Siege of Troy
Such were the accounts which the Greeks believed of their own early days. We come now to their great story of the Siege of Troy, which in its general outlines is real history, the actions attributed in it to the gods being only such as a religious man would naturally accept as explaining the doings of the mortals. Homer begins the tale with the gods, explaining how they sowed enmity among mankind. Jupiter had decided that men were once more growing too numerous and powerful, so he resolved not only to plunge them into war, but also to involve the gods themselves in the quarrel, that it might be pursued to the bitter end. Therefore, in the counsel of the gods he introduced a golden apple to be given "to the fairest." Naturally, his wife Juno claimed it. So also did Venus, the beautiful goddess of love, and Minerva, the sternly fair goddess of wisdom. They agreed to refer the question to the decision of a young shepherd lad, Paris, who was really a son of the king of Troy. Each of the goddesses tried to bribe their young judge with promises of gifts. Venus proffered him the fairest woman in the world to be his wife for ten years; and Paris decided in her favor. The other two goddesses determined to be avenged upon him.
Now, the most beautiful woman in the world was Helen, the daughter of the king of Sparta in Greece. All the princes of Greece were wooing her. Chief among the wooers was Agamemnon, prince of Mycenae, which you will remember was at this time the most powerful city of Greece, the main seat of the Achaean power. Then there was Menelaus, the brother of Agamemnon, and a host of others. Helen chose Menelaus, who wedded her and became king of Sparta. Then Venus, in fulfilment of her promise, sent Paris to Sparta. He, the handsomest man of his time, and Helen, the most beautiful woman, fell in love with each other at sight; and she fled with him to Troy. Menelaus summoned the other Greeks to his aid. All the princes who had wooed Helen had vowed to aid her husband if any one injured him, so now all of them gathered for the war with Troy. Agamemnon, as king of Mycenae, was-chosen as their leader.
Let us pause to review the situation. Troy was not a fancy of the poets; it was a really existing city. Its remains have been discovered and explored. They lie on the coast of Asia Minor close to Europe, just across the narrow strait which we call the Hellespont, leading from the Aegean Sea toward the Black Sea. Troy, then, we know to have been a rich metropolis, which was actually plundered and destroyed about the time assigned for the Trojan war (1184 B.C.). Its people were of the old Aegean race, akin therefore to the Greeks, though possibly less touched by the Cretan culture, and with no mixture of Achaean blood. We may take for granted these chief facts, that the European Greeks attacked Troy, that they were led by Agamemnon, an Achaean, king of Mycenae, and that most of their chieftains were of Achaean race. They destroyed Troy; they laid waste all of the surrounding region; and after ten years of rapine they returned to Greece, carrying many captives, and leaving the Aegean peoples of the Asiatic coast exhausted and well-nigh exterminated.
Of the minor details of the story, we can not feel equally assured. The chief figures of the war as later Greeks knew them were those already mentioned, and the two poetical heroes, Achilles, who dominates Homer's "Iliad," and Ulysses, or Odysseus, who is the centre of his "Odyssey." Achilles is the only superhuman figure of the tale. He was the son of Peleus, of Thessaly, one of the Argonauts, and of Thetis, a sea-nymph. At his birth his mother held him in the fire to sear away the mortal part of him and make him all immortal like herself. Or, according to another legend, she dipped him in the River of Death, and thereby made him impervious to weapons. In either case she held him by the heel, so that his heel remained mortal or unprotected, and there alone could he be injured.
Achilles is the great fighting hero of the Greeks. While his compatriots were besieging Troy, he led his own Thessalian troops against the other Asiatic cities, the allies of Troy. These he captured and destroyed one after another, and then at last, after nine years of fighting, joined the other Greeks. Hitherto they had barely held their own against the mighty Trojans; but now, with Achilles' help, they renewed the contest, confident of victory. Achilles, however, quarrelled with King Agamemnon and remained brooding in his tent. Without him the Greeks proved no match for the Trojans and their great warrior leader, Hector. He put them to flight and slew the bosom friend of Achilles. Then at last the mighty Greek warrior roused himself, and, coming forth in fiercest anger, fought with Hector. All of the gods took part in the combat. Juno and Neptune had previously aided the Greeks. Minerva, the enemy of Paris and of Troy, now aided Achilles. Apollo sought to shield Hector. At last Jove himself enforced his decree that final victory must rest with the Greeks. Hector was slain; and with this victory of Achilles, Homer ends his song of Troy.
From other poems we gather further details. The Trojans continued to resist. Their aged king, Priam, had many sons, and, though Hector, the greatest of them all, was slain, there remained Paris, who was no mean warrior. Then there was AEneas, whom the Roman poet, Virgil, represents as the founder of Rome. These held the Greeks in check. The Ethiopians came to aid the Trojans. So also did the Amazons; and though the queen of these latter was slain by Achilles, he himself perished soon afterward. He was shot in that vulnerable heel of his by an arrow from Paris; or perhaps the fatal dart was sent by the god Apollo himself, the archer of the sun, who had befriended Hector.
The capture of Troy was at last brought about by Ulysses, the hero of Homer's second great poem. Ulysses was the wisest and shrewdest of all the Greeks. He was king of the island of Ithaca, which lies on the west coast of Greece. He had been one of the suitors of Helen, but soon withdrew from the contest for her hand, perceiving that she who was wooed by so many was likely to prove a most unsatisfactory wife for any one. Instead, Ulysses turned to Penelope, the cousin of Helen, less dazzlingly beautiful, but far more admirable.
Happy in his kingly home and his devoted wife, Ulysses had been most unwilling to leave both for the siege of Troy. When the messengers came to summon him in accordance with the oath which he and the other suitors had made to protect Helen's husband, Ulysses put them off by pretending to be insane. He yoked a horse and a bull to a plow, and began plowing up the sand of the seashore and sowing it with salt, crying out that soon he would have a fine crop of salt waves. The messengers despaired of holding this madman to his promise. But Palamedes, who, next to Ulysses, was accounted the shrewdest of all the Greeks, took the little infant son of Ulysses and Penelope and laid the babe in the path of the father's plow. Ulysses turned his team aside to save the child, and then the messengers saw that this supposed madman knew very well what he was doing. So he had to go with them; but he never forgave Palamedes, and long afterward brought about his death.
Ulysses was noted for other qualities as well as craft. In the games held at the siege of Troy, he outran the swiftest of the Greeks. After the death of Achilles he outmatched the strongest of the Greeks in battle; and the armor of Achilles was awarded to him as having achieved more than any one else against the Trojans. Finally it was Ulysses who hit upon the stratagem by which Troy was captured.
At his command the Greeks built a huge horse of wood, in which he and as many other warriors as possible concealed themselves. The rest of the Greeks pretended to give up the siege, and withdrew from the city. The exultant Trojans rushed out to explore, and roamed through the abandoned camps. Gathering round the gigantic horse, they stared at it in wonder and amazement. then a Greek, who had remained behind for that purpose, came out of his hiding-place, and declared himself a deserter from his countrymen. He told the Trojans that the colossal horse was a magic animal, and that so long as they kept it their city could not be captured. The delighted Trojans seized hold of the monstrous thing to drag it within their walls, though numerous warnings came to stay their folly.
Cassandra, one of King Priam's daughters, possessed the power of looking into the future, but unhappily she always seemed to be prophesying evil, and therefore was discredited. Sometimes you hear a person called a "Cassandra" which is another way of saying she is a prophet of evil. When Cassandra saw the intention of her countrymen, she wrung her hands, and begged them to leave the huge structure alone; but they were so happy over the seemingly triumphant ending of the long war that they only laughed at her wailing.
Among the Trojan priests was Laocoon, who added his warnings to those of Cassandra, saying that he distrusted the Greeks always, but most when they left gifts. The priest drove his spear into the wooden horse, and all were startled by hearing a groan from within. In truth, one of the hidden Greeks had been wounded by the spear. Then Jupiter, having determined on the destruction of the city, bade Neptune send two enormous serpents, which came gliding up out of the sea, and strangled Laocoon and his two sons in their coils.
Nothing could check the infatuated Trojans. The great wooden horse was dragged into the city. The guilty Helen suspected what it contained, and, lingering near the monster in the twilight, she called to the various Greek chieftains alluringly, imitating the voices of their wives. One of them called out in answer; but meanwhile, in the darkness of the night, the Grecian army had again silently surrounded the walls. The Greeks within the wooden horse rushed out and opened the gates to their comrades, who burst into Troy. The celebrated city was thus captured and reduced to ashes.
Many and savage were the outrages committed by the ravaging Greeks upon the foes who had so long withstood them. Helen, however, whom one would have thought the worst offender, was pardoned. Varied excuses for her were offered by the later Greek poets. She had been under a spell laid on her by Venus; or she had been a helpless victim; or, most remarkable of all, she never went to Troy at all, but was carried off by Venus and kept hidden in Egypt while a magic image of her was given to Paris and deceived the Greeks. At any rate, she was restored to Menelaus, the reunited pair visited Egypt together in harmony and then returned to a peaceful life of domesticity in Sparta.
Few of the other Greek leaders were so fortunate. Almost every one of them, having been absent from his own kingdom for over ten years, returned to find tragedy of one sort or another. Agamemnon was murdered by his wife, who had found another love. As for Ulysses, the god Neptune had taken offence at him, and would not let him cross the seas at all to return to his beloved Penelope. One storm after another drove him from his course. One by one his followers succumbed to privation and disaster, until he alone returned to their native home, after an absence of twenty years. He had been in the country of the lotos-eaters, a dreamy land, where fruit fell constantly around the people for their sustenance, and none ever worked, but drowsed in idleness until old age and death ended their worthless existence. He had been among the cannibals, among the Cyclops, great giants with only a single eye. He had withstood the enchantments of Circe, a famous sorceress, who turned all men who visited her into beasts; and he had even visited the underworld of Hades.
During all this time his wife Penelope had even sadly awaited his return, watching across the waters; and her pathetic figure has become typical to us of all wives who have to watch and wait. Her friends tried to persuader her that he must be dead, and many suitors gathered in the palace. They became clamorous, insisting that she choose a husband from among them, to take Ulysses' place and rule the country. To evade them, she said she must finish a wonderful shroud she was weaving for her aged father; and on this she undid each night what they had seen her finish in the day. So that now, any work always being labored on, but never advancing, is called "Penelope's web."
At last the suitors would not longer be put off. They declared there should be a great feast, and they would force her to wed whichever of them proved able to bend Ulysses' great bow. At the trial an old beggar-man came in; and, in drunken sport, amid sneers and taunts, they allowed him also to try the bow. The beggar was Ulysses himself, home at last, though ragged, worn, and solitary; and he, who had matched himself against giants, was not likely to be awed or overcome by these idle roisterers. He bent the bow and sent an arrow through their leader. His weeping wife recognized him. His young son, Telemachus, joined him, and together they drove the drunken mob from the palace. Ulysses was the last survivor of all the great chiefs who had fought against Troy.