The ancient Greeks traced their history to mythological events and their genealogy to the gods and goddesses. Perhaps the most pivotal event in the early history of ancient Greece was the Trojan War. This is that most famous of ancient wars that the Greeks ended with an insidious gift. We call it the Trojan Horse.
We know about the Trojan War primarily from the works of the poet Homer (the Iliad and the Odyssey), as well as stories told in other ancient literature, known as the Epic Cycle.
Goddesses Set the Trojan War in Motion
According to ancient, non-eye-witness reports, a conflict among the goddesses started the Trojan War. This conflict led to the famous story of Paris (known as "The Judgment of Paris") awarding a golden apple to the goddess, Aphrodite.
In return for Paris' judgment, Aphrodite promised Paris the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen. This world-class Greek beauty is known as "Helen of Troy" and called "the face that launched a thousand ships." Perhaps it didn't matter to the gods--especially the goddess of love--whether Helen was already taken, but for mere mortals it did. Unfortunately, Helen was already married. She was the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta.
Paris Abducts Helen
Discussed in more detail in connection with Odysseus--who was one of the leaders of the Greek (Achaean) side of the Trojan War--is the importance of hospitality in the ancient world. While Odysseus was away, suitors abused the hospitality of Odysseus' wife and household. Odysseus, however, relied on the hospitality of strangers to survive his 10-year odyssey home. Without certain standards of expected behavior on the part of host and visitor, anything could happen, as, indeed, it did when the Trojan prince Paris, a guest of Menelaus, stole from his host.
Now, Menelaus had been aware of the possibility that his wife, Helen, would be snatched from him. Helen had been snatched before their marriage, by Theseus, and she had been courted by almost all the Achaean leaders. When Menelaus finally won the hand of Helen, he (and Helen's father) extracted a promise from all the other suitors that they would come to his aid should Helen be taken away again. It was on the basis of this promise that Agamemnon--acting on brother Menelaus' behalf--was able to coerce the Achaeans to join forces with him and his brother and sail against the Asian city-state of Troy to win back Helen.
Trojan War Draft Dodgers
Agamemnon had trouble rounding up the men. Odysseus feigned madness. Achilles tried to pretend he was a woman. But Agamemnon saw through Odysseus' ruse and Odysseus tricked Achilles into revealing himself, and so, all the leaders who had promised to join did so. Each leader brought his own troops, weapons, and ships and stood, poised to sail, at Aulis.
Agamemnon and His Family
Agamemnon was from the House of Atreus, that cursed family that stemmed from Tantalus, a son of Zeus. Tantalus had spitefully served the gods a feast with an awful main course, the cooked body of his own son Pelops. Demeter was upset at the time because her daughter, Persephone, had disappeared. This left her distracted, so unlike all the other gods and goddesses, she failed to recognize the meat dish as human flesh. As a result, Demeter ate some of the stew. Afterward, the gods put Pelops back together again, but there was, of course, a missing part. Demeter had eaten one of Pelops' shoulders, so she replaced it with a piece of ivory. Tantalus did not get off unscathed. His well-suited punishment helped inform the Christian vision of Hell.
Tantalus' family's behavior remained unimproved through the generations. Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus (Helen's husband) were among his descendants.
Raising the ire of the gods seems to have come very naturally to all the descendants of Tantalus. The Greek troops heading for Troy, under the lead of Agamemnon, waited at Aulis for a wind that just wouldn't come. Eventually, a seer named Calchas deduced the problem: The virgin huntress and goddess, Artemis, had been offended by a boast Agamemnon had made about his own hunting skills. To appease Artemis, Agamemnon had to sacrifice his own daughter Iphigenia. Only then would the winds come to fill their sails and let them set off from Aulis to Troy.
To put his daughter Iphigenia to the sacrificial knife was hard for Agamemnon the father, but not for Agamemnon the military leader. He sent word to his wife that Iphigenia was to marry Achilles at Aulis (Achilles was left out of the loop). Clytemnestra and their daughter Iphigenia went happily to Aulis for a wedding to the great Greek warrior. But there, instead of a marriage, Agamemnon performed the deadly ritual. Clytemnestra would never forgive her husband.
The goddess Artemis appeased, favorable winds filled the sails of Achaean ships so they could sail to Troy.
The Action of the Iliad Begins in the Tenth Year
Well-matched forces dragged the Trojan War on and on. It was in its tenth year when the climactic and most dramatic events finally took place. First, a sacrilegious Agamemnon, leader of all the Achaeans (Greeks), captured a priestess of Apollo. When the Greek leader refused to return the priestess to her father, a plague struck the Achaeans. This plague may have been bubonic since it was connected with the mouse-aspect of Apollo. Calchas, the seer, summoned once again, augured that health would be restored only when the priestess was returned. Agamemnon agreed, but only if he could have a substitute war prize: Briseis, Achilles' concubine.
When Agamemnon took Briseis from Achilles, the hero was outraged and refused to fight. Thetis, Achilles' immortal mother, prevailed upon Zeus to punish Agamemnon by making the Trojans stymy the Achaeans--at least for a while.
Patroclus Fights as Achilles
Achilles had a dear friend and companion at Troy named Patroclus. In the movie Troy, he is Achilles' cousin. While that's a possibility, many consider the two not so much cousins, in the sense of "son of one's uncle," as lovers. Patroclus tried to persuade Achilles to fight because Achilles was so capable a warrior that he could turn the tide of battle. Nothing had changed for Achilles, so he refused. Patroclus presented an alternative. He asked Achilles to let him lead Achilles' troops, the Myrmidons. Achilles agreed and even lent Patroclus his armor.
Dressed like Achilles and accompanied by the Myrmidons, Patroclus went into battle. He acquitted himself well, killing a number of Trojans. But then the greatest of the Trojan heroes, Hector, mistaking Patroclus for Achilles, killed him.
Now the situation was different for Achilles. Agamemnon was an annoyance, but the Trojans were, once again, the enemy. Achilles was so grieved by the death of his dear Patroclus that he reconciled with Agamemnon (who returned Briseis), and entered the battle.
A Madman Kills and Disgraces Hector
Achilles met Hector in single combat and killed him. Then, in his madness and grief over Patroclus, Achilles dishonored the Trojan hero's body by dragging it around the ground tied to his chariot by a belt. This belt had been given Hector by the Achaean hero Ajax in exchange for a sword. Days later, Priam, Hector's aged father and the king of Troy, persuaded Achilles to stop abusing the body and return it for proper burial.
The Achilles Heel
Soon after, Achilles was killed, wounded in the one spot where legend tells us he was not immortal--his heel. When Achilles was born, his mother, the nymph Thetis, had dipped him into the river Styx to confer immortality, but the spot where she held him, his heel, remained dry. Paris is said to have hit that one spot with his arrow, but Paris wasn't that good a marksman. He could only have hit it with divine guidance--in this case, with the help of Apollo.
The Next Greatest Hero
The Achaeans and Trojans valued the armor of fallen soldiers. They triumphed in capturing the helmets, weapons, and armor of the enemy, but also prized that of their own dead. The Achaeans wanted to award the armor of Achilles to the Achaean hero they thought came next in stature to Achilles. Odysseus won. Ajax, who thought the armor should have been his, went mad with rage, tried to kill his fellow countrymen, and killed himself with the sword which he had received from his belt-exchange with Hector.
Aphrodite Continues to Help Paris
What had Paris been up to all this time? Besides his dalliance with Helen of Troy and slaying of Achilles, Paris had shot and killed a number of Achaeans. He had even fought one-on-one with Menelaus. When Paris was in danger of being killed, his divine protector, Aphrodite, broke the strap of the helmet, which Menelaus was clutching. Aphrodite then shrouded Paris in a mist so that he could escape back to Helen of Troy.
The Arrows of Hercules
After the death of Achilles, Calchas uttered yet another prophecy. He told the Achaeans they needed the bow and arrows of Hercules (Herakles) to defeat the Trojans and end the war. Philoctetes, who had been left wounded on the island of Lemnos, had said bow and poisoned arrows. So an embassy was sent to bring Philoctetes to the battlefront. Before he joined the Greek battle line, one of the sons of Asclepius healed him. Philoctetes then shot one of Hercules' arrows at Paris. There was barely a scratch. But ironically, like the wound Paris had inflicted on Achilles' one weak spot, that scratch was enough to kill the Trojan prince.
The Return of Odysseus
Odysseus soon devised a way to end the Trojan War--the erection of a giant wooden horse filled with Achaean (Greek) men to be left at the gates of Troy. The Trojans had noticed Achaean ships sailing away earlier that day and thought the giant horse was a peace (or sacrificial) offering from the Achaeans. Rejoicing, they opened the gates and led the horse into their city. Then, after 10 years of privations for the sake of the war, the Trojans brought out their equivalent of champagne. They feasted, drank hard, and fell asleep. During the night, the Achaeans stationed inside the horse opened the trap door, crept down, opened the gates, and let in their countrymen who had only pretended to slip away. The Achaeans then torched Troy, killing the men and taking the women prisoner. Helen, now middle-aged but still a beauty, was reunited with her husband Menelaus.
So ended the Trojan War and so began the Achaean leaders' torturous and mostly deadly trips home, some of which are told in the sequel to The Iliad, The Odyssey, which is also attributed to Homer.
Agamemnon got his comeuppance at the hand of his wife Clytemnestra and her lover, Agamemnon's cousin Aegisthus. Patroclus, Hector, Achilles, Ajax, Paris, and countless others were dead, but the Trojan War dragged on.