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Judgement of Paris

The judgement of Paris led to the Trojan War. It also led to some of the finest works of art ever created.

The story of the Trojan War begins at the wedding of Achilles’s parents, Thetis and Peleus.

All the gods are invited to the wedding except one: Eris, the goddess of discord. But this doesn’t stop her from leaving her mark on the occasion. Instead of attending the wedding, Eris plucks a golden apple from the Garden of Hesperides, writes “To the fairest one” on it, and tosses it inside the wedding ceremony.

Three goddesses – Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite – each claim that the apple is meant for herself. When they ask Zeus to settle the matter, and decide who is the fairest, he suggests that they ask a Trojan shepherd named Paris.

So Hermes leads them to Mount Ida.

Here Paris is confronted with three gods, each wanting the golden apple, each offering Paris something in return for judging her the fairest. Hera offers Paris political power over Europe and Asia. Athena offers Paris neverending victories on the battlefield. Aphrodite offers Paris the most beautiful woman in the world.

The judgement of Paris is to award Aphrodite the apple. This leads to Helen and Paris eloping, Agamemnon launching a thousand ships, Odysseus building the Trojan Horse, and eventually Helen sailing back home to Sparta with her husband Menelaus.

Above is a 1904 painting by Enrique Simonet titled El Juicio De Paris, and below are are some other classic renditions of the world-famous scene.

4th-3rd century BC engraving on the back of an Etruscan bronze mirror by unknown artist

1st century AD mosaic by unknown artist

c. 1485-1488 painting by Sandro Botticelli

c. 1510-1520 print by Mercantonio Raimondi, after Raphael


c 1550s painting by Frans Floris


c. 1600 painting by Hans Rottenhammer

c. 1638 painting by Peter Paul Rubens

c. 1645-1646 painting by Claude Lorrain


c. 1710-1720 painting by Michele Rocca


c. 1808 painting by Francois-Xavier Fabre


c. 1812 painting by Guillaume Guillon Lethiere


c. 1862-1864 painting by Paul Cezanne


c. 1906 painting by Eduard Lebiedzki


1908-1910 painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir


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Where is the center of the world?

The center of the Ancient Greek world is in the town of Delphi. This stone is called the Omphalos, or “navel” of the world. Think of it as Mother Earth’s bellybutton.

A long time ago, Zeus wanted to find the center of the world, so he sent two eagles — one from each end of the earth. When they met at Delphi, Zeus sent down the Omphalos, a stone that his father ate and regurgitated (thinking he was eating his son Zeus) as navel of the world.

Omphalos Syndrome is the belief that the city with the most money and most powerful politicians is in fact the center of the world.

So, where is the center of the world? It used to be by the temple of Apollo at Delphi, where the great oracle Sibyl gave prophesy. Now, it’s just up the road at the new museum.

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The Ancient Greek aulos

The aulos is a double-reeded pipe, like an oboe (though it’s sometimes played with a single reed, like a clarinet) made out of bamboo and bone. This 1st century AD mosaic from the “House of the Tragic Poet” in Pompeii shows a piper playing two auli at once, surrounded by actors in goatskin dresses and theatrical masks.

Traditionally, you play two auli at once. This allows you to harmonize with yourself, and anyhow each aulos has only 1/2 of the notes in a scale, so you need two auli to play a complete scale.

While the lyre is associated with Apollo, the aulos is associated with Dionysus.

Here is a 2-minute aulos performance by Prof. Stefan Hagel.

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Fresco of Actor & Lyre Player

This 1st century AD fresco from Pompeii shows a singer/actor with his theatrical mask on the top of his head, and a lyre player playing a 9-string lyre.

Homer’s Iliad is traditionally performed by two such people. Indeed, at the time, the Iliad was the most popular show in Ancient Rome. Each line in the Iliad is played to six beats, and sung to notes on the lyre tuned to the enharmonic genus, playing notes in the ancient dorian scale.

So, we know the musical chords Homer composed for the Iliad. We know the drum beats. We know the lyrics. We just don’t know the melody.

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Vase of Sarpedon

This vase, painted around 440 BC, shows Hypnos and Thanatos carrying the body of Sarpedon off of the Trojan battlefield.

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Ogilby’s Iliad

People often overlook John Ogilby’s English translation of Homer’s Iliad. The frontispiece of this 1660 edition was engraved by Wenceslas Hollar.

It was published just after George Chapman’s famous translation, which he wrote in long-lined non-rhyming verse, in installments starting in 1598.

It was published just before Alexander Pope’s timeless translation, which he wrote in rhyming iambic pentameter couplets, in installments starting in 1715.

But Ogilby’s English translation was one of the first to be annotated, and his editions were always beautifully illustrated.

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Marble statue of Athena

This sculpture of Athena was carved out of marble in the 1st century AD/BC in Rome. It was a copy of an earlier Greek sculpture from the 4th century BC.

Of all Athena’s iconography, her helmet might be the most widely recognized, but she has other icons that you can use to identify her. If you look closely you can also see snakes on her tunic, and a big Gorgon on her brooch. These are dead giveaways you’re looking at Athena.

Homer characterizes her as the god of battle strategy and wisdom.

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The death of Aeschylus

In his life, Aeschylus wrote musicals, won awards, and pioneered innovations that are now standard in today’s theater. This 15th century illustration shows his death in 456 BC.

Legend has it he died from a turtle dropped on him by an eagle.

Now, that may sound ridiculous, but in fact there are eagles in that region that eat turtles by dropping them on stones from high up to crack their shells. Apparently, the eagle mistook Aeschylus’s bald head for a hard stone.

Pliny adds an ironic twist: Aeschylus was only outside in the first place to avoid a prophecy that he’d be killed by falling object.

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Fresco of lyre player

This fresco from the Bronze Age palace of Nestor (who fought in the Trojan war) in Ancient Greece shows a lyre player performing a song. The song is represented by a bird. Homer’s noble characters often speak with “winged words”.

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Mosaic of Achilles, Athena & Agamemnon

This 1st century AD mosaic, recovered from the ruins of Pompeii in the “house of Apollo”, depicts Book I of the Iliad. Achilles draws his sword, ready to attack Agamemnon, but Athena grabs Achilles’s hair and restrains him. She advises him to use his words instead.

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Leda and the Swan

This painting showing the birth of Helen of Troy is a copy of a now-lost Leonardo Da Vinci painting. It was painted by Cesar Da Sesto, one of Da Vinci’s students, in 1505-1510 AD. It shows Leda and Zeus (the swan) next to two hatching eggs. Helen and Clytemnestra are coming out of one egg. Castor and Pollux are coming out of the other egg.

Here’s a study Da Vinci did in his notebook around the same time.

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Roman bust of Homer

This Roman bust of Homer was sculpted in the 2nd century AD. It is believed to be a copy of a Greek bust of Homer sculpted some 100-400 years earlier.

The all-white eyes seem ghastly in these ancient marbles, but remember in the old days these were painted with life-like colors, so it would have looked more like a figure in a modern wax museum. After all, even blind people have pupils.

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Painting of Achilles & Briseis

This fresco was painted 2,000 years ago on the east wall of the “house of the tragic poet” in Pompeii. It shows Achilles angrily giving up his slave Briseis, from the first book of the Iliad.

When the volcano on Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, the entire town was suffocated and engulfed in volcanic ash, preserving the painting. The excavated ghost town now acts as a eerie time capsule of that ancient city.

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Ancient vase of Achilles healing Patroclus

This beautiful wine cup from about 300bc shows Achilles tending to the wounded Patroclus.

Ancient artwork like this red-figured Attic vase are much better sources for the Trojan War than modern artwork.

For example, compare Achilles’s horsehair helmet to modern renditions.