The Trojan War

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Detail from The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy by DomenicoTiepolo (1773), inspired by Virgil’s Aeneid (Google images)

The Trojan War is probably one of the most widely known wars of all time but most of what we know about the Trojan War is based on myth. We have probably all read or at least heard of Homer’s Iliad. The Iliad tells a part of the last year of the siege of Troy. The Trojan War is mentioned in the old epic poems in the Epic Cycle, also known as the Cyclic Epics: the Cypria, Aethiopis, Little Iliad, Iliou Persis, Nostoi, and Telegony. Though these poems survive only in fragments, their content is known from a summary included in Proclus’ Chrestomathy. Episodes from the war provided material for Greek tragedy and other works of Greek literature, and for Roman poets including Virgil and Ovid.

It all begins with a golden apple or its true name the “Apple of Discord” and starts with the marriage of Peleus and Thetis, a sea-goddess. Zeus hosted a banquet on Mount Olympus to celebrate the wedding. Everyone was invited except for Eris, the goddess of discord, the outraged goddess stormed into the wedding banquet and threw a golden apple onto the table. According to Eris, The apple belonged to whomever was the fairest goddess. Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite each reached for the apple because they each thought themselves the most beautiful. They quarrelled bitterly over it, and none of the other gods would venture an opinion favouring one, for fear of earning the enmity of the other two. Eventually, Zeus ordered Hermes to lead the three goddesses to Paris, a prince of Troy, who, unaware of his ancestry, was being raised as a shepherd in Mount Ida, because of a prophecy that he would be the downfall of Troy.

Paris was a child of Priam and Hecuba. Just before his birth, his mother dreamed that she gave birth to a flaming torch. This dream was interpreted by the seer Aesacus as a foretelling of the downfall of Troy, and he declared that the child would be the ruin of his homeland. On the day of Paris’s birth it was announced by Aesacus that the child born of a royal Trojan that day would have to be killed to spare the kingdom because of the prophecy. Paris was spared by Priam and Hecuba, despite the urging of the priestess of Apollo. Priam asked his chief herdsman, Agelaus, to remove the child and kill him. The herdsman, unable to use a weapon against the infant, left him exposed on Mount Ida, hoping he would perish there, he was, however, suckled by a she-bear. Returning after nine days, Agelaus was astonished to find the child still alive, and brought him home in a backpack to rear as his own. He returned to Priam bearing a dog’s tongue as evidence of the deed’s completion. Paris grew up to be one of the most intelligent and handsome men known in the land.

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Triumphant Achilles dragging Hector’s body around Troy, from a panoramic fresco of the Achilleion ( Google images )

Hermes escorted the three goddesses to the spring of Mount Ida where they bathed and then approached Paris as he herded his cattle. Having been given permission by Zeus to set any conditions he saw fit, Paris required that the goddesses undress before him He was unable to decide between them, so the goddesses began to offer bribes. Athena offered Paris wisdom, skill in battle, and the abilities of the greatest warriors; Hera offered him power and control of all of Asia; and Aphrodite offered him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta. Of course Paris awarded the apple to Aphrodite, infuriating the Hera and Athena. The two goddesses bitter with Paris would eventually help Sparta win the war. Paris, eager for his new bride to be, prepared to set off for Sparta to capture Helen. Twin prophets Cassandra and Helenus (also children of King Priam and Hecuba) tried to persuade him against such action, as did his mother, Hecuba. But Paris would not listen and he set off for Sparta anyway.

Helen was a daughter of Tyndareus, King of Sparta and her mother was Leda. Helen was a renowned beauty and had scores of suitors, and her father was unwilling to choose one for fear the others would retaliate violently. Odysseus of Ithaca, proposed a plan to solve the dilemma. In exchange for Tyndareus’ support of his own suit towards Penelope. He suggested that Tyndareus require all of Helen’s suitors to promise that they would defend the marriage of Helen, regardless of whom she chose. The suitors duly swore the required oath on the severed pieces of a horse, most were not happy agreeing to the oath but did it anyway. Tyndareus than chose Menelaus as a political choice. He had wealth and power. He had humbly not petitioned for her himself, but instead sent his brother Agamemnon on his behalf. He had promised Aphrodite a hecatomb, a sacrifice of 100 oxen, if he won Helen, but forgot about it and earned her wrath. Menelaus inherited Tyndareus’ throne of Sparta with Helen as his queen and Agamemnon married Helen’s sister Clytemnestra and took back the throne of Mycenae.

When Paris entered Sparta, Menelaus treated him as a royal guest. However, when Menelaus left Sparta to go bury his uncle, Crateus in Crete , Paris abducted Helen, who was shot with an arrow from Eros, otherwise known as Cupid, and fell in love with Paris when she saw him, as promised by Aphrodite and he also carried off much of Menelaus’ wealth. The couple returned to Troy and were married. Menelaus was of course justifiably outraged to find that Paris had taken Helen. He called upon all of Helen’s old suitors, because of the long ago oath that they had all taken.

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The Burning of Troy (1759/62), oil painting by Johann Georg Trautmann ( Google images )

Many of the suitors did not wish to go to war. Odysseus pretended to be insane but this trick was uncovered by Palamedes. He travelled the region with Pylos’ king, Nestor, to recruit forces. He also attempted to resolve the conflict through diplomatic means but was unsuccessful. Achilles, though not one of the previous suitors, was sought after because the seer Calchas had stated that Troy would not be taken unless Achilles would fight. Probably one of the most interesting stories is of Cinyras, king of Paphos, in Cyprus, he did not wish to go to war, but promised Agamemnon fifty ships for the Greek fleet. True to his word, Cinyras did send fifty ships. The first ship was commanded by his son. The other forty-nine, however, were toy clay ships, with tiny clay sailors. They dissembled soon after being placed in the ocean

The Greek fleet assembled, under the command of Agamemnon. He either killed one of Diana’s (Greek: Artemis) sacred stags or made a careless boast and Diana was outraged, so she calmed the seas so that the fleet could not take off. The seer Calchas proclaimed that Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia, must be sacrificed before the fleet could set sail. This was done, and the Greek ships set off in search of Troy.

The Trojans were also defended well with Hector, Paris’s brother, and a Trojan prince and the greatest warrior for Troy in the Trojan War. He was the first-born son of King Priam and Queen Hecuba. He was known for his was courage and courtly nature. He was married to Andromache, with whom he had an infant son, Scamandrius. Hector was to meet his untimely end in a fight with Achilles.

Achilles was the son of the Nereid Thetis and King Peleus. He was probably considered Sparta’s greatest warrior. Agamemnon had taken a woman named Chryseis as his slave and her father Chryses, a priest of Apollo, begged Agamemnon to return her to him. Agamemnon refused and angered Apollo. Achilles intervened and Agamemnon consented to Achilles, but then commands that Briseis (Achilles slave) be brought to him to replace Chryseis. Achilles is thought to have been in love with Briseis and he refused to fight or lead his troops alongside the other Greek forces. The Trojans, led by Hector, pushed the Greek army back toward the beaches and assaulted the Greek ships. With the Greek forces on the verge of absolute destruction, Patroclus, a close friend of Achilles, led the Myrmidons into battle wearing Achilles’ armor, though Achilles remained at his camp. Patroclus succeeded in pushing the Trojans back from the beaches, but was killed by Hector before he could lead a proper assault on the city of Troy. This enraged Achilles and he ended his strike against Agamemnon and took the field killing many men in his rage. He then sought out Hector and when he found him, he chased Hector around the wall of Troy three times before Hector decided he wanted to go down fighting, and charged at Achilles with his only his sword, but missed.

Accepting his fate, Hector begged Achilles, not to spare his life, but to treat his body with respect after killing him. Achilles told Hector it was hopeless to expect that of him, declaring that “my rage, my fury would drive me now to hack your flesh away and eat you raw – such agonies you have caused me.” Achilles then killed Hector and dragged his corpse by its heels behind his chariot. Hector’s father, Priam, went to Achilles’ tent to plead with Achilles for the return of Hector’s body so that he could be buried. Achilles relented and promised a truce for the duration of the funeral.
Still seeking to gain entrance into Troy, Odysseus ordered a large wooden horse to be built. Its insides were to be hollow so that soldiers could hide within it. It took three days to build the horse and was built by the artist Epeius, a number of the Greek warriors, along with Odysseus, climbed inside. The rest of the Greek fleet sailed away, so as to deceive the Trojans. One man, Sinon, was left behind. When the Trojans came to marvel at the huge creation, Sinon pretended to be angry with the Greeks, stating that they had deserted him. He assured the Trojans that the wooden horse was safe and would bring luck to the Trojans. Only two people, Laocoon and Cassandra, spoke out against the horse, but they were ignored. The Trojans celebrated what they thought was their victory, and dragged the wooden horse into Troy. That night, after most of Troy was asleep or in a drunken stupor, Sinon let the Greek warriors out from the horse, and they slaughtered the Trojans. Neoptolemus first killed Priam’s son Polites in front of him as he sought sanctuary on the altar of Zeus. Priam tried throwing a spear at Neoptolemus but it harmlessly hit his shield. Neoptolemus then dragged Priam to the altar and killed him and Cassandra was pulled from the statue of Athena and raped by Ajax.

Achilles was killed by Paris with a poisoned arrow, with the help of Apollo, the arrow entered the only vulnerable part of Achilles’ body: his heel. Achilles was thought to have no known weaknesses but Polyxena, daughter of Priam, found out and told Paris. This is where we get the term “Achilles heel” In the arms of Odysseus, Achilles died a painful death. Protecting the remains of his friend, Ajax prevented Paris from desecrating Achilles body, and returned it back to the Achaean camp for a proper burial.

Paris was later killed by Philoctetes, Achilles son, using the enormous bow of Heracles. Helen made her way to Mount Ida where she begged Paris’s first wife, the nymph Oenone, to heal him. Still bitter that Paris had spurned her for his birthright in the city and then forgotten her for Helen, Oenone refused. Helen returned alone to Troy, where Paris died later the same day.

Helenus was captured by Odysseus and angry with his brother Deiphobus, who was slain by Odysseus, for taking Helen for himself after Paris’s death informed Odysseus that Sparta could win if they stole the Palladium (Pallas Athena), a wooden statue of Athena. With Diomedes help they supposedly later had Aeneas take it to the future site of Rome.

The Achaeans entered the city and killed the sleeping population. A great massacre followed. The Trojans desperately fought back, despite being disorganized and leaderless. With the fighting at its height, some donned fallen enemies’ attire and launched surprise counterattacks in the chaotic street fighting. Other defenders hurled down roof tiles and anything else heavy down on the rampaging attackers. The outlook was grim though, and eventually the remaining defenders were destroyed along with the whole city being burned and the spoils divided.

Antenor, who had given hospitality to Menelaus and Odysseus when they asked for the return of Helen, was spared, along with his family. Aeneas took his father on his back and fled the city. Cassandra was awarded to Agamemnon. Neoptolemus got Andromache, wife of Hector, and Odysseus was given Hecuba, Priam’s wife. The Achaeans threw Hector’s infant son Astyanax down from the walls of Troy, either out of cruelty and hate or to end the royal line, and the possibility of a son’s revenge. They also sacrificed the Trojan princess Polyxena because she has betrayed Achilles. Helen returned to Sparta with Menelaus, who forgave her after setting eyes on her beauty once again. It took Odysseus 10 years to return home and his story is best known in Homer’s Odyssey. But that story is for another time.

There might be some truth that the Trojan War happened but many scholars agree that the Trojan War is based on a historical core of a Greek expedition against the city of Troy, but few would argue that the Homeric poems faithfully represent the actual events of the war.

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“Detail from The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy by DomenicoTiepolo (1773), inspired by Virgil’s Aeneid (Google images)”