The biography of a mythological figure differs greatly from the biography of a real person. The evidence (both visual and literary) is fragmentary, often baffling and sometimes even contradictory. Although Homer gives a powerful portrayal of Achilles in the Iliad, the Iliad tells little about the earlier or later life of the hero and gives no hint of the time Achilles spent dressed as a girl or his belated infatuation with the Amazon queen, Penthesilea. Even memorable images from within the Iliad itself were sometimes radically redrawn by other authors. For instance, while Homer in Book IX of the Iliad says Achilles welcomed the propitiatory embassy sent by Agamemnon graciously, Aeschylus, in his tragedy Myrmidons, presented the hero as sullen, withdrawn and rudely silent when the ambassadors approached. Such is the material González must juggle when writing about Achilles as part of the Routledge series on Gods and Heroes in the Ancient World.
In Chapter 1, González introduces a variety of theoretical considerations and observations to explain the more romantic and fairy-tale aspects of Achilles’ biography, and briefly explains the sources, apart from Homer, for the life and character of the hero. Primary among these is the Epic Cycle, a group of poems composed shortly after Homer’s time that narrated the earlier and later events in the Trojan war, omitting the material covered by Homer. During the course of antiquity, as González observes, new variations and inventions in poetry and drama continually modified the image of Achilles. Many of these were finally collected and systematised in the Hellenistic compendia that offer something like a coherent biography of the hero. Drawing on both Homeric and non-Homeric sources, González completes this chapter describing the life of Achilles from birth to death and gives an outline of the content of the following chapters.
Chapter 2 deals with the early life and education of Achilles. González begins before the hero’s birth with the story of his conception. She cites evidence deriving from the Cypria (part of the Epic Cycle) which explains ‘the plan of Zeus’ to lighten the burden on earth of fighting men: how Zeus had Peleus become the father of Achilles and himself engendered Helen, thus both arranging the cause of the Trojan War and creating a hero to slaughter countless warriors.
To this end, Peleus was married to the reluctant sea-nymph Thetis. The goddess tried to make her son immortal, either by means of fire or using the waters of the Styx. According to one tradition, Peleus, stumbling upon Thetis thrusting the wailing infant into the flames, hastily removed the baby from this apparently cruel procedure. Thetis, offended, summarily departed, leaving the job only half completed.
Achilles was then entrusted to Chiron, the wise centaur, a renowned teacher of heroes, for his moral and physical training. Homer sidelines Chiron, mentioning him only rarely, emphasizing instead the role of the fully human Phoenix in Achilles’ early education. Nevertheless, the tradition that Achilles had a divine mother and a partially equine tutor distinguished him from the normal run of heroes and may explain some apparently unheroic aspects of his behaviour.
Chapter 3 is concerned with Achilles’ emotions, in particular his two bursts of anger in the Iliad. González discusses Aristotle’s theory that anger results from a perceived slight (in this case the removal of Briseis) leading to the normal urge of the injured party to seek revenge and, by contrast, the modern evolutionary theory that considers anger an important signal to restore balance within a group after some disruption.
Achilles’ continued withdrawal from the fighting even after Zeus has vindicated his honour and Agamemnon has been forced to send the embassy would not be the reaction normally expected from a hero. So, too, his continued absence from the fighting and his indifference to the suffering of his comrades reveal another apparently unheroic feature of his character: disloyalty to the group, something rare among men in war. Achilles apparently lacks the sense of shame that motivates other heroes such as Hector who, despite his fear, is ready to confront Achilles, and Ajax, who, once he feels himself disgraced, commits suicide.
González recognises Achilles’ anger after the death of Patroclus as an emotion different in nature from Achilles’ anger at Agamemnon. It is fuelled by such intense pain and despair that no revenge can appease it.
Chapter 4 on sacrificial victims collects three different instances of what may appear to be human sacrifices: Achilles’ murder of Troilos, his slaughter of 12 Trojan youths at the funeral of Patroclus, and the Greeks’ sacrifice of Polyxena on Achilles’ tomb. Only the sacrifice of the Trojan youths is Homeric, and it contrasts with Achilles’ more usual behaviour of either slaughtering an enemy at once or releasing him for ransom. On no other occasion does he preserve a captive for a later ritual death.
The stories of Troilos and Polyxena belong to a non-Homeric tradition. In one version, the death of Troilos was a military necessity, as there was a prediction that Troy could not fall if the boy reached the age of twenty. Another tradition suggests there was an erotic motive: Achilles, becoming enamoured of the boy (González 47-48), responded to rejection with extreme brutality, as illustrated in some Greek vase paintings.
The choice of Polyxena to be sacrificed on Achilles’ tomb may also have had erotic overtones. According to Servius (Servii grammatici qui ferunt in Vergilii carmina) VI,57 (not mentioned by González), Achilles met his death when, having fallen in love with Polyxena, he went to the temple to receive her and Paris, concealed behind the statue, shot him with the fatal arrow. While some Greek vase paintings centuries earlier simply show Polyxena accompanying Troilos as Achilles springs his ambush, others omit Troilos and portray Polyxena alone with the lurking Achilles, possibly suggesting that this was when Achilles first became fatally attracted to the girl.
Chapter 5 explores questions of gender and sexuality. According to the myth, Achilles’ son Neoptolemus was born on the island of Skyros. Homer imagined this in the context of military conquest (Iliad IX, 667-668) but by the fifth century BC, a tradition (reflected in both wall painting and drama) became popular that one of Achilles’ parents, fearing he would be recruited to fight at Troy, concealed the beardless youth disguised as a girl among the daughters of Lycomedes on Skyros. Achilles had already impregnated one of the daughters before Odysseus penetrated his disguise. Once his true nature had been revealed, Achilles eagerly left to join in the war. This episode of transvestism is interpreted by some as a coming of age ritual or rite of passage, marking the transition into adulthood. Like other aspects of Achilles’ childhood, it appears to have been more popular with the Romans than the Greeks in both art and literature.
González makes the point that notions of femininity and masculinity are not fixed, but change. For instance, in Homer’s time, heroes wept freely, but such behaviour was frowned on as feminine weakness by the time of Plato. Similarly, ideas about hetero- and homosexuality are not constant. In antiquity homosexuality was a matter of an act, not a sexual orientation. The question whether or to what extent the love between Achilles and Patroclus was erotic is disputed and unsettled. Though Homer is never explicit, Aeschylus (in the Myrmidons) may have been (p. 67). Somewhat inconsequentially, González concludes this chapter noting the unabated suffering of women from the time of the Trojan war to the present.
Chapter 6 deals with the resolution of Achilles’ two bouts of anger. Even after the embassy and Agamemnon’s generous offers of restitution, there is no reconciliation and the insult, never forgiven, is simply forgotten in the intense pain and grief that Achilles suffers after the death of Patroclus. This fury of despair, unresolved even after Achilles slaughters countless Trojans and abuses Hector’s corpse, only abates when Achilles’ humanity finally resurfaces in the compassion he feels for the aged Priam, who reminds him of his own father and touches the mortal side of his complex character. The chapter ends with a brief survey of how the behaviour of Neoptolemus, Achilles’ son, contradicts or confirms his heritage from his father.
Chapter 7 is concerned with Achilles’ death and after-life. Achilles’ death is foretold in the Iliad but only recounted in detail by non-Homeric sources. According to one such tradition, Thetis dipped Achilles in the Styx to make him (largely) invulnerable. Only the ankle by which she held him, untouched by the water, remained vulnerable and that was where Paris’ fatal arrow landed. Talus is ankle in Latin, but in Romance languages becomes heel, a linguistic quirk that explains the idea of ‘Achilles’ heel’ (which, from an anatomical point of view, is a difficult spot to grasp when dipping a baby in Stygian waters).
The Odyssey records that Achilles received the normal obsequies accorded to a hero, including suitable lamentation and a pyre, and had his bones preserved with those of Patroclus in Troy. Another tradition suggested that Thetis snatched Achilles’ body from the pyre and carried it off to the White Isle, which at first was a sort of never-never land like the Elysian Fields but later, losing its mythical aura, was thought to be an island in the Black Sea. On the White Isle, as González observes, Achilles was reputed to have shared his immortal afterlife with either Helen or Iphigeneia. Oddly, González here fails to mention Medea, the candidate suggested by Apollodorus Epitome V,5 and Apollonius of Rhodes Argonautica IV, 810-15 (an idea, which, according to the scholiast, goes back to Ibycus). I think the identification of the White Isle as a real place in the Black Sea gave rise to the unexpected appearance of Medea, who was known to be a native of that part of the world. As González observes, cults of Achilles flourished naturally enough around the area of Troy and on the White Isle but also appeared in other parts of the Greek world.
At the beginning of this chapter, González gallops through the post-Homeric parts of the Epic Cycle, which include Penthesilea and Memnon arriving to fight on the Trojan side and being slain by Achilles, and the circumstances of Achilles’ own death. At the end she returns to Memnon and the colossal Egyptian statue in the Theban desert reputed to utter a sound at the rising of the sun and hence called ‘the vocal Memnon’. As Dawn (Eos) was Memnon’s mother, it was suggested that her son, who gained notoriety as a victim of Achilles, was greeting her.
Chapters 8 and 9, which treat the ‘Afterlife’ of Achilles, are disappointingly brief and limited in scope. Chapter 8 discusses a variety of themes associated with Achilles but, except for the use of Homeric poetry in contemporary therapy, hardly strays beyond the confines of ancient texts. Post-classical images of Achilles, such as Rubens’ eight designs for tapestries illustrating the History of Achilles, are totally absent. Chapter 9 offers little more than a selection of excerpts from modern literature in English related to Achilles.
The book, nevertheless, presents some provocative insights shedding new light on old problems. The most intriguing are drawn from recent theories of evolution and psychology concerning the emotions of anger and grief. Deeply moving are the observations of how Achilles’ grief over the death of Patroclus can be used for the modern psychological understanding of post-traumatic stress and survivor symptoms in Vietnam veterans (pp. 114-5).
It is a pity that the hero himself sometimes seems to get lost in the forest of commentary and analysis, which, in its abundance, also compromises the coherence of individual chapters. There are no footnotes, but relevant sources named in the extensive bibliography are briefly cited within the text.