Vergil's Aeneid, Books 2-3

Week 5: Ancient Rome - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

Priam's Fate

Reading time: 5 minutes. Word count: 750 words.

Priam, the King of Troy, is a deeply sympathetic character in the Aeneid and also in the Homeric Iliad. Priam's death, depicted here, clearly recalls the execution of the great Roman general Pompey. No Roman reader would miss the comparison: Pompey was beheaded at sea, and his headless corpse was washed ashore. Here is how the scene in Egypt was described by the Roman poet Lucan in his epic poem The Civil War: "Now beaten by the sands, torn upon rocks, the sport of ocean's waves poured through its wounds, his headless carcase lies, save by the lacerated trunk unknown." Keep that picture in mind as you read about the execution of King Priam...

But, inside the palace, groans mingle with sad confusion,
and, deep within, the hollow halls howl
with women's cries: the clamour strikes the golden stars.
Trembling mothers wander the vast building, clasping
the doorposts, and placing kisses on them. Pyrrhus drives forward,
with his father Achilles's strength, no barricades nor the guards themselves
can stop him: the door collapses under the ram's blows,
and the posts collapse, wrenched from their sockets.
Strength makes a road: the Greeks, pour through, force a passage,
slaughter the front ranks, and fill the wide space with their men.
A foaming river is not so furious, when it floods,
bursting its banks, overwhelms the barriers against it,
and rages in a mass through the fields, sweeping cattle and stables
across the whole plain. I saw Pyrrhus myself, on the threshold,
mad with slaughter, and the two sons of Atreus:
I saw Hecuba, her hundred women, and Priam at the altars,
polluting with blood the flames that he himself had sanctified.
Those fifty chambers, the promise of so many offspring,
the doorposts, rich with spoils of barbarian gold,
crash down: the Greeks possess what the fire spares.

And maybe you ask, what was Priam's fate.
When he saw the end of the captive city, the palace doors
wrenched away, and the enemy among the inner rooms,
the aged man clasped his long-neglected armour
on his old, trembling shoulders, and fastened on his useless sword,
and hurried into the thick of the enemy seeking death.

In the centre of the halls, and under the sky's naked arch,
was a large altar, with an ancient laurel nearby, that leant
on the altar, and clothed the household gods with shade.
Here Hecuba, and her daughters, like doves driven
by a dark storm, crouched uselessly by the shrines,
huddled together, clutching at the statues of the gods.
And when she saw Priam himself dressed in youthful armour
she cried: "What mad thought, poor husband, urges you
to fasten on these weapons? Where do you run?
The hour demands no such help, nor defences such as these,
not if my own Hector were here himself. Here, I beg you,
this altar will protect us all or we'll die together."
So she spoke and drew the old man towards her,
and set him down on the sacred steps.

See, Polites, one of Priam's sons, escaping Pyrrhus's slaughter,
runs down the long hallways, through enemies and spears,
and, wounded, crosses the empty courts.
Pyrrhus chases after him, eager to strike him,
and grasps at him now, and now, with his hand, at spear-point.
When finally he reached the eyes and gaze of his parents,
he fell, and poured out his life in a river of blood.

Priam, though even now in death's clutches,
did not spare his voice at this, or hold back his anger:
"If there is any justice in heaven, that cares about such things,
may the gods repay you with fit thanks, and due reward
for your wickedness, for such acts, you who have
made me see my own son's death in front of my face,
and defiled a father's sight with murder.
Yet Achilles, whose son you falsely claim to be, was no
such enemy to Priam: he respected the suppliant's rights,
and honour, and returned Hector's bloodless corpse
to its sepulchre, and sent me home to my kingdom."

So the old man spoke, and threw his ineffectual spear
without strength, which immediately spun from the clanging bronze
and hung uselessly from the centre of the shield's boss.

Pyrrhus spoke to him: "Then you can be messenger, carry
the news to my father, to Peleus's son: remember to tell him
of degenerate Pyrrhus, and of my sad actions:
now die." Saying this he dragged him, trembling,
and slithering in the pool of his son's blood, to the very altar,
and twined his left hand in his hair, raised the glittering sword
in his right, and buried it to the hilt in his side.

This was the end of Priam's life: this was the death that fell to him
by lot, seeing Troy ablaze and its citadel toppled, he who was
once the magnificent ruler of so many Asian lands and peoples.

A once mighty body lies on the shore, the head
shorn from its shoulders, a corpse without a name.

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • how does Priam react to the Greek attack? how does Queen Hecuba react?
  • where does Pyrrhus (Neoptolemus) kill King Priam?
  • what happens to Priam's corpse?

Source: A.S.Kline, translator. Vergil's Aeneid (2002). Weblink. Kline has made his English translation of Vergil's Aeneid freely available over the Internet.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM