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There are several conflicting accounts of the death of baby Scamandrius (aka Astyanax), son Hector and Andromache, but several important sources, including Pausanias [Descriptions of Greece, 10.25.9], Ovid [Metamorphoses, Book 13, 399-428] and perhaps most movingly, Euripides in The Trojan Woman [709 ff.], agree as to this particular manner of death.

Infanticide was not unknown in Ancient Greece. Oedipus was famously exposed as an infant to be devoured by wild beasts, an event from which he takes his name. Euripides has Agamemnon infamously killing Clytmnestra's child from her previous marriage by dashing the infant to the earth [Iphigenia at Aulis, 1150-52], a similar fate to Astyanax.

But my real qustion is why the wall?

My instincts lead me to believe it may have been some form of attempted sacrifice to Poseidon, who raised the mighty walls of Troy, as the Achaeans were preparing for the perilous sea voyage back to Greece. (I say attempted, as it did not seem to work.)

Support for a placatory ritual may be found in the bookending of the Trojan War with the dual sacrifices of Iphigenia and Polyxena to raise the winds to sail to Troy and back. Further support for the ritual nature of the slaying may be found in Calchas who calls for the sacrifice of Iphigenia, and likewise calls for the death of Astyanax in this very particular manner in the Seneca's Troades [see line 634 ff. in particular]:

"Since the boy has forestalled the lustral rites we owed the walls and cannot fulfil the priest’s command, snatched from us by a better fate, the word of Calchas is that only thus can a peaceful homecoming be granted to our ships, if the waves be appeased..."

I'm interested in any thoughts, observations, support of this hypothesis, or competing theories.

So why was Astyanax thrown from the wall?

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You're in good academic company to think it originated in sacrifice, but likely as its instantiated in the epic tradition. For one, the Greeks did not sacrifice anything by throwing it off the wall. A simple killing is not the same as sacrifice.

More importantly, the earliest representation is in the Iliad (24.734-738), where Andromache explains well enough to Astyanax why he might be killed:

You my child will go with me, and labour somewhere at menial tasks for some harsh master. Or worse perhaps, some Greek will seize you by the arm and hurl you from the wall to your death, angered perhaps because Hector killed his brother, father, son, for many are the Achaeans whose mouths have bit the dust at the hands of Hector, and your father was not a kindly man in battle.

Killing the children of your most hated enemies was common enough. The taboo against infanticide wouldn't apply here because there's no shared bloodline. (Remember, Laius couldn't kill Oedipus, but he had no qualms with asking others to dispose of the child.) The revenge-killing is even more appropriate since it Neoptolemus was likely the original person to throw him off the walls (Odysseus shows up early in the Iliou Persis, but Neoptolemus' deed in the Little Iliad is as early or even earlier, or at least completely distinct.)

Interestingly, Seneca's Troades makes it into a ritual sacrifice, but I wonder if that's because of the Roman practice of throwing the condemned off the Tarpeian Rock.

Euripides also plays around with ritually sacrificial language, and Sarah Morris argues for a West Semitic parallel that may have influenced the story, but claims that it "originated" it are kind of weak. I wonder if they'd say the same thing about Augustus killing Caesarion in a thousand more years? Rundin has a good "middle ground" analysis of the idea:

At first glance, Morris' suggestion seems unlikely. If the theme of child sacrifice has influenced the story of Astyanax, it has suffered great distortions. However, Morris's views are supported by growing evidence that Near Eastern iconography often generated features of Greek legend---and sometimes in surprising ways. When Greeks were exposed to decorative objects manufactured in the Near East, the scenes and depictions on them inspired poets, who at times created narratives with tenuous or distorted connections to the intentions of the objects' makers.

Rundin's view then is that the stories were influenced (and at times originated in) ANE art. That's not to say that Astyanax's original story is a sacrifice, but was shaped in parallel by sacrificial scenes. Of course, the idea always lurks behind later accounts, but given the Iliad's stance, I'd say that was not the original idea.

  • Excellent commentary. I'm racking my brain to remember examples of infanticide in Greek Mythology, but one theme that seems to be consistent is a degree of distancing (i.e. Agamemnon and Neoptolemus let the earth itself deliver the mortal blow as opposed to their own hands. Unwanted infants are exposed, so it is nature itself that dispatches them.) – DukeZhou Jan 21 '17 at 0:45
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    @DukeZhou Try Oedipus, Pelias & Neleus and the Roman equivalents Romulus & Remus, Cyrus, Cypselus - it's an old trope. – C. M. Weimer May 8 '17 at 3:52
  • @DukeZhou and then there's the case of Medea... – Spencer Nov 6 '17 at 11:16
  • @Spencer Medea, Demophoon, and Pelops all are tangential and rather interesting. – C. M. Weimer Nov 6 '17 at 13:26
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Obviously the act was symbolic and smacked of a type of perceived poetic justice-- in that the massive wall had protected the Trojans for so long, but now it would be the means of destroying the child, the supposed last vestige of their royal line.

Of course the Greeks knew nothing of Aeneas' escape.

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