In Greek and Roman mythology, the palladium or palladion was an cult image of great antiquity on which the safety of Troy and later Rome was said to depend, the wooden statue (xoanon) of Pallas Athena that Odysseus and Diomedes stole from the citadel of Troy and which was later taken to the future site of Rome by Aeneas. The Roman story is related in Virgil's Aeneid and other works.
In English, since around 1600, the word palladium has been used figuratively to mean anything believed to provide protection or safety, and in particular in Christian contexts a sacred relic or icon believed to have a protective role in military contexts for a whole city, people or nation. Such beliefs first become prominent in the Eastern church in the period after the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, and later spread to the Western church. Palladia were processed around the walls of besieged cities and sometimes carried into battle.
The Trojan Palladium
The Trojan Palladium was said to be a wooden image of Pallas (whom the Greeks identified with Athena and the Romans with Minerva) and to have fallen from heaven in answer to the prayer of Ilus, the founder of Troy.
"The most ancient talismanic effigies of Athena," Ruck and Staples report, "...were magical found objects, faceless pillars of Earth in the old manner, before the Goddess was anthropomorphized and given form through the intervention of human intellectual meddling."
Arrival at Troy
The arrival at Troy of the Palladium, fashioned by Athena in remorse for the death of Pallas, as part of the city's founding myth, was variously referred to by Greeks, from the seventh century BC onwards. The Palladium was linked to the Samothrace mysteries through the pre-Olympian figure of Elektra, mother of Dardanus, progenitor of the Trojan royal line, and of Iasion, founder of the Samothrace mysteries. Whether Elektra had come to Athena's shrine of the Palladium as a pregnant suppliant and a god cast it into the territory of Ilium, because it had been profaned by the hands of a woman who was not a virgin, or whether Elektra carried it herself or whether it was given directly to Dardanus vary in sources and scholia. In Ilion, King Ilus was blinded for touching the image to preserve it from a burning temple.
During the Trojan War, the importance of the Palladium to Troy was said to have been revealed to the Greeks by Helenus, the prophetic son of Priam. After Paris' death, Helenus left the city but was captured by Odysseus. The Greeks somehow managed to persuade the warrior seer to reveal the weakness of Troy. The Greeks learned from Helenus, that Troy would not fall while the Palladium, image or statue of Athena, remained within Troy's walls. The difficult task of stealing this sacred statue again fell upon the shoulders of Odysseus and Diomedes. Since Troy could not be captured while it safeguarded this image, the Greeks Diomedes and Odysseus made their way to the citadel in Troy by a secret passage and carried it off. In this way the Greeks were then able to enter Troy and lay it waste using the deceit of the Trojan Horse.
Odysseus, according to The Epic Cycle, in Proclus's summary of The Little Iliad, went by night to Troy in disguise and entered the city as a beggar. There he was recognized by Helen, who told him where the Palladium was. After killing some of the Trojans, he returned to the ships. He and Diomedes then re-entered the city and stole the Palladium.
Diomedes is sometimes regarded as the person who physically removed the Palladium and carried it away to the ships. There are several statues and many ancient drawings of him with the Palladium.
According to an obscure Roman source Conon Narratives, summarised by Photius, on the way to the ships, Odysseus plotted to kill Diomedes and claim the Palladium (or perhaps the credit for gaining it) for himself. He raised his sword to stab Diomedes in the back. Diomedes was alerted to the danger by glimpsing the gleam of the sword in the moonlight. He disarmed Odysseus, tied his hands, and drove him along in front, beating his back with the flat of his sword. From this action was said to have arisen the Greek proverbial expression "Diomedes' necessity", applied to those who act under compulsion. Because Odysseus was essential for the destruction of Troy, Diomedes refrained from punishing him.
Diomedes took the Palladium with him when he left Troy. According to some stories, he brought it to Italy. Some say that it was stolen from him on the way.
Arrival at Rome
According to various versions of this legend the Trojan Palladium found its way to Athens, or Argos, or Sparta (all in Greece), or Rome in Italy. To this last city it was either brought by Aeneas the exiled Trojan (Diomedes, in this version, having only succeeded in stealing an imitation of the statue) or surrendered by Diomedes himself. It was kept there in the Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum for centuries. It was regarded as one of the pignora imperii, sacred tokens or pledges of Roman rule (imperium).
Pliny the Elder said that Lucius Caecilius Metellus had been blinded by fire when he rescued the Palladium from the Temple of Vesta in 241 BC, an episode alluded to in Ovid and Valerius Maximus
In Late Antiquity, it was rumored that the Palladium was transferred from Rome to Constantinople by Constantine the Great and buried under the Column of Constantine in his forum. Such a move would have undermined the primacy of Rome, and was naturally seen as a move by Constantine to legitimize his reign.
The Athenian Palladium
The goddess Athena was worshipped on the Acropolis of Athens under many names and cults, the most illustrious of which was of the Athena Poliás, "[protectress] of the city". The cult image of the Poliás was a wooden effigy, often referred to as the "xóanon diipetés" (the "carving that fell from heaven"), made of olive wood and housed in the east-facing wing of the Erechtheum temple in the classical era. Considered not a man-made artefact but of divine provenance, it was the holiest image of the goddess and was accorded the highest respect. It was placed under a bronze likeness of a palm tree and a gold lamp burned in front of it. The centerpiece of the grand feast of the Panathenaea was the replacement of this statue's woolen veil with a newly woven one. It was also carried to the sea by the priestesses and ceremonially washed once a year, in the feast called the Plynteria ("washings"). Its presence was last mentioned by the Church Father Tertullian (Apologeticus 16.6), who, in the late 2nd century AD, described it derisively as being nothing but "a rough stake, a shapeless piece of wood" (Latin original: " Pallas Attica  quae sine effigie rudi palo et informi ligno prostat?"). Earlier descriptions of the statue have not survived.
- OED, "Palladium, 2", first recorded use 1600
- Kitzinger, 109-112
- Carl Ruck and Danny Staples, The World of Classical Myth.
- The trope of an icon not fashioned by human hands survives in the Christian acheiropoieta.
- Bibliotheke iii.144.
- Not the familiar Electra of Greek tragedy.
- Bibliotheke, iii.10.1, iii.12.1 and 3.
- Bibliotheke iii.145.
- Scholia on Euripides Phoenissae 1136.
- Triphiodorus (fourth century AD), Taking of Ilios (on-line text).
- Dercyllus, Foundations of Cities, Book i, noted by Pseudo-Plutarch Parallel Stories, "Ilus and Anytus".
- This incident was commemorated in 1842 by the French sculptor Pierre-Jules Cavelier (1814–94) in a muscle-bound plaster statue; it depicts Diomedes alone, his noble face peering apprehensively over his right shoulder, as he cradles the Palladium.
- Natural History; VII, XLV
- Fast. B. vi. 1. 436, et seq.
- B. i. c. 4
- Augustan History, Life of Elagabalus 3
- Averil Cameron (1993), The Later Roman Empire, 170.
- Kitzinger, Ernst, "The Cult of Images in the Age before Iconoclasm", Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 8, (1954), pp. 83-150, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, JSTOR
- The Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion. s.v. "Palladium".