.19.13; Philostr. Her. 54.2–55.6), Medea (Ibyc., fr. 10 PMG; Lycoph. Alex. 174, 798), Polyxena (Lycoph. Alex. 323–334; Sen. Troades 938–948; Philostr., Life of Apollonius of Tyana 4.16), and Iphigenia (Lycoph. Alex. 183–187; Anton. Lib. Met. 27).
In recent centuries growing familiarity with Homer led to reception of the Homeric Achilles. Often such reception has been positive; Patrick Shaw-Stewart’s poem “I Saw a Man This Morning,” composed before battle at Gallipoli in the First World War, included the famous lines “Stand in the trench, Achilles, /Flame-capped, and shout for me.11
Achilles continues to receive attention in recent reception of Trojan myth in English. For example, the prose poem Achilles by Elizabeth Cook (2003) sensitively samples the wide range of Achilles’ life. Achilles is also central to director Wolfgang Petersen’s movie Troy, which also covers much more than the story of the Iliad. Achilles is transformed into a modern St. Lucia fisherman named Achille in a love triangle with Helen and the taxi driver Hector in the long verse poem Omeros (1990) by Derek Walcott.
Recent works of reception tend to feature secondary or minor characters who provide new perspectives on major events and characters. In Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls (2018) Briseis provides a perceptive and realistic portrayal of her lover Achilles and other Greek heroes. In David Malouf’s Ransom (2009) Priam’s muleteer (here called Somax) narrates the Trojan king’s mission to ransom his son’s corpse from Achilles. And in The Song of Achilles (2011) by Madeline Miller, Patroclus provides a lyrical account of his youthful sexual relationship with Achilles, and as well as a voice from beyond the grave completing the story of the Trojan War.
Achilles has also received attention in modern works on psychology. Jonathan Shay in Achilles in Vietnam sees Achilles as a useful mythological subject for discussion of post-traumatic stress disorder among war veterans.12 The anger of Achilles, not only directed at Agamemnon and Hector but also on the battlefield in beserker mode, is found to be indicative of universal experiences in war. W. Thomas MacCary’s Childlike Achille (1982) portrays Achilles as immaturely narcissistic, and Richard Holway’s Becoming Achilles (2012) employs attachment theory to explore Achilles’ dysfunctional infancy and upbringing.
- Burgess, Jonathan S. The Death and Afterlife of Achilles. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.
- Burton, Diana. “Immortal Achilles.” Greece & Rome 63, no. 1 (2016): 1–28.
- Edwards, Anthony T. Achilles in the Odyssey. Konigstein, Germany: Ulrike Helmer, 1985.
- Fantuzzi, Marco. Achilles in Love. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
- Gonzalez, Marta G. Achilles. London: Routledge, 2018.
- Heslin, Peter J. The Transvestite Achilles: Gender and Genre in Statius’ Achilleid. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
- King, Katherine C. Achilles: Paradigms of the War Hero from Homer through the Middle Ages. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.
- Kossatz-Deissman, Anneliese. “Achilleus,” In Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, Vol. 1. Edited by Hans C. Ackermann and J.-R. Gisler. Zürich, Switzerland: Artemis Verlag, 1981.
- Latacz, Joachim. Achilleus: Wandlungen eines europäischen Heldenbildes. Stuttgart: Teubner, 1995.
- Michelakis, Pantelis. Achilles in Greek Tragedy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
- Muellner, Leonard C. The Anger of Achilles: Mēnis in Greek Epic. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.
- Nagy, Gregory. The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry. 2nd ed. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.
- Papaioannou, Sophia. Redesigning Achilles: “Recycling” the Epic Cycle in the “Little Iliad” (Ovid, Metamorphoses 12.1–13.622). Berlin: De Gruyter, 2007.
- Schein, Seth L. The Mortal Hero: An Introduction to Homer’s Iliad. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
- Slatkin, Laura M. The Power of Thetis: Allusion and Interpretation in the Iliad. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
1. Robert Beekes, “Ἀχιλλεύς,” in Etymological Dictionary of Greek, ed. Robert Beekes (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill Publishers, 2009), 183–184; and Gregory Nagy, The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry, rev. ed. (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press , 1999), 69–83, Chapter 5.
2. Leonard Muellner, The Anger of Achilles: Mēnis in Greek Epic (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996).
3. Martin L. West, The Epic Cycle: A Commentary on the Lost Troy Epics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); and Christos Tsagalis and Marco Fantuzzi, eds., The Greek Epic Cycle and Its Ancient Reception: A Companion (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
4. Anneliese Kossatz-Deissmann, “Achilleus,” in Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, Vol. 1, ed. Hans C. Ackermann, and J.-R. Gisler (Zurich, Switzerland: Artemis & Winkler, 1981–2009); Anthony M. Snodgrass, Homer and the Artists: Text and Picture in Early Greek Art (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998); and Michael Squire, Image and Text in Graeco-Roman Antiquity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
5. Hildebricht Hommel, Der Gott Achilleus (Heidelberg, Germany: Carl Winter, 1980); J. T. Hooker, “The Cults of Achilles,” Rheinisches Museum 131, no. 1 (1988): 1–7; Guy Hedreen, “The Cult of Achilles in the Euxine,” Hesperia 60, no. 3 (1991): 313–30; Joachim Hupe, ed., Der Achilleus-Kult imnördlichen Schwarzmeerraum vom Beginnder griechischen Kolonisation bis indierömische Kaiserzeit (Rahden/Westphalia, Germany: Leidorf, 2006); and Diana Burton, “Immortal Achilles,” Greece & Rome 63, no. 1 (2016): 1–28.
6. Angela Hobbs, Plato and the Hero: Courage, Manliness and the Impersonal Good (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009), Chapter 7.
7. Alan Cameron, “Young Achilles in the Roman World,” Journal of Roman Studies 99, no. 1 (2009): 1–22.
8. David M. Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality: And Other Essays on Greek Love (London: Routledge, 1990).
10. Casey Dué, Homeric Variations on a Lament by Briseis (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).
11. Elizabeth Vandizer, Stand in the Trench, Achilles: Classical Receptions in British Poetry of the Great War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
12. Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (New York: Atheneum, 1994); W. Thomas MacCary, Childlike Achilles: Ontogeny and Phylogeny in the Iliad (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982); and Richard Holway, Becoming Achilles: Child-Sacrifice, War, and Misrule in the Iliad and Beyond (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012).