The Trojan War is one of the most important cycles of myth in Greek and Roman literature. It is also one of the most complicated, since so many narratives are included in it or are connected with it: the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid all spring from it, in whole or in part, and the legends surrounding the house of Atreus are deeply implicated in it. The summary which follows is brief and highly selective, but it may give an idea of some of the stories which lie behind a number of the letters in the Heroides.
The background of the Trojan War begins with the birth of Helen of Troy--or rather, with her conception. Jove, the king of the gods, became enamored of a human woman, Leda. Leda was married to Tyndareus, the king of Sparta in Greece, but this did not stop Jove. He took the form of a swan, and then either seduced or raped Leda. As a result, Leda gave birth to Helen. Helen was raised as Tyndareus’ daughter.
Helen was incredibly beautiful—she was said to be the most beautiful and desirable woman in the world. Even when she was still quite young, she was kidnapped by the legendary Greek hero Theseus, although she is said to have returned to her parents unharmed. As a young adult, she was sought as a bride by virtually every king in Greece. So Tyndareus was faced with a problem: if he chose one suitor for Helen’s husband, then he would offend practically every other king in the land. Even worse, there was the danger that someone among the unsuccessful suitors would not take “no” for an answer, and would attempt to kidnap Helen from her husband, starting inter-clan fighting or even full-scale civil war.
Enter Ulysses. He was the son of Laertes and was the king of Ithaca. He was a redoubtable warrior, but the things he was most famous for were his cleverness, his persuasiveness, and his skill in trickery. He wanted to marry Penelope, the daughter of Icarius, but he had been unable to persuade Icarius to give his consent. So Ulysses approached Tyndareus with a proposition: if Tyndareus would help him win Penelope, then he would arrange things so that none of Helen's suitors would make trouble after her marriage. Tyndareus agreed. Ulysses then got all the suitors to swear a solemn oath to defend Helen’s marriage, regardless of who was chosen. If anyone tried to take Helen away from her husband, the rest of the suitors would form a military alliance to get her back. The plan worked. Helen was married to Menelaus, who became king of Sparta, and she remained peacefully wed to him for a number of years; they even had a daughter, Hermione. Tyndareus also kept his side of the bargain. Ulysses married Penelope and the two them settled down in Ithaca and had a son, Telemachus.
Now we have to shift to another marriage--the marriage of Peleus and Thetis. Peleus was the son of Aeacus, king of Aegina, and was the grandson of Jove, the king of the gods. Peleus was forced to flee his father's kingdom, and later became king of Phthia. He acquired a reputation for virtue which impressed even the gods themselves. Thetis, on the other hand, was the immortal daughter of the sea-god Nereus. Both Jove and Neptune (the chief god of the sea) loved her, but there was a prophecy that she would bear a son who was mightier than his father. Neither god wanted a son who might overthrow him, so they arranged for Thetis to marry a mortal. Peleus was chosen as a husband for her because he was deemed the most worthy of mortals.
The wedding of Peleus and Thetis had unfortunate consequences. It was a grand affair, to which all the gods and goddesses were invited, except for one--Eris, the goddess of discord. In order to be revenged for her exclusion, Eris showed up at the festivities and threw a golden apple into a group of goddesses. The apple was inscribed, "For the fairest." The goddesses Juno, Minerva, and Venus quarreled over who deserved the apple, and appealed to Jove to settle the matter. Jove did not want to get involved in such a touchy issue (Juno was both his wife and his sister, and Minerva and Venus were his daughters), and so he referred the question to Paris, a son of King Priam of Troy who was supposed to be an expert on feminine charms.
Paris himself had somewhat sinister origins. When his mother was pregnant with him, she had a dream (or there was some other sort of prophecy—it depends on what accounts you read) that she gave birth to a burning torch, from which serpents issued. It was decided that the unborn son was going to be a deadly danger to the city, and so orders were given that he should be killed at birth. There are several versions of why he survived, but one of the more common ones is that he was “exposed” in the countryside and left to die, and that a shepherd saved him and raised him. In any case, Paris was ignorant of his true parentage, and grew up among the shepherds. Some time later, during a festival at Troy, he was recognized as the king’s son and restored to his place in the royal household.
It was after his return to the royal family that the three goddesses came to him to decide which one of theme was "the fairest." What followed was the famous "Judgement of Paris." Each of the goddesses tried to bribe Paris to give the apple to her: Juno promised a kingdom, Minerva promised success in battle, and Venus offered the love of the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris awarded the apple to Venus.
Unfortunately, the most beautiful woman in the world--the one whose love Venus had promised to Paris--was Helen, and Helen was already married to King Menelaus. Paris either eloped with or abducted her while he was on a diplomatic visit to Sparta. However, since almost all the kings of Greece has sworn an oath to defend the marriage rights of the chosen suitor, Menelaus called upon them to form a military alliance, under the general leadership of his brother, Agamemnon, to get her back. Thus the stage was set for the Trojan War, a ten-year siege of the city of Troy which ultimately resulted in Troy's complete destruction.
While all this was going on, Peleus and Thetis, whose wedding had sparked the quarrel among the goddesses, had also had a son. His name was Achilles, and he would become the greatest Greek hero of his time. Thetis, although she does not seem to have been thrilled at being the wife of a mortal, was very solicitous for the welfare of her son. She tried to make him immortal, either by burning away his mortal portions in a fire, or by dipping him in the river Styx (a river of the underworld). The second version of the story is probably the most famous. In this version, every part of Achilles' body that was touched by the water became invulnerable to harm; but Thetis held him by the heel of one foot as she dipped him, so the heel remained dry, and therefore was his one vulnerable spot (and, yes, this is where the term "Achilles' heel" comes from, and it is why you have an "Achilles tendon" behind your ankle).
Thetis also knew of a prophecy that Achilles would either live a short and glorious life, or a long and uneventful one. The gathering of the forces for the Trojan War made this a pressing problem, for Achilles was already known as a mighty warrior, and there was even a prophecy that Troy could not be taken without his help. So Thetis, wanting to preserve her son's life at all costs, disguised Achilles as a girl and hid him away among the maidens at the court of King Lycomedes of Scyros. There Achilles fell in love with Deidamia, the daughter of the king, and they had a son, Neoptolemus (also called Pyrrhus). The Greeks, of course, still wanted to recruit Achilles, and sent emissaries to Scyros. One of these emissaries, the wily Ulysses, placed some weapons and armor among a display of feminine finery, and Achilles betrayed his identity by his interest in the "masculine" items. He then went off, apparently quite willingly, to fight in the Trojan War.
Achilles did not live to see the end of the war. As Homer tells us in the Iliad, he quarreled with Agamemnon over the girl Briseis during the ninth year of the siege and withdrew from the fighting. After his best friend, Patroclus, was killed by the Trojan hero Hector, he returned to the combat with a vengeance. He killed Hector and desecrated his body, but he himself was killed a short time later by Paris, who shot him in the heel with an arrow. The war did not finally end until Ulysses, working with the Greek hero Diomedes, devised the stratagem of the Trojan horse. They tricked the Trojans into pulling the giant wooden horse, which was filled with Greek warriors, into the city; after everyone had gone to sleep that night, the warriors emerged and Troy was taken. The city was burned to the ground and most of the population was either killed or enslaved.
But while the war may have ended, the story of Troy was not over yet. According to a Roman legend which was elaborated by the poet Virgil, a band of Trojans survived the fall of their city. Led by Aeneas, who was a son of Venus and was related on his father's side to the royal house of Troy, they journeyed across the Mediterranean, eventually settling in Italy and founding Rome. As for the Greeks, many of them had difficult homecomings. Agamemnon reached his palace, only to be murdered there by his wife and her lover. Ulysses wandered the Mediterranean for ten more years, hounded by misfortune, before finally reaching Ithaca and being reunited (under tumultuous circumstances) with his wife and son. Menelaus was one of the few who experienced no problems. He returned to Sparta, where he and Helen settled back into happily married life.
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Last updated 06/23/2013