Aeneas and the Iconography of Lineage

The image of Aeneas carrying his aged father, as they flee the fall of Troy, is one of the most arresting in mythology. It has long been a favourite of painters and sculptors, both for it emotional impact and for the opportunities it gives for showing the artists’ skill. I saw an example most recently at an exhibition in Norwich Cathedral. In the work Shadows of the Wanderer the artist Ana Maria Pacheco has created a haunting tableau on the theme of refugees.

Indeed, one can derive the whole story of Aeneas’ flight from Troy from the traditional iconic tableau. Aeneas heroically rescues his father and young son. They make their escape from Troy but Aeneas’ wife is lost. That, perhaps suggests that the image came first and then the story was built upon it.

Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius from a  painting in Pompeii In this illustration Anchises carries the household gods in a box

Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius from a painting in Pompeii
In this illustration Anchises carries the household gods in a box

If we look at the image, without the names and the narrative attached to it, what do we see? A young boy in front, linking hands with an adult – his father? – who carries an aged man on his back – the grandfather? – who clutches an even more precious burden, his household gods. For me this represents not just a family, but a lineage. A lineage perhaps on the move, venturing into an uncertain future, but carrying with them the traditions and beliefs of their past. It is moreover an explicitly patriarchal lineage, an icon of the male line.

It is an image and an idea that would have resonated with many peoples and cultures of the Mediterranean, in and after the ‘Bronze Age collapse’. That is a period of major upheaval, social breakdown and the fall of Empires that occurred at the end of the Aegean Bronze Age. The Fall of Troy  – or rather the destruction of Troy VII, the excavation layer believed to represent Homeric Troy – is generally dated to around 1200 B.C.E. The enemies of Troy, the mainland Greek palace cultures that included Mycenae, Tiryns and Pylos, also suffered destruction a short time later. The Hittite Empire of Anatolia was overthrown and overrun at around the same time. Ugarit in Syria was completely destroyed. Egypt was troubled by attacks of the ‘Sea Peoples’ from 1300 to 1000 B.C.E.

All these upheavals will have resulted in the movements of peoples. There is evidence from archaeology that up to 90% of settlements on mainland Greece were abandoned and that there was a significant reduction in population. Many of these displaced peoples may have formed war-bands and raiding parties, on land or on sea, in an attempt to  push themselves into new territories and make new homes. Further waves of destruction and migration would follow. Such experiences would tend to reinforce patriarchal attitudes, as men earned their place in the tribe by their service in war, while women  often came by capture.

This is the background that created both the Aeneas icon and the Iliad and ensured that they had a powerful hold on the imaginations of all the peoples of the Mediterranean.


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