Trojan War

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License

Shrouded in the mists of legend and myth, the Trojan War was a watershed event in Greek history and culture. While dates are far from certain, most scholars believe the Trojan War took place somewhere between the 12th and 11th centuries BCE on the plains of Northwest Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) outside the gates of the city of Troy. Although there is no conclusive proof that the epic battle between the Greeks and the Trojans ever took place, there is no doubt that, for the Greeks, this war was real and an important part of their history.  

The main sources of information about the war are The Iliad and The Odyssey, two long epic poems by the Greek writer, Homer. The Iliad tells the story of the war at a tipping point in its tenth and final year, as the Greeks are camped outside the walls of the city, debating whether they should pull up stakes and head home. In this story, we meet legendary heroes such as Achilles, Ajax, and Odysseus and learn of their heroic actions on the battlefield. The Odyssey takes place after the Greeks sack Troy (thanks to Odysseus’s Trojan Horse) and the greek heroes journey home. Like the Iliad, the Odyssey also begins in medias res (in the “middle” of the story) as we meet Odysseus in the tenth and final year of his homeward journey and learn of his famous adventures in which we see Odysseus outwitting the cyclops Polyphemus, subduing the sorceress Circe, and sailing between Scylla and Charybdis on his way home to his wife Penelope and son Telemachus and take revenge on the evil suitors. 

The cause of the Trojan War is the stuff of legend and myth, comprising some of the most famous stories in all of Greek mythology. The war began when Trojan Prince Paris abducts Queen Helen of Sparta. Menelaus, Helen’s husband, convinced Agamemnon, his brother and King of Mycenae to muster an army and sail to Troy to retrieve Helen and destroy the Trojan citadel in retribution. They were joined by many heroes such as Achilles and Odysseus who sailed across the Aegean Sea in fleet of a thousand ships. Henceforth, Helen’s has been known as “the face that launched a thousand ships.” The Greeks surround the city of Troy and demand that King Priam return Queen Helen. The battle lasted almost for 10 years with many deaths including Achillies and Prince Hector of Troy. The rampage finally ended when a wooden horse was presented to the Trojans. They accepted it as a gift of victory and pulled it inside their walls. When night fell, Greek soldiers, led by Odysseus, climbed out of the horse and sacked and pillaged the city from within, taking the victory. 

The Trojan War has been an important source of inspiration in literature and life for thousands of years. Besides the previously discussed, Iliad and Odyssey, many epics and stories have been inspired by the Trojan War, most notably the great Roman epic, the Aeneid, which tells the story of the Trojan Prince Aeneas’s journey to Italy and his establishing a colony that will eventually become the great Roman Empire. More generally, the Trojan War, and the stories it has inspired, served as the educational foundation for generations of school children in the West, who learned Ancient Greek by reading Homer’s epic poems. These poems were used to teach important concepts of courage, honor, and duty. Seen through the lens of Homer’s epics, war was viewed as a noble undertaking that tested men’s valor and allowed them to achieve glory. This view of war would remain unchanged until the devastation and horror of World War I. Faced with the misery of life in the trenches, the withering fire of machine guns, the terror and destruction of high explosive artillery and poison gas, the men who marched into battle in 1914, their heads filled with these romantic ideas of war, would come home (those lucky enough to make it back alive) with a drastically different idea of war.