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Achilles: Bronze Age Warrior

He is the first warrior of the Western world. Swift-footed, lionhearted, terrible in his war cry, a sacker of cities, a charismatic leader, a stunning physical specimen, unconquerable-except by an arrow to his heel-Achilles was the best of the Greeks at Troy. He chose glory over long life and learned to master anger and replace it with wisdom. He is the unforgettable hero of the first work of Western literature: Homer's epic poem the Iliad.

But was Achilles real? Is there any historical truth in his story, or is he just myth? The short answer is that we don't know. There is no proof that Achilles existed or that any of Homer's other characters did. The long answer is that Homer's Achilles may have been based, at least in part, on a historical character; the same is true of the rest of Homer's characters. There are two reasons to believe this. Exciting new archaeological discoveries make it more plausible that the Trojan War really happened. And the more we learn about the nature of war at that time, the more Homer's description of Achilles rings true.

What follows is a portrait of what the real Achilles might have been like if he truly lived. It describes a Greek warrior chieftain of about 1200 B.C. who took part in an expedition against a wealthy city in the northwest corner of what is now Turkey-Troy. But first some background.

According to Homer, the Trojan War lasted ten years. The conflict pitted the wealthy city of Troy and its allies against a coalition of all Greece. It was the greatest war in Western history to that time, involving at least a hundred thousand men in each army as well as 1,186 Greek ships. It featured heroic champions on both sides. It was so important that the Olympian gods played an active role. Troy was a magnificent city and impregnable fortress. The cause of the war was the seduction, by Prince Paris of Troy, of the beautiful Helen, queen of Sparta, as well as the loss of the treasure that they ran off with.

The Greeks landed at Troy and demanded the return of Helen and the treasure to her husband, Sparta's King Menelaus. But the Trojans refused. In the nine years of warfare that followed, the Greeks ravaged and looted the Trojan countryside and surrounding islands, but they made no progress against the city.

In that ninth year the Greek army nearly fell apart. A murderous epidemic was followed by a mutiny on the part of Greece's greatest warrior, Achilles. The issue, once again, was a woman: this time, the beautiful Briséis, a prize of war unjustly grabbed from Achilles by the Greek commander in chief, Agamemnon. A furious Achilles withdrew himself and his men from the fighting. The Trojans, led by Prince Hector, took advantage of Achilles' absence and nearly drove the Greeks back into the sea. At the eleventh hour Achilles let his lieutenant and close friend Patroclus lead his men back into battle to save the Greek camp. Patroclus succeeded but overreached, and Hector killed him on the Trojan Plain. In revenge, Achilles returned to battle, devastated the enemy, and killed Hector. Achilles was so angry that he abused Hector's corpse. King Priam of Troy begged Achilles to give back his son Hector's body for cremation and burial, and a sadder but wiser Achilles at last agreed. He knew that he too was soon destined to die in battle.

So Homer tells the tale. Other writers continued the story to the war's end, when the Greeks took Troy by means of the famous Trojan horse. These...

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