Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.2.01


Michael J. Anderson, The Fall of Troy in Early Greek Poetry and Art. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997. Pp. xi + 283, 10 ill. $75.00. ISBN 0-19-815064-4.


Reviewed by Guy Hedreen, Williams College.

The subject of Michael Anderson's worthwhile study is the series of deeds and atrocities that occurred during the sack of Troy. Anderson is not interested, like a war reporter, in the events themselves; their historicity, even if it could be determined, is not really relevant. Rather, he is concerned with the ways in which the events were given form, narrated, in early Greek poetry and art. There are limitations on the kinds of questions one can ask about the poetic and artistic representations of the sack of Troy. The relevant epics (Iliou Persis, Mikra Ilias) did not survive the end of antiquity. We have summaries of their contents and a few fragments, which allow us to reconstruct them only in outline. There are many surviving works of early Greek art that depict the events of the Ilioupersis, but they amount to a small fraction of the total number created in the Archaic and Classical periods, and some of the most important representations (Polygnotos' wall paintings, the north metopes of the Parthenon) are lost. Therefore one cannot write a comprehensive developmental history of the sack of Troy in early Greek art and literature, tracing the contributions of individual poets and artists, and the influence of particular works.

One of the virtues of this book is that Anderson found an approach to the material that is constructive, that is not confounded at every turn by the limitations of the evidence. The book attempts to identify and explain not the unique contribution of any single poet, artist, or work, but rather the many shared patterns of plot in narratives of the sack. The similarities between the rape of Kassandra and the murder of Priam, for example: the flight of both victims to religious shrines, the violations of the shrines by the perpetrators, the punishment of the latter by the gods, and even the concordance among victims and offended deities in terms of family relations (maiden attacked in the sanctuary of the virgin daughter of the king of the gods, at whose altar the king of the Trojans and father of the maiden took refuge, p. 50). The first part of the book explores correlations of that sort, as Anderson calls them (p. 9), among stories of the Trojan War in epic poetry. The study is not restricted to stories that occurred during the Ilioupersis, but examines similarities in plot between deeds of the sack and events from other moments in the Trojan War, those leading up to the war and those of the aftermath. To list a few examples: the correlations between the sacrifices of Iphigeneia and Polyxena; the ships of Paris and the Trojan Horse; the stories of Kassandra and Chryseis; the careers of Achilles and Neoptolemos (which, among other things, highlight the differences between the ways they treated Priam).

Part of the investigation of interrelations between stories from the Ilioupersis and those occurring at other moments in the Trojan War can only deal with the stories per se, and not with the particular epic accounts in which they were given form, because the poems are lost. But the book also explores the traces of Ilioupersis stories in surviving Homeric epic. The book contains a particularly sensitive analysis of Priam's vision of his own death in Iliad 22 (pp. 29-38). The analysis pays close attention to the context of Priam's speech in the poem; it is directed at Hektor, so crafted to be as persuasive to him as possible, and thus takes more liberties with traditional accounts of the sack of Troy than sometimes thought. Noteworthy also are the many observations about how the tale of the sack of Troy is echoed or alluded to in the Odyssey: how the story of Odysseus' infiltration of his own household seems to call to mind the stories of his infiltration of Troy (e.g., his meetings in disguise with Helen and Penelope). The aim of the section on epic is to show that many of the correlations among the stories of the Trojan War are not merely a byproduct of the technique of oral poetic improvisation (see esp. p. 15), but are the result of a more deliberate process of knitting together the many tales from the war into a coherent whole. The result is end-to-end symmetry, clearer cause-and-effect relationships, close family ties, dramatic oppositions, and the increased visibility of thematic concerns such as sacrilege.

The second section of the book explores the relationships between the narratives in several tragedies (Agamemnon, Andromache, and Troiades) and the epic traditions about the sack of Troy. Anderson shows how many of the images of the sack in the Agamemnon, e.g., the Achaians sleeping in Trojan beds or the kicking of the altar of Dike, are ambivalent or double-edged: they refer ostensibly to the Achaian victory and its divine justification, but they also call to mind the Achaians' desecration of the shrines of Troy and their subsequent reversal of fortune (pp. 116-18). Defining correlation is more difficult in this section of the book than it was in the section on epic. It includes intentional literary allusion, as in the image of the kicking of the great altar of justice in the Agamemnon, a reference that loses its full significance if the audience does not remember that Ajax knocked over the statue of Athena and Neoptolemos murdered Priam on the altar of Zeus. It also includes similarities in plot between a narrative in tragedy and a traditional tale from the Ilioupersis, e.g., those between the fate of the family of Priam and the fortunes of the family of Peleus as Euripides articulates them in the Andromache. That kind of correlation is what Anderson calls a 'paradigm': the traditional story from the Ilioupersis is employed as a compositional tool, a means of creating a new story or a new narrative of a traditional tale. Anderson considers the possibility that the audience need not consciously grasp the model of the new tale in order for it to be effective, but seems to conclude, as he does in the section on epic, that correlations were deliberately sought after and not merely an unintended result of mythmaking (see esp. pp. 135 and 155).

The third section of the book concerns the iconography of the Ilioupersis in Greek art. It does not attempt to treat all aspects of the iconography, a formidable task, but deals primarily with works of art in which more than one episode of the sack has been represented. Anderson argues that artists employed symmetry and compositional emphasis in order to establish correlations among the episodes of the sack in complex works of art. A heightened sensitivity to such correlations leads to some important conclusions. For example, the common assumption that one of the panels on the Mykonos pithos depicts the death of Astyanax loses its persuasiveness when viewed against a background of multiple infanticides. As Anderson rightly notes, there is nothing about the 'Astyanax' panel that sets it apart from the others, which together appear to depict the extermination of all of Troy's children (p. 188). He also points out that allusions to Achilles may be the glue that binds together the tondo and side A of the Brygos Painter's famous cup-painting of the Ilioupersis (pp. 230-31). And his examination of the possible thematic relationships underlying the composition of the elaborate cup-painting of the Ilioupersis by Onesimos is one of the best analyses of the imagery as a complex whole yet published. As in the sections on epic and tragedy, however, the possibility that artists employed compositional devices for purely nonnarrative purposes lurks in the background of the discussions.

The book contributes to a number of current scholarly debates, but its scholarly impact might be greater if it included a detailed conclusion, the most serious omission from the book. Perhaps the book's broadest and most important contribution is that it abundantly attests to the fluidity and elasticity of the tradition about Troy (e.g., pp. 4 and 229). It also lends support to the idea that the similarities between two tales may have come about through mutual influence of one evolving tradition upon another, an essentially anonymous process from our perspective, rather than through deliberate imitation (cf. Mabel L. Lang, "Reverberation and Mythology in the Iliad," in Approaches to Homer, ed. Carl A. Rubino and Cynthia W. Shelmerdine [Austin, 1983], 140-64, one omission from Anderson's bibliography). Both of those characteristics, the malleability of the epic tradition and the operation of a kind of feedback loop, may be hallmarks of a narrative discourse that is primarily oral, rather than a highly developed culture of literacy. Thus the book contributes to our understanding of oral narrative technique.

But when it comes to the sources for artistic representations (the material about which I am best qualified comment), Anderson sometimes does not accept the full ramifications of the idea of an oral tradition. The stimulus for the Marlay Painter's picture of the death of Kassandra, for example, was "no doubt" Aischylos' Agamemnon (p. 264). Presupposing a close relationship between particular poetic sources and the visual tradition can lead to questionable interpretations of visual images, e.g., those of the vase-paintings of the recovery of Helen by Menelaos (pp. 202-206). Motifs from the literary accounts, such as the importance of the sight of Helen's body, have been sought out in the images in a rather desperate manner. The smallest opening in the heroine's garments, the outline of her body beneath them, or the lifting of a hem, is thought to show that Helen is trying to seduce her former husband by revealing her body to him. But the gesture of unveiling is a visual motif employed in many contexts that have nothing to do with seduction or the sight of a woman's body. It was also a widespread practice among some late Archaic vase-painters to reveal the outlines of women's bodies beneath their clothing, again, often in narrative contexts that have nothing to do with seduction. Furthermore, the iconography of Kassandra shows that Greek artists had no difficulty depicting a woman wholly in the nude when they wished to suggest that she was physically attractive to a man. The striking differences between the iconography of Helen and Kassandra suggest that the sight of Helen's body is not the main action of the vase-paintings.

The tacit assumption that the visual arts stood in a derivative relationship to poetic narration sometimes seems to underlie the interpretation of visual art in other ways as well. The well-known red-figure hydria in Naples by the Kleophrades Painter depicts four, possibly five, identifiable episodes from the last moments of Troy side by side, without borders between them. Following literary traditions about the escape of Aineias and the rescue of Aithra, Anderson argues that the vase-painting depicts a temporal progression, events occurring before, during, and after the sack (p. 232). But the vase-painting depicts the episodes as if they are unfolding simultaneously; it includes no motifs or devices to suggest the passage of time; it includes numerous elements (corpses, mourning women, similarities in physiognomy between Anchises and Priam) that tie all the episodes together visually; and none of the episodes stands in a cause-and-effect relationship with any other. Only a viewer greatly concerned to reconcile what is depicted in the picture with what is narrated in particular poetic accounts, or with the order in which the events unfolded in poetry, is likely to interpret the image against the grain and read into it a temporal progression.

The author's interpretation of the black-figure hydria by the Priam Painter in the Vatican also grants it little independence as a narrative. The vase depicts the rape of Kassandra, with Aineias, Anchises, and probably Priam, Astyanax, and Andromache present. According to Anderson, "the scene is not intended as a literal representation of dramatic reality. The imported figures cannot actually cross the narrative gap separating them from the present action" (p. 212). Such an interpretation denies visual art one of its strengths, namely, to make the spatial relations between figures in a story palpable, real. Faced with a picture as innovative and affecting as this one, who is to say that Priam, Andromache, and the others were not present at the rape of Kassandra? Why is the vase-painting a less reliable authority about what really happened at Troy than the poetic tradition? Anderson's discussion of the visual representations of the Ilioupersis might have benefited from a closer examination of Carl Robert's, Bild und Lied. Robert was one of the first to examine in detail the combining of two or more episodes from the sack into one picture (a point not emphasized enough in this book). He also recognized that the visual arts were capable of shaping the tradition much as poetry could. He believed, rightly I think, that the relationship between art and poetry was indirect, mediated through a dynamic vernacular narrative tradition that scholars subsequently were to recognize as the oral tradition.

Quibbles aside, anyone interested in the Trojan War, student or professional scholar, will find this book useful, enlightening, and fun to read. The stories explored here are not only diverting, often even stirring in themselves, but the vast network of interconnections among them, the principal subject of this book, is an edifice of remarkable coherence, a thing of real beauty. To have made the plan of that edifice so much clearer is criticism at its best. The book is written and organized in such a way that it is accessible to nonspecialists as well as being useful to scholars. If it were printed in paperback, it would be a required text in my survey of Greek narrative art. The book is, in fact, perhaps the most interesting account in English of the sack of Troy in Greek art and literature now available.