Ancient Greek Duels: Achilles vs Penthesilia

Duels have a huge and long tradition.  A while ago I wrote about the most unusual duel in history, which occurred in Paris in 1808.

Classical Greeks didn't have duels.  Or if they did, it didn't make the histories in any significant way.  I can't think of any, off-hand. Classical Greeks were much more into plotting and backstabbing.

The Iliad on the other hand is chockablock full of duels.  After the fall of Minoan civilization the whole region went into a Dark Age.  (Not the Dark Age we know, but an earlier one.)  Duels were all the rage in that period, which also happens to be when Homer's stories come from.

The typical arrangement was that armies would line up, and then various champions would take on each other in individual combat before the general slaughter began.  There's every reason to believe this was what happened in real life, but the majority of duels we know about occurred before the walls of Troy. The most famous is when Achilles slew Hector.

The most interesting I think occurred when Penthesilia fought Achilles.

Penthesilia was the daughter of Ares the God of War and Otrere the Queen of the Amazons.  With that genetic heritage, a wise person would avoid annoying her.

Penthesilia accidentally killed her own sister in a hunting accident.  In a fit of remorse, probably seeking honorable death, she presented herself to King Priam of Troy, who at that moment was sorely troubled.  His son Hector had just died.

Penthesilia took the field, representing Troy.  She slaughtered a whole pile of Greeks before coming up against Ajax.  The fight against Ajax ended in a draw.  Ajax went back to camp and told Achilles about the woman who was mowing down Greeks.

Achilles entered the fray and, inevitably, there was a duel.

This didn't end so well for Penthesilia.  Achilles struck her in the chest and she fell.

A later writer named Propertius adds that after he killed her, Achilles raised Penthesilia's helmet to look upon her face, and instantly fell in love with her.  Which was a trifle awkward since she was dead.

Though they didn't duel themselves, the classical Greeks were very keen on the Homeric combats, and interestingly, there are a lot of vase paintings showing Penthesilia vs Achilles.  For some reason she doesn't seem to get the same airplay in modern retellings.


SolariC said...

I've noticed that Penthesilia is very little known these days...People tend to focus on the Achilles/Patroclus relationship so much that the many other important aspects of both their lives get overlooked.

Interestingly, in the Song of Roland, the heroes pursue the same 'champions-dueling' style of warfare as in the Iliad for at least the beginning of the battle. I'd be curious to know what reasons we have to believe it happened in real life, as you mentioned tantalizingly in your post.

Gary Corby said...

Yes, and Roland lived during a Dark Age too. Cultural collapse creates an age of heroes.

Homer wrote about a lot of things that were foreign to the classical Greeks. Like chariot warfare, for example. There's lots of chariot fighting in the Iliad, but in the classical world chariots were things you raced, not fought on.

There are linear B tablets showing fighting chariots and grave stele that seem to show war chariots in use. Homer's describing things as they were done in the Bronze Age, and where there's available other evidence, it supports Homer. So when he describes duels by champions, it's probably a true bronze age practice. Hard to get archaeological evidence for though for a social convention. There are vase paintings that show individual combat, but you'd expect to see that anyway.