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A Brief Introduction to the Trojan War: Part Three

Updated: Jan 1, 2024

After ten years and significant losses on both sides – including some of the most legendary heroes; Patroclus, Achilles, Hector, and Paris – both the Trojans and the Greeks were eager for the war to end. Unfortunately, there seemed no way for this to happen. The Greeks had been chosen to win the war by the divine ordinance of Zeus, but they could not break through the walls of Troy to take the city. It was then that Odysseus suggested the most famous trick of the war – the Trojan horse.

With the aid of the goddess Athena, carpenter Epeius crafted a great wooden horse. It was designed to be hollow, allowing 30 Greek soldiers to hide inside. It was also designed to be too large to enter the gates of Troy. This may seem counter intuitive, but this was also part of the Greeks’ plan. Leaving the horse behind, the Greek soldiers packed up their camp, got in their ships and, by all appearances, went home.

When the curious Trojans left Troy to find out what had happened, they were met with a Greek soldier named Sinon who they quickly captured. Sinon claimed to have deserted the Greek army following a rivalry between himself and Odysseus. He told the Trojans that the Greeks wished to abandon the war, but as their decision had turned Athena against them, the horse was intended to be an offering to the goddess. With Sinon’s encouragement, the Trojans decided to instead bring the horse inside the city and honour Athena themselves.

Not everyone was convinced by Sinon’s clever lies. Cassandra, princess of Troy had been both blessed and cursed by Apollo – initially with the gift of prophecy and then, when she refused to sleep with him, with the caveat that no one would ever believe her words. Cassandra predicted the fall of Troy, but none believed her. Another who did not fall for Sinon’s tricks was Laocoon. Laocoon warned the Trojans against bringing the horse into the city and instead suggested that they burn it. Athena, not wanting him to succeed, sent two serpents to attack his sons. The boys died and Laocoon with them, attempting to save their lives. Deciding that Laocoon’s fate was punishment from the gods for spurning the horse, the Trojans wheeled it into their city.

That night, Sinon opened the belly of the horse. The men inside killed the city guards and opened the gates, letting the Greek army into Troy to sack and pillage the city. Troy burned, and with its fall the Greeks had officially won the Trojan war.

Though the war may have been over, the story of those involved in the conflict continued and for many, that story ended with tragedy.

One exception to this is Menelaus and Helen. Menelaus, husband of Helen and one of the key figures responsible for starting the war, is said to have been one of the men hiding within the Trojan horse. When the city was sacked, he went searching for his wife. After the death of Paris, Helen had been married to his younger brother, Deiphobus. According to legend, her marriage was an unhappy one, forced upon her against her will. When Menelaus came for her, Helen is said to have either killed Deiphobus herself or hidden his sword to help Menelaus and Odysseus kill him. His body was then mutilated. Helen is said to have willingly returned with Menelaus – the two returning to Sparta where they lived happily for the rest of their days – and beyond. Being married to a daughter of Zeus, Menelaus was granted access to Elysium (paradise) when he died.

Few were as lucky. The majority of the men of Troy were killed, including King Priam, his sons and his grandsons – including toddler Astyanax, son of Hector, who was thrown from the walls of Troy. The women of Troy were divided amongst the Greek soldiers as slaves or concubines. One of Priam’s daughters, Polyxena, was even claimed by the ghost of Achilles for his part in the war and was consequently sacrificed on his tomb. Her sister, Cassandra’s fate was no better.

When Troy was sacked, Cassandra sought sanctuary in the temple of Athena. One of the Greek soldiers, Ajax, invaded the temple and assaulted Cassandra on the alter. He then dragged her out to be divided up with the other women. As one of the most beautiful of Priam’s daughters, Cassandra was gifted to Agamemnon, leader of the Greek warriors.

Though Athena had worked for the Trojan’s downfall, she could not let the insult of Ajax’s assault of Cassandra in Athena’s own temple go unpunished. She sent storms to harry the Greek ships on their way home, many of them being lost as sea.

However, Agamemnon’s ship managed to survive the journey home, where his wife Clytemnestra was waiting for him. In the years that Agamemnon had been gone, Clytemnestra had taken a lover, Aegisthus. She had also not forgiven Agamemnon for the sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia at the beginning of the war. With ten years to plan her revenge, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus conspired to kill Agamemnon.

Clytemnestra waited until her husband was in the bath, threw a net over him to prevent him from escaping, and stabbed him. She then also murdered Cassandra, though her reasoning for killing the girl is never explained.

Two of the most famous survivors of the Trojan War, however, are Odysseus and Aeneas, whose journeys after the war were so epic that they were the stars of two classic stories – ‘The Odyssey’ and ‘The Aeneid’.

Odysseus was a key member of the Greek army, known for his cunning and clever tongue. Unfortunately, this was of no use to him when his ship was blown off course on his way home. In his adventures to get home, Odysseus encountered the cannibalistic Laestrygonians, the enchanting Lotus Eaters, the beautiful Circe and the (also cannibalistic) Polyphemus. Though Odysseus lost men to each of these trials, it was their encounter with Polyphemus that would ultimately lead to Odysseus’ greatest mistake.

Polyphemus was a son of Poseidon, and a cyclops. While he was out, Odysseus and his men found his home and took shelter there, drinking his wine and eating his food. When Polyphemus returned, he closed the entrance with a great stone – trapping them inside – he then pounced, killing and devouring several of Odysseus’ men. Fearing that they would be trapped in the cave to be killed and eaten, Odysseus came up with a plan to escape. Carving a great spear, Odysseus and his men stabbed Polyphemus in the eye, blinding him. Polyphemus called for help and his fellow cyclops came to see if he was okay, Polyphemus informed them that ‘Nobody (the false name Odysseus had given him) had blinded him’ and the other cyclops left.

With Polyphemus blinded, Odysseus and his men bound themselves to the bottom of Polyphemus’ flock of sheep. When Polyphemus opened the cave to allow his sheep to graze, Odysseus and his crew escaped.

The god Poseidon was angered by the blinding of his son. Though he wished Odysseus dead, he was unable to kill him, as the Fates had decreed that Odysseus would make it home. Poseidon could, however, make Odysseus’ journey home difficult, and cost him the lives of his crew. With the anger of a god, it took Odysseus ten years to return home and he did so alone, his men all killed on the journey. Though he was reunited with his wife and son, Odysseus then had to leave again, undertaking another long journey in order to gain the forgiveness of Poseidon.

Aeneas, by contrast, had a far more successful journey after the fall of Troy, as many of his men (though not all) survived. Aeneas was a survivor of Troy who fled when the city burned, aided by his godly mother, Aphrodite – or Venus as she is known in the Aeneid.

On their travels, Aeneas and his men encountered many of the same challenges as Odysseus and his crew. They even encountered one of Odysseus’ men, a survivor of Polyphemus the cyclops who was left behind on the island when his crew escaped. Forewarned about the deadly cyclops, Aeneas and his crew fled before they could be captured, taking the Greek soldier with them.

Their ship was wrecked near Carthage, and Aeneas encountered the beautiful leader Dido, who he fell in love with and who loved him in return – her affection assisted by Cupid, Aeneas’ half-brother at the behest of their mother. Though Aeneas wished to remain with Dido – and did for several years –he was eventually visited by the gods, who had tasked Aeneas with founding a new homeland for the Trojan people. In remaining with Dido, Aeneas was shirking these duties and so, with regret, he left. Dido was so distraught by his leaving that she killed herself – though not before cursing Aeneas and his descendants to a war-torn future, and an eternal enmity with Carthage.

Unaware of Dido’s curse, Aeneas and his surviving followers continued their journey, eventually coming to Italy and sailing up the river Tiber. Once there, they encountered Latinus, leader of the Latins. Latinus had received a prophecy that his daughter Lavinia should be married to a foreign man, a stranger whose people would intermingle with his own. The man that she would marry was Aeneas.

And so, although they may have lost the Trojan war, the legacy of the Troy is said to have lived on in their descendants, the people of Rome who, of course, many centuries later would conquer Greece.


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