When the Achaeans finally reached the Troad, the region around Troy, Odysseus and Menelaus went ahead as ambassadors to convince the Trojans to return Helen or face attack. Their mission failed, even though many Trojans wanted to send her back to avoid war. Failing to avert disaster, Odysseus and Menelaus returned to the fleet and sailed the rest of the way with their men to Troy, beaching their ships along the shore not far from the city itself. The Trojans flung heavy stones against the invaders to prevent their landing, but the Achaeans fought through. They leapt out upon the plain, and marched across, laying siege to the city.
The Achaeans had attacked many other lands on their way to Troy, including Thebes and Lyrnessus. Few could stand against them, and when they reached Troy, the captains had won many treasures. At Thebes, Agamemnon claimed the woman Chryseis as his prize, while Achilles chose the maiden Briseis at Lyrnessus.
These two women proved deadly to many of the Achaeans. Chryseis was the daughter of Chryses, a priest of Apollo, and after years of travel, he reached Troy seeking the Achaean captains. He begged them to return his daughter to him, and even offered handsome treasure as compensation. The men felt his request was reasonable and ought to be granted, since he was a priest, but Agamemnon refused, going so far as to threaten the man. Humiliated, Chryses left, praying to Apollo for revenge. The archer god, enraged at this treatment of his priest, set a plague upon the Achaeans. The contagion wreaked havoc among the Achaeans, killing many of them and jeopardizing their war effort, until finally, the seer Calchas explained the cause of the plague. He urged Agamemnon to return the girl and offer additional sacrifices as an apology to the god. Though this angered the arrogant king, Agamemnon finally agreed, but on one condition. If he had to give up the girl, he would take someone else’s prize in return. Achilles denounced the king for his greed, and in reply, Agamemnon took Briseis as compensation. The mighty warrior did not stop him, but announced he would no longer fight in the war, and he and his men refused to take part in further conflict. This weakened the Achaeans, but heartened the Trojans. Odysseus, Nestor, and several others begged Achilles to reconsider, but the young warrior stubbornly refused to yield. To make matters worse, he complained to his mother Thetis, who then complained to Zeus. Owing Thetis his life, the king of the gods offered to repay her by making the Achaeans suffer until they had no choice but to appease Achilles fully.
The Achaeans continued to fight, even without their greatest champion, not realizing the gods had turned against them. Hector, a prince of Troy and the commander of their forces, proposed a truce, suggesting a duel be fought to settle the matter. Paris agreed to fight for the Trojans, since he had ultimately caused the war, and Menelaus insisted on fighting for the Achaeans. Menelaus would have killed his former guest had Aphrodite not rescued Paris and spirited him to safety. Then Athena encouraged the archer Pandarus to shoot at Menelaus, thus breaking the truce.
Despite Zeus’ decree that the Achaeans suffer, Athena and Hera, the Achaeans’ two greatest supporters, continued to aid them. Athena encouraged Diomedes to charge into battle. The warrior would have single-handedly routed the Trojans if Apollo had not intervened. Then Ajax and Hector faced one another in single combat, but neither could defeat the other. When night fell, they agreed to call the battle a draw, and exchanged gifts to show respect. The gifts, however, proved ill for both of them. Hector gave Ajax a sword, which Ajax later used to kill himself, and Ajax gave Hector a purple belt, with which Achilles later used to drag Hector’s body behind him.
The conflict continued, and with Zeus’ aid, the Trojans swept the battlefield and stormed the Achaean camp. Many of the mightiest Achaeans suffered wounds, and the Trojan Hector and his men burned many of their ships. Poseidon stepped in to aid the Achaeans—Zeus’ attention had wandered—but the king of the gods soon noticed and helped the Trojans carry the day. Agamemnon, seeing how desperate his situation had become, finally agreed to appease Achilles, and offered not only to return the girl but to give him a great amount of treasure as well. Achilles stood fast, refusing the gifts, even though his friends Odysseus and Ajax carried the message. Still, Achilles relented enough to allow his friend Patroclus to put on his armor and lead the Myrmidons to the Achaeans’ aid, believing that by wearing Achilles’ armor, everyone would think he had returned to the battle, unnerving the Trojans and heartening the Achaeans. Achilles insisted his friend drive the Trojans back from the ships and nothing more, but Patroclus let victory distract him, and pursued the Trojans across the battlefield, almost to Troy’s walls. Again, the gods intervened. Apollo stunned the man and Euphorbus wounded him before Hector finally killed him and took Achilles’ armor from his body.
When Achilles learned of his friend’s death, anger swept through him, burning away his stubbornness. The greatest warrior swore revenge, and with new armor bestowed unto him by his mother, fashioned at the hands of the god Hephaestus, Achilles accepted Agamemnon’s apology and gifts, and rejoined the battle. Th e Achaeans crushed the Trojans, while Achilles strove to face Hector. Zeus had decreed Hector’s death, and so when the rest of the Trojans fl ed back to the city, Athena tricked Hector into remaining, so he faced Achilles alone. Though a mighty warrior himself, Hector was no match for Achilles, and soon fell to the man’s wrath. Not content with this victory, Achilles desecrated his opponent’s corpse, dragging the body behind his chariot all the way back to the boats. King Priam approached the Achaean camp alone and made a personal appeal to Achilles to take back Hector’s body for proper burial.
Achilles, always honorable, allowed the Trojan king his request, and so was Trojan’s hero buried. Achilles did not live long enough to savor his victory, though. Patroclus’ death had been the first in a series, and shortly after Hector’s corpse returned to Troy, Paris shot Achilles with an arrow, piercing his ankle, the one place where Achilles was vulnerable. Apollo had guided the shaft, and thus avenged the death of his own son.
Following Achilles’ death, the army presented his armor to the next best warrior in the camp. Ajax and Odysseus vied for the honor. When Odysseus won, Ajax went mad, and only Athena prevented him from slaughtering his own allies, turning his wrath mistakenly on the cattle, seeing them as soldiers. When he saw what he had done, shame overtook him, and he killed himself, falling upon the very sword Hector had bestowed to him. Thus, the Achaean army lost its two mightiest warriors in rapid succession.
The Achaeans then chose guile over force to win the day. They retrieved Philoctetes from his exile in Lemnos, his wound finally healed. Philoctetes shot and killed Paris, removing the war’s catalyst.
Odysseus then stole into Troy, and removed the Palladium, a wooden statue sacred to Athena that protected the city from being sacked.
Finally, Odysseus suggested a new stratagem. The Achaeans constructed a massive hollow wooden horse, and engraved upon it the inscription: “For their return home, the Achaeans dedicate this thank-offering to Athena.” Odysseus and several of the Achaeans’ best warriors climbed inside the horse. The rest took their boats and other belongings and emptied the camp. The next day, finding the camp deserted and the horse standing in its midst, the Trojans assumed the Achaeans had finally fled. They dragged the horse into the city, and set it before Priam’s palace, while they debated what to do with it. The seeress Cassandra saw the truth, but her curse was no one ever believed her visions. Laocoon, another seer, confirmed her words, but the gods sent serpents to kill him, and thus no one listened, and the Trojans spared the wooden horse.
That night, the Achaean Sinon lit a beacon lamp in the Achaean camp, guiding their ships back to shore, while Odysseus and his men crept out of the horse, overpowered the sentries, and opened the city’s gates allowing their comrades into the city. The Achaeans swept through the sleeping Trojans, killing Priam and his remaining sons, and killing or taking the king’s daughters as slaves. They even slew Hector’s son Astyanax, a little boy. Of the royal family, only Aeneas, his father Anchises, and his son Ascanius escaped, and only with Aphrodite’s aid. After killing everyone and dividing the spoils, the Achaeans set fire to the city. Victors, they gathered in their ships and set sail for their respective homes and waiting families.
Before excavation the city of Troy (later Ilion) was a tell more than 31 metres high. Excavations by Schliemann (1870–90), Dörpfeld (1893–4), and the University of Cincinnati (1932–8) revealed 46 separate strata, making up nine major layers (I– IX), each with a number of subdivisions. Occupation dates at least from the beginning of the Early Bronze Age, and the wealthy city of Troy II (Treasure of Priam) has fortifications comparable in grandeur with those of the approximately contemporary sites of Thermi on Lesbos and Poliochni on Lemnos. Troy VI, in which the horse first appears here, is the settlement which spans the Middle Bronze Age and earlier part of the Late Bronze Age: it seems to have been destroyed by an earthquake around 1300 BC. Mycenaean IIIB pottery in Troy VIIa, destroyed by fire c. 1260, has led to its identification with Homer’s Troy, the destruction of which was traditionally placed in 1184 by Eratosthenes on genealogical grounds. The city continued through various vicissitudes to be inhabited until c. AD 500.
Alexander the Great and the Iliad
Alexander and his friends did not have any comic books, television, or movies, but they did have super heroes. They read the accounts of their heroes’ brave deeds primarily in The Iliad, an epic poem written by Greek poet Homer centuries before Alexander’s birth. (The dates of Homer’s life are not known, but he lived in the ninth or eighth century B.C.E.) In that book, Homer tells the exciting story of the Greeks’ siege of Troy and the beautiful Helen, who inspired that battle, the legendary Trojan War. The battles of great warriors and princes such as Achilles, Hector, Paris, and others, many of whom were believed to be descended directly from the Greek gods, may have inspired Alexander. In fact, the young king loved The Iliad so much that he memorized most of its 16,000 lines and used these super warriors as role models for his own life and values. He even slept with a copy of The Iliad under his pillow— right next to his dagger.
In the early spring of 334 B.C.E., borrowing enough money from the Macedonian treasury to keep his troops supplied for a month, Alexander left Macedonia with an army of about 30,000 infantry, or foot soldiers, and 5,000 cavalry, or mounted horsemen. The army was made up of Macedonians as well as troops drawn from throughout Greece and from the Balkan lands to the north. Alexander left trusted generals behind, with enough soldiers to keep the peace in Macedonia and Greece.
Traveling an average of 20 miles a day, Alexander and his troops reached the Hellespont in 20 days. Crossing this narrow strip of water between Europe and Asia, they landed in Persian territory, in what is today Turkey. Upon his arrival, Alexander visited the ruins of Troy. Through his familiarity with Homer’s The Iliad and its legendary tales of those he believed to be his ancestors (see page 7), the young monarch was well aware of Troy’s history. It was the site of the first Greek invasion of Asia, about 900 years before Alexander’s time. Now he came to conquer again.
At Troy, Alexander made a sacrifice at what local legend said was the grave of the Greek hero Achilles. He also dedicated his army to the Greek goddess Athena, who, in times of war, was worshiped as the goddess of intelligence and cunning. He was ready to take on the Persians.