Greek A legendary war fought
between Achaean (Greek) invaders and the defenders
of Troy, a seaport at the northwestern tip of Asia
Minor, around 1200–1300 b.c. (See below for an
account of recent archaeological discoveries that
make it certain that such a war, or series of wars, took
place.) The events of this war and the return to their
homes of some of the Greek generals make up a body
of myth that was recounted over the centuries and
eventually reshaped and written down by the great
poet Homer in two epics: the Iliad, which describes
the end of the Trojan War, and the Odyssey, the
journeys of one of the Greek heroes, Odysseus.
The story of the 10-year struggle between the
Greeks and Trojans is complex. The cause of the
war, according to Greek mythology, was said to be a
beauty contest between three goddesses. The silverfooted
sea Nymph, Thetis, and the king of Aegina,
Peleus, neglected to invite Eris, goddess of strife, to
their wedding. In her anger, Eris threw "the apple of
discord" into the midst of the wedding throng. The
apple was inscribed "To the Fairest."
Three goddesses immediately claimed the apple:
Hera, the chief goddess and wife of Zeus; Athene,
goddess of war; and Aphrodite, goddess of love and
beauty. When asked to make a choice among the
three goddesses, Zeus wisely declined and gave the
task to a young Trojan prince, Paris, who was said to
be exceedingly handsome.
The three goddesses wooed young Paris, tempting
him with bribes. Paris succumbed to the offer of
Aphrodite, who promised him the love of the most
beautiful woman in the world in return for the apple.
At that time, the most beautiful woman in the
world was Helen, the young queen of King Menelaus
of Sparta. Paris went to the court of Menelaus,
won Helen, and carried her away to Troy.
King Menelaus immediately rallied around him
all the former lovelorn suitors of Helen, who had
promised to fight anyone who might try to steal
Helen away from Greece. Menelaus chose his
brother, Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, as leader of
the army. Agamemnon soon had a fleet of 1,000 ships
ready to sail for Troy. (In later literature, Helen's face
was described as "the face that launched a thousand
ships.") Among the first victims of the war was one
of Agamemnon's daughters, Iphigenia, sacrificed in
order to gain fair winds to Troy.
Achilles was the principal hero of the Greeks
who took part in the Trojan War. His contingent
numbered about 50 ships and he led his own army,
unlike the other Greeks who acknowledged the
leadership of Agamemnon and his huge fleet. Achilles
captured a number of towns on the coast near Troy.
Among his prizes was the beautiful slave girl Briseis.
Agamemnon stole Briseis away from Achilles. Furious,
Achilles withdrew from the war, causing a serious
setback to the Greeks. The quarrel between Achilles
and Agamemnon was one of the starting points of the
events of the latter part of the Trojan War described
by Homer in the Iliad. Later, Achilles would rejoin the
war and help bring the Greeks to victory, this time
under the leadership of his dear friend Patroclus.
Hector killed Patroclus. Achilles then slew Hector
and dragged his dead body around the ruins of Troy.
Led by the hero Hector, the Trojans were successful
in many major engagements, especially when
Achilles temporarily left the conflict after the quarrel
with Agamemnon. Eventually, the Trojans lost the
war when the Greek hero Odysseus had the cunning
idea of hiding troops within a huge wooden horse
delivered as a gift within the walls of Troy. The
selected troops broke out of their hiding place in the
dead of night, slew the Trojans, and looted and set
fire to their city.
The gods themselves took sides in the Trojan War
and played an active part in the hostilities. Apollo
and the war god Ares supported the Trojans, as did
Aphrodite, the champion of Paris. Athene, Hera, and
Poseidon backed the Greeks, and Hephaestus, the
smith-god, made armor for Achilles.
The Trojan War was the last great communal
enterprise of the Greek heroes. Although it succeeded
in its aim to rescue Helen, the difficulties were great
and long, and an air of failure and defeat seemed to
hang over the enterprise. Few of the heroes returned
to find their homes secure.
The Trojan War: Fact or Fiction? The Trojan
War of Greek mythology lasted for 10 years, ending
in the sack of Troy and a victory for the Greeks.
Scholars now think that such a war did indeed take
place, around 1200–1300 b.c. Recent archaeological
finds confirm that there was a city of Troy. Extensive Bronze Age burial grounds and many crematory urns,
perhaps some of slain heroes, have been excavated.
In addition, caches of food have been found buried
beneath the walls of the city, very likely by people from
the countryside who were taking refuge within the city
walls during a lengthy siege by marauding tribes.
It seems certain that there were numerous trade
routes common to the Greeks and the Trojans. Troy,
at the northwestern tip of Asia Minor, controlled the
seaway between the Aegean and the Black seas, through
the narrow inlet called, in ancient times, the Hellespont,
now known as the Dardanelles. This strait led
to the Sea of Marmara, which in turn led to the Black
Sea via the passageway known as the Bosporus.
Once Troy had fallen, the Greeks were able to
establish colonies along the coast of Asia Minor. They
dealt in gold, silver, iron, cinnabar, timber, linen, hemp,
dried fish, oil, and Chinese jade. In fact, the return
of Helen to the Greeks may have symbolized the
restoration of Greek rights to enter the Hellespont.
The Iliad may be an assemblage of folk memories of
a series of raids by the Greeks against the shores of
Anatolia (Asia Minor)—and, in particular, Troy, the
guardian of the Dardanelles—to ensure vital passage
to the Black Sea and its valuable trade.
The Wooden Horse of Troy The Trojan War
came to an end when the Greek hero Odysseus had
the idea of building a huge wooden horse, inside
which would be hidden hundreds of Greek soldiers.
The horse was given as a gift to the Trojans and
dragged within their walls. In the dark of night, the
Greek soldiers burst forth from their clever hiding
place, fought the unprepared soldiers and citizens of
Troy, and destroyed the city, thus winning the war.
Many explanations for the Trojan horse have been
put forth. The most likely is that it was a battering
ram, a device used to knock down walls since ancient
times. The massive walls of Troy, with their sloping
bases, presented an almost unsolvable problem to
enemy forces. It seems likely that the Greeks constructed
a towering "ram" that would be capable of
attacking the more vulnerable upper structure of the
walls. The "legs" raised the battering ram up to the
level of the superstructure. The tool would be moved
up to the wall on rollers. To the soldiers, the battering
ram may have looked somewhat like a gigantic horse.
In the ancient world, it was common for soldiers to
give animal nicknames to pieces of equipment. For
example, the Romans called their catapults scorpions.
The word ram comes from the name for a male sheep
or goat, which has a solid, sturdy shape.