Jonathan S. Burgess
Tumuli of Achilles
Achilles died at Troy and was buried there, ancient myth and poetry agree. After his corpse was burned on a pyre, a great tomb, or tumulus, was heaped up over his bones. But the tumulus of Achilles is not just a mythological motif; it has also been regarded as a real piece of topography in the landscape of the Troad. At times in antiquity rituals were performed at what was considered to be the tomb, in cult worship of the hero. And many famous visitors, such as Alexander the Great, visited the burial place of Achilles to pay their respects. Over the past few centuries, a number of modern visitors have also sought out the tomb of Achilles, as have, more recently, archaeologists—though they often disagreed about which burial mound was the tomb of Achilles. This paper explores the intersections between myth, ritual, politics, and archaeology in reference to the burial site of Achilles. It will become apparent 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.
In Iliad XIII the shade of Patroklos appears to Achilles and tells him that he wishes their bones to be buried together, in a golden urn provided by Thetis. Soon after, when Achilles arranges the burial of Patroklos, he instructs his fellow Greeks to recover the bones of Patroklos, and build a smallish tomb to be enlarged after his death. Though the Iliad ends before the death of Achilles, at the end of the Odyssey the shade of Agamemnon regales the shade of Achilles with an account of Achilles’ death and burial. After the Greeks burned the corpse of Achilles at a magnificent funeral attended by Thetis and her fellow Nereids, the bones of Patroklos and Achilles are put together in the golden urn of Thetis, and a great mound is constructed over their remains. The epic poem Aethiopis also narrated the burial of Achilles and the subsequent building of a funeral mound. Later myth and poetry consistently told that the funeral of Achilles resulted in a great tumulus for him. The tomb of Achilles played a role in other Trojan war episodes, most infamously with the sacrifice of Polyxena.
But Achilles was not just a figure of myth in the ancient world, he was also the recipient of cult worship. In antiquity Achilles was worshipped in very many places, and the forms of his worship were various, but it should cause no surprise that Achilles received ritual attention where he was said to be buried, in the Troad. Suggestive are the Cyclic references to Achilles appearing at his tomb, and especially the sacrifice of Polyxena at Achilles’ tomb. The epiphanies of Achilles seem to reflect cultic belief that a hero’s powers are manifested at his burial spot, and the human sacrifice of the Polyxena story may be a horrifically exaggerated reflection of hero cult, where animal sacrifice is common.
A full and rich description of cult worship of Achilles at his tomb in the Troad is given by Philostratus in the Heroikos. It is reported that Thessalians from the Greek mainland sailed to the Troad each year to practice rituals at the tomb of Achilles. This is cult activity brought into the Troad by outsiders, independently of local inhabitants. The possibility of local cult worship of Achilles is briefly suggested by Strabo, who portrays the inhabitants of Troy as practicing cult worship of Achilles and other Greek heroes. Also suggestive is also the recently found Polyxena sarcophagus, which appears to mix images of funerary ritual with the scene of Polyxena’s sacrifice at Achilles’ tumulus.
The potential political significance of a Troad tumulus of Achilles of mytho-poetic fame and cultic importance was soon recognized. In Herodotus’ account of rivalry between Athens and Mytilene in the Troad, which apparently occurred in the sixth century, Mytilene established a town in the area called “Achilleion” after the Athenians took over Sigeion. This town apparently derived its name from a nearby tumulus identified as that of Achilles, as Strabo and Pliny later confirm. Later a series of political leaders in antiquity went out of their way to visit Troy, and often the tomb of Achilles: Xerxes, Alexander the Great, numerous Roman emperors. The topography of the Troad and its surviving monuments served as a stage for enactment of ideological conceptions of East and West.
The location of the tumulus of Achilles in antiquity is not clear. In Homer it is said to be by the Hellespont and near the Greek camp. Both the camp and the tumulus were regularly placed on the Trojan shore of the Dardanelles. It is often assumed that the Mytilenean town Achilleion links the tumulus of Achilles with Sigeion, since Achilleion is named after a nearby tumulus of Achilles and was founded in response to the Athenian taking of Sigeion. Then again, it is hard to imagine how Achilleion could have been safely situated very close by Sigeion. Flexibility about its location is evident; Euripides may conceive of it on the European side in the Hekabe (conflated with the tomb of Protesilaus?) and Alexander seems to presume separate tumuli for Achilles and Patroclus, which contradicts his beloved Homer.
When Europeans in modern times first began to visit the Troad, they tended to identify a large mound at Cape Sigeion as Achilles’ , and a smaller mound a few hundred meters inland is labeled Patroklos’. An excavation of the presumed tumulus of Achilles was undertaken at the end of the eighteenth century, and nothing was found that argued for a prehistoric date. In the last century a different tumulus has laid claim on the title of Achilles’ tomb. This is Sivri Tepe near Besika Bay, to the south of Cape Sigeion along the coast. Occasionally in the past some thought the tumulus of Achilles may have been located here; in the early 20th century, this localization acquired greater attention because of a new theory that the ships of the Greeks had been moored at Besika Bay, rather than on the shore of the Hellespont. Cook supposed that Sivri Tepe was for the most part Hellenistic in date, though perhaps with a smaller prehistoric form. More recent work by Korfmann and his team has basically confirmed this view, though with much greater precision and authority. This means that though no remains of a Bronze Age hero have been found there, the tumulus was presumably the one that Alexander the Great performed his rituals around. This identification may go back to the Classical period, if recent archaeological work Cape Burun has correctly identified this area as the most likely location of the ancient town Achilleion.
The tumulus of Achilles is a plurality. There were multiple localizations of tumulus of Achilles in antiquity and post-antiquity, with various mytho-poetic, cultic, political, and archaeological motivations for identification of a mound in the Troad as the burial spot of Achilles. The aporia reached in a search for a tumulus of Achilles results not just from a lack of literary or archaeological evidence; it stems from disagreement among the ancients concerning the function of the hero’s tomb. The tumulus had mythological, ritual, and political functions, which visitors could pursue at its location, or what was believed to be the tomb’s location. There were mounds about the area, and one could always be identified as the tumulus of Achilles. Modern travelers and archaeologists have had their own agenda in identifying the tomb, or more credibly, identifying what the ancients thought was the tomb. But the tumulus of Achilles as a single entity is not discoverable.