The Trojan War

In this section, we begin the survey of the Trojan War, the greatest conflict of the mythical age. Although archaeologists have determined that there was in fact an assault against Troy by the Greeks about 1220 B.C., the version related by storytellers such as Homer transformed the battle to one of mythical proportions.

This section focuses on the beginning of the war, from the ultimate origin up the point just before the final assault, which is covered in the next and final section, 12.


Leda and the Swan

In the kingdom of Sparta the ruler was Tyndareus, whose wife was the beautiful queen Leda. She was yet one more mortal woman to whom Zeus was attracted, and he visitied her this time in the form of a swan. The first image below is a white-ground vase painting from the Classical period wih Leda seen here riding on the back of the swan, followed by a Renaissance version by Correggio.

The third painting is a watercolor by Gustave Moreau, done about 1880, which is noted for one special reason, for it was the inspiration for this poem written in 1928 by William Butler Yeats, one of the most noted poets of the time. The poem, just as the painting, is primarily an erotic description of their lovemaking, yet lurking in the future because of this act of love is the death and destruction of the war.

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.                                        
                                          Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

Then the painting "Leda Atomica" from 1949 by surrealist Salvador Dali, know for his bizarre works combining unusual imagery. Here Dali certainly intended to parody the idea of a human woman mating with a swan.

White-ground Correggio Moreau Dali

Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo: Two Lost Masterpieces

The two most well-known artists of the Italian Renaissance have something in common, for both of these master artists produced during their life a painted version of Leda and the Swan, yet neither of their original works exist anymore. Their existence is shown only through the evidence of drawings and copies of them by other artists, as seen below.

The first image is a pair of pages from the sketchbooks of Leonardo, practicing Leda's elaborate hairstyle, followed by two paintings which are copies made by later followers of his, reproducing the master's painted version. Although some of the details differ, they can covey the esential appearance of Leonardo's lost original, (done about 1508) which apparently included either two or four of the couple's offspring, hatched from eggs.

A few decades later (about 1530), Michelangelo did his version, much more erotic that Leonardo's. Here Leda and the swan are embracing closely, the moment of conception of their children. The first copy here is anonymous, followed by a marble version by Jacopo Sansovino, and a third copy by Rubens.

The connection between this story and the Trojan War is that one of the children engendered by this couple was the beautiful Helen, the woman who later sparked the war, as described below. The other children were Clytemnestra (whose story is covered in section 12), while their two brothers were Castor and Polydeuces, known as the Dioskouroi, or the Gemini twins.

da Vinci Copy 1 Copy 2 Copy 1 Sansovino Rubens

The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis

Thetis was a Nereid, a daughter of Nereus the sea-god. Zeus had been attracted to her, but he learned of a prophecy that she was destined to bear a son who would be greater than his father, so it was arranged that she become the bride of a mortal man named Peleus. But in order to win her as bride, Peleus had to first pass the challenge of defeating her in a wrestling match, made difficult because of her power to transform her body into various shapes, as depicted on the red-figure vase painting here.

She eventually submitted, and their wedding celebration was one of the greatest in all Greek mythology. This was the subject of the central register of the Francois vase (seen preciously in section 10 for the Calydonian Boar Hunt), although much of this portion was damaged by a deranged man who attacked it in the museum. The drawing following shows the wedding scene, with the part in the photo along the bottom, and the other side seen along the top, with the Greek names rewritten in English.

In the lower left are the wedding couple, Thetis modestly inside a building while Peleus greets the guests; the first to arrive is Chiron the centaur. The detail photo is from a different but similar vase painting by the Sophilos painter, showing Chiron and Hebe, the goddess of youthful beauty, then Dionysus and Leto.

Red figure Francois Facsimilie of the Francois vase Sophilos

Another version by Joachim Wtewael, dated to about 1615, shows the wedding party; notice that the bride, Thetis, is colored blue, since she is a goddess of the sea.

But one goddess had been excluded from the guest list: Eris (a name meaning "discord" or "strife"), so she decided to come anyway, to ruin the party. Eris is seen here by herself labelled on an ancient vase painting, and can also be seen on the far right of the painting of the wedding by Burne-Jones. She produced a golden apple at this party, which had the words "for the fairest" inscribed on it; this caused the goddesses to begin quarrelling with one another over who was the most beautiful, spoiling the celebration.

Wtewael Eris Burne-Jones

The Judgement of Paris

Zeus then decreed that this quarrel over the golden apple was to be settled by a mortal man named Paris, living the life of a shepherd at that time, unaware that his true parents were the rulers of the mighty city of Troy. So one day, literally out of the blue, Hermes came to Paris out tending his flocks, and gave him the golden apple along with Zeus' instructions to decide which goddess would get it. He had to choose between Hera, Zeus' wife, Athena, the warrior goddess, and Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty and sex.

This has long been one of the most popular subjects of artists all through history; the versions seen here a just a small sampling of the hundreds in existence. It is in a way the ultimate male fantasy (and most artists in history were male) to depict the three most beautiful females of mythology, often shown undresssing to display themselves to Paris.

The first version here is a red-figure vase, with all five principal characters: the two males, Paris and Hermes, and the three females, Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, as do all the other versions seen here. The second is an eroded relief from a Roman amphitheater, but each of them are still recognizable.

The third is from the Renaissance, by German artist Lucas Cranach (1508), then the versions by Hendrick Van Balen and Wtewael, both about 1600, while Rubens' is from 1635 and Watteau's painting dates to about 1715.

Red figure Roman Cranach Van Balen Wtewael Rubens Watteau

Paris and Helen

Paris awarded the golden apple to Aphrodite, largely because of the offer she had made to to influence his decision, that if he chose her, she would compel the most beautiful woman in the world to fall in love with him. True to her promise, Paris was promised the love of Helen of Sparta, at that time the wife of Menelaus.

Because of Aphrodite's power, Helen would do whatever Paris wanted, thus when he arrived at Sparta, he soon persuaded her to leave her husband and return with him to Troy, which she did. The scene of Paris wooing Helen is the subject of this painting by Jacques-Loius David, from 1788, followed by that of Westall from 1765, which includes Aphrodite in the background. This is actually entitled "The Reconciliation of Paris and Helen", based on a later part of the story.

Another popular subject is Helen by herself: these paintings, all from the late 1800s, are portraits of her, the artists' effort to capture the ultimate beauty of the ideal woman, but along with her comes the cost of the death and destruction of Troy. The first is by Evelyn De Morgan, the second by Frederick Leighton, and a watercolor by Gustave Moreau.

David Westall De Morgan Leighton Moreau

Achilles, son of Peleus and Thetis

The son of the couple at whose wedding the trouble started was named Achilles, and he was destined to play a major role in the Trojan War. But there are some noteworthy stories of his life before the war began: first is the scene by Rubens showing the popular legend that his mother Thetis dipped him into the river Styx, which made him invulnerable to harm, except for the spot on his heel where she held him, hence the term 'Achilles' heel'. (But not all ancients sources use this idea; it is not found in the works of Homer).

As a child, Achilles was put into the care of Chiron the centaur, just as Jason had been, seen in the previous section. The second image here is a combined view of both sides of a black-figure vase showing his father Peleus giving him to Chiron. Next is a wall painting from Pompeii with Chiron giving young Achilles a music lesson, and then a ceiling panel by Delacroix with young Achilles riding on Chiron's back.

The last three images here refer to Achilles' life on the island of Scyros, where he dressed and lived a girl among girls. This was because his mother Thetis had some knowledge of the future and knew he would die young if he joined the war, and had hidden him there to prevent that from happening.

But the Greeks were suspicious, for they had reason to believe he was there somewhere among the girls of Scyros, and Odysseus devised a way to expose him: a chest of gifts was offered to the young ladies, but included among the feminine things was a set of armor and weapons. Then they noticed how one 'girl' was fascinated by only those items, and thus his disguise was exposed. This is seen here in a wall painting from Pompeii, then in a painting by Poussin (1656), and one more by Gerard de Lairesse, 1685.

Rubens Black fig. Pompeii Delacroix Pompeii Poussin Lairesse

The Sacrifice of Iphigeneia

After she left with Paris, Helen's husband Menelaus turned to his brother Agamemnon, the powerful ruler of Mycenae (which in history was one of the major cities of Bronze-Age Greece). Agamemnon had then called out to all the cities and regions of Greece to supply men and ships for a mass attack against Troy unless they returned Helen.

The place for the rendezvous was a small coastal city called Aulis, and it was there that Agamemnon incurred the wrath of the goddess Artemis by killing one of her sacred deer. The angry goddess would not allow the proper winds to blow to sail to Troy unless Agamemnon was punished by sacrificing his own daughter Iphigeneia. Reluctantly, Agamemnon sent to Mycenae for Iphigeneia to come to Aulis, but only after her arrival does she discover the real reason she had been summoned there.

The first image below is a wall painting from Pompeii, with Agamemnon shrouding his head in shame at what he is allowing to be done, while she pleads to her father. But this painting also includes a scene of the miraculous rescue of Iphigeneia, for some say Artemis had pity on her and magically whisked her away, here seen riding on the back of a deer. (Or some say by substituting the deer in her place.) The same scene appears in the last two paintings, the first by Tieopolo from 1757, the other by Giovanni Battista, 1770.

Pompeii Tiepolo Battista


Homer's Iliad: The Anger of Achilles

The Greeks sailed to Troy, but the Trojans refused to return Helen and thus the war was on; but Troy was so well defended that all the Greeks could do was surround the city and wear them down slowly by a siege. This stalemate lasted into the tenth year, until a day came when an event occurred which no one suspected would lead to the end of the Trojan War.

This is the part of the story covered by Homer in his epic poem the Iliad, the oldest work of literature in Western civilization. The key event at the beginning of the first chapter tells of the anger of Achilles at Agamemnon, resulting from an argument over a captive girl named Briseis.

This quarrel is shown here in the painting by Tiepolo: Achilles has begun to draw his sword to attack Agamemnon (on the left), but the goddess Athena has suddenly appeared to stop Achilles, gripping him by the hair and telling him to restrain his anger. Achilles obeyed the goddess, but announced that he would no longer fight for Agamemnon. After his withdrawl, the Greeks redoubled their efforts but gradually the advantage went to the Trojans. The one Greek hero who succeeded in the absence of Achilles was named Diomedes, who almost killed Aeneas, and actually wounded Aeneas' mother Aphrodite, who had come to save her son, as seen here in the painting by Ingres.

Ingres also painted the scene called the 'embassy to Achilles'; after Agamemnon regretted losing Achilles he sent three of his closest friends (Odysseus, Phoenix and Ajax) to try to persude him to return, but Achilles was relaxing in his tent with his friend Patroclus and here tells the three to inform Agamemnon he would not be returning to the war. But when the battle began to seriously endanger the Greeks, Achilles allowed his friend Patroclus to wear his armor into battle to rally the Greeks.

But Patroclus was killed by Hector while wearing Achilles' armor: the black-figure cup seen here shows the scene in two parts, on either side, with Patroclus dead in the upper view, while the one below shows him now naked, after Hector had stripped the armor for himself.

The last image here is the copy of a Hellenistic sculpture with Menelaus holding the dead body of Patroclus; the place of origin and artist are unknown. It now stands in the Loggia della Lanzi in Florence, near Cellini's Perseus (seen in section 8).

Tiepolo Diomedes Embassy Black fig. Menelaus

Achilles was devastated by his friend's death; in the painting here by Fuseli, we see him being tormented by the ghost of Patroclus. Achilles then renounced his vow and returned to the war, to punish Hector for killing Patroclus. But since Hector now possessed his armor, he would need a new set, so his mother Thetis went to the workshop of Hephaestus, as seen here in this damaged wall painting from Pompeii.

Agamemnon was glad to have Achilles back and showered him with rewards, including the return of Briseis, the girl who had been taken from him after their initial argument. Rubens depicted this scene, as well as the final battle of Achilles and Hector. But after killing him, Achilles was still enraged, and abused the body of Hector by dragging it behind his chariot around the walls of Troy.

The red-figure vase painting here by the Brygos painter shows Hector's father Priam, the king of Troy, who has come to the tent of Achilles to beg for the return of his son's body. Achilles initially ignored his request, as seen here, not even looking at Priam (note also the corpse of Hector on the ground below). But finally, out of pity he released his anger and allowed Priam to take the body back to Troy for burial, the concluding scene of the Iliad. The fall of Troy was inevitable now that Hector was dead.

Fuseli Pompeii Rubens Rubens Brygos ptr.

After the Iliad: Achilles and Penthesilea, Achilles and Ajax

Other poets after Homer filled in the details of what happened after the events of the Iliad; shortly thereafter, a contingent of Amazons arrived, from the race of female warriors who were allies of the Trojans. Their leader was named Penthesilea, who engaged in battle with Achilles, who slew her; but the story says that even as they fought, their eyes met and their was a spark of romance, but fate had made it impossible.

This scene is shown on the black-figure vase painting by the arist Exekias, considered one of the greatest artists of the Archaic period, working about 540-530 B.C. Another vase by Exekias features Achilles, depicting not a major part of the story, but rather a quiet moment with Achilles enjoying a board-game with his friend Ajax.

Exekias Detail Game Detail

The Death of Achilles and the Suicide of Ajax

Achilles himself did not live to see the end of the war, for shortly before that, he was ambushed and shot with a poisoned arrow by Paris, as seen here in the painting by Rubens. The small detail from the handle of the Francois vase shows Ajax carrying the stripped corpse of his friend Achilles.

After his death, there was disagreement among the other Greeks over who should inherit the arms and armor of Achilles, since this would be an acknowledgement of being the greatest warrior after Achilles. The dispute came down to two contenders: Odysseus and Ajax. When the decision went to Odysseus, Ajax went insane with rage, so humilated that he chose suicide as his only way out. Exekias captured the moment of his decision in this black-figure vase painting, the grim moment when he has made up his mind to take his life by falling upon his own sword. Compare his version with the red-figure vase seen here, which may be more explicit, but is just not as artistically effective as the one by Exekias.

Rubens Francois Exekias Detail Red figure



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