BMCR 2009.07.67

The Death and Afterlife of Achilles

, The Death and Afterlife of Achilles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. xii, 184. ISBN 9780801890291. $45.00.

Jonathan Burgess is an established authority on the Homeric and Cyclic epics and the tradition of the Trojan war.1 His latest study, The Death and Afterlife of Achilles, by no means lessens this reputation. In this slim monograph, Burgess collects and builds upon his 2001 major work, and more recent studies focused on the figure of Achilles.2 Burgess’s basic aim is simple and clearly stated: he seeks to reconstruct the various stages of Achilles’ life, and especially his death and afterlife, from material within the Homeric poems and the Epic Cycle, and from extra-literary material. With that established, he examines how the Iliad engages with non-Homeric narrative, and proposes that the Iliad specifically alludes to the traditional fabula of Achilles’ death by means of motive transference, and suggests that an early ancient audience familiar with the Achilles fabula would recognise such an allusion.

The author makes it clear from the very start of his book, and throughout, that he is interested in pre-Homeric mythological traditions about Achilles and their presence in the Iliad. While he acknowledges that he uses what can be termed a neoanalysist methodology, Burgess is not interested in textual relations. ‘The assumption that a few epics influenced one another at an early date in the Archaic age is anachronistic and the textualized approach to epic affiliation must give way to a more mythological one’ [p.4]. Burgess is interested rather in interactions between (oral) narrative traditions: he makes no assumption of a historical master poet called “Homer” [pp. 3 and 58], and does not think in terms of acute textual borrowings. He works within a much broader framework.

Despite the book’s relatively short size, Burgess covers much ground. His discussion ranges from assessment of evidence from Greek vase paintings in an attempt to reconstruct extra-Homeric mythological narratives about Achilles, to discussion of intertextuality in oral epic, to presentation of the archaeological evidence for the physical location of the tumulus of Achilles. He will not convince everyone with his argumentation, especially in his conception (and use) of neoanalysis and the role of the ancient audience, but his conclusions are presented throughout in a balanced, judicious manner.

Burgess begins his study, in the first chapter, by sifting the evidence for Achilles’ early life. A unified account of Achilles’ life story most likely existed in early archaic times, but lack of archaic evidence excludes a definite, detailed reconstruction of a pre-Homeric version of his early life. Instead, the author summarises the various tales that survive in literary and iconographical material down to the Roman imperial period. He focuses in particular on the mortality of Achilles and Thetis’ concern over his fate (which he describes as ‘the thematic engine that generates the stories about his early life’ [p.9]). Burgess suggests that the myth concerning Achilles’ heel, not attested until the early Roman empire in Statius, can be traced back to earlier Greek traditions and representations. He relates that all the stories concerning Achilles’ early life involve the attempts of Thetis, who is somehow conscious of Achilles’ destiny, to prevent such a fate.

The second chapter briefly establishes the order of events which lead up to the pre-Homeric story of Achilles’ death. Burgess sets out, in order, a key set of motifs which make up the fabula of the death of Achilles, based on evidence from art and literature. These are listed with brief descriptions and depictions from art, with only brief analyses. Burgess refers throughout the rest of the book to this sequence which he constructs and labels here.

The Iliad‘s references to the death of Achilles are examined in detail in the third chapter. Burgess outlines how Achilles’ death is referred to and conceived of in the Iliad, and then discusses the effect for the poem of this thematic use of Achilles’ destiny. Burgess shows that Achilles receives a very clear, although occasional, picture of his coming fate (slayers, location, and weapon) from his mother and other characters in the poem. Burgess argues that the limited and allusive references to Achilles’ fate imply that the ancient audience would have been fully aware of the traditional story of Achilles’ death: the poem merely circles around the story. Burgess argues at length about the apparent “choice” of Achilles. For Burgess, there is no such choice: Achilles is more likely being untruthful in book 9, since the Iliad‘elsewhere portrays the fate of Achilles as long decided’ [p.50]. This is not an original point, but Burgess does usefully proceed at length to back up his view with analysis of the relevant passages. The poem provides ‘an illusion of uncertainty’ [p.55] in the face of the certainty of Achilles’ fate, which goes to strengthen the depth of Achilles’ characterization.

Intertextuality and oral epic is the subject of the fourth chapter, and is easily the most stimulating and well-argued section of the book. Burgess follows Nagy in seeing poetic performance traditions interacting with other, still-evolving, poetic traditions.3 Burgess signals the usefulness of traditional neoanalysis, and focuses on the central concept of motif transference. Burgess merges oral neoanalysis with his own understanding of intertextuality. Whereas previously scholars have tended to seek specific Cyclic epics as the origin of motifs transferred into a Homeric setting, Burgess cogently proves that it makes more sense ‘to view oral mythological traditions as the primary or source material’ [p.60]. Classic neoanalysis is the preserve of the scholar who identifies motif transference (taken from a textual setting), whereas in Burgess’s account an ancient, mythologically informed audience would recognise instances of this phenomenon from other oral contexts. In Burgess’s view, certain wording was typically employed in many different oral poems to describe a particular situation. When such phraseology was used out of context, by transference, it could then function as an allusion to the story in which the same wording was originally used. The author then presents an illuminating discussion of what he terms “Trojan War motif transference” [p.65], in which he argues that events outside the timescale of the Iliadic narrative are alluded to by means of motif transference. Despite the convincing nature of his arguments, Burgess is perhaps too adventurous in terms of his notion of audience-reception: how “signalled” would these allusions be for an ancient audience, that is, how clear would an allusion be to a specific context from another mythological narrative as opposed to, say, multiple narratives? Of course each reception would depend on the capabilities of each audience, but given the lack of a master-poet in Burgess’s conception, a word other than allusion should perhaps be used. One could also ask at what stage exactly in the Homeric poem’s evolution did these allusions become concretely allusions, but this point is not especially relevant given Burgess’s stated methodology and assumptions.

On the basis of the theory marked out in the fourth chapter, in chapter five Burgess proceeds to examine the effects of motif transference in the references to Achilles’ death in the Iliad. At the beginning of the chapter, Burgess is quick to rule out the commonly held assumption among neoanalysists that Patroklos reflects Antilochos. Burgess is extremely hostile to this ‘vengeance theory’, as he terms it (namely, that Achilles’ avenging of Patroclos by slaying Hector is modelled on Achilles’ avenging of Antilochos by slaying Memnon), and, in this reviewer’s opinion at least, expertly illustrates its flaws, showing that there is little evidence to support the view that Antilochos was a central part of the myth about Achilles and Memnon, and that he was unlikely to have been the model for Patroklos. In the rest of the chapter, Burgess lists motifs in the Iliad commonly supposed to have been transferred from the story of Achilles’ death, weighing up the possibilities of correspondence. Burgess is convincing in each of the examples which he adduces.

In chapter six, Burgess proceeds to arrange into sequence the transferred motifs by which the Iliad alludes to the story of the death of Achilles. Extended narrative patterns emerge in the transferred motifs concerning Achilles’ death, if we ditch the vengeance theory and what Burgess calls ‘the strained neoanalysist association between Antilochos and Patroklos’s [p.93]. Burgess finds two sequences that interrelate to foreshadow the death of Achilles fabula in its entirety (set out in a table [p.95]). The first sequence Burgess terms “the Patroklos sequence”, which contains most of the motifs of the fabula, since Patroklos’s death prefigures Achilles’ death. These motifs are listed in connection to the events of books 16 and 17. Then in books 18 to 24 the Achilles sequence takes over, in which (book 18) Thetis and the Nereids mourn a prostrate Achilles (a motif transferred from their mourning of the dead Achilles), Thetis tells Achilles he will die after killing Hektor (as she will warn him after Memnon’s death), and in book 22 Achilles kills Hektor (transferred from his killing of Memnon) and then considers attacking Troy (an allusion to his actual attack on Troy after the death of Memnon). The Patroklos sequence then resumes, with his funeral and games foreshadowing similar fates for Achilles. The sequence Burgess constructs is ingenious, and it is not impossible to imagine that a mythologically informed ancient audience would have recognised this patterning of transferred motifs as sequential allusions to the extra-narrative death of Achilles.

The final two chapters are complementary: chapter seven explores the burial and afterlife of Achilles, in which, principally, Burgess argues against the common view that there exist apparent contradictions in the accounts in the Odyssey and Aithiopis. For example, the presence of Achilles in Hades in Odyssey 24 and the other tradition of Achilles in a paradisiacal location are not contradictory for Burgess: he suggests that ‘in Greek thought there was not an exclusive opposition between Hades and paradise but rather a continuum of afterlife locations’ [p.109]. He acknowledges that some of his conclusions cannot be proved, but they are persuasive nonetheless. The last chapter moves away from neoanalysis to examination of the actual geographical locations associated with Achilles’ tumulus and the religious activity connected with his translation. Burgess discusses the cult worship of Achilles in the Black Sea area, and presents and examines the historical tradition associated with Achilles down to the Roman times and the various archaeological attempts to locate his tomb in the Troad. While this final chapter is of considerable interest, and gives an interesting perspective from different media on the death and afterlife of Achilles, it does not quite fit in with the main thrust of the rest of Burgess’s study.

This is a fascinating book, and one worth reading from cover to cover. Burgess’s discussion of the evidence is almost always convincing, and his argumentation is logical and cogent throughout. He exhibits an extraordinary depth of understanding of the nature of ancient epic traditions, and many of his ideas are original and innovative. He presents complex information with clarity, and always explains all terminology and the theories of other schools of thought on the various topics. The notes accompanying the main text are kept to a minimum but Burgess never leaves any doubt about his breadth of research into the topic. Altogether, this is a highly commendable work.

The book is handsomely produced, and the illustrations are clear and well-presented. I did, however, find some typos and questionable points of style:

p.18: ‘he makes no mention his death’; ‘when Achilles’ recalls the rescue’; p.28: ‘the polarity of Achilles and [?] to Memnon was recognized’; p.43: ‘pre-Homeric story of Achilles death’; p.79: ‘Patroklos is acting like Achilles will do’; ‘Patroklos of the Iliad’ (italicise).


Introduction 1
1. The Early Life of Achilles 8
2. The Death of Achilles 27
3. The Destiny of Achilles in the Iliad 43
4. Intertextuality and Oral Epic 56
5. The Death of Achilles in the Iliad 72
6. Motif Sequences in the Iliad 93
7. Burial and Afterlife of Achilles 98
8. Tomb and Cult of Achilles 111
Conclusion 132
Appendix: The fabula of the Death of Achilles 135
Notes 137
References 159
Index 177


1. See especially J.S. Burgess, The Tradition of the Trojan War in Homer and the Epic Cycle, Baltimore 2001.

2. Among several other studies, J.S. Burgess, ‘Untrustworthy Apollo and the Destiny of Achilles: Iliad 24.55-63′, HSCP 2004, 102:21-40.

3. G. Nagy, Greek Mythology and Poetics, Ithaca 1990, esp. pp. 70-9.