Priam begs Achilles to give him the body of his son, Hector (MFA)
… Priam spoke to Achilles in supplication:
‘Remember your father, Achilles. He is an old man
like me, approaching the end of his life. Perhaps
he too is being worn down by enemy troops,
with no one there to protect him from chaos and ruin.
Yet he at least, since he knows that you are alive,
feels joy in his heart and, every day, can look forward
to seeing his child, whom he loves so dearly, come home.
My fate is less happy. I fathered the bravest men
in the land of Troy, yet not one remains alive.
Most of my sons have been killed in this wretched war.
The only one I could truly count on, the one
who guarded our city and all its people – you killed him
a few days ago as he fought to defend his country:
Hector. It is for his sake that I have come,
to beg you for his release. I have brought a large ransom.
Respect the gods now. Have pity on me; remember
your father. For I am more to be pitied than he is,
since I have endured what no mortal ever endured:
I have kissed the hands of the man who slaughtered my children.’
(Homer The Iliad Book XXIV L. 475-497 tr. by Stephen Mitchell)
The above picture comes from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, USA. Drawn by an unidentified French artist in the nineteenth century it is by no means the best representation of Priam’s supplication to Achilles.
I chose it, though, because unlike other images, it shows Hector’s body still tied to the cart that Achilles rode round Troy after killing his enemy, which brings to mind Alexander’s punishment of Betis after the siege of Gaza.
Betis was brought before the young king, who was elated with haughty satisfaction, although he generally admired courage even in an enemy. ‘You shall not have the death you wanted,’ he said. ‘Instead, you can expect to suffer whatever torment can be devised against a prisoner.’ Betis gave Alexander a look that was not just fearless, but downright defiant, and uttered not a word in reply to his threats. ‘Do you see his obstinate silence?’ said Alexander. ‘Has he knelt to me? Has he uttered one word of entreaty? But I shall overcome his silence: at the very least I shall punctuate it with groans.’ Alexander’s anger turned to fury, his recent successes already suggesting to his mind foreign modes of behaviour. Thongs were passed through Betis’ ankles while he still breathed, and he was tied to a chariot. Then Alexander’s horses dragged him around the city while the king gloated at having followed the example of his ancestor Achilles in punishing his enemy.
(Curtius The History of Alexander Book IV. 6. 26 – 29 tr. by John Yardley)
Achilles’ treatment of Hector’s body and Alexander of the still living Betis represent black moments in the men’s lives – the day when their desire for vengeance got the better of their reason and honour. The episodes end very differently. Achilles – albeit at the behest of the gods – eventually gives Hector’s body back to his father, Priam. Betis was duly executed and Alexander moved on to continue his conquest of the Persian empire. Except… in his notes to de Sélincourt’s translation of Arrian’s Campaigns of Alexander, J R Hamilton casts doubt on whether the incident actually happened. He does not, however, give a reason for this.
- This post is a day late. Apologies!
- The great actor Peter O’Toole, who died yesterday at the age of 81 played Priam in 2004 film Troy. Requiem Aeternam dona ei, Domine. Et lux perpetua luceat ei: Requiescat in pace. Amen.
Read more Sunday Art and Poetry posts here