When we say "Achilles", maybe we should say it in the plural; Achilles was an archetypal hero and there were probably several Achilleses scattered throughout the Aegean. The same goes for "Homer", who was probably an archetype used to generalize the dozens of wandering singers who performed the Iliad and the Odyssey for decades before they were finally written down. And the "Trojan War" probably happened, but obviously Zeus didn't play such a large role, and it's hard to tell if the archetypal Achilles and Agamemnon were based on real people or not.
In fact, it wasn't so long ago that most scholars assumed the Trojan War was nothing but a myth. Actually, I think that was how I was taught the books. Alas, things are changing though. According to an article in the Boston Globe:
"(T)hanks to evidence from a range of disciplines, we are in the middle of a massive reappraisal of these foundational works of Western literature. Recent advances in archeology and linguistics offer the strongest support yet that the Trojan War did take place, with evidence coming from the large excavation at the likely site of Troy, as well as new analysis of cuneiform tablets from the dominant empire of the region. Insights from comparative anthropology have transformed studies of the society that created the poems and allowed us to analyze the epics in a new way, suggesting that their particular patterns of violence contain a hidden key to ancient Greek history..."
The archaeological site of Troy was found in 1870, but was long considered to be a bust. That's changing...
"In a project that has now been underway for 20 years, the German archaeologist Manfred Korfmann and hundreds of collaborators have discovered a large lower city that surrounded the citadel. Using new tools, such as computer modeling and imaging technology that allows them to "see" into the earth before digging, Korfmann and his colleagues determined that this city's borders were 10 to 15 times larger than previously thought, and that it supported a population of 5,000 to 10,000 - a big city for its time and place, with impressive defenses and an underground water system for surviving sieges. And, critically, the city bore signs of being pillaged and burned around 1200 BC, precisely the time when the Trojan War would have been fought."
Most interestingly, the local name for the invaders is fairly close to "Achaean" and their names for the city are very close to "Ilios" and "Troy". In case you were wondering, Ilios is where we get the term "Iliad"- it's a story about the fall of Ilios. And, like they said, 10,000 is about as big as the biggest cities got at this time.
And, even though the Iliad is largely mythical, it still tells us much about the time:
"For instance, we can trust that the Greeks' political organization was loose but not chaotic - probably organized at the level of chiefdoms, not kingdoms or city-states. In the epics we can see the workings of an agrarian economy; we can see what animals they raised and what crops, how they mixed their wine, worshipped their gods, and treated their slaves and women. We can tell that theirs was a warlike world, with high rates of conflict within and between communities."
Not only was it violent, but the article suggests that the large number of slave girls in the story corresponds to actual shortages of women in ancient Greece. This was a rough, short, and brutish life.
And it is still at the root of how we view the world. Achilles is the first celebrity of western literature- the first dynamic persona who struggles to transcend the failings of humanity and become godlike. The passion of the story- from sexual obsession to the quest for glory- still resounds in our world. Achilles is still the very model of valor, as he overcomes his pride to sacrifice himself for the Achaeans. But he's also a thorny, difficult man, made of the "crooked timber" that Kant talked about.
Yet he's still partially us- the pagan half of Western Culture that Judeo-Christianity has never erased, but has had to live with in a sort of angry detente. We are made of the rage and sensual curiosity of the Greeks and the patience and introspective piety of the Jews. We all have an Achilles heel.