Trojan War

The Trojan War: An Overview of the Greatest War in Greek Mythology

The Trojan War is likely the greatest war in classical mythology, and it is one of the most well-known stories ever told (most famously in Homer’s “Iliad”). The Trojan War was a mythological struggle in western Anatolia between the early Greeks and the people of Troy, which later Greek authors dated to the 12th or 13th century BCE. The conflict sparked the ancient Greeks’ imagination more than any other event in their history. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey commemorated it, and several other early works are now lost and frequently offered by the Classical Age’s great dramatists. It also appears in Roman (e.g., Virgil’s Aeneid) and later peoples’ literature up to present times.

Background

Trojan War
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The origins of the Trojan War can be traced back to a divine love match and a prophecy concerning the Olympian order’s fundamental foundations. Both Zeus and Poseidon gods fell in love with a gorgeous sea-nymph named Thetis decades before the story began. Fate predicted that the sea-goddess would give birth to a princely son who would be stronger than his father and wield a weapon more formidable than the thunderbolt or the irresistible trident. If she lay with Zeus or one of his brothers,” they both backed away after hearing the grave implications of such a behaviour (whether from Themis or Prometheus). Zeus planned to marry Thetis to King Peleus, “the most pious man living on the plain of Iolcus,” to ensure that nothing went wrong.

The Apple of Discord

Now that the husband had been decided, Zeus prepared a lavish feast in honour of Peleus and Thetis’ marriage, to which all the other gods were invited except Eris, the vexing goddess of conflict. She hurled her present amidst the visitors, annoyed at being halted at the threshold by Hermes. It is the Apple of Discord, a golden apple on which were engraved the words “for the loveliest”. Soon after, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite began arguing about who should have the apple and, unable to decide on their own, requested that Zeus arbitrate the matter.

The Paris Appeal

Because Zeus realized that making a decision would enrage at least two goddesses, he prudently opted to abstain from making a decision. Instead, he appointed Paris, the youthful prince of Troy, to be the judge. The three goddesses met Paris while tending his sheep on Mount Ida. Even after viewing each of the three goddesses naked, he could not make a decision. As a result, it was time for some bribery. First, Hera told Paris that she would bring him political power and the throne of Asia in exchange for his choice. After that, Athena promised him wisdom and superior war skills. Finally, Aphrodite promised Paris Helen of Sparta, the most beautiful woman globally. There was only one outcome. Without blinking an eyelash, Paris handed the apple to Aphrodite, rejecting Helenus and Cassandra’s prophecies, and set off for Sparta to collect his reward and started the Trojan War.

The Suitors of Helen and Tyndareus’ Oath

Helen
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Now, Aphrodite wasn’t the only one who thought Helen, King Tyndareus of Sparta’s stepdaughter, was the most beautiful lady. Tyndareus’ court had been flooded with aristocratic suitors ever since the announcement of her marriage availability months before the Judgement of Paris. But, like Zeus in the instance of the Apple of Discord, Tyndareus did not want to make political enemies, so he put off choosing the bridegroom.

Finally, the wisest – and least enthusiastic – of the suitors, Odysseus of Ithaca, presented an escape plan in return for Penelope, Tyndareus’ niece. The King consented, and Odysseus encouraged him to have all of Helen’s suitors sign a pledge to protect the couple no matter what the final decision was. After taking the oath, Tyndareus chose Menelaus to marry his daughter, essentially making him the Spartan throne’s successor through Helen.

The Kidnapping of Helen

Unfortunately for Menelaus, his uncle Catreus, King of Crete, was erroneously assassinated by one of his sons shortly after his marriage with Helen was formalized. While Menelaus was away for his burial, Aphrodite took advantage of the chance to disguise Paris as a diplomatic emissary and smuggle him into the Spartan royal family’s palace. Thanks to the goddess’s influence and one of Eros’ unmistakable arrows, Helen embraced Paris enthusiastically. She consented to elope with him to Troy after a night of passion and promises.

The Formation of Army

Menelaus arrived home and soon discovered that his wife had abandoned him — and for a poorer guy. So he wasted no time, invoking the Oath of Tyndareus and enlisting the aid of all Achaean chiefs who had previously sought Helen’s hand with him, incited by his much more powerful brother, Agamemnon. And they all came, each in command of a formidable army.

Odysseus’ recruitment

Odysseus was a blissful married father of a one-year-old kid named Telemachus. He learnt from seer Halitherses that he would be gone for many years if he joined the Trojan expedition. So, when the envoy arrived at Ithaca, he appeared to be insane by ploughing his fields with a donkey and an ox and spreading salt instead of grain.

Palamedes, on the other hand, saw through the trick and placed Telemachus in front of the plough. Odysseus had no choice but to shift direction, revealing both his scheme and sanity. Accepting his fate – and knowing that his presence was essential for Greek victory, according to the seer Calchas – Odysseus set out on a mission to find and enrol Achilles, the greatest of all Greek heroes under Troy.

Achilles- The Demigod!

Achilles
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Achilles was the only surviving son of Peleus and Thetis and the child Zeus and Poseidon had wished for. Achilles’ mother knew from the moment he was born that he would either have an unremarkable but long life or a great one that would conclude with him dying young on the battlefield. Fearing for her son’s safety in the future, Thetis granted him immortality. She led him to River Styx, one of the rivers that went through the Underworld. There she dipped him in the waters to make him invulnerable when he was still a baby.

On the other hand, Thetis was unaware that the boy’s heel, which she had gripped, did not touch the waters of the Styx. It would later prove Achilles’ demise and is the origin of the modern-day expression “Achilles’ heel,” which refers to a vulnerable place despite overall strength. After she finished the process, Thetis disguised Achilles as a girl and hid him among the maidens at King Lycomedes of Skyros’ court to be safe.

Achilles’ recruitment

Odysseus learns of Achilles’ whereabouts soon after joining the Trojan War expedition. He linked up with Telamonian Ajax and Phoenix, Achilles’ old tutor, and the three-headed Skyros to recruit the hero. They either blew a battle horn, prompting Achilles to take a spear in hand, or they pretended to be merchants selling gems and weapons, with Achilles being the only woman interested in the latter. In any case, the Achaean forces were now fully assembled and ready to invade Troy.

Getting to Troy

Chariot to Troy
Credit: Pixabay

The Achaean leaders first assembled in Aulis’ dock. Apollo offered a sacrifice, and the deity sent an omen. A snake slithered from the altar and ate the mother and her nine babies before being turned to stone. The seer Calchas explained the significance of the occurrence to everyone. Troy would fall eventually, but not until the tenth year of the war!

Telephus

The Achaeans set sail towards Troy right away for Trojan War , although no one knew where they were going. As a result, they landed in the realm of Mysia, ruled by King Telephus, by accident. In addition to slaying countless Mysians, Achilles (who was just fifteen at the time!) managed to hurt their King Telephus, a son of Heracles, in the ensuing conflict, which highlighted Achilles’ extraordinary strength. And, as Telephus learned from an oracle shortly after the Achaean ships sailed away from Mysia, this wound was so distinctive that it could only be healed by the one who had caused it.

Telephus searched for Achilles for eight years, eventually finding him in Aulis, where the Achaean chiefs had convened for another meeting, despondent over their inability to reach Troy. Achilles knew little about medicine, so he was taken aback when Telephus approached him with his plea. Ever astute, Odysseus realized that the prophecy might not apply to the man – but to the weapon that had inflicted the wound. Achilles scraped the rust off his Pelian spear over Telephus’ wound, following his advice. It stopped bleeding instantly. Telephus volunteered to inform the Greeks of the road to Troy as a token of his thanks.

Aulis’ Iphigenia

However, the Greeks now faced an even greater problem. While knowing the route to Troy, they could not set sail from Aulis because there was no wind, let alone a favourable wind, for most of the time. Calchas, a seer, deduced that this was retaliation from the goddess Artemis, who was enraged with Agamemnon for killing a sacred deer. The sacrifice of Agamemnon’s virgin daughter, Iphigenia, was Artemis’ unfathomably harsh demand for appeasement.

After some thought, Odysseus entices Iphigenia to Aulis under the guise of marriage with Achilles. Achilles tried to spare Iphigenia’s life after learning that he had been duped, only to discover that all of the other Greek leaders and warriors favoured the sacrifice. Iphigenia gently accepted her fate and positioned herself on the altar, having run out of options. Some report that just as Calchas was ready to sacrifice her, Artemis replaced Iphigenia with a deer and carried her to Tauris, where she became the goddess’s high priestess.

Tenedos

After the sacrifice, the winds came up again, and the Achaean fleet was finally able to make sail towards Troy for  Trojan War. But unfortunately, they assaulted the island of Tenedos on their route there, and Achilles killed the island’s monarch, Tenes, who happened to be a son of the deity Apollo, unknowing of his true nature. It was a fateful decision because Thetis had cautioned him not to kill any sons of Apollo should the deity himself kill him. As prophesied, Apollo would exact his retribution many years later.

The Battle of Troy

Battle of Troy
Credit: Ancient origins

The Greeks dispatched a diplomatic delegation to Troy, consisting primarily of Menelaus and Odysseus. However, some sources claim that Acamas and Diomedes were also present to reunite Helen peacefully. The Trojans not only refused but also threatened to kill the emissary, and only the Trojan elder, Antenor’s intervention, saved Menelaus and Odysseus’ lives. The message was clear- if the Greeks wanted Helen back, they would have to come with arms.

Protesilaus

After many years of wandering, the Greek navy sailed the short voyage from Tenedos to Troas and arrived at their intended destination. Everyone, however, was wary of landing because an oracle had said that the first Greek to set foot on Trojan soil would be the first to perish in the battle. Others suggest that Protesilaus was duped by Odysseus, who declared that he would depart first but then avoided the prophecy by stomping on his shield once ashore. In any case, Protesilaus had the misfortune of being the Trojan War’s first victim, dying in a face-to-face fight with Troy’s most famous hero, its beloved prince, Hector.

The Siege of Troy for Nine Years

The siege of Troy lasted nine years, but the Trojans held firm, thanks to their ability to establish trade links with other Asian cities and constant reinforcements. Finally, the tired Achaean army rebelled and sought to return home near the end of the ninth year. However, Achilles bolstered their confidence and persuaded them to stay a little longer.

Achilles’ Enragement

Chryses, a Trojan priest of Apollo, came to Agamemnon in the tenth year and requested the return of his daughter Chryseis. Agamemnon refused to return Chryseis, whom he had acquired as battle loot and kept as his mistress. So Chryses appealed to Apollo for divine retribution, and Apollo sent a disease upon the Greek troops. Finally, Agamemnon was forced to restore Chryseis to her father by his forces. But, to save his ego and reputation, he accepted Achilles’ concubine Briseis as his own. Infuriated, Achilles returned to his hut and said he would no longer fight — at least not as long as Agamemnon was in command.

Patroclus

With Achilles no longer in the picture, the Trojans began to win battle after battle, forcing the Greeks back to their ships and nearly setting them on fire. Finally, Patroclus, Achilles’ closest buddy, couldn’t bear it any longer and asked Achilles for his armour, then assumed command of the Myrmidon army while dressed as him. The Achaeans successfully repelled the Trojan war attack. Hector, ever the fearless warrior and never shying away from a duel, barely spared a moment before sprinting in the direction of the man everyone assumed was Achilles. In the ensuing fight, Hector managed to kill his opponent – only to discover that it was Patroclus.

The Triumphant Return of Achilles

Achilles and Priam
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Enraged by his grief, Achilles promised revenge, and the fight changed after he returned to the battlefield. Achilles finally got the fight he craved after slaughtering many Trojans. The mighty Hector himself! Even though this duel pitted the best fighters from both armies against one other, everyone knew there could only be one victor. Hector had already said goodbye to his wife Andromache and his little son Astyanax, fully aware of his opponent’s demigod status. After killing Hector, Achilles refused to give his body to the Trojans for burial. Instead, he desecrated it by carrying it in front of the city walls in his chariot. He eventually decided to return it after being moved to tears by the arrival of King Priam. He came alone to the Greek camp to plead for his son’s body with his son’s murderer.

Achilles’ Final Days

After these events, Achilles was struck in the heel by an arrow launched by Paris and directed by Apollo as he attempted to enter Troy. His bones were then combined with his close friend Patroclus and burned on a funeral pyre. After that, Paris was murdered by an arrow fired by Philoctetes straight from Heracles’ famed bow.

The Trojan Horse

Trojan Horse
Credit: Inc Magazine

Several other heroes died in the days that followed. Finally, Odysseus developed a strategy to put a stop to the war. He requested the construction of a wooden horse with a hollow belly. Soldiers hid in the horse’s interior before being wheeled in front of Troy’s city gates. Meanwhile, the Greek navy went to Tenedos, a nearby island, leaving a double agent named Sinon behind. Sinon persuaded the Trojans, after some debate, that the Greeks had gone and that the Trojan Horse was a divine gift that would bring Troy much good fortune. Despite the warnings of Apollo’s priest Laocoon and the prophetess Cassandra, the Trojans insisted on bringing the horse inside the city. They began feasting and celebrating their win after that. The Greek ships went back throughout the night, and the troops hidden within the horse leapt out and opened the gates. Following a slaughter, Troy fell after a decade-long conflict.

The Trojan War

The Greeks raided the city, setting fire to most of it, destroying temples and sacred areas, and committing offence after offence against the Olympian gods. Odysseus either enslaved Queen Hecuba or she became insane after seeing the bodies of many of her children, while King Priam was cruelly slain by Achilles’ son Neoptolemus. One daughter, Polyxena, was sacrificed on Achilles’ grave. At the same time, another, Cassandra, was pulled from Athena’s temple and abused by the Locrian Ajax in a crime so heinous that the goddess’s statue turned away in terror. Finally, in perhaps the cruellest act of all, Neoptolemus or Odysseus flung Hector’s little son, Astyanax, from Troy walls to his death. Aeneas was one of the few heroes who survived the slaughter and went on to build the first Roman dynasty in Italy.

The Repercussions

The gods rarely forgive and never forget. The remaining Greek heroes will discover this the hard way. Most of them will be brutally punished for their sins despite their victory. Only a select few will ever return home — and only after innumerable adventures and exploits. Even fewer will be welcomed warmly. The majority are either being exiled into oblivion or dying at the hands of their loved ones. Or both, in some situations.

Conclusion

The Trojan War affected and characterized how ancient Greek civilization was seen until the twenty-first century CE. As a result, the story of gods and heroic warriors is one of the finest single surviving antiquity sources, providing insights into the ancient Greek military, religion, customs, and attitudes.

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