Siege of Troy: Homer’s Great Epic

The chief source on the siege of Troy is Homer’s great epic, the Iliad. Its 24 chapters treat the last year of the siege; however, it was composed two or three centuries after the siege. Modern archaeological excavations have revealed a series of strata that identify a number of different cities built on the site. The one associated with the siege is the seventh stratum (from the bottom). It bears traces of a fire, and according to Homer, a great fire ended the siege. Scientific experts agree that the fire in the seventh stratum occurred in 1184 BCE. Homer tells us that the siege of Troy by the Mycenaeans (the mainland Greeks) went on for 10 years, hence the starting date of 1194 BCE.

The siege was undoubtedly motivated by economics. Located at the southern entrance to the Hellespont (present-day Dardanelles), Troy controlled the important trade between East and West, that is, from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Along this route flowed such commodities as grain, precious metals, and timber to construct ships. Troy was allied with a number of other neighboring city-states, and the Mycenaeans saw this as a threat to their position in the Mediterranean. Homer tells us that the cause of the conflict was the rape of Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, by Paris, the son of King Priam of Troy. Helen fled to Troy with Paris, possibly taking part of Menelaus’s treasure. Another account has the Trojans turning an official visit to Sparta into a raid of revenge for something done to them by the Greeks.

In any case, according to Homer the city-states of Greece were outraged and provided both contingents of troops and 1,200 ships, which then came under the command of Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and the brother of Menelaus. Homer tells us that on the Greek side the greatest heroes of the fighting were Achilles, king of the Myrmidons of Thessaly, and Ulysses, king of Ithaca. On the Trojan side there were Hector, son of Priam, and Aeneas, son of Venus and Anchises.

Following an unsuccessful effort to take Troy by assault, the Greeks settled in for a siege, which apparently was not complete. The Trojans were able to communicate by land to the interior most of the time. Homer indicates that the ships were brought up on land, where they were protected by entrenchments. Quarreling between Agamemnon and Achilles served to divide the Greeks, allowing Hector and the Trojans to attack and destroy a number of the beached Greek ships. Following the deaths of a number of prominent figures on each side (including Hector and Achilles), the Greeks found themselves in desperate straits. Both sides, however, were exhausted by the long siege.

At this point Ulysses came up with the ruse of an enormous wooden horse. Left on the field, it contained Ulysses and a number of other Greek warriors. The remaining Greeks boarded their ships and sailed away. The Trojans, believing that the Greeks had given up, thought that the trophy had religious significance and brought it inside the city. At night Ulysses and his warriors climbed down out of the horse, signaled to the fleet offshore, and opened the city gates. The Trojans were taken by surprise, and the city was burned.

Some have suggested that the alleged Trojan horse that ended the siege was instead a great movable siege tower of wood covered by horse hides for the protection of those working it, which the Greeks set against the western, and weakest, part of the great wall that protected the fortress. Others believe that the wooden horse refers to some type of battering ram or to the image of a horse painted on one of the gates of the city, which was opened by a Trojan traitor. In any case, as a consequence of their victory, the Greeks secured control of the important trade through the Dardanelles and the Black Sea.

The first assault

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.

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