Prologue: The Judgment of Paris. The long legend of the Trojan War is taken mostly from Homer’s Iliad. Hamilton also borrows from Aeschylus, Euripides, and Apollodorus. The root of the war, which made Troy one of the most famous cities in history, began with three jealous goddesses. Eris, the goddess of Discord, is angry that she is not invited to the wedding of King Peleus and the sea-nymph Thetis. As revenge, she throws a golden apple into the banquet hall marked “For the Fairest.”
The Trojan War is the most famous of ancient Greek battles, and Homer’s Iliad is one of the most famous epics in the world. The war is so deeply moving and enduring because it explores many of the major themes of the myths, and it also shows the troubling complexity of the Greek worldview, which is almost existentialist in its harshness and lack of immutable moral standards.
All the vain goddesses want the apple, and eventually the decision is narrowed down to Aphrodite, Hera, and Pallas Athena. Zeus refuses to judge between them, and instead selects Paris, the son of King Priam of Troy. Paris has been doing shepherd’s work, as Priam had learned that he would be the ruin of Troy, so he sent Paris away, and now he lives with a nymph called Oenone.
The War begins with the most famous conflict over beauty, as each of the three goddesses wishes to be “the Fairest.” Eris cleverly exploits the jealousy of all the gods and their exaltation of great beauty. Priam sent Paris away in another failed attempt to foil fate.
The goddesses sweep Paris up and make him judge between them. All of them offer him bribes, and he must choose between the bribes rather than which goddess is fairest. Hera offers him rulership of Europe and Asia, Athena offers victory against the Greeks, and Aphrodite offers the love of the world’s most beautiful woman. Paris, who is cowardly by nature, chooses Aphrodite’s gift and gives her the golden apple.
This judgment shows the importance of beauty to the Greeks, and the almost childish jealousy and vanity of the gods, but it also offers a divine explanation for the Trojan War itself. It was fated to happen, and could not have been averted – Priam tried to send Paris away from Troy, but this was no match for angry goddesses.
The Trojan War. The most beautiful woman in the world is Helen, daughter of Zeus and Leda, who is already married to King Menelaus of Sparta. All the other kings and warriors who had asked for Helen’s hand are sworn to help Menelaus if anyone should take her away.
These earlier oaths of the Greek chieftains set the stage for the inevitable war. Helen is the most famous example of great beauty as a powerful resource to be desired and fought over.
Aphrodite flies Paris straight to Sparta, where Menelaus and Helen treat him as a guest. Paris then breaks the sacred bond between guest and host, and flees with Helen while Menelaus is away. Menelaus returns, finds Helen gone, and calls upon all of Greece to help get her back and destroy Troy. All the oath-bound chieftains respond except for two: Odysseus of Ithaca and Achilles, son of Peleus and Thetis.
Paris is one of the few characters famous for his cowardliness. The importance of hospitality is again emphasized, as the Trojan War basically begins because Paris abuses his role as Menelaus’s guest, although Menelaus’s wounded pride is also to blame. Helen’s actual decision seems to be of no importance – she is just a beautiful object to be possessed.
Odysseus, who is famously clever, pretends to have gone insane to avoid conscription. Achilles’ mother knows he is fated to die at Troy, so she holds him back and disguises him as a woman. Both men are found out in the end, and they join the massive Greek fleet, which sails united against Troy.
It is interesting that the two greatest Greek heroes, Achilles and Odysseus, are the two who do not volunteer for the war. With Jason, for example, one of his only displays of heroism was immediately accepting any dangerous challenge.
For a while the wind blows against them, and then the Greeks learn that Artemis is angry because one of them slew one of her sacred hares. She demands a sacrifice of Iphigenia, the daughter of the Greek Commander in Chief, Agamemnon. Agamemnon is forced by his men to comply. He sends for Iphigenia, saying he has arranged for her to marry Achilles, but when she arrives he sacrifices her.
Artemis, who is usually one of the most virtuous gods, is shown at her cruelest here. This sacrifice will lead to great tragedy later. The universe of the Trojan War is immediately shown to be violent and unsafe, as even the gods are subject to the same bloodthirstiness and jealousy as mortals.
The Greek fleet reaches Troy and the war begins. Both sides are very strong, as the Greeks have great numbers and Troy has impenetrable walls. Achilles is the greatest warrior among the Greeks and Hector, King Priam’s son and Paris’s brother, is the Trojan champion. Both heroes know they will die in the war, but they keep fighting.
The heroism of Achilles and Hector has less to do with traditional quests and monsters and more to do with the fact that they know they are doomed to die and they keep fighting anyway. This is a more advanced kind of heroism, and will be illustrated in depth in the later Greek tragedies and the Norse heroes.
The war stretches on for nine years, with the advantage going back and forth. Then Apollo turns against the Greeks, as they have kidnapped Chryseis, the daughter of his priest, and given her to Agamemnon. Achilles and Calchas (a prophet) manage to convince Agamemnon to give up Chryseis, but in return Agamemnon demands Briseis, Achilles’ prize maiden. He takes her without compromise, and Achilles vows revenge.
The gods offer no relief from the bloody conflict, as they act just as capriciously as the mortals. Apollo’s anger at Chryseis’ kidnapping reflects Menelaus’s hawkish pursuit of Helen. Achilles shows himself moody and passionate, but he holds himself and others to a high moral code – he cannot forgive Agamemnon for abusing their alliance.
Achilles angrily withdraws his troops from the battle, and the Greeks seem doomed. In Olympus, the gods have been split taking sides in the war: Aphrodite, Ares, Apollo, and Artemis side with the Trojans, while Hera, Athena, and Poseidon support the Greeks. Then Thetis, Achilles’ mother, persuades Zeus (who was trying to stay neutral) to help the Trojans achieve victory. He sends a false dream telling Agamemnon to attack the Trojan walls.
The conflict in Olympus shows the great drama of the Trojan War – there is no clear-cut good and evil, no villains and no totally pure heroes (except perhaps Hector). Even the gods themselves don’t favor one side or another because of their virtue, but only out of spite and jealousy or the knowledge that one side’s victory is fated and inevitable.
Achilles stays in his tent while the battle rages on. Then Helen appears, and the armies draw back from each other. They decide that the contest can be decided by the two men whose quarrel it originally was: Menelaus and Paris. Menelaus easily defeats Paris, but then Aphrodite rescues Paris and carries him away. The armies agree to a truce and are about to end the war when Hera (who wants to see Troy in ruins) makes a Trojan called Pandarus break the truce and shoot an arrow at Menelaus.
Despite all the bloodshed and violence, the soldiers cannot help but acknowledge that wars must be fought for beauty like Helen’s. Her lovely face seems a much more noble cause to fight for than reasons of economics or power. Hera again ruins the possibility of peace and causes much suffering because of her jealousy, as she still hates Paris for not choosing her.
At that the war breaks out again, and Ares, with his companions Terror, Destruction, and Strife, return to the field. The greatest Greek champions after Achilles are Ajax and Diomedes. Diomedes almost kills Aeneas, the greatest Trojan warrior after Hector, and Aphrodite tries to save him (Aeneas is her son), but Diomedes wounds her as well and she flees. Then Apollo sweeps Aeneas away to be healed.
Aeneas, who will be the great Roman hero, is introduced here. Ares appears in his element – he is rarely present in the other myths – but he is hated, rather than revered, by the Greeks. As with Hercules and his monsters, the Greeks clearly relished these long lists of bloody battles when describing their heroes.
Diomedes reaches Hector and sees that Ares is fighting for the Trojans. Diomedes despairs then, but he manages to wound Ares himself, who flees the battlefield, as he is a coward at heart. The Trojans then begin to lose the battle, and Hector asks his mother make an offering to Athena, asking her to spare the women and children of Troy. But Athena denies her prayer.
This conflict is interesting because the gods and mortals mingle so closely. Diomedes wounds both Aphrodite and Ares, and Aeneas and Paris are only saved by Aphrodite sweeping them away. Athena shows her bloodthirsty side here, as she too is still angry at Paris for his judgment, and her anger leads to the death of innocent women and children.
Andromache, Hector’s wife, asks him to stay with her and their son Astyanax, but Hector sadly returns to the battle. He knows he cannot be saved from his fate, but that until the fated hour no one will be able to kill him. As he begins to fight again, Zeus remembers his promise to Thetis and helps Hector and the Trojans. They drive the Greeks back to their ships.
This poignant moment makes Hector the most sympathetic hero of the war and emphasizes the tragedy of his story. It is inevitable that Troy should fall and Hector die, but the heroism and drama comes in what happens before then.
That night, the despairing Agamemnon agrees to give Briseis back to Achilles to try and appease him. Odysseus delivers the message to Achilles, who is with his dear friend Patroclus, but Achilles refuses to accept Agamemnon’s apology.
Agamemnon clearly acts only out of self-interest, not repentance, and Achilles is more interested in nursing his grudge than in saving lives – neither seem very heroic here.
The Greeks still refuse to give up, though the next battle goes even worse for them. Hera then decides to seduce Zeus and distract him from the battlefield, and then the advantage returns to the Greeks, with Ajax almost killing Hector. When Zeus discovers that he has been tricked he is angry, but Hera diverts his anger onto Poseidon, who has been helping the Greeks. Poseidon reluctantly abandons them, and the Trojans press forward again.
Homer emphasizes the greatness of the heroes and the fighting, yet victory and defeat seem to depend almost entirely on which gods are helping whom, rather than on the actions of the specific heroes. This is another example of the Greek struggle with the role of fate and free will – why keep fighting when the battle is decided, and not even the gods can change fate?
The Greeks are almost defeated, and Achilles’ friend Patroclus cannot stand sulking in the tent anymore. He convinces Achilles to let him use his armor, thinking that even if Achilles himself won’t fight, the Trojans might be frightened by the sight of him. Patroclus then leads the Myrmidons, Achilles’ men, into battle.
Patroclus’s character offers a sort of foil to Achilles – he is not as great a warrior, but Patroclus is willing to set aside his pride and help his countrymen who are about to be defeated. Yet he is not the famous hero – his deeds are good, but not great.
Patroclus fights almost as well as Achilles, and for a while the Trojans hesitate at the sight of him. But then Patroclus meets Hector, and Hector kills him with his spear. Hector takes the armor of Achilles and puts it on. When Achilles learns of Patroclus’ death, he grieves bitterly and vows to avenge him by killing Hector. Thetis realizes she can longer hold her son back from battle, so she brings him armor made by Hephaestus himself.
Thetis is a goddess, but she bows to her son’s inevitable fate. Achilles’ rage at Patroclus’s death is directed at Hector, but really it is anger at his own shortcomings. Because of his wounded pride, he was sulking in his tent and allowed his friend to die. In this way many of the greatest struggles of the Trojan War are personal and complex as well as violent.
Achilles rejoins the Greek army and they go back to battle. Zeus weighs Hector’s life against Achilles’ life, and it is appointed that Hector should die. Even so, the battle rages on. God even fights against god on the field of Troy. Finally the Trojans retreat back through their huge Scaean gates. Only Hector stays outside the walls, waiting to face Achilles.
Fate declares that Achilles will be victorious, and again Zeus is shown to be weaker than fate, although the specific Fates are not mentioned. Hector displays his heroism again in that he refuses to retreat, but faces his doom boldly.
Achilles appears and the two great champions face each other. Athena stands with Achilles, but Apollo has now abandoned Hector, knowing his doom is sealed. When Hector sees this, he runs away from Achilles. Achilles chases him three times all the way around the walls until Athena disguises herself as Hector’s brother, encouraging him to stop running.
Apollo also presents a weaker, more cowardly nature here, but it is also significant that the God of Truth cannot change fate either. He knows the tragic truth (as his oracle is often revealing) and nothing can avert it. Achilles’ heroism seems cheapened by Athena’s help.
Achilles then catches up with Hector, and Hector realizes it is not truly his brother beside him. He knows he will die, but he decides to at least die fighting. Achilles kills him with his spear, but is still so enraged over Patroclus’s death that he strips Hector’s body of its armor and drags it behind his chariot, mutilating it terribly. He then leaves it beside Patroclus’s funeral pyre for the dogs to eat.
Though Achilles is the victorious hero chosen by the Fates, Hector appears more heroic in this final battle as he chooses to die fighting. The story avoids painting Achilles as a pure hero by having him so viciously mutilate Hector’s body, which is a sacred sin against the gods.
The Olympians are displeased at this disrespecting of the dead, and Zeus convinces King Priam to go to Achilles and ask for Hector’s body. Priam begs Achilles and appeals to his better nature, and Achilles repents for his actions. He promises to keep the Greeks from battle for nine days, so that the Trojans have time to mourn for Hector. The Iliad then ends with Hector’s funeral.
Though the gods have shown themselves petty and bloodthirsty, they still uphold some of their moral rules like having respect for the dead. The poem does not portray the victory of a virtuous, fairy-tale protagonist, but only the violence, drama, and tragedy of war, in which there are no true victors.