The Lost Tomb of Achilles
The burial place of Achilles, the greatest hero of the Trojan War, has intrigued travelers for thousands of years.
In the 4th century BCE, nearly 800 years after the conflict that inspired Homer's epic tale, Alexander the Great made a pilgrimage to the tomb at the start of his Asian Campaign.
Here is a quote from Plutarch, one of the key sources on the campaigns of Alexander:
"Once arrived in Asia, he (Alexander) went up to Troy, sacrificed to Athena and poured libations to the heroes of the Greek army. He smeared himself with oil and ran a race naked with his companions, as the custom is, and then crowned with a wreath the column which marks the grave of Achilles; he also remarked that Achilles was happy in having found a faithful friend while he lived and a great poet to sing of his deeds after his death" (Life of Alexander, 15).
The Roman Emperor Julian claimed to have visited the tomb at Troy in the 4th century AD. In the 15th century AD, some 1,700 years after Alexander's famous visit, another prolific warrior - Mehmed II, an Ottoman sultan who conqueror Constantinople at the age of 21 - also stopped at the tomb to pay his respects.
But in modern times, historians and archaeologists have struggled to follow in the steps of Alexander and the many other ancient admirers of Achilles. The tomb has been lost.
Readers may be asking "What tomb? Isn't Achilles a fictional character?" Yes, Achilles is a mythological figure, not a historical one (as far as we know). There is no evidence that he ever existed beyond the fantastical words of Homer and other storytellers.
For this reason, some historians find it misguided to search for his tomb. Jonathan Burgess, Professor of Classics at the University of Toronto, makes the case that people shouldn't get too preoccupied with searching for historical truth in the myth of Achilles. Here is a quote from his article Tumuli of Achilles:
"Especially troubling has been a disrespect for myth displayed by some explorers and archaeologists, an attitude that is readily applauded by our modern culture. The search for the 'truth' behind the Trojan war is essentially a reductionist exercise designed to transform myth into a more valued reality...For these reasons we should resist attempts to identify a 'real' tumulus of Achilles (and, I would argue, a 'real' Trojan war)."
So should we even continue the search for the tomb? I argue yes, and here's why:
By the late 19th century, most historians considered the Trojan War and Homer's epics to be pure myth. However, in 1873 a German entrepreneur and amateur archaeologist named Heinrich Schliemann changed all of that.
Schliemann spent a decade leading an excavation of the Hisarlik site in modern Turkey. Despite his relative inexperience and questionable methods, Schliemann's efforts uncovered multiple layers of a civilization dating back to the Early Bronze Age (2500-2300 BC). More recent excavations have confirmed that one prominent layer, called Troy VII, more or less corresponds with the ancient dating of the Trojan War (sometime in the 12th or 13th century BCE). These findings have led to a major shift in the historicity of the Trojan War. Many, if not most, historians now believe Homer's Iliad was at least inspired by real events.
While the supernatural elements of Homer's stories are clearly fantasy, some of the places and people are not. Remember, the events Homer describes in the Iliad and Odyssey happened some 400 years before his lifetime. Until he composed these epics, they had been passed along through oral tradition. It is up for debate how closely Homer's version mirrored the original stories. We do know, however, that Homer references some places and names (including the name "Achilles") which originated in the Mycenaean Age (the time of the Trojan War) and were not widely known in Homer's time outside of epic. In other words, he probably didn't add them to the stories - they were already part of them.
So it's perfectly possible that the character of Achilles was also inspired by a real person, or that he's an amalgamation of multiple historical figures. We simply don't know. What we do know is that the event which defined Achilles' life - the Trojan War - seems far more historical today than it did a few hundred years ago, when scholars assumed it was completely made up.
Another reason for searching for the tomb is simply that it's fun. While some might say it's foolish to thrust reality onto myth. Or that we're missing the important lessons of Homer's poetry by taking it too literally, or picking lines apart from a historical perspective. After all, we are talking about epic poetry here - gods, monsters, superhuman heroes, etc.
But while the quest to bridge the gap between myth and reality may ultimately be fruitless, it's also exhilarating. Take Schliemann's example: he was read Homer's poetry as a boy and grew up believing the stories were true. Once he had accumulated some wealth, he set out to prove the skeptical historians wrong, using Homer's own words as his primary guide. The result? Schliemann opened the door to our knowledge of the Mycenaean civilization and forever changed our understanding of European history and archaeology. And he did so by ignoring those who told him that searching for history within mythology was foolish.
Given Schliemann's success, and our lack of knowledge about the Bronze Age, I think it's perfectly plausible that certain historical truths are still hiding in Homer's stories, waiting to be validated.
Even so , it might seem a little bit silly to be searching for a tomb of a figure who may never of actually existed at all. Maybe it is. But whether he actually existed or not, many ancient peoples believed Achilles had once lived. For them, he was a historical figure who fought and died on the shores of Troy in the distant past.
These ancient peoples also clearly believed they knew where the tomb of Achilles was. The problem is different groups didn't always agree about its location. Historian Jonathan S. Burgess, makes the point that the "tomb of Achilles" has actually consisted of many sites over the millennia. He writes that:
"the tumulus of Achilles is curiously mobile, since it has been impossible to decide upon a single, 'real' tumulus of Achilles, whether in a mythological, religious, or archaeological sense. The tumulus of Achilles is a fluid conceptual locus that had numerous functions as it was manipulated by different media, audiences, and time periods."
Lacking a firmly historical tomb, different ancient peoples "found" - or imagined that they found - their own tomb of Achilles. There were many motivating factors to do so, including financial and political. Troy was hallowed ground, as was the resting place of the Trojan War's greatest hero. People, both commoners and political leaders, wanted to believe. Ultimately, Burgess' argument is that there is no single "real" tomb of Achilles. There is a host of different sites that may have once been regarded as the warrior's tomb.
So what is our goal? I am not interested in the tomb of Achilles is a metaphorical or symbolic sense. I only care about where the tomb was placed in Classical, medieval times or later, insofar as that location has some connection to the real Achilles, if there was one. What I want to know is whether any tomb exists that could plausibly be that of Achilles or a person his legend is based on.
Any tomb of a historical Achilles would have to be dated to the late Bronze Age, also known as the Mycenaean Age. More specifically, it likely be from the 12th or 13th century BCE - the time period in which historians believe the Trojan War, or the conflict it was based on, took place. It is very difficult to imagine an Achilles, or an inspiration for Achilles, who did play some role in this conflict.
So what are our candidates for the tomb of Achilles and do any of them have a link to the late Bronze Age?
The majority of proposed locations for the tomb are in the Troad, the region of modern-day Turkey that contains the ruins of what is thought to be the historical city of Troy. This region borders the Aegean Sean and the Hellespont, a narrow strait that divides Greece and Asia Minor. Because of its location on the border between the western and eastern world, Troy and the surrounding Troad region were especially important in ancient times.
It makes sense for those looking for Achilles' tomb to focus on this region. All of the ancient traditions claim that Achilles died while fighting in the Trojan War and that a large tumulus mound was erected in his honor. The events are narrated in the Odyssey, after Achilles has been dead for some time:
In the morning we gathered your white bones, Achilles, in unmixed wine and unguents. Your mother provided a golden amphora, and said that it was the gift of Dionysus, and the work of famed Hephaestus. In this lie your white bones, glorious Achilles, and mingled with them the bones of the dead Patroklos, son of Menoitios, and apart those of Antilochos. You honored him above all the rest of your comrades after the dead Patroklos. And over them we, the divine army of Argive spearmen, heaped up a great and noble tomb on a projecting headland by the broad Hellespont. Thus it could be seen from far from the sea both by men that now are and that shall be born hereafter (Odyssey xxiv 72–84).
In the Iliad, Achilles asked for his bones to be mixed with those of Patroclus, his best friend. According to Agamemnon (who is speaking in the passage above), his wish was fulfilled. However, there may have been some who disagreed with Homer's version. When Alexander the Great visited Troy, he allegedly paid homage at a tomb of Achilles and a separate tomb of Patroclus.
But based on Homer's version, certainly one of the earliest and best known accounts of this event, one would expect the tomb to be on the Trojan shore of the Troad in close proximity to the waterway. Even so, it is quite difficult to pin down where the ancient peoples believed this tumulus of Achilles actually was and what it looked like. A tumulus is basically a burial mound made of earth and stone which is raised above a grave. Although Homer's version has the tumulus of Achilles large enough to be viewed by sailors at sea, later depictions seem to downplay its size.
On the plains near Troy, there are a variety of mounds that fit this basic description. Here are some of candidates that have been considered over the years.
- Pros: This general location of this cape most closely fits the description offered in Homer and other traditions. Cape Sigeion no longer exists because the coastline has changed (see map below). However, in ancient times, this cape would have been close to the Greek ships from the Trojan War and overlooked the Aegean Sea and Hellespont. Prominent mounds on the ridges of the Cape, known as Kum Tepe and Kesik Tepe, were identified as the tumuli of Achilles at various points in history. While Kum Tepe is the closest to the Hellespont (and farthest north), Kesik Tepe is larger and possibly the tumulus Alexander the Great visited. Schliemann himself believed the tomb of Achilles was on Cape Sigeion at Kum Tepe and he was one of multiple archeologists to excavate the mounds.
- Cons: The excavations of these mounds have yielded evidence of funeral-related activities, but nothing that can be dated further back than the 6th century BCE.
Sivri Tepe (near Besika Bay)
- Pros: There is a theory that the Greeks ships of the Trojan War were docked at Besika Bay to the south, rather than along the Hellespont. If this is true, Achilles' tomb would be near there, rather than farther north. One of the most prominent tumuli in the area, called Sivri Tepe, is also found here. In addition, this site is very close to the ancient town of Achilleion, which was branded for its proximity to the resting place of Achilles. The archaeological and written record suggests Achilleion was settled from the 6th century BCE to the 2nd century BCE. This would mean its settlers thought Achilles was buried nearby. It's possible Alexander the Great visited this site, suggesting it was widely regarded as the tomb of Achilles in the Classical world. Interestingly, Mycenaean age artifacts and burial remains have been discovered nearby.
- Cons: Since it doesn't overlook the Hellespont, this site does not match Homer's description of Achilles' burial as closely as the Cape Sigeion sites do. It relies on an alternative theory for the location of the Greek fleet that has not yet been backed up by archaeological or literary evidence. Additionally, excavations of Sivri Tepe have not yielded Bronze Age materials. The Mycenaean-era artifacts discovered nearby were part of a cemetery of 135 people who appear to be local to the area, rather than invading soldiers from the Greek mainland.
See the map below for a better understanding of the layout. Another map, as well as photos of the various tumuli, can be seen here.
So where does this leave us? None of the tumuli in the Troad region contain artifacts consistent with a late Bronze Age warrior like Achilles. Without that link, one can only assume that these tombs of Achilles were invented, either optimistically or cynically, by later peoples. Troy and its surrounding tumuli were tourist attractions in antiquity and it made sense for settlers to take advantage of that. Whoever could plausible claim the tombs of Achilles, Patroclus, Ajax, and others had a valuable asset.
Just because these proposed tombs don't connect to Mycenaean times doesn't mean the tomb of Achilles doesn't exist. It could be that the strong winds around the shoreline and the weather have eroded any remains of the tomb. Or maybe vandalism and thievery removed all the evidence. It's also possible that archeologists just haven't found the right spot yet, and the tomb of Achilles is somewhere nearby Troy, just waiting to be excavated. And there is one other possibility - one that leads us down the strangest, and most surprising, path in this entire maze.
The White Island
As we read earlier, Homer's account of the funeral and burial of Achilles places his remains under a tumulus on the shores outside of Troy. It's very straight forward. However, this is not the only ancient account of Achilles' burial. A much lesser-known poem called the Aethiopis gives a slightly different version of events.
Although the poem itself was lost, we have fragments of a summary from ancient times. In these fragments, Achilles' mother Thetis intervenes in the funeral proceedings and "snatches him (Achilles) off the pyre and carries her son over to the White Island". In Greek mythology, the White Island (also known as Leuke) was an island reserved for the souls of the heroes of the Trojan War. Thought to be located somewhere on the edges of the known world, this island was similar to other locations where the ancient Greeks believed heroes lived in the afterlife, such as the Elysium Fields and the Isles of the Blessed. Achilles, the greatest of these heroes, was believed to have presided over the souls of the lesser heroes on Leuke.
While Homer's epics are typically regarded as older than the Aethiopis, there is an argument that the tradition reflected in the Aethiopis predates that of Homer. From the standpoint of ancient Greek religion generally, it appears more likely that a hero of Achilles' stature would have ended up on the immortal island as opposed to the Underworld, as described in Homer's Odyssey. Achilles may have been depicted in the Underworld because it was a better fit for Homer's message of the finality and sadness of death. In other words, the idea of Achilles ending up on the White Island may have been more widely subscribed to than Homer's version.
So the tradition of Achilles on the White Island likely had at least as much credence in ancient myth as Achilles in the Underworld. But is there any historical evidence of this White Island? Strangely enough, yes. There is an island in the Black Sea that ancient peoples believed to be Leuke.
Archaeological and written evidence also makes it clear that Achilles commanded a prominent hero cult near the Black Sea in ancient times. This hero cult appears to have been even more widely embraced than that at any tumulus near Troy.
Hero cult was a religious practice of ancient Greece that existed independently of the Homeric epics. It involved making sacrifices and paying homage to mortals who were believed to have attained a special status in the afterlife. Typically, hero cults happened at or near the tombs of these heroes, as this offered the closest earthly connection to their soul. Sometimes, the ghosts, or shades, or these heroes would allegedly appear to worshippers near their tombs.
Artifacts honoring Achilles have been found at multiple sites in the Black Sea region (known historically as the Euxine) dating to between the 6th century BCE and the 3rd century AD. Achilles was worshipped at the Milesian colony of Olbia as well as an island in the middle of the Black Sea starting in the Archaic period, and on a strand-like land formation southeast of Olbia. Despite this cult's prevalence, the cult of Achilles in the Euxine region is not widely known in the Western world because most of the information about it in modern times was originally published in Russian.
The most famous place of Achilles worship was Leuke (the White Island), which ancient peoples actually identified as a small, mostly flat island in the northern Black Sea, 50 kilometers southeast of the Istros river delta (depicted below). It was believed Achilles’ immortal self lived on this island, which was named for the color of its cliffs and the many snakes and birds which lived there. According to legend, the ghost of Achilles appeared to sailors passing nearby. Greek historian Arrian wrote:
“Some say that Achilles appeared to them on their ships as they approached the white island, just as the Dioskouroi (demigods who, according to myth, protected sailors) are wont to do. But Achilles is less powerful than the Dioskouri, for they appear to sailors everywhere, and can assist them in a crisis, while Achilles only appears to those who are approaching the white island.”
Sailors also claimed to have seen Achilles running through the island in his armor and that they could hear his singing as they approached the island.
A variety of ancient sources reference the island, claiming that it was home to a temple dedicated to Achilles, as well an oracle, treasury, and statue. Have historians verified any of these claims? That's where things get interesting.
In 1823, Captain Kritzikly of the Black Sea Fleet of the Russian Empire visited the island and discovered the ruins of a square temple approximately 30 ft on all sides. There was also a wooden cult statue of Achilles that depicted him making love with Helen (whose romance with Paris helped spark the Trojan War, according to myth). At this time, the walls of the temple were still standing, so Kritzikly was able to create a map of the temple and record detailed findings.
In the 1840’s the island was explored again, but it was discovered that the construction of a lighthouse in the same spot had completely destroyed the temple and any surrounding structures. With so much of the evidence lost, historians became reliant on the accounts of Captain Kritzikly and other earlier visitors to understand what the temple had looked like.
Very few historians or archeologists have had access to the island in recent times. The general consensus of the handful of experts with knowledge on this subject is that there were multiple temples, likely dedicated to Achilles, built on Leuke starting in the 6th century BCE. Many questions about Leuke and the significance of Achilles in the area remain.
When did the tradition connecting Achilles and Patroclus to Leuke begin? Is it possible the story stretched back into the Bronze Age? Similarly, who introduced the hero cult of Achilles to the Euxine region and why? Was this cult based strictly on the story of the Aethiopis or is there another reason? And what about the artifacts and ruins discovered on Leuke? Were this island's shrines and temples merely meant to honor Achilles, or is it possible his remains were actually buried nearby? How much, if any, evidence remains on this remote island? Is it possible something could be linked to the Bronze Age?
There are many fascinating threads one can unravel when searching for the tomb of Achilles. Unfortunately, none of these clues, neither in the Troad nor Euxine, have lead to a tomb of a Bronze Age warrior that could possibly be Achilles. The mystery remains unsolved.
My best guess, having never visited these areas, is that the tumulus of Achilles - if there really was one at all - is likely hidden from the naked eye. Over thousands of years, the original mound has been eroded and blended back into the natural topography. One would have to be very lucky to find it.
I'm also curious to learn more about the White Island and what was actually on it. It seems unlikely that Achilles' remains were really brought there after his death, but the historicity behind Greek myths have been surprising scholars for a few hundred years. Regardless of whether Achilles' tomb can be found there or not, the island's strange history almost begs us to keep searching.
- "Tumuli of Achilles", Jonathan S. Burgess
- Life of Alexander, Plutarch (Penguin Edition)
- The Odyssey, Homer (translated by Samuel Butler)
- Achilles in the Underworld: Iliad, Odyssey, and Aethiopis by Anthony T. Edwards
- The Epic Cycle, translated by Gregory Nagy
- The Temple of Achilles on the Island of Leuke in the Black Sea by Anna S. Rusyaeva
- Livius.org: The Plain of Troy