Well, there can be many figures to be considered as great heroes of ancient Greek mythology and history alike. Hercules, Jason, Theseus, Perseus, the famous Leonidas of Sparta are only some renowned for their great deeds, code of ethics, and heroic death. We don’t know where to start, indeed, since there are quite a few examples. But it seems natural to us to begin with the person that embodies –for all of us nowadays and for the ancient Greeks too– the archetype of the hero and heroic death: Achilles, the man who stands between the divine and the profane, of excellent bravery and of high morality – the man that humans considered to be a God.
Achilles is the son of a mortal Greek king, Peleus, and of a goddess, the nymph Thetis.
Zeus and Poseidon had both fallen in love with the beautiful nymph and turned rivals for her. When, though, a prophecy was revealed to them that Thetis was fated to give birth to a son who would become more powerful than his father, the two gods decided to marry her to a mortal man. The marriage of Peleus with Thetis was celebrated with great magnificence and it is said that the Gods descended from Olympus just for this purpose, each with a special gift. It was at this wedding reception that Paris of Troy would later judge which of the three goddesses, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite deserved to win the beauty prize (in the form of an apple) – an event well known as “The Judgment of Paris”. But this is a story to be told in another text.
Thetis gives birth to Achilles who, unlike her, is mortal. She attempts, though, to make him immortal. Thus, she bathes the baby by dipping him into the River Styx (the river that runs through the underworld) while holding him by his heel. This was the only part of the infant left untouched by the waters, became vulnerable and his only point of weakness. Hence the phrase “Achilles heel”. Eventually, this was proved fatal when later in Troy Achilles died from an arrow wound at that heel.
Based on Homer’s Iliad, we know that a prophecy had foretold that Achilles would die young at Troy. However, due to another prophecy, the Greeks (called Achaeans in Homer’s poems) were vulnerable, without the intrepid of Achilles. At this point, Achilles had to choose between two different ways of living; having a peaceful and long life, with a wife and children, waiting to reach old age and die as all men, or having a short life and a good death. And of course, for the ancient Greeks, there is no good death if life is not short.
To better explain, according to the ancient heroic ideal, a man has to be always first in battle, not only as a warrior but as a citizen, he has to expose and risk his soul and life continuously, to become an excellent man of noble character (aristos), to gain posterity and being commemorated with honors. As for Achilles, he chose the latter and came to be the man par excellence, more than anyone else, who incarnates the idea of the posthumous reputation while being always attendant for all generations.
At the very beginning of the Iliad, Homer exposes the rage of Achilles. This “anger” is the first word of the whole poem: “Goddess, sing me the anger, of Achilles, Peleus’ son, that fatal anger that brought countless sorrows on the Greeks”
Achilles is initially angry because King Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks forces, takes Briseis from him; namely, he takes the woman allocated to Achilles as a prize of honor in recognition of his fighting skills. In other words, Agamemnon dishonors him and Achilles withdraws from the battle.
When later, Agamemnon tries to reconcile with Achilles, he sends a delegation offering him absolute satisfaction: his beloved Briseis and all kinds of wealth from his kingdom. The hero refuses to negotiate and he explains that what matters for him is beyond the casual honors of humans and beyond all kinds of gifts offered by the Greeks. For him, what counts is heroic honor, having a noble character in life, and a good death. Strictly speaking, Achilles stands for “all or nothing”.
Despite his refusal to get into battle, Achilles does allow Patroclus to lead his army into battle wearing his armor. One should bear in mind that Patroclus was Achilles's best friend and comrade, the man that according to Homer “he loved beyond all other comrades, loved as his own life”.
The next day, Patroclus is killed in the bloody fighting by the Trojan Prince Hector, who mistakes him for Achilles. Now, Achilles is utterly distressed and proclaims his intention to kill Hector and avenge the death of “his Patroclus” at any cost. Hence, he rejoins the battle.
What follows is bloodshed outside the walls of Troy. In a short time, Achilles’ spear wounds Hector mortally in the neck, and while he lies dying, he pleas to Achilles to return his body for cremation – a request that was ruthlessly refused. Achilles' revenge is not yet satisfied and thus, he deliberately mistreats the body of Hector, stripping him, tying him behind his chariot, and dragging him in the dirt as far as the Greek camp. Achilles intention was not just to kill his enemy but to publicly punish and disgrace him. He planned to deprive him of his heroic death. Eventually, Achilles returns Hector’s corpse after Priam (Hector’s father and King of Troy) begging for a proper burial for his son.
The emotional encounter between the two men is powerfully illustrated by Homer; they weep together, share a meal, and Achilles' wrath and sympathy to the lost hero is finally restored. His well-known death by prince Paris came soon thereafter while he was fighting the Trojans at the forefront.
Hence, Achilles is the greatest of heroes who had nothing left to fear and decided to fight and die in battle, unlike King Agamemnon. He ignored politics and rejected the awards and the ordinary public honors that please those who are standing “too far to see the battle”. Despite his disgrace and later his fury, Achilles made a decision; for his name to last to the ages due to his bravery and ethics and at last through his heroic death.
…] Neither Agamemnon nor any other Greek will change my mind, for it seems there is no gratitude for ceaseless battle with our enemies. He who fights his best and he who stays away earn the same reward, the coward and the brave man win like honor, death comes alike to the idler and to him who toils. No profit to me from my sufferings, endlessly risking my life in war […] yet he takes mine from me alone of all the Greeks, he steals my woman, my heart’s darling. He can lie by her side and take his pleasure. Yet why do the Argives war with Troy? Why did Atreides gather an army and bring it here? Was it not because of fair-haired Helen? Are the sons of Atreus the only men on earth who love their women?
[…] Tell him openly all that I say, so the rest can take umbrage when he tries to cheat some other Greek, shameless as he is. Yet not shameless enough to look me in the face! As for his gifts they are hateful in my eyes, and not worth a hair. Even if he gave ten or twenty times what he has, and raised levies elsewhere, though it were all the wealth that flows to Orchomenus, or Egyptian Thebes, where the very houses are filled with treasure, and two hundred warriors with horse and chariot sally out from its hundred gates, not if he gave me as many gifts as the grains of sand or motes of dust, could he persuade me. First, he must pay me fully in kind for this shame that stings my heart [...
Author: Nota Karamaouna (Archaeologist and Licensed Guide)