Son of Peleus, king of Aegina, and the sea nymph Thetis, Achilles is unique in all Greek Mythology in that he is the one person who was allowed to choose his fate, at least in part. He was granted a choice by the fates to either live a long life, free of renown and eventually be forgotten, or live only a short while but win such renown for his deeds that his name would live on forever. As a young man he chose the second path, but in book XI of Homer’s Odyssey when Odysseus meets Achilles in the Underworld the great hero shows some regret over his choice. He tells Odysseus, “No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!/By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man-/than rule down here over all the breathless dead.” He does, however, live out eternity in the section of the Underworld reserved for the honored dead, and shares his time there with his two close friends Patroclus and Antilochus, so it’s not all bad.
The most well-known of all the myths of Achilles concerns his famous heal. The story goes that his mother, hearing of his chosen fate, was so concerned for his welfare that she dipped him in the river Styx to make him immortal. However, she held him by his heal, so that part of his body was never submerged and thus became his only weak point. Despite the popularity and familiarity of this story in the modern world, this part of the myth of Achilles developed later. It is not a part of Homer’s Iliad or the original story, at least not as far as we know. In Homer’s version, Achilles is a mortal man that can be injured in battle, and is on several occasions. It is also important to remember that it was foretold that Achilles would die at Troy, after he had killed Hector. He knew this the day he set forth for Troy, and he knew this the moment he killed Hector, but that never stopped him. For more information on Achilles, see the other character sections and the description of the Trojan war (coming soon)
There is a lot of debate about the relationship that exists between Patroclus and Achilles. There is certainly a close emotional bound, but nowhere in the Iliad does it explicitly define what their relationship is. What is known is that the two were cousins that grew up together, both taught by the mythic centaur Chiron. Many have chosen to view the two as lovers, but there is no mention of a sexual relationship between them in the Iliad. In fact, the conflict that sets the action of the Iliad is a fight over a woman. That being said, later authors did choose to interpret the relationship as being sexual, so there are a number of stories from Classical Greece that show the two as lovers, as as is suggested in the picture above. Even in the Iliad itself there is a great deal to suggest this kind of relationship. Once Patroclus is killed, Achilles was enraged and again entered the battle to seek revenge. After he killed Hector, Achilles arranges an elaborate funeral for his beloved friend, complete with games to commemorate Patroclus’ life. When Achilles himself is final killed, his ashes are mixed with those of Patroclus, and it was believed that the two of them were united in the afterlife.
In general though, the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is vague at best. Some choose to see the two as close war buddies and nothing more, others as lovers, and there is ample evidence to support both interpretations. More often then not how a person chooses to interpret their relationship has as much, if not more, to do with what that individual wants to see as it does with any real evidence.
Antilochus is the son of Nestor, King of Pylos, the oldest and wisest of all the Greeks who fought at Troy. In contrast, his son was one of the youngest present. In fact, when the war first started he was to young to accompany his father and so he was left behind. However, since the Trojan War was fought over a a ten year period he eventually came of age and joined the Greeks later. This was against his father’s wishes, as it was told that Antilochus must beware and Aethiopian (a mythic kingdom that gave it’s name to the modern nation state of Ethiopia), and they were allies of the Trojans. Antilochus was determined to participate, and it was his good friend Achilles who sooth his fathers anger and convinced him to let Antilochus stay and fight. Achilles has a deep affection for Antilochus, though not on the same level of his feelings for Patroclus, both because of his beauty and his martial prowess. When Patroclus was killed in battle, it was Antilochus who announced their friend’s death to Achilles. However Antilochus too was fated to die at Troy, and feel in battle to Memnon, King of the Aethiopians (just as he was fated to die), who came to aid the Trojans against the Greeks. Just as with the death of Patroclus, Achilles was enraged to hear of Antilochus’ fate and killed Memnon out of vengeance for the death of another close friend. The cremated remains of the three companions were said to have been combined and kept together, however, and we find out in the Odyssey that they were reunited in the Underworld, demonstrating just how deep the bond between these men was.
Agamemnon is the older brother of Menelaus (husband of the famed Helen) and king of Argos. He is also the high king who leads the campaign against the Trojans. However, it is important to remember that he is not king of all the Greeks. Greece at this time was divided up into a number of regions, each ruled by its own king (many of whom, such as Nester and Odysseus, are character in the Iliad). However, Agamemnon is their chief, and though Agamemnon does not rule over all of Greece, he is recognized by all as being the leader of the Greeks and the other kings owe him their allegiance.
From the very beginning of the Iliad we see exactly what kind of leader Agamemnon is. Before the book begins he has taken the daughter of a priest of Apollo as a spoil of war and refuses to return her to her father. Apollo, enraged by this offense, reined arrows down upon the Greek camp as punishment for this slight against him (which some scholars have interpreted as a metaphor for plague/sickness). After 9 days, Achilles finally called an assembly to discuss the matter, and all the kings and generals there assembled decided Agamemnon must give the girl back. This action makes Agamemnon lash out and abuse his power as the leader of the Greek army. Because he is to have his captive taken from him, he decides to replace her with a woman given to Achilles, Briseis. It is this act that not only leads Achilles to withdraw from the war, but it also shows Agamemnon as a faulty leader, concerned more with himself then anything. Achilles also says of Agamemnon that, “you never dare to go out with the host in fight, nor yet with our chosen men in ambuscade.” In a time when a man’s worth was measured by his deeds on the battlefield, Homer paints a very negative picture of Agamemnon.
Son of Priam and Hecuba, Hector is the pride and joy of all the Trojans. He is their champion, and they love him for it. Though he does not approve the war with Greece, it is he that leads the Trojan troops and all their allies against the Greeks, so all the hopes of a Trojan victory are invested in him. Their faith is well founded, because by all accounts he is not only the greatest fighter of all the Trojans (and the Greeks, save Achilles), but he is also known for his noble and kind nature. His skill on the battlefield was even admired by the Greeks, and Homer (himself a Greek) casts him as the best of all the heroes fighting in the war.
In the end though, his noble is not enough to save him from the wrath of Achilles. After killing Patroclus (thinking he was Achilles, as Patroclus rode out wearing his friends armor to give strength and hope to the Greeks), Hector goes out to face Achilles in single combat. Upon seeing Achilles in all his rage, Hector flees runs from him and Achilles chases him three times around the walls of Troy. It isn’t until the Goddess Athena comes down disguised as a brother of Hector and tricks him into fighting that he finally stands to fight Achilles. After killing Hector, Achilles ties his body to the chariot and drives him around the city and eventually back to the Greek camp, where it is continuously abused for 12 days (Though the Gods prevent any harm from coming to his body). It isn’t until Priam, accompanied by the messenger god Hermes, comes to the Greek camp and pleads with Achilles that Hector’s body is finally released. Not only that, but Achilles is so moved by Priam’s words that he gives is word that the Greeks will enter into a temporary truce with the Trojans to give them time to conduct a proper funeral for their fallen hero.
Priam is the King of Troy and direct descendant of Tros, the mythic founder of the city. Though he is king of Troy, he is fairly old at the time of the Trojan war, and so the war effort is left to his son Hector. Homer depicts him as a kind and just ruler, and should perhaps be seen as the antithesis of Agamemnon, a leader who leaves something to be desired. Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, eventually kills Priam when Troy is being sacked (Virgil, Aeneid II, lines 590-652), though not until after he kills another one of Priam’s sons before the Trojan king’s very eyes. Despite his age, Priam faced his death bravely, choosing to face Neoptolemus in battle defending his wife and daughters rather then be massacred.
Hecuba is the wife of Priam, to whom she bore 19 sons. Once Troy is sacked, Odysseus takes her as his slave (according to several of Euripides’ plays), though not before watching many of her sons die. She even witnesses the death of her grandson, Astyanax, son of Hector, who was hurled from the walls of the citadel so as to insure he will not grow up to avenge his father’s death.
Lycaon is a son of Priam (and thus a Trojan prince), though not by Hecuba. He is out one day in an orchard and is captured by Achilles, who sells him into slavery. He was eventually freed and returned to Troy, only to have to face Achilles 12 days later on the battlefield during Achilles rampage to avenge Patroclus’ death. The boy pleaded for mercy, offering to pay a ransom to Achilles if he would spare his life. After the death of Patroclus, however, Achilles wasn’t interested in granting pardons, and so he killed Lycaon.
If Helen is the woman who launched a thousand ships, it was Briseis who turned the Greeks against themselves. Briseis was a princes in Asia Minor who was taken by Achilles as a prize when he sacked her city and killed her family. He ws not, however, able to keep her for long. In book I of the Iliad we learn that the god Apollo is punishing the Greeks because Agamemnon took and refused to return the daughter of a priest of Apollo. When Agamemnon is finally forced to return his prize, he takes Briseis from Achilles as compensation, an act which leads Achilles to withdraw from the war. After Patroclus is killed and Achilles returns to the war, Agamemnon gives Briseis back to Achilles and claims to have never shared a bed with her.
The relationship between Achilles and Briseis, like that between Achilles and Patroclus, is somewhat vague. In book IX (lines 334-343) claim to love her, saying, “Are the Atreidae of all mortal men/ the only ones who love their wives? I think not./ Every sane decent fellow loves his own/ and cares for her, as in my heart I loved/ Briseis, though I won her by the spear.” It is comments such as these that lead some to argue he loves Briseis and Patroclus is just a friend. However, he may not mean love in the manner that we think of it, and even if he loved her that doesn’t rule out the possibility of Patroclus as a lover, as it was common for the kings and heroes of Greece to have multiple wives and lovers.
Briseis makes only a brief appearance in the Iliad, so we don’t get much of a sense of who she really is. In Daughter of Troy, by Sarah B. Franklin, the Trojan War is told from her perspective, and might fill in some of the gaps of Briseis’ character.
* *Hephaestus is the son of Hera, though not of Zeus. Hera, envious of Zeus for giving birth to Athena on his own, decides that she two will conceive and birth a child alone (there are, however, other myths within which he is the child of both Zeus and Hera). Her efforts are not as successful, at least not in her opinion, as Hephaestus was born both ugly and lame. Because of this, she threw him off of Mount Olympus to rid herself of this disappointing child. Another version of the myth states that Hephaestus defended his mother from Zeus and it was he who threw Hephaestus off Mount Olympus. In this version of the story it was the fall that made him lame.
Hephaestus is something of an anomaly among the gods. He is counted as one of the ten Olympians, and yet he is something of a laughing stock. To start with, he is always described as being ugly, a trait that he alone among the gods possesses. He also has a lame foot, making him the only good to not be perfect physically. Because of all of this, he is looked down upon by the Other Olympian gods and is something of an outcast. However, he is also the god upon whom the Olympians rely the most. It is he who built the palaces the gods live in on Mount Olympus, and it is he that forges their armor and other metal works. Some myths even claim he is the one who forges Zeus’ lightning bolts.
In the eyes of the gods he is somewhat powerless, he knows how to play up his awkwardness for his own advantage. There is a scene in the Iliad where he actually chooses to make a fool of himself in order to diffuse a tense situation that could turn ugly. He is also very cunning and tends to seek his revenge through other means. For example, to pay his mother back for treating him so poorly as a child, he made her a throne that immediately trapped her when she sat down, and none of the gods could free her. It wasn’t until Dionysus got Hephaestus drunk and brought him back to Olympus that he finally freed his mother (see picture above). Though not overtly powerful like Athena or Ares, Hephaestus is a clever god that is dangerous to underestimate, as many of the Olympians have discovered.
Thetis is a sea Nymph and mother to Achilles by her husband Peleus. She was well known among the gods for her beauty, so much so that both Zeus and Poseidon courted her at one time. The two continued to fight over her until it was prophesied that she would give birth to a son that was greater than the father. Neither god wanted to risk a son that could overthrow them, so they ceased to pursue her and she was married off to a mortal man, Peleus. It is at their wedding that the events that will cause the Trojan War are put into motion.
Though not one of the Olympian gods, Thetis is surprisingly well connected. When several of the Other gods plotted to overthrow Zeus, it was Thetis who warned him and came to his aid. As Achilles says in Book I of the Iliad, “you alone of the immortals saved the son of Saturn from ruin, when the others, with Juno, Neptune, and Pallas Minerva would have put him in bonds”. It was also Thetis who caught and cared for Hephaestus when was cast down from Mount Olympus. She has a great many gods in her debt, and she uses her connections with the Olympians throughout the Iliad to try and aid her son through his many trials. It is her efforts that cause the gods to give great victory to the Trojans once Achilles has withdrawn from the battle, and it is through her connections to Hephaestus that Achilles gets new armor (his original armor was taken by Hector from the body of Patroclus). In the end though, even her connections can do nothing to save her son.