This article was originally published on Ancient World Magazine. It is archived on this website with the kind permission of the author.
Recently, I read the winning Greek essay in the 2018 Paideia Institute High School Essay contest “‘Away Hector fled in fear’: Homer’s humanization of war” by Kim Montpelier.
In this (excellent) essay, Montpelier describes how in the Iliad the story of war is “raw and human,” and contrasts this with modern popular culture in which war is the battle of good versus evil that erases complexity and dehumanizes the “evil” side. While we may take sides in the Trojan War, it cannot be said that either side is “inhuman”.
While reading, I was thinking about Ursula K Le Guin’s essay “Papa H” (which I’ve quoted extensively in my articles for this website), in which she argues: “The Trojan War is not and you cannot make it be the War of Good vs. Evil” (2017, pp. 53-54).
But then my tweets on the subject prompted a discussion about how in antiquity the Greeks were already being presented as the “bad guys” of the Trojan War – and by Greeks.
In terms of literature, Euripides’ Troades is a prime example, although Aeschylus in his Oresteia presents a more complicated view of Agamemnon than does the Odyssey, and much later the Trojans become not only the “good guys”, but the ultimate winners in Virgil’s Aeneid.
But the earlier we go, the more ambiguous these ideas become. The case can be illustrated by two vases, centuries apart, in which the sack of Troy is depicted in very different ways. Furthermore, these vases allow us to see how context allows different viewers to read a scene differently, but also how artists can guide interpretation of their work.
A hydria by the Kleophrades Painter
The vase I want to discuss first is an early red-figure hydria attributed to the Kleophrades Painter, dated to the early fifth century BC (Beazley Archive, no. 201724). A scene from this vase has been used as this article’s featured image. In his handbook Athenian Red Figure Vases: The Archaic Period, John Boardman describes it thus (1997, p. 94):
the Sack of Troy is depicted as never before or since: not merely the cruelty – sacrilege, murder, rape, despair – but courage too, the Trojan woman fighting back with her pestle (the only courageous acts here are by Trojans); and liberation, old Aithra bemused at rescue by her grandsons; and hope, Aeneas’ escape with his son and father: the last two scenes turning away from the horrors between, the whole a comment on the emotion and excesses involved in the sack of a great city.
Although one risks committing Antony Snodgrass’s “positivist fallacy”, it is difficult to look at this hydria without thinking about Athens’ history at the time of its painting. (Snodgrass addresses a similar issue regarding the influence of the Persian War on cultural change in the final chapter of his Archaic Greece (1980); particularly on pages 212-213.)
In 480 BC, under the threat of the Persian invasion, Athens was temporarily abandoned and subsequently sacked. Boardman suggests that from their position at Salamis, the Athenians could have looked back and seen their city burned. The story of the Trojan War would have been widely, if not universally known at this point; it is easy to see how such an event could have inspired empathy with the Trojans and influenced subsequent art.
How does the Kelophrades Painter project this empathy? Consider the shape on which it was depicted: a hydria, the decoration running all the way around the shoulder, from one side of the pouring handle to the other. Front and centre is the youthful, beardless Neoptolemus poised to strike the bald, elderly Priam, seated with the bleeding body of Astyanax across his knees, covering his head with his arms.
To the left, two Trojan women crouch with their hands on their head near the statue of Athena, at which Cassandra, her naked body shown frontally, is approached by the lesser Ajax who will rape her. Divine judgement is implied by the position of the spear of the statue of Athena, pointing at Ajax’s chest – but it does not yet happen.
Aeneas has his back to this scene, his efforts to escape with his elderly father and tiny son mirroring Priam’s murder, but also emphasising the absence of Trojan men – at the feet of both Ajax and Neoptolemus lie the fully-armoured Trojan warriors, dead.
While these scenes emphasise the Trojans’ defencelessness, to the right we see them fighting back. A Trojan woman with a pestle looms over a crouching Greek hero, defending herself in the absence of the army. Finally, two Greek soldiers – one of whom is perhaps Acamas, the son of Theseus – rescue Aethra, Theseus’ mother, who was Helen’s slave. Helen herself does not appear on this vase.
The Kleophrades Painter puts front and centre the deplorable actions of the Greeks during the sack and emphasises the Trojans’ defencelessness. In the context of the Persian sack of Athens we can see how Athenians might empathize with such a rendering.
Nevertheless, we must be cautious about assigning too much empathy to the Athenians on this point. Contemporary artists were not averse to depicting rape as a victorious act. Richard Neer interprets an amphora by the Athenian painter Myson as an allusion to the Sack of Sardis in the Ionian revolt (498 BC): on one side is the Lydian king Croesus; on the other, Theseus’ abduction of the Amazon Antiope (2012, p. 212):
By showing Antipoe in Persian attire, the painter elevates the myth to the level of political allegory: the Athenian hero’s rape of the barbarian woman celebrates the recent sack of Sardis. The implication is that Persians are like women: as usual, gender is a convenient way for Greeks to think about power and violence. Such images are characteristic of Athens under the democracy: anxiety over the status of freeborn males produced a toxic combination of misogyny and xenophobia.
When it suited them, the Athenians could empathise with the defeated; but there are still times when we can interpret their art as celebrating their own destruction of a city – although while they may use sexual violence, they did not use the Trojan War to do so.
The Mykonos Relief Pithos
Two centuries earlier, ca. 675 BC, another Greek vessel, this time a pithos from Mykonos, is the earliest known depiction of the Wooden Horse and the Sack of Troy. Josho has discussed this vessel elsewhere on this site, so I won’t go into too much detail about the scenes. Briefly, on the neck we see the Greeks arming themselves as they exit the horse; on the body, a series of panels show armed Greek warriors murdering Trojan children and (presumably) abducting Trojan women.
Given the content of the scenes it’s easy for modern viewers to empathise with the women and children and to condemn the murderous Greeks. As Susanne Ebbinghaus puts it: “For the modern viewer, the Mykonos Pithos is foremost a portrayal of the brutality of war and its fatal consequences for the civilian population” (2005, p. 51-52).
But unlike the Kleophrades Painter’s hydria, there is little in the scenes to draw us to the conclusion that the ancient viewer would empathise with the women and children rather than the warriors. The women do not cower and there is no obvious depiction of the sacrilegious rape of Cassandra nor the murder of Priam. Only one warrior is depicted dead – an undefiled body front and centre of the top row of panels.
Ebbinghaus interprets this as Hector, whose death led to Troy being unprotected and thus as a warning to aristocrats to protect their cities (2005, pp. 66-68). But in the Iliad at least Hector died some time before the Horse breached the walls; perhaps rather this is Echion, who died jumping from the horse, although the sources for the character are late (Apollod. Epit. E.5.20, available on Perseus).
We do not know whether or not Mykonos had been sacked in the early seventh century, although we might suspect that the threat was apparent even if it never came to be. Ebbinghaus notes that war and raids were the reality of the seventh century BC (2005, p. 68). But we may just as similarly assume that the men of Mykonos could have sacked other cities themselves, revelling in the spoils and plunder.
We might question why such an image would appear on a storage vessel – Ebbinghaus begins by doing so (2005, pp. 51-52), and concludes that it is a warning about what will happen if the defence fails. However, it may equally serve as inspiration to go out and do exactly what it depicts; to raid, rather than to be raided. In the Archaic Period wars and raids often ended with the massacre of the men and enslavement of their dependents (Van Wees 2004, pp. 121-26); we cannot assume that seventh century Greeks would have believed that this was universally a bad thing.
Interpretation of the Mykonos pithos should change depending on the context of whomever we imagine looking at the vessel: men – warriors – may see glory, plunder, and pillage; women and perhaps children the looming threat of invasion and the tragic consequences for them (contrariwise, women and children may also have seen the bounty with which their husbands and fathers might return; and men the consequences of their failure). It is bad to be sacked, but good to do the sacking.
Concluding thoughts: modern warfare
Montpelier compared warfare in the Iliad to contemporary depictions of war in fantastical stories – Batman and the Joker; Harry Potter and Voldemort; James Bond and whomever is his enemy at the time. In modern depictions of mythic warfare our heroes are allowed to compromise themselves to defeat a villain who is simply evil, without nuance.
Notable is the change depicted in former Stormtrooper Finn in Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, who goes from horror as a friend is killed to whooping as he shoots down his former allies. (The consequences of which are explained in detail in a video by Jonathan Macintosh.) In Star Wars movies past, Darth Vader could redeem himself, but only by dying; meanwhile Kylo Ren is simply irredeemable.
The concerns of the Trojan War are fundamentally different to these modern myths and it is also the case that neither side remains uncompromised. But although they are egged on by the gods neither one side nor the other is morally superior, and both have their heroes and villains. After all, it is Alexander’s breach of Menelaus’ hospitality that sparks the war in the first place, and the destruction of Troy is ordained by the gods.
It was – and is – possible in ancient myths to see these nuances. It is becoming more difficult in the modern world.