Slaughter at the Altar: The Career of Neoptolemus at Troy in the Epic Cycle and Beyond

Edward Bertany
In his Description of Greece, Pausanias provides an extremely detailed ekphrasis of the famous murals completed by Polygnotus in the first half of the fifth century BCE at the Cnidian Lesche, a type of clubhouse, in Delphi. In addition to describing the action in the paintings, Pausanias opines on the possible literary sources for the works, and comes to the determination that a poem that he attributes to Lesches, cited by many as the creator of the Little Iliad, must have been Polygnotus’ main inspiration (καθὰ δὴ καὶ Λέσχεως ὁ Αἰσχυλίνου Πυρραῖος ἐν Ἰλίου πέρσιδι ἐποίησε, 10.25.5). Although he refers to this poem as an Iliou Persis, he later points to many variances between Lesches’ poem and an existing majority or canonical version (ὁ πλείων λόγος, 10.27.1), a reference to the Iliou Persis itself, which is often attributed to Arctinus of Miletus. [1] Perhaps the most significant variance between these poems centered around the death of Priam at the hands of Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus. This theme was quite popular in antiquity. Many sixth-century vase paintings and poets such as Pindar and tragedians such as Euripides depicted the old man’s demise.
Through a selective sampling of these later works, this paper will demonstrate that the two depictions of the death of Priam from the Epic Cycle served as the broad parameters from which subsequent individual artists manipulated the scene for their own particular thematic purposes, often exploiting the varying traditions in the epics for a powerful dramatic and visual effect. By analyzing trends temporally and geographically, I will show that the depictions in these subsequent works exhibit thematic divergences from one another that may have existed in the fragmentary poems themselves, and therefore the later works can also provide a productive avenue for a comparative, though admittedly speculative, reconstruction the source material in the epics. Finally, by employing Pausanias’ description of the Cnidian Lesche, I will argue that the section of the Little Iliad that detailed the sack of Troy, though not included in Proclus’ summaries, rivaled the Iliou Persis in its influence throughout antiquity.
If we find Pausanias at all credible, it appears that the poems from the Epic Cycle did not always match the neat epitomes that Proclus gives us in his Chrystomathy and that these poems could be longer and more complex than the summaries might suggest. [2] Moreover, the poems from the Epic Cycle could pursue fundamentally different themes while covering the same subject matter. Indeed, one of the most iconic moments of the sack of Troy, the death of Priam at the hands of Neoptolemus, receives two distinct treatments in the Epic Cycle, a fact that is not apparent in Proclus. In the Iliou Persis, Neoptolemus infiltrates the walls of Troy and quickly dispatches Priam as he attempts to take refuge at the altar of Zeus Herkeios (Proclus Chrystomathy 19–20). [3] According to Pausanias, however, in the Little Iliad, Priam is pulled away from the altar and killed by Neoptolemus at the doors of the palace (Description of Greece 10.27.2). This is much more than a subtle distinction. Given the religious consequences of Neoptolemus’ actions at the altar, the positioning of Priam’s body could either highlight or comparatively mitigate an act of sacrilege, and a representation of this scene is thus freighted with symbolic meaning.
Aside from the limited fragments from the poems of the Epic Cycle and allusions to the scene in the Iliad and the Odyssey, the earliest extant evidence we have for the thematic treatment of the death of Priam and all its attendant circumstances is found on vase paintings and reliefs. One of the most ancient examples of iconography that depict the sack of Troy is the Mykonos pithos (Mykonos Museum 2240, Catalog 2), [4] dating to the second quarter of the seventh century. In a series of individual frames, this pithos shows the wooden horse, a reunion between Helen and Menelaus, and various scenes of women and children either being enslaved or murdered. Although the execution of Priam is not highlighted, several panels reveal scenes that are evocative of a character that will eventually become intimately intertwined with the death of the old man, his sole remaining grandson, Astyanax, son of Hector and Andromache. In his summary of the Iliou Persis, Proclus, without any elaboration, states that the child is killed by Odysseus (Chrystomathy 30), but in the Little Iliad, according to Pausanias, Neoptolemus does the deed, and he does so not at the urging of the other Greeks but of his own volition, hurling the child from the palace tower: γέγραπται μὲν Ἀνδρομάχη, καὶ ὁ παῖς οἱ προσέστηκεν ἑλόμενος τοῦ μαστοῦ—τούτῳ Λέσχεως ῥιφθέντι ἀπὸ τοῦ πύργου συμβῆναι λέγει τὴν τελευτήν: οὐ μὴν ὑπὸ δόγματός γε Ἑλλήνων, ἀλλ᾽ ἰδίᾳ Νεοπτόλεμον αὐτόχειρα ἐθελῆσαι γενέσθαι (Andromache is in the painting, and near stands her boy grasping her breast; this child Lescheos says was put to death by being flung from the tower, not that the Greeks had so decreed, but Neoptolemus, of his own accord, was minded to murder him, 10.25.9). [5] Therefore, it is quite noteworthy that on the seventh-century pithos there are several panels that show a Greek soldier grasping a dangling child by the foot while a women piteously and helplessly looks on with arms outstretched in supplication [Figure 1].
As Anderson sensibly cautions, these panels could simply be generic scenes of the violent excesses of war, [6] and several vignettes show the death of children, making it impossible to determine if there is a specific reference to the murder of Astyanax on the pithos. This boy, however, will later become a principal character in the trend of the ever-increasing vilification of Neoptolemus, a movement that surfaces in Attic vase paintings during the late-archaic and early-classical periods. Starting in the mid-sixth century a distinctive iconography emerges surrounding the death of Priam, and the images fuse together in a way that combines the most notorious charges against Neoptolemus from the early literary sources. In these visual depictions the death of Priam occurs at the altar of Zeus Herkeios, as portrayed in the Iliou Persis, and the murder of Astyanax is perpetrated by Neoptolemus, a plot detail from the Little Iliad. These representations, though, are not content solely to merge elements from the two literary traditions, they actually integrate the murder of the child into the death scene of Priam.
The Attic vase paintings go well beyond the artistic strategy of presenting disparate events synoptically, and Astyanax in fact becomes the implement by which Neoptolemus executes Priam at the altar. In a black-figure amphora by Lydos dated to ca. 540 BCE (Louvre, Catalog 4), for example, Neoptolemus is shown standing over Priam, who lies on the altar flanked by two women in a attitude of supplication. Rather than hurling the young boy from the tower, Neoptolemus holds the boy threateningly over Priam, as if he will either, as Anderson conjectures, [7] hurl the boy at the king or, more sinister yet, use the body as an instrument to bludgeon the old man to death. Indeed, this tableau, which became increasingly more common, is constructed to portray Neoptolemus as a type of sacrificial executioner, with Priam as the victim at the altar, and the body of Astyanax, which slopes in a curved shape in the grasp of the warrior, substituting for a sword.
The overarching strategy of Attic vase paintings from this era was to employ visual cues, both simple and innovative, to cause the viewer to sympathize with Priam and to condemn Neoptolemus as a type of sacrilegious assassin. The simple juxtaposition is captured by Miller, who states, “from the start, the pictorial and literary traditions make Priam a sympathetic figure; good painters note his frailty … a contrast between the armed Neoptolemos and and the draped Priam accentuates the contrast between vigorous youth and impotent old age.” [8] An Attic red-figure cup from the early fifth century by Onesimos [Malibu, Catalog 16, Figure 2] is illustrative of some of the more complex devices that vase painters employed in their effort to draw the viewers’ focus toward acts of sacrilege perpetrated by the Greeks at Troy. The central portion of the cup portrays the by then visually canonical version of Priam’s death, with Neoptolemus advancing toward him with the body of Astyanax as the old man raises up his hands while seeking sanctuary at the altar. Lest the inattentive viewer miss the theme of sacrilege, Onesimos has inscribed the god’s epithet, “Herkeios,” of the hearth, next to the altar. [9] In the same scene stands Polyxene, who, according to the Iliou Persis, will eventually be sacrificed at the tomb of Achilles. Along the perimeter of the cup, other scenes of sacrilege and failed supplication abound. The figure of Cassandra, for example, is framed against a background of giant tripods, and she is shown clinging desperately to the statue of Athena and cowering at the prospect of an advancing Ajax.
In this representation and others like it, Neoptolemus has become the gravitational center for the constellation of sacrilegious excesses committed by the Greeks during the sack of Troy. To create this effect, the artists sample from various sources and traditions. In many cases, the actions of Neoptolemus are rendered in such a way as to represent him as a negative extension of his father. In the Cypria, according to the summary by Proclus, Achilles ambushes and kills the child Troilos at the shrine of Thymbrean Apollo (Chrestomathy 79–83). Later vase paintings depict Achilles hurling the child at approaching Trojans, perhaps serving as a model for the conflation of Priam and Astyanax episodes. [10] In the prevailing iconography of Attic vase paintings, then, Neoptolemus has become a one-dimensional caricature of his father’s anger, blood-lust, and even sacrilege. The young man’s rampage is unmitigated and knows no bounds.
Neoptolemus’ refusal to grant Priam refuge at the altar, however, contrasts strongly with the celebrated, if not characteristic, case of his father’s clemency, which also involves Priam, namely the Trojan king’s surreptitious entry into the Achaean camp to ransom the body of Hector (Iliad 24.485–670). Of course, it is comparatively difficult to generate a nuanced character in a visual medium, but literary sources corroborate and dwell on the distinctions between Achilles and his son. Virgil, for example, grants Priam an extended dialogue with Neoptolemus, after the king has watched his son Polites perish:

At tibi pro scelere,” exclamat, “pro talibus ausis,
di, si qua est caelo pietas, quae talia curet,
persolvant grates dignas et praemia reddant
debita, qui nati coram me cernere letum
fecisti et patrios foedasti funere voltus.
At non ille, satum quo te mentiris, Achilles
talis in hoste fuit Priamo … ”

Aeneid 2.535–41
And [Priam] called out, “for sake of your crime and such brazen actions
may the gods, if there is any piety in heaven that matters,
pay off these worthy kindnesses and return the reward
that is due. You have forced me to look face to face at the death of my son
and befouled fathers’ visages with death.
But not like that was the one you presume your sire, Achilles,
against his opponent Priam.” [11]

As the scene moves inexorably toward the death of Priam, Virgil first brings attention to the violation of the familial realm, with a father forced to view the death of his own son. This act alone is heinous enough, and, according to Nagy, represented in antiquity as a type of figurative blinding. [12] Indeed, according to Priam, these violations are sufficient to bring about the condemnation of the gods.

When Priam highlights the immorality of Neoptolemus’ rupturing the inner sanctum of the family, his recrimination is not contained to the Trojan palace. It also reflects a schism in the house of Peleus and a denial of the close ties that were a major thematic concern of the Little Iliad. According to the summary by Proclus, this poem fostered close links between father and son. Odysseus, for example, fetches Neoptolemus from Scyros and gives him the armor of Achilles, whose shade then appears before his son (Chrestomathy 12–13). Of the two poems that narrate the sack of Troy, only the Little Iliad concerns itself with the close bond between Achilles and Neoptolemus—affinities that Priam steadfastly refutes in the Aeneid—as the fragments and testimony concerning the Iliou Persis are comparatively devoid of this theme.
Priam’s charges not only have little effect on impudent, young warrior but even elicit a response that reveals the extent to which Neoptolemus revels in his own decadence. Mockingly, the young warrior tells Priam that, when the old man reaches the underworld, he should take care to announce to Achilles the degenerate actions of his son above:

… “Referes ergo haec et nuntius ibis
Pelidae genitori; illi mea tristia facta
degeneremque Neoptolemum narrare memento.
Nunc morere.” Hoc dicens altaria ad ipsa trementem
traxit et in multo lapsantem sanguine nati …

“So go as a messenger and report these events
to my father, son of Peleus; of my grievous actions
and his degenerate Neoptolemus be sure to tell.
“Now die!” Uttering this he dragged the trembling Priam to the high altar
as the king slipped in the copious blood of his son.
The warrior’s boast evokes the underworld scene in the Odyssey as well traditions of the Epic Cycle. When Odysseus narrates the sack of Troy to Achilles, he makes no mention of Neoptolemus’ role in the death of Priam (11.530-5). Based on an assumption of an active interchange between the poems within the oral tradition, this omission can be seen as evidence that Odysseus is suppressing the less savory actions of Neoptolemus at Troy in the belief that Achilles would not interpret the actions of his son favorably. [13]
At first glance, the slaughter at the altar in Virgil accords nicely with tradition of the Iliou Persis, and Astyanax is notably absent, but the Little Iliad asserts itself on several levels and ultimately overshadows its counterpart from the Epic Cycle as a source for this scene. In particular, when Neoptolemus actively drags Priam toward the altar to slaughter his victim, this action completely inverts the goal of motion found in the Little Iliad relative to the altar: Πρίαμον δὲ οὐκ ἀποθανεῖν ἔφη Λέσχεως ἐπὶ τῇ ἐσχάρᾳ τοῦ Ἑρκείου, ἀλλὰ ἀποσπασθέντα ἀπὸ τοῦ βωμοῦ πάρεργον τῷ Νεοπτολέμῳ πρὸς ταῖς τῆς οἰκίας γενέσθαι θύραις (Lescheos says that Priam was not killed at the hearth of the Courtyard God, but that he was dragged away from the altar and fell easy prey to Neoptolemus at the gate of his own palace, Description of Greece, 10.27.2). Although it is difficult to tell from Pausanias’ account if Neoptolemus was the one who dragged Priam away from the altar, one group of Homeric Cups, which give the Little Iliad of Lesches as its source, attributes this active role to him. [14] By first dragging Priam to the altar, Virgil’s Neoptolemus reaches a height of sacrilegious audacity that rivals if not surpasses what is found in the Attic vase paintings. Whereas the iconographic representations achieved their effect by blending the most incriminating elements from the relevant cyclic poems, Virgil achieves his mainly by inverting crucial details from the Little Iliad.
If Virgil inverts significant plot details from the Little Iliad, his characterization of Priam and Neoptolemus could also have followed a similar pattern and thus could provide some insights into the more subtle aspects of the cyclic poem that are lost to us. In Virgil, Neoptolemus enters the inner court of Priam not out of premeditation but rather in pursuit of swift Polites, who then dies at his father’s feet. Once he does spy Priam, however, Neoptolemus takes advantage of the opportunity, and his actions conform in many ways to the preliminary rites of sacrifice, which are here thoroughly perverted. In traditional sacrificial offerings, for example, any sign of fear or panic from the victim would invalidate the ceremony. [15] Virgil, however, presents a Priam who is the opposite of a willing victim. In an innovative depiction, he endows the king with a combative disposition, with the old man even launching an ineffectual spear at one point (2.543–44). But in the end, Priam is led trembling (trementem, 2.550) to the altar, where he is decapitated.
A useful framework to evaluate such ritualistic killings is established by Henrichs, who differentiates between ritual murder and its metaphorical extension, a homicide that results from non-ritual violence, where the latter employs the language or symbolism of the former—the difference between, say, the sacrifice of Iphigeneia and the murder of Agamemnon. [16] He also points out that a willing victim could partially mitigate the severity and repercussions of killings that fall within this framework. [17] Although Henrichs here is referring to the many instances of perverted sacrifice in Greek tragedy, the discussion can also be productively applied to Roman literature and even politics. The murder of T. Gracchus, for example, which occurred at the temple of Jupiter, was said to be designed by P. Scipio Nasica, at that time the Pontifex Maximus, to conform to the religious intervention of a consecratio, and Gracchus was reputed to offer little resistance. [18] In contrast, the actions of Neoptolemus at the altar in the Aeneid thoroughly corrupt any semblance of justice or sanctity that a would-be agent of such a practice might envision, and the young man actually seems to relish the degenerate role of a reprobate.
In both the Aeneid and the Little Iliad, the corpse of Priam ends up abandoned at the fringes of the palace, but the route it takes to get there is significantly different. The final disposition of Priam’s body in the Aeneid not only serves as an allusion to its predecessor from the Epic Cycle but also throws additional emphasis on the contrast between traditional animal sacrifice, which ends is a banquet, and the perverted form practiced by Neoptolemus. It is perhaps not surprising that the Neoptolemus portrayed in Virgil is an unambiguous character. The vignette, after all, is told from the perspective of Aeneas, and the vilification of Neoptolemus is in keeping with Virgil’s programmatic effort to align Roman mythical history with its supposed Trojan roots. But, by inverting Neoptolemus’ goal of motion relative to the altar and by decoupling the characteristic familial link between Achilles and his son that was so thematically prominent in the Little Iliad, Virgil shows familiarity with this Cyclic poem and also engages in a polemic with it.
If such strong oppositions existed in Virgil, one can speculate that, in the poem ascribed to Lesches, Neoptolemus was depicted as actively attempting to avert the charge of sacrilege, and was thus portrayed in a more favorable, or at least more nuanced, light. Nevertheless, even in this version of events, Neoptolemus cannot be fully exculpated of his crimes within the gates of Troy. He still technically violates the rights of the supplicant, [19] and, from Pausanias’ editorialization, it is clear that his list of victims, including Astyanax, far exceeds the number in the Iliou Persis. [20] Though motivated by revenge and bloodlust, Neoptolemus’ actions in the Little Iliad are still circumscribed by some semblance of a moral code. In comparison, the Neoptolemus of Virgil is the epitome of the sacrilegious executioner who wantonly seeks out the altar to slaughter Priam in this symbolically charged setting.
The interaction between Priam and Neoptolemus in the Aeneid gives an illustration of the type of depth that could have existed in the poems from the Epic Cycle and that we can only glimpse through the iconographic and literary treatments that followed them. Moreover, the polemic between the Aeneid and Little Iliad highlights the range of meanings that can be projected on the character Neoptolemus, a range that was perhaps mirrored in the two poems from the Epic Cycle that are salient to this discussion. Thus far, I have focused on scenes of the sack of Troy that have increasingly emphasized the sacrilege of Neoptolemus, but a more nuanced version of events is evident in the Polygnotus painting, as suggested by the positioning of Priam’s body at the time of his death. While Virgil’s portrayal of Neoptolemus was rather one-sided, others have used Neoptolemus as a vehicle for a more subtle psychological and political character study.
In Sophocles’ play Philoctetes, the young Neoptolemus is riven by a complex set of competing impulses. Although the play is set during a point of time that preceded the young hero’s direct entry into the Trojan war, the future events loom large over the action. Neoptolemus has been recruited by Odysseus to retrieve, by guile, the abandoned warrior Philoctetes and his bow. If he is successful, Neoptolemus will satisfy one of the prophecies of Helenus that set out the necessary conditions for the successful capture of Troy. But the duplicitous stratagem of Odysseus does not sit well with the son of Achilles, as evidenced by his initial reaction:

ἔφυν γὰρ οὐδὲν ἐκ τέχνης πράσσειν κακῆς,
οὔτ᾽ αὐτὸς οὔθ᾽, ὥς φασιν, οὑκφύσας ἐμέ.
ἀλλ᾽ εἴμ᾽ ἑτοῖμος πρὸς βίαν τὸν ἄνδρ᾽ ἄγειν
καὶ μὴ δόλοισιν …
πεμφθείς γε μέντοι σοὶ ξυνεργάτης ὀκνῶ
προδότης καλεῖσθαι: βούλομαι δ᾽, ἄναξ, καλῶς
δρῶν ἐξαμαρτεῖν μᾶλλον ἢ νικᾶν κακῶς.

Philoctetes 87–93
I was not born to act on false contrivance,
nor, so they tell me, was my father. I
will freely lend myself to take the man
by force, not guile …
And yet I came to help, and would not willingly
be called a traitor. Prince, I would prefer
to fail with honor than to win by evil. [21]

Some have seen the internal conflict within Neoptolemus as evidence of an ephebic coming-of-age rite where young men are initially put through tests that require guile and deception, [22] but this analysis fails to capture the psychological complexity inherent in Neoptolemus’ actions throughout the play. When Neoptolemus acquiesces to the plan of Odysseus only to reverse course when faced with the pleas of the suffering Philoctetes, Sophocles shows us what can happen when the young man’s inherited qualities, both real and perceived, come into conflict with the actual “dilemmas of life.” [23]

As in the Aeneid, the young man’s dead father is held up as a positive exemplar. In Virgil’s epic, Priam quite selectively dwells on the rare instance of pity and compassion that Achilles evinced, and he then hurls this as an insult at Neoptolemus when the young man fails to exhibit similar qualities. Additional aspects of Achilles’ character are on display and held up for approbation in the play by Sophocles. Here, Neoptolemus aspires to attain the spirit of heroic action of his father, while Philoctetes lauds the dead warrior’s general arete. These qualities are set in opposition the treacherous plan of Odysseus, who is amorally willing to sacrifice any ideals he may have in order to achieve temporal goals, as suggested by his wheedling efforts to influence the young man: νῦν δ᾽ εἰς ἀναιδὲς ἡμέρας μέρος βραχὺ / δός μοι σεαυτόν, κᾆτα τὸν λοιπὸν χρόνον / κέκλησο πάντων εὐσεβέστατος βροτῶν (Now, however, give yourself to me for one brief, shameless day, and then for the rest of time may you be called the most righteous of all humankind, 83–85). The attempts of Odysseus to persuade Neoptolemus have justifiably been called sophistic, [24] and his character would certainly have found censure in an Athenian audience. [25]
Although the characteristics associated with Neoptolemus’ paternal inheritance are put to the test in the play, Sophocles also shows that the young man operates within the confines of his literary inheritance. The figure of the old, wounded and abandoned Philoctetes casts a piteous sight that is reminiscent of the many depictions of Priam throughout antiquity. And Sophocles pushes those parallels further by taking pains to indicate that Philoctetes is a supplicant to the whims of Neoptolemus. We can perhaps imagine Priam uttering similar words at the altar of Zeus Herkeios when Philoctetes pleads for Neoptolemus to take him away from Lemnos: νεῦσον, πρὸς αὐτοῦ Ζηνὸς ἱκεσίου, τέκνον, / πείσθητι: προσπίτνω σε γόνασι, καίπερ ὢν / ἀκράτωρ ὁ τλήμων, χωλός (Consent—by the god of suppliants, child, I pray, listen: I fall upon my knees, though I am weak and lame and wretched, 484–486). Later, when Philoctetes has been rendered helpless by the removal of his bow, an act that the old man views in terms of a death sentence (931), Neoptolemus is moved by pity and he attempts to correct his earlier act of deceit by offering the weapon back. The young man’s evolution can be viewed as a positive maturation process, as the warrior ultimately combines words and deeds to persuade Philoctetes to participate in the campaign. At the conclusion of the play, the injunctions of Heracles reveal the divine will of Zeus and provide a pathway for both characters to assimilate into positive roles in society. The closing words of Heracles, however, also suggest something more ominous. When the deified hero states, τοῦτο δ᾽ ἐννοεῖθ᾽: ὅταν / πορθῆτε γαῖαν, εὐσεβεῖν τὰ πρὸς θεούς: / ὡς τἄλλα πάντα δεύτερ᾽ ἡγεῖται πατὴρ Ζεύς (When you spoil the land, remember this: to reverence the gods; for of all things that is the most important to father Zeus, 1440–1443), it foreshadows the critical decision that Neoptolemus will face in the inner sanctum of Priam’s palace at the altar of Zeus.
The generally positive trajectory of Neoptolemus in the play of Sophocles stands in contrast to the unmitigated negative portrayals witnessed in the Attic vase paintings and in Virgil, but the wide range of interpretations is predicated on the two strands of tradition that are evident in the Cyclic poems themselves. A closer look at Pausanias’ description of the paintings at the Cnidian Lesche will show that the Little Iliad varied widely from its epic counterpart, the Iliou Persis, in its portrayal of the events at Troy. It was Pausanias’ position that the Little Iliad’s version of the sack of Troy was the more obscure one, and he therefore often took the time to point out when the events being depicted on the mural at Delphi accorded more with the less-popular story. His description, which was so detailed that it has allowed for several recent attempts at reconstruction, [26] can thus be used as a reasonable proxy for what may have been contained in the poem itself, particularly where he makes explicit mention of Lesches.
Using a complex visual scheme, Polygnotus painted scenes that revealed the course of events both before and after the critical moments of violence. For example, we see Cassandra clinging to a toppled statue of Athena, and Ajax making an oath at the altar of Athena in the aftermath of the rape: Αἴας δὲ ὁ Οἰλέως ἔχων ἀσπίδα βωμῷ προσέστηκεν, ὀμνύμενος ὑπὲρ τοῦ ἐς Κασσάνδραν τολμήματος (Ajax, the son of Oileus, holding a shield, stands by an altar, taking an oath about the outrage on Cassandra, Geography of Greece 10.26.2). The painter here chooses to highlight the successful supplication of Ajax, whom, according to Proclus in his summary of the Iliou Persis (Chrestomathy 16–25), the Greeks had contemplated stoning to death as punishment for the severity of his crime at the sanctuary. Polyxene is also pictured, but any connection to her eventual sacrifice at the tomb of Achilles, which is mentioned in the Iliou Persis, must be supplied by the viewer, as Pausanias does when he states that he has seen such depictions at Athens and other locales (10.25.10). Perhaps most notable of all the details, the child Astyanax is still in Andromache’s arms (10.25.9) and Priam lies among a pile of corpses (10.27.2) while Neoptolemus is pictured as the only Greek still fighting the Trojans. In contrast to the Attic vase-paintings, his adversaries in the action of the painting are not infants and defenseless old men but armed soldiers.
If the Iliou Persis was, as Pausanias suggests, the canonical version of the sack of Troy at the beginning of the fifth century, why did Polygnotus choose to model the death of Priam, and, according to Pausanias, many other minor details, on the Little Iliad and to capture the action at points in time that seemingly mitigated the excesses of the Greeks at Troy? Several commentators have attempted to explain the motivations behind the painter’s choice and see a strong connection to the political events of the day and particularly to events in Athens. In an extensive analysis of the Cnidian Lesche, Kebric, who dates the paintings to 469 BCE, sees a number of correspondences between the Cnidians and the Athenians. Specifically, he sees the events surrounding the Persian war, when Athens was temporarily taken and the Cnidians came under Persian control, as strongly informing the paintings. Moreover, he sees Cnidian gratitude to Cimon, the triumphant Athenian general during the battle of Eurymedon, as being a motivating factor for the creation of the paintings at Delphi. [27]
Later, Castriota picks up where Keric left off and extends the analogy to the north metopes of the Parthenon, claiming that Polygnotus initiated a conversion of the Ilioupersis from what had historically been a story of excess on the part of the Achaeans, as exemplified by the violation of the sanctuary, to a narrative of Greek arete and sophrosyne versus Persian hubris. [28] To get there, he first conflates the imagery of paintings at the Cnidian Lesche and the Stoa Poikile: “For Polygnotos, the solution to the problem would have also depended on avoiding or softening those aspects of the Ilioupersis that reflected poorly on the Greeks … And a closer look at the Troy paintings in the Lesche and the Stoa Poikile indicate that this is precisely what he did.” [29] Compared to the Cnidian Lesche, however, where we have an ample description from Pausanias, there is relatively little information on the Stoa Poikile painting, so there is also little justification for such a conflation and even less so for a transference to the north metopes of the Parthenon.
The over-riding theme in Attic iconography prior to this time had been to highlight the outrages of the Greeks at Troy, with Neoptolemus serving as its central locus. Gloria Ferrari, though, effectively refutes the idea that there was a radical transformation in the interpretation of the mythology surrounding the Ilioupersis, when she states:

Some may reflect that in the Ilioupersis power and arrogance qualify the Atreidae better than Priam. And, as Castriota admits, the revisionist versions of the myth he envisions find no echo in Athenian tragedy and vase-painting … In order to convey a sense of righteous victory, the theme would have to be imbued with a radically different meaning than it normally had, not simply recast in more optimistic terms. This operation would throw the mythical framework to which it belongs into utter disarray. [30]
The mythical framework referenced here includes the overarching structure of the Epic Cycle, which, of course, included the Nostoi, and the other stories that included the return of the Greek heroes who eventually were forced to atone in various ways for their actions at the Trojan sanctuaries. Although Ferrari’s discussion here concerns the metopes of the Parthenon at Athens, it is an equally valid argument in reference to the Cnidian Lesche. Even if Polygnotus chose to use the Little Iliad as literary model and his technique of depicting the aftermath of the sack tended to de-emphasize the wanton behavior of the Greeks at Troy, these choices were more a matter of emphasis than of mythological revision, and the Achaeans are not fully exculpated of their transgressions. [31] As we have seen, too, elements from both epics had long since been conflated in iconography and elsewhere, and any given version would always have reference to the alternate tradition through these historical associations.
Indeed, authors such as Euripides explicitly play with this mythic interconnectivity. In the Troades, where the plot unfolds toward the end of the sack of Troy, the emphasis is reversed from the Polygnotus painting. Because she is incensed by Ajax’ violation of her sanctuary but even more so by the fact that the Achaeans did not collectively punish him, Athena attempts to forge a pact with Poseidon to inundate the Greek ships on their homeward journey (69-71). Later, Hecuba laments the death of Priam, stating that she did not learn of her husband’s demise by hearsay but rather she saw it with her own eyes as he was slaughtered on the hearth altar (καὶ τὸν φυτουργὸν Πρίαμον οὐκ ἄλλων πάρακλύουσ᾽ ἔκλαυσα, τοῖσδε δ᾽ εἶδον ὄμμασιν αὐτὴ κατασφαγέντ᾽ ἐφ᾽ ἑρκείῳ πυρᾷ, 481–483).
Here, the authority that Hecuba derives from being an eyewitness metapoetically attempts to foreclose the possibility of an alternate tradition. Neoptolemus is not mentioned here, and he also has no role in the death of Astyanax, who is hurled from the tower at the urging of Odysseus, but only after a vote of the gathered Achaeans (720). The focus is on the collective culpability of the Greeks. Given that the play was produced in 415 BCE, many have interpreted the drama as a commentary on contemporary events during the Peloponnesian war, particularly the Athenian siege of Melos, and the subsequent massacre and enslavement of its population. [32] The play’s emphasis on a collective responsibility, which can be viewed as a byproduct of a democratic society, localizes the drama and seems to support this position. Regardless of the particular interpretation, the idea of collective guilt in the play is apparent through juxtaposition with its epic forerunners. Though the outer plot tracks closely with the Iliou Persis, the story, as we saw with the Aeneid, gains poignancy through its contrast with the Little Iliad. Indeed, Pausanias seems aware of this connection, when he states that in the Little Iliad Neoptolemus took individual responsibility for the death of Astyanax, and the decision did not arise from a collective agreement (οὐ μὴν ὑπὸ δόγματός γε Ἑλλήνων, 10.25.9). In the play of Euripides, the role of Athena and the collective culpability of the democratic assembly is foregrounded through relation to its opposite tradition.
If local Athenian concerns helped shape the interpretation of the sack of Troy in the Troades, surely the peculiarities of the locale where the Cnidian Lesche was situated could have precipitated the idiosyncratic emphasis in theme in the Polygnotus painting. Neoptolemus in particular had strong associations with Delphi. Many commentators overlook a critical motivating force for the painter that was driven by local concerns and that Pausanias himself explicitly addresses: Νεοπτόλεμον δὲ μόνον τοῦ Ἑλληνικοῦ φονεύοντα ἔτι τοὺς Τρῶας ἐποίησεν ὁ Πολύγνωτος, ὅτι ὑπὲρ τοῦ Νεοπτολέμου τὸν τάφον ἡ γραφὴ πᾶσα ἔμελλεν αὐτῷ γενήσεσθαι (Neoptolemus is the only one of the Greek army represented by Polygnotus as still killing the Trojans, the reason being that he intended the whole painting to be placed over the grave of Neoptolemus, 10.26.4). The suggestion of Pausanias above should not be taken literally, but instead it indicates that the proximity of Cnidian Lesche to the focal point of the hero cult, the supposed burial site of Neoptolemus, helped shape the painter’s choices.
The mythology that surrounded Neoptolemus was particularly relevant for the Delphians, since the son of Achilles was not only opposed by their patron god, Apollo, but in several versions of his myth he died and was killed at Delphi and eventually became the object of a hero cult. [33] Certain fragments of the Little Iliad corroborate Pausanias’ assertion that Polygnotus used this poem as a model for the painting. For example, when Pausanias states that, according to Lesches, Neoptolemus was responsible for the slaughter of Astyanax (10.25.9), he is describing a scene from the painting in which Astyanax clings tightly to his mother’s breast, a detail that is echoed in a fragment found in a commentary by Tzetzes (Davies fr. 20). In choosing the Little Iliad as the model for his painting, Polygnotus selected a version of the sack of Troy that bolstered the role of Neoptolemus and, at the same time, mitigated the charge of sacrilege. According to Pausanias, Neoptolemus was responsible for a number of killings, in addition to Astyanax, that were chronicled in the Little Iliad and not the Iliou Persis. While still worthy of censure and excessive, Neoptolemus’ actions in the Little Iliad indicate that he is motivated more by the desire to extinguish the line of Priam in order to avenge the death of Achilles than by the pleasure of gratuitous or sacrilegious violence. Polygnotus then takes the model of the Little Iliad and pushes it even farther in the direction of mitigating the Greeks’ religious violations, especially those of Neoptolemus, a choice explainable by the exigencies of the location at Delphi. The potent symbols of sacrilege, the altar of Zeus, does not disappear altogether, but, in a reversal of the pattern that we have seen, it moves to the background, as Pausanias’ description makes clear. [34]
It is Pausanias, too, who tells us of a ceremonial chair that the Delphians reserved for the poet Pindar when he came to the sanctuary to compose poems to Apollo (10.24.5). Like Neoptolemus, Pindar is said to have had a tumultuous relationship with the Delphians. [35] In “Paean 6,” which adheres to a triadic structure, the second triad contains what appears to be the Delphian rejoinder to the opening triad’s poetic invocation, where a series of assertive first-person statements suggest that the poet has arrived on Delphian soil to repair a local deficiency in mustering a chorus. The second triad, then, can be read as the Delphian defense, where they enlist the myth of Neoptolemus to assert their traditional jurisdiction over the cult of Apollo. In this rendition of the myth, Apollo is said to assume the form of Paris and fire the fateful arrow that kills Achilles. A similar agency is ascribed to Apollo in the prophetic lines that describe his motivation for eventually killing Neoptolemus at Delphi:

ὤ̣[µο]σε [γὰρ θ]εός,
γέ[ρον]θ̣’ ὅ̣[τι] Πρίαµον π[ρ]ὸς ἑρκεῖον ἤναρε
βωµὸν ἐ[πεν]θορόντα, µή νιν εὔφρον’ ἐς οἶ[κ]ον
µ̣ήτ’ ἐπὶ γῆρας ἱξέµεν βίου· ἀµφιπόλοις δὲ
µυριᾶν περὶ τιµᾶν δηρι]αζόµενον κτάνεv
<ἐν> τεµέ]νεϊ φίλῳ γᾶς παρ’ ὀµφαλὸν εὐρύν.
<ἰὴ> ἰῆτε νῦν, µέτρα π̣αιηόν]ων ἰῆτε, νέοι

“Paean 6” 112–118 [36]
For the god had sworn
that because he had killed aged Priam as he leapt towards the alter
of Zeus Herkeios, he would reach neither his kindly home
nor old age in life. As he quarreled over his vast prerogatives Apollo slew him
in his own sanctuary by earth’s broad navel.
Ie, sing ie now—measures of paeans—sing ie, young men

Here, the poet compresses together the slaughter of Priam and the symmetrical punishment of Neoptolemus, where, as Nagy has pointed out, the focus is on the antagonism between hero and god: “Since ‘Paean 6’ was composed specifically for a Delphic setting and in honor of Apollo, we should be especially mindful of the central role of its hero as the ritual antagonist of the god. For we see here a striking illustration of a fundamental principle in Hellenic religion: antagonism between hero and god in myth corresponds to the ritual requirements of symbiosis between hero and god in cult.” [37]

This movement from antagonism to reconciliation is also present in the triadic structure of the paean itself, which conforms to a symbolic agon between the three parties represented in the poem: the poetic voice, the Delphians, and the Aeginitans, who have arrived to celebrate the Theoxenia, a ritual enactment of a divine banquet. It can be said that the many “prerogatives” (µυριᾶν περὶ τιµᾶν, 116) Neoptolemus was pursuing at Delphi in the mythic paradigm are an allusion to any contemporary outside parties that the Delphians perceive could be seeking to challenge their position, such as the Aeginitans or even the poet himself. [38] Thus, by bolstering the role of Neoptolemus and making him an even more worthy adversary—the stout hero is solely responsible for the sack of Troy according to Pindar’s paean (103-104)—the Delphian chorus both burnishes the status of their patron god, Apollo, and pays respect the flourishing hero cult of Neoptolemus. As opposed to the mythic paradigm of the second triad, where the Delphians trumpet a retributive Apollo, the third triad, where the Aeginitans are represented, strikes a conciliatory tone. Thus, the paean embraces and re-enacts a tension that could be experienced when a work is commissioned by an outside entity, such as the Aeginitans, to be performed in the context of the Panhellenic sanctuary at Delphi. Of course, the peripatetic poet Pindar, who had a relationship with both the Aeginitans and Delphians, is not unlike Polygnotus, who, in addition to working on the Cnidian Lesche at Delphi, painted an Ilioupersis for the Stoa Poikile at Athens.
If we compare the versions of the death of Priam encapsulated in the painting of Polygnotus and the paean of Pindar—two works that overlap temporally and geographically—at first glance a wide thematic gulf can be discerned between the two. In the painting, Priam has been dragged away from the altar and lies dead, an effect that, in comparison to previous iconographic images, lessens the charge of corrupted sacrifice. Although Pindar, in a way, keeps the altar as the location of Priam’s death, he also lessens the potential charges against Neoptolemus. His Priam is not a feeble old man with an arm outstretched in supplication; instead, he vigorously leaps toward the altar in a final act of self-preservation. With Pindar, there is even ambiguity in the actual position of Priam at the time of his death. We know he is leaping (ἐ[πεν]θορόντα, 114) [39] for the refuge of the altar, but did he reach it? Although his actions were evidently enough to precipitate the retribution of Apollo, Pindar leaves some room for doubt, as the scene straddles the line between the two epic traditions.
Thus, the geographic location of Delphi, the Panhellenic sanctuary of Apollo where Neoptolemus also had a hero cult, has exerted a strong influence in both the visual and literary representation of the death of Priam. In choosing the sack of Troy as their theme, the artists Pindar and Polygnotus have given their clients a theme that is multivalent and encapsulates a tension that is appropriate to the Panhellenic sanctuary of Apollo. Ultimately, if they chose to temper the sacrilege of Neoptolemus, their focus and subtle manipulation of theme can be said to be predicated by local concerns more so than by the political situation confronting Greece during that era. While the ongoing tension between the Greeks and Persians at this time could very well have been a factor in the choice of the macro-theme of the Ilioupersis at Delphi, I have argued that the intended effect of this choice should be considered in conjunction with the peculiarities of the site and the parties primarily associated with those specific works. Indeed, the thematic development of the poems from the Epic Cycle were undoubtably shaped by similar local concerns, though there was little consensus in antiquity on the actual geographic origin of the epics. [40]
By keeping a narrow focus on the death scene of Priam, I have attempted to show that elements from both Cyclic epics concerning the fall of Troy were kept alive in subsequent works. From the very beginning, artists fused, contrasted and juxtaposed themes that were present in both the Iliou Persis and the Little Iliad. The fact that Proclus did not include a summary of the Little Iliad’s rendition of the sack of Troy would make it seem that the Iliou Persis enjoyed canonical status in later antiquity, a perception that continues to the present day. The striking visual image of Priam at the altar certainly had an iconographic and thematic allure that was only bolstered by the inclusion of the Astyanax detail from the Little Iliad. When later works fused together important details from these early epics, this process tended to mask the fact that the poems from the Epic Cycle could have certainly pursued different thematic agenda. If not for Pausanias’ description of the Cnidian Lesche, the alternate tradition of the Little Iliad may have been lost to us, but its presence would have continued to lurk even under the surface of works that outwardly look much more like the Iliou Persis.


Relief pithos from Mykonos, seventh century BCE, Mykonos Museum 2240. Detail of an individual panel.
Figure 1. Relief pithos from Mykonos, seventh century BCE, Mykonos Museum 2240. Detail of an individual panel.
Figure 2. Attic red-figure cup by Onesimos, early fifth century BCE, J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, CA.

Works Cited

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Blundell, M.W. 1988. “The Physis of Neoptolemos in Sophocles’ Philoctetes.” Greece & Rome 35:137-148.
Burgess, J. 2009. The Death and Afterlife of Achilles. Baltimore.
———. 2001. The Tradition of the Trojan War in Homer and the Epic Cycle. Baltimore.
Burkert, W. 1985. Greek Religion. Cambridge.
Carlevale, J. 2000. “Education, Phusis, and Freedom in Sophocles’ PhiloctetesArion 8.1:26-60.
Castriota, D. 1992. Myth, Ethos, and Actuality: Official Art in Fifth Century B.C. Athens. Madison
Coleridge, E.J., trans. 1913. Euripidis Fabulae, vol. 2. (ed. Gilbert Murray). Oxford.
Croally, N. 2007. Euripidean Polemic: The Trojan Women and the Function of Tragedy. Cambridge
Currie, B. 2005. Pindar and the Cult of Heroes. New York: Oxford University Press.
Davies, M. 1988. Epicorum Graecorum Fragmenta. Göttingen.
Ferrari, G. 2000. “The Ilioupersis in Athens,” HSCP 100:119-150.
Henrichs, A. 2000. “Drama and Dromena: Bloodshed, Violence, and Sacrificial Metaphor in Euripides.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 100:173-188.
Jones, H.L., transl. 1918. Pausanias. Description of Greece. Cambridge.
Karakantza, E. (forthcoming). “Polis Anatomy. Reflecting on Polis Structures in Sophoclean Tragedy.” Classics Ireland.
Kebric, R. 1983. The Paintings in the Cnidian Lesche at Delphi and their Historical Context. Leiden.
Kurke, L. 2005. “Choral Lyric as ‘Ritualization’: Poetic Sacrifice and Poetic Ego in Pindar’s Sixth Paian.” Classical Antiquity 24 (1):81-130.
Miller, M. 1995. “Priam, King of Troy” in The Ages of Homer, eds. Carter, J. and Morris, S., 449-466. Austin.
Nagy, G. 1981. The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry. Baltimore.
———. 2009. Homer the Preclassic. Web.
Rutherford, I. 2001. Pindar’s Paeans: A Reading of the Fragments with a Survey of the Genre. New York: Oxford University Press.
Scheid, J. 2003. An Introduction to Roman Religion. Bloomington.
Stansbury-O’Donnell, D. 1989. “Polygnotus’ Iliupersis: A New Reconstruction,” AJA 93.
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Varhelyi, Z. 2011. “Political Murder and Sacrifice: From Roman Republic to Empire” in Ancient Mediterranean Sacrifice, eds. Wright Knust, J. and Varhelyi, Z, 125-139. Oxford.
Vidal-Naquet, P. 1986. “The Black Hunter Revisited” in Antiquities: Postwar French Thought, vol. 3, eds. Nagy, G., Loraux, N., et al, 2001. New York.
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[ back ] 1. Unless otherwise noted, when referring to the poems from the Epic Cycle, I follow the same spelling conventions as Burgess 2001:xiii-xiv. Latinized or Anglicized titles are used, with the exception of the Iliou Persis.
[ back ] 2. A point effectively pursued by Burgess 2001: 22–32, and elsewhere.
[ back ] 3. Proclus citations are line numbers from the relevant sections of Davies.
[ back ] 4. The catalog numbers given here correspond to Anderson 1997: 274–277, who also provides an extensive analysis of the iconography surrounding the sack of Troy (179–265). This paper is indebted to his consolidation of the works relevant to the sack of Troy.
[ back ] 5. Pausanias translations are by Jones, H.L. 1912.
[ back ] 6. Anderson 1997:188.
[ back ] 7. Anderson 1997:218.
[ back ] 8. Miller 1995:452.
[ back ] 9. For a useful summary of iconographic imagery from this period, including a discussion of this cup, see Ferrari 2000:122–123.
[ back ] 10. Anderson 1997:193–194.
[ back ] 11. Virgil translations are mine.
[ back ] 12. Nagy 2009:§340.
[ back ] 13. Anderson 1997:48.
[ back ] 14. Pocula Homerica MB 27-29, Sinn. 94–96 (West 139n.47).
[ back ] 15. For the stages of Roman sacrifice, see Scheid 2003:82–83.
[ back ] 16. Henrichs: 2000:182–183. It is also noteworthy that warriors killed in battle are never described in such ritualistic terms.
[ back ] 17. Henrichs 2000:178.
[ back ] 18. Varhelyi 2011:125-130.
[ back ] 19. In general, the violation of sanctuaries and the technical position of the suppliants were topics of concern elsewhere in Greek literature and history. Herodotus, for example, gives the following account of an uprising on the island of Aegina: “one of the [prisoners] escaped from his bonds and fled to the temple gate of Demeter Thesmophoros (the Lawgiver), where he laid hold of the door-handles and clung to them. They could not tear him away by force, so they cut off his hands and carried him off, and those hands were left clinging fast to the door-handles [and for this they were cursed].” (Histories 6.91, transl. Godfrey).
[ back ] 20. Eioneus and Agenor among others (Geography of Greece 10.27.2).
[ back ] 21. Translation by Torrance: 1966.
[ back ] 22. Vidal-Naquet 2001:93–94.
[ back ] 23. Blundell 1988:138.
[ back ] 24. Carlevale 2000: 26–60.
[ back ] 25. Karakantza, E. (forthcoming: 17).
[ back ] 26. Stansbury-O’Donnell 1989:209.
[ back ] 27. Kebric 1983:1–13.
[ back ] 28. Castriota 1992:86.
[ back ] 29. Castriota 1992:109.
[ back ] 30. Ferrari 2000:125–126.
[ back ] 31. In the Nostoi, Neoptolemus is visited by Thetis, who advises him to tarry at Troy and to make sacrifices. He does, and goes by land as far as the Molossians, where is recognized by Peleus. Other Achaeans, such as Ajax, do not fare as well (Proclus Chrestomathy 20–28).
[ back ] 32. For a summary of the scholarly debate on this topic, see Croally 2007: 231–233.
[ back ] 33. Most see this development as occurring in the sixth century (Currie, 307 n.69).
[ back ] 34. Anderson (1997:250) also notes the continued, though lessened, role of the altar here.
[ back ] 35. This charge stemmed from the fact that he composed two poems, “Paean 6” and “Nemean 7,” that included the actions of Neoptolemus, and the two compositions varied widely in their treatment and death of the hero. Although the apology theory, where it is supposed that Pindar composed “Nemean 7” and depicted the death of Neoptolemus as occurring at the hands of Delphian priests to repay the Delphians for a potential insult in “Paean 6” has been largely debunked (see Currie, 330–331), it is true that one can detect a certain tension in “Paean 6” among the various parties that are represented.
[ back ] 36. Pindar translations are by Rutherford.
[ back ] 37. Nagy 1981: Chapter 7 §4.
[ back ] 38. Leslie Kurke has done an extensive study on this paean that brings us a long way toward understanding the tensions that might have existed between the Delphians, with their hegemony over apportioning the sacrifice, and the outside communities that needed to travel to Apollo’s precinct for religious and ceremonial reasons (95–103).
[ back ] 39. cf. Virgil’s choice of participle in roughly the same position, trementem. (Aeneid 2.550).
[ back ] 40. Ancient sources who attribute the Little Iliad to Lesches place him in Pyrrha, Lesbos, and Mytilene, for example. Proclus sees the Iliou Persis as originating from Miletus. See Burgess 2001:163–165 on this region, primarily in connection with the Aethiopis.