When the leading Greek warrior Achilles withdrew his support for Agamemnon over the removal of his concubine Briseis, the war against Troy was reaching a turning point. After the Greek expeditionary force had conquered the lands around the city, they looked set for victory after nine long years. But Achilles had prayed to his mother Thetis, asking her to request Zeus for the Trojans to gain the upper hand, beat the Greeks back, and so force Agamemnon to return Achilles’ concubine and his honour as a warrior.
In a dream, Zeus urged Agamemnon to launch an attack on Troy, but in an attempt to gauge the morale of his troops, his forces ran away and had to be stopped by Odysseus with the intervention of Athena. Seeing the Greek forces mustering on the plain in front of his city, King Priam sent his own men out to challenge them. Their leader Hector encouraged his brother Paris to settle the matter in a duel with Menelaos, with the winner taking Helen.
Felix Jan Ferdinand Heyndrickx, a former pupil of Jacques-Louis David, painted Hector Censuring Helen and Paris in about 1820. Paris is naked and sitting on an ornate bed holding Helen’s hand as Hector is clearly telling his wayward brother off.
Menelaos agreed, and had all but defeated his rival until Aphrodite rescued Paris and took him to bed Helen.
This monochrome image of Johann Heinrich Tischbein’s Duel Between Menelaos and Paris from 1757 shows Aphrodite rescuing Paris, his helmet fallen and sword broken on the ground beneath them. Menelaos is ready to finish his young rival off, were it not for this divine intervention.
This sparked debate among the gods as to whether the war should end there and then, but Hera persuaded Zeus to press on to the destruction of Troy, as he had intended in his original plan. So the Greek and Trojan armies joined battle when their truce was broken by an archer wounding Menelaos. The gods became involved too: Diomedes the Greek wounded Aphrodite’s arm as she was rescuing Aeneas, and Apollo sent Ares to tackle Diomedes, but the Greek warrior wounded him as well.
Joseph-Marie Vien shows Iris in command of the chariot in which the injured Aphrodite is to be carried back to Olympus, in Venus, Wounded by Diomedes, is Saved by Iris from 1775.
George Hayter’s Venus, Supported by Iris, Complaining to Mars is a later account exhibited to acclaim at the Royal Academy in 1820, and later won the Academy’s award for Painting of the Year. Iris is behind with her iridescent wings, helping Aphrodite towards a reclining Ares.
Jacques-Louis David’s extraordinarily detailed pen and ink drawing of The Combat of Diomedes (1776) gives a vivid impression of the chaos of war, with a cluster of gods and goddesses joining in, while the rest of Olympus watches from above. The central group of figures tangled above Diomedes includes the injured Aphrodite and Ares.
With the tide turned against the Trojans, Hector rallied his men before entering Troy to bid farewell to Andromache his wife and their son Astyanax, a favourite motif for artists in the late eighteenth century.
Anton Losenko’s Farewell of Hector and Andromache from 1773 depicts the Trojan warrior in a theatrical pose as he parts from his wife and the infant Astyanax.
Joseph-Marie Vien’s Hector’s Farewell to Andromache (1786) places the family outside one of the city’s gates, as Hector is about to step into his chariot and race off to his destiny.
Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg’s Hector Bidding Farewell to Andromache and Astyanax (1813-16) is perhaps the most natural of these, with a young father lifting his baby into the air, and his wife looking at him reproachfully, as wives do.
Just as Hector was getting to grips in a duel with Ajax, one of the leading Greek warriors, the two armies disengaged for the night. The following day they agreed to a truce to let both sides burn their dead, allowing the Greeks time to build a protective wall around their camp and precious ships.
Before the battles of the next day, Zeus decreed that the gods must not interfere with the war of the mortals. That day the Trojans got the better of the Greeks and drove them right back inside the wall around their camp, before fighting ceased with nightfall.
With Achilles and his Myrmidons still not taking part, the outlook for the Greeks was starting to look bleak.