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Achilles‘ Teachers: Chiron and Phoenix in the Iliad

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 September 2009


One feature of the ancient accounts of Achilles' early life in Thessaly is the consistently important part played by Chiron the wise and just centaur. Hesiod tells us that Chiron dwelt on Mount Pelion and taught a number of mythical figures like Achilles, Jason, Medeius, and Actaeon. Indeed Hesiod's interest in Chiron seems to have extended to his writing of a work on the subject of Chiron's teachings, of which there is some minimal fragmentary evidence (The Precepts of Chiron). There are various versions of his role in Achilles' early life, including one that Peleus entrusted his young son to the care of Chiron shortly after his separation from Thetis. This version is not entirely incompatible with what we find in Homer's Iliad(see below), and appears to be the subject of the earliest (fragmentary) iconographical evidence dating from the seventh century B.C. The general picture we get from the ancient sources is that Chiron essentially brings up the boy and gives him an education that includes music, medicine, horses, hunting, and martial arts. These skills prove to be invaluable in Achilles' heroic career including the war at Troy where he excels in virtually every aspect of his endeavours.

Research Article
Copyright © The Classical Association 1997

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1. For Achilles as the student of Chiron on Mount Pelion, Hesiod, , Cat. fr. 204.87ff.Google Scholar, Merkelbach, and West, , Fragmenta Hesiodea (Oxford, 1967)Google Scholar; , Pind.Pyth. 6.21–3Google Scholar, Nem. 3.43–58; cf. Hesiod, , Cat. 40.2 (Jason)Google Scholar; Theog. 1001 (Medeius). See too Janko, R., ‘P.OXY. 2509: Hesiod's Catalogue on the Death of Actaeon’, Phoenix 38 (1984), 299307CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2. See Pausanias 9.31.5; for one fragment of the text, M–W (above n. 1), fr. 283.

3. Proto-Attic Peleus-Chiron amphora in Berlin; UMC Vol. 1 s.v. ‘Achilleus’, pl. 21. On the question of the separation of Peleus and Thetis, and the rather contradictory evidence in the Iliad, see Janko, , The Iliad: a Commentary Volume IV: Books 13–16 (Cambridge, 1992), ad 16.220–32Google Scholar.

4. For the ancient sources, Escher, J., RE 111 2 (1899), 2302–8Google Scholar, s.v. ‘Chiron’.

5. For a detailed treatment, see Janko's note (above n. 3) to 16.130–54.

6. Something which is indicated by his use of the patronymic 'Aσκληπίδῃ (11.614). On the brothers Machaon and Podalirius, see Kirk, G. S., The Iliad: a Commentary Volume I Books 1–4 (Cambridge, 1987), ad. 4. 193–4Google Scholar.

7. On the subject of the introduction of Phoenix as Achilles' teacher, von Scheliha, R., Patroklos: Gedanken über Homers Dichtung und Gestalten (Basel, 1943), 222 ffGoogle Scholar.; Kullmann, W., Die Quellen der Ilias (Wiesbaden, 1960), 371Google Scholar.

8. Janko (above n. 3), ad 16.141–4, argues that ‘by suppressing Kheiron in favour of Peleus, Homer is able to reinforce the leitmotif of the aged father, vital to the whole poem’.

9. Contrast Rhodius, Apollonius, Argonautica 1.553ffGoogle Scholar. in which Chiron and his wife come down from Pelion to farewell the Argonauts bearing the young child Achilles.

10. Most prominently, Page, D. L., History and the Homeric Iliad (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1959), 297304Google Scholar.

11. Hainsworth, Bryan, The Iliad: a Commentary Volume III: Books 9–12 (Cambridge, 1993), ad 9.442CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12. Griffin, Jasper, ‘The Epic Cycle and the Uniqueness of Homer’, JHS 97 (1977), 3953CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13. Rutherford, R. B., Homer (Oxford, 1996), 3Google Scholar.

14. =9.253. In a short space of time Odysseus, Phoenix, and Nestor apply maximum pressure to Achilles and Patroclus.

15. On these passages and their part in the poetic tradition, see Hoekstra, A., Homeric Modifications of Formulaic Prototypes (Amsterdam, 1965), 40 fGoogle Scholar.

16. For the youth and immaturity of Telemachus in the early books see, inter alia, 1.88ff., 296 ff.; 2.253ff.; 3.22–4; 4.638ff., 663ff. For the later maturity of Telemachus, 15.24–6, 125ff.; 18.175–6, 215ff., 267ff.; 19.88, 158ff., 530 ff.; 21.128. Telemachus has many self doubts about his identity at the start (1.214ff.), but is the proud son of Odysseus when he returns (15.265ff.). One aspect of this is the parallel of Orestes (1.41, 298 ff.; 3.195ff, 303 ff.; 4.91 ff., 512ff; 11.387ff.). For a contrary argument, that Telemachus' coming of age occurs in Book 1, see West's, Stephanie commentary, in Heubeck, , West, and Hainsworth, , A Commentary on Homer's Odyssey, Volume 1 (Oxford, 1990), 67ffGoogle Scholar.

17. Cf. the feminine adjective κυδιάνειρα used of μάχη (Il. 4.225 etc.), and ἀγορή (1.490). One aspect of Thersites' baseness is his perceived weakness in the fighting and in counsel (2.202).

18. For Asclepius in Hesiod, frs. 50, 51, 53, 58, 60 M–W (above n. 1).

19. See Dabasis, I., χέιρων ὁ κένταυρος ἰατρός Platon 22 (1970), 211–22Google Scholar; Brookes, Ian, ‘The Death of Chiron: Ovid, Fasti 5.379–414’, CQ (1994), 447–8Google Scholar.

20. It is worth noting that in the Iliad (5.192ff.) Pandarus does the opposite. But he is on the Trojan side, and is a truce-breaker at that.

21. In Apollonius, of Rhodes', Argonautica 1.88Google Scholar, Odysseus' bow is a gift of Apollo (cf. that of Pandarus, at Il. 2.827)Google Scholar, a notion that is quite plausible for the Odyssey too, although unstated; see Francis, E. D., Image and Idea in Fifth Century Greece (London and New York, 1990), 76 ffGoogle Scholar. The point is that in both Homeric epics the origin of the crucial weapon (Achilles' spear/Odysseus' bow) is a matter of some importance.

22. On the social roles of singers, Finnegan, Ruth, Oral Poetry (Cambridge, 1977), 188201Google Scholar.

23. For the similarities between Achilles and Apollo as a factor in divine hostility, Burkert, W., ‘Apellai und Apollon’, Rheinisches Museum 118 (1975), 19Google Scholar; Nagy, Gregory, The Best of the Achaeans (Baltimore, 1979), 142ffGoogle Scholar.; Clay, Jenny Strauss, The Wrath of Athena (Princeton, 1983), 181–2Google Scholar; Rabel, Robert J., ‘Apollo as a model for Achilles in the Iliad”, A£P 111 (1990), 429–40Google Scholar.

24. See, for instance, Horace, , Epodes 13Google Scholar; Ovid, , Ars 1.11Google Scholar, ‘Phillyrides puerum cithara perfecit Achillem’, and Fasti, 5.385 ff. On this subject, see Kossatz-Deissmann's, A. section ‘Unterricht im Leierspiel’, LIMC Vol. 1, s.v. ‘Achilleus’, 4850Google Scholar.

25. See Hainsworth's summary (above n. 11), ad loc. Despite his obvious ability as a speaker, Achilles' frustration in the assemblies is apparent throughout (cf. 1.230; 9.312ff.; 9.375–6). Likewise he states his rejection of warfare (9.316ff..; cf. πολεμίζειν, 322; πολεμίζων 326; πολεμιζέμεναι, 337). The misguided response of Phoenix is to affirm his own role as Achilles', teacher of the very things that he rejects (i.e., debate and warfare, 9.438–41)Google Scholar.

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