The Troilus Legend

The Troilus Legend April 29, 2015

Troilus is mentioned in the Iliad, long enough to die. Priam laments that his best sons have died at Greek hands, leaving him with only the dregs of his family. In Pope’s translation: 

Inglorious sons of an unhappy sire! 

Why did you not all in Hector’s cause expire? 

Wretch that I am! My bravest offspring slain, 

You, the disgrace of Priam’s house, remain! 

Mestor the brace, renown’d in ranks of war, 

with Troilus, dreadful in his rushing car, 

and last great Hectore, more than man divine, 

for sure he seem’d not of terrestrial line! 

All those relentless Mars untimely slew,

and left me these, a soft and servile crew, 

whose days the feast and wanton dance employ,

Gluttons and flatterers, the contempt of Troy.

Troilus appears in the Aeneid too, and again he is mentioned only in connection with his death. According to Dryden’s translation:

Elsewhere, he [Aeneas] saw where Troilus defied 

Achilles, and unequal combat tried; 

then, where the boy disarmed, with loosened reins, 

was by his horses hurried o’er the plains, 

hung by the neck and hair, and dragged around:

the hostile spear, yet sticking in his wound, 

with tracks of blood inscribed the dusty ground.

The story of his death was often told this way (in the summary from Piero Boitani’s European Tragedy of Troilus): “Troilus goes with his sister Polyxena to the fountain; Achilles ambushes him; Troilus flees pursued by the Greek; Achilles kills him in the temple; there sometimes follows a fight between Greeks and Trojans over Troilus’ corpse.” In some versions of the tale, Achilles was enraged that because Troilus refused Achilles’s advances.

Boitani summarizes the ancient and early medieval tradition: “From the epic cycles collected in the Kypria to Homer, from Sophocles to Lycophonor, from Callimachus to Apollodorus, from Cicero to Virgil, Horace, Hyginus, and Seneca, down to Quintus Smyrnaeus, Ausonius, and Servius between the third and fourth centuries AD, to the Latin version of Dictys and Dares between the fourth and sixth, and on to Joseph of Exeter in the twelfth and Albert von Stade in the thirteenth, to the Ovide Moralise and the erudite Boccaccio of the Amorosa Visione, the De Casibus, the Genealogie, and the Esposizioni on the Divine Comedy, the constant feature of Troilus’ figure is his death at the hands of Achilles, a consequence of that ‘wrath’ of the Greek warrior which inspired the Iliad and which solely becomes, as we shall soon see, not merely resentment at Agamemnon’s vexations but pure menis, anger, ‘furor bellicus’” (18).

By the high middle ages, a new factor has taken over the story – Cresyde. As Roberto Antonelli puts it in his contribution to The European Tragedy, “The figure of Briseis-Cressida, the lover of Troilus, is unknown in classical and medieval literature: the efforts of scholars to discover the existence of the character in works previous to the Roman de Troie, written by Benoit de Sainte-Maure shortly after the middle of the twelfth century, have so far been fruitless” (21).

After that, Troilus’s name became inseparable from that of his beloved, and his story was transformed from a brief account of youth cut down before its time into one of the central romantic stories of Western literature. Even so, the new Troilus is still a tragic Troilus. As Boitani says, “The Boccaccio of the Filostrato and the Chaucer of Troilus and Criseyde, who prefer the new theme of Troilus’ love, cannot eliminate his death from their stories, and with supreme tragic irony show the connection between it and Achilles’ wrath by inverting the sequence. The stanzas devoted by both authors to the hero’s death begin with Troilus’ wrath, only to end with Achilles’ slaughter of his opponent, matter of fact and ‘wretched’ in Boccaccio, ‘despitous’ in Chaucer.”

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