Trojan Epics: 12 Extinguishing the line

Edouard-Théophile Blanchard (1844-1879), The Death of Astyanax (1868), oil, dimensions not known, Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris. Image by VladoubidoOo, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Trojans had ignored the prophecies, turned their backs on soothsayers and their dire warnings, and towed the wooden horse inside the city, convincing themselves that they had finally beaten the Greeks. They then went off to celebrate their victory with wine and feasting, before falling into that deep sleep brought by intoxication.

Helen with her torch stole up to the acropolis at the highest point of the city, and signalled to the Greek fleet that their ruse had worked, and their commandos were now inside the walls, and about to disgorge from their cramped quarters inside the horse. As the fleet sped back to Troy, the men from the horse took advantage of the full moon and the dead of night to kill the few guards, and throw the city’s gates open to welcome the massed Greeks.

The Greeks now had three tasks to accomplish before they could return home: they had to kill the Trojan royal family so that their line was extinguished and prevented any succession; they had to raze the city to the ground to prevent its rebuilding in the next few generations; and they had to seize as much booty as possible, including portable items of value and women.

Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919), Cassandra (1898), media not known, 97.8 x 48.3 cm, The De Morgan Centre, Guildford, Surrey, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Cassandra was King Priam’s daughter, and had been granted the gift of prophecy, but the curse that no one would ever believe her, even though her prophecies were accurate. For that the Trojans considered her insane, and she was hidden away. She prophesied the fall of Troy as occurring as the result of Greek warriors hidden inside the wooden horse, and became incensed when she was ridiculed.

During the sacking of Troy, she sheltered in the temple of Athena, but was abducted and raped by Ajax the Lesser, in an act of great violence and sacrilege. She was subsequently taken as a concubine by Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, but was later murdered by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus.

De Morgan shows Cassandra lost in deep and disturbing thought, tugging at her hair, as the city of Troy burns behind her, and (at the left edge) Greek soldiers emerge from the wooden horse. Around her feet are deep red roses, referring to the blood that had been shed. The flames have been composed so as to give the impression that it’s actually Cassandra who is burning.

Neoptolemus the son of Achilles was responsible for killing both Priam and Astyanax, infant son of Hector and Andromache, during the sacking. The king had taken refuge with his son Polites at the altar of Zeus. Neoptolemus first killed Polites, for which Priam rebuked him by throwing a spear at his shield. Neoptolemus then dragged Priam to the altar, where he killed him with his sword.

Jules Joseph Lefebvre (1834–1912), The Death of Priam (1861), oil on canvas, 114 x 146 cm, École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Jules Joseph Lefebvre won the Prix de Rome in 1861 with his Death of Priam; Georges Rochegrosse was later one of his pupils. A thoroughly conventional and very Spartan Neoptolemus is just about to swing his sword at the prostrate figure of King Priam, who is lying on the floor by the altar to Zeus. Priam looks up at his killer, knowing that he has only seconds to live.

Behind Neoptolemus is another body, presumably that of Priam’s son Polites. To the right, in the darkness behind, Queen Hecuba tries to comfort other Trojans. At the left, a young Trojan is trying to sneak away, back into the burning city, with smoke twisting its way into the dark sky.

The death of Astyanax may have been more deliberate, to extinguish the line or as a sacrifice to grant the Greek fleet favourable winds for its return. Neoptolemus is reported to have seized the infant Astyanax from his mother’s arms, and thrown him from the top of the walls of Troy, or perhaps from one of its high towers. Following that, Andromache was taken as a concubine by Neoptolemus, and was nearly murdered by his wife Hermione, the daughter of Menelaos and Helen (before she had eloped to Troy with Paris).

Although many have the impression that the killing of Astyanax is described by Homer in his Iliad, like a lot of Trojan myth the story actually appears in conflicting forms in other sources. One of the oldest is in the remaining fragments of the Little Iliad, believed to date from about 660 BCE. Another version is attributed to Arctinus of Miletus in about 776 BCE, and a fragment in Iliou Persis, The Sack of Ilium, where it’s Odysseus who is the killer. But fuller accounts didn’t appear until over a millenium after Troy’s supposed fall, for example in Ovid’s Metamorphoses in around 8 CE.

The record of the Trojan War in visual arts also has a long gap of over half a millennium following the possible fall of the city.

Uknown artist, A Greek Warrior Kills a Trojan Prince in the Arms of their Mother (c 675-650 BCE), large relief pithos found at Mykonos, dimensions not known, Archaeological Museum of Mykonos, Mikonos, Greece. Image by Zde, via Wikimedia Commons.

A spectacular relief found at Mykonos, dating from about 675-650 BCE, is one of the earliest records, and includes a scene of the wooden horse and the Greek soldiers within. This grizzly scene of a child being murdered with the sword of one of the Greeks, and being held by its Trojan mother, could be a generic representation, but could equally refer to a specific killing, such as that of Astyanax, but doesn’t show the child being dropped from the walls.

Unknown artist, Neoptolemos kills Astyanax (c 560-550 BCE), Boeotian black-figure tripod-pyxis from Tanagra, dimensions not known, Antikensammlung Berlin, Berlin. Image by Marcus Cyron, via Wikimedia Commons.

Although it’s not easy to make out the details on this Boeotian black-figure tripod-pyxis from Tanagra, it appears to show a Greek warrior swinging the body of a child from his right arm, using it as a weapon to beat a Trojan, who is laid back over an altar. It dates from about 560-550 BCE. If the Greek warrior is Neoptolemus, the child Astyanax, and the Trojan King Priam, this would indicate a different story which hasn’t been passed down in the verbal accounts, in which both the Trojans were murdered together in this horrific manner.

Unknown artist, Priam killed by Neoptolemus (c 520-510 BCE), Attic black-figure amphora from Vulci, diameter 24.5 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

That’s the same story, and a visually very similar image, shown more clearly in this slightly later Attic black-figure amphora from Vulci, from about 520-510 BCE.

Unknown artist, Neoptolemus kills Priam (c 510 BCE), side A of an Attic black-figure amphora, Martin-von-Wagner-Museum, at Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich, Germany. Image by Bibi Saint-Pol, via Wikimedia Commons.

Only slightly later, in about 510 BCE, this Attic black-figure amphora has removed Astyanax, leaving Neoptolemus to murder Priam, shown next to his wife Hecuba, who survived and was taken captive.

Unknown artist, Neoptolemus and Priam (date not known), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Although I don’t have a date or source for this reproduction of a vase painting, it shows an intermediate version of the story, with Neoptolemus about to drop Astyanax over the walls in front of King Priam.

The classical record therefore shows that, in visual arts, the earliest account suggests Astyanax may have died by the sword, but a hundred years later the child was used to bludgeon his grandfather to death, and later still the murders separated, with Astyanax being dropped from the walls, and Priam being killed on the altar.

The myths of Troy became popular subjects of painters from the Renaissance on, although the deaths of Astyanax and Priam don’t seem to have been depicted much, if at all, prior to the nineteenth century.

Unknown artist, Astyanax is Dropped from the Walls of Troy (date not known), engraving, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

This engraving is unfortunately undated, but shows the developed story of a Greek warrior, here allegedly Odysseus rather than Neoptolemus, in accordance with Iliou Persis. I think that this was probably engraved in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century.

The late nineteenth century then saw a cluster of major paintings depicting detailed stories of the fall of Troy.

Edouard-Théophile Blanchard (1844-1879), The Death of Astyanax (1868), oil, dimensions not known, Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris. Image by VladoubidoOo, via Wikimedia Commons.

Edouard-Théophile Blanchard won the Prix de Rome in 1868 with his painting of The Death of Astyanax, and its unconventional depiction of Neoptolemus as a North African. According to myth, Neoptolemus’ father Achilles was the king of Thessaly, in central Greece.

Andromache pleads on her knees with the warrior to spare her son, her left hand vainly trying to prevent him from being slung from the wall. Two men cower in fear in the background. Two of Troy’s famous towers are shown, but there is no smoke or other evidence of a sacking in progress, neither is there any sign of King Priam.

Georges Rochegrosse (1859–1938), Andromache (1883), oil on canvas, 884 x 479 cm, Musée des Beaux-arts, Rouen, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Georges Rochegrosse enjoyed great success at the Salon in 1883 with Andromache, a huge and gruesome painting nearly nine metres high. Andromache is at the centre, being restrained by four Greeks prior to her adbuction by Neoptolemus. Her left arm points further up the steps, to a Greek warrior in black armour holding the infant Astyanax, as he takes him up to the top (where another Greek is shown in silhouette) to murder him. There is death and desolation around the foot of the steps: a small pile of severed heads, a jumble of living and dead, and the debris of the sacking of Troy, which I turn to in the next episode.