Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Protesilaus: The first Greek to die in the Trojan War

Protesilaus (also spelled Protesilaos) was one of the suitors of Helen of Troy sworn to defend the honor of Menelaus. He brought forty black ships with him to Troy, drawing his men from "flowering" Pyrasus, coastal Antron, and Pteleus, "deep in grass", in addition to his native Phylace in ancient Thessaly. Protesilaus was "the first man who dared to leap ashore when the Greek fleet touched the Troad", Pausanias recalled, quoting the author of the epic called The Cypria.  An oracle had prophesied that the first Greek to walk on the land after stepping off a ship in the Trojan War would be the first to die, and so, after killing four men, he was himself slain by Hector. (Alternate sources have him slain by either Aeneas, Euphorbus, Achates, or Cycnus.) 

The gods had pity on his widow, Laodamia, daughter of Acastus, and brought him up from Hades to see her. She was at first overjoyed, thinking he had returned from Troy, but after the gods returned him to the underworld, she found the loss unbearable. She had a bronze statue of her late husband constructed, and devoted herself to it. After her worried father had witnessed her behavior, he had a great fire built to burn the statue, but Laodamia jumped into the fire and was consumed along with her husband's likeness.

According to legend, the Nymphs planted elms on the tomb of "great-hearted Protesilaus" in the Thracian Chersonese that grew to be the tallest in the known world.  But when their topmost branches grew high enough to see the far off  ruins of Troy, they immediately withered, so great still was the bitterness of the hero buried below. The story is the subject of a poem by Antiphilus of Byzantium (1st century CE) in the Palatine Anthology:

"Thessalian Protesilaos, a long age shall sing your praises,

Of the destined dead at Troy the first,

Your tomb with thick-foliaged elms they covered,

The nymphs, across the water from hated Ilion.

Trees full of anger, and whenever that wall they see,

Of Troy, the leaves in their upper crown wither and fall.

So great in the heroes was the bitterness then, some of which still

Remembers, hostile, in the soulless upper branches."

The tomb of Protesilaus at Elaeus in the Thracian Chersonese is documented in the 5th century BCE, when, during the Persian War, votive treasure deposited at his tomb was plundered by the satrap Artayctes, under permission from Xerxes. The Greeks later captured and executed Artayctes, returning the treasure. When Alexander the Great arrived at Elaeus on his campaign against the Persian Empire, he offered a sacrifice at the tomb, hoping to avoid the fate of Protesilaus when he arrived in Asia. Like Protesilaus before him, Alexander was the first to set foot on Asian soil during his campaign but successfully avoided the Greek hero's fate.

The Augustan-era mythographer, Conon, claimed Protesilaus survived the Trojan War and was returning with Priam's sister Aethilla as his captive. When the ships put ashore for water on the coast of Pallene, between Scione and Mende, Aethilla persuaded the other Trojan women to burn the ships, forcing Protesilaus to remain and found the city of Scione where a founder-cult of Protesilaus was later established.

In Philostratus' Heroicus, a Roman imperial period literary work representing an alternative Greek hero-cult tradition to the original epic, Protesilaus, speaking from beyond the grave, is the oracular source of the corrected eye-witness account of the actions of heroes at Troy, related by a "vine-dresser" to a Phoenician merchant. 

Image: Engraved Cornelian scaraboid with Protesilaos on the Prow of a Ship, Greek, 400-350 BCE, now in the collections of the Getty Villa and on view in Gallery 101D.  Image courtesy of the museum.


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JensK said...

Thank you for all your posts. I'm a passionate ancient historian with a degree in it, but sadly have to work within other fields except for a short time in my youth. Your blog gives me a lot of happy reading, but I never told of my appreciation. Keep up the good work, and may you always find work within this field that is so fascinating, but also so heard to sustain a life within.

Mary Harrsch said...

I'm so glad you enjoy them. I, too, had to work in another field to earn a living. Fortunately, I enjoyed my work as an educational technologist. Now that I am retired I can finally take the time to share my love of history and use my knowledge of AI, social media, databases and distribution strategies to try to promote the study of ancient history.