The Trojan War: Ancient History’s Famed Conflict

The Trojan War was one of the most significant wars of Greek mythology, whose legendary scale and destruction has been discussed for centuries. Although undeniably crucial to how we know and view the world of the ancient Greeks today, the tale of the Trojan War is still wreathed in mystery. 

The most famous chronicle of the Trojan War is in the poems Iliad and Odyssey written by Homer in the 8th-century BCE, although epic accounts of the war can also be found in Virgil’s Aeneid, and the Epic Cycle, a collection of writings that details the events leading up to, during, and the direct aftermath of the Trojan War (these works include Cypria, Aithiopis, Little Iliad, Ilioupersis, and Nostoi). 

Through the works of Homer, the lines between real and make-believe are blurred, leaving readers to question just how much of what they read was true. The historical authenticity of the war is challenged by the artistic freedoms of ancient Greece’s most legendary epic poet.

What was the Trojan War?

The Trojan War was a major conflict between the city of Troy and a number of Greek city-states, including Sparta, Argos, Corinth, Arcadia, Athens, and Boeotia. In Homer’s Iliad, the conflict began after the abduction of Helen, “The Face that Launched 1,000 Ships,” by the Trojan prince, Paris. Achaean forces were led by the Greek king Agamemnon, brother of Menelaus, while Trojan war operations were overseen by Priam, the King of Troy.

Much of the Trojan War occured over a 10-year siege period, until quick-thinking on the Greek’s behalf led to the eventual violent sacking of Troy. 

What were the Events Leading Up to the Trojan War?

Leading up to the conflict, there was a lot going on. 

First and foremost, Zeus, the big cheese of Mount Olympus, was stewing mad at mankind. He reached his patience limit with them and firmly believed that Earth was overpopulated. By his rationing, some major event – like a war – could totally be a catalyst to depopulate the Earth; also, the sheer number of demi-god children he had was stressing him out, so to have them killed in conflict would be perfect for Zeus’ nerves. 

The Trojan War would become the god’s attempt to depopulate the world: an accumulation of events decades in the making.

The Prophecy

Everything began when a child named Alexander was born. (Not so epic, but we’re getting there). Alexander was the second-born son of the Trojan King Priam and Queen Hecuba. During her pregnancy with her second son, Hecuba had an ominous dream of birthing a huge, burning torch that was covered in writhing serpents. She sought out local prophets who warned the queen that her second son would cause the downfall of Troy. 

After consulting Priam, the couple concluded that Alexander had to die. However, neither were willing to carry out the task. Priam left the death of the infant Alexander in the hands of one of his shepherds, Agelaus, who intended to leave the prince in the wilderness to die of exposure since he, too, could not bring himself to directly harm the infant. In a turn of events, a she-bear suckled and nurtured Alexander for 9-days. When Agelaus returned and found Alexander in good health, he viewed it as divine intervention and brought the infant home with him, raising him under the name Paris.

The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis

Some years after the birth of Paris, the King of the Immortals had to give up one of his mistresses, a nymph named Thetis, since a prophecy foretold that she would bear a son stronger than his father. Much to Thetis’ dismay,  Zeus dropped her and advised Poseidon to steer clear as well, since he also had the hots for her.

So, anyways, the gods arrange for Thetis to get married to an aging Phthian king and former Greek hero, Peleus. Himself a son of a nymph, Peleus was previously married to Antigone and was good friends with Heracles. At their wedding, which had all the hype equivalent to today’s royal weddings, all the gods were invited. Well, except one: Eris, the goddess of chaos, strife and discord, and a feared daughter of Nyx.

Peeved by the disrespect she was shown, Eris decided to stir up some drama by conjuring a golden apple inscribed with the words “For the Fairest.” Hoping to play on the vanity of some goddesses present, Eris tossed it into the crowd before departing. 

Almost immediately, three goddesses Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena began to quarrel over which of them deserved the golden apple. In this Sleeping Beauty meets Snow White myth, none of the gods dared to grant the apple to any of the three, fearing the backlash from the other two. 

So, Zeus left it to a mortal shepherd to decide. Only, it wasn’t any shepherd. The young man confronted with the decision was Paris, the long lost Prince of Troy. 

The Judgment of Paris

So, it had been years since his assumed death from exposure, and Paris hah grown to be a young man. Under the identity of a shepherd’s son, Paris was minding his own business before the gods asked him to decide who was truly the most beautiful goddess.

In the event that is known as the judgment of Paris, each of the three goddesses attempts to win his favor by making him an offer. Hera offered Paris power, promising him the ability to conquer all of Asia if he desired it, whereas Athena offered to grant the prince physical skill and mental prowess, enough to make him both the greatest warrior and greatest scholar of his time. Lastly, Aphrodite vowed to give Paris the most beautiful mortal woman as his bride if he were to choose her. 

After each goddess made their bid, Paris proclaimed Aphrodite to be the “fairest” of all. With his decision, the young man unknowingly earned the ire of two powerful goddesses and accidentally triggered the events of the Trojan War.

What Really Caused the Trojan War?

When it comes down to it, there are many different incidents that could have heralded the Trojan War. Notably, the biggest influencing factor was when the Trojan Prince Paris, newly reinstated with his princely title and rights, took the wife of King Menelaus of Mycenaean Sparta. 

Interestingly enough, Menelaus himself, alongside his brother Agamemnon, were descendants of the cursed royal House of Atreus, destined for despair after their ancestor severely slighted the gods. And King Menelaus’ wife was no average woman, either, according to Greek myth. 

Helen was the demi-god daughter of Zeus and the Spartan queen, Leda. She was a remarkable beauty for her time, with Homer’s Odyssey describing her as “the pearl of women.” However, her step-father Tyndareus was cursed by Aphrodite for forgetting to honor her, causing his daughters to be deserters of their husbands: as Helen was with Menelaus, and as her sister Clytemnestra was with Agamemnon.

Consequently, although promised to Paris by Aphrodite, Helen was already married and would have to abandon Menelaus to fulfill Aphrodite’s promise to Paris. Her abduction by the Trojan prince – whether she went of her own will, was enchanted, or forcibly taken – marked the start of what would become known as the Trojan War.

Major Players

After reading the Iliad and the Odyssey, as well as other pieces from the Epic Cycle, it becomes clear that there were significant factions that had their own stake in the war. Between gods and men, there was a number of mighty individuals invested, one way or another, in the conflict.

The Gods

It is no surprise that the Greek gods and goddesses of the pantheon meddled in the conflict between Troy and Sparta. The Olympians even went as far as taking sides, with some working directly against the others. 

The primary gods mentioned to have aided the Trojans include Aphrodite, Ares, Apollo, and Artemis. Even Zeus – a “neutral” force – was pro-Troy at heart since they worshiped him well. 

Meanwhile, the Greeks gained favor of Hera, Poseidon, Athena, Hermes, and Hephaestus

The Achaeans

Unlike the Trojans, the Greeks had a slew of legends in their midst. Though, most of the Greek contingents were rather reluctant to go to war, with even the King of Ithaca, Odysseus, attempting to feign madness to escape the draft. It doesn’t help much that the Greek army sent to retrieve Helen was led by Menelaus’ brother, Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae, who managed to delay the entire Greek fleet after he angered Artemis by killing one of her sacred deer. 

The goddess stilled the winds to stop the travel of the Achaean fleet until Agamemnon attempted to sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigenia. However, as the protector of young women, Artemis spared the Mycenaean princess.

Meanwhile, one of the most famous of the Greek heroes from the Trojan War is Achilles, the son of Peleus and Thetis. Following in the steps of his father, Achilles became known as the Greeks’ greatest warrior. He had an insane kill-count, most of which happened after the death of his lover and best friend, Patroclus. 

In fact, Achilles had backed up the Scamander River with so many Trojans that the river god, Xanthus, manifested and directly asked Achilles to back off and stop killing men in his waters. Achilles refused to stop killing Trojans, but agreed to stop fighting in the river. In frustration, Xanthus complained to Apollo about Achilles’ bloodlust. This angered Achilles, who then went back into the water to keep killing men – a choice that led to him fighting the god (and losing, obviously).

The Trojans

The Trojans and their called-upon allies were the stalwart defenders of Troy against the Achaean forces. They managed to hold off the Greeks for a decade until they let their guards down and suffered great defeat. 

Hector was the most famous of the heroes that fought for Troy, as Priam’s eldest son and  heir apparent. Despite disapproving of the war, he rose to the occasion and fought bravely on behalf of his people, leading the troops while his father oversaw the war efforts. If he didn’t kill Patroclus, thus provoking Achilles into re-entering the war, it is likely that the Trojans would have managed a victory over the army rallied by Helen’s husband. Unfortunately, Achilles brutully slew Hector to avenge the death of Patroclus, which heavily weakened the Trojan cause. 

In comparison, one of the most vital allies of the Trojans was Memnon, an Ethiopian king and demi-god. His mother was Eos, the goddess of dawn and daughter of the Titan gods, Hyperion and Thea. According to legends, Memnon was the nephew of the Trojan king and readily came to Troy’s aid with 20,000 men and over 200 chariots after Hector was killed. Some say that his armor was forged by Hephaestus at his mother’s behest. 

Although Achilles killed Memnon to avenge the death of a fellow Achaean, the warrior king was still a favorite of the gods and was granted immortality by Zeus, with him and his followers being turned into birds.

How Long did the Trojan War Last?

The Trojan War lasted a grand total of 10 years. It only came to an end once the Greek hero, Odysseus, devised an ingenious plan to get their forces past the city gates. 

As the story goes, the Greeks burned down their camp and left a giant wooden horse as an “offering for Athena” (wink-wink) before departing. Trojan soldiers who scouted out the scene could see Achaean ships disappearing on the horizon, wholly unaware that they would be hiding just out of sight behind a nearby island. The Trojans were convinced of their victory, to say the least, and began arranging for celebrations. 

They even brought the wooden horse inside their city walls. Unbeknownst to the Trojans, the horse was full of 30 soldiers lying in wait to open the gates of Troy for their allies.

Who Actually Won the Trojan War?

When all was said and done, the Greeks won the decade-long war. Once the Trojans foolishly brought the horse inside the safety of their high walls, the Achaean soldiers launched an offensive and proceeded to violently sack the grand city of Troy. The victory of the Greek army meant that the bloodline of the Trojan king, Priam, was wiped out: his grandson, Astyanax, the infant son of his favorite child, Hector, was thrown from the burning walls of Troy to ensure the end of Priam’s line. 

Naturally, the Greek king Menelaus did recover Helen and whisked her back to Sparta, away from the blood-soaked Trojan soil. The couple remained together, as reflected in Odyssey.

Speaking of Odyssey, although the Greeks won, the returning soldiers didn’t get to celebrate their victory for long. Many of them angered the gods during the fall of Troy and were killed for their hubris. Odysseus, one of the Greek heroes that participated in the Trojan War, took another 10-years to return home after he angered Poseidon, becoming the last veteran of the war to return home. 

Those few surviving Trojans that escaped the carnage were said to have been led to Italy by Aeneas, a son of Aphrodite, where they would become the humble ancestors of the all-powerful Romans. 

Was the Trojan War Real? Is Troy a True Story?

More often than not, the events of Homer’s Trojan War are frequently dismissed as fantasy. 

Of course, the mention of gods, demi-gods, divine intervention, and monstrosities in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey aren’t completely realistic. To say that the tides of war turned because of Hera wooing Zeus for an evening, or that the theomachies that ensued between rivaling gods in the Iliad were of any consequence to the outcome of the Trojan War should raise a brow.

Nevertheless, these fantastical elements helped weave together what is generally known, and accepted, of Greek mythology. While the historicity of the Trojan War was debated even during the pinnacle of ancient Greece, the concern of most scholars arose from the possible exaggerations that Homer could have committed in his retelling of the conflict.

It is also not to say that the entirety of the Trojan War is born from the mind of an epic poet. In fact, early oral tradition confirms warfare between Mycenaean Greeks and Trojans around the 12th-century BCE, although the exact cause and the order of events are unclear. Furthermore, archaeological evidence supports the idea that there was in fact a massive conflict in the region around the 12th-century BCE. As such, Homer’s accounts of a mighty army besieging the city of Troy occurs 400 years after the actual war. 

That being said, most swords-and-sandals media of today, like the 2004 American film Troy, are arguably based on historical events. Without any sufficient evidence that an affair between a Spartan queen and Trojan prince is the true catalyst, paired with the inability to confirm the identities of key figures, it is difficult to say how much is factual and how much is instead the work of Homer, however.

Evidence of the Trojan War

In general, the Trojan War is a plausibly real war that took place around 1100 BCE at the end of the Bronze Age between contingents of Greek warriors and Trojans. Evidence of such a mass conflict has manifested in both written accounts from the time and archaeologically. 

Hittite records from the 12th-century BCE do note that a man named Alaksandu is king of Wilusa (Troy) – very much like Paris’ true name, Alexander – and that it had been embroiled in conflict with a king of Ahhiyawa (Greece). Wilusa was documented as a member of the Assuwa Confederation, a collection of 22 states that openly opposed the Hittite Empire, defecting immediately after the Battle of Kadesh between the Egyptians and the Hittites in 1274 BCE. Since much of Wilusa lay along the coast of the Aegean Sea, it is likely to have been targeted by Mycenaean Greeks for settlement. Otherwise, archaeological evidence found at a site identified with the city of Troy discovered that the location had suffered from a great fire and was destroyed in 1180 BCE, aligning with the supposed time frame of Homer’s Trojan War.

Further archaeological evidence includes art, where key characters involved in the Trojan War and outstanding events are immortalized in both vase paintings and frescoes from ancient Greece’s Archaic Period

Where was Troy Located?

In spite of our distinct lack of awareness of Troy’s location, the city was actually thoroughly documented in the ancient world, visited by travelers for centuries. Troy – as we know it – has been known by many names throughout history, being called Ilion, Wilusa, Troia, Ilios, and Ilium, among others. It was situated in the Troas region (also described as Troad, “The Land of Troy”), distinctly marked by Asia Minor’s northwestern projection into the Aegean Sea, the Biga Peninsula.

The real city of Troy is believed to be located in modern-day Çanakkale, Turkey, at an archaeological site, Hisarlik. Likely settled in the Neolithic Period, Hisarlik neighbored the regions of Lydia, Phrygia, and the lands of the Hittite Empire. It was drained by the Scamander and Simois Rivers, providing fertile land to the inhabitants and access to fresh water. Due to the city’s proximity to a wealth of different cultures, evidence suggests that it acted as the point of convergence where the the cultures of the local Troas region could interact with the Aegean, the Balkans, and rest of Anatolia.

The remains of Troy were first discovered in 1870 by the prominent archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann beneath an artificial hill, with over 24 excavations being carried out at the site since.

Was the Trojan Horse Real?

So, the Greeks constructed a gigantic wooden horse as a prop to discreetly transport 30 of their soldiers inside the city walls of Troy, who would then escape and open the gates, thus letting Greek warriors infiltrate the city. As cool as it would be to confirm that a huge wooden horse was the downfall of impenetrable Troy, this actually wasn’t the case. 

It would be incredibly difficult to find any remains of the fabled Trojan horse. Ignoring the fact that Troy was burned down and wood is extremely flammable, unless environmental conditions are perfect, wood that was buried would quickly degrade and not last centuries to be excavated. On account of the lack of archeological evidence, historians conclude that the famed Trojan horse was one of Homer’s more fantastical elements added into the Odyssey.

Even without clear-cut proof of the Trojan horse existing, reconstructions of the wooden horse have been attempted. These reconstructions rely on multiple factors, including knowledge of Homeric shipbuilding and ancient siege towers.

How did Homer’s Works Influence the Ancient Greeks?

Homer was undoubtedly one of the most influential authors of his time. Believed to have been born in Ionia – a western region of Asia Minor – during the 9th century BCE, Homer’s epic poems became foundational literature in ancient Greece, taught in schools across the ancient world, and collectively encouraged a shift in the way the Greeks approached religion and how they viewed the gods.

With his accessible interpretations of Greek mythology, Homer’s writings provided a set of admirable values for the ancient Greeks to follow as they were displayed by Greek heroes of eld; by the same token, they gave an element of unity to Hellenistic culture. Countless artworks, literatures, and plays were created out of a fervent inspiration fueled by the devastating war throughout the Classical Age, continuing on to the 21st century.

For example, during the Classical Age (500-336 BCE) a number of dramatists took the events of the conflict between Troy and the Greek forces and refashioned it for the stage, as seen in Agamemnon by the playwright, Aeschylus in 458 BCE and Troades (The Women of Troy) by Euripides during the Peloponnesian War. Both plays are tragedies, reflecting the way many people of the time viewed the fall of Troy, the fate of the Trojans, and how the Greeks severely mishandled the aftermath of the war. Such beliefs are especially reflected in Troades, which highlights the mistreatment of Trojan women at the hands of Greek forces.

Further evidence of Homer’s influence is reflected in the Homeric hymns. The hymns are a collection of 33 poems, each addressed to one of the Greek gods or goddesses. All 33 employ dactylic hexameter, a poetic meter used in both Iliad and Odyssey, and as a result is known as the “epic meter.” Despite their namesake, the hymns were certainly not written by Homer, and vary in author and year written.

What is Homeric Religion?

Homeric religion – also called Olympian, after the worship of the Olympian gods – is established following the emergence of the Iliad and subsequent Odyssey. The religion marks the first time the Greek gods and goddesses are depicted as being entirely anthropomorphic, with natural, entirely unique flaws, wants, desires, and wills, putting them in a league of their own. 

Previous to Homeric religion, the gods and goddesses were oftentimes described to be therianthropic (part-animal, part-human), a representation that was common in Egyptian gods, or as inconsistently humanized, but still entirely all-knowing, divine, and immortal. While Greek mythology maintains aspects of therianthropism – seen by the transformation of humans into animals as punishment; by the appearance of fish-like water gods; and by shape-shifting deities like Zeus, Apollo, and Demeter – most recollections after Homeric religion establishes a finite set of very human-like gods. 

After the introduction of Homeric religious values, worship of gods became a much more unified act. For the first time, deities became consistent throughout ancient Greece, unlike the composition of pre-Homeric gods.

How did the Trojan War Affect Greek Mythology?

The story of the Trojan War shed a new light on Greek mythology in a way that was unbefore seen. Most significantly, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey addressed the humanity of the deities. 

Notwithstanding their own humanization, the gods are still, well, divine immortal beings. As stated in B.C. Deitrich’s “Views of Homeric Gods and Religions,” found in the peer-reviewed journal, Numen: International Review for the History of Religions, “…the free and irresponsible behavior of the gods in the Iliad may have been the poet’s way of throwing the more serious consequences of comparable human action into stronger relief…gods in their vast superiority carelessly engaged in actions…on the human scale would…have disastrous effects…Ares’ affair with Aphrodite ended in laughter and a fine…Paris’ abduction of Helen in bloody war and the destruction of Troy” (136).

The juxtaposition between the respective aftermaths of the Ares-Aphrodite affair and the affair of Helen and Paris manages to display the gods as semi-frivolous beings with little care for consequence, and humans as all-too ready to destroy one another at a suspected slight. Therefore, the gods, despite Homer’s extensive humanization, remain unbound by the harmful tendencies of man and remain, contrastingly, wholly divine beings. 

Meanwhile, the Trojan War also draws a line on sacrilege in Greek religion and the lengths the gods go to punish such unredeemable acts, as displayed in Odyssey. One of the more disturbing sacrilegious acts was committed by Locrian Ajax, which involved the rape of Cassandra – a daughter of Priam and a Priestess of Apollo – at the shrine of Athena. Locrian Ajax was spared immediate death, but was killed at sea by Poseidon when Athena sought retribution

Through Homer’s war, Greek citizens were able to better connect with and understand their gods. The events provided a realistic base to further explore the gods which had been previously unattainable and unfathomed. The war likewise made ancient Greek religion more unified rather than localized, giving a rise in worship of Olympian gods and their divine counterparts.

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