Troilus and Cressida

A medieval love story

In ancient stories, including Homer’s Iliad, the Trojan prince Troilus is killed at a young age by the Greek champion Achilles. In the Middle Ages, he became the lead character in a love story that paired him up with a young woman called Cressida.

Josho Brouwers

While I have written an article in the past about how the Greek hero Odysseus was a jerk, few of his equally fictitious compatriots were any better. Achilles, the champion of the Greeks who had assembled before Troy, often comes across as little more than a bloodthirsty monster.

In the early stages of the fabled Trojan War, Achilles brutally murdered Troilus, one of the young sons of King Priam of Troy. He is mentioned in Homer’s Iliad as “Troilos whose delight was in horses” (24.257), but aside from the fact that he was struck down by Achiles there are precious few details. Later sources add more information, including the notion that Troy would only fall if Troilus was killed (e.g. Plautus, Bacchides 953-954).

In Greek art of the Archaic period (ca. 800-500 BC), the story of Troilus’ death seems to have enjoyed some measure of popularity. There are scenes of Achilles chasing Troilus, as well as of Achilles lying in wait while Troilus approaches, unaware of his impending doom. Troilus also proved popular in Etruria (e.g. a wall-painting dated to the mid-sixth century BC in the Tomb of the Bulls, Tarquinia).

A medieval renaissance

All in all, though, Troilus is clearly a minor character. This would change in the Middle Ages, when he became the focal point of a popular love story involving a girl named Cressida, who is entirely a medieval invention. Their story is first told in the French epic poem Le Roman de Troie by Benoît de Sainte-Maure, dated to the twelfth century AD. Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) would use the French poem as inspiration for his own Il Filostrato.

In turn, Boccaccio’s poem would inspire Geoffrey Chaucer’s epic poem Troilus and Criseyde, composed in the 1380s. It consists of 8,239 lines and is probably the most familiar version of the story.

Cressida’s father, Calchas (not to be confused with the Greek soothsayer of the same name!), is a Trojan soothsayer who realizes that Troy will fall. He abandons the city for the Greeks. Troilus, a prince of Troy, sees Cressida, who is widowed, and falls in love with her. They eventually manage to sleep together. But then disasters strikes: Calchas wants to be reunited with his daughter and so the Greeks offer a prisoner exchange. Cressida departs.

In the Greek camp, she meets with the warrior Diomedes and they fall in love, leaving Troilus heartbroken. Whether or not this was an act of infidelity has been discussed at length, especially from the point of view of Christian chastity. It’s sufficient to say that different standards were applied to women than for men; some things perhaps never change.

In any event, shortly after having his heart broken, Troilus is killed in battle. The poem then ends with Chaucer condemning sexual love (5.1835-1848):

O yonge fresshe folkes, he or she,
In which that love up groweth with your age,
Repeyreth hoom from worldly vanitee,
And of your herte up-casteth the visage
To thilke god that after his image
Yow made, and thinketh al nis but a fayre
This world, that passeth sone as floures fayre.

And loveth him, the which that right for love
Upon a cros, our soules for to beye,
First starf, and roos, and sit in hevene a-bove;
For he nil falsen no wight, dar I seye,
That wol his herte al hoolly on him leye.
And sin he best to love is, and most meke,
What nedeth feyned loves for to seke?

Chaucer’s poem was used as the basis for William Shakespeare’s uneven play Troilus and Cressida (1602), putting the theme of sexual infidelity front and centre. The play combines the love story with what is essentially the plot of Homer’s Iliad, from Achilles’ withdrawal from combat to the death of Hector. As such, the story of the play is rather unfocused, with the title characters disappearing from it entirely for scenes on end.

Closing thoughts

The tale of Troilus and Cressida demonstrates how poets and artists have, at various times, appropriated, used, and re-used elements of older stories to suit their own purposes. None of these stories are ever fixed in any true sense.

Even today, modern artists freely adapt older stories. Eric Shanower, for example, included Cressida in his retelling of the story of the Trojan War, the graphic novel Age of Bronze.