Jonathan S. Burgess


On his book The Death and Afterlife of Achilles

Cover Interview of March 09, 2009

The wide angle

The Death and Afterlife of Achilles looks at all types of ancient evidence about Achilles to reconstruct the basic outlines of his death and afterlife.  For literary evidence, the Homeric poems, non-epic poems, lyric poems, later Roman poems, and testimony from late antiquity are employed.  From the world of early art, vase paintings and relief pictures are scrutinized.  Of particular interest are artifacts that provide multiple episodes in the life of Achilles, providing the “biography” that I try to reconstruct in the book.

This evidence is employed to reconstruct the oral traditions about Achilles that preceded the composition of the Homeric poems, motif by motif.  Through intertextual theory, the relationship between the Iliad and these oral traditions is then analyzed.  The school of thought in Homeric studies known as Neoanalysis is also used to explore how the Iliad reflects and comments upon traditions that preceded it.

The result is an increased understanding of the artistry of the Homeric poem: it does not directly tell the story of the death of Achilles, but it foreshadows it in meaningful ways.  Modern audiences have missed this sense of the Homeric poem’s significance, because they have lost a sense of the pre-Homeric traditions.

From archaeology, the latest evidence from cults sites of worship of the deceased hero, especially in the Black Sea, are provided, as well as the archaeological evidence for burial sites near Troy associated with Achilles.  The tomb associated with Achilles has usually been placed at Cape Sigeion, but recently new evidence has suggested rather a tomb further down the coast.  There is no evidence that these tombs contain the remains of a Homeric hero.  But they were in existence by the time of the composition of the Iliad, and ancient and modern reactions to them provide us with fascinating glimpses into reception of the Homeric poem and early Greek myth.