Was Achilles a Real Person?
The heroes of the Trojan War were some of the most idealized men in Greek mythology. Is there a chance that heroes like Achilles were real people, though?
The events and characters of the Trojan War are so legendary that it’s almost impossible to believe that there is any truth to them.
The war itself was on a scale beyond anything known from the ancient world. According to the Iliad, two hundred thousand Greeks set sail for Troy and took part in a siege that lasted for ten full years.
The exploits of individual men in the story are equally unbelievable. The descendants of gods, the heroes of the Trojan War performed almost supernatural feats of strength, courage, and endurance.
Perhaps no hero of the Trojan War stands out as much as Achilles. The foremost of the Greek fighters, he was so unbeatable in battle that it was said that his body was almost entirely impervious to injury.
For centuries, it was assumed that such a character, like the war he fought it, was entirely the product of legend. More recent scholarship has shown, however, that there might be a bit of truth in the story of Achilles and his role in the Trojan War.
Achilles in the Trojan War
Achilles was renowned as one of the greatest heroes of the Trojan War. First featured in Homer’s Iliad, he became a favorite character of later writers and artists.
In mythology, Achilles was a demi-god. His mother Thetis was a Nereid nymph who had been married to Peleus, the king of Phthia.
While the Iliad makes no mention of Achilles having any king of supernatural invulnerability, later stories claimed that Thetis had attempted to make her son immortal. Depending on the source, she either dipped him in the River Styx or held him over a fire to burn away his mortal essence.
She was interrupted, however, by her husband who feared that she was harming his son. Her task was left unfinished and Achilles was left with human weakness in the heel she had held him by.
What Homer did make clear, however, was that Thetis and her son knew that he was destined to die at a young age. Thetis was told by an oracle that Achilles would have the choice between a life that was long but unremarkable or short and glorious.
Although Thetis tried to shield him from going to war, Achilles chose the path of glory. He sailed to Troy with a company of 2,500 Myrmidon warriors.
According to Homer, Achilles distinguished himself during the ten-year long war. Achilles led the Greek forces with an eye toward maintaining his own honor.
When this honor was violated by Agamemnon, who stole prizes of war that Achilles believed should have been his, the hero decided to leave the war effort entirely. He would not fight if he was not offered the glory he had earned.
Convinced that Achilles’s absence would help the Trojan cause, his closest companion Patroclus stole his armor and took his place on the battlefield. Patroclus was killed in Achilles’s place, and the hero re-entered the fighting with a renewed sense of purpose.
Achilles no longer fought only for his own sense of glory, but also to avenge his friend’s death. His rage was so great that Zeus feared that if it went unchecked it would overrule fate itself.
Achilles cut through scores of Trojan fighters before finally defeating Hector, the man who had killed Patroclus. Achilles dishonored the Trojan prince by dragging his body behind his chariot to mock his compatriots inside Troy’s walls.
The Iliad ends with Achilles agreeing to a short truce so the Trojans can bury Hector’s body with dignity, but later works continued his story.
In the Iliad, Hector’s last words were a prediction that Achilles would die at the war’s end. He would be shot with an arrow by Paris.
Later writers expanded on this part of the story. In expanded stories of the Trojan War, Achilles died during the final sacking of the city.
Most writers said that he was shot with a poison arrow, generally from behind. This denied Paris any honor or glory since he did not defeat Achilles in combat.
After the story of his vulnerable heel developed, writers claim that this is where he was shot. This made his death both fated and the result of accidental luck on the part of Paris.
Most writers also agreed that Achilles was afforded great honor after death. His bones were mixed with those of Patroclus and interred with great respect and ceremony.
While modern readers may view Achilles as arrogant, the Greeks believed that he represented an ideal for warriors and leaders. His focus on honor and glory was seen as laudable and justified, while his fury over his companion’s death epitomized the bond between soldiers.
My Modern Interpretation
The characters and events of the Trojan War have long been considered to be entirely mythical. Over the last century, however, an increasing amount of evidence has emerged to challenge this assumption.
In the 19th century, the ruins of a late Bronze Age city were discovered in what is now Turkey. The location and features of this city matched Homer’s description of the city of Troy.
Historians generally believe that Homer wrote sometime around the year 700 BC. Based on his timeline of events, this would mean that the Trojan War was waged in roughly 1200 BC.
The archaeological site of Troy shows signs of destruction from about the same time. This confirms to many that there was a major war waged at that site near the time of the legendary Trojan War.
The site has also produced artifacts that show it to have been a prosperous and well-defended city at the time. Mycenaean artifacts from Troy show that the people there were in close contact with their Greek neighbors, making a conflict between the two even more likely.
Furthermore, archaeologists working elsewhere in the Mediterranean have uncovered evidence that other sites mentioned by Homer were inhabited at the time. The city of Mycenae, for example, was discovered with many late Bronze Age artifacts.
Achilles’s own city, Phthia, was long assumed to be mythical as well. Working near where it was said to be, however, archaeologists discovered previously unknown settlements from the same era.
All of these finds seem to indicate that Homer’s account of the Trojan War was not entirely based in fiction. The places associated with the Iliad and possibly the conflict itself have been proven to have existed about 500 years before Homer’s own time.
The question still remains, however, whether any of the specific characters Homer mentioned were real. Achilles and the other heroes may still have been products of the writer’s imagination.
Historians believe, however, that some other legendary heroes may have once been rooted in fact.
Heracles, for example, had many adventures that defied rational belief. Stripped of their more fantastic elements, however, they appear to be the stories of a skilled hunter whose exploits became increasingly legendary as they were retold.
In the five centuries that the stories of the Trojan War would have been retold before they reached Homer, it is entirely possible that the same process may have taken place.
When the obviously mythical elements of Achilles’ legend, such as his divine mother and the armor he wore that was made by the gods, are removed, he becomes a much more realistic figure. Without these elements of mythology, Achilles is a skilled fighter and raider who seeks glory in battle.
Such a character is not at all implausible in the real world. It is also easy to see how a particularly valiant and successful fighter’s legend could grow until he reached almost god-like status.
Homer credited Achilles, for example, with raiding twenty three cities over the course of the war. Just like the duration of the siege and the size of the Greek fleet, this was likely an exaggeration from an original figure that was impressive but more realistic.
Based on what has been discovered about the history of Greece and Troy in the late Bronze Age, it seems increasingly plausible that Achilles and other heroes of the Trojan War may have been based on the legends that were passed down of real warriors of the 13th century BC.
Like most aspects of the Trojan War, the character of Achilles has long been assumed to be entirely mythical. A leading character in the Iliad and later words about the war, Achilles was seen as an idealized representation of glory and honor in battle, but not as an historical figure.
Over the last hundred years, however, archaeology has disrupted long-held beliefs about Bronze Age history.
The site of Troy was discovered in the 19th century. Since then, many more discoveries have confirmed the existence of many places that Homer described.
Some, such as Troy, even show possible physical evidence from the supposed time of the Trojan War that may confirm parts of the story. Greek artifacts and damage to the city’s buildings at Troy, for instance, show both that the Greeks had a presence there and that the city was attacked at about the time of Homer’s war.
This evidence has led historians to reinvestigate the previously-held beliefs about not only the war, but the people who fought in it as well.
Many historians now believe that figures like Achilles may have been based at one time on real people. The skilled raider who fought for glory may have been a real person whose legend expanded until he reached almost god-like status.