To the Classical world, the Trojan War was the Great War, the one against which all others were measured. Historical conflicts like the Persian Wars, the Peloponnesian War, the wars of Alexander and the Punic Wars had greater impact upon the lives of the Greeks and Romans, but they all stood in the Classical imagination beside the war at Troy. The Trojan War and its immediate sequels (the journeys of Odysseus and Aeneas) were seen as the last acts of the Heroic Age, in which demigods and other heroes could be found in numbers. In historical wars, there was only one Alexander, one Hannibal, or one Caesar. In the Trojan Wars, both sides had an array of comparable men. The gods were not only interested in this war; they were wholly invested in it.
The legend of the Trojan War begins with the gods and their jealousies. Three Olympian goddesses vied with each other to be seen as the most beautiful: Hera, wife of Zeus and Queen of the gods; Athene, daughter of Zeus and goddess of wisdom; and Aphrodite, goddess of love. Unable to resolve the matter among themselves, they sought out a neutral party to judge them: a mortal man named Paris, the son of Priam, King of Troy.
Each of the goddesses offered Paris a bribe to ensure a judgment in her favor; only one truly tantalized Paris with her offer. Aphrodite pledged to deliver the love of the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris found in her favor, and was blessed with the love of Helen, Queen of Sparta.
Unsurprisingly, the most beautiful woman in the world was already married, and to a powerful king at that. With the queen’s cooperation, Paris was able to steal her away from Sparta and take her home to Troy. Helen’s husband, Menelaus, was a powerful king, but also the younger brother of an even more powerful king, Agamemnon of Mycenae. Together, they gathered forces from all over the Greek peninsula to fight to regain Helen for Sparta.
From the beginning, the gods were intimately involved in the conflict, not least among them the three goddesses who caused it. Aphrodite favored Paris, and therefore the Trojans; it is also worth noting that she had a mortal son on the Trojan side as well, Aeneas. Hera and Athene opposed Paris, and took the Greek side, but again this was easy; they had their favorites too, and these were largely Greek. Odysseus, King of Ithaca, was well-loved by Athene, as was the city of Athens. All of the other gods had their own favorites, however, and the Trojan War became something of a proxy war for conflicts within Olympus.
It was the opinion of Zeus that held the most weight, and he was hardly single-minded. He saw justice on the Greek side, for Paris had stolen Sparta’s queen, and decreed that the Greeks would win. At the same time, he loved the city of Troy and had long favored its king, Priam. He resented the intrigues of the goddesses of Olympus that forced him to judge against Troy, and so the Greek victory would be neither easy nor quick.
The Greeks’ troubles began even before they set sail. A great fleet was amassed, one thousand ships in all, and it sat becalmed while unfavorable winds kept it ashore. At last, Agamemnon offered sacrifice for favorable weather. Some versions of the story spare his young daughter, Iphigeneia, by providing an animal substitute at the last minute, but classical Greek dramatists believed the young princess died for the success of her father’s venture, and that Agamemnon would pay dearly for it when he returned home.
Thus did the famous fleet of a thousand ships sail across the Aegean, and deposit a mighty army on the beach not far from Troy. What followed was a ten-year siege. The character of most of this war is lost even to legend. It is not even entirely clear who the Trojans were. Culturally, they seem indistinguishable from the Greeks, sharing the same gods, more or less the same traditions, and seeming to speak the same language. They were the defenders, sallying forth from their impregnable walls to do battle with the Greeks, and then returning to their shelter at the end. Battles were fierce, disorganized combats that gave special attention to the prowess of the great heroes. Notable on the Greek side were Achilles, Patroclus, Odysseus, and two warriors named Ajax. The Trojans were not lacking in heroes, either, with the greatest attention paid to the princes Hector and Paris, and their kinsman Aeneas.
The battles were fierce, but as in all wars, there was far more time spent in waiting, and there are suggestions that far more actions were small affairs like raids. Indeed, it is one such raid that begins the action of the Iliad by bringing the beautiful Trojan maiden, Chryseis, into the Greek camp. Ultimately, it is mainly the stories of the final months of the war that have survived.
The dominant source for the Trojan War is Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad. The Iliad really only covers the last weeks of the life of Achilles, and ends with the siege intact. The most famous image of the war, the Trojan Horse, does not even appear in The Iliad, although it does appear in its sequel, The Odyssey. It seems that Homer was employing even older legends for his poems, and that those legends continued to be told independently of Homer’s work. During the Roman era, the presumed site of Troy was a tourist destination, and stories were still known; one version, related by Quintus of Smyrna, has survived and filled in many details of what happened after the return of Hector’s body, from the death of Achilles to the sack of Troy.
In any event, it is these final phases of the war that most captivated audiences from classical antiquity to today. The anger of Achilles, sulking in his tent, set in motion events that would bring his own undoing, but also lasting fame. The greatest Trojan warrior, Hector, executed a stunning attack that might have overrun the Greek camp had Achilles’ Myrmidons not joined the fray. The attack was halted, but Patroclus, wearing Achilles’ armor, was killed in the process. This personal loss alone jolted Achilles from his absence.
Determined to have vengeance, Achilles called out Hector for single combat. By killing Troy’s greatest defender, Achilles ensured his own martial glory. In a way, he was able to have it all for a short time: he was able to dishonor Hector’s corpse in memory of Patroclus, but then he was also able to recover some magnanimity in restoring the body to Priam. Soon thereafter, having achieved all that he was permitted to achieve, he was slain by an arrow that struck him in the heel, the one part of his body that was not protected from harm by his divine mother.
The death of Achilles precipitated a brief lull in the fighting, while the Greeks held games to honor their greatest hero. The war then resumed, leading to the deaths of more heroes (including Paris) and the appearance of a few more (among them, Achilles’ son), but with Hector gone, a sense of fatalism grew in Troy. It was neither Greek military strength nor any kind of defeatism inside of Troy that concluded the war. It was, rather, a stratagem of Odysseus, to introduce warriors inside of Troy’s walls by leaving behind a large wooden horse, seemingly as an offering to Poseidon to permit the Greeks to escape over the sea. These warriors opened the gates at night, and the Greeks burned Troy to the ground.
In the modern era, archaeologists have determined that a series of settlements at Hisarlik in Turkey seem to correspond to the Troy of the ancient world; and that at some times, it was large, wealthy and powerful enough to be the Troy of legend. Near 1200 B.C., it was destroyed, possibly by human agency, but that is as much as has been confirmed. It is not known for sure who lived there, whether Greek, Hittite or some third party. If it was destroyed in war, it is not clear who the enemy was. And certainly, there is no clear evidence of a Trojan Horse. Theories range from a large battering ram to an earthquake, but there is far too little evidence to support any one theory. It is rather the story of the Trojan War that captivates audiences even today.
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