The Iliad and
the Odyssey, written by Homer c. 750 BC
The Aeneid, written by Virgil c. 19 BC
The story also comes from various other sources, including plays by Aeschylus
Click here for a list of characters
in the story, as well as some notable quotes and some links.
The following summary is adapted from a summary found at http://www.stanford.edu/~plomio/history.html (authors unknown)
Helen of Sparta / Helen of Troy
Helen was the most beautiful young woman in the world.
She lived in Sparta with her mother and her father (the king
and queen, although she was rumored to be one of the daughters
of Zeus), and her half-sister, Clytemnestra (kly-tem-NEST-ra).
All the young men wanted to marry her. Her father was afraid
that if he said she could marry one of the suitors (the men
who wanted to marry her), all the other suitors would fight
him, and there would be a big war.
So Helen's father had an idea. He got all the suitors together
in one place and made them all swear to protect Helen and
her marriage, whichever one of them got to marry her. They
all agreed. Then the king (Helen's father) had the suitors
all compete in athletic games to find the best person to
marry his daughter. The suitor who won was a king named Menelaus.
He married Helen and assumed the throne as the new king of
Sparta. Helen's sister Clytemnestra married Menelaus’ older
brother Agamemnon (ag-a-MEM-non), king of Mycenae.
The Apple of Discord
The Trojan War has its roots in the marriage between Peleus
and Thetis, a sea-goddess. Peleus and Thetis had not invited
Eris, the goddess of discord (lack of harmony; disagreement),
to their marriage. The outraged goddess stormed into the
wedding banquet and threw a golden apple onto the table.
Eris stated that the apple would belong to whoever was “the
fairest” (most beautiful).
Hera (wife of Zeus and queen of the gods), Athena (goddess
of wisdom and war), and Aphrodite (goddess of love) each
reached for the apple and argued about which of them was
the fairest. Zeus (king of the gods) proclaimed that a prince
from the city of Troy, named Paris (who was thought to be
the most handsome man alive), would act as the judge.
Hermes (the messenger god) went to Troy to summon Paris,
and Paris agreed to act as the judge. The three goddesses
each tried to bribe Paris. Hera promised him power, Athena
promised him wealth, and Aphrodite promised him the most
beautiful woman in the world.
Paris chose Aphrodite, and she promised him that Helen,
wife of Menelaus (king of Sparta), would be his wife. Paris
then prepared to set off for Sparta to capture Helen. Twin
prophets Cassandra and Helenus tried to persuade him against
such action, as did his mother, Hecuba. But Paris would not
listen and he set off for Sparta.
Menelaus and Helen welcomed Paris kindly, and gave him
dinner and let him stay the night in their house. But during
the night Paris convinced Helen to run away with him (Aphrodite
used her powers to persuade Helen to go with Paris). Paris
took Helen back to Troy with him and married her, even though
she was already married to Menelaus. To make matters worse,
Paris also carried off much of Menelaus' wealth.
Greek Preparations for War
Needless to say, Menelaus was outraged to find that Paris
had taken Helen. Menelaus left his palace at Sparta and quickly
went to visit his older brother Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae.
Menelaus reminded Agamemnon (who was one of Helen’s
suitors) about the oath that all the suitors swore when they
were fighting over who would marry Helen. Menelaus insisted
that his brother call together all the Greek armies from
all the different cities and go fight the Trojans to get
Helen back. Agamemnon objected, stating that he had only
meant that he would defend Menelaus against the other suitors,
but Menelaus still said he had to get Helen back or Agamemnon’s
oath would be broken.
Menelaus then called upon the rest of Helen's former suitors.
Many of the suitors did not wish to go to war. King Odysseus
(oh-DISS-ee-us) of Ithaca pretended to be insane, but this
trick was uncovered. One of the most interesting stories
is of Cinyras, king of Paphos, in Cyprus, who had been a
suitor of Helen. He did not wish to go to war, but promised
Agamemnon fifty ships for the Greek fleet. True to his word,
Cinyras did send fifty ships. The first ship was commanded
by his son. The other forty-nine, however, were toy clay
ships, with tiny clay sailors. They broke apart soon after
being placed in the ocean.
Achilles (uh-KILL-eez), though not one of the suitors,
was sought after because he was considered to be the greatest
fighter in the world. Furthermore, the seer (prophet) Calchas
had stated that Troy would not be taken unless Achilles would
Agamemnon, convinced by his brother Menelaus to join the
fight as commander-in-chief, called all the Greek armies
together at a port called Aulis (OW-liss). There they prepared
to sail to Troy. But when they were ready to sail, a strong
wind blew in the wrong direction (toward the land), and the
Greeks could not leave the port. They asked the prophet Calchas
if he knew what was wrong. Calchas told Agamemnon that the
goddess Artemis was sending the wind to punish Agamemnon.
The reason why is unclear. Perhaps Agamemnon killed one of
Artemis’ sacred deer or perhaps he made a careless
boast. Either way, Artemis was outraged and created the wind
to punish Agamemnon. According to Calchas, the only way to
put Artemis in a better mood, and get a more favorable wind
so the Greeks could sail to Troy to retrieve Helen, was for
Agamemnon to sacrifice his oldest daughter, Iphigenia (if-a-jen-I-ah).
Naturally Agamemnon was horrified. Kill his own daughter?
He told his brother Menelaus that he couldn't do it. But
Menelaus again reminded Agamemnon that he would be breaking
his oath to save Helen. In the end Agamemnon reluctantly
agreed to sacrifice Iphigenia. He got her mother (his wife),
Clytemnestra, to bring Iphigenia to Aulis by telling Clytemnestra
that Iphigenia was going to marry the famous young hero Achilles.
But when Iphigenia got there, Agamemnon tied her up, put
her on an altar, and killed her. This sacrifice pleased Artemis,
the wind changed, and the Greek ships sailed across the Aegean
Sea toward Troy.
During the voyage, a Greek soldier named Philoctetes was
bitten by a snake at one of the island ports the crew visited,
and his wound became infected and had a horrendous smell.
Because the smell stunk up the whole ship, the Greeks decided
to leave Philoctetes at Lemnos. Marooning him at Lemnos would
prove to be a mistake because Philoctetes possessed the bow
and arrows of Hercules,
which the Greeks would later need during the war.
Finding the city of Troy proved difficult, however, and
the Greek fleet at first landed in Mysia. According to the
great historian Herodotus, the Greeks were under the impression
that Helen had been taken by the Teuthranians (Teucrians),
and though the Teuthranians denied kidnapping Helen, the
Greeks attacked their city anyway. The Greeks ultimately
won the battle, but suffered heavy casualties at the hands
of Telephus, king of the Teuthranians; and, at the end, the
Greeks were still without Helen. King Telephus, in the course
of the war, was wounded by Achilles. Unable to find Troy,
and with no where else to turn, the Greeks returned home.
The Trojan War might not have happened had not King Telephus
gone to Greece in the hopes of having his wound cured. Telephus
had been told by an oracle (predictor of the future) that
only the person who wounded him (in this case, Achilles)
could cure him. Achilles agreed to cure King Telephus; and
out of gratitude, Telephus told the Greeks how to get to
Odysseus, known for his excellent speaking ability, and
Menelaus were sent as ambassadors to the palace of Priam
(king of Troy and father of Paris). They demanded that Helen
and the stolen treasure be returned. King Priam refused,
and Odysseus and Menelaus returned to the Greek ships with
the announcement that war was unavoidable.
The War Begins
Homer's Iliad begins
in the middle of the Trojan War, around the year 1250 BC,
just at the end of the Bronze Age in Ancient Greece. The
Greeks believed that the Trojan War lasted for ten years;
and this story happens in the tenth year of the war, when
both sides were really sick of being at war, and the Greeks
were sick of being away from home.
The first Greek to leap onto Trojan soil from the ships
was Protesilaus. He also became the first to die as he was
struck down by Hector,
the son of King Priam, brother of Paris, and the lead soldier
and hero of the Trojans. Protesilaus' wife Laodamia was so
distraught with grief that Hermes brought
Protesilaus back to life for a few hours. But when he had
to return to the realm of Hades (the
god of the underworld), his wife Laodamia killed herself.
The first nine years of the war consisted of both war in
Troy and war against the neighboring regions. The Greeks
realized that Troy was being supplied by its neighboring
kingdoms, so Greeks were sent to defeat these areas.
Then in the tenth year, a dispute between Achilles and
Agamemnon nearly threw the balance in favor of the Trojans.
The Greeks had won a battle and were splitting up the booty
(the stuff they had captured). Along with plenty of treasure,
Achilles also claimed a woman named Briseis (brih-SAY-iss)
to be his war-bride (a slave girl forced to marry a victorious
warrior). Agamemnon took a woman named Chryseis, a daughter
of Apollo's priest,
as his war-bride. Chryseis’ father heard of her abduction
and begged for her return, but Agamemnon refused to release
her. Upon hearing about this, the god Apollo shot fiery arrows
at the Greek Army, killing many Greeks.
the prophet Calchas said that the only way to keep Apollo
from killing more Greeks was to return Chryseis. Achilles wanted
to keep Apollo happy, so he pressured Agamemnon to return
her. At this point, Agamemnon agreed, but not before taking
Achilles' war-bride, Briseis. Agamemnon claimed that his
powerful position as king of Mycenae and commander-in-chief
of the Greek army gave him the right to do whatever he wanted.
Achilles was not pleased.
When Briseis was taken by Agamemnon, Achilles was so angry
at this insult that he refused to fight for the Greeks anymore
and just sat in his tent and
sulked. Without their best fighter, Achilles, the Greeks
started losing battles.
Finally Achilles' best friend (and perhaps cousin) Patroclus
thought of an idea. Because Achilles refused to fight, causing
the Greeks to have very low morale, Patroclus put on Achilles'
famous armor and
went out to fight, pretending to be Achilles. Having Achilles
back boosted the confidence of the Greek army, while completely
depressing the Trojan. The Greeks won a big victory. Unfortunately,
however, despite wearing the powerful armor of Achilles,
Hector killed Patroclus during the battle.
When Achilles heard that Patroclus was dead, he was ashamed
of himself for abandoning his fellow soldiers and wanted
to avenge Patroclus’ death. So, Achilles went to Hephaestus
(the blacksmith god) to get new armor, and then he rejoined
the battle. Now the Greeks really started to win. In an attempt
to turn the tide, Hector (the hero of the Trojan army), decided
to take on Achilles himself.
Achilles and Hector fought a climactic battle. Aided by
his new armor, Achilles defeated the mighty Hector. To avenge
the death of Patroclus, Achilles dismembered Hector’s
body as a sign of disrespect. Homer’s Iliad ends
as Achilles returns the mangled body of Hector to King Priam
of Troy, Hector’s father.
Now that he had killed Hector, Achilles knew that his own
death was near because of a prophecy. Although Achilles was
nearly invincible, he did have one weakness. When he was
born, Achilles was dipped into the River Styx by his mother,
the goddess Thetis, making him nearly invincible. Achilles
was vulnerable only in one place, his heel, because when
Thetis dipped him into the river, she held him by his heel
and forgot to wet it in the Styx, leaving it vulnerable.
Paris, wanting to avenge the death of his brother Hector,
shot an arrow at Achilles. The god Apollo, who still held
a grudge against Agamemnon for taking Chryseis as his war-bride
and for Achilles’ desecration of one of Apollo’s
temples, guided the arrow shot by Paris into the heel of
Achilles, killing him. It is said that Achilles caused his
own death because of his hubris (overconfidence and self-love).
After the death of Achilles, both Odysseus and
Ajax (a mighty Greek warrior) wanted the armor of Achilles.
The Greeks decided that Odysseus would receive the armor,
causing Ajax to go mad and kill a flock of sheep. As he regained
his sanity, he realized what he had done and he killed himself.
Helenus, a prophet, had been captured by Odysseus. Helenus
told the Greeks that Troy would not fall unless:
- Pyrrhus, Achilles' son, fought in the war,
- The bow and arrows of Hercules were used by the Greeks
against the Trojans,
- The remains of Pelops, a famous hero, were brought to
- The Palladium, a statue of Athena, was stolen from Troy.
The remains of Pelops were obtained, and Odysseus sneaked
though the Trojan defenses to steal the Palladium. Phoenix
persuaded Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, to join the war. Philoctetes
had the bow and arrows of Hercules, but had been left by
the Greek fleet at Lemnos because of his smelly snake bite
wound. When Philoctetes was rescued from Lemnos, he was bitter
at having been abandoned, but was finally persuaded to rejoin
the Greeks. He killed Paris with Hercules' arrows.
The Trojan Horse
The economy of Troy was virtually destroyed, but in order
to defeat the city of Troy itself, the Greeks had to get
into the city. Odysseus (some
say with the aid of the goddess Athena) thought of a plan
to make a hollow horse with soldiers inside. The rest of
the Greeks were to sail behind the nearest island, making
it appear like they had given up. Only one Greek, Sinon,
would remain behind to tell the Trojans that the horse was
an offering to Athena and it needed to be inside the walls
The artist Epeius designed and built the horse, and a number
of the Greek warriors, along with Odysseus, climbed inside.
The rest of the Greek fleet sailed away, according to plan,
so as to deceive the Trojans.
When the Trojans came to marvel at the huge creation, Sinon
pretended to be angry with the Greeks, stating that they
had deserted him. He assured the Trojans that the wooden
horse was an offering to Athena, was safe, and would bring
luck to the Trojans.
Only two people, Laocoön and Cassandra, spoke out
against the horse, but they were ignored. Laocoön tried
to remind the Trojans of the treachery and deceit of the
Greeks. As he finished his speech, two serpents crushed Laocoön
to death. The Trojans thought this was a sign from the gods
and quickly dragged the horse into the city.
The Trojans, thinking they had won, partied through the
night. That night, after most of Troy was asleep in a drunken
stupor, Sinon released the Greeks within the horse and they
let in the soldiers who had just sailed back. The Greeks
ransacked Troy. By the time the Trojans were awake, Troy
was already burning. The Greek army slaughtered the Trojans.
By morning, Troy, once the proudest city in Asia, was in
ruins. King Priam was killed as he huddled by Zeus' altar
and Cassandra was pulled from the statue of Athena and raped.
The Greeks had finally won.
After the War
After the war, Polyxena, daughter of Priam and sister of
Paris and Hector, was sacrificed at the tomb of Achilles.
Astyanax, son of Hector, was also sacrificed, signifying
the end of the war. Aeneas, a Trojan prince, managed to escape
the destruction of Troy, and Virgil's Aeneid tells
of his journey from Troy. Menelaus, who had been determined
to kill Helen for leaving him, was so taken by Helen's beauty
and seductiveness that he allowed her to live. The surviving
Trojan women were divided among the Greek men as war-brides
along with the other plunder. The Greeks then set sail for
home, which, for some, proved as difficult and took as much
time as the Trojan War.
Agamemnon is the first of a cycle of three plays
written by the Greek playwright Aeschylus. When the play
begins, King Agamemnon (brother of Menelaus and commander-in-chief
of the Greek army) was still away at the Trojan War. His
wife Clytemnestra and his young children, Orestes (a boy)
and Electra (a girl) were at home in Mycenae. But Clytemnestra
became very angry at Agamemnon for sacrificing their daughter
Iphigenia. She became lovers with Agamemnon's cousin Aegisthus,
and allowed Aegisthus to rule the kingdom while Agamemnon
was away, instead of keeping it safe for her husband.
Agamemnon returned home, he acted very arrogantly. He refused
to pay the gods the respect that they deserved for his victory.
For instance, he walked on a red carpet to the door of his
house, even though this should have been sacred to the gods.
This is hubris, and the gods punished him for it. As soon
as Agamemnon entered his house, Clytemnestra and her lover
Aegisthus murdered him. Cassandra, a Trojan priestess whom
Agamemnon had brought home as his slave, was also murdered.
The Odyssey was written down by the Greek poet
Homer and is the story of King Odysseus' return home from
the Trojan War to his kingdom of Ithaca, a small island on
the western side of Greece.
Odysseus had a lot of trouble getting home, because the
gods were angry at him and he did not respect their power.
First he sailed from Troy with many ships, filled with the
men from Ithaca who had followed him to war and all of the
plunder they had taken from Troy. But he ran into trouble
with the one-eyed Cyclops on the first island he stopped
at on the way home, and continued to have trouble, especially
with the god Poseidon, the rest of the way. Finally the goddess
Athena helped him to get home.
Even after he got home, he had more trouble. He found that
his house had been taken over by suitors who wanted to marry
his wife, Penelope, thinking that Odysseus must be dead because
he had been away so long. But with the help of his son Telemachus
(tell-EM-ah-cuss), Odysseus killed all the suitors and the
slaves who had helped them, and finally went back to ruling
the kingdom of Ithaca with his wife Penelope.
here for a list of characters in the story, as well as
some notable quotes and some links.