Was Achilles a Real Person – Legend or History

Was Achilles a real person? The answer is uncertain. He may have been a great warrior of human birth, or he might have been a compilation of the deeds of many great warriors and leaders of the day. The truth is, we do not know if Achilles was a man or a myth.

Achilles Parentage and Early Life

Achilles, the great warrior of renown whose feats were recounted in the Iliad and the Odyssey, was reported to be born of the goddess Thetis of the mortal king Peleus. 

Credit: Wikipedia

Throughout the Iliad, there runs a conflict between Achilles’ power as the son of a god and his mortality. His vitriolic rages, hubris and impulsiveness combined with his strength and swiftness make him a formidable foe indeed. In fact, Achilles was born of a mortal man because Zeus was trying to prevent a prophecy from being fulfilled, that Thetis’ son would exceed his own power.

Achilles’ temper and hubris are very human traits that cost him a great deal in the Iliad’s tale. The entire account spans just a few weeks of the ten-year-long war between the Greeks and the Trojans. Achilles’ development as a character is central to the epic. He begins as an angry, impulsive, callous man and, by the end, develops some sense of personal honor and dignity. The change is marked by his return of his enemy Hector’s body to the Trojans for proper burial rites.

The action is prompted by sympathy for Hector’s grieving parent and thoughts of his own father. In releasing Hector’s corpse back to the Trojans, Achilles considers his own mortality and the grief his death will cause his own father.

In the sense that he was realistically portrayed, Achilles is certainly very real. However, the question remains of whether he was a flesh and blood warrior or simply a legend.

Was Achilles Real or Fictional?

The simple answer is, we don’t know. Since he would have lived in the 12th century BC during the Bronze Age, we can’t determine who the real Achilles might have been or if he existed at all. Until a few hundred years ago, Troy itself was believed by scholars to be only a city of myth. Surely the poet Homer imagined this impregnable fortress of a city. No dwelling of mere mortals could be half so glorious and grand as the city described in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Archeological evidence has emerged; however, that indicates that Troy might have existed in the real world, built of stone and brick as well as of words and imagination.

To answer the question, “was Achilles real?

We must first ascertain whether the world in which he would have existed was, in fact, more than just a figment of the imagination. Did Homer imagine the magnificent city? Or did such a place exist? In 1870, an intrepid archeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, located a site that many had believed not to exist. He found and began to excavate the famed City of Troy.

Of course, Troy was not the name of the site given by its inhabitants. Written some 4 centuries after the city had passed out of existence, the Iliad and the Odyssey take a good deal of poetic license with the actual events. Whether there truly was a war that lasted for ten years and the exact nature of the “trojan horse” are matters of dispute.

What Homer dubbed “Troy” in his epics is known to archeologists as the civilization of Anatolia. The first contact between Anatolia and the greater Mediterranean world may have been the inspiration for what is now known as the Trojan war. Spartan and Achaean warriors from Greece laid siege to the city about the 13th or 12th century BC.

The question is Achilles real? It hinges partially on the existence of Troy and the other kingdoms mentioned in the Iliad and Odyssey. The first question- did Troy exist? It seems to be yes. Or at least, a city existed that served as Homer’s inspiration for Troy.

Where is Troy in Today’s World?

Credit: Wikipedia

The area now known as the mound of Hisarlik, overlooking the plains along the Aegean coast of Turkey, is speculated to be the site. What Homer called Troy laid about 3 miles from the southern entrance of the Dardanelles. In the span of about 140 years, there have been 24 separate excavations of the area, revealing much about its history. It is estimated that the digs have revealed 8,000 years of history. The area was a cultural and geographical bridge between the Troas region, the Balkans, Anatolia, and the Aegean and Black Seas.

The excavations have revealed 23 sections of city walls. Eleven gates, a stone ramp, and the lower parts of five of the defensive bastions have been uncovered, giving historians a rough idea of the size and shape of what might have been Troy. Several monuments to local gods, including a temple of Athena, have been uncovered as well. There are evidence of further settlements, Hellenistic burial mounds, tombs and Roman and Ottoman bridges. The Battle of Gallipoli took place in this region in the first World War in modern times.

The area has provided archeologists with a great deal of information on the development of the relationships between several cultures. Anatolia, the Aegean and the Balkans all came together in this place. The three people groups interacted in this place and left behind evidence that tells us more about their lifestyles and cultures. There was a magnificent fortified citadel standing in the place, enclosing several palaces and major administrative buildings. Below the main building was an extensive fortified town likely occupied by common people.

Roman, Greek and Ottoman settlements may be found in the debris and signify the existence of several civilizations. The sites have been maintained in the modern age, allowing further study and discoveries of what might have been the City of Troy.

Who Was Achilles?

Was Achilles a real warrior in the armies that laid siege to Troy?

He had characteristics that certainly seem to imply plausibility. Like many Heroes of the epics, Achilles had immortal blood running in his veins. His purported mother, Thetis, was a goddess, even if he was half-mortal by his father. Thetis, it is reported, dipped her infant son in the River Styx to grant him immortality. To do so, she held onto his heel, which was not fully submerged. Because his heel was not submerged, it was not imbued with the river’s magic. Achilles’ heel was the only mortal point of his now-immortal body and his one weakness.

If Achilles was a real person, he has many traits and failings common to mortals. He had a fiery temper and more pride than was perhaps good for him. He had ransacked a city, Lyrnessus, and stole a princess, Briseis. He took her as his rightful property, the spoils of war. As the Greeks besieged Troy, their leader, Agamemnon, took a Trojan woman captive.

Her father, a priest of the god Apollo, pleaded with the god for her safe return. Apollo, taking pity on his follower, set a plague on the Greek soldiers, killing them off one by one until Chryseis was safely returned. Agamemnon returned the woman in a fit of pique but insisted that Achilles give him Briseis as a replacement.

Furious, Achilles retreated to his tent and refused to join the battle. It was not until the death of his own dear friend and squire Patroclus that he rejoined the fighting.

Was Achilles a real man?

He certainly suffered from many of the failings common to men. But was Greek Achilles real in the sense of walking the earth in a flesh-and-blood body? That question is difficult to answer.

It was not until Patroclus’ death that Achilles’ humanity is deeply explored. Throughout the Iliad, he is prone to bouts of temper and pique. Sulking in his tent while the Greek soldiers are slaughtered outside is typical behavior. It takes Patroclus coming to him weeping over their losses for Achilles to relent. He allows Patroclus to borrow his armor, instructing him to use it to frighten the Trojan forces into retreating. He wants only to protect the boats, for which he feels responsible. Patroclus, seeking glory for both himself and Achilles, rushes in, slaughtering the fleeing Trojan soldiers. His recklessness leads him to slay the son of the god Zeus. Zeus decides to take vengeance, allowing the Trojan Hero Hector to kill Patroclus on the battlefield.

When Achilles hears of Patroclus’ death, he is furious and grieving. He first insists upon sending the soldiers out in his rage before they have even had time to eat and rest. Cooler heads prevail, and he is convinced to wait until Thetis can have new armor forged for him. The Trojan army spends the night celebrating their victory. In the morning, the tides of the war turn as Achilles takes revenge for his friend’s loss. He ascends upon the Trojan army, killing them in such numbers that he clogs a local river, angering its god.

Finally, Achilles manages to kill Hector and drags his foe’s body behind his chariot for twelve days. It is not until Hector’s father comes into his camp to plead for the return of his son’s body that he relents. Achilles is presented as a legendary Hero, immortal and other-worldly in his feats throughout the Iliad. In the end, he is left with choices common only to mortal men. First, he must decide to allow Patroclus to be buried and, secondly, return Hector’s body.

At first, he refuses on both counts, but he faces his own mortality and regains some sense of personal dignity and honor in time. He returns Hector’s body to Troy and holds a funeral pyre for Patroclus, ending the Iliad. His story, of course, continues in other epics. In the end, it is his mortal heel that is Achilles’ downfall. An arrow fired by an enemy pierces his vulnerable heel, killing him.

The consensus of Historians and scholars seems to be that Achilles was a legend. His humanity was not literal but rather literary. Homer’s skill created a character that encompassed both the heroism and the failings of the warriors who held Troy’s walls against a siege. In Achilles, he presented a legend and a myth that resonates with both the fantasies of men and the burden of humanity that all carry. Achilles was a demigod, a warrior, a lover, and a fighter. He was a mortal man in the end but had the blood of gods running in his veins.

Was Achilles a real man? As much as any Human story, he was real.

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