E-mail me at mcclainm@optonline.net Visit my Facebook page View my LinkedIn profile

Return to Greek theater list
How Did Achilles Die?
February 15, 2012
Everyone agrees that Paris killed Achilles with an arrow during the siege of Troy, but the details of his death are subject to debate. The familiar story that his mother Thetis dipped him in the River Styx but left a vulnerable spot in his heel is probably an invention of late antiquity, a variation of an earlier story that his mother tried to make him immortal by dipping him in boiling water or exposing him to flames. According to that legend, told in The Voyage of the Argo, her efforts were interrupted by her husband Peleus, and Achilles remained mortal. 1

Jonathon Burgess, in a 1995 article titled "Achilles' Heel: The Death of Achilles in Ancient Myth", uses evidence from ancient art and literature to argue that in earlier myth Achilles was probably killed outside the walls of Troy with two arrows. The first hit his foot or ankle, crippling him and taking away his legendary speed (Achilles is typically referred to as swift-footed),2 while the second killed him. In the later Roman myth, Paris shot him in the heel inside the temple of Apollo.

In the Iliad, Homer connects Achilles' death with his killing of Hektor. In Homer's story, after Achilles learns that Hektor killed Patroclus and stripped him of his armor, he vows to avenge the death of his dear friend. When he tells his mother that he wants to live just long enough to slay Hektor, Thetis answers:

I won't have you with me for long, my child,
If you say such things. Hector's death means yours.3

Soon after, clad in the armor Hephaestus made for him, Achilles drives his spear through Hektor's neck, mortally wounding him. Hektor's last words predict that Achilles will meet a similar fate:

But the gods will not forget this,
And I will have my vengeance on that day
When Paris and Apollo destroy you
In the long shadow of Troy's Western Gate.4

Homer does not portray the death of Achilles in the Iliad, but the tragic poets refer to his death at Troy. In Sophocles' Ajax, Ajax's disappointment over not receiving the armor of Achilles motivates him to seek the deaths of Agamemnon, Menelaus and Odysseus, and in the Philoctetes, Odysseus tells Neoptolemus to tell Philoctetes he is deserting because the Greeks refused to give him his father's armor. In Euripides' Hecuba, the virgin Polyxena is sacrificed at the tomb of Achilles soon before the Argives leave Troy.

In the last book of the Odyssey, after Odysseus reaches Ithaca and slaughters the suitors, Hermes takes their ghosts to the land of the dead. There they encounter Achilles talking with King Agamemnon. If only you had died on Trojan soil, Achilles tells Agamemnon, you would have won great fame. The ghost of poor Agamemnon answers:

Son of Peleus, great godlike Achilles! Happy man,
you died on the fields of Troy, a world away from home,
and the best of Trojan and Argive champions died around you,
fighting for your corpse.5

You were dear to the gods,
so even in death your name will never die …
Great glory is yours Achilles,
for all time, in the eyes of mankind!6

Indeed it is.

1 Apollonius, The Voyage of the Argo, 4.869-872. "[Achilles] was a baby then, and in the middle of the night [Thetis] used to surround her mortal child with fire and every day anoint his tender flesh with ambrosia, to make him immortal and save him from the horrors of old age. One night, Peleus, leaping out of bed, saw his boy gasping in the flames and gave a terrible cry. It was a foolish thing to do. Thetis heard, and snatching up the child threw him screaming on the floor. Then passing out of the house, light as a dream and insubstantial as air, she plunged into the sea. She was mortally offended and never returned." E. V. Rieu translation.

2 The ankle injury to Patriots' tight end Ron Gronkowski before Superbowl XLVI in 2012 is a contemporary example of how taking away a hero's speed can make him vulnerable.

3 Hom. Il. 18. 100. Lombardo translation. Lattimore translates the lines: "Then I must lose you soon, my child, by what you are saying, since it is decreed your death must come soon after Hektor's."

4 Homer, Iliad, 22, 397. Stanley Lombardo translation. The Western Gate is the Scaean gate.

5 Homer, Odyssey, 24, 38, Fagles translation.

6 ibid, 24, 99.