A Brief Introduction to the Trojan War: Part Two
Updated: May 26
After its dramatic start, the initial violence of the Trojan war soon petered out. As the fighting died down, the Greeks sent an envoy to the Trojans, requesting that Helen be returned. Paris and the Trojans refused.
While it may seem odd for the Trojans to court war over a woman who, by some accounts, wished to return home anyway, there are multiple reasons behind the Trojan’s refusal. Firstly, there was no guarantee that the return of Helen would prevent the war. In seducing or kidnapping Helen, Paris had broken the rules of guest hospitality, an insult that would have to go answered for, even if Helen were to be returned. In addition, Troy was a wealthy city, and greed was certainly one factor in the Greek desire to defeat the Trojans. Finally, the relationship between Paris and Helen was orchestrated and sanctioned by the goddess Aphrodite. The Trojans could not give her back without dividing a union that the goddess created. Without an accord, the Greeks returned to their ships, to ready for battle.
Unfortunately, it was not that easy. Troy was heavily fortified, and its walls had never been breached. Despite their numbers, the Greeks were unable to get into the city, and Trojans weren’t coming out. Unwilling to leave, for the next nine years the Greeks ransacked the Trojan’s surrounding allies, unknowingly instigating problems for themselves.
When the Greeks pillaged the villages around Troy, they took women as captives. These women were war prizes for the Greek soldiers, used as concubines. The war prize that Agamemnon, leader of the Greek army claimed was a girl named Chryseis. Her father, Chryses, petitioned the Greeks for the return of his daughter, offering a ransom of gold and silver. Agamemnon refused, insulting Chryses, and taunting him with the knowledge that his daughter would soon be beyond Chryses’ reach. Chryses however, was a priest of Apollo. With his ransom rejected, he prayed to his god to punish the Greeks and return his daughter. Apollo sent a terrible plague onto the Greek army. Finally, and with great reluctance, Agamemnon returned Chryseis to her father. In return, however, he claimed the war bride of Achilles – Briseis.
With the loss of his concubine, Achilles grew angry and immediately withdrew himself and his men from the fight. This was a great blow to the Greek army, as Achilles was considered their greatest warrior.
Achilles’ anger was not only for the loss of his prize. It had been prophesied that the Greeks could only win the Trojan war if Achilles accompanied them. However, it had also been prophesied that if Achilles went to Troy he would die – but his life would be short and glorious. The loss of Briseis contradicted this. If he was not going to be respected among the Greeks, why then should he fight for them?
As if the withdrawal of their greatest warrior was not enough, the disrespect to Achilles came with a second consequence. Angered on behalf of her son, Achilles’ divine mother, Thetis, went to Zeus and petitioned him to allow the Trojans to overwhelm the Greeks in battle for a time. Zeus agreed, and the Greeks soon found themselves falling back. At one point, the Greeks were driven back so far that the Trojans were able to set up camp on the plains, disturbingly close to the Greek ships. At this point, Agamemnon called for a possible truce.
It was decided that Menelaus and Paris would fight for the right of Helen’s hand. The outcome of the war would be decided in this one battle.
Paris initially balked at the fight, for Menelaus was good warrior, and it was only after his older brother Hector derided him for his cowardice that Paris agreed to the fight. Paris was right to be wary. Menelaus quickly overwhelmed him, hitting him across the head with his sword so hard that it shattered the blade. Menelaus then grabbed Paris’ helmet and began dragging him from the field. At this point, Aphrodite intervened, breaking the strap of the helmet, and whisking Paris from the battlefield, hiding him safely behind the walls of Troy.
With Menelaus the clear victor of that battle, the Greeks demanded the return of Helen. Though the Trojans may have been willing to give Helen up at this point, the gods did not want the war to end. Athena tricked the Trojan archer Pandarus to fire at Menelaus. The grazed him, and the fighting resumed. The Greeks, however, were still out of favour with Zeus, and Achilles had not yet returned to their number, despite Agamemnon offering the return of Briseis. Gradually the Greeks were driven back towards their camp, until Hector, prince of the Trojans and their greatest warrior, was close enough to touch a Greek ship.
Despite the Greek forces being nearly overwhelmed, Achilles still refused to fight, despite his closest companion and – by many accounts – lover, Patroclus begging him to intervene. While Achilles would not fight, he did allow Patroclus to lead his troops, the Myrmidons into battle. He even allowed Patroclus to wear his armour.
The sight of ‘Achilles’ on the battlefield rejuvenated the Greek soldiers and they battled fiercely. Patroclus was not the mighty warrior that Achilles was, but he still fought well and killed many Trojans. Thinking that he was fighting Achilles, Hector managed to kill Patroclus, and, unwittingly, swung the tides of war back in the Greeks’ favour once more.
The death of Patroclus devastated Achilles. Although he knew that he would die, he re-joined the fighting, determined to kill the man who had killed Patroclus. He succeeded, but even then, Achilles’ anger did not subside. He denied Hector a proper burial and refused to return his body to his family, instead binding Hector to the back of his chariot and dragging his body around the walls of Troy. This continued for days, Hector’s body preserved from damage and rot by the gods who had taken pity on him and his family. Eventually the god Hermes helped Priam – king of Troy and Hector’s father – sneak into the Greek camp and appeal directly to Achilles. Seeing Priam, Achilles was reminded of his own father. He accepted a ransom for Hector’s body and, finally, the prince was returned home to be mourned and buried.
Having re-joined the battlefield, Achilles sealed his own fate. As had been foretold, Achilles fell in battle, shot in the heel with a poisoned arrow by Paris. If the arrow had landed anywhere else, Achilles’ would have survived it. As in infant his mother, Thetis, had dipped Achilles into the River Styx, making him invulnerable. His only weak point was his heel, where Thetis had held him. With Apollo’s help, Paris’ arrow found this tiny spot, and took Achilles’ life.
Paris did not have long to enjoy his victory before he too was killed by a poisoned arrow. Ironically, if it had not been for his past actions, Paris might have been saved. There was only one being capable of healing the poison that afflicted him, the nymph, Oenone. Unfortunately, Oenone had once been Paris’ lover (or wife), bearing him a son only to be spurned for Helen. Oenone refused to heal Paris, only changing her mind when it was far too late for the prince to be saved.
After ten years, and the deaths of many on both sides, even the Greeks were eager for a decisive end to the war, something that they could only do if they breached Troy’s walls. This led the to one of the most well known military tricks in history – the famous Trojan Horse.