In Greek mythology, Polyxena (/pəˈlɪksɪnə/; Greek: Πολυξένη) was the youngest daughter of King Priam of Troy and his queen, Hecuba.[1] She does not appear in Homer, but in several other classical authors, though the details of her story vary considerably. After the fall of Troy, she dies when sacrificed by the Greeks on the tomb of Achilles, to whom she had been betrothed and in whose death she was complicit in many versions.[2]

The sacrifice of Polyxena by the triumphant Greeks (Attic black-figure Tyrrhenian amphora, ca. 570–550 BC)


Polyxene was described by the chronicler Malalas in his account of the Chronography as "tall, pure, very white, large-eyed, black-haired, with her hair worn long behind, a good nose and cheeks, blooming-lipped, small-footed, virgin, charming, very beautiful, 18 years old when they killed her".[3] Meanwhile, in the account of Dares the Phrygian, she was illustrated as ". . .fair, tall, and beautiful. Her neck was slender, her eyes lovely her hair blond and long, her body well-proportioned, her fingers tapering, her legs straight, and her feet the best. Surpassing all the others in beauty, she remained a completely ingenuous and kind-hearted woman."[4]

A Renaissance illustration of the killing of Polyxena in Boccaccio's De mulieribus claris
The Rape of Polyxena, Pio Fedi (1855–1865), Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence.


Polyxena is considered the Trojan version of Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. She is not in Homer's Iliad, appearing in works by later poets. An oracle prophesied that Troy would not be defeated if Polyxena's brother, Prince Troilus, reached the age of twenty. During the Trojan War, Polyxena and Troilus were ambushed when they were attempting to fetch water from a fountain, and Troilus was killed by the Greek warrior Achilles, who soon became interested in the quiet sagacity of Polyxena.[5]

Achilles, still recovering from Patroclus' death, found Polyxena's words a comfort and was later told to go to the temple of Apollo to meet her after her devotions. Achilles seemed to trust Polyxena—he told her of his only vulnerability: his vulnerable heel. It was later in the temple of Apollo that Polyxena's brothers, Paris and Deiphobus, ambushed Achilles and shot him in the heel with an arrow, supposedly guided by the hand of Apollo himself, steeped in poison.

Sacrifice of PolyxenaEdit

Some claimed Polyxena committed suicide after Achilles' death out of guilt.[6] According to Euripides, however, in his plays The Trojan Women and Hecuba, Polyxena's famous death was caused at the end of the Trojan War. Achilles' ghost had come back to the Greeks to demand the human sacrifice of Polyxena so as to appease the wind needed to set sail back to Hellas. She was to be killed at the foot of Achilles' grave. Hecuba, Polyxena's mother, expressed despair at the death of another of her daughters. (Polyxena was killed after almost all of her brothers and sisters.)

However, Polyxena was eager to die as a sacrifice to Achilles rather than live as a slave. She reassured her mother, and refused to beg before Odysseus or be treated in any way other than a princess. She asked that Odysseus reassure her mother as she is led away. Polyxena's virginity was critical to the honor of her character, and she was described as dying bravely as the son of Achilles, Neoptolemus, slit her throat: she arranged her clothing around her carefully so that she was fully covered when she died.[1]

“The whole crowd of the Achaean army was there en masse before the tomb for the slaughter of your girl.  The son of Achilles then took Polyxena by the hand and made her stand on the top of the mound.  And I was near by.  Picked young men selected from the Achaeans attended, to hold down your poor girl if she struggled.  Then Achilles’ son took a full goblet all of gold in his hands and raised on high the libation for his dead father.  He signaled to me to call for silence from the whole Achaean army.  And I stood up in the middle and said these words: ‘Silence, Achaeans, let the whole host be silent!  Silence!  Not a word!’ And I hushed the crowd to stillness.  and he said, ‘O son of Peleus, my father, receive from me this libation which summons up the dead, and be appeased.  Come, so that you may drink a virgin’s pure dark blood which the army and I give to you.  Show yourself well disposed towards us and grant that we may untie the ropes which hold our ships’ sterns fast, meet with a favorable return from Troy and, all of us, reach our native land.’ That was what he said, and the whole army prayed after him.  Then, seizing his sword of solid gold by the hilt, he started to draw it from its sheath, and with a nod he signaled to the young men picked from the Greek army to take hold of the girl.  But when she saw this, she spoke out these words: ‘Argives, you who have sacked my city, I am happy to die.  Let no one lay a hand on my body, I shall offer my neck with good courage.  By the gods, leave me free when you kill me so that I can die a free woman!  I am a princess and it would shame me to bear the name of slave among the dead.’  The host roared their approval and king Agamemnon told the young men to let the maiden go… When she heard this order of the master, she took hold of her dress and tore it from the top of her shoulder to the middle of her waist by the naval.  Her lovely breasts and bosom were revealed like a statue’s, and sinking to her knees upon the ground she spoke the most heart-rending words of all: “Look at me!  If you are eager to strike this bosom, young Neoptolemus, strike it now – or if you want to cut into my neck, here is my throat all ready.’ In his pity for the girl, he wavered between reluctance and eagerness, but then he cut her windpipe with his sword.  Springs of blood welled forth.  But even though she was dying, she nonetheless took great care to fall modestly, hiding what should be hidden from men’s eyes.”[7]

In classical artEdit

Sacrifice of Polyxena near the tumulus of Achilles. Polyxena sarcophagus, c.500 BC.[8]

A few examples in Greek imagery can be securely identified as depicting the sacrifice of Polyxena.[9] Most show Polyxena sacrificed over the tomb of Achilles. However, some details in the pictorial evidence of the sacrifice hint at varying and perhaps earlier versions of the myth.

For instance, some images appear to show Polyxena sacrificed over an altar, rather than a tomb, and one sarcophagus relief, from Gümüşçay, the Polyxena sarcophagus, dated to c. 500 BC[10] shows a tripod placed next to the tomb. These details have been interpreted as indicating an association between the burial mound of Achilles and sacred ground dedicated to Apollo.

Post-classical artEdit

There was a trickle of images in medieval and Renaissance art, often as illustrations to Boccaccio's De mulieribus claris. Primaticcio painted it in the Chateau of Fontainebleau (1541–47). But the subject became more popular in the Baroque, often paired with the Continence of Scipio. Pietro da Cortona "established his reputation" with a large painting in 1625 (now Pinacoteca Capitolina, 2.17 × 4.19 m).[11] Examples include paintings by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli and by Charles Le Brun (1647), both in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Sebastiano Ricci planned a large painting in the 1720s, but never got beyond studies. [12] The 18th-century Venetian painter Giovanni Battista Pittoni was especially keen on the subject,[13] painting at least nine versions of four compositions.[14]

Most versions show Polyxena going to her death in a dignified manner, though often with her breasts bared. The sacrifice may be performed by a priest, or Neoptolemus. As in Ricci's versions, Achilles' tomb may have an equestrian statue of him above it, and Agamemnon, who opposed the killing, may be present expressing dissent. Sometimes the ghost of Achilles hovers in the air nearby.[15]

The statue usually called The Rape of Polyxena by Pio Fedi (1855–1865), which is very prominently displayed in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence, is slightly misleading in the violence that seems to be depicted. The name does not refer to sexual rape, but to an earlier definition of the word derived from the Latin rapere (supine stem raptum), "to snatch, to grab, to carry off".[16][17] It does not show Polyxena's sexual rape, but her taking to be killed by Neoptolemus, despite the protests of her mother Hecuba, seated. The body on the ground, somewhat anachronistically, is either her brother Polites, or possibly Hector. In most versions, both were killed much earlier, and buried by that point in the various stories.[18]

On the stageEdit

The story of Polyxena features in Hecuba by Euripides, Troades by Seneca and the Polyxena of Sophocles, of which only a few fragments remain.[19] Apart from these classical dramas, there are:

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Duckworth, George E (1976). "Polyxena". In William D. Halsey (ed.). Collier's Encyclopedia. Vol. 19. Macmillan Educational Corporation. p. 231.
  2. ^ Hall, 254
  3. ^ Malalas, Chronography 5.106
  4. ^ Dares Phrygius, History of the Fall of Troy 12
  5. ^ Hall, 249; Aghion et al, 242
  6. ^ Philostratus,Heroica
  7. ^ Euripides (2000). Hecuba; The Trojan Women; Andromache. Translated by Morwood, James. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. lines 522-570. ISBN 0-19-283987-X.
  8. ^ Rose, Charles Brian (2014). The Archaeology of Greek and Roman Troy. Cambridge University Press. p. 79. ISBN 9780521762076.
  9. ^ M. Robertson “Troilos and Polyxene. Notes on a changing legend,” in J.-P. Dexcoeudres (ed.) Eumousia. Ceramic and iconographic studies in honour of Alexander Cambitoglou, Sydney, 1990, p. 64-65
  10. ^ Senvinç, N. (1996). "A New Sarcophagus of Polyxena from the Salvage Excavations at Gümüşçay". Studia Troica. 6: 251-64.
  11. ^ Mylonopoulos, 61
  12. ^ "The Sacrifice of Polyxena c. 1726–30", Royal Collection
  13. ^ Hall, 249; Aghion et al, 242
  14. ^ Mylonopoulos, 61
  15. ^ Hall, 249; Aghion et al, 242
  16. ^ Corinne J. Saunders, Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England, Boydell & Brewer, 2001, p. 20.
  17. ^ Keith Burgess-Jackson, A Most Detestable Crime: New Philosophical Essays on Rape, Oxford University Press, New York, 1999, p. 16.
  18. ^ "The Rape of Polyxena", The Illustrated London News, p. 97, 25 January, 1868; "Tourist breaks a finger off Uffizi’s Rape of Polyxena", The History Blog
  19. ^ EB


  • Servius. In Aeneida, iii.321.
  • Seneca. Troades, 1117–1161.
  • Ovid. Metamorphoses, xiii.441–480.
  • Aghion I., Barbillon C., Lissarrague, F., Gods and Heroes of Classical Antiquity, Flammarion Iconographic Guides, 1996, ISBN 2080135805
  • "EB": Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Polyxena" . Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  • Hall, James, Hall's Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art, 1996 (2nd edn.), John Murray, ISBN 0719541476
  • Mylonopoulos, J, "Gory Details? The Iconography of Human Sacrifice in Greek Art", Human Sacrifice in Cross-cultural perspectives and representations, eds. P Bonnechere & R. Gagne, Presses Universitaires de Lieges, 2013], pp. 61–86

External linksEdit