Like most mythological heroes, Achilles had a complicated family tree. His father was Peleus, the mortal king of the Myrmidons, a people who, according to legend, were extraordinarily fearless and skilled soldiers. His mother was Thetis, a Nereid.
According to myths and stories composed long after Iliad, Thétis was extremely concerned about the mortality of her baby. She did everything she could to make him immortal: she burned him every night over a fire, then dressed his wounds with ambrosial ointment; and she immersed him in the river Styx, whose waters were said to confer the invulnerability of the gods. However, she grabbed his foot tightly as she plunged him into the river, so hard that the water never touched his heel. As a result, Achilles was invulnerable everywhere except there.
At the age of 9, a seer predicted that Achilles would die heroically in battle against the Trojans. When she heard of this, Thetis disguised him as a girl and sent him to live on the Aegean island of Skyros. However, being a great warrior was Achilles’ destiny and he soon left Skyros and joined the Greek army.
When Homer wrote the Iliad however, by 720 BCE, readers and listeners would have known nothing of this. They only knew that Achilles was a great hero, that he had superhuman strength and courage, and that he was extremely handsome. Homer painted a more nuanced picture: in addition to these qualities, his Achilles was vengeful and quick to anger and could be irritable when he did not get what he wanted. He was also deeply loyal and was willing to sacrifice anything for his friends and family.
Achilles: the Trojan War
According to legend, the Trojan War began when the god-king Zeus decided to reduce Earth’s mortal population by staging a war between the Greeks (Homer calls them the Achaeans) and the Trojans. He did this by interfering in their political and emotional affairs. At the wedding banquet of Achilles’ parents, Zeus invited the prince of Troy, a young man named Paris, to judge a beauty contest between the goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. Each of the goddesses offered Paris a bribe in exchange for her vote. That of Aphrodite was the most seductive: she promised to give the young prince the most beautiful wife in the world. Unfortunately, the bride in question – Helen, the daughter of Zeus – was already married to someone else: Menelaus, the king of Sparta. At Aphrodite’s request, Paris traveled to Sparta, won Helen’s heart, and brought her (along with all of Menelaus’ money) back to Troy.
Menelaus swore revenge. He gathered an army made up of the greatest Greek warriors, including Achilles and his Myrmidons, and set out to conquer Troy and recover his wife. According to Homer’s account, this war lasted 10 bloody years.
Achilles: The Iliad
When the Iliad begins, the Trojan War has lasted for nine years. Achilles, the protagonist of the poem, fought battle after battle. He has met with great success – in fact, he is undefeated in combat – but the war itself has reached a stalemate.
Homer’s story, however, focuses on a different conflict: the internecine feud between his hero and Agamemnon, the leader of the Achaean armies and the brother of Menelaus. In a battle which took place before the beginning of the poem, Agamemnon had taken as his concubine a young Trojan woman named Chryseis. Chryseis’ father, priest of the god Apollo, tried to buy his daughter’s freedom, but Agamemnon mocked his pleas and refused to free the girl.
Enraged, Apollo punished the Greek armies by sending a plague to kill the soldiers one by one. As his ranks dwindled, Agamemnon finally agreed to allow Chryseis to return to his father. However, he demanded in exchange a replacement concubine: Achilles’ wife, the Trojan princess Breseis.
Achilles did as his commander asked and abandoned his wife. Then he announced that he would no longer fight alongside Agamemnon. He gathered his things and refused to come out of his tent.
With the greatest Greek warrior having left the battlefield, the tide began to turn in favor of the Trojans. The Greeks lost battle after battle. Finally, Achilles’ best friend, the soldier Patroclus, managed to find a compromise: Achilles would not fight, but he would let Patroclus use his armor as a disguise. This way the Trojans would think Achilles had returned to battle and retreat in fear.
The plan worked until Apollo, still seething over Agamemnon’s treatment of Chryseis and her father, intervened on behalf of the Trojans. He helped the Trojan prince Hector find and kill Patroclus.
Achilles has sworn revenge. Thetis asked the divine blacksmith Hephaestus to make a sword and shield that would keep him safe. Achilles chased Hector all the way to Troy, slaughtering the Trojans all the way. When they arrived at the city walls, Hector tried to reason with his pursuer, but Achilles was not interested. He stabbed Hector in the throat, killing him.
Hector had requested an honorable burial at Troy, but Achilles was determined to humiliate his enemy even in death. He dragged Hector’s body behind his chariot to the Achaean camp and threw it on the trash heap. However, in the final section of the poem, Achilles finally gives in: he returns Hector’s body to his father for a proper burial.
Achilles: The Fate of Achilles
In his Iliad, Homer does not explain what happened to Achilles. According to later legends (and fragments of Homer’s Odyssey), the warrior returned to Troy after Hector’s funeral to seek further revenge for the death of Patroclus. However, Apollo, ever vengeful, told Hector’s brother Paris that Achilles was coming. Paris, not a brave warrior, ambushed Achilles as he entered Troy. He shot his unsuspecting enemy with an arrow, which Apollo guided to the only place he knew Achilles was vulnerable: his heel, where his mother’s hand had kept the waters of the Styx from touching his skin. Achilles died instantly, still undefeated in battle.