Trojan Epics: 10 The death of Achilles

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), The Death of Achilles (c 1630-35), oil on canvas, 107.1 x 109.2 cm, The Courtauld Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

With the leading Trojan warrior Hector dead, and his body returned to his father King Priam, the Greeks and Trojans observed a truce of twelve days for the funeral and mourning. It’s here that Homer’s epic the Iliad closes, long before the culmination of the war, and we rely instead on fragments of a third epic in the cycle, Aethiopis, and other accounts.

During the ten years of the Trojan War, various warriors and groups came to give support to each of the sides. After Hector’s death came Penthesileia, a leader of the Amazons and noted warrior. She may have previously been associated with Priam, and could have accidentally killed her sister Hippolyte, giving her motive to fight for the Trojans. She arrived in Troy on the day of Hector’s funeral, was greeted and entertained by Priam, then went to fight the following day, the first after the truce.

She went into battle at the head of her group of Amazons, acquitted herself well in combat, but fell to the hand of Achilles, who impaled her with his spear. When he removed her helmet, he was struck by her beauty and filled with remorse that he had killed her.

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Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein (1751–1829), Achilles and Penthesileia (c 1823), oil on canvas, 259 × 194 cm, Großherzogliches Schloss, Eutin, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Tischbein’s Achilles and Penthesileia from about 1823 is a highly romanticised depiction of Achilles’ remorse, the Amazon’s body miraculously showing not a single mark despite its earlier impalement by a spear. As an Amazon, Penthesilea’s right breast is inevitably bared.

Thersites, a constant critic of Achilles and Odysseus, then mocked Achilles’ remorse, causing the warrior to kill him instantly. Penthesileia’s body was returned to the Trojans, who burned her corpse on a pyre soon afterwards.

Next to arrive to fight for the Trojan cause was King Priam’s nephew, Memnon, who brought his army of ‘Aethiopians’ with him from Africa. After his reception by Priam, they went out to fight and scored some successes, with Memnon killing Nestor’s son Antilochus, a friend of Achilles. In his anger, Achilles then killed Memnon, and the Trojan forces fled back into the city.

The story of Memnon doesn’t appear to have attracted the brush of any artists, although some huge Egyptian statues traditionally thought to be of Memnon have been painted in the nineteenth century.

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Bernard Picart (1673–1733), Memnon, son of Eos and Tithonus (date not known), engraving, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Bernard Picart’s engraving from the early eighteenth century of Memnon, son of Eos and Tithonus shows the young warrior in Egypt, looking into Aurora’s dawn light. He may be sat on his own sarcophagus too.

Two colossi at Al Bairat near Luxor in Egypt were known in classical times, and became quite popular motifs for ‘orientalist’ artists in the nineteenth century, several of whom showed them in dramatic lighting.

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Gustav W. Seitz (1826-?), Egypt: the Statues of Memnon (date not known), colour lithograph of original watercolour, 26.2 x 37.7 cm, The Wellcome Library (no. 40355i), London. Image courtesy of and © The Wellcome Trust, via Wikimedia Commons.

Gustav W. Seitz’s Egypt: the Statues of Memnon, seen here as a colour lithograph of his original watercolour, is highly atmospheric, and an excellent demonstration of the moon illusion.

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Charles Vacher (1818-1883), The Statues of the Memnons (1864), watercolour on paper, 43.2 x 99 cm, The Wellcome Library (no. 45057i), London. Image courtesy of and © The Wellcome Trust, via Wikimedia Commons.

The colours in Charles Vacher’s watercolour of The Statues of the Memnons (1864) are superb.

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Albert Zimmermann (1808–1880), The Memnon Statues (date not known), oil on wood, 25.5 x 52.5 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, Albert Zimmermann’s oil painting of The Memnon Statues captures the heat haze, and a snake moving through the water.

Achilles had known all this time that the death of Hector had sealed his own fate. It was only a matter of time before he too met a similar end. One account is that Achilles made the same mistake that his friend Patroclus had, in pursuing the Trojans back to the gate of the city, after the death of Memnon. He came within range of Paris, who was stood on the walls, and released an arrow at Achilles, who by this time was just outside the Scaean Gate. Apollo then guided the arrow to strike Achilles in his only vulnerable point, his ankle (or heel), by which Thetis had held him when she had dipped him into the River Styx as an infant.

Ordinarily, an arrow piercing an ankle would hardly have proved fatal. Whether the arrow had been poisoned, or that ankle was just a point of exceptional vulnerability, that was the end of Achilles.

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Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), The Death of Achilles (sketch) (1630-35), oil on panel, 45.3 × 46 cm, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Of the very few artists who have painted this death, it was Rubens who has told the story most vividly, in a series on Achilles painted between 1630-35, towards the end of his own career and life. This painting of The Death of Achilles is an oil sketch on a smaller panel.

Achilles, an arrow piercing straight through his right foot, is shown in the centre foreground, overtly moribund. But Rubens doesn’t place Achilles in battle, as do classical accounts: he has been standing at a small altar to the goddess Artemis, with her strong associations with archery. At the door to the left, Paris is still holding the bow which loosed the arrow, and behind him is Apollo aiding and abetting in the killing.

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Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), The Death of Achilles (c 1630-35), oil on canvas, 107.1 x 109.2 cm, The Courtauld Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Rubens’ finished painting of The Death of Achilles adheres faithfully to the sketch. Achilles’ face is deathly white, and this brings to life the supporting detail, particularly the lioness attacking a horse at the lower edge of the canvas, symbolising Paris’s attack on Achilles.

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Alexander Rothaug (1870-1946), The Death of Achilles (date not known), brown ink and oil en grissale over traces of black chalk on canvas, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Much later, Alexander Rothaug’s undated Death of Achilles is true to the original accounts, with the arrow passing through the Achilles tendon. Paris, still clutching his bow above, looks mortified, and Apollo stands behind him.

Greatest grief at Achilles’ death was in his mother Thetis, whose lament was painted by Henry Fuseli.

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Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), Thetis Lamenting the Death of Achilles (1780), tempera on cardboard, 41.8 × 55.8 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Wikimedia Commons.

In the foreground, Achilles’ body lies like a fallen statue on his shield, his great spear by his left side. There is no sign of any wound, arrow, or injury. At the water’s edge, his mother Thetis is waving her arms in lament for her dead son. Another deity is flying past in the distance, and is seen white against the dark and funereal sea and sky.

Once again, the war had reached a stalemate, with the loss of leading warriors on both sides. The Greeks needed a different approach if they were to conquer the city.