The Life of Achilles and His Participation in the Trojan War

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Achilles and Agamemnon, from a fresco of Pompeii, 1st century AD

Achilles was a central character in Homer’s The Iliad, and he was one of the greatest of the Greek warriors who participated in the Trojan War.

According to Greek mythology, Achilles’ father (Peleus of Thessaly) was a mortal while his mother (Thetis, a sea nymph) was immortal. During the first weeks of his life, Thetis dedicated a great deal of energy into making Achilles immortal.

Despite Thetis’ attempts to secure her son’s immortality, both of her efforts were unsuccessful. And, when Achilles was a child the prophet Calchas told his mother that Troy could not be defeated without Achilles’ help. Fearing that he would face death if he entered the war, Thetis sent Achilles to live in the palace of King Lycomedes in Scyros.

Achilles at the Palace of Lycomedes

At the palace of Lycomedes, Achilles was disguised as a maiden in order to be protected from harm. However, the Greek soldiers knew that their only hope of winning the Trojan War would be to have Achilles fighting on their side, so Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s epic The Odyssey, went on a quest to seek Achilles out.

When Odysseus arrived at the palace of King Lycomedes, he set a trap that he knew Achilles couldn’t resist. He brought a variety of jewelry with him for the maidens of the palace, along with a sword that was intermixed with the jewels. As the maidens perused the jewelry, a call to arms was sounded. Without hesitation, Achilles, who was disguised as a maiden, reached for the sword and gave himself away. Odysseus then entreated him to join the Greek army and the great hero was summoned to battle. According to legend, Achilles went willingly with Odysseus and became the greatest of the Greek warriors, helping to capture many of the Trojan cities.

Death of Patroclus

In the tenth year of the war, however, Achilles became embroiled in a conflict with one of the Greek kings, Agamemnon. Because of this conflict, Achilles became stubborn and refused to go into battle any longer. In The Iliad, the Greek poet Homer describes this phase of the war, including Achilles’ pride and arrogance and the resulting incidents. Homer describes how Achilles’ close friend Patroclus (although Homer never specifically describes Achilles and Patroclus as lovers, many other sources make this claim), took Achilles’ armor and entered the fray in Achilles’ place. The great Trojan warrior, Hector, thus mistook Patroclus for Achilles and killed him. Achilles was so distraught over the death of Patroclus that he entered the conflict and challenged Hector.

Achilles Kills Hector and Desecrates the Body

According to The Iliad, Achilles then killed Hector in battle. Yet, instead of offering Hector’s body to his family for a proper funeral and burial as ancient tradition called for, Achilles tied Hector’s body to the back of his chariot and dragged his corpse around the city walls for twelve days.

Whereas Achilles could be selfish and arrogant, Hector was seen as a brave and noble warrior who left his wife and infant child to defend his homeland. As a result, Homer describes in Book Twenty-four of The Iliad that the god Apollo protected Hector’s body from harm during the desecration that was performed by Achilles and prevented any damage to his corpse.

Achilles Meets with Hector’s Father, King Priam

Finally, at the end of the twelve days, Achilles entertained an audience with Hector’s father, King Priam, who petitioned that his son’s body be returned. Priam brought a great ransom to Achilles and beseeched the warrior to think of his own father and to meditate on his grief over Patroclus in an attempt to secure Hector’s body. Achilles felt sympathy for the old man and ultimately relented, returning Hector’s body to his father for burial.

The Iliad ends with the restoration of Hector’s body to his family and his subsequent burial; and, although Homer does not address the fate of Achilles in this work, the remainder of Achilles’ life and his eventual death from a poisoned arrow is chronicled in many other writings of the age.

Sources:

  1. Cotterell, Arthur and Rachel Storm. The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology. Anness Publishing, 2003.
  2. “Iliad” from Hellenica by Michael Lahanas.
  3. Homer. The Iliad. (Ian Johnston, Trans.)
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