Achilles: The Mighty Hero of the Trojan War

Achilles, the hero of the Trojan War, was a central figure in Homer’s epic poem, the “Iliad.” Known for his unmatched strength and bravery, Achiapolllles was regarded as the greatest of all the heroes who fought in the Trojan War. Born to Peleus, king of Phthia, and the sea goddess Thetis, Achilles had a proud lineage that set him apart from other warriors on the battlefield. Let’s learn about the famed hero with the tragic fate.

Achilles Key Facts

Name and Etymology

Achilles sculpture
Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Achilles’ name has an interesting origin and one that is well-suited to his role in the war. The name is a synthesis of the Greek words ἄχος (áchos), meaning distress or grief, and λαός (laós), meaning nation, people. In that sense, the name Achilles literally translates to “the distress of the people”. So he is either the one who causes people distress or the one whose people are in distress.

I also want to mention that he gave his name to the well-known phrase “Achilles’ heel-” It refers to a person’s weakness despite their overall strength and ability. The reason for this is that, according to legend, Thetis dipped Achilles in the River Styx while holding him by his heel. This left that spot as his only vulnerability.While the hero’s Greek name is Achilleus, his Roman name, Achilles, is more widely used in literature and art. He was also known as Myrmidon, the leader of the Myrmidons, a Greek soldier tribe. According to Apollodorus, his birth name was Ligyron. Ligyron was changed to Achilles because he refused to be nursed by Thetis; in this account, the name Achilles translates to “without lips” (α + χείλος).

Achilles Family and Relationships

Achilles’ lineage was rich in divinity, with his mother, Thetis, a powerful sea nymph (Nereid). His father, Peleus, was the wise and respected king of the Myrmidons, a fierce warrior tribe from ancient Thessaly. Peleus was the son of Aeacus and the grandson of Zeus. Telamon, Peleus’ brother, was the father of Ajax, another prominent Greek hero from the Trojan War. Some accounts indicate he had a sister named Polymele.

He was destined for greatness from an early age, having received invaluable training from the centaur Chiron, who instilled in him the virtues of courage, temperance, and pain resistance. Chiron was a well-known tutor who had also trained Heracles and Jason.

Chiron teaching Achilles how to play the lyre, Roman fresco from Herculaneum, 1st century AD
Upload by muesse, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Achilles formed profound connections with those around him throughout his life. His relationship with his mentor, Chiron, and his beloved companion, Patroclus, was especially important. Patroclus’ death at the hands of Hector would prove to be a watershed moment in Achilles’ journey, sparking a burning desire for vengeance that would eventually seal his fate.

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Myths about Achilles

The Birth of Achilles

According to mythology, Achilles was the son of Peleus, king of Phthia, and Thetis, a Nereid. While Thetis was pursued by both Zeus and Poseidon, it was foretold that she would bear a son who would surpass his father in power. The gods felt threatened, so they decided to marry Thetis to a mortal so that her son would not be more powerful than a God.

The marriage of Thetis and Peleus was purely incidental. Eris, the goddess of strife, enraged by not being invited to the wedding, created the Apple of Discord and presented it to Paris, a Trojan prince. That would mark the beginning of the Trojan War. 

Thetis Dipping the Infant Achilles into the River Styx by Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1625; Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam)
Thetis Dipping the Infant Achilles into the River Styx by Peter Paul Rubens
Peter Paul Rubens, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Peleus and Thetis had seven sons, but only Achilles lived beyond infancy. Thetis decided to make her son invincible, if not immortal. According to the most widely accepted version of the story, Thetis dipped Achilles in the divine waters of the River Styx, making him invincible. However, because she held him by his heel, this part did not submerge under water and thus remained vulnerable.

Achilles was raised by the wise centaur Chiron, who taught heroes such as Asclepius, Jason, and Heracles and lived on Mount Pelion.

Achilles in Skyros

A Roman mosaic from the Poseidon Villa in Zeugma, Commagene (now in the Zeugma Mosaic Museum) depicting Achilles disguised as a woman and Odysseus tricking him into revealing himself
Roman mosaic from the Poseidon Villa in Zeugma, Commagene (now in the Zeugma Mosaic Museum) depicting Achilles disguised as a woman and Odysseus tricking him into revealing himself
Dosseman, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Another prophecy befell Achilles, foretelling his early death if he joined the Trojan War. In order to save her son, Thetis disguised him as a girl and hid him among King Lycomedes’ daughters on the island of Skyros. Growing up, Achilles fell in love with one of Lycomedes’ daughters, Deidamia, with whom he had two children, Neoptolemus and, according to some accounts, Oneiros.

When the Trojan War was declared, Odysseus received a prophecy from Calchas that the Greeks would not win unless Achilles participated in the war. The cunning Odysseus dupes Achilles, either by tricking him while disguised or persuading him, and Achilles joins him in the war.

Achilles and the Trojan War

The Trojan War, a ten-year saga, depicted Achilles’ ferocity on the battlefield, with his Myrmidons destroying countless cities and enemies. Homer describes Achilles arriving in Troy with 50 ships, each carrying 50 Myrmidons. The Myrmidons, led by Telephus, who had been wounded and healed by Achilles, would prove to be among the war’s most formidable fighters.

Achilles slaying Troilus, red-figure kylix signed by Euphronios
Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Achilles was a fierce and dedicated warrior in the early years of the war, prior to the major events. He defeated and killed several Trojan champions, including Troilus, the son of Troy’s king, Priam. He also fatally wounded Cycnus, Poseidon’s son. It is also reported that he met Helen.

The Wrath of Achilles

However, as Homer’s Iliad recounts, the most significant incident in Achilles’ role in the Trojan War occurs in the final year, the ninth. The epic poem begins with the line “Goddess, sing the wrath of Peleus’ son, Achilles,” emphasizing how important his wrath was to the story.

Achiles and Agamemnon, from a mosaic from Pompeii, 1st century AD
Achilles and Agamemnon, from a mosaic from Pompeii, 1st century AD
Naples National Archaeological Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It all began when Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, believed he was entitled to Achilles’ concubine, Briseis, after returning his concubine, Chriseis, to her father to appease Apollo. Achilles felt humiliated and almost killed Agamemnon, but he restrained himself. He decided he would no longer fight for Agamemnon and isolated himself. Thetis found out what had happened and made Zeus promise that the Greeks would suffer for insulting Achilles.

Patroclus Wears Achilles’ Armor

When the Greeks began to suffer heavy losses, Agamemnon decided to cave and asked Achilles to return, but he declined. While the Greeks continued to suffer losses, Patroclus begged him to return. He refused again but allowed Patroclus to wear his armor and lead the Myrmidons in his place. That resulted in Patroclus’ death at the hands of prince Hector, who was assisted by Apollo. Hector took Achilles’ armor, and the Greeks were able to recover Patroclus’ corpse.

The death of Hector.
Peter Paul Rubens, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When Achilles realized his partner had been killed, he became enraged. He wanted to fight Hector right away, but he waited until Hephaestus made him new armor. He then went into battle, discovered Hector, and killed him. Infuriated by Patroclus’ death, he defiled Hector’s body by lashing it to his chariot and dragging him three times around Troy’s walls. While Achilles wanted to leave Hector’s body to be devoured by vultures, he chose to return him to Hector’s father, Priam, who begged and kissed the hands of his son’s murderer.

Penthesilea and Memnon

Following the tragic death of Hector, as described in the epic poem Aethiopis and Quintus of Smyrna’s Posthomerica, Achilles killed two more important figures. First, Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons and daughter of Ares, arrives in Troy to fight for Priam. Achilles defeats and kills the ferocious warrior queen.

Achilles fighting against Memnon Leiden
Jona Lendering, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Following Patroclus’ death, Achilles developed a close relationship with Nestor’s son, Antilochus. Memnon, Ethiopia’s king and the son of Eos, the goddess of dawn, kills Antilochus on the battlefield. Achilles becomes enraged again and kills Memnon. Eos, mourning for her son, refuses to let the sun shine again. Zeus eventually convinces her, and order is restored.

The Death of Achilles

Despite being a very important myth in Greek mythology, Achilles’ death is described in a variety of ways. The oldest account of the story is found in the Iliad (Book XXII). There Hector predicts Achilles’ defeat at the hands of Paris. In this version, Apollo directed Paris’ arrow to Achilles’ heel, his only vulnerable area. Achilles fell, and Patroclus’ spirit requested that their bones be placed together.

In the Odyssey (Books XI and XXIV), Odysseus encounters Achilles in the Underworld, where he inquires about the exploits of his son, Neoptolemus in the Trojan War. Also, Agamemnon claims that after the funeral pyre, Achilles’ bones were mixed with Patroclus’ and placed in a golden vase. On the island of Leuke, which is now known as Snake Island in Ukraine, near the Danube River in the Black Sea, a temple was built.

Another version of his’ death tells how he fell in love with the Trojan princess Polyxena, the daughter of Priam and Hecuba. Priam agrees, hoping to form an alliance with the Greeks. But Paris, knowing he would have to give up Helen if Achilles married his sister, hides in a bush and uses a divine arrow to kill him during his wedding.

Finally, in Apollonius’ Argonautica, Hera promises Thetis that Achilles will go to the Elysian Fields after death. In that account, he was married to Medea, and after their deaths, they reunited in the Elysian Fields.

Achilles’ Armor

Another popular myth about the Greek warrior revolves around his armor. After Achilles died, his armor, which Hephaestus forged after Patroclus died in his original armor, became the focus of a feud between Telamonian Ajax (Achilles’ paternal cousin) and Odysseus. The two warriors decided to deliver speeches to the Trojan prisoners about who deserved his’ armor the most. Odysseus was a master of rhetoric, so he convinced the prisoners that he was the bravest.

Ajax carries off the body of Achilles, Attic black-figure lekythos from Sicily, c. 510 BC
Ajax carries off the body of Achilles, Attic black-figure lekythos from Sicily, c. 510 BC
Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Ajax, unable to accept the competition’s outcome, cursed Odysseus. Athena, who had taken Odysseus under her wing, drove Ajax insane with anguish and grief. Blinded by rage, he began killing sheep, mistaking them for his own men. When he regained consciousness, he felt ashamed for attempting to kill his own comrades, and even more ashamed for killing sheep. This ultimately led to his tragic suicide.

Odysseus eventually chose to give the armor to Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus. However, as we see in the Odyssey (Book XI), when Odysseus visits Hades, Ajax is still furious with Odysseus and refuses to speak with him.

Depiction And Characteristics

Achilles: The Heroic Champion of the Trojan War
Przemek Pietrak, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Achilles is frequently depicted in art and literature as a young and attractive man, a formidable warrior dressed in armor and wielding his spear with unrivaled skill. He had long wavy hair. Dares the Phrygian described his hair as brown, while Homer described it as blonde.

His mother, Thetis, is frequently shown watching over him from the sea, as a symbol of her protective nature. Achilles’ personality was a complex tapestry of bravery, passion, arrogance, and stubbornness, making him an engaging and multifaceted hero.

Achilles’ symbols include the Myrmidons, the fierce warrior tribe he led, the immortal horses given to him by his father, Peleus, the armor forged by Hephaestus, his elaborate golden shield, and the spear given to him by centaur Chiron, which he was said to be the only one capable of wielding. These symbols serve as reminders of his military prowess and divine lineage.

Representations Of Achilles in Art

Achilles’ story has captivated artists throughout history, inspiring numerous works of art depicting his heroic exploits and tragic fate. He has served as a muse for generations, from ancient pottery depicting Trojan War scenes to Renaissance paintings that capture the depth of his emotions.

Fresco by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1757, Villa Valmarana ai Nani, Vicenza)
The Rage of Achilles, fresco by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1757, Villa Valmarana ai Nani, Vicenza)

Among the most well-known works of art are “Dying Achilles” by Christophe Veyrier (c.1683), “The Rage of Achilles” by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1757), “Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus” by Gavin Hamilton (c. 1763), and “The Education of Achilles” by Eugène Delacroix (1833-1847).

Of course, since the story of the Trojan War has inspired artists throughout the centuries, he has appeared in numerous musical works, as well as films and television series.

Mentions in Ancient Texts

Greek texts

The Triumph of Achilles, fresco by Franz von Matsch in the Achilleion, Greece.
The Triumph of Achilles, fresco by Franz von Matsch in the AchilleionGreece.

Achilles’ life and role in the Trojan War are well documented in ancient texts. Beginning with the epics, which are the primary source for his’ story. Homer’s epic poem Iliad is a masterpiece that chronicles the events of the Trojan War, with Achilles at its center. The poem details his’ exploits, relationships, and ultimate demise. As previously stated, he is also mentioned in the Odyssey, as Odysseus meets him while visiting the Underworld.

The Greek playwrights of the fifth century BC made numerous references to Achilles in their works. Aeschylus wrote a trilogy of tragedies about him called Achilleis. It describes his’ actions during the Trojan War, Hector’s death at the hands of Pairs, and other events. It is also claimed in Plato’s Symposium that Aeschylus depicted Achilles and Patroclus as lovers.
Sophocles’ lost tragedy The Lovers of Achilles featured the hero as the main character. Unfortunately, only fragments survived.

Euripides depicts him in a different light. Achilles is portrayed in his tragedies Hecuba, Electra, and Iphigenia in Aulis in a more negative light, with a bitter or ironical tone. Even in Andromache, where Neoptolemus, Achilles’ son, is the main character, there are some disparaging remarks about Greek men, including Achilles.

Roman texts

The Romans, who traced their lineage back to Troy through prince Aeneas, portrayed him in a negative light. In his Aeneid, Virgil portrays Achilles as a formidable foe encountered by the Trojan hero Aeneas during the fall of Troy, as well as a savage who butchers people mercilessly. In his Odes, Horace portrays Achilles as a ruthless man who does not hesitate to kill children and women. On the other hand, Roman lyric and elegiac poets such as Catullus, Ovid, and Propertius concentrated on his’ erotic deeds.

Other texts

Without delving too deeply into modern literature, we must mention Achilles’ appearance in Hell’s second (lust) circle in Dante’s Inferno. He has also played an important role in the works of William Shakespeare, Thomas Corneille, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Frequently Asked Questions

How did Achilles get his famous weakness?

Achilles received his vulnerability when his mother, Thetis, held him by his heel while attempting to make him immortal by bathing him in the river Styx.

What was the significance of Patroclus’ death to Achilles?

Patroclus was Achilles’ closest companion – and possibly partner. His death at the hands of Hector ignited a burning desire for vengeance within him, ultimately leading to his own demise.

What is the significance of the term “Achilles’ heel”?

The phrase refers to a person’s weakness or vulnerable spot, inspired by the myth of his’ fatal heel wound.

What was Achilles’ role in the Trojan War?

Achilles played a crucial part in the war, leading the Myrmidons and avenging the death of his friend Patroclus. That was by killing the fierce warrior prince Hector. He was also fated to be the reason the Trojan War would be won by the Greeks.

How did Achilles die?

Achilles met his end during the Trojan War. There he was struck by an arrow to his vulnerable heel, leading to his eventual demise. Apollo led Paris’ arrow to strike his’ most vulnerable spot.

Why is Achilles considered the greatest hero of the Trojan War?

Achilles was revered for his unmatched strength, bravery, and skill on the battlefield. It earned him the reputation as the mightiest warrior among the Greeks. He was also – almost – invincible.

Featured Image Credit: Léonce Legendre, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Vasiliki Moutzouri

Vasiliki has been a professional author, editor, and academic researcher since 2018. She currently lives in Athens, Greece. She has studied Philology and Computational Linguistics at the University of Athens. She is interested in literature, poetry, history and mythology, and political philosophy. Other interests include playing music, traveling, and playing pen-and-paper games. She has written a children’s book and a few poems. She is currently working as a content writer, translator, and editor, as well as an academic researcher in the field of linguistics.