I came across this Greek vase while doing research for an essay about the Roman book The Aeneid. Prior to reading Virgil I had no idea that the Romans had co-opted the mythical Trojans as their ancestors, but having read both The Iliad and The Odyssey earlier in the semester, this addition to the legend was placed in perfect context.
Once I had seen the case, the scene it depicted was so shocking to me that it became more important than the original purpose. The essay was about The Aeneid though, not the scene, so I could not change the purpose of the essay and make the vase the central theme.
I have looked at this image many, many times now. It has a horribly gruesome attraction that keeps the eyes affixed in fascination. Just the notion of the scene, that someone would use the body of a dead child as a club with which to bludgeon the grandfather of that child, is unspeakably disturbing. That someone either dreamed up the idea in the first place, or that the legend is based on some ancient truth does not make things any better. But the idea that someone chose to commemorate such a sick, vile assault on an amphora is just beyond belief!
The ‘Bucci Painter’ appears to be the creator of this amphora, who operated in Vulci, which happens to be in….Italy. Contrary to some of the thoughts in the essay, it seems the slaying of the noble Trojans by the unscrupulous Greeks has been an Italian obsession since before they were Italian!
My fascination with this depiction stemmed from the idea that in no way could this act be depicted nowadays, in any form. It is impossible to imagine any TV or film producers taking a swing at it, not even the big. paradigm shifting giants at HBO and such like. Maybe in the shlock-horror, video nasty era of the Eighties and Nineties it could have been gotten away with, but using the limp corpse of an infant to beat another human around the head just seems implausible in 2017.
All of which made me consider the original again. In our supposedly ultra violent age, when many cultures have apparently become so desensitised to violence that nothing could shock us any more, it was reassuring to find an image that does shock. The general reaction to seeing this gruesome act has been disbelief, so we have plenty of sensitivity left. The juxtaposition to that is how bleak it makes life in the ancient world seem. If they were so desentised to despicable violence that they could pour olive oil from a vase adorned with this kind of death, then our modern world is a relative Little House on the Prairie. Imagine serving a cocktail pitcher to your friends on a pleasant summer’s day in the garden, with a faithful depiction of Charles Manson’s most appalling act decorating the thing…cheers!
As of 2017 I am an English Major at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. Every year the Droste Awards are given for outstanding work in their category:
Ok, so it’s not the Booker or Pulitzer prize, but it is a prize nonetheless, and I am extremely grateful to the Droste’s, as well as the English Dept Faculty for organising these awards. For me personally they are an inspiration and motivation, and it is a privilege to be among those whose work has been selected for praise.
This paper was written for a class by Dr Jennifer Wheat. For any prospective students in Hilo, I cannot recommend her classes highly enough. As learned as an oracle yet as enthusiastic as an adolescent, Dr Wheat is the example by which all teachers should be measured, but very few will ever get close to emulating.
I was going to rewrite the essay (formatted for content as it says on airplane movies) but instead have left it as per the original.
“Tell him about my vicious work, how Neoptolemus degrades his father’s name – don’t you forget.
Now – die!’
That said, he drags the old man straight to the altar, quaking, slithering on through slicks of his son’s blood, and twisting Priam’s hair in his left hand, his right hand sweeping forth his sword – a flash of steel – he buries it hilt deep in the king’s flank.”
(Virgil, The Aeneid, Book II, lines 678-685.)
Virgil’s portrayal of the death of Priam at the hands of Neoptolemus is a scene that, once read, cannot be easily forgotten. Recreated on Greek pottery centuries before the author’s time, this gruesome murder has inspired artists for three thousand years, and even continues to be debated today. As a pivotal passage in one of antiquity’s most celebrated and influential texts, the death of Priam informs the reader of a number of important subjects, including the use of propaganda, the importance of patriarchy, the depiction of graphic violence in previous times, and perhaps the first known portrayal of psychopathy. It is such a shocking image that, even in this era of gratuitous violence in both real and fictional life, some of the ancient depictions of this story would be deemed so extreme by today’s standards that they would risk being left on the editing suite floor by censor-wary editors. Virgil adds a layer of detail that cannot be conveyed on a vase, and forges a connection to his predecessor, Homer.
The ‘daddy issues’ embedded in this scene are so virulent that they go a long way to explaining the grisly outcome. Priam is the father of Hector, who killed Neoptolemus’ own father, Achilles. Several recreations of Priam’s death, such as the stunning, 6th century BC vase above (figure 1), depict Achilles’ offspring beating Priam to death with his own grandson, Astyanax, son of Hector. It is hard to believe that any portrayal of this act would be palatable to censors in the modern world, and even in two dimensions it is incredibly disturbing. Virgil spares us from this extreme, but still adds his own layer of gore and familial bloodletting. Immediately prior to seizing the King of Troy, Neoptolemus fatally wounds Polites, another of Priam’s sons, killing him ‘as Polites reached his parents and collapsed, vomiting out his life blood before their eyes’ (Virgil 999). This is not the regular kind of violence seen in war; although this takes place at the very culmination of the Trojan War, Neoptolemus is seeking, achieving and revelling in bloody vengeance. It is his psychological state during this murderous, orgiastic rampage that is still being debated today.
Caroline Lawrence is most well known as the author of a series of children’s novels set in ancient Rome. She also writes for the–history-girls.blogspot.com, and on one blog asks the question, ‘Was the son of Achilles a psychopath?’ (Lawrence.) While describing several attributes our antagonist shares with your average death row dwelling serial killer, her most interesting point is ‘that Homer and Virgil both show Neoptolemus as cruel and unfeeling.’ Lawrence then explains that in The Odyssey, Odysseus tells the ghost of Achilles that his son was the only soldier inside the wooden horse that wasn’t trembling and that in battle ‘Neoptolemus was fearless and always advanced far in the lead’ (Lawrence). Regardless of the other depictions of him, or even his other acts in The Aeneid, it is obvious from the few lines at the start of this essay that the son of Achilles is severely troubled. Instead of taking the instant gratification of killing his foe where he finds him, he drags Priam through pools of his own son’s blood to an altar, an altar that Priam’s wife Hecuba was sheltering by in the belief that the Gods would preserve their lives. Neoptolemus pays no regard to divinity though, and manhandles Priam by the hair before finishing him off. At first glance, moving Priam may seem like a small detail, but by applying such control and focus in the midst of such rage is exactly the type of action that distinguishes a psychopathic killer from a run of the mill sociopathic killer. The horrible, ignominious death of the King of Troy is in stark contrast to Priam’s interactions with Neoptolemus’ father at the end of The Iliad, and his brutal fate in The Aeneid serves as a good example of the political intentions of Virgil’s masterpiece.
Virgil’s Rome was a volatile, unstable place, having endured multiple civil wars and coups in the years prior to Octavian’s ascension. The self-retitled Augustus was keen to establish both his legitimacy and legacy, and with an unusually broad perspective, used indirect propaganda as one of his tools to achieve his goals. By rewriting, or perhaps committing to posterity, the origins of the Roman link to Troy, Augustus was laying the foundations of his own divine genealogy. The story of the sacking of Troy was not Virgil’s creation, as these earlier Greek depictions of the same scene confirm, but the implications of the Roman version are clear. Wartime propaganda makes a virtue of the same acts that the other side are being criticised for, and recorded history is largely an exercise in reading the victor’s point of view, but with The Aeneid Virgil has the opportunity to state the case for the vanquished. In the episode discussed here, Virgil is able to heap on the pathos for the succumbing Trojans, excusing their mistakes and making heroes of the defeated, while amplifying this impression further by depicting the Greeks unfavourably. Like the Arthurian legends painting ancient Britons as being noble and virtuous, rather than the bog standard Celtic warlords they probably were, Virgil applies heroism, courage and valour to the Roman mythology, which by extension proffers it to his own supreme leader, Augustus. His treatment of Carthage, as well as the allusion to Augustus’ rival Antony (and Cleopatra), are other themes that expose his propagandist purposes. There is, however, a weighty counterpoint to this perceived, nationalistic sabre-rattling; if Virgil’s portrayal of the Trojans is self-serving, why are Greek portrayals of Priam’s death even more horrific? Virgil only has Priam killed, but as mentioned, several Greek depictions show a murdered child being used as a club to beat him around the head with. Why does Homer also choose to give Hector the dramatic pre-eminence of a Hollywood lead, and the Greeks the image of squabbling children? It might be easy to cite The Aeneid as just another example of an Empire’s many weapons, but in the context of other depictions perhaps it is closer to a historical document than pure fantasy.
In this scene, the bloody denouement of the sacking of Troy is capped by an unspeakably vile act. With the background of familial drama on a scale that would have seemed outlandish for the Ewings of Dallas, Virgil delivers extreme violence using images and descriptions that illustrate this chilling murder with such clarity that we also understand the mental state of the perpetrator. As deeply disturbing as the act is, the dramatic qualities Virgil brings to it are worth the unsettling emotions, and the audience is given a fascinating portrayal of the kind of antagonist not often seen in ancient drama. Even though this kind of perpetrator has now been reduced to tired cliché, Neoptolemus must still be considered one of fiction’s most detestable villains.