This painting, by Friedrich Heinrich Füger (c. 1751 – 1818), depicts the end of a bitter feud between the ancient Greek hero, Achilles, and his leader, King Agamemnon, during the mythical Trojan War. Their dispute was over a captured Trojan woman named Briseis, who was being held by Achilles. The conflict arose when Agamemnon used his power and status as the Greek coalition’s commander-in-chief to forcibly take her from Achilles. 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. Most notably, Achilles’ best friend, Patroclus, decided to rejoin the fight, and, hoping to boost the morale of the Greeks and to demoralize the Trojans, Patroclus concocted a plan to put on Achilles’ armor and impersonate the hero on the battlefield. The fake Achilles ploy went well at first, but the ruse quickly crumbled when Troy’s greatest warrior, Hector, fought and killed Patroclus during the battle. Patroclus’ tragic death, however, would finally prompt the real Achilles to resume his fight against the Trojans.
Despite the hero’s determination to rejoin the war, the feud between Achilles and Agamemnon still needed to be resolved. Sensing it was time to patch up his relationship with the best warrior in his army, Agamemnon (with the help of Odysseus) pulled together a hoard of treasures that would serve as an apology gift to Achilles. The poet, Homer, wrote of Agamemnon’s generous peace offerings, writing “they fetched out from his quarters the seven tripods he had promised Achilles, the twenty cauldrons of gleaming copper and the twelve horses; and immediately after, the seven women skilled in arts and crafts, fair-cheeked Briseis making the eighth. Then Odysseus who had weighed out ten talents of gold, led the way back, followed by the other young Greeks carrying the gifts” (Homer, The Iliad, book 19, between lines 240-250). Such is the ancient tale that inspired Friedrich Heinrich Füger’s painting. Out of all the offerings sent by Agamemnon to Achilles, the artist highlighted the most important of them all—Briseis. With her return, the original and greatest cause of contention between Achilles and Agamemnon was put to rest, allowing Achilles to rejoin the war thinking only of revenge against the Trojans.
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.