Achilles: An examination of the traditions surrounding his death
Updated: Jul 23, 2022
The purpose of this article is to examine the different sources and traditions regarding the death of the Greek hero, Achilles. This work is for that ideal reader that might have enjoyed the works of Homer and always wondered what happened to Achilles after the events of the The Iliad. It turns out that while the big details remain largely intact (Achilles is usually killed storming the Scaean Gate, for example) the small details may differ; one source may mention it was the god Apollo acting on his own, another that the Trojan prince Paris (architect of the Trojan War via his abduction of Helen of Sparta) worked of his own initiative, or else that Achilles is killed by the two of them working together. Then a whole other later tradition exists that has nothing to do with the Scaean Gate, but the temple of Apollo, and even then the small details change. So for those who are interested in the different traditions of what happened to Achilles following the death of Hector, then this article is also for you. Before we delve in, we need to know a little bit about Achilles' life, so we are prepared for when we see him at his end. What follows, then, is a very brief biography of Achilles before his untimely death at Troy.
A VERY SHORT BIOGRAPHY OF ACHILLES
Achilles, the greatest warrior on the Achaean (Greek) side during the Trojan War was born to the immortal Nereid sea nymph, Thetis, and the mortal king of the Myrmidons of Pythia, Peleus. According to some later traditions, Thetis attempted to confer invulnerability on her son by dipping the infant Achilles into the river Styx, holding him by his left heel. This became the only vulnerable part of his body, and Paris and Apollo were to exploit that weakness later on at Troy. Another later tradition states that Thetis anointed the boy Achilles in ambrosia, then put him on top of a fire so as to burn away the mortal parts of his body. She (and therefore the ritual) was interrupted by Peleus, horrified at what he thought was his wife's despicable act. Thetis then abandoned both her husband and son in a fit of rage. We'll look at Achilles' supposed invulnerability in greater depth in another article. For now, it suffices to say that Achilles can and does get injured in The Iliad, suggesting that he was not invulnerable in any part of his body in earlier traditions.
The young boy was then taken to Mount Pelion to train and be taught by the famous centaur, Chiron, was also taught the heroes Jason (he of the Golden Fleece) and Heracles. Soon Thetis began to worry that Achilles would be sought after to fight in the upcoming Trojan War. If he did, a prophecy foretold that a short but glorious life would be his. To try and prevent this fate, Thetis had Achilles remanded to the court of King Lycomedes on the isle of Skyros disguised as a hand maiden. While on Skyros, he falls in love, and has an affair with the princess Deidamia, who later bears him a son, Neoptolemus. Meanwhile, the Achaeans - under the leadership of the High King of Mycenae, Agamemnon - are gearing up to go fight in the Trojan War, and another prophecy foretells that Troy cannot be taken without Achilles, who's hiding in Skyros, so the heroes Odysseus, king of Ithaca and Diomedes of Argos set off to look for him.
Odysseus and Diomedes uncovered the disguised Achilles by means of a ruse. The warrior then joined the Achaeans, bringing 50 fifty ships with 50 Myrmidon warriors each to the war effort. Nine years of war followed, most of which was spent raiding towns and villages, and collecting prizes and war booty, including Briseis, who went on to be the catalyst for Achilles' and Agamemnon's quarrel in the tenth year of the war; this is the main focus of Homer's work, The Iliad. Achilles and Agamemnon eventually patched up their differences after Achilles' closest companion, Patroclus, was killed by the Trojan prince, Hector, on the field of battle. Achilles got back into the fray and killed many, many Trojans. He even fought the river god, Scamander, at one point. Achilles finally gained the aforementioned eternal glory by seeking out and slaying Hector in turn. Achilles' rage and grief was not sated after Hector's death however, and he continued to kill many more Trojans and their allies. But his death - foretold many times throughout The Iliad - came hot on the heels of the late Trojan prince's. In the end, there was no escaping his fate.
WORKS THAT FORETELL THE DEATH OF ACHILLES
The Iliad (8th century BC)
The Iliad, written in dactylic hexameter and attributed to the Greek poet, Homer, was probably written around the 8th century BC, making it one of the earliest sources about the Trojan War, even though the work only covers a mere few weeks of the ten-year siege. Earlier sources probably existed that have been since lost to time. Some scholars doubt The Iliad was written by any one single person, let alone one man called Homer; instead the poem was added to and embellished by a series of poet troubadours (originally the text would have been sung or recited, not read). The Iliad is now widely considered one of the most important works in the history of literature.
As mentioned above, Achilles doesn't actually die in The Iliad, but his untimely death is predicated several times, including by his mother Thetis in Book 18:
But Thetis answered, warning through her tears,
"You're doomed to a short life, my son, from all you say!
For hard on the heels of Hector's death your death
Must come at once -"
Thetis in The Iliad, Book 18, lines 110 - 114 (translation by R. Fagles)
Thetis then repeats this to Hephaestus, blacksmith of the Gods when she asks him to forge new armour for her son. The prophecy is then repeated by Achilles' horse Xanthus, just as the Greek hero is set to ride into battle on his chariot at the end of Book 19. Achilles chastises his horses for not saving Patroclus' life on the battlefield. Xanthus, briefly given the power to speak by Hera, rebukes Achilles with:
Our team could race with the rush of the West Wind,
the strongest, swiftest blast on earth, men say -
but you are still fated to die by force, Achilles,
cut down by a deathless god and mortal man!
Xanthus in The Iliad, Book 19, lines 491 - 494 (translation by R. Fagles)
Just who the "deathless god and mortal man" are become clear in Hector's prophecy in Book 22, just before he draws his terminal breath:
At the point of death, Hector, his helmet flashing,
said, "I know you [Achilles] well - I see my fate before me.
Never a chance that I could win you over...
Iron inside your chest, that heart of yours.
But now beware, or my curse will draw god's wrath
upon your head, that day when Paris and Lord Apollo -
for all your fighting heart - destroy you at the Scaean Gates!"
Hector in The Iliad, Book 22, lines 483 - 486 (translation by R. Fagles)
In this tradition of Achilles' death at the Scaean Gate - and I say this tradition because there are others, as we'll discuss - the great warrior is taken down by a combination of Apollo and the Trojan prince, Paris.
WORKS THAT ACTUALLY DESCRIBE THE DEATH OF ACHILLES
The Posthomerica (3rd century AD)
The Posthomerica is a work of epic Greek literature written by Quintus of Smyrna in Greek hexameter verse, probably around 3rd century AD. It acts as a sequel to The Iliad, and begins shortly after the death of Hector and relates all the events up to and including the end of the Trojan War. His poem is the most complete account of the Trojan War that survives, bar a few lines and one small section of the text that have been lost to time. It was probably inspired by other works that came before, including the lost Aethiopis. Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons and daughter of Ares, and Memnon, son of the Dawn (Eos) and chief of the Aethiopians put in appearances, for example. Of course, the death of Achilles is also shown, and it's actually a little different that what you might expect. Let's set the scene.
Achilles has slain both Penthesilea and Memnon. Achilles' rage is still not sated and he pushes on to the walls of Troy. At the Scaean Gate, he comes across the god Apollo, but Achilles brushes him aside (threatening even to slay him) and continues onwards towards his fate. The Sun God, incensed that Achilles is killing so many of his beloved Trojans, and angry at the warrior's arrogance, lets loose an arrow that hits Achilles in the ankle:
From mortal sight he [Apollo] vanished into cloud,
And cloaked with a mist a baleful shaft he shot
Which leapt to Achilles' ankle: sudden pangs
With mortal sickness made his whole heart faint.
The Posthomerica, Book 3 (translation by A. James)
The implication is that the arrow was poisoned, and that's why Achilles feels a "mortal sickness" that makes his "whole heart" faint. Still, the great warrior doesn't immediately die, but pushes on, slaying more Trojans in a blind rage, until at last, his life gives out and he dies, still undefeated in battle. It's interesting to note that in this version, Apollo alone is responsible for felling Achilles; Paris isn't even mentioned in conjunction with the Greek hero's death (although he makes an appearance immediately afterwards, goading the Trojans on).
The Aethiopis (7th century BC - disputed)
The Aethiopis is a lost work of Greek literature that formed part of the Epic Cycle of poems (that The Iliad also forms a part of), and in fact only five lines have survived the ravages of time. Authorship of the poem - composed in dactylic hexameter - is sometimes attributed to Arctinus of Miletus, an epic Greek poet and possible student of Homer's, although that's disputed. Some sources date him to the 7th century BC, but again there's no actual consensus about when he lived. Sadly, none of his works have survived. Nevertheless, the story of the The Aethiopis is summarised in what's known as the Chrestomathy, itself attributed to an unknown Proclus (possibly the 2nd century Roman grammarian Eutychius Proclus, but that's impossible to verify). Whomever the author of the Chrestomathy is, the text is our most reliable source regarding the lost works of the Epic Cycle of poems that deal with the whole history of the Trojan War. Here's the first line of the summary of The Aethiopis:
The Amazon Penthesileia, daughter of Ares and Thracian by birth, comes to Troy as an ally of the Trojans.
Proclus' summary of the The Aethiopis (translation by G. Nagy)
The summary itself is very short, so let's break it down into bullet points:
Penthesileia, queen of the Amazonians and daughter of Ares, comes to Troy to aid Priam and his people after the death of Hector.
Penthesileia has her moment of ἀριστεία (glory) on the field of battle but is killed by Achilles.
Thersites, a fellow Achaean, mocks and accuses Achilles of having loved Penthesileia, and is slain by Achilles in anger for it.
Memnon, chief of the Aethiopians and son of the Dawn (the goddess Eos) arrives at Troy, wearing armour made by the god Hephaistos. He's ready to aid the Trojans in their time of need.
Memnon kills Antilochus, son of the wise king of Pylos, Nestor, in battle. He is then killed by Achilles in turn.
Achilles then routs the Trojans and, rushing into the citadel (possibly a reference to the Scaean Gate), is killed by Paris and the god Apollo.
There's a bit more to the summary than this, but these are the main takeaways for what we're discussing here today. You can read the full account here. Achilles' death at the hands of Paris and Apollo happens just as Hector prophesised in The Iliad, although not many details are given about precisely how it happens.
Death of Achilles - The Metamorphoses
We have another mention of the death of Achilles' in Ovid's Death of Achilles, which forms part of the Roman poet's magnum opus Metamorphoses. It was written in 8th century AD, so quite late by the standards of the sources we're looking at, but it still bears reading. Here's the part of the poem that deals with the Greek hero's death:
Apollo bows to the superior throne; And to his uncle's anger, adds his own. Then in a cloud involv'd, he takes his flight, Where Greeks, and Trojans mix'd in mortal fight; And found out Paris, lurking where he stood, And stain'd his arrows with plebeian blood: Phoebus to him alone the God confess'd, Then to the recreant knight, he thus address'd.
Dost thou not blush, to spend thy shafts in vain On a degenerate, and ignoble train? If fame, or better vengeance be thy care, There aim: and, with one arrow, end the war. He said; and shew'd from far the blazing shield And sword, which, but Achilles, none cou'd wield; And how he mov'd a God, and mow'd the standing field. The deity himself directs aright Th' invenom'd shaft; and wings the fatal flight.
Death of Achilles from the Metamorphoses (translated by J. Dryden, A. Pope and others)
In this version of the story, Apollo comes down to the field of battle disguised as a cloud. He seeks out Paris and reveals himself to him. He then dips the Trojan prince's arrows in poison and instructs him to take aim. The arrow, guided by Apollo himself, strikes Achilles in his "only penetrable part", sealing his fate. Interestingly, the poem doesn't tell us what that vulnerable part of Achilles' body the arrow penetrated is. I would venture to say that it's the heel based on other works detailing the death of the Greek hero. You can read the full poem here.
Epitome, from the epic work, The Library (2nd century AD)
Let's have a look at one more account of Achilles' death at the Scaean Gate. This one comes to us via Apollodorus in the Epitome section of his work, The Library. Said work is a compendium of tales, from the birth of Zeus, all the way to the Trojan War. Not much is known about the author of the work. It was once thought to have been the Greek scholar, Apollodorus of Athens (d. around 120 BC), however, serious academics no longer attribute the tome to him. Instead, it's now reckoned that the text was composed around the 2nd century AD.
Whoever, actually wrote The Library, the passage we are concerned with is the following:
Having chased the Trojans also, Achilles was shot with an arrow in the ankle by Alexander and Apollo at the Scaean gate.
Apollodorus, Epitome, Episode 5 (translated by Sir J. G. Frazer)
This account is simple and direct and mirrors how Hector prophesised Achilles would meet his end in The Iliad. Like The Posthomerica and Proclus' summary of the The Aethiopis, both Penthesilea and Memnon are mentioned in the text.
OTHER TRADITIONS THAT MENTION THE DEATH OF ACHILLES
So far we've looked at accounts that deal with Achilles' death outside the walls of Troy (by the Scaean Gate) by either Apollo and/or Paris. But there's another tradition that states Achilles was killed in the Temple of Apollo by means of treachery inside Troy itself.
The Fabulae (1st century AD)
The Fabulae were a series of tales attributed to the Latin writer, Gaius Julius Hyginus, who lived in Roman Spain around the 1st century AD. According to Fabulae 110, Achilles was killed by treachery by Paris and his brother, Deiphobus:
POLYXENA: When the victorious Danaan were embarking from Troy, and about to return to their own country, each one taking his share of the spoils, the voice of Achilles from his tome is said to have demanded a part of the spoils. And so the Danaans sacrificed at his tome Polyxena, daughter of Priam, a most beautiful girl, because when Achilles had sought her in marriage and had come for an interview, he was killed by Alexander [Paris] and Deiphobus.
Hyginus - The Fabulae 110 (translation by M. Grant)
According to this tradition, Achilles had fallen in love with - and had sought to marry - the beautiful, Polyxena, the daughter of the Trojan King, Priam. He had been treacherously murdered by the princess' two brothers, so the Danaans (the Greeks) then sacrificed Polyxena at the behest of Achilles' ghost.
History of the Fall of Troy (6th century AD)
Dares Phrygius was a priest of Troy during the events of The Iliad. He was also the supposed author of the prose work known as the History of the Fall of Troy. In reality, the website Theoi.com argues that the work was probably composed in Roman times around the 6th century AD. Whatever the truth may be, the text mentions the death of Achilles, and it's in line with the account given in The The Fabulae. Again, Achilles is besotted with the princess Polyxena and so goes to the temple of Apollo for what he thinks is an interview with Polyxena and Priam. However, it was all a trap planned by Queen Hecuba in revenge for the deaths of her two bravest sons, Hector and Trolius. Paris gathers some of his best Trojan warriors and waits in ambush at the temple. Dares relates what happens next:
Accordingly, on the next day Achilles, along with Antilochus, Nestor’s son, came for the meeting. Upon entering the temple, he was treacherously attacked. Spears were hurled from all sides, as Alexander [Paris] exhorted his men. Achilles and Antilochus counterattacked, with their left arms wrapped in their cloaks for protection, their right hands wielding their swords; and Achilles slew many. But finally Alexander [Paris] cut down Antilochus and then slaughtered Achilles, dealing him many a blow. Such was the death of this hero, a treacherous death and one ill-suiting his prowess.
Dares, History of the Fall of Troy (translated by R. M. Frazer)
It's interesting to note as well that in this account, Achilles can and does get injured during the course of his battles. Secondly, according to this account, Antilochus (Nestor's son) is killed alongside Achilles in the temple rather than by Memnon in the field of battle.
Second Vatican Mythographer (11th century AD)
There's one more source that I'd like to mention with regards to the Temple of Apollo tradition. However, at present I am unable to locate a source for the actual text, so a summary will have to suffice for now. According to this version (which comes from the Second Vatican Mythographer, dated to around the 11th century AD), Achilles is still seeking the hand of Polyxena, Hector's sister. Achilles first laid eyes on Polyxena when she stood on a tower in the act of throwing down bracelets and earrings with which to ransom Hector's body. Having falling in love with Polyxena, and having apparently secured a treaty of marriage to the Trojan princess, Achilles came to the temple of the Thymbraean Apollo to ratify said treaty. Paris, who was lurking behind the image of the god Apollo, shot and killed the Greek hero with an arrow.
CHART - SCAEAN GATE TRADITION
Below is a chart that concisely summaries each source and what they say about Achilles' death outside the walls of Troy.
When was it written?
Who wrote it?
What does it say?
7th century BC
Arctinus of Miletus*
Killed by an arrow shot from Apollo and Paris at the Scaean Gate.
2nd century AD
Killed by an arrow shot from Apollo and Paris at the Scaean Gate.
3rd century AD
Quintus of Smyrna
Killed by Apollo with an arrow shot to the ankle at the Scaean Gate.
The Death of Achilles
8th century AD
Killed by an arrow shot by Paris and guided by Apollo.
*Attributed to Arctinus of Miletus but there's no general consensus among scholars.
**Attributed to one Apollodorus, but probably not Apollodorus of Athens as once thought.
CHART - TEMPLE OF APOLLO TRADITION
Below is a chart that concisely summaries each source and what they say about Achilles' death inside the temple of Apollo.
When was it written?
Who wrote it?
What does it say?
1st century AD
Killed by Paris and Deiphobus.
History of the Fall of Troy
Time of the Trojan War*
Ambushed and killed by Paris and his men at the temple of Apollo.
11th century AD
2nd Vatican Mythographer
Paris, lurking behind the image of the god Apollo, shot and killed Achilles with an arrow.
*Attributed to the priest Dares Phrygius who supposedly lived during the time of the Trojan War. Mostly like the work was actually written in the 6th century AD.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
So now we've examined a number of sources and traditions regarding the death of Achilles. It appears that the Scaean Gate tradition is the oldest. It's the one that Homer references in The Iliad and that his successors ran with after his death. Meanwhile, the temple of Apollo tradition seems to be the purview of mostly Roman writers writing centuries after the Greek poets. If there's an earlier timeline for the temple of Apollo tradition, I haven't found it yet. All agree that Achilles died young and undefeated in battle. Apollo is always involved in some way, and Paris is seldom afforded any heroism in his act of killing Achilles. The only source that seems to come close is the History of the Fall of Troy, but even that was an ambush. Finally, I have tried my best to use as wide a range of primary sources as possible, and here I should pause and explain my use of the word "primary". None of the sources are actually primary sources - if a Trojan War actually took place in the Bronze Age, all sources from individuals who were present are long gone. What I then mean by "primary" are the poems and literature that was set down centuries ago by poets and writers like Homer and Quintus as opposed to scholars writing today or even a century ago. In doing so, I have probably omitted some sources by other classical writers that mention the death of Achilles' in whatever tradition they followed. I have, I trust, covered a wide enough range to give you an idea of how Achilles' might have met his end.
The Iliad, Homer (translated by R. Fagles), Penguin Classics (1998)
The Posthomerica, Quintus of Smyrna (translated by A. S. Way), The Voice of Nick (2022)
The Death of Achilles, Ovid:
Proclus' summary of The Aethiopis:
Collection of sources regarding Polyxena:
Dares Phrygius, History of the Fall of Troy:
The Fabulae, Hyginus:
Epitome, from the Library, Apollodorus:
General information and translation of various Greek texts: