This painting, by the British-American artist Benjamin West (c. 1738-1820), shows a pivotal scene from the storyline of the hero, Achilles, featured in Homer’s ancient epic poem, The Iliad, set during the mythical or legendary Trojan War. West’s painting takes a snapshot of a specific event that occurred well into Homer’s war-torn plot. Yet, before we comment on the scene shown above in the painting, a quick recap of The Iliad’s storyline is in order to bring clarity to what has happened in the picture, as well as the ramification of the event to the overall plot of the epic poem.
Achilles, while he served alongside the warriors of the Greek coalition during the Trojan War, had to grudgingly follow the lead of King Agamemnon (the commander-in-chief of the Greek forces for the duration of the Trojan War). Achilles’ obedience to the Greek leader, however, was tested when a chaotic dispute broke out over two women who had been captured by the Greeks during their siege of Troy. The women were named Chryseis and Briseis, the former being held by Agamemnon, and the latter being claimed by Achilles.
Chryseis, so the story goes, was the daughter of a priest of Apollo who was greatly respected by the god that he served. Apollo, in response to the imprisonment of his favored priest’s daughter, decided to ravage the Greek army with a terrible plague. In order to end the plague, the king needed only to return Chryseis to her father. Ultimately, Agamemnon agreed to let Chryseis go, but the king loathed to lose his spoils of war and decided to make up his losses by commandeering a captive from another leader in his army. To the dismay of the whole Greek coalition, Agamemnon decided that he wanted the other recently-captured woman, Briseis, whom Achilles had taken into custody. Although Achilles balked at the demand, King Agamemnon ultimately used his authority and status as leader of the Greek coalition to force Achilles to give up Briseis.
Agamemnon’s acquisition of Briseis came at a steep price. Although Achilles did indeed hand over the captive woman, the incident consequently angered the mighty Greek hero to the extent that he decided to cease his cooperation with the Greek war effort. At first, Achilles’ band of elite warriors—the Myrmidons—decided to join their leader in his protest. Yet, when the Greek forces at the siege of Troy began to struggle in the absence of their greatest fighters, certain members of Achilles’ warband felt the need to rejoin the battle, despite Achilles’ feud with Agamemnon. This brings us to the character, Patroclus—Achilles’s best friend and the man to whom the Greeks and other battle-eager Myrmidons turned when Achilles refused to fight.
Patroclus, unwilling to continue sitting out the war, decided to rejoin the battle. Hoping to boost the morale of the Greeks and to demoralize the Trojans, Patroclus decided to go to battle not in his own set of armor, but instead to show up for war in the famous gear of Achilles. When Patroclus did this, his actions, indeed, caught the eyes of the Trojans. In particular, it attracted the attention of Troy’s greatest hero, Hector, who engaged Patroclus in battle. Although Patroclus was a mighty warrior, he stood no match against Hector. In the end, Hector slew Patroclus in battle and looted the armor of Achilles that had been brought to the battlefield. News eventually trickled back to camp that Patroclus had died, and when Achilles learned of his best friend’s death, he flew into a rage. Achilles’ horrifying howls could be heard from the battlefield, flipping the momentum of the fray back into Greek favor. Patroclus’s body was recovered by Achilles, who decided to rejoin the war effort to seek revenge against Hector.
Yet, for Achilles to go back to battle, he would need a new set of armor, as his previous gear had been taken by Hector. This predicament was solved by Achilles’ mother, the influential nymph Thetis, who speedily traveled to the craftsman god Hephaestus and convinced the talented deity to fashion a new set of armor that was exponentially better than the last. Hephaestus agreed to the proposal and quickly forged masterpieces of armament that Achilles could wield and wear in battle. The ancient poet, Homer, described the scene of Thetis bringing the god-forged gear back to Achilles, who was still mourning over Patroclus. Speaking as Thetis, Homer wrote: “My child, the man who lies here was struck down by the will of the gods. For all your grief, let him be now and take this impressive armour I have brought you from Hephaestus. It is utterly magnificent. No mortal has worn anything like it.’ With these words the goddess laid the intricately worked armour before Achilles” (Homer, The Iliad, book 19, approximately between lines 10-20). It is this scene that Benjamin West re-creates in paint. Achilles, after accepting the armor, would rejoin the war and ultimately slay Hector in a famous duel. With Hector no longer manning the walls of Troy, the city was doomed to inevitably fall to the Greek siege. Yet, Troy’s last stand would also fatefully prove to be Achilles’ final battle, as he would be ushered to the realm of the dead by a well-placed arrow shot by the Trojan prince, Paris.
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.