The Song of Achilles

by Madeline Miller

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The Song of Achilles Summary

The Song of Achilles is a 2011 novel, partially based on the Iliad, about the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles before and during the Trojan War.

  • Patroclus and Achilles, both Greek princes, grow up together in Phthia and become inseparable, eventually falling in love.
  • When Achilles is summoned to fight in the Trojan War, Patroclus goes with him and serves as a healer for the Greek army.
  • After Patroclus is killed by the Trojan prince Hector, Achilles kills Hector, only to be killed in turn by Hector’s brother Paris. Patroclus and Achilles are reunited in the underworld.

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

The Song of Achilles takes place in ancient Greece, beginning about a decade before the Trojan War. Patroclus, a Greek prince despised by his father as a weakling, accidentally murders another boy and is exiled to Phthia. He becomes a foster son of King Peleus, whose own son Achilles is already a legend, being the son of the goddess Thetis and the subject of a prophecy that he will become the greatest Greek warrior.

Taking Patroclus as his companion, Achilles becomes close to him. Patroclus falls in love with the other boy. Later, Achilles is sent to Mount Pelion to be educated by the centaur Chiron, and Patroclus follows him. Under Chiron’s teaching, they study all the arts of survival and grow to manhood. The two young men also begin a romantic and sexual relationship.

When they are sixteen, Achilles receives a summons from his father to return to court. The Greek kingdoms are uniting to attack Troy because a Trojan prince has stolen Helen, wife to King Menelaus, and many Greeks are sworn to protect her. Peleus intends to send an army and hopes for Achilles to lead it, but Achilles does not wish to.

Thetis takes Achilles away and hides him on the island of Scyros in the court of King Lycomedes, disguised as a woman in service to the princess, Deidameia. To ensure Deidameia’s cooperation, Thetis marries Achilles to her, and she becomes pregnant with a son. Meanwhile, Patroclus has found Achilles. Unfortunately for them, the Greek kings do as well.

Prince Odysseus of Ithaca tricks Achilles into revealing himself, and they persuade him to go to war by revealing a prophecy that he will never gain fame if he does not fight in Troy. His mother admits that this is true but tells him another prophecy: if he fights at Troy, he will die there. Achilles decides to go, unable to accept the idea of being forgotten, and Patroclus comes with him. Another aspect of the prophecy is that Achilles will outlive Hector, the Trojans’ greatest warrior, so the two know that Achilles must not kill him.

The fleets carrying the Greek armies gather at Aulis, uniting under the banner of Agamemnon, the powerful king who will be their general. Achilles offends Agamemnon by refusing to kneel and swear oaths to him. The fleet cannot sail to Troy because there is no wind, rumored to be due to the goddess Artemis’s displeasure.

Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia, and the wind returns. The fleets depart for Troy. When they arrive, the Trojans are expecting them, but Achilles makes their first encounter a victory for the Greeks. After some debate, the Greeks begin a policy of raiding the villages outside of Troy, pillaging them for resources, attacking the people, and taking the women home with them. One such woman is Briseis, whom Patroclus persuades Achilles to rescue, and they become friends. After some time, Menelaus and Odysseus meet with the Trojan King, Priam, who shows them courtesy but will not agree to give up Helen. The war begins in earnest.

The conflict remains more or less the same for several years, with neither of the evenly matched armies gaining much ground. After four years, some of the Greek soldiers become discontented and rebel against Agamemnon, but Achilles stops them. The Greeks begin a project of constructing a wall around their camp, which makes it seem more like a home to them.

In the ninth year of the war, Agamemnon takes Chryseis, a priest’s daughter, as a war prize. When her father comes to ransom her, Agamemnon treats him...

(This entire section contains 1024 words.)

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with great disrespect, angering the god Apollo, who sends a plague to the Greek camp. After many men die, Achilles calls on Agamemnon to ask a priest how to end the plague. The frightened priest reveals that Agamemnon must return Chryseis without ransom and ask for the god’s forgiveness.

Angry at Achilles for forcing him into this position, Agamemnon agrees but decides to take Briseis, Achilles’s long-ago war prize and Patroclus’s friend, for himself. Doing so shows great disrespect for Achilles’s honor. Knowing that Agamemnon will rape Briseis if he takes her, which will turn the army against him, Achilles lets her be taken. However, Patroclus is determined to prevent this from happening. He reveals Achilles’s plan to Agamemnon and urges him not to rape Briseis for his own sake. Agamemnon agrees.

Meanwhile, Achilles has met with his mother and decided that he is not going to fight for the Greeks until Agamemnon restores his honor. They plan that Thetis will ask Zeus, who has a debt to her, to make the Greeks lose consistently until they see how much they need Achilles. Achilles and Patroclus stay home from battle, and many Greeks die as a consequence.

Invading the Greek camp, the Trojans slaughter many men and begin to burn the ships that are the Greeks’ only way home. A desperate Patroclus begs Achilles to return to battle. When Achilles utterly refuses, Patroclus asks to wear Achilles’s armor and lead his army into battle in his place. Instructing Patroclus not to fight, Achilles agrees. Once in the battle, however, Patroclus begins fighting and is ultimately killed by Hector.

Mad with grief, Achilles charges onto the battlefield and pursues Hector. He kills him and drags the dead warrior’s body behind his chariot. After completing his revenge, Achilles seeks to die and is pleased when he is finally killed in battle. He has asked that his ashes be mingled with those of Patroclus, and this is done.

But before his monument is made, Pyrrhus arrives—Achilles’s son with Deidameia, whom Thetis has raised. He insists that Patroclus’s name not be marked on the tomb, which dooms Patroclus to linger with his ashes rather than being reunited with Achilles in the underworld. Only after much suffering does Patroclus find someone to take pity on him: Thetis, united with him in their grief for her son. She carves Patroclus’s name into the tomb, freeing him for a joyful reunion with Achilles in the underworld.


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