This painting, created by the Scottish artist Gavin Hamilton (c. 1723-1798), depicts what is perhaps the most controversial act carried out by the Greek hero, Achilles, in the legendary Trojan War. The artist re-created the incident that occurred after Achilles defeated Troy’s greatest warrior and military leader, Hector, in a duel to the death. Upon winning the fight, Achilles decided to make a spectacle of his fallen foe’s remains. The ancient Greek poet, Homer, described what happened next:
“He [Achilles] spoke and foully maltreated godlike Hector. He sliced into the tendons at the back of both his feet between the heel and ankle, inserted leather straps and tied them to his chariot, leaving the head to drag. Then he lifted his famous armor into the chariot, got in himself, and lashed the horses with the whip to get them moving. The willing pair flew off. Dust rose from the body they dragged behind them; Hector’s sable hair streamed out on either side and his whole head, so graceful once, lay in the dirt” (The Iliad, Book 22, approximately line 400).
Gavin Hamilton brought this scene to life in his painting. Hector’s body is seen tied to the chariot, with Achilles reveling above him. In the background, appalled and mournful Trojans can be seen on the walls of Troy. Later, Hector’s father, King Priam, stealthily went in person to the Greek camp to negotiate the return of the body. He succeeded in gaining Achilles’ sympathy and the remains were handed over. The Iliad comes to a close with the cremation and funeral of Hector’s body in the doomed city of Troy.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Iliad by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited by Peter Jones. New York: Penguin Classics, 2014.