FIRST ASSAULT ON TROY

The first assault on Troy turned into a brutal and inconclusive clash which left both sides damaged and thoughtful.

Things began well enough for the Argives [the invading Greeks] when a night raid with blazing torches caused havoc among Priam’s fleet, seriously weakening his ability to guard against invasion. But the same raid had warned the Trojans of the imminence of attack and by the time Agamemnon’s ships approached the shore, a well-positioned army stood waiting to repel them.

To make matters worse, the Argive troops were troubled by rumours of a prophecy that the first man ashore was doomed to die. Even Achilles hesitated at the prow of his ship, reluctant to throw away his life with so little glory gained. Meanwhile the Trojans hurled rocks and stones at the crowded ships, keeping up an unnerving ululation that carried on the harsh wind blowing across the plain.

At last, stung by the insults coming from the enemy before him and from Agamemnon at his back, an old warrior called Iolaus who had once been charioteer to Heracles, gave a mighty shout and jumped into the surf. He was immediately surrounded and cut down on the strand before he could strike a single blow, but the man’s rash courage was to win him undying fame. He was given the title Protesilaus — ‘first to the fight’ — and buried with great honour that night on the Thracian shore of the Hellespont.

But now that the first life had been lost, other warriors began to jump from the ships. Achilles and Patroclus were among the leaders, with Phoenix and the Myrmidons behind them. Odysseus, however, held back a while, watching how the battle developed. He had counselled against launching a land attack until more had been done to stretch Priam’s resources, but Agamemnon had been so infuriated by the king’s insolent reply to his terms that he was determined to force the words back down his throat. Now the price of his impatience swiftly came clear as more and more men fell under the volley of arrows that met them as they stumbled towards the shore.

By sheer force of numbers, the Argives forced a landing, only to find themselves embroiled in a fierce and bloody struggle all along the strand. The strongest resistance came from a sector of the front where a Trojan hero called Cycnus hacked his way through the invaders as if he was invulnerable. When Achilles saw what was happening, he shouted for Patroclus to follow and fought his way across the uneven ground until he confronted the Trojan giant. Cycnus laughed in his face, gesturing for the youth to come at him if he dared. A moment later he was astonished by the speed and ferocity of Achilles’ attack. Even so, the fight was long and desperate, and might have gone either way had not Cycnus stumbled over a stone as he sought to avoid a sword thrust. He fell to the ground on his back, pulling Achilles down with him. Both men lost their weapons in the fall, but Cycnus was winded by the weight of his opponent’s armoured body. In a frenzy of violence, Achilles grabbed at the Trojan’s throat and strangled the man with his own helmet straps.

When he stood up, gasping and exultant from the kill, it was to feel Patroclus pulling at his arm. All around him, as a trumpet sounded from Agamemnon’s flagship, he saw the Argive warriors retreating from the shore.

Many recriminations followed the failure of that first attack, but the heavy losses he had taken persuaded Agamemnon that Odysseus had been right to insist that Troy would fall only after a long campaign of attrition. So the war entered a new, sullen phase of sporadic violence that dragged on for a year, and then another, until it became clear that, if Troy ever fell, it would not be until all the long years of the snake had passed.

Battles were fought at sea, and many ships were sunk, and many men burned and drowned before the Argives established their naval superiority. From their stronghold on Tenedos, they were now free to mount raids all along the Asian coastline. The island of Lesbos was taken, and mainland cities smaller than Troy fell before them. Priam’s southern allies in Lydia suffered heavily from these attacks. Colophon, Clazomenae, Smyrna and Antandrus were all left looted and burning, but other important cities such as Sestos and Abydos on either side of the Hellespont held out under siege. So the years of warfare protracted themselves from season to bloody season, and all across Asia, from the Black Sea to Cyprus, even in places far from where the Argives had ever landed, the name of Achilles struck fear in men’s hearts and kept children from their sleep.

There were also long periods of inactivity while both sides licked their wounds, or when fever, dysentery and pestilence robbed men of the will to walk let alone fight. Sometimes the troops could not be stirred in the torrid summer heat, and the dark winter months were always wretched and bitter. A maddening wind blew across the Trojan plain throughout much of the year but in winter there was ice on its breath. It left the springs frozen, the tents heavy with snow, and battle-hardened warriors groaning over chilblains and frostbite. And even when the weather was clement not a day went by without men questioning why they had ever got into this insane fight and wondering whether they would ever sit by their homeland hearths again. But those who deserted faced a long trek home through hostile territory and most of the Argives grudgingly decided that having endured so much, it made no sense to turn for home with little to show for their pains but wounds and stories. So the war went on.

In the ninth year, with Troy’s western sea lanes cut, and many of her allies demoralized by constant raids, it began to look as though the war was finally moving Agamemnon’s way. Late in the summer he decided to attack Mysia.

The Mysians are a Thracian people who had crossed from Europe a century earlier. Their king, Telephus, was a bastard son of Heracles who had gained the Mysian throne with Priam’s help after marrying one of the High King’s many daughters. His fertile lands were now keeping Troy supplied with wheat, olives, figs and wine that were carried along inland routes beyond the reach of raiders. Agamemnon had been convinced by Odysseus that if Mysia fell, then Troy might be starved into submission. So leaving behind him a force strong enough to hold Tenedos, he brought the bulk of his fleet to the island of Lesbos and used the harbour at Mytilene as a base for his assault on that part of Mysia around the mouth of the river Caicus which is called Teuthrania. But once again he miscalculated the strength of the resistance and the battle took much the same shape as his failed advance on Troy many years earlier. The landing was made more quickly this time but the Mysians had the advantage of the ground and by the time Agamemnon had seen half of his advance guard cut down, he was struggling to avoid a rout among his troops.

Again Achilles and the Myrmidons came to his rescue with a swift flanking movement that descended on Telephus behind his own front line and forced him to pull back along the river bank. Sprinting in pursuit of the fleeing king, Achilles hurled his spear and struck Telephus in the thigh, bringing him down among a tangle of vines. The battle might have been won in that moment but the king’s lifeguards rallied to hold off Achilles while one of them pulled out the spear and carried the wounded Telephus away. Meanwhile, the Mysian warriors on the shore remained unaware that their king had almost been killed and fought on with such resolve that once again Agamemnon called a retreat.

Reluctant to return to Tenedos with such dispiriting news, he ordered the fleet southwards in search of weaker places to attack. Having burned a small town to the north of Smyrna, the weary leaders spent a few days bathing their wounds and easing their stiff limbs in the waters of some hot springs they found there. Ever afterwards those springs were known as the Baths of Agamemnon.

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