The End of the Trojan War; Orestes and Odysseus

Here in the final section, the end of the Trojan War is covered, followed by two important storylines which tell of its aftermath. The first of these is the story told in the trilogy by the classical dramatist Aeschylus, entitled the Oresteia, which deals with the return of Agamemnon and its consequences. The final story covers the trials of Odysseus after the war, as described in Homer's Odyssey, one of the earliest, and most important, works of Greek literature.

The Trojan Horse

After the events described in the previous section, ten years after the war began, the Greeks devised a scheme to defeat the Trojans: they built a colossal wooden horse, concealed their fiercest warriors inside, and then convinced the Trojans to take it within the walls of their city.

The first two paintings below are the 'before' and 'after' of the building of the horse, both by Giandomenico Tiepolo, the son of the famous Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, late 1700s. In the second view, the Trojans, now deceived into believing that taking the horse is to their advantage, are dragging it toward the city. The words "PALADI VOTUM" appearing on the side are Latin for "An offering to Pallas (Athena)" - which was part of the false story fed to the Trojans, but the language is anachronistic, since the Greeks of the Bronze Age would not have been writing in Latin.

The next painting is an unusual variation of the idea by the Renaissance artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, with the figures of the men formed into the shape of the horse, about 1570. The other image is a wall painting from Pompeii, showing the Trojan princess Cassandra, fainting, as she possesses the power of prophecy and knows that the horse means the doom of Troy. But because she had spurned Apollo after he had given her the power, he cursed her so that no one would ever believe her predictions. Clearly the artist has taken liberty with the size of the horse in order to fit it into the scene; notice that part of the wall of Troy has been demolished, since the horse was too large to fit through the gates.


Besides Cassandra, only one other prominent Trojan was against the bringing in of the horse, since he suspected treachery: his name was Laocoön, a priest of Apollo and/or Poseidon (the sources differ on which god was responsible for what happened; both gods had a grudge againt him).

As Laocoön prayed at an altar that the Trojans would heed his warning about the horse, two sea-serpents emerged to attack and silence him and his sons. This is the subject of one of the most famous sculptures from the Hellenistic-Roman period, seen here from various angles.

This sculpture matches the written description found in the work of the Roman author Pliny (who perished while investigating the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79). He mentions it as being at the palace of Titus, the emperor at that time. Pliny's principal comment was that this sculpture was somewhat diminished by the fact that is was not made by a single artist, but rather a trio from the island of Rhodes, named Hagesandros, Polydoros and Athenodoros. The date of the sculpture is probably about 150 B.C.

The Laocoön was rediscovered in 1506 (the height of the Renaissance) during an excavation on the Esquiline Hill in the center of Rome. It was recognized from the description in Pliny, although there is one discrepancy: Pliny said it was carved from a single stone, whereas this work is composed of five pieces. It was transported to the Vatican for cleaning and restoration, and has remained one of the greatest treasures in their collection ever since then.

Domenicos Theotocopolos was a Greek artist of the late Renaissance who studied under Titian, and became known as El Greco ("The Greek") after he settled in Spain. His painted version of Laocoön dates to the 1590s.

The Mykonos Vase

In 1961 a local resident of the island of Mykonos discovered this broken vessel on his property while digging a well; he collected the fragments but did not report the discovery out of a concern that the authorities would come and disturb his property. By chance, a few weeks later an archaeologist spotted the fragments and saw that they were properly turned over.

The vase turned out to be one of the most significant objects in Greek art history, because it dates from the earliest phase of the Archaic period (around 670 B.C.), making it one of the oldest objects which clearly depicts a famous myth, namely that of the Trojan Horse.

The main body is decorated with several small scenes, all very similar, which depict the gory slaughter of women and children by the Greek soldiers; the upper portion, between the handles, contains the main subject, the colossal horse and the men emerging from it. Obviously the artist used some liberties in the size of the horse, and the inclusion of windows in its side.

The Sack of Troy

One of the major vase-painters from the early Classical period is known by the name the "Kleophrades Painter", since some of his works are signed by the potter Kleophrades (it was common for one artist to make the vase, while another did the decoration). Another vessel by this artist was seen previously in section 7, a beautiful red-figure portrait of Dionysus and his followers. The date of this vase is about 490 B.C.

The first image here is a photograph of the vase (a type called a kalpis, a water-jar) with a portion of the decoration visible; the second image is a facsimile drawing in which the entire scene is 'unrolled' to be viewed all at once. Several events of the final attack are shown occurring simultaneously; the first detail photo shows the central scene, Neoptolemus (the son of Achilles, recruited after his father's death) as he is about to kill Priam, the king of Troy, who has one of his slain children on his lap.

The second detail shows the scene to the left of the previous, the princess Cassandra clutching the statue of Athena for protection, but she is being dragged away to be raped by Lesser Ajax (other versions of this scene are part of the next group). To the left of Ajax can be seen the hero Aeneas, destined to survive the war and start a new kingdom in Italy, carrying his father Anchises (another scene covered further below).

The next image is another red-figure vase painting depicting the reunion of Menelaus and Helen, with Menelaus grimly approaching her, drawing his sword to kill her for causing the war. But Helen was still the most beautiful and desirable woman in the world, so Menelaus changed his mind and reconciled with her, taking her back home to Greece.

The final image here is the gory sacrifice of Polyxena, the Trojan princess, to whom Achilles had been attracted, but here at the tail end of the war, his spirit demanded her death; his son Neoptolemus is identified as the one slitting her throat.

Lesser Ajax and Cassandra

One of the incidents during the final attack was the rape of Cassandra by Lesser Ajax (called this to distinguish him from Greater Ajax, who had committed suicide previously).

As on the Kleophrades vase, Cassandra is shown clutching a staute of Athena for protection as Ajax, who clearly does not have respect for the gods, drags her away. This is seen first in a Roman relief sculpture, followed by two views of a wall painting from Pompeii with the same scene.

From 1886 comes the painting by Solomon J. Solomon, depicting a very dramatic version of the scene. Needless to say, Ajax did not get away with this deed unpunished; on his return home his ship was destroyed in a storm, and although Ajax survived the shipwreck, he was struck down by Athena with one of Zeus' thunderbolts.

The Flight of Aeneas

Another scene mentioned above was the escape of Aeneas when the end came, thanks to an advance warning from his mother Aphrodite. She told him to gather his family and flee the city, but his elderly father Anchises was crippled and could not walk on his own. Aeneas would not leave his father to die, so he lifted him onto his shoulders and carried him out of the burning city.

This is seen here first in a painting by Federico Barocci from 1598, and then two views of the sculpture by Bernini, 1618. Anchises is shown carrying the images of their household gods, to take to wherever they end up settling down. The second view shows Aeneas' small son Ascanius, whose descendants would start the Roman empire.

Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus

The Greeks had won the Trojan War, but many of them had troubles getting home, or once they got there. One of the most important of these stories is the return of Agamemnon and its consequences for his wife and son, the subject of a trilogy by the dramatist Aeschylus from the early Classical period.

On his return from the war, Agamemnon had no idea what his wife Clytemnestra had in store; she had planned for years to avenge the death of their daughter Iphigeneia at the outset of the war by killing him as soon as he returned. In his absence, she had taken a lover, Aegisthus (Agamemnon's cousin), who had his own motive for assisting her, for Agamemnon's father Atreus had killed Aegisthus' siblings.

The first image here has two views of a red-figure vase; the upper photo shows the killing of Agamemnon by Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, while the second photo shows the revenge of Orestes, the son of Agamemnon (and covered further below). The second painting is by Pierre Narcisse Guerin, from 1817, with Clytemnestra about to kill Agamemnon in his bed, encouraged by Aegisthus (although the story says he was killed in the bath, not in bed).

Agamemnon had not returned alone, for he now had the Trojan princess Cassandra in his possession, who, as described above, had the power to see the future but was unable to prevent it. So she was fully aware that her death was imminent, depicted here in a savage attack by Clytemnestra on this red figure vase painting.

The victorious Clytemnestra is seen in the painting from about 1900 by Pre-Raphaelite artist John Collier, while the final image depicts the mourning of Electra, the daughter of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, who was powerless to prevent the killing of her beloved father, by Frederick Leighton, 1869.

The Revenge of Orestes

Clytemnestra and Agamemnon also had a son named Orestes, who had been sent away by his mother to prevent any interference with her revenge. But after learning that his mother and her lover had killed his father, Orestes returned home to avenge his father's death. The first image is a red-figure vase with both sides shown; on the right, Orestes stabs Aegisthus, with Electra at his side, while on the left, Clytemnestra charges at her son with an axe, but is being held back by Orestes' friend Pylades.

Aegisthus was Orestes' first victim, and he then committed one of the most unthinkable deeds: the killing of his own mother, despite her pleading for mercy. Now guilty of this horrible crime, he was surrounded and tormented by the Furies, goddesses spawned from the blood of Uranus' severed genitals with mother Earth. Their primary duty is to torment those individuals guilty of the worst crimes, like killing your own mother.

Notice the stark contrast between the way these two artists handled the same situation: the first version is by Adolphe-William Bouguereau (1862), with a vivid portrayal of the Furies screaming at Orestes, while the painting by Gustave Moreau depicts a serene, almost saintly, view of Orestes and the Furies (about 1880).

The next two images are a red-figure vase from the 4th century B.C. which was discovered in Apulia (central Italy); it shows Orestes at the sacred site of Delphi, seeking the protection of the god Apollo, who had goaded him into killing his mother. Orestes is clutching the Omphalos (the stone marking the center of the world, seen previously in section 6), while Apollo holds up his hand to ward away the Furies, one of whom can barely be seen in the upper left corner of the detailed photo, above the startled priestess. On the far right Apollo's sister Artemis appears, although she has no real part in the story.

The last image shows an interesting sequel to the story of Orestes: he was instructed to travel to the distant land of the Taureans (the modern day Crimea) and acquire a sacred statue. He and his companion Pylades were captured by the Taureans and were to be sacrificed to their gods, but when he met their high priestess, he was shocked to learn it was his sister Iphigeneia, who did not die at Aulis at the start of the war as everyone believed, for Artemis had rescued her and brought her there; she saves the two of them and returns home to Greece with them, a final happy ending for this tragic family. The painting here is their first meeting, by Benjamin West, 1766.

Homer's Odyssey

The second great poem by Homer tells the story of the ten years it took Odysseus to get home from the Trojan War, and how he dealt with the situation in his home Ithaca once he got there. The voyage described in the Odyssey features many fantastic places, with strange and magical creatures, monsters, witches and more.

Ever since ancient times, people have wondered if the places described by Homer reflect real places in the Mediterranean, and the map below reflects the opinion of ancient authors as to where the various adventures occurred. But the reality is that Homer was describing a fictional world, beyond the limits of his audience's knowledge; in other words, he was free to make up whatever lands fit into his storyline.

So this map indicates only others' later opinions of where Odysseus travelled, not necessarily what the original source Homer may have intended.

Calypso and Nausicaa

Homer begins the Odyssey near the end of his ten-year journey; what happened before that is related in a 'flashback' portion after the opening chapters. In the first part, Odysseus is stranded on the island of Calypso, a beautiful nymph who has kept him there for seven years; this pair is seen here in two paintings, the first by Arnold Böcklin (mid 1800s) and the second by Bryson Burroughs, 1928. Both of them show Odysseus disenchanted with her, despite her beauty; but Bruegel & DeClerck show a more positive version, with Odysseus and Calypso in a paradise garden.

But the gods intervened to inform Calypso that she must allow him to depart, for it was his destiny to make it home to Ithaca. He built a raft and drifted towards the mainland, but was almost drowned by the angry god Poseidon, as seen here in the painting by N.C. Wyeth, an important American artist of the early 1900s. This is one of a set of color paintings done for an illustrated edition of the Odyssey published in 1929.

Odysseus survived the wreck of his raft, and found himself naked and sand-encrusted on the shore of Scheria, a land inhabited by people called the Phaeaceans. The princess Nausicaa was at the seashore with her friends, when Odysseus heard them and called for help; the other girls were frightened, but Nausicaa was brave enough to approach the stranger and help him with food and clothes, as seen here in this red-figure vase painting (Athena is also present, but presumably invisible to everyone).

Polyphemus the Cyclops

Nausicaa's parents greeted the stranger hospitably, but only after he had spent some time among the Phaeaceans did he reveal his identity to them. They assured him they could provide a ship to take him home to Ithaca, but first his hosts asked him about where he had been the last ten years, and he told them his story.

One of the most popular subjects from his adventures is his encounter with the giant Cyclops Polyphemus, who trapped Odysseus and his men in his cave and began to eat them. Odysseus used his wits to devise an escape; the first step was to blind the single eye of the giant after getting him so drunk he passed out. The first vase seen below, by an artist called the Menelas painter, is a very early black figure vase painting, dating to around 670 B.C., the same approximate time as the Mykonos vase above. Another black figure vase shows the same scene from a little later in the Archaic period.

The next photo is the restoration of a colossal sculpture of the blinding of the Cyclops, reassembled from hundreds of fragments discovered in the 1950s-1960s at Sperlonga on the coast of Italy, the location of a pleasure resort of the emperor Tiberius, who ruled from A.D. 14 to 37. Some historians suspect that this may be to be the work of the same artists who produced the Laocoön pictured earlier.

After being blinded, the Cyclops opened the only entrance to let his sheep out, but was feeling them as they exited to make sure the men were not riding them. But Odysseus realized that he did not feel their bellies, and thus they escaped past the Cyclops riding under the sheep, as seen here on the side of a black-figure cup, and again by Jordaens, mid-1600s.

Circe the Sorceress and a trip to the Underworld

After escaping the Cyclops, Odysseus and his men came to the island home of Circe, a daughter of Helios the sun god (and also the aunt of Medea, to whom she has a definite similarity, with her powers of witchcraft).

She cast a spell upon Odysseus' men which transformed them into animals, which she then kept. But Odysseus was warned by one man who escaped the spell, and thanks to the sudden appearance of Hermes, he was given a magical herb which would protect him from Circe's magic.

The red-figure vase shows Circe surprised that he has not changed, while Odysseus threatens her with his sword to change his men back to their human form. Dosso Dossi did the next painting in about 1531, with a very non-threatening Circe surrounded by her victims; notice one on the left has a half-human face. Waterhouse painted this portrait of Circe welcoming Odysseus and a similar scene is by Wright Barker, in a very Hollywood-like version; both are from the 1890s.

The final image is a depiction of Odysseus' visit to the spirit-world, for Circe advised Odysseus to seek out the ghost of Tiresias, the famous blind prophet of Thebes. The artist, Bouchardon, has followed the description by Homer very closely: the animals sacrificed on the right, Odysseus using his sword to keep back all the spirits except Tiresias, who drinks from the pool of blood from the sacrificed animals. This illustration dates from the mid-1700s.

The Sirens

Odysseus had been warned about the next danger, the hypnotic song of the Sirens, the bird-women who lived among the jagged rocks and sang to passing ships, luring the sailors to destruction. But Odysseus ordered his men to plug their ears with wax to block out the Sirens, but Odysseus wanted to hear it for himself. He prepared for the danger of being tempted to abandon the ship by having his men tie him to the mast.

This is seen first in a red-figure vase painting, then in a relief sculpture from Roman times, where the Sirens now look like normal females, not bird-women. Finally the painting by Herbert Draper from 1909, with the Sirens seductively climbing onto the ship to entice the men to their destruction, but because of his precautions, they make it safely past.

Scylla; the Cattle of Helios

After that, Odysseus and his crew had to navigate through a narrow channel, with a monster on either side: on one side was Charybdis, appearing only as a whirlpool on the surface, opposite this was Scylla, a creature that had once been a woman but now was transformed by the gods into a monster as punishment.

Any ship passing near Scylla risked losing some men to her tentacle-like arms, to be devoured by the ring of dogs' heads sprouting from her waist. Scylla is shown here on an ancient coin and also on a terracotta relief. The Roman sculptures of Sperlonga included a scene with Scylla, restored here to its original appearance. Odysseus did lose a few men to Scylla, but that was preferable to losing the whole ship and crew to Charybdis.

The next stop was the island where the cattle of the sun god Helios dwelled; Odysseus had been told about this, and warned his men to not harm any of the cattle, but while Odysseus slept, they took some and butchered them. For this, his remaining crewmen were killed in a terrible storm, leaving Odysseus the sole survivor. It was after this that he drifted to the island of Calypso, where the story began.

The scene here by Pellegrino Tibaldi shows the men going after the cattle while Odysseus sleeps, just one of a series of paintings based on the Odyssey which decorate the Palazzo Poggi in Bologna, Italy. The final image is a group shot of five of those scenes: clockwise from the bottom center is Poseidon, stirring up trouble for Odysseus, then Aeolus the king of the winds, then Circe, then the Cyclops being blinded, and finally the Cyclops pursuing them after their escape from his cave. Tibaldi was active in the mid to late 1500s.

Penelope and the Suitors

Back in Ithaca, Odysseus' wife Penelope had remained faithful during her husband's twenty-year absence, but now she was being courted by many men, known as the suitors, who were pressuring her to give up on Odysseus and marry one of them. She stalled them as long as she could, partly through a deception involving a weaving project she said she must finish before she could marry again; what the suitors did not realize for some time was that she was undoing at night the work she had done during the day, and so the project was never-ending.

The red figure vase painting (upper portion) shows a distressed Penelope at her loom with her son Telemachus, wondering how much longer she can keep up the deception; the lower portion shows Odysseus back home, from the next part of the story, described below. The painting by Waterhouse also depicts Penelope at her loom, ignoring the persistent suitors, done about 1900.

But the Phaeaceans did deliver Odysseus home, seen here in the painting by Van Poelenbergh, being greeted by Athena, who advised Odysseus to be careful in how he deals with the suitors, who greatly outnumbered him. She transformed his appearance into that of an old man, so that he could approach his home incognito.

He first went to the hut of his swineherd Eumaeus, who treated the stranger very kindly, unaware it was his master in disguise. The first to discover the truth was his son Telemachus, after he came to see Eumaeus; the painting by Lucien Doucet (1880) shows their reunion, watched over by Athena, who has temporarily removed his disguise.

The Return of Odysseus

After twenty long years, Odysseus was finally in his own home again, but the household was under the control of the suitors, so he moved carefully. With his disguise in effect again, he passed himself off as a travelling beggar, who was mocked and ridiculed by the suitors. But Penelope treated the stranger kindly, unaware it was her husband, and instructed one of the servant-women to help the stranger get cleaned up.

When the old woman Eurycleia bent down to wash his legs, she recognized Odysseus by a distinctive scar which he had gotten as a youth. He quickly silenced her from revealing his true identity until he was ready for the confrontation, as depicted in the painting by Gustave Boulanger, 1849.

Penelope could finally stall the suitors no longer, so she gave them a challenge: she said she would marry the man who could string the bow of Odysseus and shoot an arrow through ten aligned axe-heads, a feat Odysseus himself had once performed. The painting by Padovanino (1620s) shows her proposing this contest, while N.C. Wyeth shows the contest being won by the old beggar, whom everyone now realized was Odysseus himself.

Before they had a chance to react, Odysseus continued firing arrows with the bow, slaughtering the suitors, as seen in this red figure vase painting; the last image is the aftermath, with Odysseus commanding his disloyal servants to dispose of the bodies, after which they were executed for their disloyalty, by Nicolas Monsiau, early 1800s.

Odysseus and Penelope were reunited, and although there was a retaliation by the suitors' relatives, Athena intervened to command that the killing was over, that justice had been upheld and there was no cause for further bloodshed. And thus ends the story of Homer's Odyssey, and this survey of mythological artwork.