Achilles - A Profile of the Greek Hero of the Trojan War

Why Achilles Left the Trojan War - But Returned to Fight Again

Priam Begs Achilles for Hector's Body - Artist 17th C, Padovanino
'Priam and Achilles', 17th century. Priam, King of Troy, pleading with Achilles for the return of the body of his son, Hector, who Achilles killed in combat. Far Eastern Art Museum, Khabarovsk, Russia. Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

Achilles is the quintessentially heroic subject of Homer's great poem of adventure and war, the Iliad. Achilles was the greatest of the warriors famed for his swiftness on the Greek (Achaean) side during the Trojan War, directly competing with Troy's warrior hero Hector.

Achilles is perhaps most famous for being imperfectly invulnerable, a detail of his exciting and mythical life known as the Achilles Heel that is described elsewhere.

Achilles' Birth

Achilles' mother was the nymph Thetis, who had early attracted the wandering eyes of both Zeus and Poseidon. The two gods lost interest after the mischievous Titan Prometheus revealed a prophecy about the future son of Thetis: he was destined to be greater and stronger than his father. Neither Zeus nor Poseidon was willing to risk losing his position in the pantheon, so they turned their attentions elsewhere, and Thetis ended up married to a mere mortal.

With Zeus and Poseidon no longer in the picture, Thetis married King Peleus, a son of the King of Aegina. Their life together, although short-lived, produced the child Achilles. As was true for the most famous of the ancient heroes from Greek myth and legend, Achilles was raised by the centaur Chiron and taught at a school of heroes by Phoenix.

Achilles at Troy

As an adult, Achilles became part of the Achaean (Greek) forces during the ten long years of the Trojan War, which, according to legend was fought over the much-courted Helen of Troy, who had been kidnapped from her Spartan husband Menelaus by Paris, the Prince of Troy.

The leader of the Achaeans (Greeks) was Helen's (first) brother-in-law Agamemnon, who led the Achaeans to Troy to win her back.

Proud and autocratic, Agamemnon antagonized Achilles, causing Achilles to leave the battle. Furthermore, Achilles has been told by his mother that he would have one of two fortunes: he could fight at Troy, die young and achieve everlasting fame, or he could choose to return to Phthia where he would live a long life, but be forgotten.

Like any good Greek hero, Achilles first chose fame and glory, but Agamemnon's arrogance was too much for him, and he headed home.

Getting Achilles Back to Troy

Other Greek leaders argued with Agamemnon, saying Achilles was too powerful a warrior to be left out of the battle. Several books of the Iliad are dedicated to the negotiations to get Achilles back into battle.

These books describe long conversations among Agamemnon and his diplomatic team including Achilles' old teacher Phoenix, and his friends and fellow warriors Odysseus and Ajax, pleading with Achilles to get him to fight. Odysseus offered gifts, news that the war was not going well and that Hector was a danger that only Achilles should kill. Phoenix reminisced about Achilles' heroic education, playing on his emotions; and Ajax upbraided Achilles for not supporting his friends and companions in the fray. But Achilles remained adamant: he would not fight for Agamemnon.

Patroclus and Hector

After he left the conflict at Troy, Achilles urged one of his closest friends Patroclus, to go fight in Troy, offering his armor. Patroclus donned Achilles's armor--except for his ash spear, which only Achilles could wield--and went into battle as a direct substitute (what Nickel refers to as "doublet") for Achilles.

And at Troy, Patroclus was killed by Hector, the greatest warrior on the Trojan side. Upon word of the death of Patroclus, Achilles finally agreed to fight with the Greeks.

As the story goes, an enraged Achilles put on the armor and killed Hector--significantly with the ash spear--directly outside of the gates of Troy, and then dishonored Hector's body by dragging it around tied to the back of a chariot for nine consecutive days. It is said that the gods kept Hector's corpse miraculously sound during this nine day period. Eventually, Hector's father, King Priam of Troy, appealed to the better nature of Achilles and persuaded him to return Hector's corpse to his family in Troy for proper funeral rites.

The Death of Achilles

The death of Achilles was inflicted by an arrow that was shot directly into his vulnerable heel.

That story isn't in the Iliad, but you can read about how Achilles obtained his less-than-perfect heel.

Sources and Further Information

Edited and updated by K. Kris Hirst