The Trojan War (1)


Ilion or Troy: town in northwestern Asia Minor, famous for the legendary Trojan War, in which a coalition of Mycenaean warriors captured the city of king Priam.Homer's Iliad deals with an episode from this war.


The Trojan War was, for the ancient Greeks and Romans, the most important war of all ages. The stories related to this conflict were the object of five major poems, which belong to the Epic Cycle:

  1. Cypria, attributed to Stasinus of Cyprus, Homer, or Hegesias (11 books; 22 fragments remaining)
  2. Iliad, by Homer (24 books; complete)
  3. Aethiopis, attributed to Arctinus of Miletus (5 books; 3 fragments)
  4. Little Iliad, attributed to Lesches of Mitylene (4 books; 14 fragments)
  5. Sack of Troy, attributed to Arctinus of Miletus, or Aeschylinus of Pyrrha (2 books; 6 fragments)

One gets the impression that the Aethiopis, Little Iliad, and Sack of Troy were in fact one work, because the division of the subject matter is a bit strange: a story that is began in the Aethiopis is completed in the Little Iliad, and while the Trojan Horse is built in the Little Iliad, the city is captured in the Sack of Troy. Moreover, together, they had eleven books, mirroring the Cypria.

Except for the Iliad and the Odyssey, these poems are now lost, although we have an excerpt by the second-century CE writer Proclus, a very short summary by the anonymous author of a book called The Library, who is often called Apollodorus. The Sack of Troy is summarized by the Roman poet Virgil in the second book of the Aeneid. There are also many works of art that help us understand the story. The names of the authors were already contested in Antiquity, and do not really matter: all poems are the result of a long oral tradition. They are essentially the product of a group process, and not compositions by an individual.

As source of historical information, they are almost without value, and already in Antiquity, people expressed doubt whether the Greeks had ever captured Troy,note Now this is to some extent a literary game, but the fact that it could be played proves that the historicity of the war was not something to which the ancient Greeks held dogmatically. As it happens, the excavations at Troy since the last third of the nineteenth century and the discovery of the Hittite state archives have proved that a military conflict between Mycenaean Greece ("Ahhiyawa") and the western vassal states of the Hittite Empire (e.g., Seha or Mira), in which Wilusa was captured, was certainly a possibility in the thirteenth century BCE.


Judgment of Paris; f.l.t.r. Hermes, Iris, Hera, Athena, Aphrodite. Etruscan amphora, c.530 BCE.

The Cypria begins with the marriage of Peleus and Thetis, which ends in a quarrel when the uninvited goddess of Strife, Eris, throws a golden apple to the guests with the inscription "for the most beautiful". The goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite all claim that they should have this object, and decide to ask the Trojan prince Paris to be the judge in their beauty contest. (Paris is also known as Alexandros, a name that is probably related to the Alaksandus who was king of Troy between in the first half of the thirteenth century.) Paris cannot make a choice, but Aphrodite promises him the most beautiful wife in the world, and the judge awards her the prize.

Aphrodite now orders Paris to build a ship and sail to Greece, where the most beautiful woman in the world lives: Helen, wife of king Menelaus of Sparta. During a big feast, Paris offers presents to his Greek hosts, but the king announces that he has to visit Crete, ordering his wife to furnish her guest with everything he might need. Aphrodite arranges that Helen falls in love with Paris, and they decide to leave Sparta, taking Menelaus' treasures with them. A big storm, caused by Hera, brings them to Sidon in Phoenicia. Paris captures the city, but the adulterous couple does not stay there; instead they decide to go to Troy, where a wedding is celebrated.

Meanwhile, Iris, the messenger of the gods, has explained to Menelaus what has happened during his absence. He returns from Crete and visits his brother Agamemnon, the king of Mycene and the informal leader of all Greeks. They decide to launch an attack on Troy, together with all other Greek kings. Nestor helps Menelaus gather the other warriors, which leads to some problems when they meet Odysseus, who appears to be mad: he has yoked an oxen and a donkey to plow, and is sowing precious salt. One of the Greeks, Palamedes, recognizes that Odysseus has little lust for war, takes Odysseus' baby son Telemachus, puts him into the path of the animals, and forces Odysseus to turn aside - revealing that he is not mad. (It turns out that he has learned that it will last ten years, and that he will return ten years later.)

Achilles on Skyros

One of the leaders that needs to be added to the army, is Achilles, the son of Peleus and Thetis. (The story is not mentioned in Proclus' excerpt of the Cypria, but logically belongs here.) He is still young, and his mother knows that he will be killed at Troy; therefore, she has brought him to Skyros, where he is hiding between a group of princesses. Odysseus, however, knows a trick: he lays down several objects for the girls. The one who is interested in the sword, is immediately identified as Achilles, and joins the army.

The expeditionary force, more than a thousand ships, gathers at Aulis, where the soldiers see how a snake devours eight young birds; the seer Calchas explains that this means that the war will take nine full years. Undeterred, the armada leaves and reaches Teuthrania, which the Greeks believe to be Troy, and sack. They set out for sea, but a storm scatters them. Achilles lands on Skyros, where he marries Deidameia. He also meets king Telephus of Teuthrania (whose Luwian name may be an echo from Asia Minor's Bronze Age). Achilles had wounded this man, but an oracle has told him that he would be cured by the weapon that had hurt him, which is indeed what happens. Grateful for his cure, Telephus promises to lead the Greeks to the real Troy.

Several years later, the Greek navy gathers again at Aulis, but now it encounters adverse winds. Agamemnon overcomes this problem by sacrificing his daughter Iphigeneia to Artemis. The goddess, however, intervenes by taking away the girl and putting a stag on the altar in her place.

Sailing to Troy, the Greeks reach the isle of Tenedos, where Philoctetes is bitten by a snake. The stench of the wound is too much to bear, so the Greeks abandon him.

Yet, they are now close to Troy. An oracle has announced that the first to land will also be the first to be killed; Protesilaus is the luckless victim of Hector, Troy's mighty crown prince. But the Greeks have now landed, and in the first battle, Achilles kills Cycnus - again a Luwian name that is connected to the real Bronze Age Troy: Kukunu was the father of king Alaksandus. The Greeks bury the first dead, build a camp on the beach, and send an embassy to Troy, demanding the extradition of Helen, and the return of Menelaus' treasure. This is refused and the Greeks try to storm the city - and fail to take it. As was common in Antiquity, this immediately means that they try to starve it, denying the Trojans access to their lands. Neighboring towns are destroyed.

Achilles kills Troilus

At this point, the Cypria contains a little-known scene: Achilles wants to have a meeting with Helen, which is arranged by Aphrodite and Thetis. Apparently, he is impressed and falls in love, because in the next scene, when Palamedes proposes to return home, he restrains the Greeks who accept this idea. The story continues with several scenes in which Achilles acts brilliantly: he seizes the cattle of Aeneas, sacks several towns (including Pedasus), and kills the Trojan prince Troilus. This scene was included in the Cypria, but is better known from many artistic representations from the Archaic Period, suggesting that what is now almost forgotten, was once one of the central stories of the Trojan legend.

The final scenes of the Cypria are a bridge to the Iliad, and prove that it was composed after Homer's work. We hear how Odysseus avenges himself upon Palamedes: he is drowned when he has gone out fishing. This scene is included to explain Palamedes' absence from the Iliad. The Cypria ends with an expedition to the southern Troad, and the division of the spoils. Agamemnon receives the girl Chryseis and Achilles receives Briseis.