So far, Zeus’s plan for a war between the Greeks and Trojans had been working well. He had set up the Trojan Prince Paris to abduct Helen, Queen of Sparta and wife of Menelaos, as its primary cause. The couple had married in a public ceremony in Troy, and Menelaos reacted just as Zeus had expected, as I’ll describe later.
According to legend, the Trojan kingdom had been founded by Tros, after whom it was named. It was his son Ilus who founded the city of Ilios, which in turn became known as Troy, or alternatively as Ilion (Greek) or Ilium (Latin). When Ilus prayed for the safety of his new city, the goddess (Pallas) Athena deposited an image of herself as its protectress, and this became the city’s sacred talisman or Palladium, and origin of the modern English word.
Ilus’s son Laomedon then had the task of building walls to defend the flourishing city, something he was struggling with until the gods Apollo and Poseidon agreed to help him. Once the walls were complete, the two gods reminded Laomedon of their bargain for repayment, but the king denied ever agreeing to it.
One of the few works showing the story of Laomedon is thought to have been painted by Joachim von Sandrart and Girolamo Troppa in the late seventeenth century. Its close-cropped figures show Laomedon Refusing Payment to Poseidon and Apollo. The youthful Apollo holds his hand out at the left, while behind him an older Poseidon leans forward next to his trident.
Poseidon responded by flooding the city and so destroying the crops of the surrounding Troad. Poseidon then demanded that the King delivered his daughter Hesione to feed a sea monster, in a scene reminiscent of Andromeda being offered to Cetis. It was Heracles who rescued Hesione from that fate, but Laomedon again failed to repay his debt to him, so Heracles gave Hesione to Telamon, whose brother Peleus married Thetis and fathered Achilles.
The only accessible painting of Heracles’ involvement is Hans Thoma’s Hercules Delivering Hesione (1890). Heracles stands on the beach in front of the early city of Troy, his trademark club in his right hand. A naked Telamon is busy keeping the sea monster at bay by throwing boulders at it. Heracles is bargaining with the fair and beautiful Hesione, whom he ultimately gives in marriage to the loyal Telamon as a reward for his services.
Laomedon’s son was King Priam of Troy, ruler at the time of the war with Greece. Another important Trojan at the time was Aeneas, whose epic escape from Troy was the basis for Virgil’s Aeneid. Like so many classical heroes, Aeneas was the product of a union between a god and a mortal. His case is unusual, as it wasn’t Zeus to blame, as Aeneas’ father was the mortal Anchises, Priam’s cousin, and his mother the goddess Aphrodite, the same who was later to bribe Paris to win the golden apple, and to help him abduct Helen, so sparking the war.
Venus and Anchises, painted by William Blake Richmond between 1889-90, shows this legend. Zeus challenged Eros to shoot an arrow at his mother, in turn causing her to fall in love with Anchises when she met him as he was herding sheep on Mount Ida. Aeneas was the result of that relationship, and the legend the explanation for Aphrodite watching over her son Aeneas during his prolonged journey from Troy after its fall.
Once Paris and Helen had married in Troy, she assumed the role of princess.
Gaston Bussière’s Helen of Troy (1895) poses against a backdrop of Troy before its fall, modelled after the great ancient cities of the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East. She wears an elaborate headdress with a band of peacock feathers, and her abundant jewellery is flashy rather than regal, more typical of a courtesan than senior member of the court.
Evelyn de Morgan’s Helen of Troy (1898) admires herself in a mirror, the back of which bears the image of Aphrodite. Around her are white and red roses for love, and five white doves, two of which are ‘courting’. In the distance are the lofty towers of the fortified city.
It was the messenger of the gods Iris who reported Paris’s abduction of Helen to Menelaos when he was still on the island of Crete attending a funeral. He returned to Greece immediately and went to his brother Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, then on to visit the wise Nestor of Gerenia, King of Pylos, who reminded Menelaos of historical (or mythological) precedents with varying degrees of relevance to his predicament. Nestor seems to have recommended Menelaos to accept what had happened, but his advice wasn’t heeded.
Still seething with anger against Paris and the Trojans, Menelaos invoked the Oath of Tyndareus, and started calling on Helen’s many unsuccessful suitors to defend him as a jilted husband, by joining an expedition against Troy. Although he gained many offers of support, some initially let Menelaos down; Odysseus, for example, initially feigned madness until his son Telemachus was taken captive and forced him to change his mind.
The combined Greek fleet assembled at Aulis, a sheltered port on the eastern coast of central Greece, under the overall leadership of Agamemnon. Although some accounts state that the fleet had to assemble twice, as its first attempt to land near Troy failed, it’s not clear whether those are confounding other myths.
When hunting, Agamemnon killed a deer in a grove sacred to the goddess Artemis then boasted of his superior hunting skills. She sought vengeance for his act by becalming the fleet, demanding the human sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia before she would provide the fleet with favourable winds. Accounts of that sacrifice vary, with some claiming that at the last moment Artemis substituted a deer for Iphigenia.
Among the earliest post-classical depictions of this is Domenichino’s fresco in Viterbo, Italy, of The Sacrifice of Iphigenia from about 1609. The princess kneels, her wrists bound together, as an axe is about to be swung at her neck. Onlookers at the left are distraught, as Agamemnon at the right watches impassively. But in the distance, Artemis is leading a deer towards the altar, hopefully about to make the substitution.
Charles de La Fosse’s The Sacrifice of Iphigenia (1680) uses a powerful triangular composition to arrange the figures, with Artemis at the head, telling Agamemnon to spare the young woman, to his evident surprise. The large sacrificial knife, dropped from Agamemnon’s right hand, rests by Iphigenia’s right foot. At the lower right, one of the Greek warriors, possibly Achilles himself, is still resigned to her sacrifice, but the warrior standing above is already smiling with relief.
Tiepolo’s The Sacrifice of Iphigenia was painted almost a century later in 1770. Iphigenia sits, almost spotlit with her pale flesh, as the priest, perhaps Agamemnon himself, looks up to the heavens, the knife held in his right hand. In a direct line with that hand comes Artemis in her characteristic divine cloud, ready with the deer. Below is a group of women, already holding the sacred bowl up to catch the sacrificial victim’s blood, and in the left distance are some of the thousand ships of the Greek fleet, waiting to sail.
Jacques-Louis David develops this story using other sources, and packs his figures close together to great effect, in The Anger of Achilles (1819). The twist here is that Iphigenia had already been promised by her father as a bride to Achilles, and the announcement of her impending sacrifice throws Achilles into a rage.
Achilles, at the left, reaches for his sword in an uncomfortable manoeuvre with his right arm. A rather masculine and tearful woman just to the right of him is Queen Clytemnestra, Iphigenia’s mother, and her right hand rests on her daughter’s shoulder. Iphigenia is dressed as a bride, and looks wistful, staring into the distance, her face empty of outward emotion. At the right, Agamemnon appears emotionless, but indicates firmly to Achilles for him to restrain his emotions.
Modern artists have continued to paint this story. Louis Billotey (1883-1940), who had won the Prix de Rome in 1907 but is now forgotten, painted his version of Iphigenia in 1935. Clytemnestra looks far distant at the left as she leads her daughter towards the sacrificial altar beside her. Artemis, marked only by her bow and hunting dog, stands at the right, as the deer runs past.
With favourable winds secured, it only remained for Agamemnon to obtain final prophecies, including that from the Oracle at Delphi who predicted the fall of Troy after a ten-year war. But that clock hadn’t started yet, as the Greeks were about to discover.