Who Was Achilles? Greek Mythology’s Greatest Warrior

Achilles, known as the greatest warrior in ancient Greek mythology, is a figure who is recognized for his heroic complexity, unparalleled fighting skills, and tragic fate.

Nov 21, 2023By Rhianna Padman, BA Classics

who was achilles greek mythology warrior


Achilles, the central figure in Homer’s epic poem, the Iliad, has become a cultural icon, renowned for his obstinate bravery, his unrelenting pursuit of glory, and his supernatural abilities. However, his flaws are equally significant, including his pride, wrath, and the pain that drives his motivations. His story is embedded within the context of the Trojan War, a conflict that pitted the Greeks against the Trojans. Homer’s use of his character particularly sheds light on the complicated nature of heroism, the moral dilemmas produced by war, and the tension between the individual and the collective.


How Was Achilles Born?

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Discovery of Achilles on Skyros by Nicolas Poussin, 1649-50, via The Museum of Fine Arts Boston


Achilles was the son of the powerful sea goddess, Thetis, and the renowned king of Phthia, Peleus. It was told that Thetis was courted by many suitors, all of whom she rejected, fearing that her offspring with a mortal man would be weaker than her. In an attempt to avoid marriage, she transformed into various shapes, including a bird, a tree, and even a river, but Peleus eventually won her heart by capturing her so that she could not shift.


The two eventually married, and during their wedding, a seer prophesied that their child would be a great warrior but would die young. Thus, when he was born, Thetis dipped Achilles into the River Styx, a mythical river believed to grant invincibility to those who were submerged in it. However, she held him by his heel during the dipping. As such, this area remained vulnerable and would later become his fatal flaw. In some versions of the myth, Thetis went to even further lengths to protect her son by disguising him as a girl and hiding him in the court of King Lycomedes on the island of Skyros. Nevertheless, the Greeks still successfully found Achilles and asked him to join their cause against the Trojans.


Conflict with Agamemnon

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Thetis Bringing Armor to Achilles by Benjamin West, 1806, via The New York Public Library


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In the Iliad, Achilles is portrayed as a legendary warrior, the best of the Greek heroes, and the central figure in the Trojan War. However, Achilles is also known for his pride, his fierce temper, and his vengeful nature. Throughout the Iliad, Achilles undergoes a profound transformation that shapes him into one of the most complex and famous characters within Greek literature. In Book 1, Achilles is introduced as a man of great pride and honor, who is willing to risk everything, even the lives of his fellow Greeks, to defend his reputation. Disrespected by Agamemnon, he defiantly refuses to engage in the battle and sits brooding in his anger. As the epic progresses, his absence from the fighting becomes a major concern for the Greeks, as they suffer a series of setbacks against the Trojans.


As the conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles deepens, Agamemnon attempts to reconcile with Achilles by offering him generous gifts as a gesture of goodwill. However, Achilles remains obstinate, refusing to compromise his unwavering commitment to his own honor and recognition. He asks his mother, Thetis, to intervene on his behalf, and she persuades Zeus to allow the Trojans to gain the upper hand in the war, punishing Agamemnon for his insult against Achilles. Despite his resolve, Achilles grapples with a sense of guilt and responsibility for his inaction in the face of the ongoing conflict. However, it is not until the tragic death of his beloved friend, Patroclus, that Achilles’ attitude takes a dramatic turn. The loss of his friend ignites a fierce determination within him, spurring him to take action and fight for his own sense of honor.


Achilles vs. Hector

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Achilles vanquishes Hector by Peter Paul Rubens, 1630, via Wikimedia Commons


By Book 16, he decides to return to war to carry out his revenge. Strengthened by new armor forged by the god Hephaestus, Achilles ascends to the status of a divine warrior. He is no longer merely a mortal hero but a figure of mythic proportions, capable of superhuman feats of strength and skill. Achilles’ new armor also symbolizes his renewed commitment to the fight and his willingness to take on the Trojans with vigor and determination. In the final book of the Iliad, Achilles faces Hector in a duel.


After a fierce battle, he kills Hector and drags his body behind his chariot. This act of desecration is a stark contrast to the compassion and vulnerability that Achilles displayed in earlier parts of the poem. He ultimately returns Hector’s body to his father Priam. Despite this, Achilles is unable to fully rectify his grievous crime, underscoring the deeply tragic nature of his character, sacrificing his own honor for the sake of revenge,


Achilles’ Wrath

Briseis taken from Achilles by the heralds Talthybios and Eurybates by Matthieu-Ignace van Bree, 1795, via Christie’s


Achilles’ wrath in the Iliad is a complex emotion that reflects deep existential questions about honor, heroism, and mortality. The cause of Achilles’ anger is the dishonor he experiences when Agamemnon strips him of his war prize, Briseis. This deeply humiliating act is the catalyst for Achilles’ all-consuming wrath, and he vows to withdraw from battle, leaving the Greeks to suffer the consequences of his absence.


greek heroes charles antoine coypel fury of achilles
Fury of Achilles by Charles-Antoine Coypel, 1737, via The Hermitage Museum


The Greeks suffered heavy losses without Achilles, with their morale and unity being shattered. While Achilles’ initial rage is sparked by the dishonor he feels at the hands of Agamemnon, the root of his anger is far more complex than wounded pride or a simple desire for revenge. At the core of Achilles’ emotional turmoil is a profound internal conflict between his duty to his fellow Greeks and his own sense of justice. His anger is, therefore, a manifestation of this internal strife, as well as a coping mechanism for dealing with it.


Achilles & Patroclus: Grief & Wrath

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Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus by Gavin Hamilton, 1723, via The Guardian


Ultimately, it is Achilles’ wrath that leads him back into battle. In Book 9 of the Iliad, the Greeks are struggling in their battle against the Trojans, and it is Patroclus who implores Achilles to return to the fight. When Achilles refuses, Patroclus comes up with a plan to wear Achilles’ armor and lead the Myrmidons into battle in his place. Tragically, this plan ends in disaster when Patroclus faces off against Hector, the Trojan prince, and is ultimately killed in combat. Despite his strength and skill on the battlefield, Achilles is ultimately powerless to prevent Patroclus’ death. His grief at the loss of his friend drives him to seek revenge against Hector, but this eventually leads to his own downfall.


Patroclus’ death serves as a powerful turning point in the epic, as it spurs Achilles to a new level of anger and determination. His complex emotional journey reaches a new crescendo as his anger transforms into a relentless drive to bring justice and retribution to those who have wronged him. While the Iliad is not a romantic story, there is a sense of intimacy and affection between the two warriors that goes beyond mere comradeship. Achilles is deeply affected by Patroclus’ death, and his sorrow is described in terms of a lover’s mourning. In fact, the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus has captured the imagination of countless readers throughout the ages. It has been reimagined and explored in countless ways, often with a focus on the intimate connection between the two men.


The Shield of Achilles & Achilles’ Death

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The Wounded Achilles by Filippo Albacini, 1825, via The British Museum


In the Iliad, the Shield of Achilles is described as a true masterpiece of artistry and craftsmanship, providing a remarkable window into the complex cosmology of ancient Greece. Each of its five layers is imbued with powerful symbolism that speaks to the very heart of Achilles’ character and the world he inhabits. The outermost layer depicts the heavens, with the sun, moon, stars, and zodiac representing the cosmic order of the universe. The second layer portrays the cycles of life and death through scenes of farming and harvesting, while the third layer centers on the human world and the city of Troy as the pinnacle of civilization. The fourth layer embodies the inevitability of conflict and strife through its depictions of war, and the fifth and innermost layer shows the underworld and the river Styx, signifying the final end that awaits all mortals.


As such, the shield serves as a potent reminder of the fragility of life and the inevitability of death, even for the most celebrated and invincible of figures. This is particularly poignant in light of his own fate, as the gods intervene to punish him for his atrocities against Hector, leading to his ultimate downfall. Achilles’ death is caused by an arrow shot by the Trojan prince Paris and guided by the god Apollo, avenging his brother, Hector. The arrow stabs Achilles in his vulnerable heel, and the seer’s prophecy at his parents’ wedding is fulfilled. He lives a short yet glory-filled life, leading the Greeks to victory.


The Long-Lasting Impact of Achilles

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The Death of Achilles by Peter Paul Rubens, 1630-35, via The Boijmans Museum


Achilles’ glory has lived on through the ages. His story of triumph and tragedy has inspired countless retellings and adaptations, from ancient Greek drama to modern films, novels, and television series. Ancient writers such as Euripides and Aeschylus were among the first to draw on the story of Achilles, creating plays that explored his character and legacy. During the Renaissance, artists like Peter Paul Rubens and Nicolas Poussin created famous works that depicted the hero, capturing his image as a symbol of strength and heroism. The hero was also a frequent subject of artwork during the Baroque period, with his mythological exploits often depicted in grandiose and dramatic ways.


In recent years, Achilles has once again seen a resurgence in popular culture. Madeline Miller’s bestselling novel, The Song of Achilles, is a notable example of this. The book retells the story of Achilles and Patroclus from a romantic perspective, providing a fresh and unique insight into their characters during the Trojan War. Also popular was Brad Pitt’s performance as Achilles in the 2004 film Troy.

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By Rhianna PadmanBA ClassicsRhianna is a recent Classics graduate from the University of Exeter. Her studies mainly focused on Ancient Greek and Latin, allowing her to explore in depth a range of ancient texts. She is especially interested in mythology, language, and psychology, with her dissertation focusing on applying Freudian psychoanalysis to Homer’s Odyssey. During her year abroad at the University of Malta, she developed a keen passion for traveling. Since her time in Malta, she has been to Italy, Croatia, Indonesia, and Thailand, and she plans on many more places to visit!