Priam was the king of Troy, a city in western Asia, during the Trojan War against the Greeks. Priam lost all 50 of his sons during the siege. Because of this, he came to personify the suffering of the Trojan people.
Priam came from a famous family. One of his ancestors, Dardanus, founded the city of Troy, and its ruling dynasty, the Dardanids, was named for him. Priam's father, Laomedon, was a king of Troy known for his untrustworthiness. This trait was illustrated by two instances in which he reneged on his word, episodes that would have serious implications for Priam.
For a year Laomedon was served by the gods Apollo and Poseidon, who were disguised as mortals. Their period of servitude was a punishment imposed by Zeus, the king of the gods, after they rebelled against him. Poseidon helped to build the walls of Troy, while Apollo tended the king's cattle. However, once their work was done, Laomedon refused to pay them. The two gods reacted angrily. Apollo sent a plague upon the Trojans, while Poseidon ordered a sea monster to attack them.
An oracle revealed that the gods would only be appeased by the sacrifice of Laomedon's daughter, Hesione, to the sea monster. Laomedon did as the oracle commanded, but Hesione was saved at the last minute by Greek hero Heracles. Heracles had agreed to carry out this feat in return for two divine horses that Laomedon owned. However, despite advice to the contrary from his young son Podarces, Laomedon snubbed Heracles. Furious at the king's behavior, Heracles later returned to Troy with an army, killing Laomedon and all but one of his sons. Heracles spared Podarces because he had advised Laomedon to be true to his word. Hesione then bought her brother's freedom by giving Heracles her veil. From this moment on, Podarces was known as Priam, from the Greek verb priamai, meaning "to purchase." As the only surviving male member of the royal family, Priam became king of Troy.
Priam went on to father 50 sons and 12 daughters, although not all his children were by the same partner. Priam's first wife was Arisbe, the daughter of Merops, a famous seer. The pair had a son called Aesacus, who had remarkable gifts of foresight and could interpret dreams, a skill that was shared by his half sister Cassandra. However, Priam's most renowned union was with his second wife, Hecuba, with whom he had a large number of children. Several of them played major roles in the Trojan War; indeed, one of them instigated it.
When Hecuba was pregnant with her second child, she dreamed that she was carrying in her womb a blazing firebrand that set light to both the city of Troy and the forests on Mount Ida and burned them to the ground. Priam and Hecuba asked Aesacus (or in some accounts Cassandra) to interpret the dream and were told that the baby was destined to bring about the destruction of Troy. When the child was born, Priam decided to kill him, but he could not bear to do so with his own hands. Instead he ordered that the child be left on Mount Ida to die. However, like many mythical babies condemned to the fate of exposure, the boy survived. The newborn infant was rescued by shepherds, who named him Paris and brought him up as if he were their own child.
As a young man, Paris ventured from the mountains to Troy at a time when games were being held. During the games he succeeded in defeating all the other contestants. In doing so he enraged his brother Deiphobus and was forced to take refuge at the altar of Zeus. At this point, the seeress Cassandra recognized Paris as the son of Priam. The king immediately welcomed him back into his family, an act that was to have tragic consequences both for Priam personally and for the city of Troy as a whole.
Paris's subsequent abduction of Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, led the Greeks to attack Troy. During the Greeks' 10-year siege of the city, Priam had to endure the loss of all of his sons. Most of them died at the hands of Greek hero Achilles. For example, Priam's youngest son, Troilus, was killed after Achilles lured him into an ambush at a fountain outside the walls of Troy. In most accounts he was decapitated or otherwise mutilated. Another of Priam's sons, Lycaon, had the misfortune to encounter Achilles twice. The first time the pair met, Lycaon was in an orchard outside the city, cutting branches from a fig tree to make rails for his chariot. Achilles captured the Trojan prince and ransomed him. The second time the pair met, Achilles showed less mercy. In the intervening period Achilles' great friend Patroclus had been killed in battle, and his death had filled Achilles with an unquenchable lust for Trojan blood. Lycaon pleaded desperately for his life, but Achilles ignored his protestations and killed him with his sword.
However, Achilles' greatest anger was reserved for another of Priam's sons, Hector, who had been personally responsible for the death of Patroclus. The eldest son of Priam and Hecuba, Hector had led the Trojan resistance for nine years before he chose to confront Achilles outside the walls of Troy. Priam desperately tried to persuade his son to withdraw to the safety of the city, but Hector refused. Priam could only watch as Achilles first killed his son and then tied his corpse to his chariot and dragged it around the city walls. Eventually Priam was forced to go to Achilles' tent and beg for the return of Hector's body.
After the death of Hector, the Greeks tricked their way into the city of Troy and began to lay waste to the city. Among those to die in the carnage was Priam himself. Despite his age and great frailty, Priam prepared to join the defense of the city, until Hecuba persuaded him to take refuge at the altar of Zeus inside the royal palace. However, Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, ignored the sacred nature of the sanctuary and killed the king at the altar. Before he died, Priam was fated to witness one last tragedy—the death of Astyanax, the infant son of Hector and the last possible inheritor of the Trojan throne. Like his grandfather, Astyanax was cruelly killed by Neoptolemus.
The most important source for the story of Priam is the Iliad, the account of the Trojan war by Greek epic poet Homer (c. ninth–eighth century BCE). Priam also appears in the Aeneid by Roman poet Virgil (70–19 BCE) and the works of Greek travel writer Pausanias (143–176 CE). Priam is widely represented in ancient Greek art. His death at the altar of Zeus was a particularly popular subject and was depicted in Greek and Etruscan vase paintings, relief sculptures on temples, and wall paintings. The deaths of Priam's sons, and the events leading up to them, are also frequently depicted in classical art. The Trojan king is often shown as a passive and helpless observer in the background.
Priam is also depicted with the body of Hector or petitioning Achilles for the return of his dead son's corpse. His story is also represented in European paintings from the 18th century, in 18th- and 19th-century drama, and in 19th-century opera. More recently, Priam's story inspired English composer Michael Tippett (1905–1998) to write a full-scale opera, King Priam (1962). It has become well established in the operatic repertoire.
See also: ACHILLES; AENEAS; HECTOR; HECUBA; HERACLES; LAOMEDON; MENELAUS; PARIS.
- The Iliad. New York: Penguin, 2009. , and Robert Fagles, trans.
- The Aeneid. New York: Penguin, 2009. , and Robert Fagles, trans.
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