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The Epic Tale of the Trojan War Described in 15 Artworks

Ten years of warfare, countless heroes killed, and Troy laid to waste, all because of a slighted goddess. Follow the epic tale of the Trojan War as told through art.

trojan art work painting
Detail from The Judgment of Paris by Peter Paul Rubens, 1638, via Museo Del Prado, Madrid; with Ceremonial saddle depicting the fall of troy, 1550-75, via the Ambrosiana Art Gallery, Milan

 

The marriage of Peleus, grandson of Zeus, to Thetis, daughter of the sea-god Nereus, was a major event on Mount Olympus. The happy couple invited every major and minor deity to the ceremony, with the understandable exception of Eris, goddess of discord. Furious at the slight, Eris appeared anyway, bringing with her a beautiful golden apple inscribed “To the fairest.” Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena immediately fell into a bitter argument as to which of them deserved the apple. 

 

When none of the gods dared to make the decision, they went to Paris, prince of Troy, and asked him to judge. To better their chances, each goddess offered Paris a further reward. Hera offered great power and Athena offered wisdom and prowess in battle. But Aphrodite offered marriage to the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris chose Aphrodite. Unfortunately, that woman, Helen, was already married to Menelaus of Sparta. When Paris stole away with the lovely Helen, Menelaus raised a great army of Greeks and settled into a long siege of Troy, known today as the Trojan War. 

 

Achilles Takes Insult Near The End Of The Trojan War

return of chryses jacopo alessandro
Chryses vainly soliciting the Return of Chryseis before the Tent of Agamemnon by Jacopo Alessandro Calvi, 1760-1815, via the National Trust Collections of Britain

 

Homer’s great epic, the Iliad, picks up in the final year of the great Trojan War. The besieging Greeks returned from a raiding party with spoils and captured women. The brother of Menelaus, Agamemnon, brought back the beautiful Chryseis daughter of Chryses, chief priest of Apollo. After Agamemnon roughly dismissed Chryses’ pleas for his daughter’s safe return, Apollo himself brought a plague against the Greeks. 

 

briseis tent of achilles jean-baptiste deshays
Briseis Led from the Tent of Achilles by Jean-Baptiste-Deshays, 1761, via Musée Des Augustins, Toulouse

 

Pressured by his men, in particular Achilles, leader of the Myrmidons, Agamemnon reluctantly agreed to return the girl. However, he spitefully insisted on taking Achilles’ captive woman, Briseis, as compensation. Slighted and irritated, Achilles withdrew his soldiers and resolved not to join in the fight again until the Greeks came crawling back to him, acknowledging how badly they needed him. He even asked his mother to plead with Zeus to ensure it.

 

The War Rages On

venus rescues paris duel menelaus
Venus Rescues Paris from his Duel with Menelaus by Johann Heinrich Tischbein, 1757, via Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel

 

Despite Achilles remaining sulking in his tent, the Trojan War continued unabated. Both armies deployed on the plain in front of Troy. Yet before the fighting was joined, Paris, goaded on by the disgust of his older brother Hector, offered to fight Menelaus in single combat to determine the outcome of the Trojan War and save the loss of more lives. Menelaus quickly gained the upper hand and would have dispatched the young prince. However, Aphrodite interfered and spirited Paris away back to his chambers. Meanwhile, a Trojan soldier broke the truce by shooting Menelaus with an arrow, and the battle joined in earnest. 

 

diamedes wounding aphrodite recover aeneas
Diomedes Wounding Aphrodite When She Tries To Recover The Body Of Aeneas by Arthur Heinrich Wilhelm Fitger,  via the Art Renewal Center

 

The advantage swung quickly between the two sides, as the gods and goddesses of Olympus chose their sides and joined in the fighting. Eventually, Athena, goddess of war, set the great Greek hero Diomedes in a berserk rage that devastated the Trojan forces. Diomedes even injured Aphrodite as she tried to protect her wounded mortal son, Aeneas. Apollo managed to save Aeneas, but Zeus called back all of the gods and goddesses and forbid them from continuing to fight. In another attempt to end the Trojan War by single combat, Hector challenged any Greek hero to face him. He fought a hard duel with Ajax, but the combat was called off due to the coming night.

 

duel hector ajax
The duel of Hector and Ajax on an Attic red-figure cup,  5th-4th century B.C., via The Louvre Museum, Paris

 

Battle For The Greek Ships

 

The next morning, Zeus undertook to ensure the promise he had made to Thetis. Zeus already held great affection for Hector. Now he fought at his side, sending Hector cutting through the Greek forces and driving them all the way back to their ships on the shoreline. The desperate Greeks appealed to Achilles, but still too angry, he refused to join the battle. As more Greek heroes took wounds, and the fighting raged closer and closer to the ships, Achilles’ closest friend Patroclus could no longer stand to remain out of the fight. He begged Achilles to allow him to join the battle, and Achilles finally agreed. He lent Patroclus his armor and warned him against pursuing the Trojans away from the ships towards Troy. 

 

achilles mourning patroclus
Achilles, Mourning Patroclus by Nikolai Ge, 1855, via the Belarusian Art Museum, Minsk

 

Leading the Myrmidons, Patroclus’s sudden arrival did manage to push back the Trojans. Unfortunately, he ignored Achilles’ warning and chased the routing enemy back towards the walls of Troy. At the gates of Troy, Hector finally managed to rally the Trojans and stand ground. In a fierce encounter, he killed Patroclus and stripped Achilles’ armor from the body. However, the Greeks managed to push the Trojans back long enough to recover the body itself, and this they sorrowfully returned to Achilles. 

 

The Wrath Of Achilles

hephaestus new armor achilles
Hephaestus Presents New Armor for Achilles to Thetis depicted on an Attic red-figure bowl, 490-80 B.C., in the Altes Museum, Berlin

 

In a spiral of grief and rage, Achilles was finally prepared to re-enter the Trojan War, swearing vengeance on Hector. With Achilles now returned, Zeus once again permitted the gods to support their chosen allies. Thetis immediately went to Hephaestus, the smith of the gods, and asked him to forge new armor for Achilles, as his previous set was lost to the Trojans on the battlefield. Despite prophecies warning of his death, Achilles determinedly headed to the battlefield, clad in his new armor and carrying his great shield. With Achilles at their head, the Greeks now plowed through their enemy, slaughtering Trojan warriors as they ran back towards the city gates. Apollo interfered long enough to allow the surviving Trojans to escape, but Hector remained. 

 

peter paul rubens death of hector
The Death of Hector by Peter Paul Rubens, 1630-35, via the Boijmans Museum, Rotterdam

 

Like Achilles, Hector had also heard prophecies of his own impending death. However, ashamed at the rout of his army and determined to continue the defense of Troy, he stayed on the field to face Achilles. As the raging hero came at him, however, his nerves failed, and he initially fled around the city. When he finally regained his courage to engage with Achilles, the enraged Achilles soon dispatched Hector, stabbing him through the neck.

 

The Final Stages Of The Trojan War

triumph of achilles franz matsch
The Triumph of Achilles by Franz Matsch, 1892, via the Corfu Achillion Museum

 

Yet even Hector’s painful death was not enough to appease Achilles’ enflamed grief. To the horror of the Trojans, watching from the walls, the Greek soldiers gathered around the body, piercing it repeatedly with their swords and spears as Achilles stripped Hector. Then, he fastened the body by slits in the ankles to his chariot, and drove at full speed around the city, dragging Hector ignobly in the dust. It was an unheard-of dishonor in the Classical world. Hector’s “mother tore her hair with a loud cry as she looked upon her son. His father made piteous moan, and throughout the city the people fell to weeping and wailing. Hardly could the people hold Priam back in his hot haste to rush without the gates of the city. He groveled in the mire and besought them, calling each one of them by his name. 

 

priam pleading achilles body hector
Priam Pleading with Achilles for the Body of Hector by Gavin Hamilton, 1775, via Tate, London

 

‘Let be, my friends,’ he cried, ‘and for all your sorrow, suffer me to go single-handed to the ships of the Achaeans. Let me beseech this cruel and terrible man, if maybe he will respect the feeling of his fellow-men, and have compassion on my old age.’” This mistreatment of Hector’s body even horrified the gods, and Zeus sent Hermes to guide Priam safely through the Greek lines to the tent of Achilles. There, Priam, falling on his knees before Achilles and kissing his hand, pleaded for the return of his son’s body. Moved to tears himself, Achilles wept with Priam and finally agreed to surrender the body for burial honors. 

 

The Trojan Horse

trojan horse procession troy
The Procession of the Trojan Horse into Troy by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, around 1760, via the National Gallery, London

 

It is here, at the funeral of Hector, that the Iliad completes its tale, yet the story of the Trojan War, as many will know, was still not over. The battle rejoined the next day, and Achilles killed numerous heroes of the Trojan lines. Many of those heroes were descendants of the gods, products of liaisons with mortal lovers. Eventually, all the gods concluded that Achilles had killed too many of their children. Apollo guided the hand of Paris, who shot Achilles in the heel with a poisoned arrow. Paris himself would fall to an arrow not long after, and soon, a final assault ended the war. 

 

wounded achilles filippo albacini
The Wounded Achilles by Filippo Albacini, 1825, via the British Museum, London

 

Aided by the cunning of Athena, Odysseus devised a plan to build a giant wooden horse. Hollowed out on the inside, it concealed Grecian warriors. They left it before the gates of Troy with the inscription the Greeks dedicate this offering to Athena in supplication for their safe return home. To complete the ruse, the Greeks sailed their ships around a headland, out of sight of the city walls. Although many Trojans were suspicious of the gift, a Greek spy managed to infiltrate and convinced them to keep the horse. When night fell, the Greek soldiers lept from the horse and opened the gates of Troy to their waiting comrades.

 

The City Falls And The Trojan War Ends

fall of troy daniel van heil
The Fall of Troy by Daniel van Heil, Private Collection

 

The ensuing slaughter continued throughout the night and into the next day. Although the Trojans fought desperately, they were overrun and could do nothing to stop the onslaught. Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, killed Priam at the altar of Zeus, and the leaderless Trojans either fled or fell. The Greeks carried off the Trojan women, flung Hector’s infant son from the walls of the city, and burned Troy to the ground. 

 

bernini aeneas
Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1618-19, via the Borghese Gallery, Rome

 

One of the few survivors of Troy was the hero Aeneas. He escaped with his father, his son, and a group of men and women who would eventually cross the Mediterranean to found Rome.

 

trojan art work painting
Detail from The Judgment of Paris by Peter Paul Rubens, 1638, via Museo Del Prado, Madrid; with Ceremonial saddle depicting the fall of troy, 1550-75, via the Ambrosiana Art Gallery, Milan

 

The marriage of Peleus, grandson of Zeus, to Thetis, daughter of the sea-god Nereus, was a major event on Mount Olympus. The happy couple invited every major and minor deity to the ceremony, with the understandable exception of Eris, goddess of discord. Furious at the slight, Eris appeared anyway, bringing with her a beautiful golden apple inscribed “To the fairest.” Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena immediately fell into a bitter argument as to which of them deserved the apple. 

 

When none of the gods dared to make the decision, they went to Paris, prince of Troy, and asked him to judge. To better their chances, each goddess offered Paris a further reward. Hera offered great power and Athena offered wisdom and prowess in battle. But Aphrodite offered marriage to the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris chose Aphrodite. Unfortunately, that woman, Helen, was already married to Menelaus of Sparta. When Paris stole away with the lovely Helen, Menelaus raised a great army of Greeks and settled into a long siege of Troy, known today as the Trojan War. 

 

Achilles Takes Insult Near The End Of The Trojan War

return of chryses jacopo alessandro
Chryses vainly soliciting the Return of Chryseis before the Tent of Agamemnon by Jacopo Alessandro Calvi, 1760-1815, via the National Trust Collections of Britain

 

Homer’s great epic, the Iliad, picks up in the final year of the great Trojan War. The besieging Greeks returned from a raiding party with spoils and captured women. The brother of Menelaus, Agamemnon, brought back the beautiful Chryseis daughter of Chryses, chief priest of Apollo. After Agamemnon roughly dismissed Chryses’ pleas for his daughter’s safe return, Apollo himself brought a plague against the Greeks. 

 

briseis tent of achilles jean-baptiste deshays
Briseis Led from the Tent of Achilles by Jean-Baptiste-Deshays, 1761, via Musée Des Augustins, Toulouse

 

Pressured by his men, in particular Achilles, leader of the Myrmidons, Agamemnon reluctantly agreed to return the girl. However, he spitefully insisted on taking Achilles’ captive woman, Briseis, as compensation. Slighted and irritated, Achilles withdrew his soldiers and resolved not to join in the fight again until the Greeks came crawling back to him, acknowledging how badly they needed him. He even asked his mother to plead with Zeus to ensure it.

 

The War Rages On

venus rescues paris duel menelaus
Venus Rescues Paris from his Duel with Menelaus by Johann Heinrich Tischbein, 1757, via Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel

 

Despite Achilles remaining sulking in his tent, the Trojan War continued unabated. Both armies deployed on the plain in front of Troy. Yet before the fighting was joined, Paris, goaded on by the disgust of his older brother Hector, offered to fight Menelaus in single combat to determine the outcome of the Trojan War and save the loss of more lives. Menelaus quickly gained the upper hand and would have dispatched the young prince. However, Aphrodite interfered and spirited Paris away back to his chambers. Meanwhile, a Trojan soldier broke the truce by shooting Menelaus with an arrow, and the battle joined in earnest. 

 

diamedes wounding aphrodite recover aeneas
Diomedes Wounding Aphrodite When She Tries To Recover The Body Of Aeneas by Arthur Heinrich Wilhelm Fitger,  via the Art Renewal Center

 

The advantage swung quickly between the two sides, as the gods and goddesses of Olympus chose their sides and joined in the fighting. Eventually, Athena, goddess of war, set the great Greek hero Diomedes in a berserk rage that devastated the Trojan forces. Diomedes even injured Aphrodite as she tried to protect her wounded mortal son, Aeneas. Apollo managed to save Aeneas, but Zeus called back all of the gods and goddesses and forbid them from continuing to fight. In another attempt to end the Trojan War by single combat, Hector challenged any Greek hero to face him. He fought a hard duel with Ajax, but the combat was called off due to the coming night.

 

duel hector ajax
The duel of Hector and Ajax on an Attic red-figure cup,  5th-4th century B.C., via The Louvre Museum, Paris

 

Battle For The Greek Ships

 

The next morning, Zeus undertook to ensure the promise he had made to Thetis. Zeus already held great affection for Hector. Now he fought at his side, sending Hector cutting through the Greek forces and driving them all the way back to their ships on the shoreline. The desperate Greeks appealed to Achilles, but still too angry, he refused to join the battle. As more Greek heroes took wounds, and the fighting raged closer and closer to the ships, Achilles’ closest friend Patroclus could no longer stand to remain out of the fight. He begged Achilles to allow him to join the battle, and Achilles finally agreed. He lent Patroclus his armor and warned him against pursuing the Trojans away from the ships towards Troy. 

 

achilles mourning patroclus
Achilles, Mourning Patroclus by Nikolai Ge, 1855, via the Belarusian Art Museum, Minsk

 

Leading the Myrmidons, Patroclus’s sudden arrival did manage to push back the Trojans. Unfortunately, he ignored Achilles’ warning and chased the routing enemy back towards the walls of Troy. At the gates of Troy, Hector finally managed to rally the Trojans and stand ground. In a fierce encounter, he killed Patroclus and stripped Achilles’ armor from the body. However, the Greeks managed to push the Trojans back long enough to recover the body itself, and this they sorrowfully returned to Achilles. 

 

The Wrath Of Achilles

hephaestus new armor achilles
Hephaestus Presents New Armor for Achilles to Thetis depicted on an Attic red-figure bowl, 490-80 B.C., in the Altes Museum, Berlin

 

In a spiral of grief and rage, Achilles was finally prepared to re-enter the Trojan War, swearing vengeance on Hector. With Achilles now returned, Zeus once again permitted the gods to support their chosen allies. Thetis immediately went to Hephaestus, the smith of the gods, and asked him to forge new armor for Achilles, as his previous set was lost to the Trojans on the battlefield. Despite prophecies warning of his death, Achilles determinedly headed to the battlefield, clad in his new armor and carrying his great shield. With Achilles at their head, the Greeks now plowed through their enemy, slaughtering Trojan warriors as they ran back towards the city gates. Apollo interfered long enough to allow the surviving Trojans to escape, but Hector remained. 

 

peter paul rubens death of hector
The Death of Hector by Peter Paul Rubens, 1630-35, via the Boijmans Museum, Rotterdam

 

Like Achilles, Hector had also heard prophecies of his own impending death. However, ashamed at the rout of his army and determined to continue the defense of Troy, he stayed on the field to face Achilles. As the raging hero came at him, however, his nerves failed, and he initially fled around the city. When he finally regained his courage to engage with Achilles, the enraged Achilles soon dispatched Hector, stabbing him through the neck.

 

The Final Stages Of The Trojan War

triumph of achilles franz matsch
The Triumph of Achilles by Franz Matsch, 1892, via the Corfu Achillion Museum

 

Yet even Hector’s painful death was not enough to appease Achilles’ enflamed grief. To the horror of the Trojans, watching from the walls, the Greek soldiers gathered around the body, piercing it repeatedly with their swords and spears as Achilles stripped Hector. Then, he fastened the body by slits in the ankles to his chariot, and drove at full speed around the city, dragging Hector ignobly in the dust. It was an unheard-of dishonor in the Classical world. Hector’s “mother tore her hair with a loud cry as she looked upon her son. His father made piteous moan, and throughout the city the people fell to weeping and wailing. Hardly could the people hold Priam back in his hot haste to rush without the gates of the city. He groveled in the mire and besought them, calling each one of them by his name. 

 

priam pleading achilles body hector
Priam Pleading with Achilles for the Body of Hector by Gavin Hamilton, 1775, via Tate, London

 

‘Let be, my friends,’ he cried, ‘and for all your sorrow, suffer me to go single-handed to the ships of the Achaeans. Let me beseech this cruel and terrible man, if maybe he will respect the feeling of his fellow-men, and have compassion on my old age.’” This mistreatment of Hector’s body even horrified the gods, and Zeus sent Hermes to guide Priam safely through the Greek lines to the tent of Achilles. There, Priam, falling on his knees before Achilles and kissing his hand, pleaded for the return of his son’s body. Moved to tears himself, Achilles wept with Priam and finally agreed to surrender the body for burial honors. 

 

The Trojan Horse

trojan horse procession troy
The Procession of the Trojan Horse into Troy by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, around 1760, via the National Gallery, London

 

It is here, at the funeral of Hector, that the Iliad completes its tale, yet the story of the Trojan War, as many will know, was still not over. The battle rejoined the next day, and Achilles killed numerous heroes of the Trojan lines. Many of those heroes were descendants of the gods, products of liaisons with mortal lovers. Eventually, all the gods concluded that Achilles had killed too many of their children. Apollo guided the hand of Paris, who shot Achilles in the heel with a poisoned arrow. Paris himself would fall to an arrow not long after, and soon, a final assault ended the war. 

 

wounded achilles filippo albacini
The Wounded Achilles by Filippo Albacini, 1825, via the British Museum, London

 

Aided by the cunning of Athena, Odysseus devised a plan to build a giant wooden horse. Hollowed out on the inside, it concealed Grecian warriors. They left it before the gates of Troy with the inscription the Greeks dedicate this offering to Athena in supplication for their safe return home. To complete the ruse, the Greeks sailed their ships around a headland, out of sight of the city walls. Although many Trojans were suspicious of the gift, a Greek spy managed to infiltrate and convinced them to keep the horse. When night fell, the Greek soldiers lept from the horse and opened the gates of Troy to their waiting comrades.

 

The City Falls And The Trojan War Ends

fall of troy daniel van heil
The Fall of Troy by Daniel van Heil, Private Collection

 

The ensuing slaughter continued throughout the night and into the next day. Although the Trojans fought desperately, they were overrun and could do nothing to stop the onslaught. Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, killed Priam at the altar of Zeus, and the leaderless Trojans either fled or fell. The Greeks carried off the Trojan women, flung Hector’s infant son from the walls of the city, and burned Troy to the ground. 

 

bernini aeneas
Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1618-19, via the Borghese Gallery, Rome

 

One of the few survivors of Troy was the hero Aeneas. He escaped with his father, his son, and a group of men and women who would eventually cross the Mediterranean to found Rome.

 

Marian Vermeulen
Marian Vermeulen
Marian has been a devoted student of the ancient world since primary school. She received her BA in History and Philosophy from Hope College and has continued researching and writing on topics of ancient history from the Assyrian Empire to the Roman Empire and everything in between. She enjoys dabbling in historical fiction, but generally finds the actual true individuals of history and their stories more fascinating than any fictional invention. Her other passion is horses, and in her spare time she enjoys starting young horses under saddle and volunteer training for the local horse rescue.

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