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Achilles, the Ancient Greek Hero: Myth & Achilles Heel

Instructor: Trenton Mabey

Trenton has a master's degree in global history and has developed college Asian history courses.

One of the greatest warriors of ancient Greece, Achilles fought and died in the Trojan War. Learn about Achilles and his role in the Trojan War and discover his weak spot, the dreaded Achilles heel.

Achilles

One of the epic battles in Greek history is the 10-year siege of Troy by the Greek army as recorded in Homer's The Iliad. The champion of the Greek host was the warrior Achilles.

Statue of Achilles

Birth

Achilles was born to the sea nymph Thetis and King Peleus of Thessaly. The gods Zeus and Poseidon sought to win the favor of Thetis, but Prometheus warned Zeus of a prophecy concerning the child of Thetis. The prophecy stated that the child of Thetis would grow to be greater than his father. Zeus gave Thetis to King Peleus to wed. The couple bore a son, the warrior Achilles.

Thetis dipped the baby Achilles in the River Styx to gain immortality for Achilles. The River Styx surrounded Hades, the underworld in Greek mythology.

Thetis Dips Achilles in the River Styx

She dipped his whole body in the river, but the spot on his heel where she held him was left untouched by the water. Not fully immortal, Achilles had one weak spot, his heel. We use the term Achilles heel today to describe an individual's weakness.

The Warrior

Achilles was trained by the centaur Chiron, who also taught the Greek hero Jason and Achilles' father Peleus. Achilles was a proud and fearless warrior, embodying the Greek ideal of a warrior. The Fates gave Achilles two options for how he could live his life: one, live a long life of anonymity or two, die young and be remembered forever. Achilles chose the second.

The Trojan War

The Iliad by Homer depicts the events of the Trojan War, with Achilles being the central character. The Greeks gathered all of their forces to attack the city of Troy led by Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus. Achilles initially declined the summons to war and was hidden on the island of Scyros disguised as a woman by his mother Thetis. Another prophecy about Achilles stated that he would die at Troy if he joined the Greek host. The ploy was exposed when a war trumpet was sounded and he reached for a weapon, very unladylike. Reluctantly Achilles joined the Greek army and headed for Troy accompanied by his close friend Patroclus.

Achilles fought fearlessly at Troy and distinguished himself as the best of the Greek warriors. When Achilles fought at the head of the Greek army, the Greeks prevailed. Leading an assault on the town of Lyrnessus, Achilles and the Greeks sacked the town. Achilles claimed the queen Briseis as his prize of conquest. When Achilles did not fight for the Greeks, the Trojans prevailed in battle.

The Greek leader Agamemnon had also claimed a woman as war prize, but was forced to give her up because she was the daughter of a priest of Apollo. At first Agamemnon refused and a plague struck the Greek army. Agamemnon gave up his prize but in anger claimed Briseis and took her from Achilles. Achilles was furious and refused to fight for the Greeks. The Trojans drove the Greek army back to their ships led by the Trojan hero Hector.

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