Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.12.29

Guy Hedreen, Capturing Troy: The Narrative Functions of Landscape in Archaic and Early Classical Greek Art.   Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 2001.  Pp. vi, 297; figs. 50.  ISBN 0-472-11163-9.  $57.50.  

Reviewed by Jeffrey M. Hurwit, University of Oregon (
Word count: 2797 words

Not very far into Guy Hedreen's ambitious but problematic study it becomes clear that, despite its subtitle, the book is not really just about the role of landscape in the Greek artist's telling of the tale of Troy, but the role of setting, and it is "setting" very broadly defined. For Hedreen (hereafter, "H.") setting encompasses not only trees and rocks and other features of the natural world but also buildings, altars, furniture, personal attributes, and moveable objects like hats or shields. So a sword may function as an element of setting and thus as a narrative device when it is held in the hand of Menelaos attempting to recover Helen (38-43). Even people (such as Chryses and Chryseis, 55) and divinities (such as Apollo, 60) can function not as actors in a drama but as props, elements of setting, or, like Athena on the Niobid Painter's volute krater in Bologna, "a part of the landscape" (51; cf. 89). One person's landscape is another's cast of characters. But if the title is misleading and the working definition of setting too broad to be of much use, H.'s admirable purpose is to show how setting facilitates the narration of the Trojan saga in the art of (primarily) the sixth and fifth centuries. He is not interested in how elements of landscape (the sandy beach on the Brygos Painter's Malibu cup, for example, or the suffering palm on the Kleophrades Painter's Vivenzio hydria) are represented per se. He is interested in how a tree or a vine or a stone block in a given scene may allude to a different narrative moment from the one depicted (in analepsis or prolepsis), or visually link two different stories, or provide "information that helps to explain why stories turn out in the ways they do" (1). His analyses of individual works are often informative and they reveal a formidable knowledge of a vast corpus of material. Difficulties lie in prose that is often labored, discussions that are often repetitive (with too many in-chapter summaries), and, above all, a theory about Achilles that strains credulity.

In his Introduction H. sets forth his general approach and also argues at some length that the iconography of Greek art is independent of the Greek literary tradition. Assuming a specialist reader for his book, I think he is speaking to the converted. The time is long past when most ancient art historians would consider a vase-painting an illustration of, say, an epic poem or worry why a given image does not exactly correspond to a description found in an extant text. It is possible that in some instances poets and artists follow the same basic story (27), but we should explicate visual images without recourse to notions of literary influence. Generally, "the relationship between narrative poetry and art in the Archaic and Early Classical periods was probably distant and indirect" (5). The argument that "Greek artists created narratives, or narrative connections, independent of the poetic tradition" (116) runs throughout the book, and it is one that many others have made, with good reason. This does not, however, stop H. from arguing on occasion that "visual artists were familiar with the [literary] tradition" after all (170). And it is perhaps ironic that in the course of the book H. spends a great many pages examining literary sources that may lie behind such images as that of Ajax and Achilles playing dice (94-95) or the Judgment of Paris (e.g. 208-211).

Chapter One proposes that the way sanctuaries of the gods are depicted helps explicate the stories of the rape of Kassandra and the recovery of Helen. In the case of Kassandra, the setting is invariably the Trojan sanctuary of Athena, and the statue of the goddess (not the goddess herself, as has sometimes been argued) is its principal feature. It is the defilement of Athena's precinct by Ajax that leads to the unhappy return of so many heroes, and so the depiction of this setting alludes to future disasters somehow known to the viewer. Nothing objectionable or surprising here. In the case of Helen, however, her recovery by Menelaos is shown variously in the sanctuaries of several different gods (Aphrodite, Apollo, Athena) or even in royal houses. The variety of settings for this episode is so great that the independence of the iconography from the poetic tradition is in this case assured (extant literature mentions only the sanctuary of Aphrodite). On the other hand, H. concludes, "the setting of the recovery of Helen does not play a critical role in the action" (61) because it did not matter where Menelaos confronted her. The different settings matter only because they explain Helen's emotional condition: upset, she flees to any sanctuary for her own protection. Paradoxically, H. argues here that the variety of settings is important because a particular setting was not important for the telling of the tale.

Chapter Two accepts that the setting of the death of Priam is "probably always" (67) the precinct of Zeus Herkeios, but perhaps its most striking conclusion is that the presence of a tripod or palm tree in such scenes (and thus in Zeus' sanctuary) alludes doubly to Apollo's role in building the walls of Troy and to his absence from Troy (and his indifference to the fate of the Trojans) on the night of its sack. Palms are not primarily indicators of a foreign or exotic setting (75), as has often been thought, but are signs of Apollo, Architect. According to the Iliad and other sources, Poseidon built the walls, too, but his contribution cannot be alluded to in art, according to H., because he has no attribute as easy to include as setting as the palm (84). Apollo's role in constructing the walls, and the walls' impregnability, are crucial to H.'s thesis as the book develops, and for him explain why the Achaeans had to resort to the ruse of the Wooden Horse: they could not breach divinely-built walls by force. And it explains why Apollo supports the Trojan's cause: he does not want to see his handiwork destroyed (87). By that logic, though, Poseidon should favor the Trojans, too, but he does not. H. makes much of the supposed inviolability of the walls of Troy, but he makes too little of Iliad 6.433-439, where Andromache specifically says the walls are in fact scalable at one point (cf. Pindar, Ol. 8.31-46). By citing these lines in a footnote (86 n. 82), H. apparently thinks he has disposed of the contradiction: to my mind, he has not. If a Trojan character specifically says the walls are not impregnable, they are not; if Hector does not contradict her, why should H.? Finally, if palms were as fixed in the iconographic tradition as symbols of Apollo's architectural efforts and thus of Troy's impregnability as H. believes, one can only wonder why we find another sort of tree altogether on the famous Leagros Group hydria in Munich (Fig. 39), where the walls of Troy are actually shown and the setting is more complex than in virtually any other representation of an episode from the war.

Chapter Three examines the relationship between the setting of the game played by Achilles and Ajax on Exekias' famous Vatican amphora (and on hundreds of later vases), the setting of the vote over the arms of Achilles, and the suicide of Ajax. H. concludes that the gaming table of the one myth is the table on which the Achaeans cast their vote in the other: the two stories are linked by the element of setting. This is, in my view, convincing. Still, there are nits to pick at in the argument. H. cites features of Exekias's scene that suggest Ajax is losing (97) but does not mention the most obvious: the words coming out of the heroes' own mouths (Achilles calls out "four" to Ajax's "three"). H. attempts to recreate a narrative (independent of any poetic tradition) that might lie behind the image, but I missed any reference to Boardman's well-known political interpretation of the scene as referring to the Peisistratid attack on Pallene.1 He also seems to want to impose a questionable consistency upon the various artistic versions of the scene: since some post-Exekian images of the dice game include palm trees, thus indicating an outdoor setting, all dice games (even Exekias', where no tree appears) must be set outdoors. H. believes in the inventive power and independence of visual artists, on the one hand, but on the other seems to restrict their inventiveness or variety, making them all have exactly the same conception of a narrative. H. also argues that the presence of a palm tree in scenes of Ajax's suicide as well as in scenes of his game with Achilles shows that both events happened at the same place (118-119). One then wonders why Exekias did not put a palm tree on his Vatican amphora when he put one on his amphora in Boulogne, especially if Exekias was (according to H.) just the sort of artist to grasp the "cause-and-effect relationships among the stories" of the game, vote, and suicide (113). H. leaves us with the possibility that Exekias did include a palm in another scene of the dice game (in Leipzig), but here as elsewhere he dwells too comfortably in the vague realm of surmise.

Chapter 4 explores the myth of Troilos and its settings, pointing out once again that the images deviate from the literary traditions in important respects, and concluding that by killing Troilos upon Apollo's altar as a kind of (unwanted) sacrifical victim, Achilles ensured the wrath of Apollo and thus his own death. The argument at times seems forced. On the François vase, for example, Troilos clearly flees on horseback toward the protection of the walls of Troy, shown at right. But for H. that reading is merely "interpretation" (140-141) and, since H. wants Troilos in every narrative to wind up on the altar of Apollo, what Kleitias has painted -- what is before our own eyes -- will not do. Apollo's presence at far left means, for H., that Troilos will die on the god's altar. He does, of course, on other vases, but not on this one, and H. errs, I think, by trying to read Kleitias' image in the light of others. If it is misguided to read images as always dependent on texts, might it not also be misguided and reductive to read all images, Archaic and Classical, as narrating the same story in exactly the same way?

In Chapter 5 H. deals with the narrative importance of setting in many representations of the Judgment of Paris, arguing that the rock on which the prince often sits (it is Mt. Ida, pars pro toto, 183) helps characterize him as a shepherd, and that as a herdsman Paris would naturally be more interested in his own sexual pleasure than in military or political success. Thus, the bucolic setting helps explain his acceptance of Aphrodite's bribe (the beautiful Helen) over Athena's and Hera's. But H. concedes (188-89) that there is no uniformity in the representation of this narrative. Many Judgments lack any setting at all, and a Classical cup in Berlin (Fig. 50) shows Paris as a dandy in a palace: his choice of Helen here requires an explanation other than the randiness conventionally associated with shepherds. Not all settings give the same explanation for the same story after all. And here as elsewhere H. strangely treats the characters of myth as if they were real people, with real choices. He wonders, for example, whether other Trojans would have made the same decision as Paris: "one imagines that Hektor. . . would have chosen Athena out of love of battle or Hera out of a sense of civic responsibility" ( 207). Well, sure. But should a critic wonder or imagine like this? Should we wonder "how many children had Lady MacBeth",2 or how the play would have turned out if Othello had not been the jealous type, or what there was about Achilles' childhood that made him so quick to anger? H. seems to assume the characters of epic or fiction have an existence independent of the works in which they appear, with latent motives or unexpressed purposes. So, H. dismisses the idea that Paris (and not Hektor or Aeneas) made the choice he did simply because that was what the plot required (205-206). But that is what the plot required: if Hektor (or even Paris) had chosen Athena or Hera, after all, the Trojan War as we know it would not have happened.

H. analyzes many more vases than he can illustrate economically. Still, his arguments would sometimes be easier to follow had there been more (and better quality) illustrations: a book on setting in Greek art (where setting is not all that common) should perhaps show the citadel (Troy?) depicted on a cup by the Euergides Painter (93). Such matters were presumably not fully within the author's control. But one can also quarrel with interpretations of individual works. For example, H.'s suggestion that the large fallen warrior on the new fragment from the shoulder of the Mykonos pithos is Achilles (180-181, fig. 15a-c) seems very unlikely: there is a logical narrative flow from the neck of the vase (where the Trojan Horse is depicted) to the body of the vase (where the Trojans are slaughtered), and the insertion of Achilles (who of course died some time before the sack) would seriously disrupt the temporal progession.

But H.'s reading here emerges from a broader theory developed in the latter chapters and the conclusion. There H. devotes a lot of space to a notion that the gods and even the Achaeans hatched a grand conspiracy to kill Achilles. On one page, we read that "one of [the purposes of the Trojan War] appears to have been the elimination of Achilles" (179); on the next we learn that "the essential requirement for the sack of Troy was the death of Achilles" (180). It is a theory that leaves landscape, setting, and accepted principles of criticism behind and enters the realm of virtually baseless speculation. Simply put, according to H., the gods want to kill Achilles because, as the child of Thetis (destined to give birth to a son mightier than the father), he is a threat to Zeus. But the threat is not there: Achilles is mightier than his father, all right, but Peleus is not Zeus. H.'s suggestion (179) that the gods still wanted Achilles dead as an insurance policy rings very hollow. The Achaeans, on the other hand, want to get Achilles out of the way because they realize that his brute force will never take Troy (its walls, thanks to Apollo, are impregnable, remember) and that only Odysseus' resourcefulness can win the day. Achilles must be eliminated because he will have no part in deceits like the Trojan Horse (though of course that stratagem was not conceived until after his death). And so Achilles is purposefully given bad advice by other Greeks (Kalchas, Odysseus, 166) so that he will kill Troilos on the altar of Apollo and so seal his own doom (173, 180): in other words, he is set up. The unsubstantiated, speculative leaps in this hypothesis are exasperating. "It is also," H. writes, "well within the realm of possibilities in the epic tradition that the gods might have countenanced a plot to destroy Achilles" (178). That sentence is not very sure of itself, but the book is full of such "possibilities" and "might haves," and there is nothing to back it all up. Would the Achilles who ambushed Troilos (not the most heroic of deeds) really have objected to, say, lying in wait outside the walls of Troy, to be let in once the ruse of the Horse had worked? Why would the Greeks want to whack their greatest warrior when, presumably, they could still have used his talents during the Ilioupersis? And why, if Achilles was such an obstacle to their plans (or a threat to Zeus' hegemony), did they all wait ten years to get rid of him? H. wants to understand "the narrative logic of the [Trojan] war" (86) but I fail to see any logic here, or any evidence for his theory, either. There is absolutely nothing in the literary or artistic record to suggest that the Achaeans wanted their greatest warrior dead. The Iliad, H. seems to forget, is largely about the Achaeans trying to get Achilles back to the field of battle. If he was such a detriment to the war effort, why did they not just let him stay in his tent or go home? H. invents a vast conspiracy where none exists and is thus engaged in myth-making himself.


1.   J. Boardman, "Exekias," American Journal of Archaeology 82 (1978), 18-24.
2.   The title of a famous essay by L.C. Knights, Explorations (New York 1964), 15-54, which demolishes the kind of criticism H. sometimes practices here.

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