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Story of the Trojan War

Know the Tragically Engrossing Epic Story of the Great Trojan War

The Trojan War is a legendary war in Greek mythology. The war provides the background for the two great epics in Greek literature -- Iliad and Odyssey. Here is the story of the famous war.
Madhavi Ghare
Last Updated: Apr 16, 2018
The story of the Trojan War is one of the most important legends in Greek mythology. The Trojan War was a mythological war between the city of Troy and the assembled forces of various Greek and Achaean kings. The siege of Troy forms the crux of Homer's Iliad and the return of Odysseus, a Greek hero, after the Trojan War forms the crux of Odyssey.

The city of Troy, or Ilion, is supposed to be situated on the western coast of Turkey, on the Asian side.

The story of the Trojan war, like any other story in Greek Mythology, begins with the gods.
The Apple of Discord
The gods had gathered at the marriage of Peleus and Thetis, the parents of Achilles. However, Eris, the goddess of discord, was stopped at the door, since nobody wanted disharmony on the merry occasion. Eris was angered, and threw away her gift, which was an apple having the words Ti Kallisti (To The Fairest) inscribed on it. This apple became a source of conflict between three goddesses: Hera, Athena and Aphrodite.
The Judgment
Each of them felt they deserved the apple and since Hera had been turned away, they had no way of finding out the intended recipient of the gift. None of the gods wanted to judge, because choosing one would invite the wrath of the other two. Finally, the conflict took them to Hermes, who led them to Paris, who was a prince of Troy. The three goddesses appeared naked to Paris, but he was still unable to judge them.

Then they tried to influence him by offering him bribes; Hera offered him control of Asia Minor (Anatolia) and political power, Athena offered him the abilities of the greatest warriors, skill in battle and wisdom, while Aphrodite offered him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta (who came to be known as Helen of Troy when she eloped with Prince Paris). Paris awarded the apple to Aphrodite, not knowing that Helen was already married to Menelaus, king of Sparta.
Elopement of Paris and Helen
As part of a Trojan delegation to Sparta, Paris encountered and seduced Helen. She fell in love with him after being shot by a golden arrow from Eros (Greek equivalent of Cupid), Aphrodite's son. At that time, Menelaus had left for Crete to attend his uncle's funeral.

When the Trojan delegation left, Paris and Helen eloped.

Menelaus was furious upon discovering his wife's infidelity, and asked his brother Agamemnon to help him get Helen back from Troy. Agamemnon then sent emissaries to several Achaean kings and princes to help retrieve Helen. The Achaean kings were former suitors of Helen, and had made a pact that all of them would honor Helen's choice of a husband without dissent, and go to her aid if anything were to happen to her.
helen abduction
Source: Francesco Primaticcio (artist), via Wikimedia Commons (PD)
Gathering of Achaean Forces
Many of these kings and princes tried to get out of their promise to avoid the ensuing war. Odysseus tried to feign insanity by plowing his fields with salt, but his plan was foiled when Palamedes, Agamemnon's emissary, put Odysseus' son Telemachus in the path of the plow, forcing Odysseus to reveal his sanity.

Achilles' mother Thetis disguised him as a woman so that he could not go for the war. But he too was identified and convinced to join Agamemnon's army, although he had not been one of Helen's suitors and thus was not honor-bound to hold up his end of the promise.

The army gathered at Aulis and after making a sacrifice to Apollo, they set sail for Troy. Not knowing the way, they landed on Mycea and ran into Telephus, the son of Heracles (Hercules). After having dealt with him, they began the journey again, only to be blocked and scattered by a storm.

Eight years after the storm, the thousand ships finally regrouped at Aulis. To prevent any further trouble, they sought help from the Oracles. Calchas, a prophet, told them that the goddess Artemis was angry with Agamemnon, since he had either killed a sacred deer or boasted that he was a better marksman than her. Calchas told him that the only way he could please Artemis was by sacrificing his daughter Iphiginea to her. Threatened with being replaced by Palamedes as the commander of the army, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to Artemis, and set sail for Troy once again.
Arrival in Troy
Calchas had also prophesized that the first Achaean to land in Troy would be the first one to die. Thus, everyone hesitated to land on Troy when they reached the shores. Odysseus appeared to disembark as he threw his shield from the ship and landed upon it, thus becoming the first to jump off the Greek ships, yet managing to not land upon Trojan soil. Seeing this, Protesilaus jumped off his ship as well, becoming the first to actually land in Troy. Protesilaus, Odysseus and Achilles killed several Trojans before Protesilaus was killed by Hector, the Prince of Troy.
The Siege
The next nine years of the siege of Troy are poorly documented in Greek literature, which focuses mainly on the last year of the Trojan war.

As the siege progressed, the Greek forces busied themselves with looting nearby allies of Troy and collecting valuable resources from the Thracian peninsula. Achilles was the most aggressive of the Achaean commanders, conquering 11 cities and 12 islands. Ajax the Great also ran rampant in the Thracian peninsula, looting several towns.

A notable incident during this nine-year period was the death of Palamedes. Odysseus, who hadn't forgiven Palamedes for risking the life of his infant son, forged a letter from Priam, the king of Troy, written to Palamedes. Upon the discovery of the apparent treachery, Agamemnon had Palamedes killed by stoning. Palamedes' father, Nauplius, avenged his son by spreading word among the wives of the Achaean kings that their husbands intended to dethrone them with courtesans brought from Troy. Remarkably, even the wife of Agamemnon believed in the rumor and started an affair with Aegisthus, Agamemnon's cousin.

After nine years of fighting and being away from home, the Achaean armies wanted to return home, and demanded that their commanders arrange for the same. However, they were forced to stay on by Achilles.

Agamemnon then inadvertently threatened to derail the Greek campaign by taking Briseis, the concubine of Achilles, as his own, after he had to return Chryseis, the daughter of a priest of Apollo, due to the god's rage. Consequently, Achilles refused to participate in the war.

The Achaeans were initially relatively successful in spite of the absence of Achilles, whose presence had been prophesized to be vital if Troy was to be defeated. Diomedes, an Achaean hero, killed Pandaros, a Trojan hero, and nearly killed Aeneas, who was protected by his divine mother Aphrodite. Diomedes' valor and prowess in battle, however, shone through, as he managed to defeat a foe guarded by the gods (Aphrodite and Apollo), and even wounded Aphrodite and her paramour, the god Ares.

The early successes for the Greek army were soon reversed, though, as the Trojans pinned them back to their own camps, and were only a divine intervention from Poseidon away from setting fire to the Achaean camp and ships.

The next day, helped by Zeus (Unlike Athena or Aphrodite, Zeus didn't take sides in the Trojan war, although he variably favored a faction or an individual warrior based on the weighing of their souls or fate), the Trojans pushed into the Greek camp. The Achaeans then began to request Achilles, by far their best warrior, to return to the battlefield. Finally Patroclus, a relative and close friend of Achilles, went into the war wearing Achilles' and armor. Despite the absence of Achilles himself, Patroclus drove the Trojan forces towards Troy, only to be thwarted by Apollo. Patroclus was killed by Hector, and his armor was confiscated.
Death of Hector
Enraged by the death of Patroclus, Achilles swore to kill Hector and rejoined the war. Agamemnon did his part in convincing Achilles to do the same by returning Briseis untouched. Storming back into the heat of the battle, Achilles killed several Trojans, forcing them back inside the walls of Troy with a furious onslaught.

Achilles then encountered Hector, who had been deliberately misguided by Athena into staying outside the fortified gates. After a brief duel, in which Athena impersonated Hector's younger brother to confuse him even more, Achilles killed Hector. Tying Hector's body to his chariot, he then dragged it back to the Achaean camp.

He refused to give the body back to the Trojans for the funeral, but after a visit from King Priam, who had been guided by Hermes, Achilles agreed to let the Trojans retrieve Hector's body.
Death of Hector
Source: Wikimedia Commons (PD)
Death of Achilles
After a temporary truce to facilitate the proper burial and funeral rites for the fallen, the war raged on, the Trojans having been reinforced by the arrival of the Amazons, led by Penthesilea. Once again, Achilles proved too hot to handle for the Trojan forces, who couldn't resist his onslaught as he killed Penthesilea and Memnon (not to be confused with Agamemnon) on his way into the city of Troy. Following a decision among the gods that Achilles had to die, Apollo guided Paris to shoot a poisoned arrow at Achilles. In the ensuing skirmish, Ajax the Great held the Trojan army off Achilles' body while Odysseus dragged it back to their camp.

Achilles' prized armor was handed down to Odysseus, after he was judged to have caused more damage to the Trojans than the Greater Ajax. An infuriated Ajax intended to kill Menelaus and Agamemnon, but was fooled by Athena into attacking two rams instead of the Greek commanders. After realizing what he had done, he committed suicide.

The war was now in its tenth year. Several prophecies about the fall of Troy had begun to weigh on the minds of the Greek forces, and they carried out many of them, hoping to end the Trojan war once and for all. These included procuring the bow of Heracles, convincing Achilles' son Neoptolemus to join the Greek ranks and stealing the Trojan Palladium.
The Trojan Horse
Finally, Odysseus came up with the famous idea of the Trojan Horse. A giant, hollow, wooden horse (an animal sacred to the Trojans) was built by Epeius, guided by Athena. On the horse were inscribed the words:

The Greeks dedicate this thank-offering to Athena for their return home.

The horse was filled with troops led by Odysseus. The rest of the army burned their camps and lay in wait at Tenedos.

The Trojans rejoiced, thinking that the Greek armies had finally left. They dragged the horse back into the city and debated over what to do with it. Some of them wanted to burn it down, while others wanted to keep the horse and dedicate it to Athena. King Priam's daughter Cassandra, who had been given the gift of prophecy by Apollo, warned the Trojans not to keep the horse. Cassandra, however, was also cursed by Apollo that no one would believe her prophecies. Accordingly, no one in Troy shared her misgivings about the Greek gift.

At midnight, when the full moon rose, the hidden troops came out of the horse and began to attack the Trojans, most of whom were asleep or drunk from the celebrations held in Troy.

Disorganized, disoriented and leaderless, the Trojans began to fight back, but to no avail. Eventually all the men either fled or were killed by the Achaean army, and the women were captured as war prize. The Greeks then proceeded to burn down the city of Troy.

King Priam was killed by Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles. Menelaus killed Deiphobus, a son of Priam and the new consort of Helen. Menelaus also almost killed Helen, but was overpowered by her beauty and spared her life. Cassandra was raped by Ajax the Lesser on the altar of Athena.

Cassandra was later gifted to Agamemnon, Neoptolemus took Andromache, the wife of Hector, and Odysseus took Hecuba, the wife of king Priam, as concubines. The Achaeans killed Hector's infant son Astyanax by throwing him from the walls of Troy, and sacrificed Priam's daughter Polyxena to Achilles.

The Trojan Horse
Source: Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (artist),via Wikimedia Commons (PD)
Francisco Collantes
Source: Francisco Collantes (artist), via Wikimedia Commons (PD)
The story of the Trojan War does not end with the end of the battle, but with the tales of the return of the kings back to their kingdoms.

The only king to return home safely was Nestor, who did not take any part in the looting and pillaging of Troy, and conducted himself honorably throughout. The rest faced severe storms at sea on the way back. The gods were displeased at their immoral conduct in Troy -- including the destruction of their temples by the Achaean army. The Lesser Ajax, notably, was shipwrecked by Athena and then sunk by Poseidon.

Menelaus' fleet was blown off course in the storm, reaching Egypt. Only 5 of his ships remained. Finally he caught Proteus, a shape-shifting sea god, and found out what sacrifices he had to make in order to return home safely. Having fulfilled the conditions, he was then able to return home with Helen.

Agamemnon returned home with Cassandra. His wife, Clytemnestra, already enraged over the sacrifice of her daughter Iphigenia, had been having an affair with Aegisthus. They conceived a plot to kill Agamemnon. Cassandra warned Agamemnon about the looming predicament, but like the Trojans, Agamemnon did not believe her. Clytemnestra and Aegisthus were successful in killing both Agamemnon and Cassandra. Later on, Agamemnon's son Orestes, along with his sister Electra, killed both Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, thus avenging his father.

Odysseus' journey back to Ithaca is the subject of the epic poem Odyssey. Having been blown off course, Odysseus wandered uncharted waters for 10 years, eventually reaching Ithaca 20 years after he had left. He disguised himself as a beggar, but was recognized by his dog Argos. He discovered that his wife Penelope had remained faithful to him all this time, but was being plagued by a number of suitors. With the help of his son Telemachus and the goddess Athena, Odysseus managed to kill all but two of the suitors; he spared the life of the other two, who remained loyal to him. Penelope, who hadn't seen her husband in 20 years, then tested him to make sure it was him, and they reconciled.

Aeneas and a group of survivors (see image) from Troy wandered around the Mediterranean for several years, looking to find a suitable spot for a settlement. These travels eventually took them to founding Alba Longa, which was where Remus and Remulus, the founders of Rome, were born. The twins are said to be direct descendants of Aeneas. Julius Caesar later claimed ancestry dating back to the Trojans.
Source: Federico Barocci (artist)/via Wikimedia Commons (PD)
The story of the Trojan War was long thought to be just a poet's tale without any factual basis. However, recent evidence, especially the excavation and research by Heinrich Schliemann, has shown that the Trojan War was an actual historic war, occurring in modern-day Hissarlik on the western coast of Turkey. The descriptions of divine interceptions, prophecies and miracles, however, came from the fertile mind of the poet Homer.
The Trojan War has inspired countless works of art. Paris' judgment of the three goddesses, his abduction of Helen and the sacking of Troy were immensely popular subjects among medieval artists. Famous plays based on the events of the Trojan War include Troilus and Cressida by Shakespeare and Iphigenia by Samuel Coster. Several TV series, books and movies have retold the story of the Trojan War. Probably the most famous example in recent times is the 2004 movie Troy.