Philostratus-From The ‘Heroicus’-An Evocation Of The Homeric Hero Achilles

‘The Psychostasia, or weighing of the souls, of Achilles and Memnon’, by Johann Heinrich Füssli (1741–1825). Grey, brown and pink washes over pencil.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from Lucius Flavius Philostratus’ ‘Heroicus’ in the English translation of Jennifer K. Berenson Maclean and Ellen Bradshaw Aitken, WGRW 3 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002), XX. Full text and notes are freely available on-line at Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies. Philostratus was a Greek sophist of the Roman imperial period.

Our focus is about the lengthy evocation of Achilles and the precise manner how Homer conceived and told his story, as written by Philostratus.

The ‘Heroicus’ (On Heroes, 213–214 AD) is in the form of a dialogue between a Phoenician traveler and a vine-tender or groundskeeper (ἀμπελουργός ampelourgos), regarding Protesilaus (or “Protosilaos”), the first Achaean warrior to be killed at the siege of Troy, as described in the Iliad. The dialogue extends into a discussion and critique of Homer’s presentation of heroes and gods, based on the greater authority of the dead Protosileus, who lives after death and communicates with the ampelourgos.  (From Wikipedia)


…/…VINEDRESSER: …The godly and noble hero narrates so much concerning the Trojans, my guest. It remains for us, perhaps, to conclude the story of Achilles, unless you have tired of its length.

[43] PHOENICIAN: If they who in Homer ate the lotus, vinedresser, were so readily addicted to the meadow as to forget utterly their own affairs, do not doubt that I also am addicted to the story just as to the lotus, and I would not even go away from here willingly, but would be carried off to the ship with difficulty and would be bound again to it, weeping and lamenting at not getting my fill of the story. For truly, you have so disposed me even toward Homer’s poems that, although I thought they seemed divine and beyond the capability of a mortal, I am now amazed more not only at the epic poetry, even if some pleasure pervades Homer’s poems, but to a much greater degree at the names of the heroes and their lineages, and, by Zeus, how each of them obtained the lot of killing a certain person or of dying at the hand of another.

For I do not think it amazing that Protesilaos knows these things, since he is now a daimon, but from where does knowledge of Euphorbus come to Homer, and of such men as Helenos and Deiphobos, and, by Zeus, of the many men of the opposing army whom he mentions in the catalogue? Protesilaos testifies that Homer did not invent these things, but that he made a narrative of deeds that had happened and were genuine, except for a few of them, which he rather seems to transform purposefully so that his poetry appears elaborate and more pleasurable. Hence, that which is said by some, that Apollo, after composing these poems signed the name “Homer” to the work, seems to me to be greatly confirmed, since knowing these stories is more fitting for a god than for a mortal.

VINEDR: That the gods are guides to the poets of every song, my guest, the poets themselves, I suppose, confess: some invoke Calliope to be present in their story, others all the Muses, and still others Apollo in addition to the nine Muses. Homer’s poems were not uttered without the aid of a god, but surely they were not sung by Apollo or the Muses themselves.

For he existed, my guest, the poet Homer existed and sang twenty-four years after the Trojan War, as some say; but others say one hundred and twenty-seven years afterwards, when they colonized Ionia until the time of Homer and Hesiod, when both of them sang in Chalcis. The former sang the seven epics about the two Ajaxes, how their ranks of battle were joined closely together and strong, and the latter sang songs about the affairs of his own brother, Perses, songs in which he urges Perses to engage in work and to devote himself to farming, so that he will not beg from others or go hungry. The following events of Homer’s time, my guest, are quite true since Protesilaos agrees with them. Once, at any rate, after two poets had recited a song in praise of him here and had gone away, the hero came and asked me for which one of them I would cast my vote.

When I praised the simpler one (for he happened to have won the contest by far), Protesilaos laughed and said, “Panides too had the same experience as you did, vinedresser. When that man was king of Chalcis on the Euripos, he voted for Hesiod over Homer, and this when his beard was longer than yours.” So then, my guest, the poet Homer existed, and these are the poems of a mortal. He used to sing their names and collect their deeds from the cities that each of them led. Homer went about Hellas after the time of the Trojan War, when it was not yet long enough for the events at Troy to have faded away. He also learned these things in another manner as well, a manner both supernatural and requiring the utmost skill. For they say that Homer once sailed to Ithaca because he heard that the ghost of Odysseus still breathed, and they say that Homer summoned him from the dead.

When Odysseus came up, Homer began asking him about the events in Ilion, but Odysseus kept saying that although he knew and remembered them all, he would say nothing of the things he knew unless there would be a reward for him from Homer, songs of praise in his poetry and a song for his wisdom and bravery. After Homer agreed to these things and said that in his poetry he would do whatever he could to favor him, Odysseus narrated everything truthfully and just as it happened. For you see, the ghosts of the dead least of all speak falsely in the presence of blood and offering pits. Moreover, just when Homer was leaving, Odysseus cried out and said, “Palamedes is demanding justice from me for his own murder! I know I did wrong, and I am completely persuaded of it. Those who issue judgments here are terrible, Homer, and the punishments of the Poinai are near at hand! If to mortals above the ground I do not seem to have done these things to Palamedes, the forces here will destroy me less. Do not lead Palamedes to Ilion, neither treat him as a soldier nor say that he was wise! Other poets will say these things, but because they have not been said by you, they will not seem plausible.” This, my guest, was the conversation between Odysseus and Homer, and in this way Homer learned the truth, but he modified many things for the expediency of the account that he composed.

[44] PHOEN: Vinedresser, did you ever ask Protesilaos about Homer’s homeland and from what people he came?

VINEDR: Very often, my guest.

PHOEN: What was his answer?

VINEDR: Protesilaos says that he knows them. Because Homer omitted them in order that the excellent men of the cities might make him their own citizen, and perhaps also because the decree of the Fates was against Homer, he seems to be without a city. Protesilaos says that he himself would not please either the Fates or the Muses if he disclosed this secret, since it would then come around to praise for Homer. For all cities ally themselves with him, and all peoples, and they would also plead their case about him against one another, when they enter themselves in the public register with Homer as a citizen. Phoenician, let what I have said be proof to you that I would neither keep this story secret from you nor hide it if I knew it. For I think that I have ungrudgingly divulged to you as much as I know.

PHOEN: I believe you, vinedresser. Let us agree with the reason why these matters are kept silent. It is time for you to bring Achilles to light, unless he will also strike us with panic, just as he did the Trojans, when he shone forth on them from the trench.

[45] VINEDR: Do not be afraid of Achilles, my guest, because you will meet him as a child at the beginning of the story.

PHOEN: You will bestow great gifts if you discuss him in detail from infancy, since after this we shall perhaps meet him armed and fighting.

VINEDR: So shall it be, and you will say that you know everything about Achilles. I have heard the following about him. An apparition of a daimon of the sea used to visit Peleus. Because she loved him, the daimon had intercourse with Peleus, although out of shame for the crowd she did not yet speak about herself, not even from where she came. When the sea was calm, she happened to be frolicking seated upon dolphins and sea horses, while he, looking at these things from the summit of Mount Pelion, became aware of the goddess and feared her approach. But she made Peleus courageous by reminding him how Eos loved Tithonos, how Aphrodite was in love with Anchises, and how Selene habitually visited the sleeping Endymion. “Peleus,” she said, “I shall even give to you a child mightier than a mortal.” When Achilles was born, they made Kheiron his foster-father. He fed him honeycombs and the marrow of fawns. When Achilles reached the age at which children need wagons and knucklebones, he did not prohibit such games, but accustomed him to small javelins, darts, and race courses. Achilles also had a small ashen spear hewn by Kheiron, and he seemed to babble about military affairs. When he became an ephebe, a brightness radiated from his face, and his body was beyond natural size, since he grew more easily than do trees near springs.

He was celebrated much at symposia and much in serious endeavors. When he appeared to yield to anger, Kheiron taught him music. Music was enough to tame the readiness and rising of his disposition. Without exertion, he thoroughly learned the musical modes, and he sang to the accompaniment of a lyre. He used to sing of the ancient comrades, Hyacinthus and Narcissus, and something about Adonis. And the lamentations for Hyllas and Abderos being fresh — since, when both were ephebes, the one was carried into a spring until he disappeared, and upon the other the horses of Diomedes feasted — not without tears did he sing of these matters. I also heard the following things: that he sacrificed to Calliope asking for musical skill and mastery of poetic composition, and that the goddess appeared to him in his sleep and said, “Child, I give you enough musical and poetic skill that you might make banquets more pleasant and lay sufferings to rest. But since it seems both to me and to Athena that you are skilled in war and powerful even in dangerous situations {in army camps}, the Fates command thus: practice those skills and desire them as well. There will be a poet in the future whom I shall send forth to sing your deeds.” This was prophesied to him about Homer.

When he became a young lad, he was not, as many say, reared in hiding on Skyros, of all things among young maidens! It is not likely that Peleus, who had become the best of heroes, would have sent away his son somewhere secretly, running from battles and dangers. Moreover, when Telamon sent Ajax forth to war, Achilles would not have put up with being thrown into women’s quarters, yielding to others the opportunity to be admired and highly esteemed in Troy. Clearly, the greatest ambition for honor was also found in him.

[46] PHOEN: What then does Protesilaos know about these events, vinedresser?

VINEDR: Things more plausible and truthful, my guest. He says that after Theseus had fled from Athens because of the curse against his son, he died in Skyros by the hand of Lykomedes. Peleus, who had been Theseus’s guest-friend and companion in the Calydonian deed, sent Achilles to Skyros to avenge Theseus. And after he set sail together with Phoenix, who by reason of old age knew only the deliberative arts, he overthrew Skyros, which was on high ground away from attack after it had been rebuilt on a rocky hill. He guarded Lykomedes and indeed did not kill him, but asked him what possessed him to kill a man better than himself. When Lykomedes said, “Because, Achilles, he came for unjust reasons and made an attempt on my dominion,” Achilles released him, since he killed Theseus justly, and said that he would speak in his defense to Peleus.        Achilles married Deidameia, daughter of Lykomedes, and there was born to them Neoptolemos, who was named this because of Achilles’ youth when he rushed forward into war.

Thetis appeared to Achilles while he was living there,  and she attended to her son just as mortal mothers do. When the army was assembling at Aulis, she carried him over to Phthia because of the fates spun for him when she made Peleus the child’s master. It is said that she also made for him weapons such as no one had yet carried. When he arrived at Aulis with these, he filled the army with hope; he was in this way so esteemed as a child of a goddess that they sacrificed to Thetis on the sea and worshipped Achilles when he darted about in his armor. I also asked Protesilaos about the ashen spear — what its wonder was — and he says that the length of this spear was unlike that of any other, that the wooden shaft was straight and strengthened to such an extent that it could not be broken. The point of the spear was of unbreakable metal and could penetrate anything, and the spike on the other end of the shaft had been dipped in mountain copper, so that the whole spear would strike blazing like lightning.

[47] PHOEN: And his armor, vinedresser, how does he say it was decorated?

VINEDR: Not in the way that Homer when he depicted cities, stars, wars, fields, weddings, and songs, but the following is what Protesilaos says about it. The armor of Achilles has never been anything other than what he brought to Troy, neither was Achilles’ armor ever destroyed, nor did Patroklos put it on because of Achilles’ wrath. He says that Patroklos died in his own armor while distinguishing himself in battle and just grasping the wall, and the armor of Achilles remained inviolable and unassailable. Achilles did not even die in his armor, but thinking that he was going to his wedding, he died unarmed and wreathed with a crown just like bridegrooms. Protosilaos says that the armor was fashioned without distinguishing marks and discreetly, and that a variety of material was blended together on it which changed sometimes into one sheen, sometimes into another, like a rainbow. For this reason, the armor is celebrated in song as seeming to be beyond the skill even of Hephaistos.

[48] PHOEN: Will you portray Achilles, vinedresser, and describe him from his appearance?

VINEDR: Why shouldn’t I, since I have met you who are so fond of listening? Protesilaos says that Achilles’ hair is thick, lovelier than gold, and becoming no matter where and how either the wind or he himself may move it. His nose is not quite aquiline, but almost so; his brow is crescent-shaped. The spirit in his eyes, which are bluish-gray, casts off a certain eagerness even when he is still; when he is rushing on, they spring out along with his purpose, and then he seems more lovely than ever to those who cherish him. The Achaeans were affected by him as by strong lions. For although we greet lions at rest, we are even more pleased with them whenever, after beginning to be filled with anger, they rush headlong at a boar, a bull, or one of the bellicose beasts.

Protesilaos says Achilles’ courage is evident even from his neck, since it is straight and erect. By nature and through association with Kheiron, he became the most just of the heroes. I tell you, being filled with suspicion about possessions accompanied Achilles from then on. For he was so set against them that, from the twenty-three cities that he himself captured, although he took the most prisoners of war, he was able to resist all of them except for a maiden, whom he did not even give to himself, but asked the Achaeans for her. When Nestor charged the Achaeans with injustice unless Achilles should receive the most possessions, Achilles said, “Let the greater part of the deed be mine, and let whoever wishes be greedy for possessions.”

At that assembly, my guest, Achilles’ anger toward Agamemnon on behalf of Palamedes also began. When recalling the cities that the two of them had captured, he said, “Such was the treason of Palamedes, and let whoever wishes condemn me as well since I have come from the same cities.” Agamemnon took these words to be directed against him, and he railed against Achilles said that speaking on behalf of a traitor was treason, Achilles drove him out of the assembly because he said things that were not welcome even to the Achaeans. After attacking Agamemnon with greater insults, he led a life out of the reach of missiles of war, neither doing any deed for the common good nor visiting war councils when supplications for him arrived from Agamemnon because the Achaeans were already in great distress. Both Ajax and Nestor acted as ambassadors, the former because of their kinship and because he had already been reconciled with the Achaeans even though he had been angry for the same reasons that Achilles was angry; the latter on account of his sound judgment and age, which all the Achaeans honored.

When they discovered from him that Patroklos at least was allied with them, Patroklos, who both did and suffered as many things as Homer says, died fighting at Troy neither did anything ignoble toward him nor spoke against him. And after he bewailed him vigorously and buried him both as he himself wished and as he thought would also please Patroklos, he then advanced against Hektor.

Johann Heinrich Füssli (1741–1825), ‘Achilles Sacrificing his Hair on the Funeral Pyre’.

Indeed, the hyperboles that Homer used about those who perished with their chariots whenever Achilles appeared, about those who were slain in the river, and about the movement of the river, when its own wave rose up against Achilles — these hyperboles even Protesilaos commends as poetic, but he excludes them as gratuitous. He says that neither against Achilles, although he was so great, would the Scamander have been at a loss and weaker than the mighty rivers in this encounter, nor would Achilles have rushed headlong against the river. For even if it had roared violently against him, he would have avoided it by turning away and not moving close to the water. Protesilaos, I believe, recounts those events more plausibly than Homer. He says that the Trojans were driven together into the river, and more of them perished than had in the entire war; surely these deeds were not done by Achilles alone, but since the Hellenes had already been made confident by his presence, they went down against the Trojans and slaughtered them in the river. He says that Achilles was heedless of these things, but contended for a prize in the following contest.

There was a man who had come from Paionia, whom Homer also remembered. He calls him Asteropaios, a grandson of the river Axios, and ambidextrous. Although the Paionian was the mightiest of both the Achaeans and the Trojans and rushed into the spears like a wild beast, Homer disregarded this story. Having just arrived at Troy, he led a fresh force, the Paionian horsemen, whom Achilles repulsed by frightening them; they thought that a daimon had fallen upon them because they had not yet encountered such a man. When Asteropaios alone stood his ground, Achilles feared for himself more than when he fought with Hektor, and he did not go unwounded when he killed the Paionian. For this reason, when the allies forbade him to fight with Hektor on that day, he did not endure these words, but as he said, “Let him see that I am even mightier than my wounds,” he rushed headlong against Hektor who was stationed before the wall. After he killed him, who was such as I described in the story about him, Achilles dragged him around the wall in a manner which, while barbarous and unpleasant, was pardonable, since he was avenging Patroklos.

For Achilles, while possessed with a certain supernatural nature, always did something great for his friends; for this reason he was angry together with all the Hellenes on account of Palamedes and avenged Patroklos and Antilokhos. It is especially necessary to know what Achilles is reported to have said to Telamonian Ajax about his friends, for afterwards, when Ajax asked him what sort of deeds were most dangerous to him, Achilles said, “Those on behalf of friends.” Again, when asked what sort were both sweeter and less troublesome, he gave the same answer. When Ajax wondered how the same deed might be both difficult and easy, he said, “Because when on behalf of friends I readily take risks that are great, I cease from grieving for them.” “But what sort of wound hurt you the most, Achilles?” Ajax asked. “The wound that I received from Hektor.” “And yet surely you were not wounded by him,” said Ajax. “By Zeus, he wounded my head and my hands,” said Achilles, “for I consider you my own head, and Patroklos was my hands.”

[49] My guest, Protesilaos says that Patroklos, although he was not much older than Achilles, was a divine and sensible man, the most suitable companion for Achilles. He said that Patroklos rejoiced whenever Achilles also rejoiced, was distressed in the same manner, was always giving some advice when he sang. Protesilaos says that even his horses carried Patroklos safe and sound, just as they did Achilles. In size and bravery he was between the two Ajaxes. He fell short of the son of Telamon in all things, but he surpassed both the size and bravery of the son of Locris. Patroklos had an olive complexion, black eyes, and sufficiently fine eyebrows, and he commended moderately long hair. His head stood upon his neck as the wrestling schools cultivate. His nose was straight, and he flared his nostrils as eager horses do.

[50] PHOEN: It is good that you have reminded me of Achilles’ horses, vinedresser, because I really need to know why, even if they were better than other horses, they were deemed divine.

VINEDR: I have asked the hero this very question, my guest, and he says that their so-called immortality is a fiction told by Homer. He reports, however, that when Achilles was in the bloom of youth, Thessaly, because it was both famed for its horses and noble, with some divine help nurtured two horses, one white and one chestnut, marvelous in their speed and magnificent in their disposition. And because everyone believed what was spoken by divine providence about Achilles, it immediately seemed that the nature of the horses was divine and appeared to surpass the mortal.

[51] Achilles’ life came to an end, which Homer also knows. He says that Achilles died at the hands of both Paris and Apollo, knowing, I suppose, what happened in Thymbraion, and how Achilles fell, murdered treacherously while engaged in sacrifices and sacred oaths, of which he made Apollo a witness. The sacrifice of Polyxena on his tomb and Achilles’ passion for her, which you hear from the poets, happened like this: Achilles loved Polyxena and was negotiating this marriage for himself with the understanding that he would make the Achaeans withdraw from Ilion. Polyxena also loved Achilles; they had seen one another during the ransom negotiations for Hektor. For when Priam came to Achilles, he made his own child lead him by the hand, since she was the youngest of those Hekabe had borne for him. (Younger children always used to assist their fathers’ step.) And thus Achilles so displayed a certain self-control by his sense of justice, even in his amorous desires, that he did not abduct the girl, even though she was under his power, but promised Priam a marriage with her and trusted him when he delayed the wedding. After he died unarmed, uttering oaths about these matters, Polyxena, as the Trojan women were fleeing from the sanctuary and the Trojan men were scattered (they did not even carry away Achilles’ corpse without fear), is said to have deserted and fled to the Hellenic army. Polyxena was taken to live in Agamemnon’s excellent and discreet care, just as in the house of her father. But when Achilles’ body had already been buried for three days, she ran to the tomb at night and leaned upon a sword while speaking many words of pity and marriage. At this time she also asked Achilles to remain her lover and to take her in marriage lest their marriage be proved false.

Protesilaos says that what is said by Homer in the second Weighing of Souls, if indeed those verses are by Homer, that after Achilles died the Muses lamented him with songs and the Nereids by beating their breasts, is not too big a boast. Protesilaos says that the Muses neither arrived nor sang, nor did any Nereids appear to the army, although they were known to have come, but that other wondrous events took place and they were not very different from those reported by Homer. From the Melas gulf the sea, swelling up, first of all bellowed, and after a short time, having risen up to a great crest, it advanced to Rhoiteion, while the Achaeans were amazed and perplexed by what both they themselves and the earth were about to suffer. When the sea came closer and dashed against the camp, a piercing and incessant lament resounded like that which a throng of women utter in mourning. Because this event seemed godlike and supernatural, and because all agreed that the wave carried the Nereids (for it did not flood the land, but came to rest upon the earth gently and smoothly), the subsequent events seemed far more divine. For when darkness followed next, Thetis’s lamentation went through the army, as she shrieked and cried aloud for her son. She made a {greatly} piercing and ringing shout exactly like an echo in the mountains, and then the Achaeans especially understood that Thetis bore Achilles, although they did not believe otherwise.

This hill, my guest, which you see standing in line with the headland, the Achaeans erected when they came together at the time when Achilles was united with Patroklos in the tomb and bequeathed to himself and that man the loveliest shroud. For this reason they who praise the marks of friendship sing of him. He was buried most spectacularly of mortals with all that Hellas offered to him.

The Hellenes no longer considered it proper after Achilles’ death to wear their hair long, and they piled up in mass on a funeral pyre their gold and whatever each of them had, whether he had brought it to Troy or had taken it as booty, both right then and when Neoptolemos came to Troy. For Achilles obtained glorious gifts again from both his child and the Achaeans, who were trying to show in return their gratitude to him, and even those who made the voyage from Troy fell upon the tomb and believed that they were embracing Achilles.


‘Thetis Mourning the Body of Achilles’: 1780, by Johann Heinrich Füssli (1741-1825). Brush and brown and brownish-red wash, over graphite, on cream laid paper.







More about Philostratus: 🌿Source of the English Text: 🌿For the Original Greek text: 🌿 More about Achilles:
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