The Friend in the Foe: Trojans in Greek Media
Trojans are typically thought of as the archrivals of the Greeks. Their abduction of the beautiful Helen launched a thousand ships on Trojan shores, igniting a war that spanned ten years. Consequently, they often are thought of as the opposites of the Greeks. Where Greeks are stoic and civilized, the Trojans are depicted as indulgent and barbaric. However, you might be surprised to find out that the Trojans didn’t start out as the nemeses of the Hellenes. In fact, Homer’s Iliad imagined a familiar Trojan for his Greek audience. The dramatists of the fifth century broke away from this tradition. But as Dué explores in her 2006 book, The Captive Woman’s Lament in Greek Tragedy, the reason was not to deride the Trojans but something unexpectedly different.
The Trojans paid heavily for stealing Helen. Here the triumphant Achilles drags Hector's lifeless body across Troy, on a fresco in the Achilleion, Corfu. (Franz Matsch / Public domain )
The Trojans of Homer’s Canon
The Homeric tradition is not a simple self-congratulatory tale of Greek triumph. Both sides are united by the tragedy of a city under siege. Epic tradition deals with mortality and the human condition in an unexpected way. As Dué elucidates, it sees the enemy as an extension of itself at its core. There are multiple examples of this prevailing attitude.
In the Iliad and Odyssey, Achilles and Odysseus invoke the laments of Trojan women for their husbands, the very soldiers that might have fallen by their own swords. Explicitly, the swift-footed Achilles relates to a woman at a visceral level with a simile of a mother bird that has toiled to raise her young only to lose them.
Moreover, Hector’s death should be a clear Achaean (one of the four major tribes into which the people of Classical Greece divided themselves, along with the Aeolians, Ionians and Dorians) highpoint in the narrative, but it is immediately dampened by the following scenes of a despairing father, mother, and wife. Finally, the closing stages of the Iliad don’t leave the audience with the funerary scenes of Achilles’ inevitable end but of his nemesis Hector.
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Then, it can be argued that the Homeric tradition portrayed the Trojans in a way that evoked a great degree of sympathy for the Greek rival.
Indeed, scholars agree the Homeric tradition conceptualized a familiar Trojan with a range of Greek attributes. At a socio-political level , each side has kings with the advice of the council, both cultures worship the same gods, and they both condemn the mutilation of corpses.
This cultural entanglement can, perhaps, be best exemplified when Diomedes (Greek side) and Glaucus (Trojan side) meet at the battlefield to exchange family trees. Though rivals in the war, they are kindred through mixed bloodlines.
Ancient Persian and Greek soldiers as depicted on a color reconstruction of the 4th-century BC Alexander Sarcophagus. (Marsyas / CC BY-SA 2.5 )
Rebooting the Saga of the Trojans in 5th-century-BC Theater
In the 5th century BC, the dramatists appear to make drastic alterations and additions to the Trojan image. Suddenly, Barbaros becomes a common way to describe them when previously it was not. The historian, Thucydides in his, History, records that Homer had never used such a description for the Trojans, apart from a passing comment that the Karassians were barbarophonon (spoke a foreign tongue).
Comparatively, the playwrights, like Euripides, make prolific use of the “barbarian” descriptor in the 5th century. Troy is governed by barbaron nomoisin or barbarian laws/customs. Paris is draped in barbaro chlidimati or barbarian pomp, and Paris’ ship sailed to Greece with barbaro plata or barbarian oars.
Likewise, the Trojans’ image and temperament take on a more effeminate, indulgent, and despotic quality. The city of Troy is now tyrannical. For example, Euripides describes Astyanax (Hector’s son) as dying before he had a chance to attain isotheos tyranis or a tyranny equal to a god.
Moreover, Troy is an exuberant city whose prince is covered in gold, Ganymede (a Trojan youth) walks on golden wine cups, and Hecuba (the Trojan queen) is described as the queen of the golden Phrygians.
This lack of restraint tips over to hubris when Priam is described as comfortable stepping onto a purple path, one appropriate for gods and not men. In comparison, Agamemnon (the Greek king of Mycenae) is reluctant to do so and must be persuaded.
At a basic level, it is hard to disagree that the dramatists in the 5th century did alter the Trojan image when they reimagined it. Even their name occasionally changes from Trojan to Phrygian (an Anatolian tribe farther East of Troy). It then begs the question: why did the playwrights make this alteration?
During the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) the powers of Athens painted the Spartans in the same negative light as the Trojans. (Alan / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )
The Threat Outside: Trojans Become Persians and Spartans
Looking into the historical context of the plays, 5th century Athens was fraught with conflicts. The Persians made three assaults (490 BC, 480 BC and 480 BC) against Athens and Sparta (431-404 BC) made another. It is probable, then, that the Athenian dramatists adapted the Trojans to fit the Persian mold (or what they thought was the mold).
As storytellers, characterizing the modern threats of Athens as “neo-Trojans” might have brought fresh relevancy to an otherwise antiquated narrative, which may have intended to immerse audiences to a greater degree.
In addition to the oriental characterization, many scholars, such as Hall in her 1989, Inventing the Barbarian , argue that the actors would have worn Persian-inspired costumes on stage.
Aside from entertainment, Athenian playwrights may have transformed the Trojans to malign their contemporaneous enemy, Sparta.
For example, Euripides, in the Trojan Women, depicts Hermione (the Spartan princess) denouncing Andromache (Hector’s wife) as a barbarian. Conversely, the narrative presents Andromache nobly by the way she quietly responds and the manner she conducts herself more broadly. Andromache, a barbarian, is an archetypal wife, while Helen (Greek) is shamed for her infidelity.
Andromache is such a Greek catch that she resents her wifely virtue, which is why Neoptolemus (the son of Achilles) is so enamored by her. As Erskine in his 2001, Troy between Greece and Rome, concludes, she is not ethnically Greek, but she is more Greek than the Spartan Hermione because of her moral conduct.
The playwright appears to be making Andromache barbarian but not, at least in this instance, to tarnish the image of a foreigner. Contrarily, it seems Euripides is using the exterior barbarity of Andromache to highlight Hermione’s lack of internal (Greek) civility.
It seems appearances are not always telling of how Greek one really is. Rather, one’s conduct is a much more reliable source.
Albeit, in a purely historical and political view, this could be the playwrights’ attempt to vilify Sparta during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC).
Euripides’ Andromache and Hecuba are generally accepted to have been produced in the 420s (BC), which is a few years after the outbreak of the war. The portrayal of the Trojans, then, could have been altered by the dramatists for political ends and to make their plays more engrossing.
Hecuba blinds Polymnestor. (Karmakolle / CC0)
The Threat Within: Trojans Transformed for Social Criticism
Just as the playwrights may have used the Trojans to slander a contemporaneous external threat, the playwrights may have also criticized Athenian expansionism.
In the Trojan Women , Euripides appears to be making an implicit link between the captors and the Athenian audience. Theseus’ sons are mentioned as the instigators of the violent treatment of women. What makes it particularly noteworthy is the seemingly strategic way Euripides includes these figures.
Theseus’ sons are described at the onset of the play, as if to grab the Athenian’s attention, and right after the women’s lament, as if to imply that they are the direct cause of their plight. In another example from Hecuba, Euripides again curiously mentions Theseus’ sons as supporting the sacrifice of the revered Polyxena.
In the latter half of the 5th century, Athens subjugated numerous cities for refusing to become allies in the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides writes that the Athenians killed over a thousand Mytilenean men as an alternative to killing all of the city’s men and enslaving the women and children.
Comparatively, Scione and Milos ( Greek islands ) had all men killed, and all of the women and children were captured as slaves.
Athens went from defending its homeland from an outside Persian threat ( Persian wars ) to transforming into agitators themselves. The Trojan Women is thought to have been produced in 416 BC, immediately after the violence in Milos and after the invasion of Scione in 422 BC.
It also seems relevant to consider that the play was produced before further conquest into Sicily, which was a complete blunder. It is Athens now, like the Greeks of Trojan war, who seek to wreak havoc on foreign shores, and what is more, on the fellow Hellenes of Sicily.
Perhaps, this is why Kassandra, in Euripides’ Trojan Women , compares how glorious it was for the Trojans to have died for their homeland and then buried and lamented. At the same time, the Achaeans (Greeks) lay rotting on foreign land.
It can be argued, then, that the dramatists in the 5th century altered the Trojan image also to denounce a local government that had empirical ambitions.
Reconstructions of the Riace bronzes by Frankfurt Liebieghaus Polychromy Research Project. (Aquaplaning / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
To a modern observer, it is tempting to interpret examples like the ones we have explored from dramatic theatre as something produced by pacificists that resemble anti-war hippies from the 1960s.
In his 1971 piece, A Pacifist in Periclean Athens, this might be why Hamilton posits that Euripides was “a pacifist in Periclean Athens” and that the Trojan Women is “the greatest piece of anti-war literature there is in the world.”
However, this view does appear somewhat anachronistic for an Athenian who would have undergone military service at a young age and was part of a broader militant Athenian society.
Athenian boys from a young age were sent to the grammatistes (tutors) to learn and memorize the spoils of Homeric warriors. As Pritchard elucidates in his 2003, War and Democracy in Ancient Athens, their fathers thought the stories would help turn the boys into agathoi andres or courageous men.
What is more, the military became a crucial medium in which lower-class citizens could be perceived more positively in the wider Athenian community. This comes at a time were, yes, the poor took control of their public life through democracy, but who still found their impoverished state shameful.
Poverty was akin to a disability, old age, or a physical handicap. With military service, a poor man could adopt the title of “useful citizen” or “useful to the city.”
In fact, Euripides himself mentions Hippomedon in his work, The Suppliants, who didn’t refrain from being manly, hastening to chase, and straining his bow, if it meant he was making himself useful for his city.
It is hard to imagine a pacifist, in the general sense, would condone, let alone encourage, violent behavior even if it was beneficial for the city. More generally, it is difficult to imagine Euripides as a pacifist in a polity so intertwined with a warrior culture.
Odysseus (pileus hat) carrying off the palladion from Troy, with the help of Diomedes, against the resistance of Cassandra and other Trojans on an antique fresco from Pompeii. (ArchaiOptix / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Or Humanist Playwrights?
If dramatic theatre did not change the image of the Trojans to protest the Athenian warrior culture, what was the reason?
After all, it is strikingly apparent just how empathic each side of the conflict behaves. Hecuba, the queen of the golden Phrygians, makes an effort to imagine the mourning Greek women amidst the death of her daughter and son.
Comparatively, the cunning Odysseus, who received kleos aphthiton (immortal fame) for his Greek triumphs, stops to ponder of all the bridegrooms who had fallen in the war.
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Like Dué convincingly argues, by exacerbating the differences between the Greeks and Trojans, the playwrights might have intended to emphasize their common humanity.
As an artist allows certain features to pop out with contrasting colors and shade, the playwrights also illuminate a shared humanity on the backdrop of cultural incompatibility.
Though not precisely anti-war literature, theatrical performances blurred the lines between Greek and foreigner, just enough, to facilitate the exploration of what it means to be human.
The theatre may not have been an act of protest, in the modern sense, but an opportunity to reflect on our common humanity amid our differences.
Top image: In this painting by Maarten van Heemskerck Helen, queen of the Greek city-state Sparta, is abducted by Paris, a prince of the Trojans. Source: Walters Art Museum / Public domain
By Thanos Matanis
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Thucydides, T. 1972. History of the Peloponnesian War . Penguin Books Limited.