Following the early success of the Greeks in seizing the Troad surrounding the city of Troy, they started to get into more difficulty once their enemy came out to fight them on the plain before the city’s walls. With their leading warrior Achilles and his Myrmidon force not fighting because of Achilles’ dispute with Agamemnon over Briseis, the Trojans drove the Greeks right back inside the wall around their camp, before fighting ceased at nightfall.
That night Agamemnon realised how desperate the situation of his Greek army had become, and sent an embassy to offer Briseis and many gifts to Achilles if he were to return to fight for him. Although Achilles and Patroclus received the party of Odysseus, Ajax and Phoenix, the warrior wasn’t appeased, and sent them back with the message that he was only prepared to fight if the Trojans reached his ships and they came in danger of being set alight.
After a commando raid overnight by Odysseus and Diomedes on some of Troy’s allied forces, the following morning the Greeks were still in trouble. Achilles sent Patroclus to ask about Greek casualties, and Nestor persuaded Patroclus to plead with Achilles one last time, and if he still refused, for Patroclus to don Achilles’ armour and lead the Greek army.
Hector then led his Trojans to penetrate the wall around the Greek camp and drive the invaders back to their ships. Poseidon, though, decided to ignore Zeus’ instruction not to meddle in the war, and helped the Greeks push Hector’s forces back. Hera facilitated this by seducing Zeus and getting him to sleep, allowing Poseidon to ensure the Trojans were driven back onto the plain, where Ajax wounded Hector. When Zeus awoke, he was angry at this intervention, and sent Apollo to help the Trojans drive the Greeks back to their ships once again.
Patroclus couldn’t watch this Greek defeat any longer, so asked his friend Achilles if he could wear his armour and lead their army as if he were Achilles. Achilles agreed to that, on condition that Patroclus wasn’t to pursue the Trojans, but would return to him safely. Just as the Trojans were setting fire to the first of the Greek ships, Patroclus led Achilles’ Myrmidon force into battle and routed the Trojans. But Patroclus got carried away with his success, and pursued the Trojans back to the gates of the city, where he was killed by Hector, with Apollo’s help.
Breaking established convention and the code of honour among warriors, Hector removed the armour from Patroclus, and told his men to take his corpse back into the city, preventing its burial. The Greeks then had to fight to retrieve the body of Patroclus.
Between 1836 and 1844, Antoine Wiertz painted several similar versions of The Greeks and Trojans Fighting over the Body of Patroclus, of which this is the small copy now in Antwerp. This shows Hector and his Trojan warriors fighting with Ajax, Menelaos and the Greeks over the corpse.
Henri Regnault’s Automedon with the Horses of Achilles (1868) shows Achilles’ charioteer Automedon, who rode into battle in command of Achilles’ horses Balius and Xanthos, in support of Patroclus. With his death, Automedon was driven to the rear of the fighting, where he tried to console the bereaved horses.
When Achilles was told of his friend’s death, he screamed so loud that even his mother Thetis could hear him, in the depths of the sea. Achilles then vowed to avenge his friend’s death by killing Hector, although he knew that would also bring about his own death.
In one of his earliest and most brilliant paintings, Léon Cogniet brought this story together, with Briseis correctly at its centre, in his Briseis Restored to Achilles in his Tent Discovers the Body of Patroculus (1815). With the death of Patroclus, Briseis was restored to Achilles, who returned to battle to avenge the death of his dear friend. Briseis is seen grieving on Patroclus’ corpse, as Achilles (to the left) is being galvanised into action, with a fearsome stare in his eyes.
Achilles continued to lament over his friend’s body. His mother Thetis visited to console her son in his grief, and promised to return with impregnable armour forged by the god Hephaestus (Vulcan).
Anthony van Dyck’s Thetis Receiving the Weapons of Achilles from Hephaestus from about 1630-32 shows the scene when Thetis is collecting her son’s new armour from Hephaestus, at the left. Eros is about to loose one of his arrows at the god, while a group of mischievous winged amorini are up to no good, even trying the helmet on.
The pioneer British history painter James Thornhill painted this account, Thetis Accepting the Shield of Achilles from Vulcan, in about 1710. Hephaestus is here raising the huge decorated shield for the goddess to carry away on rather nebulous horses. Once again, those pesky amorini are getting into mischief.
When Thetis returned with the shield and armour, Achilles was worried that his friend’s body would decay if he went to fight. Thetis protected the body of Patroclus with ambrosia and nectar, enabling Achilles to return to battle at last.
Benjamin West painted two accounts of Thetis Bringing the Armour to Achilles. This first version, painted in 1804 and now in Los Angeles, is the tighter composition and shows some influence from David’s neo-classical narratives. As with most other depictions of this story, West shows Achilles with the body of Patroclus, and Thetis presenting the armour of Hephaestus to her son. Despite West’s ambition to be a modern history painter, he follows tradition by showing each of them largely unclad, with theatrical gestures and expansive sweeps of their arms.
Two years later, his second version of Thetis Bringing the Armour to Achilles (1806) reversed the arrangement of the three principal figures, and added extras in the murky shadows at the left and right, with gestures so theatrical as to appear comical.
In 1866, the young history painter Henri Regnault won the Prix de Rome with his Thetis Bringing Achilles the Weapons Forged by Vulcan. This set title was developed as a sequel to van Dyck’s painting above. Here, the bare-breasted Thetis brings those impregnable weapons to Achilles, among them his famous decorated shield.
Achilles was now ready to face Hector in combat and to determine the outcome of the war.