Despair of Hecuba, by Jean-François-Pierre Peyron (c. 1744 – 1814)

This drawing, by the French artist Jean-François-Pierre Peyron (c. 1744 – 1814), was inspired by the horrific plight of the royal family of Troy after the mythical Trojan War. Men of the Trojan royal family were massacred during and after the war—including King Priam and his most famous sons, Hector, Paris, Polydorus and Lycaon. Polydorus, the youngest son, might have escaped the carnage, as he was a ward in a distant land at the time of the Trojan War. Yet, the prince met a violent end when he was assassinated by his treacherous guardian, King Polymestor of Thrace, who killed Polydorus when he learned of the fall of Troy. Meanwhile, Queen Hecuba and the princesses of Troy—including Cassandra and Polyxena—were captured and enslaved by the Greek forces. Cassandra was seized by the Mycenaean King Agamemnon, leader of the Greek coalition that toppled Troy. Cassandra’s forced exit, as the poet Ovid (c. 43 BCE- 17 CE) wrote, left Polyxena as “almost the only comfort her mother had left” (Ovid, Metamorphoses, 13.449-450). Nevertheless, Polyxena, too, would be cruelly taken away from Hecuba.

In the immediate aftermath of the Trojan War, so the story goes, ghostly Achilles appeared before his surviving comrades and stirred up bad weather to make it impossible for the Greek coalition to sail back home to Greece. The spirit of Achilles was allegedly holding the Greeks hostage because he wanted them to honor him with a sacrifice. His demands were very specific—only the human sacrifice of Polyxena would appease him and put an end to the supernaturally-summoned winds. Hecuba, mind you, was already despondent and distraught by this point, resulting in her being physically and emotionally weakened. The playwright Euripides (c. 485-406 BCE) described Hecuba’s pitiful state, quoting her as saying “Guide these aged steps, my servants, forth before the house; guide and support your fellow-slave, once your queen, you maids of Troy. Grasp my aged hand, take me, support me, guide me, lift me up; and I will lean upon your bent arm as on a staff and quicken my halting footsteps onwards” (Euripides, Hecuba, approximately line 59-65). Understandably, Hecuba’s mood and condition did not improve at all when she learned that the Greeks now were preparing to sacrifice her daughter, Polyxena. And, unfortunately for Troy’s royal women, no divine or mortal intervention would be coming to save the day.

Resigned to her fate, Polyxena decided to meet her sacrificial death with dignity and poise. Yet, parting with her mother was a difficult endeavor, for Polyxena could see how distressed Hecuba was becoming with the overwhelming loss she was suffering. Euripides imagined the scene, describing Polyxena as saying, “my dear mother! give me your beloved hand, and let me press your cheek to mine; for never again, but now for the last time, shall I behold the dazzling sun-god’s orb. Take my last farewells now. O mother, my mother! I pass beneath the earth” (Euripides, Hecuba, approximately between lines 402-443). Such is the series of tragic trauma that inspired Pierre Peyron’s artwork.

Curiously, Hecuba’s myth eventually experienced a dramatic plot twist. After the execution of Polyxena and the arrival of the news that King Polymestor of Thrace had murdered Prince Polydorus of Troy, Hecuba became engulfed by rage. Anger filled her with strength, allowing her to slip away from her captors and engage in a campaign of revenge against treacherous Polymestor. As the story goes, infuriated Hecuba managed to find Polymestor and she gouged his eyes out with her own two hands. She also reportedly killed the Thracian king’s two sons. This leads us to a most peculiar part of the story. After she completed her mission of revenge, Hecuba was said to have magically transformed into a dog.

Written by C. Keith Hansley



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