Several decades after Heracles and Jason had gone to their rests, a time came when all of Greece, including Delphi, hummed with an excitement it had never known before. War was coming, a fact that was palpable throughout the land. And with the war, the Age of Gods was about to reach its culmination. While the people couldn’t know this in an intellectual sense, they nevertheless could sense it in their bones.
The proximate cause of it all came in the form of two beautiful young people — in fact, the two most beautiful living mortals in the world: Helen, the queen of Sparta, and Paris, the son of King Priam of the powerful barbarian city of Troy, which lay at the mouth of the Hellespont on the other side of the Aegean Sea. Paris had come to Sparta disguised as a humble shepherd, whereupon he had managed to seduce Helen behind the back of King Menelaus, her husband. When Menelaus had been called away to Crete on a mission of state, the two had fled back to Troy together. All of Greece was justifiably outraged at this breaking of the sacred bonds between host and guest, man and wife. Greece was determined to punish Troy for its prince’s deceit and return Helen to her rightful home of Sparta.
Yet there was more than just moral outrage in the air as Greece prepared for war. Life there had been awfully quiet since Heracles and Jason had had their adventures, and the people had grown restless. The time simply seemed right for a glorious war between the Greeks — all of them, united as one for the first time ever — and the proudest city of the barbarian world.
Thus men from all over Greece marched to the port of Aulis, where the thousand ships that were to carry the army to Troy had been assembled. Even Delphi, a place normally concerned with matters of the spirit rather than war, was swept up in the martial mood. Several hundred young men from the town itself, from Cirrha, and from the other settlements nestled around the base of Mount Parnassus marched proudly off to Aulis while the people cheered and their mothers cried. Even as they were doing so, kings and warriors from other places passed through Delphi by the dozens en route to Aulis, begging Apollo for omens of the great feats of heroism for which they hoped they would soon win honor, filling the town’s treasuries to bursting with their gold in their bids to secure whatever divine influence they could.
Among their number was Agamemnon, the current king of Argos and Greece’s most respected living military leader, who by near-universal acclamation was to be the supreme leader of the united Greek attack on Troy. After making his sacrifices and taking his ablutions, and donating the largest quantity of gold of all, he too entered the temple of Apollo to ask the god’s oracle for advice on the war to come. But he looked rather less confident when he came out than he had going in. As he later admitted to a few select lieutenants, the god’s message was less reassuring than he had expected. He was told that the war ahead would be a long, grinding stalemate which would often leave little room for the heroism his countrymen were already celebrating in advance, but would certainly leave plenty of space for abject suffering and petty cruelty. He would know that victory was nigh at last, said the god, when Achilles and Odysseus, the two most capable of all the warriors under his command, clashed in a “savage war of words.” Small wonder Agamemnon was discomfited; this prophecy of a war of dogged attrition, climaxing in internal strife, didn’t sound at all like the one the bards and poets were describing in advance.
Now, Achilles and Odysseus were indeed widely recognized as immensely capable soldiers, but they were about as different as two equally capable soldiers could be. Achilles, who came from the rural northern region of Thessaly, was an absolutely peerless and fearless athlete and fighter, who had the most impressive physique seen in Greece since the time of Heracles and trusted in it entirely. He could take on five ordinary men at once, with fists or blades, and come out the victor every time. Odysseus, who hailed from the western island of Ithaca, was no slouch himself in single combat, but he wasn’t the pure warrior Achilles was. Instead he was sly as a fox. He was a man of twists and turns, whereas Achilles preferred the straight and narrow. Where Achilles would charge into battle against overwhelming odds with nary a thought, and quite possibly win the day despite it all through his sheer physical prowess, Odysseus would hang back and try to think of ways to even the odds beforehand. “When these two philosophies finally clash,” Apollo’s oracle had relayed to Agamemnon, “each will be ready to play his own role in securing Greek victory.”
“And when might that be?” Agamemnon had asked.
But the oracle had had nothing more to offer him. “The god does not say. Perhaps never.” This “prophecy” of hers didn’t strike Agamemnon as terribly helpful.
Had he known everything Apollo knew, he would have been still less sanguine. For the whole premise of the war, which struck him and his fellow proud Greeks as such a straightforward affair of honor, was in some ways at least false: this was actually a war stirred up by longstanding enmities among immortal beings rather than mortal men.
It had all begun with Eris, a minor mischief-causing immortal whose name means “strife” or “discord.” Tired of being looked down upon by the Olympian gods, she devised a way to sow her namesakes within their ranks. One day when the Olympians were all sitting at table together — a social occasion to which she, as usual, had not been invited — she tossed a golden apple through the window. Graven upon the apple was an inscription: “For the Fairest.” Aphrodite, Hera, and Athena — the three vainest of the goddesses — soon began to fight over it, just as Eris had hoped they would. And so she slunk away satisfied, her mischief done. But even she might have thought twice about her prank had she known where it would lead.
The three goddesses decided to set the question of which was the fairest before Paris, the most attractive living mortal of the opposite sex, who ought to be a suitable judge. So, this youthful prince of Troy — a feckless, spoiled, conceited fellow little loved by his countrymen — saw the three of them materialize before him one day in their full splendor, asking him to judge which of them was most beautiful of all. Inevitably, all three of the goddesses tried to cheat. Hera had already come to him beforehand to tell him that she would make him lord over all the world, if he but chose her, while Athena had told him she would give him the wisdom to lead Troy’s armies to victory against the Greeks, their greatest rivals in the world. But, as befit her status as the goddess of love, Aphrodite knew best the real desires of a young man like him. She promised him that the most beautiful mortal woman in the world would be his if he chose her. And so Paris said that Aphrodite should be given the golden apple.
A jubilant goddess of love came to Paris privately that night to tell him that he should journey in disguise to Sparta to claim his prize. When he arrived there, she had her son Eros shoot Helen with one of his shafts and cause the queen of Sparta to fall hopelessly in love with the visitor, who she thought was just an ordinary shepherd. She didn’t learn the truth until she had sacrificed everything she had in the world and had betrayed her homeland for his love. And even then, her heart remained as tightly bound to him as ever.
These events prompted almost as much discord among the gods as among mortals. Hera and Athena quickly deduced how Aphrodite had cheated when they saw Paris go to Sparta and return with his prize. Notwithstanding that each of them had also tried to cheat, they raised a ruckus over it on Mount Olympus. Thus even as the Greeks and Trojans prepared for war, the gods too sorted themselves into opposing camps, aligning themselves variously with each of the mortal sides rather than blindly taking the part of the Greeks, usually their chosen people. In fact, among their ranks only Hera and Athena, still stinging from the judgment of Paris, were for the Greeks. Aphrodite of course took the side of the Trojans, as did Ares, who immensely enjoyed lying with her when she would allow him to and was therefore always currying her favor. And Poseidon, who was so fond of Troy that he had actually helped to build the city’s walls, was also for the Trojans. Apollo and his twin sister Artemis, feeling keenly the fundamental injustice of the war the Greeks were taking to Troy thanks to the meddling of their fellow gods in mortal affairs, somewhat more reluctantly took the side of the barbarians. (Thus the vagueness and general unhelpfulness of Apollo’s prophecies to Agamemnon and many another Greek warrior who turned up at Delphi.) Zeus liked to claim neutrality in order to stay above it all and preserve some measure of domestic peace with Hera, but in reality his sympathies too lay with the Trojans, for the same reasons. Only Dionysus, Hephaestus, Hades, and Hermes were truly disinterested in the outcome of the war, each having his own idiosyncratic obsessions to focus on instead.
As so often happens, then, the clear-cut moral justification the Greeks saw for the war became very murky when one began to peer beneath the surface of things. The gods gave them a lesson in this painful fact of life before they ever even sailed for Troy.
When the Greek army had all gathered at Aulis, they found themselves unable to sail for days, then weeks on end, thanks to constant storms and inclement winds. Agamemnon looked on while his soldiers, who had arrived sharp, straining for battle like hunting dogs on the ends of their leashes, were worn down into dull slothfulness by the enforced inactivity. Some, muttering about ill omens, began to consider returning home. At last, the oldest seer of the port said that Artemis demanded a terrible price before she would allow the fleet to sail: Agamemnon must sacrifice his own daughter in atonement for the blood the Greeks would soon be spilling in Troy.
Artemis, who like Apollo wished above all to prevent a senseless war, had indeed made the demand, but never expected it to be carried out. After all, what father could possibly do such a thing? She fondly imagined that Agamemnon would refuse, the Greeks would disperse back to their homes, and the war would be forgotten.
But she hadn’t reckoned with the peculiar psychology of mortal men. When the seer’s prophecy came down, Agamemnon came under immense pressure from all these soldiers and sailors who had left home and family behind to avenge the great wrong Troy had committed upon all of Greece. Surely their cause, to which they had already made such a commitment, was worth the sacrifice of one ordinary teenage girl. At first, Agamemnon resisted the pressure. But then they began to talk of the shame he would live in henceforward, as the leader who had shirked his duty to his command…
Like many of the Greeks, Agamemnon had traveled as far as Aulis with his family: his wife Clytemnestra, his adolescent son Orestes, and, most fatefully, his daughter Iphigenia. One morning when the children were away he told his wife what he had to do, asking her to accept it as the will of the gods. But this she refused to do. She cried, she begged, she cursed him and spat at him and tried to claw his eyes with her fingernails. In the end, he was forced to physically restrain her, tying her limbs with ropes to stop her thrashing and tying a cloth over her mouth to stop her screaming. He left her like that — left her to find his daughter. He ordered several of his men to accompany him.
Shortly thereafter, he watched while the men carried Iphigenia, pleading and shrieking in saffron robes, out to the sacrificial altar. Once there, one of them clamped a hand over her mouth to prevent her uttering a death curse, as the others held her kicking, twisting form high over the altar. They ripped her robes away to reveal her naked body; it shined like alabaster in the sunlight. And then Agamemnon himself walked up and plunged the dagger in, while her reproachful gaze pierced him as no weapons of his avowed enemies ever could. And the blood fell scarlet from her alabaster flesh.
Artemis was horrified, but she had to honor the unholy bargain she had made. The next day dawned mild and fair, and the Greek fleet finally put to sea. Yet a cloud of another sort now hung over them. The moral high ground, if it had ever been theirs, was now lost to them; they stood revealed as mere invaders and plunderers.
The Greeks had hoped to take Troy by surprise, but the long delays gave King Priam ample time to learn of the attack and prepare for it. When they made landfall, they were met by an army as strong as their own, made up of brave men who had rushed to the city’s defense from all across the sprawling land of Anatolia which lay behind Troy. The swift victory the Greeks had anticipated bogged down into the stalemate which Apollo had promised Agamemnon.
For ten years the futile struggle continued; for ten years the Greeks failed to breach the walls of Troy, even as the Trojans failed to push the Greeks back into the sea. Whenever a breakthrough did seem possible, some combination of the gods would intervene to avert disaster for their preferred side, as much to protect their own pride as for any more noble impulse. There was no glory here, just suffering and death. The Greeks soon half forgot what they were even fighting for. This war, even more so than most of them, became a brutal carnival of folly, a farce rendered tragic only by its body count. Agamemnon and his two faithful commanders, Achilles and Odysseus, continued to hatch plan after plan which they imagined would change the situation, and their Trojan counterparts did likewise, and nothing ever actually changed at all.
But finally, at the end of the decade of war, one side did seem on the verge of a decisive advantage over the other. Agamemnon and Achilles quarreled over a woman whom the latter had captured, only to have the former claim her for himself as a privilege of his superior rank. (Such are the harsh realities of war, amidst which women always seem to suffer the most.) Achilles, a proud and ofttimes petulant warrior who never tolerated any slight from either friend or foe, promptly withdrew from the battle.
He had been by far the Greeks’ best fighter and leader to this point. Without him, the battle went badly for them, for the Trojans had a great champion of their own who was by all indications the equal of Achilles: Hector, who was like Paris a son of King Priam, but who was ten times the warrior his brother was. Now, he took full advantage of Achilles’s absence. On the first day in which they didn’t have to face the foremost Greek hero, Hector and the Trojans pushed their enemies all the way back to the very edge of the sea, almost to where their ships lay beached. Nightfall brought a reprieve, but the Trojans, with Hector at the forefront, were sure to press the attack to the utmost the next day in the hope of ending the war once and for all.
A desperate Agamemnon begged Odysseus, whose silver tongue was legendary, to go down to where Achilles was sulking in his tent and beg him to rejoin the fight. He authorized him to offer the warrior a true king’s ransom in exchange: seven tripods never touched by fire, ten bars of gold, twenty burnished cauldrons, a dozen fine stallions, and seven flawless female captives, including the one over which the two men had quarreled, whom Agamemnon claimed never to have actually taken to his bed. Further, if the Greeks eventually won out and conquered Troy, Achilles would receive a personal harem of any twenty more women from the city, along with all the plunder his ship could carry.
Odysseus chose to take with him Ajax, one of Achilles’s best friends. When they came to Achilles’s tent, they found him sitting idly with Patroclus, his closest friend of all, plucking at his lyre. But he rose to greet them courteously, and then led all three friends inside his tent, where he fed them all well. When the feast was through, Odysseus began cautiously to make his case.
“I thank you for a wonderful meal, Achilles,” he said. “But we cannot tarry here over our wine any longer, for disaster is staring us in the face. The Trojans are on the verge of breaking through our lines and burning our ships, our only means of escape from these foreign shores. In fact, they will almost certainly do so in the morning unless you return to the fray. Please don’t fail us now. Please, let your anger go! If you do so, Agamemnon will humble himself before you and give you gifts beyond reckoning.” And he told of his leader’s generous offer. “All of these treasures can be yours. But if they aren’t sufficient, think of the honor that would come to you if you met Hector in battle and bested him, and thereby saved your beleaguered countrymen!”
But Achilles was utterly unmoved by this fine speech. His tone started off gentle, but became harder and more mocking as he continued to talk. “I’m not the orator you are, my friend, so let me save you a lot of trouble and state this very clearly: Agamemnon will not win me over — not through gifts, not even through the wiles of Odysseus. Not after he’s dishonored me, robbed me, lied to me. Perhaps you should use your wits tonight to devise some defense against the Trojans — one of those ingenious ramparts or trenches you’re so often prattling on about. As for me, I’ll be preparing to sail away from this place before the end comes.” And now he really warmed to his subject. “Go try your twisting words on some other gullible fool! As for your shameless master… I wouldn’t fight for him if his offer was ten or twenty times as generous, even if it encompassed everything he owns, or everything found in the treasury of Delphi, or for that matter all the treasures in the world.” But now he looked upon Odysseus more kindly again. “Still, you at least are my friend, who has never wronged me. If you wish to sail with me, there is room on my ship for you.”
Odysseus was rendered momentarily speechless by this extraordinary outburst, something that very seldom happened. But when he did speak again, his words were just as hot as those of Achilles. “You think only of sailing home, when your countrymen need you? You coward! No, I will not be joining you! I know where my duty lies. Agamemnon, a man of no less honor than yourself, is begging your forgiveness for what was in reality a trifling slight. The only just action is to give it to him. Since you refuse to do so, I can only conclude that your anger is just a convenient excuse, one that keeps you from having to acknowledge the real reason you plan to flee like a dog: your fear of Hector!”
At this, Achilles stood and reached for his sword, and Odysseus did likewise. The meeting would surely have ended in violence had not Ajax and Patroclus both stepped between them. “Come, no more of this,” Ajax said to Odysseus. “There’s no achieving our mission here. Achilles has plainly made his choice. So be it. Agamemnon is waiting for us anxiously. We ought to return to him, so we can discuss what’s to be done about our defense in the absence of Achilles. Time is very short.” And, taking his friend by the elbow, Ajax guided Odysseus out of the tent.
When the two returned to Agamemnon’s tent, their captain sprang up to greet them. “And? Will he fight?”
But Odysseus, whose anger had cooled by now into grim resignation, shook his head. “No. He spurns you along with all your gifts. He says we should work out our own defense. For his part, he plans to sail away before the Trojans break through our last defenses.”
Now Ajax chimed in. “I fear, my lord, that your gifts were counterproductive. They only confirmed him in his pride, confirmed in his mind that he was justified in taking such offense over almost nothing. Still, if I know Achilles, he will come around at some point. The fact that he hasn’t sailed away already is tacit proof of this. Unfortunately, it may be too late when he does.”
There seemed nothing more to say. They must fight as best they could alone, and make a brave end if nothing else. And yet, even amidst the gloom, there was a glimmer of hope in Agamemnon’s heart as he bid his comrades good night. Achilles and Odysseus had quarreled at last. Was this the sign he had been waiting for?
But his optimism proved difficult to maintain in the morning; things went hard for the Greeks. Smelling victory, the Trojans pressed their attack for all they were worth, with Hector at their head as always, maiming and killing. As the Greeks were pressed further and further back, Achilles reluctantly prepared to do as he had promised and sail away. But his friend Patroclus, who numbered among the crew of his ship, could finally take it no more. He begged Achilles to loan him his armor. “If the Trojans think I am you,” he said, “it may give them pause.” And Achilles relented so far as this.
So, Patroclus charged into the fray in the armor of Achilles, and in fact fought almost as well as its real owner might have done. But when he came face to face with Hector, he was revealed to be a boar facing a lion. Hector slew him easily. And then, believing he had dispatched the Greeks’ greatest champion, he stripped off Achilles’s armor and put it on his own body.
When he heard that his best friend had been killed, Achilles saw the pettiness of his behavior at last. He collapsed to the earth, weeping his proud heart out — for he truly had loved Patroclus with all his heart. His words were such that those around him feared he might take his own life. “Let me die at once,” he said, “since I failed to save my dearest comrade from his death. He’s perished a world away from his fatherland, lacking me, my fighting strength to defend him. All while I sat here by the ships, a useless dead weight.” But then, much to the relief of those around him, his sorrow turned to rage. “I’ll go and meet that murderer head on, that Hector, who destroyed the dearest life I know.”
Seeing that he had resolved to fight again, Athena, who had been watching anxiously as the war turned against the Greeks, loaned him her own shield and told him to rush into the battle quickly, for the Greek lines were close to breaking now. And this Achilles did. Although he didn’t meet Hector on that day, he did fight as only he was capable, killing countless Trojans and blunting their assault. When night fell, the Greeks’ backs were closer to the sea than ever, but their lines had held.
While the opposing armies rested for the next day of battle, Hera, who like Athena had been looking for ways to aid the Greeks, convinced Hephaestus on Mount Olympus to make her a full suit of armor for Achilles to replace the one Hector had stolen; this she presented to the warrior just before dawn. He led the Greeks into battle that morning looking like a god, and he fought like one as well in his anger, even as Hephaestus’s armor made him as well-nigh invulnerable as one. Led by Achilles, the Greeks now pressed the counterattack relentlessly, until they had made up all the ground they had lost and then some, pushing the Trojans all the way back to the walls of their city.
The day’s greatest single combat was its last, taking place between Hector and Achilles before the front gates of Troy while the remnants of the Trojan army streamed through them to take refuge inside. Hector fought bravely at this, his last stand, but he never had a chance; Achilles, dressed in his impenetrable divine armor, was simply invincible. Knowing his old armor well, Achilles zeroed in on its weakest point. After a long struggle, he succeeded in stabbing his opponent in the throat with his spear.
Lying there on the ground, breathing his last breaths, Hector begged Achilles to return his body to his parents for a proper burial. But the battle rage of Achilles was such that he was little more than an animal by now. He jeered and spit upon his foe even as Hector was speaking these words. Then, when Hector was dead, he stripped the corpse naked, tied it to a horse-drawn chariot, and, climbing aboard, whipped the team into a frenzy. He drove the chariot around and around the perimeter of Troy’s walls, dragging the corpse behind him as his fellow soldiers cheered him on lustily in the twilight. Hector’s body was battered until it was barely recognizable as that of a human being. Then, Achilles tossed it into a garbage dump for the rats and carrion birds.
The gods were not pleased by Achilles’s treatment of his fallen opponent. Not even Hera and Athena, who had so consistently supported the Greeks, could find a way to justify this blasphemy. Thus neither of them did anything to prevent Apollo from doling out a just punishment. Apollo knew, as poor Hector had not, that Hephaestus’s invulnerable suit of armor actually did have one point of vulnerability: there was a hole in one of its heels, put there by Hephaestus out of the belief that no mortal should enjoy complete protection from all the slings and arrows that life might bring his way. Shortly after hostilities had resumed between the Greeks and the Trojans on the next morning — with the Trojans still trapped in their place of last refuge, behind the walls of their city — Apollo guided an otherwise ineffectually wild arrow, shot by Paris of all people from the city’s ramparts, to pierce Achilles just there where his armor didn’t protect him. Thanks to the extra potency with which the god invested it, the arrow killed its victim immediately.
Each side’s greatest champion was now dead, but the carnage continued unabated. Soon after the death of Achilles, Paris himself was killed, shot down by a Greek arrow as he tried to make a show of his bravery before Helen and the other Trojans. (There was less mourning in Troy for Paris than there had been for his brother Hector.) And among the latest victims on the Greek side was the noble Ajax, who had averted the violence between Achilles and Odysseus that would surely have doomed all of his countrymen.
The Greeks had only those weapons of war which it had been possible to carry with them across the sea in their ships; they had nothing capable of breaching the strong walls which Poseidon had helped to build around Troy. The people inside the walls had stored up enough food and water to last for months, and now word had it that more armies were being mobilized in the interior of Anatolia to come to the besieged city’s aid. A resolution of the war still seemed far away.
During these frustrating weeks of renewed stalemate, Agamemnon pondered anew the Delphi oracle’s statement that both Achilles and Odysseus must play a role in securing final victory for the Greeks. Clearly the former had done his part; he could do no more under any circumstances. But what of the latter? It was thanks to these speculations that, when Odysseus came to Agamemnon with what seemed the most outlandish of plans, the Greeks’ master trickster found, rather to his own surprise, that his captain was more than willing to put his plan into action.
One morning, the sun rose to reveal to the Trojan soldiers standing on the ramparts of their city a bewildering scene: the scarred field in front of the walls where so many men had fought and died was now eerily deserted, with the exception only of an immense wooden horse on wheels which loomed incongruously over the scene. Had the Greeks tired of the war at last and gone home? It certainly appeared so; as the sun rose further, the soldiers on the ramparts yelled down to their comrades below that the Greek ships could no longer be seen there where they had lain beached for so long on the distant shoreline.
When they ventured cautiously out through the gates of their city, the Trojans found that the battlefield was indeed deserted. Convinced now that the war really must be over, they wandered about dazed, their minds still trying to reckon with their unexpected, anticlimactic deliverance. Only the enormous wooden horse disturbed them. They argued among themselves about whether they should burn it or keep it as a memento of their vanquished enemies.
Now, in addition to their late sons Paris and Hector, King Priam of Troy and his wife Hecuba had a daughter, whose name was Cassandra. She was a striking raven-haired beauty, but was regarded by all the Trojans, including her own parents, as thoroughly, dangerously mad. In reality, though, she labored under another of the gods’ uniquely cruel curses, one which revealed, like the story of Creusa and Ion, the less noble side of Apollo. She had chosen as a girl to become a priestess of Apollo, taking the vow of chastity that went along with it. But soon her patron god, seeing her beauty, had tried to seduce her. When she had rejected him — a vow was a vow, after all — he had blessed her with the power of prophecy, but cursed her to never have her prophecies believed. She had begged Paris not to travel to Sparta, saying it would bring war and ruin to Troy, and had begged her people to send Helen back when Paris had arrived with his new love in tow. But she had been constantly ignored, her impassioned pleas dismissed as the ravings of a madwoman.
On this morning, Cassandra begged her people to destroy the wooden horse, saying she smelled treachery all around it. But Apollo’s curse was still in force; if anything, the pleading of this “madwoman” convinced the people not to do what she demanded.
The attention of the central party of Trojans was diverted when a few of their soldiers strode up, escorting a prisoner whom they had apprehended near the beach. When the Trojans rushed to ask, none too kindly, who he was and how he had come to be left behind, the prisoner, who said his name was Sinon, unfolded a strange story. “As we were preparing to leave yesterday, we asked our prophet about the voyage home. He claimed to speak with Apollo, and then said, ‘You sacrificed one of your own to Apollo’s sister Artemis when you sailed for Troy. Now you must sacrifice again, to Apollo himself, if you will sail from Troy.’ This supposed prophet has long had it in for me, for reasons I won’t go into. So it came as no surprise to me when he said that I should be the sacrifice!”
Sinon continued his story after pausing, perhaps a little too obviously, for dramatic effect. “They tied me up, but I was able to escape. They chased me most of the night, but, knowing the terrain here well, I was able to evade them. Shortly before dawn, they gave up and sailed without making a sacrifice. And so, here I am, the last Greek left in Troy — with the exception of Helen, of course. Now, I almost wish the sorry old fraud of a prophet had been speaking the truth. I would love to see their fleet smashed by Apollo for what they tried to do to me!”
Priam, who was a gentle old man at heart, approached Sinon kindly. Ordering his men to untie the prisoner, he said, “Forget the Greeks! From now on, you are a citizen of Troy.” And Sinon bowed before his new king, relief written all over his features. “But tell me now,” the king continued, “what is the purpose of this vast horse they have left behind?”
“The horse was built long ago as an offering to Athena,” said Sinon. “It is doubtless one of the reasons she has so actively supported the Greek side throughout the war. We’ve kept it well back from the front lines, well-hidden in the foothills of Mount Ida, where we’ve kept a detachment waiting to light a signal fire to announce victory in the war for all these many years. But when the decision was made to give up the war, Odysseus suggested that we leave the horse behind, right here, directly before the walls of the city. His hope was that you would destroy it, thereby bringing the wrath of the goddess down around your heads. But I must say…” — and here he looked at them slyly — “if you took it into the city, and showed it the proper honor, you might just bring the goddess around to your side instead.”
Everyone except for Cassandra agreed that this was an excellent plan. Breathing sighs of relief that they had talked with Sinon before doing anything rash to the horse, they threw ropes around it and wheeled it through the gates of the city over the girl’s desperate objections. Once it had been moved to a place of honor in the city’s central square, they sang happy songs of deliverance and made offerings to the gods all around it.
Late that night, when all of Troy was asleep, secure in the belief that peace had returned at last, Sinon crept out of the quarters he had been so generously provided. He opened a secret door cunningly concealed in the side of the horse, and out jumped Odysseus along with several of the Greeks’ most seasoned soldiers. Creeping stealthily through the streets to the main gates, they silently killed the few guards keeping watch there and flung the gates wide. Waiting outside was the rest of the Greek army, many thousands strong, having been landed once again on the shore of Troy earlier in the night after a brief sojourn at sea. It stormed through the gates which the Greeks had never been able to penetrate by force of arms, but which had fallen so easily to Odysseus’s trickery.
The Greeks ran through the sleeping streets waving torches, burning everything they saw. Many of the men who had defended Troy so bravely for the past ten years burned to death in their beds, helpless against the flames which assailed them from out of nowhere. Those who did escape their burning houses were mostly slaughtered by the Greeks’ swords and spears before they realized what was happening. The few who managed to retrieve their weapons put up a noble fight, but theirs had been a lost cause from the moment Odysseus opened their city’s gates. There was slaughter atop altars, decapitation in bedrooms. Babies were ripped from their mothers’ skirts and cast into the flames. Children were thrown from the ramparts to smash their skulls on the stony ground below.
The largest number of Trojan survivors gathered inside the palace of Priam, huddling behind its heavy front door. But the Greeks brought up a battering ram. While the women and children inside cried and the men girded themselves to kill as many of the enemy as possible before they themselves fell, the ram slowly stove in the door, each successive blow ringing out like a drumbeat of doom. At last the door fell in, and the final battle of the decade-long war was joined. The cornered Trojans fought like furies, led by King Priam himself, who had put on his old armor and taken up his old spear. His shoulders could barely support the former, and his arms could barely lift the latter, but he joined the fray nevertheless. His spear glanced pathetically off the shield of the first Greek he met, who promptly killed him where he stood.
The next sunrise over Troy revealed a smoking ruin. The strong walls of Poseidon were the only parts of the city that still stood. Everything inside them had been burnt and razed. The air within and without the walls smelled and tasted of the dried cinders that eddied about on the breeze, tinged with the equally acrid odor of blood. Greeks could be seen here and there inside the walls, rooting through the wreckage after treasures to take home with them, piling whatever they could find atop carts and wagons. Others herded the few Trojan survivors, mostly women, out of the city; their wails of grief and terror floated through the air, seeming at one with the smoke. Many a Greek soldier, looking upon the scene, thought to himself how petty and mean their glorious war had ultimately proved to be. They had lived through ten years of constant battle, had won out at last, and their reward was… this? Some carts piled up with household trinkets and charred gold coins, along with a handful of frightened women. Destruction, suffering, and death, it seemed, were the only real wages of war.
The gods, having grown tired of this plaything of theirs, this endless war, had done nothing in the end to save Troy. Divine favor is a blessing only so long as the divinities remain interested in maintaining it.
But at least two of the gods were still curious enough to observe the sorry scene from on high. “Shall we now set aside our old hostilities and speak?” said Athena to Poseidon.
“Very well.” The god of the sea nodded curtly.
“I feel we should give the Greeks the bitterest of journeys home,” said Athena.
Poseidon turned to her in surprise. “What? You supported the Greeks throughout the war. Why has your love for them turned to hate now that you have achieved your goal?”
“Because they went too far last night. They raped the Trojan women and slaughtered the Trojan children inside my temple and those of the other gods. They disrespected both the their worthy foes the Trojans and us gods. Now I want to punish them for this, with your help.”
“I will gladly give you my help. What is your plan?”
“I want to make their journey home pure torture. I have already talked with Zeus. He has agreed to scatter the Greek fleet by raining his thunderbolts down upon it. After that, you can play your part. Rouse the wind and sea to blow their ships hither and yon. Make sure none of them make it home without learning an unforgettable lesson about the price of injustice and impiety.”
Poseidon smiled grimly. “This I promise to do. From Troy in the east all the way to Ithaca in the west, the sea will run constantly contrary to their desired course. Many a coast will be speckled with the bodies of their dead. They will soon wish they were still fighting here at Troy.”
While the gods chatted above, the Greeks down below collected the remaining women of Troy in one spot before the walls of the city. The women included in their ranks Queen Hecuba and Princess Cassandra. The latter was in a particularly bad way. Her chastity, which she had suffered the curse of Apollo to protect, was lost; she had been raped repeatedly by the marauding Greeks on the night before.
Among the surviving women, only Helen was not to be found here. She had already been reclaimed by her husband Menelaus, who had been among the besieging Greeks, and led away in shame. Nary a Greek nor Trojan could stand even to look at her now, despite all her beauty. Of course, they didn’t know that she had been compelled to love Paris against her will. But then again, even knowing this probably would have done nothing to change their contempt for her. They liked to say that she had an appropriate name: “Helen” for “Hell.”
A Greek soldier approached the rest of the women. “We’ve drawn lots to decide your dispositions,” he said gruffly. “Each of you will be assigned to a different man. Cassandra will go to Agamemnon.”
When Cassandra gave no sign to acknowledge this news, her mother Hecuba spoke up. “To be his wife’s slave?”
“Why, no,” came the answer. “To be his second wife.”
“But she’s consecrated to Apollo!”
The soldier only shrugged. “Agamemnon will have the girl. You should be proud. The bed of a king is hers — surely a better fate than that of an ordinary household slave, which is all she deserves. Anyway, they say that a woman’s dislike for a man always softens after her first night in bed with him.”
“And me?” Hecuba sighed. “Surely I am too old to be chosen for any Greek’s bed.”
“Just so. You will become a household slave to Odysseus.”
This was hard news indeed; word had already gotten to the captives that it had been Odysseus who had engineered the deception with the wooden horse. “I’ve been assigned to serve a filthy liar,” moaned Hecuba. “What misery! I got the worst of all the lots.”
“Enough of that! Hold your tongue or face the consequences!” said the soldier. And he proceeded to inform the rest of the despairing, broken little group of women what fates they had been assigned.
But Cassandra interrupted his proclamations. Looking every inch the madwoman her countrymen had long believed her to be, she picked up one of the torches ringing the captives’ encampment and waved it over her head. “What joy for me, this wedding!” she shouted, making a perverted simulacrum of celebration. “Bravo! Come, dance, my sisters! Sing for me and my new husband!” And she capered through a clumsy caricature of a wedding dance, her dark eyes beaming out her madness.
Hecuba rushed over and tried to soothe her. “Come, my poor child, give me the torch. You’re still as mad as ever, I see. Ah, well, perhaps it’s for the best in light of your fate.”
But Cassandra refused to yield the torch. “Be happy, mother! I am marrying a king!” she shouted. Then she leaned over to whisper into Hecuba’s ear. As she did so, the madness fled from her voice, replaced by purest malice. “I’ll kill him, sack his home, have revenge for my dead brothers and dead father. I shall destroy my enemy — and yours. Where there’s life, there’s hope.”
Hecuba stepped away, discomfited yet again by the daughter she was about to be parted from forever. Meanwhile the soldier, having not heard these last words, strode up to Cassandra and seized the torch. “If you were not mad, you would not get away with this mockery. But so be it…” As he spoke, he wondered to himself why Agamemnon had chosen to share a bed with her. She was beautiful, yes, but plainly insane. It seemed to him that no good could come of the union. In the end, though, it was Agamemnon’s choice. “Come with me,” he said. “I’ll take you directly down to your new master’s ship.” Then, turning to the rest of the women: “Others will be along shortly for you.”
As the soldier led her daughter away, still gibbering with real or feigned madness, Hecuba fell back onto the ground and lay there prone, staring up at the sky. Struck dumb by the enormity of the disaster that surrounded her, she lay there for long hours. She watched the sun move across the sky and disappear, then watched the stars wheeling in their mysterious courses, while the men around her dealt with matters more urgent than the disposition of one pathetic old woman. But finally she was prodded by rough boots and hauled to her feet, and set off to begin her new life as a slave.
Far away atop Mount Parnassus, high above the sleeping town of Delphi, a single watchman stood underneath the same stars. He gazed only idly and intermittently to the east — the direction he had been ordered to watch for the glint of a signal fire announcing victory in a war which had begun when he was still a boy. But suddenly he saw that which he had never expected to see, shining there pale but distinct from a nearby mountain’s peak: a flame that had been kindled by the Greeks keeping watch above the now-fallen city of Troy at Mount Ida, then flashed onward like a torch being passed between the members of a relay team, to the highlands of the island of Lemnos, to Mount Athos on a distant peninsula of the mainland, to the northern tip of the island of Euboea, to finally reach Greece proper at Aulis, whence the fleet of invaders had sailed so long ago. From there, the signal fires had spread willy-nilly across Greece, awaking wonder and jubilation at every location where they flared to life.
With a shout of joy, Delphi’s watchman too rushed to wake his comrades and light a tall spire of dry wood that had been waiting all these years in anticipation of this moment. The Trojan War was over. Greece had won.
Did you enjoy this chapter? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. Pledge any amount you like on Patreon.
(This series's cover art is by Dorte Lassen, who hereby releases it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)
11 Comments for "Chapter 9: The Siege of Troy"
Huh. The way I first heard the story, Achilles had been dipped in sacred magical water, by his mother or nurse when he was a baby, and that’s why he was almost invulnerable. The lady gripped him by the heel, and that’s why he had the weak spot there. This is the first time I remember reading about him being given armor from Hephaestus.
Been a long time since I read the Iliad, so I can’t remember which version was in it.
Greek mythology can be a bit confusing, because of all the different versions of the stories.
Yes, Greek myth is a confusing web of contradictory stories. I’m doing lots of picking and choosing, some simplification, and a fair amount of improvising here to tell a coherent story. In this case, the Iliad does describe Achilles being given the armor of Hephaestus in Book 18, but says nothing about his being dipped in the magical water. This makes sense. Why would he need the armor if he was (super)naturally invulnerable?
The Iliad also has nothing to say about Achilles’s heel. It ends before his death and before the famous incident of the Trojan Horse. After abusing Hector’s body, he is convinced by Priam, who visits him in the Greek camp in secret with the aid of a sympathetic Zeus and Hermes, to return what’s left of the body for a proper burial. The Iliad ends with the burial. I had much of this in there at one point, but cut it as a distraction from the main thrust of the narrative…
The weakness in the armor of Hephaestus was, I confess, my own invention, to reconcile the conflicting accounts.
Apparently, the bit where he got dipped in the River Styx was a story by someone besides Homer. He doesn’t even die in the Odyssey, Homer just mentions his funeral. Another guy filled in how he died. Definitely confusing to try to make sense of, because of all the different guys telling the stories. Reminds me of Athurian legend.
So, you adding the bit with a weakness in the armor could be said to fit with the tradition of different storytellers putting their own spin on things.
I’d say you did a good job meshing it all together into one cohesive story.
Very nice, Jimmy – what a compact yet delightful take on this war! I found some misspelled Greek names this time, notably one instance of Patrolcus, one of Tory, and one of Euoboea.
Thank you for this very well written retelling of the Troyan war! As it happens, I have been rereading Homer these days and tremendously enjoyed your version.
The part with the heel has already been commented on, and I must admit I do find the exchange between Achilles and Priam very important, as it is a very strong frame of Homer’s narrative: Achilles‘ gift, i.e. war booty, Briseis, is unrightfully claimed by Agamemnon, causes the story to kick off (a gift withhold – the greatest shame a commander can put upon his warriors), it is finally a successful exchange of gifts, Hector‘s body vs. Priam‘s treasures, that ends it.
If it wasn’t clear from the previous: this entry was great?
I inteded to post it without a question mark…sorry.
I agree that it’s absolutely pivotal to the Iliad, and it made me sad to cut it. My problem here was that this wasn’t *quite* the story I needed to tell. It wound up as too much of a distraction from the core themes involving Delphi and the role of prophecy. As my very first creative-writing teacher loved to say, sometimes a writer has to be willing to kill his little babies for the greater good.
Anyway, thanks for the kind words!
It’s strange. I know I’ve read things with references to Sinon before, but somehow I never really latched onto his role in the Trojans accepting the horse. Seems like the pop-culture version wants to just skip over that bit so that you’re left with the idea of the Trojans deciding to bring this big-ass horse statue that their sworn enemies left behind after years of fighting more or less on a whim.
Wow, this was so entertaining! Your article got me in the mood to re watch Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy, which i thought was pretty meh when i saw it at the release time.
“They liked to say that she had an appropriate name: “Helen” for “Hell.” This also apply in greek language, or is a little liberty you took as a writer?
It is a liberty, but not precisely mine. “Helene,” the Greek word for Helen, is similar to a Greek word that means “to destroy.” In the tragedy Agamemnon by Aeschylus, the chorus puns off this connection rather than “Helen” and “Hell.”
That said, the use of “Helen” and “Hell” in place of the essentially untranslatable Greek has long been standard practice by translators of the play. So, that’s where I nicked it from. 😉 Here’s Sarah Ruden’s recent translation: