The scene depicts the walls of the city of Troy, which have been destroyed by the Greeks’ decade-long siege. In front of the walls a tent is erected, which houses the play’s eponymous Trojan women. The god Poseidon descends from the sky, floating above the chaos as he delivers his soliloquy.
Based on the set, the audience is immediately alerted to Troy’s physical destruction. In contemporary performances, the actor playing Poseidon would be lowered on a crane; the act of a god descending with the help of a machine gave birth to the term “deus ex machina,” which is now used more generally to refer to divine intervention or miraculous (and usually unsatisfying) solutions to complicated narrative issues.
Poseidon introduces himself, explaining that he has come from the ocean. He reveals that he and the god Apollo built the city of Troy together, and as a result he has always had a fondness both for the city and its people. In the great Greek-Trojan war, he sided with the Trojans.
Poseidon, though a god, has personal and emotional connections to the city of Troy. He is selfishly invested in its wellbeing, and sided with its citizens in the war because he built it himself. As in most Greek drama, the gods are generally petty, jealous, and easily angered.
Poseidon blames Athena and the Greek architect Epeius, who designed the famous Trojan horse, for Troy’s destruction. However, although he was on the opposing side of the war, Poseidon acknowledges Epeius’s accomplishment, and anticipates that he will have a long legacy.
The Greek army won the Trojan war by hiding inside of a giant hollow horse, which they presented as a gift to the Trojans. When the gift was accepted and taken inside the walls of the city, the Greeks swarmed out and slaughtered soldiers and civilians alike. Although glossed over in this narrative, this was an incredibly brutal and violent end to the conflict often described in contemporary texts.
Athena and Hera supported the Greek effort, and Poseidon admits that their will conquered his.
Because Troy has been destroyed, and there is no one there left to worship him or any other god, Poseidon plans to leave his altars and his beloved city.
The gods rely upon human worship for validation, power, and even survival. Therefore, their investment in the wellbeing of their followers is always inherently selfish.
Poseidon observes the remaining Trojan women who have been claimed as slaves by the Greek men. He mentions Helen dismissively, but feels pity for Hecuba, who has lost many members of her family, including her daughter Polyxena and husband Priam—who have been killed by the Greeks—and her daughter Cassandra, who is protected by the gods but has nonetheless been claimed by Agamemnon.
Although the gods seemingly have power over mortals, they allow the Trojan women to suffer in the war’s aftermath. Poseidon experiences emotions — he feels pity for Hecuba, Polyxena, and others — but is removed enough from their misery that he feels no obligation to ease their pain.
The goddess Athena descends from above to join Poseidon. She acknowledges Poseidon’s seniority and power, and hopes they can talk despite being on opposite sides of the war. Poseidon permits her to stay, citing their familial relationship.
The gods have family history, and family loyalty often trumps their loyalty to the mortals who worship them. Poseidon and Athena are able to quickly forget that they were on opposing sides of a conflict that, for mortals, was life or death—again maintaining a distance from their followers.
Although Athena fought against Troy, she has come to Poseidon with a proposal to punish the Greek army. The Greek soldier, Ajax, raped Cassandra in her temple. Athena sees this as an act of great disrespect to her, especially since she helped Ajax’s side win the war.
Cassandra’s rape is significant for several reasons—it demonstrates the brutal gender-based violence enabled by the Greek’s victory; it shows the contempt Greek soldiers have for the gods who led them to victory; and it leads to Athena’s rejection of the Greek army which she feels has disrespected her.
With the help of Poseidon and Zeus, Athena wants to make the Greeks’ journey home long and treacherous. She hopes to teach them to fear and respect her “sacred places, and respect all gods beside.” Poseidon “joyfully” agrees. He will create rough, treacherous seas for them, since “the mortal who sacks fallen cities is a fool” whose disrespect necessitates some kind of cosmic retribution. The two gods are then flown out of sight, leaving the stage to the mortals.
The gods expect mortals to pay them a certain amount of respect. This is especially true for Athena, who led the Greeks to victory, and expects additional thanks and praise. In this moment, the gods’ allegiance to each other, and their shared belief that mortals who act recklessly need to be taught a lesson, overrides any partisan allegiances they had to Greek or Trojan forces.