The art in the vase painting in Harvard’s collection depicts an anguish-stricken King Priam pleading to a triumphant and irreverent Achilles for the return of the already desecrated body of his son, the Crown Prince of Troy, Hector. The artist of the vase painting wants to illustrate an image of nullifying status, even more so, it characterized a reversal of stature — a King kneeling and pleading to a common warrior and the body of a prince dishonored. In Book 24 of Homer’s Iliad, it narrated the weeping King Priam virtually throwing himself at Achilles’ feet beseeching the latter to release the body of his dead son.
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In the text, it did not state however, that the body of Hector was in the same room as King Priam and Achilles. It is noteworthy to mention at this point however that the primary reason that Hector is dead is because Achilles avenged the death of Patroclus whom Hector killed mistaking him for Achilles.
Moreover, in Book 22 of the narrative, Achilles threatened Hector of the situation he will be in if he suffered death in Achilles’ hands, to wit, “dogs and vultures shall work their will upon yourself”.
Achilles’ grief for the death of Patroclus has fueled his wrath towards Hector and that as an ultimate insult to Hector’s person, Achilles have left the body untended outside his tent to make good on his word of “dogs and vultures shall eat you utterly up”. Furthermore, the text speaks of Achilles “taking it [Hector’s body] to a place where Priam should not see it”. In the vase painting, we see Hector’s body below Achilles, who is holding a knife and apparently eating raw meat with blood dripping from the knife’s blade unto the dead body below.
This scene can be gleaned from a prior heated exchange of words between Achilles and Hector. In Book 22 of the Iliad, Hector in his last breath spoke: “I beg you, Achilles, by your own soul and by your parents, do not allow the dogs to mutilate my body. By the Greek ships, accept the gold and bronze ransom my father and mother will give you and send my body back home to be burned in honor by the Trojans and their wives”. To which Achilles angrily uttered: “Don’t whine to me about my parents, You dog!
I wish my stomach would let me cut off your flesh in strips and eat it raw for what you’ve done to me. There is no one and no way to keep the dogs off your head, not even if they bring ten or twenty ransoms, pile them up here and promise more not even if Dardanian Priam weighs your body out in gold, not even then will your mother ever get to mourn you laid out on a bier. ” The vase painting seems to draw out from this war of words between Achilles and Hector and displays the aftermath and the realization of Achilles’ enraged threats.
It depicted also an arrogant Achilles eating meat over a dead body — an act way beyond being rational. Whereas in the text, upon hearing Priam’s heart-wrenching plea, Achilles displayed empathy and even went as far as telling Priam that he, Achilles himself, is also in sorrow for the death of Patroclus and showed endearing sentiment when he mentioned that Priam reminded him of his own father. Moreover, in the text, Achilles even admired Priam for his candor in going defenseless and alone amidst the enemy’s lair.
One of the major themes of Homer’s Iliad deals with revenge, reparation, and compensation. In portraying Priam’s plea to Achilles, the vase painting essentially captured these three themes. Achilles’ disrespect for Hector’s body speaks of revenge. Achilles, blinded by deep sorrow, did what he thought would best vindicate Patroclus. Hector’s legs were bound at the ankles as in the ultimate act of deliverance, Achilles dragged Hector’s lifeless body around the tomb of Patroclus.
Hector’s death itself is the reparation for the death of Patroclus — the proverbial “an eye for an eye”. Whereas, Priam’s ransom is the compensation for and in exchange for the possession of Hector’s body. Works Cited Homer, and Stanley Lombardo. Iliad. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997. Wilson, D. F. Ransom, Revenge and Heroic Identity in the Iliad. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2002.