The war itself is not over yet, though, and Virgil continues the tale. Prince Memnon of Ethiopia replaces Hector as the champion of Troy, and he kills many Greek warriors. Then Achilles, who knows his death is near, kills Memnon.
Achilles has his own heroic last battle, as he knows that he too will die soon. This is the kind of heroism emphasized in the Trojan War, but also among the Norse heroes, as Hamilton will explain.
Paris then kills Achilles by shooting an arrow which Apollo guides to Achilles’ heel, his only vulnerable spot. When he was an infant, Thetis had dipped Achilles into the River Styx to try and make him invincible, but the water did not touch the heel where she was holding him. Ajax carries Achilles’ body away, and later his ashes are placed with Patroclus’s.
This is the explanation story for the “Achilles tendon,” and the modern expression “Achilles’ heel.” Thetis shows that she took every precaution to avert her son’s fate, but a single fatal flaw is all that destiny requires.
The Greeks decide that Achilles’ armor must go to either Odysseus or Ajax, the two greatest remaining warriors, and eventually they choose Odysseus. Ajax is enraged at not being chosen and he plans to kill the Greek chieftains, but Athena makes him go mad so that he massacres some cattle instead. When Ajax comes to his senses, he is ashamed and kills himself.
Ajax is another great hero who ultimately finds his greatest antagonist within himself. His own jealousy and anger lead to his defeat, rather than the sword of a Trojan. He kills himself less out of remorse than embarrassment – his pride is still his downfall.
Calchas the prophet tells the Greeks that they should capture Helenus, a prophet of Troy, to learn the key to victory. Odysseus succeeds in doing so, and Helenus tells them that they can only defeat Troy with the bow and arrows of Hercules. These weapons had passed to Prince Philoctetes, who sailed with the Greeks but then was bitten by a serpent and abandoned on the way.
At this point the war becomes more like some of the other hero myths, in that the heroes must collect magical objects and learn secret information from prophets to achieve their victory. Prophets play an important role in the Trojan War, as so much of it seems decided by divine whims.
Odysseus goes to fetch the bow and arrows, and he brings back Philoctetes as well. Once he is healed of his snake bite, Philoctetes goes to battle and the first man he shoots with an arrow is Paris. Paris asks to be taken to Oenone, the nymph he had abandoned for Helen, as she had strong healing magic. But Oenone cannot forgive his desertion, and she watches him die.
Paris is fittingly punished for deserting Oenone and abusing the law of hospitality. Like in the story of Perseus, the magical objects (Hercules’ bow and arrows) help the heroes achieve victory.
Paris’s death has little effect on the war. The Greeks then learn that the Trojans have a sacred image of Athena, called the Palladium, that protects their city from being taken. Diomedes and Odysseus sneak into Troy and steal the Palladium. The Greeks then want to end the war quickly, as Troy still has its impenetrable walls.
There are still more obstacles to overcome for the Greeks, but they are less interesting now that Hector and Achilles are dead. The war is now more similar to other hero’s quests, as there are objects to obtain rather than inner struggles to overcome.
The wily Odysseus comes up with a plan to get the Greeks inside Troy. They build a giant wooden horse and leave it by the Trojan gates, and then put their ships all out to sea as if they have given up and gone home. Most of the army is on the ships, but the Greek chieftains are hiding inside the hollow horse.
This is one of the great actions of the war that is not inspired or aided by the gods. In this Odysseus becomes a great hero, as he achieves victory through his cunning and entirely on his own.
Odysseus also leaves one man behind, Sinon, who tells the exultant Trojans a tale of how Athena was angered at the Greeks, so they surrendered the war, but they left the horse as an offering to Athena. He says (pretending to have turned traitor) that the Greeks hoped the Trojans would destroy the horse and bring down Athena’s anger on themselves. Only the Trojan priest Laocoön doubts Sinon’s story, but after he speaks two sea serpents appear and kill him. The Trojans decide to bring the horse into their city, thinking they will win Athena’s favor.
Like Agamemnon’s false prophetic dream, with the sea serpents the gods show that they can offer lying oracles and omens as well as true ones. This is disturbing, as there is so little that can be trusted in this universe. The Trojans act as they ought to, trying to please Athena and following what the omens seem to demand, but they are punished for their piety.
The Trojans celebrate their victory, but that night the Greek chieftains climb out of the horse, open the gates of Troy, and start burning the city. The rest of the Greek Army rushes in, and the massacre of Troy begins. All the men are killed except for Aeneas, who escapes with his old father and young son. Achilles’ son kills King Priam in front of his family.
Aeneas will reappear as the founder of Rome. Again the myth does not try to portray one side as good and one as evil – it simply ends the war on a somber, tragic note. Even such great, immortal deeds as these end in sorrow, and war is always a tragedy.
All the Trojan women and children are enslaved, but Aphrodite saves Helen and returns her to Menelaus. As the final act of the war, the Greeks throw Hector’s young son Astyanax from the walls of Troy, killing him. With that, Hector’s legacy and the glorious city of Troy are destroyed forever.
This final tragedy undercuts any ideas of heroism and the glory of war that have been built up earlier. There is no victorious, righteous hero at the end of the Trojan War, but only the death of a child and a group of enslaved women.