Classical Mythology: To War!

To War!

With Phoenix's help, Odysseus persuaded Achilles to help the Greek cause even though he had been far too young to have been one of Helen's suitors.

Thetis tried to persuade her son to forsake the Greeks. She confided in him that if he remained at home in Phthia, he would have a long, safe, and comfortable life. But if he journeyed to Troy, he would have a short, dangerous, and glorious one. A hero through and through, Achilles did not hesitate to choose the glory.

Odysseus and Achilles soon joined the fleet in Aulis. There Achilles, still a very young man, was appointed an admiral in Agamemnon's fleet. Achilles would lead an army of Myrmidons, the “ant-people” who had migrated to Phthia with Peleus when his father banished him from Aegina. (Peleus, who was too old to join his son in battle, bestowed upon Achilles his golden armor, which Hephaestus himself had forged, and the glorious horses the gods had given him at his wedding.) After the sacrifice of Agamemnon's daughter, Iphigenia, Achilles and the Greeks headed east across the Aegean Sea.

A Curious Cure

After crossing the Aegean, the Greek fleet mistakenly landed at Mysia, where they found themselves under attack. The repelling force was led by Telephus, the son of Heracles and Auge and the husband of Paris's sister Astyoche. The Mysian troops forced the Greek armies to retreat to their ships, but not before Achilles wounded Telephus in the thigh.

The Greeks withdrew and returned home. But Telephus, who had learned from an oracle that only the one who had wounded him could heal him, followed the fleet all the way back to Euboea.

Achilles did not know the first thing about healing, but Odysseus divined that “the one who wounded” Telephus was not Achilles himself, but rather his spear. So Achilles cured Telephus by scraping some rust from the spearhead into the wound—but only after securing the Mysian's promise to show them the way to Troy.

First Blood: The Early Battles

Before attacking Troy, the Greeks first sacked the offshore island of Tenedos. Ignoring his mother's warnings, the son of Thetis killed King Tenes—a son of Apollo—who had tried to prevent the invaders from landing by pelting them with heavy stones. Apollo was not at all pleased; the god would eventually help to kill Achilles.

Achilles established himself as a force to be reckoned with in the very first attack on Troy. Achilles battled with Cycnus, the king of Colonae (and foster father of Tenes). Poseidon, his father, had made Cycnus totally invulnerable to weapons. Finding his spear, sword, and arrows all useless, Achilles strangled Cycnus with the thongs of his own helmet. As Cycnus died, his father Poseidon transformed his body into a swan.

Achilles then led the forces that conquered 12 Phrygian cities by sea and 11 more by land. Everywhere the Greeks battled, Achilles seemed to make his mighty presence felt. In the Hypoplacian Thebes, the warrior killed King Etion, the father of Hector's wife Andromache, and his seven sons in a single day. Achilles honored the king and his prowess by awarding him a full funeral and burial in his armor. But he held the queen, Hector's mother-in-law, for ransom.

In an attack on Mount Ida, Achilles drove the Trojan leader Aeneas from his home and forced him to take refuge in the nearby city of Lyrnessus. Apollo later urged Aeneas to challenge Achilles once again. But Poseidon—pointing toward the Trojan's greater destiny as the founder of the Roman race—safely removed him from the battle.

More than any other Greek warrior, Achilles tormented and terrorized the 50 sons of the Trojan King Priam. He ambushed and killed Troilus. He captured Isus and Antiphus while they were tending sheep on Mount Ida. Priam paid a ransom for their return only to see them both killed in battle by Agamemnon.

Achilles also captured Lycaon, another son of Priam, while the boy was cutting fig shoots to make rims for his chariot wheels. He sold the boy as a slave to King Euneus of Lemnos in return for a silver mixing bowl. Lycaon was later ransomed by a friend and returned to the war. But just 12 days after regaining his freedom, Lycaon was killed in battle by Achilles, who ignored the young man's pleas for mercy.

Never Insult Your Greatest Warrior

In the Greek attack on Lyrnessus, Achilles killed two sons of King Evenus: Mynes and Epistrophus. He also abducted a young beauty named Briseis to serve as his concubine after killing her parents, three brothers, and husband.

Read All About It

Achilles is the hero of Homer's epic The Iliad, which tells of events from the abduction of Briseis until the death of Achilles. The epic begins, “Sing, goddess, the anger of Achilles, son of Peleus.” His anger at both Trojans and Greeks dominates the epic, which depicts Achilles as a bloodthirsty fighting machine. In the final book, however, Achilles reveals his humanity. Touched by the grief of his greatest enemy's father, he softens his wrath and returns the body of Hector to Priam.

Meanwhile, Agamemnon enslaved a concubine of his own on the island of Chryse: Chryseis, daughter of the island's priest of Apollo. But her father persuaded that god to send a pestilence on the Greeks. Both animals and men began dying in and around the Greek camp.

Though Agamemnon preferred her charms to those of any other woman, the Greek commander in chief—urged by the seer Calchas and pressured by the other Greek generals—was forced to give Chryseis back to end the pestilence.

To compensate for his loss, Agamemnon appropriated Briseis from Achilles. Grossly offended, Achilles vowed to remain in his tent and refused to fight—or to allow his troops to fight—any longer in Agamemnon's army.

Thetis, who had kept a close watch on her son since the day he left Scyrus to join the Greek armies, petitioned Zeus to deny the Greeks any victories until they begged Achilles to return to them. Zeus agreed, and the Greeks began suffering serious setbacks. Hector, commander of the Trojan forces, led an assault that pushed the Greeks all the way back to their beached ships, then nearly set fire to the entire fleet.

Agamemnon sent Odysseus, Achilles' brave cousin Ajax (a son of Telamon), and his old tutor Phoenix to plead with Achilles to rejoin the Greek force. They offered Achilles not only the return of Briseis, but an enormous amount of treasure as well. Achilles still refused. Phoenix remained with his ward while Odysseus and Ajax returned to the Greek camp with the bad news.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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