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Achilles


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Son of Peleus and Thetis; greatest Greek hero in the Trojan War; central character of Homer's Iliad. He is king of Phthia, or ‘Hellas and Phthia’, in southern Thessaly, and his people are the Myrmidons. The size of his kingdom, and of his contingent in the Trojan expedition (50 ships), is not outstanding. But martial prowess is the measure of excellence for a Homeric hero, and Achilles' status as ‘best of the Achaeans’ is unquestioned. We are reminded of his absolute supremacy throughout the poem, even during those long stretches for which he is absent from the battlefield.

His character is complex. In many ways he carries the savage ethical code of the Homeric hero to its ultimate and terrifying conclusion. When Agamemnon steals his concubine Briseis, his anger at the insult to his personal honour is natural and approved by gods and men; but he carries this anger beyond any normal limit when he refuses an offer of immense compensation. Again, when he finally re‐enters the war after the death of his friend Patroclus, his ruthless massacre of Trojans, culminating in the killing of Hector, expresses a ‘heroic’ desire for revenge; but this too is taken beyond normal bounds by his contemptuous maltreatment of Hector's corpse.

But what makes Achilles remarkable is the way in which his extreme expression of the ‘heroic code’ is combined with a unique degree of insight and self‐knowledge. Unlike Hector, Achilles knows well that he is soon to die. In his speech at Iliad 9. 308–429 he calls the entire code into question, saying that he would rather live quietly at home than pursue glory in the Trojan War; but it is his ‘heroic’ rage against Agamemnon that has brought him to this point. In his encounter with Lycaon, his sense of common mortality (the fact that Patroclus has died and Achilles himself will die) is a reason, not for sparing his suppliant, but for killing him in cold blood. Finally at Iliad 24, when Priam begs him to release Hector's body, it is human feeling, as well as the gods' command, that makes him yield; but even then he accepts a ransom, and his anger still threatens to break out afresh.

Later writers seldom treated the subject‐matter of the Iliad (though Aeschylus did so, portraying Achilles and Patroclus as lovers). But they did provide many further details of Achilles' career, often derived from cyclic epics (see epic cycle) such as the Cypria and Aethiopis. As a boy he was brought up by the wise Centaur Chiron on Mt. Pelion. Later his mother Thetis, knowing that he would be killed if he joined the expedition to Troy, hid him at the court of King Lycomedes on Scyros, disguised as a girl. There he fell in love with the king's daughter Dēidamīa, who bore him a son, Neoptolemus. Odysseus discovered his identity by trickery, and he joined the Greek army at Aulis, where he was involved in the story of Iphigenia. On the way to Troy he wounded Telephus. His exploits at Troy included the ambush and killing of Priam's son Troilus, a story linked with that of his love for Priam's daughter Polyxena. After the events of the Iliad he killed two allies of the Trojans: the Amazon queen Penthesilea, with whom also he is said to have fallen in love, and the Ethiopian king Memnon. Finally he was himself killed by Paris and Apollo (as predicted at Iliad 22. 358–60). The fight over his body, and his funeral, are described in a dubious passage of the Odyssey. His famous arms were then given to Odysseus. After the fall of Troy his ghost demanded the sacrifice of Polyxena. Several of these episodes, including the ambush of Troilus and the killing of Penthesilea, were popular with vase‐painters.

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Subjects: Classical Studies.


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