BMCR 1994.06.17

1994.06.17, Woodford, Trojan War in Ancient Art

, The Trojan War in ancient art. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993. 134 pages : illustrations ; 26 cm. ISBN 9780801429491. $16.95.

For most people the Trojan War conjures up images of gleaming heroes battling over the honor of a woman of legendary beauty. Conflicting themes of treachery and valor, fidelity and lust, complicated by the whims of the gods, have made this epic war the most famous adventure from western antiquity. Its extended popularity and vivid literary background inspired Susan Woodford to choose this subject “to provide an introduction to the study of mythological illustration in classical antiquity” (p. 7). Author of The Art of Greece and Rome and Looking at Pictures (both Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982 and 1983 respectively), and more recently An Introduction to Greek Art (London: Duckworth, and Ithaca: Cornell, 1986), Woodford has worked extensively with the context of image production in ancient Greece and Rome. Scattered with perceptive descriptions of artworks and insightful commentaries on the practices of vase-painters, this book will be most useful to the student or general reader who needs a quick and clean reference to “what-happened-when-and-to-whom” in the Trojan War, accompanied by a useful illustration. Those who seek a comprehensive look at the complex production of literary and visual epic images will be disappointed.

Deftly managing mythical time, Woodford arranges the eight chapters chronologically. The first begins with Zeus’ infatuation with Leda, who bore him Helen. The courtship and wedding of Peleus and Thetis and the Judgment of Paris follows. Chapter Two summarizes the preamble to the war, giving the histories and characters of Greek and Trojan heroes. Passages from Euripides’Iphigeneia at Aulis comprise a section of several pages on the moving story of Agamemnon’s daughter, whose tragic death was portrayed so vividly in drama and so dully in paintings. Trojan myths not directly related to the war are assembled in Chapter Three, which includes tales of Priam’s father, King Laomedon. The attraction of certain gods to Troy’s men allows Woodford to extend beyond her principal theme to include the myths of Zeus and Ganymede (with a fine visual analysis of a cup by the Penthesilea Painter), Eos and Tithonos, and Aphrodite and Anchises. Selections from Pliny, Lucian, the Homeric Hymns, and Virgil supplement the text. In a lengthy and not especially pertinent digression, the pre-Greek sack of the city of Herakles and the hero’s death and apotheosis are described.

Chapter Four sees the Greeks setting out for Troy a second time. The obscure story of Anios, king of Delos, and his daughters survives visually only on a fourth century B.C. Apulian vase. Its solitary appearance is used as a relevant demonstration of how iconographers decode and interpret puzzling representations. Woodford here warns the reader of the dangers of forcing the imagery to correspond to a known text or of falling into a circular trap of inventing a text in response to the imagery which it attempts to explain (pp. 53-54). Advice such as this is especially important for the novice, to whom this text is directed, and Woodford’s reference to responsible methodologies is commendable. However, the reader is reminded by the singularity of this example that the relative popularity of Trojan imagery from the seventh century B.C. through Imperial Rome is never addressed. For example, when referring to Sophilos’ unique portrayal of the Funeral Games for Patroklos Woodford neglects to mention that this scene was never represented again, or that it was very unusual for painters to represent multi-figured events at all. Chapter Four also sees Woodford’s first direct reference to an artist: Kleitias’ Troilos frieze on the Fran├žois Vase is described in a lively and stimulating manner. Woodford might have launched into an investigation of ancient narratives at this point, but she prefers to avoid methodological references (useful narrative terms such as “synoptic” or “continuous” are not to be found) apparently so as not to impede the flow of her story. When she does digress, it is for art historical analysis: the description of a particularly noteworthy vase or an aesthetic issue which she feels deserves attention, such as the brief but significant paragraph on the way that the shape of a vase can dictate the form of the narrative painted on it (p. 58). Woodford explains the difference between black-figure and red-figure vases by way of introducing Exekias’ famous rendering of Achilles and Ajax on an amphora in the Vatican. She describes it nicely (all of her formal analyses are good) and compares it to a lesser example, a bi-lingual amphora with the same scene by the Andokides/Lysippides Painters. Here she interjects and evaluates the opinions of scholars on the question of literary sources for the Achilles and Ajax representations (but does not mention the well-known work of John Boardman and others on the possible political associations of this scene). The reference to scholarly opinions without name or citation is an annoyance to the interested reader who would like to pursue the subject; simple footnotes would not have unnecessarily burdened the text. The story of Ajax and Achilles gaming, a subject known only from art, also inspires Woodford to interpose a necessary and cogent discussion about the freedom of the artist to invent or adapt his own visual narratives without recourse to literary sources. Unfortunately, this significant issue is treated all-too-briefly.

The Iliad is the source for all of Chapter Five, “The Anger of Achilles,” which begins with the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles and ends with the death of Patroklos. Chapter Six is also derived from Homer, and mentions the influence of Aeschylus’ lost trilogy based on the Iliad. Well-chosen excerpts from the Iliad are inserted smoothly and accompany an excellent description of Achilles chasing Hektor. Woodford sets up the complex narrative and explains how and why Hektor “deceived, abandoned and slain” was a challenging psychological situation for the vase-painters to convey. Using an example by the Berlin Painter (Fig. 74), she demonstrates that pictures have integrity as pictures; it is not a necessity for them to slavishly illustrate poetry. Following this line of thought, Woodford shows a powerfully composed Leagran hydria (Fig. 76) which includes within one panel the Dragging of Hektor’s Body and Patroklos’ burial mound. Since the Iliad tells us that Patroklos’ funeral occurred after the dragging of Hektor’s body, this scene is a prime example of the artistic combination of multiple time-references, or use of synoptic narrative, by a late black-figure vase-painter. The author closes this chapter by reinforcing the view that, while inspired by poems and plays for the stories, the images were not literal illustrations of the poems themselves but instead were probably more closely reliant upon other images. Throughout the book Woodford includes relevant passages from Greek literature to help enliven and amplify her story, but here she stops to remind the reader of the complexity of those sources and the additional significant role played by the individual expression of the painter, who was inspired not only by Homer and Aeschylus, but also by the wealth of visual imagery he saw in his workshop and in the world around him.

Chapter Seven tells what happened to the heroes of the Iliad (mainly Achilles and Ajax) after it ended, and the final chapter recounts the inevitable murder of the royal family and fall of the citadel. Without explaining the significant role of the Epic Cycle (not to mention Lesches’Ilias parva or the Iliou persis of either Arktinos or Stesichoros), or pointing out that episodes from these poems were in fact more popular than those from the Iliad, Woodford relates all the horrific episodes of the final night of the war: the Death of Priam, the Rape of Kassandra, Menelaos’ recovery of Helen. For the latter, the author focuses on the episode as recounted by Lesches in his Ilias parva, in which Menelaos drops his sword at the sight of Helen’s alluring breasts. (She does not mention the alternative version, given by Arktinos, in which Menelaos simply grasps her wrists to take her to the waiting ships of the Greeks.) In this way Woodford reinforces the role Aphrodite plays in the story, which provides her a smooth segue into presentation of the episode of Aeneas and Anchises. This story is illustrated by a Leagran example that demonstrates how close to ornament some painters conceived their figures (Fig. 110). This is evidenced by a fidelity to symmetricality so overwhelming that the narrative impact is considerably diminished and the spirit of the story is essentially lost. Woodford here reminds the reader that the “tension between decoration and narration is a very real one for vase painters, and some are better at resolving it than others” (p. 114). She ends her story with a description of the famous kalpis by the Kleophrades Painter.

In the Epilogue, Woodford describes the aftermath of the sack of the city: the sacrifice of Polyxena, the quarrel of Agamemnon and Menelaos, the return of Agamemnon and his murder, Orestes’ rescue of Iphigeneia, Helen and Menelaos in Egypt, the deaths of Ajax and Neoptolemos, and very briefly the adventures of Odysseus. Obscure details are included: one is interested to know that Andromache married another son of Priam and “ruled over a kingdom in Epirus,” and of course, according to Virgil, Aeneas fled to Italy where his descendants founded Rome. The text concludes with a moving Byzantine lament (from the sixth century A.D.) over the fall of the city.

The text proper is followed by an Appendix, “The Illustrations in Historical Perspective,” which despite its title does not provide historical context but instead is a brief survey of the media of painting and sculpture in Greece and Rome as they relate to the subject. This section is a traditional art-historical review of the material, and as such it stresses technique and style. A useful Glossary (divided into Historical and Mythological figures) precedes a brief bibliography of introductory books on Greek and Roman art and mythological illustration. The bibliography on ancient narrative has swelled since the 1967 publication of The Iliad in Early Greek Art by K. Friis Johansen and the two volumes on archaic narration by the German scholar Karl Schefold (translated in 1966 and 1992), yet Woodford lists in addition to these only publications which serve primarily as visual dictionaries for Greek myth. Thus while pointing the reader towards a path to comprehending the complexities of mythological description, she fails to provide appropriate signposts for that investigation.

For art historians and archaeologists the painters and their vases will not have been dealt with fully enough, and for philologists and classicists the lack of literary references and fluent descriptions of the myths could prove annoying and at times suspect. Also, throughout the book Woodford seems reticent to discuss the complicated issue of poetic transmission and its transformation into image. Not until page 55 and the story of Troilos is the Kypria defined, though this significant work from the Epic Cycle was the source for much that the author describes in Chapters One and Two. Had Woodford included literary sources in the form of footnotes throughout the text, the book would have been quite useful as a valuable reference for the complicated transmission of myth into images. On the other hand, for those whose knowledge of the ancient sources is slight but keen, and who have minimal background in Greek or Latin literature, Woodford reveals the mythical scope of the Trojan War without complicated references to original and often obscure sources that might be time consuming and difficult for the average reader to find. Throughout, her commitment to detail and deft handling of a wide variety of complicated sources into a nearly seamless narrative are to be saluted. Also, her visual analyses are often inspired. Not only are they a pleasure to read, they also will serve the interested newcomer as a primer for one of the ways vases ought to be read.