The tale of troy

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“Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium ? “ as Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) has his Doctor Faustus enquire – a lady “fairer than the evening air clad in the beauty of a thousand stars”, one who graced the walls of Troy as a Greek fleet crossed the wine dark Aegean Sea to restore Helen to the husband from whom she had been abducted. The story is as fresh today as it was 3000 or 4000 years ago and the tale of clashing arms on the windy plains of Troy has resounded down the ages.

The site of Troy stood guarding the entrance to the Hellespont ( Dardanelles), opening the world to the passage to the Euxine ( Black Sea). The site, taken to be at the mound of Hisarlik, has been extensively excavated, originally and most destructively, by Heinrich Schliemann, who proceeded to examine Mycenae ( where he wrongly identified the mask of Agamemnon, but adorned his beautiful wife with jewelry fit for an Achaean princess) and Argos. More careful were his successors, who have identified many settlements in the area, two of which, known as Troy VIh and Troy VIIa are tentatively felt to be identified as the Troy of Homer.

[ NOTE : Iluim is the Latin name for Troia, also called Ilion or Ilios and possibly identified as the Wilusa and Taruisa found in Hittite ( a mighty empire in what is now called Turkey) records. ]

Homer, reputedly the first European poet, thought to have flourished in the C7th or C8th BC , author of the oldest epic ever written, the Iliad, the first story identifying Troy, was famously claimed by seven cities when dead, but by none in his lifetime. His reputation as a blind bard has been questioned; the nature of the possible source of his work argued, possibly deriving from an oral tradition, even possibly written in Linear B, which would place him, if true, as contemporary to the events he described. Alas, all is lost in the mists of antiquity, or, at least, obscured.

The Iliad is not the full story of Troy and has been more aptly called “ The Wrath of Achilles” , telling of events occurring in part of the tenth year of the siege of Troy. The story can be summarised briefly : captive women have been accorded to Greek leaders, Briseis to Achilles,the foremost warrior, and Chryseis to Agamemnon, the leader of the host, but this latter was the daughter of Chryses, priest of Apollo, who rained down pestilence on the Greek camp until she was restored to her father by Agamemnon, who, to replace her, claimed Briseis, leaving Achilles so furious that he would fight no more for the Greek army. Most other leaders were unable to withstand the might of the Trojan champion, Hector(aided, it must be said, by Zeus), who disabled the best of the Greeks. Patroclus,the boon companion of Achilles, pleaded with his friend to let him lead their troops into battle, but, when Patroclus was slain by Hector, Achilles again went to war, inflicting terrible losses on the Trojans, unsatisfied, nay, unsatiated until he had taken the life of Hector. His fury ultimately abated when old Priam, father of Hector came to him to seek the body of his son, reminding him how his own father would have felt.

Of course, such a synopsis, ignoring, inter alia, the deeds of the other Greek commanders, does not accord due honour to the Iliad, which was a marvellous creation, exposing, even in a savage war, the finest attributes of man, often presented in a cameo form, never thereafter surpassed. It is also, in a sense, a historical document, notably in Book 2, known as the Catalogue of the Ships, passages giving in detail the development of the Greek states, their leaders, and, naturally, the number of the ships each brought to Troy. A great deal of earlier events and of antecedents of the “Wrath of Achilles” period abound, and the story of the Trojan War can be viewed in its totality in other writings, known to the Greeks as the Epic Cycle, originally seen to be the work of Homer, but which are now generally viewed as later productions, well worth examining, if only for comparison with the variations of later centuries.

[ NOTE : A splendid map of the Greece of the time, showing the contingent leaders can be found at]

The Epic Cycle covered the whole Trojan War and some subsequent events ( The NOSTOI – the Return of the Greeks from Troy) ; the ODYSSEY ( The return of Odysseus); The TELEGONY (Death of Odysseus) and includes :

The CYPRIA, attributed to Stasinus of Cyprus or Hegesinus of Salamis, tells of Zeus planning the war with Themis ; the wedding of Peleus and Thetis when Eris, Goddess of Discord threw among the guests an apple (from the Hesperides ? ),inscribed “ For the Fairest” ; the Judgment of Paris, prejudiced when Aphrodite offered him the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen (wife of Menelaus, Lord of Sparta), whom he abducted. The suitors of Helen had entered a bond to preserve that marriage and the Greek princes rallied for an expedition to recover her ; the pretended insanity of Odysseus to avoid the war, unmasked by Palamedes. The Greeks mistakenly landed in Teuthrania , which they attacked. Telephos of Mysia ( a son of Hercules) came to the assistance of the city and slew Thersander, the son of Polynices (of Thebes), but was wounded, and subsequently healed, by Achilles, thereafter promising to guide the Greeks to Troy. The ships were delayed at Aulis, and Iphigenia offered for sacrifice. En route Philoctetes was poisoned by a snakebite and left (virtually marooned) on Lemnos. The army finally reached Troy, the first ashore, Protesilaos, being killed by Hector, son of Priam, and destined to become the great defender of the city. A demand for the return of Helen was rejected and the siege begun. Achilles drove off the cattle of Aeneas, captured Lyrnessos and Pedasos, and killed Troilus, a son of Priam ( to acquire more fame at a later date). Patroclus captured Lykaon, another son of Priam, whom he sold into slavery at Lemnos. A division of the captured (now slaves) gave Briseis to Achilles and Chryseis to Agamemnon.The death of Palamedes was reported, and a catalogue of the combatants drawn up. The intention of Zeus to pull Achilles out of the war was revealed. An original plan of Zeus was to reduce the population of the world, beginning with the expedition of the Seven against Thebes – Troy was to follow. The brothers of Helen, Castor and Pollux had engaged in a battle of mutual destruction with the princes of Messinia, Idas and Lynceus and so were lost before the campaign began.

The events of the ILIAD followed this narrative, and were themselves continued in the AETHIOPIS, attributed to Arctinus of Miletus ,but lost in the original, the detail preserved in the CHRESTAMATHY of Proclus. After the death of Hector, Penthesileia and her Amazons came to the assistance of Troy – she slew Podarces and was herself killed by Achilles, who mourned her death and was mocked by Thersites, whom he also killed, being later purified of this murder by Odysseus. The next arrival to assist the Trojans was Memnon, son of Tithonus and Eos, with an army of Ethiopians, who created havoc, slaughtering the popular son of old Nestor and a favourite of Achilles, Antilochus, who essentially had to be revenged by his friend, who chased the Trojans back to their city, but, at the Scaean gate was killed by Paris, with an arrow to his vulnerable heel (guided by Apollo).; The body of Achilles was rescued by Telamonian Ajax and Odysseus. At the funeral games of Achilles a dispute arose between these two. It is not known for certain if the judgment against Ajax and his subsequent suicide was recorded in the Aethiopis or elsewhere, perhaps in the Little Iliad.
The LITTLE ILIAD was attributed to Lesches of Pyrrha or Mytilene, for whose content we are again indebted to Proclus. It opens with the Judgment of Arms, the slaughter of the sheep and the subsequent suicide of Ajax. Then begins the age of prophecies. Calchas, the Greek seer (originally a Trojan) advised of the need for the arrows of Hercules, held by the abandoned Philoctetes, whom Odysseus and Diomedes persuade to return to Troy,where he was cured by Machaon. Philoctetes killed Paris, whose body was mutilated by Menelaus. His brothers, Deiphobus and Helenus, fight over the widowed Helen and Helenus leaves Troy, to be captured by Odysseus. He foretells that the Palladium ( destined to be carried off by Odysseus and Diomedes) protects the city, that the bones of Pelops should be recovered from Pisa, and that Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, must join the war, and he arrives in good time to dispose of Euryplylus, son of Telephos, the latest Trojan ally to cause consternation in the Greek besiegers. Finally the Wooden Horse is built by Epeius, at the instigation of Athena; the destined heroes enter the horse; the Greek army departs, and the horse is brought into the city. The sack of Troy is not included in the Little Iliad, buta surviving fragment indicated that Neoptolemus took Andromache captive and that he threw Astyanax, the son of Hector and Andromache, from the walls of the captured city.

The ILIUPERSIS (Sack of Ilium or Troy) was attributed to Arctinus of Miletus, but again has come down through Proclus. The role of Sinon was recounted; the opposition of Cassandra and Laocoon is recorded, together with the slaughter of Laocoon and his two sons by serpents, an event that Aeneas takes as a warning and he removes his troops from the city; the horse was brought into the city and, at night, the Greek heroes emerge, open the city gates to the returning army and set fire to the city. Neoptolemus killed old Priam at the altar of Zeus ; Menelaus kills Deiphobus and takes back Helen. Ajax the Lesser (Locrian Ajax) rapes Cassandra at the altar of Athena. Neoptolemus takes Andromache captive, but it is Odysseus who throws Astyanax from the walls. Demophon and Akamas recover their mother Aethra and return her to her home.

The NOSTOI ( The Returns or Homecomings) was attributed to Agias of Trozen or Eumulus, and shows Nestor and Diomedes sailing early and making a safe passage; Menelaus is blown by winds to Egypt, where he spent some years before his return home safely; Kalchas, Leonteus and Polypoites travel by land to Kolophon; the image of Achilles warned the army under Agamemnon of danger, which they found on the rocks of Kapherides, where Ajax Oileus (Locrian Ajax) met his death. Neoptolemus had been warned to return by land and ultimately came to Molossos. Agamemnon, with Cassandra as his slave, returned to Mycenae, where both were murdered by his wife Klytaimnestra and her lover, Aigisthos; Orestes, son of Agamemnon, was to revenge this assassination.

The most famous Nostoi was the ODYSSEY of Homer, chronicling the wanderings of Odysseus after the war. It is probably the best known work examined in this paper and needs no comment, however :

The TELEGONY was attributed to Cinaethon of Sparta or Eugammon of Cyrene. After the burial of the suitors of Penelope, Odysseus travelled to Thesprotia, upon whose queen Kallidike he engendered a son, Polypoites. He participated in a battle against invaders, in which Kallidice was killed. Polypoites ascended the throne, and Odysseus returned to Ithaca. Now, following his dalliance on the island of Aeaea with the enchantress Circe, she bore a son, Telegonus, who ultimately set out in search of his father, and was blown by storm to Ithaca, where he marauded until faced by Odysseus, whom he killed with a spear tipped by the poisoned stingray, fulfilling a prophecy that death would come to the hero “out of the sea”. The couple recognized each other too late. Telegonus took the corpse, with Penelope and Telemachus (her son) back to Aeaea, where Odysseus was buried and Circe made the others immortal, in which state Telegonus married Penelope and Telemachus Circe.

The Telegony completed the Epic Cycle but much more was to be added to the story of Troy.

First of all were the Athenian dramatists, who expanded selected characters or events :

Aeschylus(525-456 BC) produced a trilogy which has been named the Orestaia, comprising Agamemnon, which dealt with Agamemnon returning from Troy and being murdered by Clytemnestra and her lover; The Libation Bearers, which tells of Orestes’ revenge for his father by killing the pair; and the Eumenides, where Orestes is pursued by the Furies until he is finally purified of the offence of matricide. Aeschylus also seems to have composed a Palamedes. Sophocles (497-406 BC), famous for a Theban trilogy of Oedipus Rex, Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus, also created dramas centred upon Ajax and Philoctetes, so emotionally expressive that Lessing in much later years could compare their effects with the famous statue of Laocoon and his sons(in his expansive essay Laocoon). Euripides (480-406 BC) was more prolific, famous for his The Troades (the Trojan Women) indicating, after the fall of Troy, the plight of Helen, Hecuba, Andromache and Cassandra, telling, inter alia, of the sacrifice of Polyxena and the death of Astyanax. Among his works were the Iphigenia at Aulis, the Iphigenia in Taurus, Orestes, Hecuba and Andromache. Lesser known were the plots of two plays which may have been, with the Troades, part of a Trojan trilogy – the Alexandros or Paris and a Palamedes. These plays are similar to the material in the Epic cycle, but variations were introduced and, indeed, they were to multiply in the writings of later (and some earlier) authors :

Stesichorus ( 632-552 BC), a link poetically between Homer and Pindar, famous for his reputed blindness incurred for writing about Helen, first in derogatory terms, and later in his Palinode, in which he portrayed the Helen of Troy as but a phantom (confirmed by Plato in his Republic and by Isocrates in his Helen) and either she never left home, or was spirited away to Egypt. He produced many works, ranging over the Theban cycle to the Labours of Heracles. Pindar(518-438 BC) the great Theban poet, spared by Alexander of Macedonia when he destroyed that city, famous for his Victory Odes, celebrating winners at the Olympian, Isthmian, Pythian and Nemean games, often employing a focusing myth. In the Nemean Odes we find 3, 4, 5, 6,7, 8 : Achilles; Peleus and Thetis; Hippolyta; Achilles and Memnon; Neoptolemus; Ajax, presumably Locrian Ajax as he was associated with the foot race. Pindar almost wrote an Argonautica among his Odes. Lycophron : the author of the Alexandra, spoken by a slave appointed by King Priam to observe the behaviour of his daughter, more commonly known as Cassandra. A complex work, full of mythological, geographical and genealogical detail, providing variants to many stories of Troy, and elsewhere. Apollonius Rhodius (222-181 BC), author of the Argonautica (Voyage of Argo), following the adventures of Jason and his companions in search of the Golden Fleece. In this account the voyagers sailed through the Hellespont without visiting Troy, and Heracles was lost in Mysia searching for Hylas, who had been abducted by nymphs. Apollodorus ( C2nd BC) gave us his Library, whose Epitome described the war. His catalogue of ships does not entirely agree with that of Homer; his conquests of Achilles are much more extensive; he allows Penthesilia to slay Machaon; Greater Ajax slays Glaucus while defending the body of Achilles which he carried back to the Greek camp, Ulysses providing cover; at the funeral games of Achilles, Eumelus won the chariot race, Diomedes the footrace, Ajax the quoit, and Teucer archery; fifty warriors entered his horse; his Nostoi are more extensive than the conventional; he lists the seducers of the wives as Aegisthus with Clytemnestra, Cometes, son of Sthenelus, with Aegialia, wife of Diomedes, and Leucus with Meda, wife of Idomeneus, who was driven out of Crete; he names the Sirens; he agrees the Telegony. DiodorusSiculus ( C1st BC), compiler of the Library of History, only fragments of which survive. His Book IV recounts the voyage of Argo, showing the rescue of Hesione by Heracles, the default of Laomedon, Heracles’ taking of Troy and the slaughter of Laomedon. His acceptance when speaking of Cretan affairs that Idomeneus and Meriones returned from the war and lived out their lives in their own country suggests a possible lack of awareness of some other writers. Cornelius Nepos 9C1st BC) was a biographer, who was mistakenly associated with the discovery of Dictys Cretensis.
Virgil (70BC-19AD), famous for his Aeneid, the story of the journey of Aeneas after the fall of Troy, through the Mediterranean, with the Dido episode en route, to reach Latium and, after battle with the locals, founded what would ultimately develope into Rome and conceive a progeny from which, in legend, rulers in Europe would evolve. His Book 2 yields an account of the Sack of Troy, which supplied more detail of the fate of the Elders of the city. His horse contained : Thessandrus (Thersander, son of Polynices), Sthenelus (son of Capaneus), Ulysses, Acamas, Thoas (of Aetolia), Neoptolemus, Machaon, Menelaus and Epeus – many of the heroes who suffered quite different fates elsewhere. OVID 943BC-18AD), with Virgil, the poet best known in the Middle Ages, who wrote prolifically, notorious for his Arts Amatoris (The Art of Love). the Heroides (The Heroines) consist of letters written by ladies, awaiting the return of their husbands ( Penelope, Phyllis, Briseis, Oenone, Deianeira, and Laodamia) and some other letters, correspondence between lovers, like Paris and Helen. His most influential work, the Metamorphoses covers a wide range but at Book 11 we meet with Peleus and Thetis ; in Book 12 with Achilles and Iphigenia, Book 13 the contest for the Arms of Achilles, and Book 14 tells us of the voyage of Aeneas and continues on to the time of Romulus. Hyginus (64BC-17AD)wrote the Fabulae, like Apollodorus, a compendium of myth. His catalogue of ships varies again from Homer, as he credits more heroes a given number of ships, as, for example Phoenix with 50, Automedon with 10, Euryalus with 15 – his total seems rather smaller than the sum of its parts, but this is fable. His coverage of events in the Epic Cycle is rather sparse and disseminated into a kind of statistical record. He credited Hector with the slaughter of Antilochus and Eurypylus of Mysia with the deaths of Nireus and Machaon. Of the Nostoi there is little, apart from Ulysses, but, in his Telegony he introduced an interesting genealogy with a son Italus born to Penelope and Telegonus and a Latinus born to Telemachus and Circe. For much of his work he might well be addressed as the Greek Brewer (of Phrase and Fable). Seneca (C1st AD),Latin author of tragic plays, taken up in later centuries as the model for writers of revenge tragedies. His Troades is a retelling of the Trojan women. Valerius Flaccus (d 90AD): Roman author of an Argonautica, which included the rescue of Hesione from the sea monster by Heracles, the deceit of Laomedon and promised horses and Hercules’ taking of Troy . Statius (45-86 AD)famous for his Thebiad, the story of the seven Argive chieftains who marched against seven-gated Thebes, which itself led into Medieval Romance culminating in Lydgate’s Siege of Thebes. His Achillied recounts the story of Achilles at the court of Lycomedes of Scyros. Tryphiodorus (C3rd or C4thAD) wrote the Taking of Ilios, beginning with the death of Hector; the building of the horse; the heroes within, telling of Helen circling the horse imitating the wives of the Greek heroes ; the episode of Anticlus, who had to be stifled before he could react to Helen’s wiles; the Sack of the city; the sacrifice of Polyxena at the tomb of Achilles by Neoptolemus; his Sinon was a lesser figure than that of Virgil .His horse must have been huge as it contained : Neoptolemus, Diomedes, Cyanippus (son of Aegialeus and Comaetho, daughter of Tydeus), Locrian Ajax, Idomeneus of Crete, Thrasymedes (son of Nestor), Eumelus (son of Admetus), Teucer (son of Telamon),the seer Calchas, Eurypylus, Leonteus, Demophoon and Acamas (sons of Theseus,often confused), Peneleus of Boeotia, Meges, Antiphates, Iphidamas (these two descendants of Pelias), Amphidamas, and finally Epeius, who actually built the horse. The list of heroes yields a fine example of the variation between authors. Quintus Smyrnacus ( C4th AD)brought the Epic Cycle to an extensive amalgamation in his poem,the POSTHOMERICA, relating events from the death of Hector to the Sack of Troy. Detail abounds : the Amazon princesses are individually named and their destruction recounted ; many Greeks, including Podarces, were slain, but ultimately Achilles killed Penthesileia; Memnon next entered the field for the Trojans, slaying Antilochus, the popular son of old Nestor, and many others of lesser repute, until he met Achilles, who ended his life. Achilles relentlessly pursued the Trojans until Apollo intervened, directing an arrow to the mortal heel of the warrior. Battle developed over his body, defended by Aias who slew Glaucus and many others, wounding Aeneas and Paris, carrying the body of Achilles back to the camp with the help of Odysseus ; the funeral games were described with Homeric detail echoing those of Patroclus ; the manner and death of Aias are chronicled, with the mourning of Teucer and Tecmessa.

Quintus Smyrnacus,cont. : Calchas foretold the need to bring Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, to the war, just as the Trojans were reinforced by Eurypylus, son of Telephos, who was to slaughter Nireus, Machaon, Peneleus and many more, until the arrival of Neoptolemus, his Nemesis. Philoctetes was now brought from Lemnos to dispose of Paris with the arrows of Heracles, Oenone committing suttee on his funeral pyre. There was no mention of Helenus, or of the Palladium, but Calchas and Athena inspired the horse ( entered by Neoptolemus, Menelaus, Odysseus, Sthenelus, Diomedes, Philoctetes, Menestheus, Anticlus, Thoas, Polypoetes, Aias, Eurypylus, Thrasymedes, Idomeneus, Meriones, Podaleirius, Eurymachus, Teucer, Ialmenus, Thalpius, Antimachus, Demophoon, Leonteus, Eumelus, Euryalus, Agapenor, Akamas, Meges and Epeius – Troy had no chance. There were no serpents for Laocoon, only a blinding; Cassandra raved in vain; Menelaus slew Deiphobus, but his hand was stayed by Aphrodite as he threatened Helen; the story of Demophoon, Akamas, Aethra and Laodice was retold; and Neoptolemus slew the sons of Priam and the old king himself. Neoptolemus sacrificed Polyxena at the tomb of his father, enabling the Greek fleet to sail away. Aeneas had departed from Troy, his life preserved. Antenor was spared for his former hospitality to ambassadors – no suggestion of treachery. Calchas and Amphilochus ( the seer son of Amphiaraus) made their way to Pamphylia and Cilicia. Athena raised the storm over the rocks of Caphereus, wrathful over the desecration of Cassandra by Locrian Aias in her temple – his fate was sealed by Poseidon, who also flooded the old Greek camp. Of the other Nostoi, Quintus Smyrnacus is silent. Colluthus (late C5th to early C6th AD) wrote a poem,the Rape of Helen, which began with the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, followed by the Revenge of Eris, the Judgment of Paris, the Trojan voyage to Greece, the meeting with Helen with immediate favourable response, the lamentation of Hermione (Helen’s daughter), a reassurance by Helen in a dream, the lovers’ arrival in Troy with Cassandra tearing her hair as Troy received on his return her citizen who was the source of all her woe. Fulgentius ( C5th to C6th AD) compiled a Mythologiarum Libri, taking as approach that included Stoic and Neo-Platonic elements.

This paper has followed the Epic Cycle and commentators thereon to the summary that is the Posthomerica – in modern times all this material has been analysed, classified, widely circulated and most problems have been set out in comparative style, but this can be seen as the end of the beginning set against the beginning of the end, if a move from a Classical to a Romantic setting can be so described.

There was to be more ”Classical” writing, perhaps better described as Late Classical,which tended to be antagonistic to the Homeric corpus , which would influence the development of the Tale of Troy. It is appropriate, at this juncture, to reflect upon some matters upon which a different emphasis would be laid in the future. The classical story of the slave girl Briseis is one such. When Achilles captured Lyrnessus and killed her husband Mynes , she was taken captive and became a centrepiece in the episode of the Wrath of Achilles, when she was taken from her captor by Agamemnon, an event that occasioned Achilles’ withdrawal from the war. Ovid, in his Heroides, expanded upon the story, having Briseis plead with Achilles to rejoin the battle, but it took the death of Patroclus to achieve that event, when Briseis was restored to her “ ..master , husband and brother”, prepared to relinquish any other life. Other authors saw Briseis as a closer companion to her lord. Horace saw the association as a love over-vaulting social standards. Propertius saw, her as the principal,indeed sole , mourner, preparing Achilles for the after life.

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