The Burning Of Troy, by Claes Jansz. van der Willigen (c. 1630-1676)

This painting, by the Dutch artist Claes Jansz. van der Willigen (c. 1630-1676), depicts the end of the Trojan War and features a family that links the myths and legends of Troy to the origin tales of ancient Rome. In the center of the canvas, it is the Trojan hero Aeneas—along with his father, wife and son—who can be seen fleeing from their burning homeland after the Greek victory in the legendary war. According to ancient Greek myth, Aeneas was a demigod, born of the goddess Aphrodite, and it was she who encouraged Aeneas to gather up his family and flee as the Greeks began ransacking and burning the Trojan capital. The hero obeyed his divine mother and rushed to collect his elderly father, his frightened wife, and their young son while time remained to escape. Virgil (70-19 BCE), a poet from Rome, assumed the point of view of Aeneas and described in verse the scene featured here in the painting:

“So come, dear father, climb up onto my shoulders!
I will carry you on my back. This labor of love
will never wear me down. Whatever falls to us now,
we both will share one peril, one path to safety.
Little Iulus, walk beside me, and you, my wife,
follow me at a distance, in my footsteps.
…With that,
over my broad shoulders and round my neck I spread
a tawny lion’s skin for a cloak, and bowing down,
I lift my burden up. Little Iulus, clutching
my right hand, keeps pace with tripping steps.
My wife trails on behind. And so we make our way
along the pitch-dark paths, and I who had never flinched
at the hurtling spears or swarming Greek assaults—
now every stir of wind, every whisper of sound
alarms me, anxious both for the child beside me
and burden on my back.”
(The Aeneid, Book II, approximately lines 880-910)

Unfortunately, the escape of Aeneas’ family did not go seamlessly and they ultimately did not all get out of the city together. In Virgil’s account, Aeneas’ wife became separated from the rest of the group and ultimately did not survive the sack of the city. Curiously, other alternative accounts did exist in which she did successfully survive alongside her husband, but Virgil, in his famous telling of the story, may have killed off the poor woman to allow Aeneas to uninhibitedly partner with new women that the Trojan hero would soon meet on his odyssey toward Italy. There, according to legend, Aeneas would become an ancestor of Romulus and Remus, who were said to have founded Rome.

Written by C. Keith Hansley


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