13 September 2023
We ferry from Aceabat across the narrow Dardanelles Strait to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of ancient Troy. In Hollywood, the Trojan War starred Brad Pitt as Achilles, Greece’s great warrior and leader of the Myrmidons. Based upon Homer’s epic poem Iliad, the movie was more action than accurate. Alternatively, the Iliad is terrific Greek theater. Think of it as an American soap opera based upon the theme of “boys will be boys.”
In the beginning…
In Greek mythology, Homer’s story remains one of the most enduring and iconic tales of ancient Greece. The epic Battle of Troy is the heart of the war – a war fought between the city of Troy and Greek forces between 1194 & 1184 BCE. Homer refers to the Greeks as Achaeans. The war’s origin traces back to a complex interplay of jealousy, honor, and destiny. Of course, the drama involves a woman.
The seeds of the conflict were sown when Paris, a prince of Troy but presently herding sheep, accepted a golden apple. He was to choose the fairest women and All Man knows that is not going to end well. Choosing Aphrodite, he royally ticked off the other goddesses. As his reward, Aphrodite gave him Helen, the wife of Menelaus, the king of Sparta. Helen did not object.
This act of disrespect and violation of hospitality spurred Menelaus, along with his brother Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae, to rally a vast coalition of Greek city-states and set sail for Troy. The ensuing war would last for ten long years and culminate in the fateful Battle of Troy.
Who were the Trojans? The Trojans and Greeks of the Iliad share the same religion, same culture, same gods. The enemy heroes speak to each other in the same language. Also, only about 200-300 miles of blue Aegean separate them. Men could travel from the European Continent to Asian Minor and Troy via Thrace at the north end of the Aegean. Were cousins battling cousins?
Troy and the Trojans were led by King Prium. As King, Priam also had his choice of women. He had many sons who fought in the war. His most famous sons were Hector and Paris.
Four days of Hell
The bloody war waged for ten years, although the Iliad tells of only four days. In that time, a thousand ships and perhaps as many as 130,000 Greeks hung out on the shores of the Aegean. They ate, drank, played games, and killed the enemy. Most of them were slaves or mere mortals. Meanwhile, the elite had brought along a bevy of servants and women, be they slaves or consorts.
The Greeks also had what seemed to be tons of possessions and spoils of war. The princes and kings led a fairly comfortable life. It was a society where a new tripod or cauldron could fetch ten oxen. A woman was valued at four oxen but she needed to be beautiful and skilled in “all manner of arts.” Both sides made symbolic sacrifices to the gods which involved scores of oxen and sheep.
Achilles plays the heel
Kicking back and playing his lyre while the Trojan War raged was Achilles, son of a sea nymph and the greatest warrior of the Greek forces. He was also about 15 when his ship arrived. His legendary skill in combat was equaled only by his pride. His personal feud with Agamemnon involved a woman. Briseis was a prize of war and Agamemnon wanted Achilles to give her up. King Agamemnon took her. This act would result in Achilles playing the heel and refusing to engage in battle, leaving the Greeks at a disadvantage.
His tantrum lasted ten years. This decision had far-reaching consequences as the Trojans gained ground, emboldened by Achilles’ absence and Hector’s successful spear-manship. Opposing forces spread Panic and Fear as they hacked up each other with sword and spear. The god Jove didn’t mind as he thought there were too many humans around anyway.
Twenty-two chapters of the Iliad finally culminates in Achilles leaving his tent and battling it out with Hector. The death of his servant man at the hands of Hector sent Achilles into a murderous rage, a bit over the top reaction to the death of his butler. Agamemnon also returns Briseis to Achilles, supposedly “untouched.”
The great battle ensues. It may not be clear to all readers which warrior to support. In the end, Hector, son of King Prium is slain. Prium admits Hector was his favorite among all 50 of his sons, “nineteen of them were from a single womb.” The women in those days were tough.
Within Homer’s Iliad, the war of murder and mayhem never ends even though his poem covers only four days. However, we know the war is eventually concluded as it is briefly mentioned in Homer’s second epic, Odyssey. It is in the Odyssey that Homer also sketchily mentions the ploy of the Trojan Horse. Otherwise, for Homer at least, it was no big deal.
What Achilles wrought
It is other poems and myths which describe the remaining battle for Troy. The Amazons arrive and kill a few men. Achilles is still on a rampage and may or may not have killed the Queen of the Amazons. Whatever, he then sails to Lesbos to make sacrifice to the gods and ask forgiveness. The gods were never above bribery, thus the back and forth of battle between favorites.
Achilles’ returned to the shores of Troy, he continued his rampage, one moment favored by Jove, the next not so much. After entering Troy, Achilles met his Fate when Paris shot him, probably in the heel, with a poisoned arrow – with the help of Apollo.
During the tenth and final year, prophecies real and false multiplied about how to win Troy. After Paris was killed, Helen moved in with his brother. Ulysses/Odysseus entered Troy in disguise but Helen recognized him. Homesick Helen helped him to steal the Palladium, a cult image upon which the safety of Troy depended. It was all downhill from there.
The Trojan Horse
In Greek myth, the wooden Trojan Horse was the turning point in the brutal battle. Hollywood agrees. Gift giving has never been the same.
Ulysses/Odysseus, a crafty Greek strategist, devised a cunning plan to infiltrate Troy’s defenses. The Greeks constructed a massive wooden horse, concealing a select group of soldiers within. The Greeks presented the horse as a supposed peace offering, and the Trojans, unaware of the danger, brought it into their city as a symbol of victory.
The sacking of Troy was a scene of cruel devastation. The city lay in ruins with its defenders killed or captured. Priam, the king of Troy, was slain and the surviving Trojan wives were divided among the Greek warriors as spoils of war. No mercy was shown. The victorious Greek heroes, however, did not find a straightforward path to home nor happiness. Their barbarity offended the gods.
Under the cover of night, the Greek soldiers hidden within the horse emerged, flung open the gates, and signaled the awaiting Greek fleet, which had secretly returned under cover of darkness. The Greeks swarmed the city, catching the Trojans off guard and plunging Troy into chaos. The once-impenetrable city fell, its defenses breached by the clever ruse.
The long way home
Their journey home, as depicted in Homer’s Odyssey, was fraught with challenges and obstacles, highlighting the grim realities of war and its lingering effects. If the lead characters managed to survive their battles, they did not survive the wrath of the gods. Most wandered, were punished, wandered some more. Among the lesser Greeks very few reached their homes.
Overall, revenge was an ongoing theme whether instigated by the gods or mortals. Nauplius the Wrecker spread lies among the wives waiting at home. Jealousy led to the deaths of many returning warriors. Ultimately, Agamemnon dies at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra. Menelaus retrieves an unhappy Helen but they do not live happily-ever-after.
Ulysses/Odysseus took the long route home. After ten more years of adventure, lusty living and wine and song, he arrived home in Ithaca. Homer told his story in Odyssey. Faithful wife Penelope, for 20 years spurning all suitors, accepted the raggedy man after road testing his bow skills. Odysseus had the nerve to begrudge the test, but magnanimously forgave her.
Sadly, a later Greek poem, recounts how Odysseus suffers a case of mistaken identity and is unknowingly killed by a son, Telegonus. Telegonus takes his father’s body to his mother, Circe. Tagging along are Penelope and her son, Telemachus. Circe makes them immortal. Just to keep it all in the family, Telemachus marries Circe and his mother Penelope marries Telegonus.
Revenge or lust, fact or fiction, the Greeks knew how to tell a good bedtime story