The Vengeful Amazon Queen in TROY: FALL OF A CITY
The miniseries TROY: FALL OF A CITY tells the story of the Trojan War in eight episodes that were released in the U.S. in early 2019. The most well-known part of the war, Homer’s epic ILIAD, is used for the plot of one episode; the rest get their inspiration from various ancient Greek sources. There are many interesting decisions about the treatment of this material that deserve further attention, but in this post I want to focus on TROY: FALL OF A CITY’s version of the Amazon queen Penthesilea.
The Amazons, an all-female nation of warriors, play an important part in the ancient versions of the Trojan War narrative: at one point they came to Troy to assist the city in their struggle against the Greeks. For a glorious moment they are able to hold their own, but they crumble when Achilles kills their leader Penthesilea.
We catch our first glimpse of TROY: FALL OF A CITY’s Amazons in episode 6, “Battle on the Beach.” At the end of the previous episode, the Trojan prince Paris gave in to his despair about a prophecy that he would destroy Troy and leapt into a river. At the beginning of “Battle on the Beach,” though, we learn that his suicide attempt has failed; when he washes up on the shores of a land inhabited by the Amazons, they nurse him back to health (figure 1).
Paris soon meets the Amazons’ queen Penthesilea, chatting with her as she fishes in a river (see figure 1). He learns that she has already pledged the Amazons’ assistance Troy, though her motivation for doing so is less than altruistic. As they continue their conversation in a nearby forest where Amazons practice their archery, Penthesilea goes into detail about why she wants to partake in the war:
PARIS: My fate and that of the city are entwined.
PENTHESILEA: So it was nobility that led you to jump.
PARIS: There's a prophecy.
PENTHESILEA: There always is with boys like you.
PARIS: As long as I live, Troy is doomed.
PENTHESILEA: So if I killed you now, I'd be doing Troy a service.
PARIS: I'm not afraid to die. Just not very good at it. So you say you come to fight for Troy?
PENTHESILEA: I come to fight for whoever wants to kill Greeks.
PARIS: What did the Greeks do to you?
PENTHESILEA: Most of them, nothing. I'll kill them anyway. I'll kill any man that fights under the banner of the Myrmidons.
PARIS: So you wish to kill Achilles.
PENTHESILEA: I wish to try.
Ainia elaborates on her queen’s motivation later in the same episode:
PARIS: Why does your queen hate Achilles?
AINIA: He killed her daughters, her sisters, soldiers. There’s a price to pay. He’s not paid it yet.
TROY: FALL OF A CITY’s Penthesilea is out for revenge against someone who injured those close to her, but she’s also bloodthirsty; she makes no distinction between the man who she knows has done her wrong (Achilles) and those who get in her way (Greeks). This Penthesilea is an anti-hero, a sympathetic protagonist who inflicts her trauma even on innocents.
This motivation contrasts with the miniseries’ ancient Greek source material, in which Penthesilea’s motivation for helping Troy is made sympathetic for the audience. The POSTHOMERICA, an epic poem authored by Quintus of Smyrna in the third century CE, gives a two-fold reason why the queen of the Amazons comes to Priam’s side:
Two wishes she had--to share the hardship of war
And also to shun the shame of hostile talk,
Fearing hurtful reproaches made by her people
Concerning the sister for whom she felt a growing grief,
Hippolyte, whom she had killed with her powerful spear,
Not as she intended--her target was a stag.
POSTHOMERICA Book 1 lines 20-25, translated by Alan James (2004)
Quintus’ Penthesilea is attempting to make up for her inadvertent killing of her sister as well as what we might call the noble calling of the warrior code. Both of these motivations are sympathetic to an ancient audience: she didn’t mean to do it and feels sorrow for doing it, and she genuinely wants to help Priam by sharing his burden.
Penthesilea is also depicted sympathetically in a famous ancient Greek vase painting that portrays her at the moment of her death. Penthesilea is on one knee as her opponent Achilles towers over her (see figure 3). This version of Achilles comes across as cold and pitiless, his helmet obscuring his face, whereas the Amazon queen’s pleading features are not covered by her helmet. This moment is made all the more tragic by the narrative that was attached to this moment: they fell in love with one another at the moment that the Greek warrior killed the Amazon.
Comparison of the ancient Greek and modern miniseries versions of Penthesilea shows that the latter intended to make their queen of the Amazons much less agreeable to the audience. Not only is their Penthesilea out for blood whomever she hurts, but she revels in death. Soon after the Amazons arrive at Troy, they attack the Greeks, and Penthesilea and four of her warriors target Achilles specifically. followed by the four Amazon warriors that accompany her, in a battle that lasts a matter of minutes in the episode “Twelve Days”, he “embraces” his opponent. Rather than falling in love with one another, however, Penthesilea predicts (not, as it turns out, incorrectly) that Achilles’ death is close at hand: “You’ll follow me” she intones (see figure 4).
On the one hand, the miniseries version of Penthesilea was crafted to be more like male characters from ancient Greek epics, especially the ILIAD. Her foretelling of Achilles’ death is similar to the Greek hero Patroclus’ dying words to Hector in Homer’s ILIAD Book 16, and her bloodlust is like Achilles’ indiscriminate rampage against the Trojans in ILIAD Book 21--he kills many soldiers as they try to swim away, including the young Lycaon who begs for his life, in response to Hector’s killing of Patroclus. But this transposition is makes TROY: FALL OF A CITY’s queen of the Amazons into a maniac.
Perhaps the production team behind the miniseries wanted to make Penthesilea more on par with male heroes (see header image, which is a production shot of Penthesilea showcasing her warrior identity). Like their Achilles (and, to be fair, the ancient Greek version as well), their Penthesilea was meant to be an antihero, a flawed human being whose traumatic past impels her to make trauma for others in her present. And this Penthesilea’s acts are hardly worse than Achilles’ execution of prisoners in front of the Trojan city gates or Agamemnon’s rape of the Trojan prisoner Briseis, but is perhaps especially shocking in light of the most recent rendition of the female warriors in popular culture: the virtuous Amazons of the island of Themyscira in 2016’s WONDER WOMAN. Unlike DC’s version of the Amazons, whose Diana attempts to promote love in the world (although still killing--but that’s a subject for another day!), TROY: FALL OF A CITY’s Penthesilea is brought down into the muck with the other male characters of the miniseries. Instead of taking the high road, she sneers at Paris’ attempt at relieving Troy of his behavior (“So it was nobility that led you to jump”), inflicting her trauma on the world. To be fair, this is no different from other characters in the miniseries, like Achilles and Agamemnon, but that is perhaps not a good thing. Perhaps through Penthesilea, the miniseries is telling us that the queen of the Amazons, in becoming (though not of her own volition) like the violent males of her world, becomes the evil that she detests so much.