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The Death of Achilles in Ancient Literature

The Death of Achilles in Ancient Literature

The death of the greatest warrior that ever lived, is one of the most fascinating stories. It is known through cinematography, literature, and poetic endeavors. The death of Achilles is for some one of the greatest moments of the Trojan War. But was it as epic as some think it is? Or is there something different in the stories that we learned?

The Iliad and other texts

The Iliad never talks about Achilles’ death. After all, the story covers about 50 days of the war. It begins form the point of Achilles and Agamemnon fight over the Briseis. It ends with the death of Hector and the 12-day treaty that he and Priam agreed upon. Of course, there are glimpses of the past in the story (about the events of the 10-year war of Troy) but nevertheless, we learn nothing else regarding the end of Achilles. The only hint that is given is that Thetis, Achilles’ mother, tells him that soon after the death of Hector, according to prophecy, his demise is soon to follow.

More content is provided in the book of Odyssey when Odysseus meets Achilles in Hades. But this is regarding his funeral more than his actual death. So, what happened to Achilles? How did he die?

The textual data all agree that was Paris the one who killed him, with an arrow piercing his heel, guided by the hand of Apollo himself (who hated the Greeks for violating his temple and his priestess Chryseis). But the situation of his death differ from writer to writer and the most common ancient Greek version of the myth, might actually surprise you.


The ancient tragic poet Aeschylus, in his trilogy of plays regarding the life of Achilles, wrote that during a fight outside the walls of Troy, Paris, with a lucky shot, guided by Apollo, pierced his heel. Through excruciating pain, Achilles kept on fighting, pushing the Trojans inside the city gate, when he dropped dead, with a face pale from the loss of blood. The Greeks fought hard upon his body, with Odysseus, Menelaus and Diomedes showing extreme courage during the bloodbath. Finally, they managed to retrieve the body, with the godly armor, that was made by Hephaestus. Later on, they incinerated his body, and his remains were put to the same tomb that Patroclus was buried.

The Story of Polyxena her part to the death of Achilles

The most plausible outcome and the most known (at least for the ancient world) version about the killing of Achilles, is the story of Polyxena. She was a priestess of Apollo. One day, a raiding party of Achilles and his Myrmidons, ambushed her and her bother Troilus. He died by the hands of Achilles himself. Polyxena, a relative to Priam and his sons, fled to Troy, where she continued her religious practices to a temple outside the city walls. According to the legend, shortly after the death of Hector, Achilles felt that he was done with the war and begun to pray near the Temple, away from Greek eyes, when he met Polyxena. He began to visit her often, as he was finding comfort in her words. They even got engaged, as he began to think that Polyxena might be the answer to him find peace again.

Odysseus had realized that Achilles was missing from the camp many times and spoke with Ajax the Great, in order to find out if Achilles was conspiring with the Trojans to end the war. Although Ajax immediately dismissed the accusations (Achilles and Ajax had a deep friendship and respect between them) he agreed to follow Achilles to see what he was doing. One day, they followed him to the temple. But something was off. Soon a fight broke out and Achilles ran out of the Temple with an arrow through his heel. Although Odysseus tried to help him, Achilles soon died, because the arrow was poisonous.


What had happened? Apparently, Polyxena’s hatred never ceased for Achilles. So, she conspired with Paris and Deiphobus, her cousins, in order to assassinate him in the temple, during one of his visits to pray and talk with his betrothed. And they succeeded. Priam though was not at all pleased with his sons, for they violated the holy temple and also gave a legendary warrior a dishonorable death. And not only that, but the Greeks were furious about this sacrilege and cowardness shown by Paris, that some days later managed to take the city and burn it to the ground. Polyxena was later taken captive and was sacrificed on the tomb of Achilles, as an offering to his soul.  

A bummer of a story. The ending of Achilles, according to this legend, was not a glorious one. He was unarmed and ambushed and the saddest of all, alone when he died. Although he won countless battles and killed many enemies in honorary duels, he was dishonored in death. But that is the way of many great heroes of the past. Great leaders like Agamemnon, Ajax or even historical figures like Alexander the Great. They lived great lives and accomplished great things, only to be humbled at death.

But the people do not forget. Their feats echo through the centuries!

P.S. The death of Troilus was essential for the Greeks. There was a prophecy that declared that if Troilus reached the age of 20 years, Troy would not fall. His lynching was necessary.

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