A Brief Introduction to the Trojan War: Part One
Updated: May 5, 2022
The biggest war that never happened, the Trojan war is said to have taken place around the 12th or 13th century BC between the ancient Greeks and the people of Troy. It is one of the most famous wars from classical history, inspiring the epic tales of the ‘Iliad’, ‘Aeneid,’ and ‘Odyssey’. Legends tell of famous heroes on both sides of the conflict, such as, Paris, Hector, Achilles, and Odysseus, many of whom fell in battle. The gods were also said to take part, with Aphrodite, Apollo, and Poseidon supporting the Trojans, while Hera, Athena, and Thetis supported the Greeks. The war lasted ten years and is said to have brought about the end of the age of heroes.
The ruins of what are believed to be the city of Troy have been excavated at what is now Hirarlik in Turkey. Evidence of fire damage and arrow heads found in the excavation and historical writings do provide some evidence of a conflict, but any actual fighting is, likely to be far less dramatic than the legends tell – especially as many writings came from 8th century BC, at least four centuries after the war is alleged to have taken place. Despite the truth of the legend, the story of the Trojan war remains famous to this day, and so does the name of the woman who started it all.
Known as the face that launched a thousand ships, Helen’s kidnapping by Paris was the catalyst of the Trojan war. Helen was married to Menelaus, and kings and rulers across Greece had sworn to come to his aid if Helen was ever stolen from him.
Helen was known for her incredible beauty, she was the daughter of Zeus and Leda, a woman also known for her enchanting looks. Zeus spied her from Olympus and was taken with her beauty. He transformed himself as a swan, flying down and – depending on the legend – either seduced or raped Leda. From this union, Leda laid two eggs. From one egg came her daughters, Helen and Clytemnestra. From the other came her sons, Castor and Pollux. Castor and Clytemnestra were the offspring of Leda and her mortal husband, Tyndareus, while Helen and Pollux were the result of her union with Zeus.
Like her mother, Helen’s looks got her plenty of unwanted attention. As a child she was abducted by the hero, Theseus, who wished to make her his bride. Her brothers both came after her and managed to retrieve Helen before she could be wed.
When the time did eventually come for Helen to be married, there were many who sought her hand, and her stepfather Tyndareus invited them to come to Sparta to make their case. While there is no definitive list of men who came to vie for Helen’s hand, her number of suitors was large, and included such famous figures as Menelaus, Odysseus, Patroclus, and not one, but two Ajaxes. Interestingly, one of the most famous figures of the Trojan war – Achilles – was not one of these suitors, as he was said to be too young at the time.
The suitors entered a series of competitions to prove their right to marry Helen, but with so many involved, fighting soon broke out amongst their number. Tyndareus was faced with a difficult decision. With so many rulers among their number, by choosing one suitor, Tyndareus would likely cause bad blood and feuding among those not chosen.
It was Odysseus who came up with a solution. He said that Tyndareus should extract an oath from each suitor to defend the chosen husband of Helen, and to wage war on his behalf if Helen should ever be abducted from him. This was not an unfounded concern – bride kidnapping appears in several Greek myths, in particular the abduction of Persephone by Hades, and Helen had already been stolen for that purpose once as a child. It was thought that each man attending would be far too honourable to break such an oath and, if they did, there was the added reassurance that they would have to face the collective might of the other suitors.
While this is a clever proposal, Odysseus did have ulterior motives for suggesting it. Realising that he was unlikely to be chosen among the suitors, Odysseus had already turned his attentions elsewhere – to Tyndareus’ niece, Penelope. Ironically, the oath would cause great problems for Odysseus. While he survived the Trojan war, his long journey home would famously almost cost him his wife, his kingdom, and his son.
With the oath sworn, it was Menelaus who succeeded in winning the hand of Helen. With his marriage to the most beautiful woman in the world, Menelaus also gained her kingdom, and would become the king of Sparta.
Menelaus may have won out of the suitors, but their oath would soon be called into effect, when Paris of Troy came to visit Sparta.
Paris was the son of King Priam of Troy, and his wife Hecuba. Before he was born, Hecuba dreamt that she gave birth to a flaming torch which spread throughout the city, burning it down. The dream was interpreted as a prophecy, which said that the child she birthed would one day cause the destruction of Troy. To save their people, it was decided that the child, Paris should be left on the slopes of Mount Ida to die of exposure. Though Paris was left on the slopes for several days, he did not die, eventually being found by a shepherd, who took and raised him as his own. In some myths, Paris survived those days alone because he was found and nursed by a bear. Eventually, Paris’ parents would learn of his survival, he would be reclaimed by his family… and the prophecy would come true.
It was one decision that would lead to Paris falling for and abducting Helen – the biggest decision of Paris’ life.
Eris, the goddess of strife, was furious to learn that she had not been invited to lavish banquet that Zeus had thrown to celebrate the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. In order to get her revenge, she decided to cause trouble for the other gods. She inscribed a golden apple with the words ‘to the fairest’ and, while invisible, hurled it into the banquet.
Three goddesses, Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena instantly declared that the apple was intended for them. They fell to squabbling over who it belonged too, eventually demanding that Zeus declare a winner.
Zeus, who was wary of intervening in the argument, instead declared that it would be a mortal, Paris, who would determine the winner of the competition. Bringing the three goddesses together, Paris was left to make the decision.
While the contest was one of beauty, all three were unwilling to leave their victory up to chance and separately each attempted to bribe Paris to grant them their victory. Hera, queen of the gods, offered to make Paris a mighty king, ruling over Europe and Asia. Athena, goddess of wisdom and strategy, offered to make Paris a great warrior, unparalleled in battle. Aphrodite, goddess of love, offered Paris the most beautiful woman in the world. Helen.
Swayed by the promise of Helen’s hand, Paris declared Aphrodite the winner.
Aphrodite then assisted Paris in the kidnapping of Helen. How much choice Helen had in this is debatable. In some versions of the legend, Helen is forcibly abducted by Paris. In other versions, Aphrodite makes Helen fall unequivocally in love with Paris, and willingly elope with him.
Whether Helen was willing to leave or not, Paris took her from Sparta and, in doing so, prompted Menelaus to call upon those bound by the oath of Tyndareus to bring her back.
In addition to the other oath-bound suitors, Menelaus requested aid from his elder brother Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, who galvanised the other Greek city-states to join the war by appealing to their anger over a Greek woman being stolen from her home and husband. A great fleet gathered in the harbour of Aulis, but then stalled. Agamemnon had offended the goddess Artemis by accidentally killing one of her sacred deer. In response, Artemis stopped the wind, making it impossible for the fleet to leave the harbour.
Despairing, but determined, Agamemnon sent word to his wife, Clytemnestra, sister of Helen. He told her that their most beloved daughter would be married to the hero Achilles and asked her to send Iphigenia to him. When Iphigenia arrived, Agamemnon instead offered her as a sacrifice to Artemis, who had demanded Agamemnon’s favourite daughter in payment for her sacred deer.
In a kinder version of the legend, Artemis was merely testing Agamemnon’s resolve and replaced the girl with a hind – spiriting Iphigenia away to serve as Artemis’ priestess. In less kind versions of the myth, Iphigenia is murdered by her father. With the sacrifice made, the winds picked up, and the fleet were able to set sail.
Eventually they arrived at Troy, and hesitated. The Trojans were waiting for them. More than that, it had been prophesied that the first Greek soldier to step foot on Trojan soil would be the first to die. While the Greek heroes did not reject the possibility of dying in battle, the thought of doing so before they had won glory and fame in the war made them hesitate. Finally, a soldier by the name of Protesilaus leapt from his ship and began the attack. Though Protesilaus manage to kill four Trojan warriors he fought and was killed by Hector – son of Priam and brother of Paris – and so, the first blood of the Trojan war was shed.
It would not be the last.