The Story of the Trojan War

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The story of the Trojan War is just that–a story. Many of the events in that story are accepted as fact. Some of the people named in the story are known to have lived. Some of the things and places described in that story have been found or verified. Most of all, though, it is the stuff of legend.

The legend, in brief:

The Olympian gods were having a party. The goddesses Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera were arguing over which one of them was the most beautiful. The argument turned violent, and the goddesses called on the chief god, Zeus, to declare one of them the most beautiful. Not wanting to anger any of the goddesses (especially Hera, who was his wife), Zeus decreed that a mortal man should decide. He even named the mortal man: Paris, prince of Troy.

Each of the three goddesses went to Paris individually to try to entice him with a gift in order to influence his decision:

  • Hera promised Paris that he would be the ruler of Europe and Asia.
  • Athena promised Paris victory over the Greeks.
  • Aphrodite's promise to Paris was the most beautiful mortal woman.

Paris chose Aphrodite's offer, naming her the most beautiful of the goddesses; in return, Aphrodite presented him with the most beautiful mortal woman. That was deemed to be Helen, who was about to married to someone who wasn't Paris.

Helen was from Sparta. She was the daughter of the king, who named Menelaus of Sparta to be his son-in-law, and Helen's husband. Paris, representing Troy, went to the wedding. When Menelaus was called away from the wedding, Paris took Helen and fled to Troy. Whether Helen went willingly isn't known. Few sources for this story exist; they differ on this point.

An enraged Menelaus called on his fellow Greeks to help his get his wife back. His brother, Agamemnon, led the charge, accompanied by a large number of other Greeks, including some well-known names: Achilles, Odysseus, Diomedes, and Ajax.

Troy was a city protected by very high and very thick walls and by very thick and heavy gates. Troy's king was Priam. His sons were Hector and Paris. Priam also had a daughter, Cassandra, who issued predictions, which were ignored.

The war lasted more than nine years. The Greeks did not leave but grew weary of not being to breach Troy's walls or gates. It was at this point that a conference between the two peoples resulted in an agreement: Menelaus and Paris would fight one-on-one, with the victor getting Helen. Menelaus, the much better warrior, seemed to have the upper hand until a timely intervention by one or more gods enabled Paris to flee to the safety of Troy's walls.

In a similar vein, the Greek soldier Patroclus stormed onto the battlefield. Hector, Troy's most experienced warrior, made quick work of Patroclus, who was wearing Achilles' armor. Hector thought that he had killed Achilles and removed the armor to wear as a trophy.

Achilles, eager to avenge the death of Patroclus, sought out Hector and killed him, mutilating his body in the process. The Greeks and Trojans were fighting full-tilt again by this time, and Paris shot an arrow that somehow entered the one part of Achilles' body that was vulnerable, his heel. The avenging continued, as Odysseus then killed Paris.

The Greeks, in desperation, resorted to trickery, courtesy of the guile of Odysseus.

The plan was that the Greeks would pretend to sail home, leaving behind a giant wooden horse as a gift. The horse had a secret. The hope was that the Trojans would open the gates and drag the horse inside because the secret was that several Greeks were hidden in the belly of the horse, which was hollow.

The Trojans accepted the gift, pulled the giant horse into the city, and left it there. That night, the Greeks crept out of the horse and sacked the city, opening the gates so that the rest of the Greek force could enter the city. Few Trojans were spared. King Priam and his remaining family were killed, as were many others. Troy fell, the victim of Greek guile and savagery. Helen, whose faced "launched a thousand ships," as the tales tell it, returned to her husband, who had survived the war. The Greeks went home, leaving Troy in ruins.

The story of this war has many more elements to it, as told in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, in Vergil's Aeneid, and in a few other ancient sources. Many historians think that the Greeks and Trojans did fight a war, possibly in the 2nd Century B.C., for control of the Dardanelles and the Black Sea. Troy was, after all, ideally placed geographically to control trade in that area. Several archaeologists have found evidence to support this idea. The most famous of those was Heinrich Schliemann, who excavated heavily near Hisarlik, in what is now Turkey. He found evidence of a great battle, multiple times. He also found great treasure, including a hoard that he named the "Treasure of Priam."

Excavations at Hisarlik revealed 10 separate cities, in varying layers of death, built on top of one another through the ages, the first about 3000 B.C. and the last about 500 B.C. The site was known to have been rebuilt and inhabited by both Greeks and Romans and to have been renamed Ilios and Ilium.

Schliemann also excavated in Greek territory, at the sites of Mycenae and Tiryns. He found great treasure at Mycenae as well, including what has been termed the Mask of Agamemnon.

Schliemann's excavations occurred in the last part of the 19th Century. Other archaeologists carried on the work through the next century and on into the 21st Century. The Troy site was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998.

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