Date: ca. 1250 b.c.
Location: on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor at the mouth of the Dardanelles, possibly modern Hisarlik.
Greek: unknown. Commander: King Agamemnon of Argos.
Trojan: unknown. Commander: King Priam.
Importance: The sack of Troy, if it did indeed take place, broke the city as a local power, allowing the Greeks to begin colonization of Ionia, as they called the east coast of Asia Minor.
This siege is one of the most difficult to write about, for so much of the action lies deep in Greek mythology. Indeed, the entire war between the Greeks and Trojans is possibly nothing more than a literary exercise rather than an historical event. Still, the excavations begun in the late nineteenth century by Heinrich Schliemann give some basis for a real siege at a town on Asia Minor’s Aegean coast sometime in the fourteenth to twelfth century b.c. The main source for the action at Troy comes from Homer’s epic work The Iliad, so-called because the Greek word for the object of their attack was not Troy, but Ilion. It is possible the Trojans were inhabitants of a region rather than merely a city. As Homer is believed to have recorded oral tradition handed down over some four centuries, exact details of the actions of the siege can only be taken on faith. Other works, such as the Kypria and the Aeneid, offer details not included in Homer’s account, making the facts even more elusive.
According to Homer’s account, the background to the Greek attack on the Trojans is incredibly complex. Briefly, the goddesses Hera (Zeus’ wife) and Artemis and Athena (Zeus’ daughters) vied for a golden apple provided by Eris (or Discord) that was inscribed “For the Fairest.” Unwilling to alienate his wife or daughters, Zeus sent the three to Paris, son of the Trojan King Priam. In return for his rewarding the golden apple to Athena, she granted him with his heart’s desire: Helen, the wife of King Menelaus in Mycenae. Paris traveled to Greece and was given hospitality by Menelaus and Helen. When Menelaus left for Crete to attend a funeral, Paris convinced Helen to run away with him. Upon returning to find his wife gone, Menelaus appealed to the Trojans for her return. When they refused, he gathered a coalition of Greek kings, many of whom had courted Helen and been obliged (by her father) to swear to defend her.
The cream of Greek warrior society responded, including the heroes Ajax, the demi-god Achilles, and Odysseus. Agamemnon (Menelaus’ brother-in-law), as commander of the largest contingent, was named commander-in-chief. Homer explains that from the outset the struggle between Greeks and Trojans was almost a plaything of the gods, with many of them choosing to aid or harm one side or the other. The expedition got off to a bad start when a seer, Calchas, interpreted a sign as indicating a siege lasting nine years with the Greeks being successful in the tenth. Further, contrary winds (thanks to the goddess Artemis) forced Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter Iphegeneia in order to get out of the harbor. The thousand ships then sailed for Asia Minor, with a stop at the island of Tenedos to offer a sacrifice. There one of the warriors, Philoctetes, was abandoned after suffering a snakebite. From Tenedos envoys were sent to the Trojans again requesting Helen’s return, but they were rejected and even threatened with death.
Thence (according to the Kypria), the Greeks’ first landing was at Teuthrania in Mysia, south of Ilion, which the Greeks mistakenly took for their real target. Some scholars believe this was the Trojans’ home city. The Kyprion states that the Greek fleet departed and was scattered by a storm before reaching their goal. Homer’s account of the expedition does not mention Teuthrania, but describes the Greeks landing on the beaches before Ilion. There the Trojans fought them. After initial success, they withdrew into the city, after which the Greeks settled in for a siege.
Apparently the Greeks were in sufficient strength to keep the Trojans penned up long enough for the invaders to build a fortified position around their anchorage. The accounts of the siege claim that it lasted ten years, but the first nine are without much record. Xenophon wrote that it was unlikely that the entire Greek force was on site for the nine years, as supply problems would have been great. Also, a complete investment would have starved out the defenders well before ten years had passed. Apparently Achilles and other Greeks also pillaged several towns around the region as well as the isle of Lesbos. Occasional sallies by the Trojans and the fairly even outcomes of those combats imply that the invaders were not always at full strength. Although relative strengths are unknown, the citizens of one city could hardly have matched the warrior population of Greece in numbers.
The Iliad begins its coverage of the siege in the tenth year. Once again the gods are intervening. Agamemnon had captured and enslaved the daughter of Chryses, a Trojan prophet of Apollo. Apollo punished the Greeks with nine days of plague, upon which an assembly called by Achilles demanded the girl be returned to her father. In compensation, Agamemnon demanded and took Briseis, Achilles’ slave girl/lover. Enraged, Achilles withdrew from the battle and took his followers, the Myrmidons, with him. The Trojans learned of this and attacked, hoping to take advantage of the absence of the greatest of the Greek warriors. The Trojans broke through the Greek defenses and burned a number of their ships. In the battle Hector, King Priam’s second son and the Trojan champion, killed Achilles’ best friend Patroclus. Mad for revenge, Achilles returned to the fray and, after killing a number of Trojans, cornered Hector. Hector fought the invulnerable Achilles and was killed; Achilles desecrated his body by dragging it behind his chariot around the city walls. After funeral ceremonies for Patroclus, Achilles granted King Priam’s request for his son’s body for proper burial.
Although Hector’s death was certainly a serious blow to their morale, the Trojans did not surrender. Indeed, allies arrived including the Amazons under Queen Penthesilea and Ethiopians under King Memnon. Achilles slew both in battle, but died himself when Paris (with Apollo’s aid) shot an arrow into Achilles’ heel, his one vulnerable spot. At his funeral ceremonies, the Greeks sacrificed King Priam’s daughter Polyxena. At this point Odysseus becomes a major character when he is awarded Achilles’ armor, forged by the god Hephaestus. Calling on the seer Calchis, the Greeks learned that a necessary condition for taking Ilion was possession of Achilles’ bow and arrows, which he had left with Philoctetes on the island of Tenedos. Odysseus and Neoptolemus (Achilles’ son by Deidamia, daughter of King Lycomedes of Scyros) sailed to the island and brought back both man and weapons. Philoctetes then proceeded to kill Paris with an arrow shot from Achilles’ bow. The Greeks captured another of Priam’s sons, Helenus, a prophet, who was forced to reveal the city’s weaknesses. Helenus set out the conditions. The Greeks needed to possess the Bone of Pelops, for whom the Peloponnesian peninsula was named. It was fetched from Pisa. They also needed the aid of Neoptolemus, which Odysseus obtained. Finally, they needed possession of the Palladium, a statue of the goddess Pallas sculpted by Athena. Disguised as a beggar, Odysseus slipped into Ilion to steal it. Helen, who by this time had no desire to stay in the city, discovered him and helped him spirit the statue away.
Still unable to win by force of arms in spite of the fact they had met all of the prophet’s conditions, Odysseus convinced the Greeks to resort to trickery. They would build a giant horse (an icon sacred to Athena) and leave it outside the city gates as an offering for a safe voyage home. The army would then load up their ships and sail. Once out of sight, the fleet would hide in the lee of Tenedos. Odysseus and a band of picked men (some sources say 30, others 300) would hide inside the horse and wait for it to be taken inside the city. Once there, they would sneak out, open the gates, and the returning Greeks could storm in.
Upon discovering the horse, the citizens of Ilion debated the wisdom of accepting it. The strongest voice in opposition was Laocoon, whose protests were literally drowned out when the sea god Poseidon sent a serpent to drag him and his sons into the sea. Hotter heads prevailed and the horse was dragged toward the city. However, in order to get it through the gates, part of the walls and the gate’s lintel had to be removed. This too was a necessity (according to prophecy) for the city to be captured. After moving the horse inside and celebrating far into the night, the sleeping Trojans failed to see Odysseus and his men accomplish their task. The Greeks destroyed the city. Neoptolemos killed Priam. Priam’s wife and daughter were taken captive, as was Hector’s wife Andromache.
Since the Greeks not only destroyed the city but also desecrated the temples in the process, the gods visited revenge upon them. The Greek kings, if they survived the voyage home, found sedition and rebellion everywhere. Menelaus’ voyage home took seven years; that of Odysseus ten. Agamemnon went home to be killed by his wife, who also killed his concubine Cassandra, one of Priam’s daughters.
As stated at the outset, virtually none of the details of the siege can be proven. However, there is evidence of a major burning and destruction of the city of Hisarlik (at the mouth of the Dardanelles) at about the right time. Amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann began digging there in the late nineteenth century, using Homer’s text as his guide. A number of cities were built atop one another at that site, and level VI-h or VII-a has been dated to the general time period of the thirteenth century b.c. These levels show evidence of destruction by fire. Was that the site of the siege? Was the destruction caused by Mycenean-era invaders from Greece? The truth will almost certainly never be known.
If the war did take place, was Helen’s abduction the cause? Many believe that the Trojan War as described by Homer and others was merely a grand elaboration on a major raid conducted against the Turkish coast, whether for loot or colonization. Control of Ilion/Troy/ Hisarlik could have given the Greeks the base necessary to control the Dardanelles, for they later planted colonies both on the Black Sea shores and on the eastern Asia Minor coast. All of this might seem a slender reed on which to build a case for the Greco-Trojan conflict, but as it remains one of the world’s best known sieges, it finds inclusion here.
Homer, The Iliad, trans. Robert Fitzgerald (Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1974); Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner (London: Heinemann, 1969–1977); Michael Wood, In Search of the Trojan War (London: BBC, 1985).