Anarchy and the Sacrifice of Polyxena

From Euripides’ Hecuba, 604-608

“You, go and tell the Argives this—
That no one should touch her, that they should keep
The mob from my child. In the great mass of the army
The ungoverned mob, the anarchic fleet,
They’re stronger than fire: and evil is not doing anything evil”

σὺ δ’ ἐλθὲ καὶ σήμηνον ᾿Αργείοις τάδε,
μὴ θιγγάνειν μοι μηδέν’ ἀλλ’ εἴργειν ὄχλον
τῆς παιδός. ἔν τοι μυρίωι στρατεύματι
ἀκόλαστος ὄχλος ναυτική τ’ ἀναρχία
κρείσσων πυρός, κακὸς δ’ ὁ μή τι δρῶν κακόν.

In Euripides’ play, Hecuba laments the sacrifice of her daughter Polyxena at Achilles’ grave. According to some traditions, Achilles’ ghost told the Greeks that they wouldn’t make it safely home unless they sacrificed her. (Her sacrifice mirrors that of Iphigenia at the beginning of the war.)

Although the scene does not appear in Homer, it does appear in early Greek art.

Mid-sixth century BCE

Proclus mentions this in his Chrestomathia (“after burning the city of troy, they sacrificed Polyxena at Achilles’ grave”; ἔπειτα ἐμπρήσαντες τὴν πόλιν / Πολυξένην σφαγιάζουσιν ἐπὶ τὸν τοῦ ᾿Αχιλλέως τάφον). And this is typically assumed as occurring in the lost epic poem the Iliou Persis. Lykophron (line 323) alleges that Achilles had wanted to marry Polyxena—and, according to West (2013, 242-3), it may have been during negotiations with Priam to do so that Paris got the chance to shoot Achilles in the foot.

Late 6th Century BCE Sarcophagus Relief


During the late archaic age and early classical age, Polyxena started appearing in images with Troilus. It is during this episode that some stories may have had Achilles fall in love with her. You know, before or after he killed her brother,

West also notes that the name Polyxena (“many a stranger”, “very hospitable”, “much-hospitality”) may have connoted promiscuity. He refers specifically to Pindar fr. 122:

“Young women of much hospitality, handmaidens
Of Persuasion in wealthy Corinth….

Α′ Πολύξεναι νεάνιδες, ἀμφίπολοι
Πειθοῦς ἐν ἀφνειῷ Κορίνθῳ,

The women addressed in this fragment are allegedly temple prostitutes.

3 thoughts on “Anarchy and the Sacrifice of Polyxena

  1. Supposedly, Polyxena was Achilles bride in the other world. (See Philostratus, Her. xx.18; Philostratus, Vit. Apollon.iv.16.). Of course Medeia (Schol. ad Eurip. Med. 10, ad Apollon. Rhod. iv. 814.), Iphigenia (Anton. Lib. 27.) and Helen (Ptolemy Hephaestion, New History Book 4) all claim the title of Mrs. Achilles in the Afterworld too.

    Great article as usual.


  2. I’d known what the two halves of Polyxena’s name meant, but it hadn’t occurred to me that putting them together gave it that kind of connotation! (It really *should* have occurred to me…) Makes one wonder why her parents would pick a name like that for her, that being the case…

    Thanks to the Dictys and Dares accounts and their influence in the Middle Ages, Achilles’ passion for Polyxena became Paris’ golden opportunity in one way or another for centuries. Mostly, I find that version rather out of character — not just for Achilles (how could he abandon his need to avenge Patroclos?!) but for the whole tone of the war — but I do find it very fitting that Alexander would need to stoop to treachery in order to use his already cowardly weapon to make his only truly significant kill in the entire ten year war that he himself had started.

    …gee, does it show that I’m not exactly a Paris fan?

  3. Actually Troilus interests me more than his sister for a variety of reasons. M. L. West translated the tricky greek word to mean cavalry horse rider, it seemed to me.

    Also love that image you cited. I think I posted that image too qa while ago. since it was Etruscan fresco on the tomb. Achilles (left) ambushing Troilus (on horseback, right). Etruscan fresco, Tomb of the Bulls, Tarquinia, 530–520 BC.
    I think I read an article that interpreted that particular imagery. I better look it up.

    Enjoyed the post, thank you.

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