Who was Achilles?

Source: The British Museum


Who were Achilles’ parents?

Achilles was the son of Peleus, a Greek king, and Thetis, a sea nymph or goddess.

Zeus, the king of the gods and Poseidon, god of the sea, had both fallen in love with Thetis and were rivals for her hand in marriage. However, the gods were warned of a prophecy that Thetis would have a son who would grow up to be greater than his father. Worried by this, Zeus arranged for Thetis to marry a mortal man so that her child couldn’t challenge his power. In another version of the story, Thetis rejects Zeus’s advances and a furious Zeus decrees that she will never marry a god. Either way, Thetis ends up married to the mortal Peleus and Achilles is born.

Terracotta relief showing Peleus and Thetis, c. 490–470 BC. Thetis tries to resist marriage to Peleus by transforming her body into powerful elements such as fire and wild beasts, here a lion.
What’s the story of his ‘Achilles heel’?

Thetis gives birth to Achilles who, unlike her, is mortal. She attempts to make the baby Achilles immortal, by dipping him in the River Styx (the river that runs through the underworld), while holding him by his heel. The one part of his body left untouched by the waters becomes his only point of weakness, hence the phrase ‘Achilles heel’.

Thomas Banks RA, Thetis and Achilles, 1789. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

In the Iliad there is no mention of Achilles’ invulnerability or the weakness of his heel. In scenes representing his death in Greek art, he has been shown with an arrow in his torso, as well as his heel. This may indicate that the ‘Achilles heel’ story is a later addition to the myth.

The story reveals the sadness of a mother who knows that, being immortal, she will outlive her son.

Why was Achilles raised by a centaur?

Achilles’ mother Thetis abandons her husband and son to return to live with the sea nymphs when Achilles is still young. Needing some help raising Achilles, Peleus sends him to be educated by a centaur named Chiron.

Centaurs, who have the upper body of a human and the lower body and legs of a horse, are often represented in Greek art as violent and savage creatures, but Chiron was known for his wisdom and had educated other heroes including Heracles and Jason.

Achilles instructed by Chiron in the Management of the Javelin. Print after Giovanni Battista Cipriani, 1789.

Under the care of Chiron, Achilles is fed a diet that includes the innards of lions and wild pigs, and the marrow of she-wolves, to make him strong. Chiron teaches the young Achilles hunting as well as music and intellectual pursuits.

Eugène Delacroix, The Education of Achilles, c. 1862. Pastel on paper.
Getty Center, Los Angeles.
Did Achilles have a male lover?

As a boy, Achilles develops a close relationship with another boy named Patroclus, who joins Achilles’ household as an exile, having accidentally killed another child. They become friends and possibly lovers. In Homer’s Iliad, Achilles describes Patroclus as ‘the man I loved beyond all other comrades, loved as my own life’.

Drinking cup showing Achilles bandaging Patroclus’ wound. c. 500 BC.
-PREUSSISCHER KULTURBESITZ- Photo: Johannes Laurentius.

Although Homer doesn’t explicitly cast them as lovers, their intimate relationship is crucial to the plot of the Iliad, and in other works of ancient literature the relationship between the two men is more explicitly referenced as a love affair. In ancient Greece it was common for men to have sexual relationships with both men and women. There were no words in ancient Greek for ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ and in classical Athens relationships between older, often married, men and younger men were a normal part of social life.

Why did Achilles’ parents try to stop him going to Troy?

A prophecy had foretold that Achilles would die at Troy, so when the Greek leaders gather for their campaign to return the abducted Helen, Achilles’ parents attempt to prevent him joining the expedition. He is hidden on the island of Skyros, disguised as a girl at the court of King Lycomedes among his numerous daughters.

Roman sarcophagus relief, depicting Achilles (centre) holding a helmet among the daughters of Lycomedes AD 150–200.

However, due to another prophecy, the Greeks know they can only win the war with Achilles’ help. The Greek kings Odysseus and Diomedes discover his whereabouts and trick him into revealing himself so he can join the troops on the expedition to Troy. Disguised as travelling salesmen, they visit the court with jewellery and women’s clothes. Amongst these goods they place weapons, which Achilles instinctively grabs and is found out.

Achilles wearing a dress as a disguise unsheaths a sword and is recognised. Etching after Peter Paul Rubens, 1630–1645.
What did Achilles do in the Trojan War?

Achilles arrives at Troy with 50 ships. He is the leader of the army known as the Myrmidons and is the best fighter on the side of the Greeks.

Storage jar showing Ajax (left) and Achilles (right) playing a game. 530–520 BC.

Troy is a well-defended city and nine long years of siege follow. The epic poem which covered this part of the war (the Cypria) does not survive, so its events are known in much less detail. In art, a popular scene was that of Achilles playing a board game with the hero Ajax. The image suggests that the Greek heroes spent many long hours whiling away the time during the siege of Troy. Things only really get interesting during the 10th year of the war, which is the focus for Homer’s Iliad.

What caused ‘the rage of Achilles’?

The anger or rage of Achilles is a key theme of Homer’s Iliad. In fact ‘anger’ is the first word of the whole poem.

Achilles is initially angry because the leader of the Greek forces, King Agamemnon, takes a captive woman named Briseis from him. Early Greek society was highly competitive and a man’s honour was vital to his sense of identity and position. By taking away the prize of honour that has been allocated to Achilles in recognition of his fighting prowess, Agamemnon dishonours him.

Drinking cup showing Briseis being taken from Achilles, who is depicted sulking with his cloak wrapped around him. c. 480 BC.

Achilles withdraws from battle and refuses to fight. When the Trojans make gains in the battle, Agamemnon agrees to send an embassy to Achilles to try to persuade him to re-join the fighting by offering him a wealth of gifts. Achilles remains unmoved but does allow his friend Patroclus to lead the Myrmidons into battle wearing Achilles’ armour.

Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), Achilles Lamenting for Patroclus. Drawing, 1770.

Patroclus is killed in the bloody fighting by the Trojan prince Hector, who mistakes him for Achilles, and the real Achilles is utterly distraught. His mother, Thetis, consoles him and Achilles declares his intention to kill Hector and avenge the death of Patroclus, despite his weeping mother’s revelation that, according to fate, his own death will soon follow that of Hector.

How does Achilles avenge Patroclus’ death?

Achilles is determined to avenge Patroclus’ death at any cost and announces that he is ending his anger against Agamemnon and will re-join the fighting. The two sides meet in battle and Hector waits outside the city gates, ready to fight Achilles.

Detail of a wine mixing bowl showing Achilles fighting Hector. c. 490 BC.

Achilles chases Hector around the wall of the city, then the two heroes fight, and Achilles plunges his spear into Hector’s neck. As he lies dying, Hector appeals to Achilles to return his body for cremation – a request that is heartlessly refused – and with his last breath he prophesies Achilles’ own death at the hands of the Trojan prince Paris.

Pietro Testa (1611–1650), Achilles dragging the body of Hector around the walls of Troy. Etching, 1648–50.

Achilles, with his lust for revenge still not satisfied, deliberately mistreats the body of Hector, tying him to his chariot and dragging him behind in the dirt as he drives back to the Greek camp.

Why does Achilles return the body of Hector?

Following the funeral of Patroclus, Achilles’ grief makes him restless. He ties Hector’s body to his chariot and repeatedly drags it around the tomb of Patroclus, in his furious need for retribution. However the gods protect Hector’s body so that in spite of this cruel treatment it remains unblemished.

Storage jar depicting Achilles dragging the body of Hector behind his chariot. c. 520–500 BC.

Eventually Hector’s father Priam, with the assistance of the god Hermes, makes the dangerous journey to the Greek camp to see Achilles and beg for the return of his son’s corpse for burial. Their emotional encounter is powerfully depicted on this silver cup, which shows Priam coming to Achilles and kissing his hands.

I have endured what no one on earth has ever done before – I put to my lips the hands of the man who killed my son.

Iliad 24.505–6


Wedgwood plaque showing Priam begging Achilles (far right) for the return of Hector’s body. Late 18th century.

The two men weep together and share a meal. In a transformation of character, which restores humanity to the hero and a sense of order to the world, Achilles agrees to release Hector’s body. As dawn breaks, Priam returns to Troy with Hector’s body and the funeral marks the end of the Iliad.

What happens to Achilles after the end of the Iliad?

Although the Iliad doesn’t explore what happens to Achilles next, there are numerous later legends and other ancient authors tell more of his story. After the death of Hector, the Trojans, with their best fighter dead, call on their allies to help them defeat the Greeks. The Ethiopian King Memnon brings his army to support the Trojans, but is killed by Achilles in battle. Achilles also faces the Amazons – the tribe of female warriors – and fights their leader, Queen Penthesilea. At the moment Achilles kills her with his spear, their eyes meet and he falls in love with her, too late.

Storage jar showing Achilles killing the Amazon queen, Penthesilea. c. 530 BC.
How does Achilles die?

Achilles is killed by an arrow, shot by the Trojan prince Paris. In most versions of the story, the god Apollo is said to have guided the arrow into his vulnerable spot, his heel. In one version of the myth Achilles is scaling the walls of Troy and about to sack the city when he is shot. In other accounts he is marrying the Trojan princess Polyxena and supposedly negotiating an end to the war when Paris fires the shot that kills him.

Engraved cornelian scarab depicting wounded Achilles. Etruscan. c. 400–350 BC.

After his death, Achilles is cremated, and his ashes are mixed with those of his dear friend Patroclus. The Odyssey describes a huge tomb of Achilles on the beach at Troy, and Odysseus meets Achilles during his visit to the underworld, among a group of dead heroes.

How has Achilles been reinterpreted throughout history?

The complexity of Achilles’ character has meant that he has been reinterpreted and reinvented throughout history.

For the ancient Greeks he was an archetypal hero who embodied the human condition. Despite his greatness he was still mortal and fated to die. A hero cult for Achilles developed in several areas across Greece where he was venerated and worshipped like a god. A structure known as the ‘Tomb of Achilles’ in the area where the city of Troy once stood became a place of pilgrimage for many in antiquity, including Alexander the Great.

Simon François Ravenet I (1706–1774), after Filippo Lauri, Alexander Visiting the Tomb of Achilles. Etching and engraving, 1769.

For the Romans, Achilles was on the one hand a model of military prowess but also, for poets such as Horace and Catullus, an archetype of brutality. By the medieval period, Achilles provided a model of how not to behave. Changes to the narrative in the markedly pro-Trojan versions of the myth that were dominant at this time made Achilles into a cowardly scoundrel who destroyed himself through his lustful passions. In Dante’s Inferno, Achilles appears in the second circle of hell, that of lust.

Filippo Albacini (1777–1858), The Wounded Achilles. Marble, 1825. © The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth. Reproduced by permission of Chatsworth Settlement Trustees.

In the Renaissance, when there was a renewal of interest in the classical world accompanying the reintroduction of Greek texts into western Europe, Achilles regained interest as a more complex character. By the early 19th century, the period of Romanticism, he was the perfect hero, embodying a life given over to emotion, and beauty doomed to ruin. A neoclassical sculpture of the period, The Wounded Achilles, shows the perfection of his body even in his dying moments. Achilles has also served as a heroic justification for the sacrifice of soldiers as well as a symbol of the destruction and brutality of war.

Max Slevogt (1868–1932), Achilles Frightens the Trojans. Print, 1905.

Achilles’ complex character continues to be explored. Pat Barker’s recent novel The Silence of the Girls focuses on the experience of his captive woman Briseis, and The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller, is written from the perspective of his lover Patroclus.

Achilles may be a killing machine but he is nevertheless deeply human and that is, perhaps, why his story is still compelling after more than 3,000 years.

Discover more about the story of Achilles in our major BP exhibition Troy: myth and reality, which runs from 21 November 2019 – 8 March 2020.

Supported by BP