This illustration, by the French artist Léon Davent (c. 16th century), depicts the Greek hero, Achilles, helping to recover the body of his friend, Patroclus, during the Trojan War. Patroclus’ death occurred due to an argument that had erupted between Achilles and King Agamemnon. This feud between king and warrior began when Agamemnon seized a woman named Briseis from the Greek army’s mightiest warrior, Achilles. After being forced to give Briseis to the king, Achilles protested his perceived mistreatment by refusing to fight any more in the Trojan War, and he similarly held back his elite band of warriors from joining the battle. During the absence of Achilles and his warband, the Greeks struggled to make headway in the Trojan War. Eventually, Achilles’ friend, Patroclus, was convinced by others to put on Achilles’ armor and to return to battle, if only to boost Greek morale and to terrify the Trojans. As is shown in the illustration, however, Patroclus did not survive his foray into the fight. The gods, Apollo and Zeus, intervened in the battle to disarm and blind Patroclus, allowing the Trojans to easily cut him down. Although the Trojans were victorious in this particular skirmish, the death of Patroclus was also the event that finally convinced Achilles to rejoin the war effort. Achilles arrived at the battlefield while the two sides were still fighting over Patroclus’ body. Achilles’ role in reclaiming Patroclus’ remains, however, was not as direct as Léon Davent’s artwork suggests. As the story goes, Achilles caused the Trojans to flee back behind their wall by simply shouting out a few ferocious battle cries from the edge of the battlefield. After these terrifying shouts ended the day’s fight, the Greek warriors were able to start carrying Patroclus’ body back to their tents, and it was then that Achilles joined the procession. Homer described the scene in The Iliad, writing, “With thankful hearts the Greeks pulled Patroclus out of range. They laid him on a bier and his dear companions gathered round him, weeping. Swift-footed Achilles accompanied them, and hot tears poured down his cheeks when he saw his faithful companion lying on the bier pierced by the sharp bronze spear” (Homer, Iliad, book 18, approximately lines 230-240). Such is the story that inspired the above illustration by Léon Davent.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Iliad by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited/introduced by Peter Jones. New York: Penguin Classics, 2014.