Scenes from The Iliad in ancient art
Given its central role in Ancient Greek culture, various poignant moments in Homer’s The Iliad can be found on the drinking cups, water jars, mixing bowls, vases, plates, jugs, friezes, mosaics, and frescoes of ancient art. Each depiction dramatizes an event in the epic poem in a different way (sometimes inaccurately). From the judgement of Paris to Patroklos’s funeral, the war heroes, gods, and battle grounds, are brought to life. From Barry B. Powell’s new translation of The Iliad by Homer, here is a slideshow of Trojan War scenes in ancient art.
Achilles and Priam
Fig 24.2 - The old man, leaning on his staff, approaches from the left. Behind him slaves carry the ransom. Achilles lies on his inlaid couch, holding a knife with which he has been cutting up the meat served on the table in front of the dining couch; strips of meat hang down over the side of the table, and he holds a strip in his left hand. He has not yet noticed Priam’s presence, and he turns over his shoulder to call out to a slave boy to pour wine from a jug he holds. His shield (with Gorgon’s head), helmet, shinguards, and sword hang from the wall. Beneath the couch lies Hector, his body pierced by many wounds. This is the most commonly represented scene from the Iliad in all of Greek art. Athenian red-figure drinking cup. c. 480 bc.
The Judgment of Paris
Fig 24.1 - On the right a youthful Paris sits on a stone in a rural location. The sheep near his feet indicates that he is a shepherd. He holds a lyre with a tortoise-shell sounding box because he is accustomed to the beauty of song. In front of him stand from left to right: Hera dressed in a demure robe; Athena, wearing the goatskin fetish as a snake-fringed collar; and a buxom Aphrodite, holding a scepter and the “apple of discord” that Paris has awarded to her. Athenian red-figure water jar, c. 450 bc.
The Funeral Games of Patroklos
Fig 23.2 - Greeks perch on bleachers to watch the chariot race. Some of the spectators are standing, some sitting, some gesticulating as the four-horse chariot approaches. The nearest horse is white, the next two bays with black faces, and the fourth is black. Inscriptions in front of the horses say “Sophilos painted me” and “The funeral games of Patroklos.” On the other side of the bleachers is written Achilles. Fragment of an Athenian black-figure wine-mixing bowl, c. 570 BC.
Achilles Kills the Trojan Captives
Fig 23.1 - Here Achilles prepares to cut the throat of a beardless Trojan youth. Achilles stands in “heroic nudity,” but wears a cloak, in front of the pyre. A label across the bottom reads “tomb of Patroklos.” Achilles grips the Trojan victim by the hair, the man’s hands tied behind his back. Behind Achilles, to the far left, is the next Trojan in line, wearing a Phrygian cap. On top of the pyre and in front of it is stacked Patroklos’ armor that Achilles has taken from Hector, once his own armor: two breastplates, a helmet, a shield, and two shinguards. To the right, a fully clothed Agamemnon, holding a scepter, pours out a libation from a phialê, a kind of offering dish. A jug of wine or honey stands beside the pyre at Agamemnon’s feet as in Homer’s description. South Italian red-figure wine-mixing bowl, c. 340–320 BC, from Canosa.
Achilles Drags Hector
Fig 22.2 - Achilles (labeled) has already tied Hector to his car. As he steps up behind his charioteer, he looks behind at Priam and Andromachê lamenting from the wall. His shield bears a triskelis (“three-legged”) design. Iris appears (she is white) to ask him not to treat Hector in this fashion (see Book 23). Behind the horses is the tomb of Patroklos. His breath-soul (psychê), shown as a miniature winged armed warrior, hovers above the tomb. Patroklos’ name is inscribed on the tomb. Notice the serpent at the base: The beneficent spirits of the dead were thought to live a friendly snakes in tombs (“good spirit,” agathos daimon). Athenian black-figure wine-mixing bowl, c. 510 bc.
Achilles Kills Hector
Fig 22.1 - The figures are labeled. The illustration does not follow Homer’s account very well. Both men are in “heroic nudity.” A beardless Achilles attacks from the left, wearing shinguards, a helmet, and carrying a hoplite shield, sword, and spear. The bearded Hector is similarly armed (but without shinguards). He has already been wounded in the left thigh and in the chest and is about to go down. Blood flows from the wounds. Athena (half-visible) stands behind Achilles wearing the goatskin fetish as a cape. Athenian red-figure wine-mixing bowl by the Berlin Painter, c. 490–460 bc. Found at Cerveteri, Lazio, Italy.
Fig 19.3 - The great hero prepares his team of divine horses for battle. Here they are named Chaitos (probably short for Pyrsochaitos, “red-haired”) and Eutheias (“straight-ahead”) instead of Xanthos and Balios. With his right hand Achilles (labeled) adjusts the harness and with his left holds the horse’s mane. He is “heroically nude” from the waist down, but wears a breastplate and shinguards. To the far right Automedon (?) seems to attach a trace horse. Between Achilles and Chaitos are the words “Nearchos painted me.” Fragment of an Athenian white-ground vase, c. 560 bc.
Achilles Receives the Arms from Thetis
Fig 19.1 - Thetis hands her son, in “heroic nudity” and carrying a spear, a wreath of victory. With her other hand, she give him a “Boeotian” shield. Behind her a Nereid named Lomaia (“bather”?), not named by Homer, carries a breastplate and what seems a jug for oil. Behind her an unnamed Nereid carries the plumed helmet and the shinguards. To the left, an armed Odysseus keeps guard (not in Homer). The figures are labeled. Detail of an Attic black-figure hydria, c. 550 bc.
Peleus Wrestles Thetis
Fig 18.2 - Thetis is dressed in an elaborate gown, probably linen, and an elegant cloak. She tugs at her hair-covering while turning into various shapes to escape Peleus’ attentions, here symbolized by the lion that bites Peleus on the arm. The young beardless Peleus wears only a shirt and a sword. It is not clear what the building on the right symbolizes. According to the story, Peleus hung on in spite of the transformations until Thetis relented and agreed to marry him. Athenian red-figure wine-cup, c. 490 bc, from Vulci, Etruria.
Fight Over Patroklos
Fig 17.2 - Big Ajax, on the left, holds a “Boeotian” shield, either an artistic adaptation of the ancient Mycenaean figure-of-eight shield or an actual shield shape (but no such shield has been found). His opponent is presumably Hector, holding a shield with a “triskelis” blazon, a design showing three running legs. Other unnamed Trojans and Greeks fight. Patroklos’ corpse lies in the center. Black-figure wine-drinking bowl in the style of Exekias, c. 530 bc, from Pharsalos, Greece.
Hector and Menelaos Fight Over Euphorbus
Fig 17.1 - Hector is on the left, Menelaos on the right, while Euphorbos lies dead between them. The warriors, labeled, are armed as classical hoplites. Hector’s shield is emblazoned with a crow. Two apotropaic eyes (“turning away evil”) are suspended from a central decorative device. Hector does not actually fight Menelaos over Euphorbos in the Iliad, but he tries to. The philosopher Pythagoras (c. 570–c. 495 bc), who taught metempsychosis, claimed to be a reincarnation of Euphorbos. He said that he recognized Euphorbos’ shield as his own, hung in the temple to Hera at Argos where Menelaos had taken it. An early representation of an Iliadic scene on a plate made in Rhodes around 610 bc.
Death of Sarpedon
Fig 16.2 - Sleep and Death prepare to carry away the dead Sarpedon in the presence of Hermes. Two unknown warriors, Leodamas and Hippolytos, look on from either side. Sleep, to the left, and Death, to the right, are winged, but otherwisefully armed mature warriors. The naked Sarpedon, stripped of his armor, is pierced by three wounds. The messenger-god Hermes wears a traveler’s cap with broad brim and carries his wand, the caduceus. One of the most celebrated of ancient paintings, the Euphronios wine-mixing bowl was a possession of the Metropolitan Museum in New York City between 1972 and 2008, when it was repatriated to Italy. It is now in the Villa Giulia in Rome. Athenian red-figure wine-mixing bowl signed by Euxitheos (potter) and Euphronios (painter), c. 515 bc, found in Cerveteri, Italy.
Ajax Defends the Ships
Fig 15.2 - A bearded Ajax, clad in helmet, breastplate, and shinguards, attacks Hector (?), who backs off before the prow of a ship. Hector holds a curiously shaped shield. Between them a dying beardless Achaean falls to the ground, a folded leg and one hand touching the earth. Etruscan two-handled water jug, c. 480 bc.
The Arming of Hector
Fig 15.1 - Hector arms for battle in the presence of Priam and Hekabê. Hector has already donned his shinguards and now pulls a breastplate around his middle over a shirt. His mother, represented as a young woman, holds out his helmet with her right hand and with her left holds his spear. Hector’s shield, decorated with the head of a satyr, leans against Hekabê’s leg. The aged Priam, with balding head, supports himself with a knobby staff and instructs his son. The characters’ names are inscribed. Athenian red-figure water-jug, c. 510 bc.
The Duel between Hector and Ajax
Fig 14.2 - Hector falls to his knees as Ajax stabs him with his spear—unlike in Homer’s text, in which Ajax hits him with a stone. To the right of the illustration, Aeneas comes to the rescue. Ajax wears a linen breastplate and bronze plumed helmet and shinguards. Hector wears a plumed helmet and shinguards but is otherwise “heroically nude.” Hector’s shield has an unusual design, perhaps a basket on its side filled with flowers. The figures are labeled in Corinthian script. Corinthian black-figure wine-jug, c. 570.
Combat between a Trojan and a Greek
Fig. 12.2 - They are dessed as hoplites. The warrior on the left spears the other fighter in the chest. Frieze on the tomb of a Lycian prince, the Heroon of Goelbasi-Trysa, Turkey, c. 380 BC.
Trojan and Greek Warriors Fighting
Fig 12.1 - One warrior grabs the other by the hair as he flees. The tree on the left may be the “oak of Zeus” where Sarpedon recovered (Book 5). Frieze on the tomb of a Lycian prince, the Heroön of Goelbasi-Trysa in Lycia, Turkey, c. 380 bc.
The Killing of Rhesos
Fig 10.3 - Oddly, the adventure with Rhesos is never shown in Greek art until the fourth century bc. The scene on this pot, made in southern Italy, seems to be inspired by a scene from a tragedy included in the works of Euripides, the Rhesos. To the right, Odysseus, “heroically nude” and wearing a cloak and skull cap and brandishing his sword, seizes the prize horses. Diomedes stands at the left. At the top are three dead Thracians in contorted poses. South Italian red-figure jug by the Lycurgus Painter, c. 360 bc.
The Capture of Dolon
Fig 10.2 - The Trojan stands in the center, wearing a wolf skin and a weasel cap, with his bow and arrow, just as Homer describes. He raises his hands in a gesture of surrender to Odysseus, who wears a cap inspired by Homer’s description of the boar’s tusk helmet. Odysseus carries a sword, as Homer describes, and Diomedes to the right carries a spear. Both Greeks are in “heroic nudity.” Probably the comic exaggeration of the figures depends on a southern Italian so-called phlyax play, a burlesque dramatic form that developed in the Greek colonies of Italy in the fourth century bc. South Italian red-figure wine-mixing bowl, c. 380 bc.
Embassy to Achilles
Fig 9.1 - Achilles sits on a chair covered by a goat skin, his head wrapped in a cloak of mourning, his hand to his head in grief. He holds a gnarled staff. Opposite sits Odysseus, with his characteristic hat on his back, holding two javelins. Behind Odysseus stands the aged Phoenix with a staff similar to Achilles’, and on the right Patroklos looks on, leaning on his own staff. Ajax does not appear. Athenian red-figure vase, c. 480 bc, by Kleophrades.
The Duel Between Hector and Ajax
Fig 7.1 - Behind Ajax, on the left, stands Athena, protector of the Achaeans. She wears a helmet and the goatskin fetish (aegis) around her shoulders. With her left hand, she touches Ajax’s helmet, giving him strength, and holds a down-turned spear in her right hand. Ajax is dressed as a fifth-century hoplite, including shinguards, but is barefooted. He holds a hoplite shield (not a “tower shield”). Behind Hector on the right stands Apollo with his bow and a quiver over his shoulder, protector of the Trojans. Hector is shown in “heroic nudity.” Wounded in the chest with blood streaming out, he leans back to avoid the point of Ajax’s spear. Between the two figures, above Ajax’s shield, is a large stone, standing for the rocks the fighters threw at each other. Athenian red-figure wine-cup, 490–480 bc.
The Wounded Aeneas
Fig 5.1 - The bare-breasted Aphrodite stands to the left, her cloak around her head in a gesture typical of Roman gods. The physician Machaon cuts the missile from Aeneas’ leg, who stands stoically holding his spear, his sword at his side, dressed in a breastplate. The boy would be his son, Ascanius (or Iulus), famous from Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 19 bc). Other Trojan warriors stand in the background. Fresco from Pompeii, first century ad.
The Duel between Menelaos and Paris
Fig 3.2 - On the left, Helen, holding a piece of yarn (?), stands behind Menelaos as he draws his sword and attacks Paris, just as Homer describes. Paris holds a spear in his right hand and runs away, but Artemis—with her emblem, the bow—not Aphrodite, stands behind Paris, perhaps because Artemis always favors Trojan affairs. The warriors are dressed as typical fifth-century bc hoplites with breastplate and helmet, except that they do not have shinguards (greaves). Their shields have a strap for the arm and a handgrip, never found in Homer, where shields are suspended over the shoulder by a baldric (telamon); some shields are as large as the whole body (see Figure 4.1). The artist is recreating the scene to include elements he remembers from Homer’s story, but he is careless about details. Athenian red-figure wine cup found in Capua, Italy, c. 480 bc.
The Taking of Briseis
Fig 1.2 - Achilles sits in a chair holding his spear while Patroklos, his back turned to the viewer, a sword slung over his shouder, hands over Briseis to Agamemnon’s men. To the far left stands Talthybios with his herald’s wand. Achilles’ tutor Phoenix stands behind his chair. Four armed warriors stand at the back against the wall of the tent. Roman fresco from Pompeii, c. first century ad.
The Rage of Achilles
Fig 1.1 - The seated Agamemnon holds the scepter of authority and sits on a throne, his lower body wrapped in a robe. Achilles, in “heroic nudity,” pulls his sword from its scabbard (“heroic nudity” is an ancient artistic convention of unclear meaning, whereby heroes are shown without clothes). Athena seizes Achilles from behind by the hair. Roman mosaic from Pompeii, c. first century ad.
Barry B. Powell is Halls-Bascom Professor of Classics Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is the author of a new free verse translation of The Iliad by Homer. Read our previous posts on The Iliad.
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