Trojan Epics: 9 The death of Hector

Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848–1884), Achilles and Priam (1876), oil on canvas, 147 x 114 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

The tragic death of his friend Patroclus plunged Achilles into a combination of grief and burning desire for vengeance against the Trojan warrior Hector. Once Achilles’ mother Thetis had anointed Patroclus’ body with ambrosia and nectar to preserve it, Achilles prepared for battle, donning his new armour forged by the god Hephaestus (Vulcan). But the Greek warrior knew that this would also bring his own death.

Zeus then allowed the deities to get involved in the war again. When Achilles and his Myrmidons trapped half the Trojan army in the river and turned it red with their blood, the river god Scamander demanded that the slaughter was stopped. Achilles refused, and the two fought until Hephaestus launched a firestorm at Scamander.

Charles-Antoine Coypel (1694–1752), The Fury of Achilles (1737), oil on canvas, 147 x 195 cm, Hermitage Museum Государственный Эрмитаж, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

Charles-Antoine Coypel’s Fury of Achilles from 1737 captures Achilles, wearing his elaborate armour in the centre, as he’s being aided by Athena on the left and Hephaestus on the right. Further to the right is Scamander, shown traditionally with his large jar gushing water and a wooden paddle in his right hand. Beneath them are the bodies of Trojans, and the river is starting to run red with their blood. In the more distant chariot is Hera with one of her peacocks.

With this, the Trojans were put to flight, and the city’s gates were thrown open to let them back in to safety. But Apollo disguised himself as a Trojan, and lured Achilles away, allowing all but Hector to escape. When Achilles approached Hector ready to fight, the Trojan lost his nerve and ran around the city. Athena then tricked him into stopping and engaging Achilles, who quickly stabbed Hector in the neck and killed him.

In return for the mistreatment Hector had given to the body of his friend Patroclus, Achilles stripped Hector’s body of armour, and dishonoured it by towing it around behind his chariot.

Franz von Matsch (1861–1942), The Triumph of Achilles (1892), media and dimensions not known, Achilleion, Corfu, Greece. Wikimedia Commons.

Franz von Matsch’s The Triumph of Achilles (1892) is at the top of the staircase of the Achilleion Palace, a celebration of the myths of Achilles, built on the island of Corfu for Empress Elisabeth of Austria. This shows Achilles in his chariot driving at speed around the walls of Troy, towing the naked body of Hector and followed by celebrating Greeks.

Jean-Joseph Taillasson (1745–1809), Achilles Displaying the Body of Hector at the Feet of Patroclus (1769), oil on canvas, 147 x 178 cm, Krannert Art Museum, Urbana–Champaign, IL. Image by Daderot, via Wikimedia Commons.

Jean-Joseph Taillasson’s Achilles Displaying the Body of Hector at the Feet of Patroclus from 1769 shows the two bodies together: Achilles is tending to that of Patroclus, raised on a throne, while Hector’s lies still tied to the chariot in the dust below.

Achilles was visited by the ghost of Patroclus in a dream; his friend urged him to complete his burial rites so that his spirit could move on to the Underworld. As a result, the body of Patroclus was cremated, and the Greeks held funeral games in his honour.

Carle (Antoine Charles Horace) Vernet (1758-1836), Funeral Games in Honour of Patroclus (1790), further details not known. Image by David Moran, via Wikimedia Commons.

Carle Vernet, son of Claude Joseph and father of Horace, painted his grand vision of the Funeral Games in Honour of Patroclus in 1790. A chariot race is taking place in the left foreground, as Achilles stands proud to the right of centre. In the distance is the great walled city of Troy.

But the funeral of Patroclus did nothing to stop Achilles towing Hector’s body around, making the grief of the Trojans more bitter. Hermes led King Priam from the city with gifts for the Greeks in a mission to have his son’s body returned. The king threw himself at Achilles’ feet and pleaded with him, and soon they were both in tears, lamenting their losses.

Alexander Ivanov (1806–1858), Priam Asks Achilles to Return Hector’s Body (1824), oil on canvas, 102.5 x 125.3 cm, Tretyakov Gallery Государственная Третьяковская галерея, Moscow, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

Alexander Ivanov’s Priam Asks Achilles to Return Hector’s Body from 1824 shows the king grasping Achilles as he pleads for the body. In the foreground is Hermes’ caduceus with its distinctive entwined snakes.

Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848–1884), Priam at Achilles Feet (1876), oil on canvas, 147 x 114 cm, Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille, Lille, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Jules Bastien-Lepage’s second and final attempt to win the Prix de Rome was his Priam at Achilles Feet (1876). Achilles’ left hand has just reached Priam’s right hand, although the Greek still looks away coldly.

Achilles and Priam agreed a truce of twelve days, to allow the Trojans a period of mourning; after they ate together, the king carried his son’s body back into the city, where the funeral of Hector took place.

Achilles was left still mourning Patroclus, only too mindful of his own imminent fate.