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The Trojan War and the Symbol of the Trojan Horse

written by: Andrea Campbell • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 5/29/2015

Ancient Romans and Greeks used mythology (a combination of folklore, history and customs) as a way to deal with life. The gods and goddesses, monsters, battles and warriors in stories such as The Trojan Horse helped illustrate the pitfalls of character flaws and challenges against historical events.

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    The City of Troy

    The Trojan War Study Guide After extensive archeological digging, historians speculate that the hill of Hissarlik in western Turkey contains the remains of nine cities and that the real Troy existed there over 3,000 years ago. Because of a discovery of remains by German adventurer Heinrich Schliemann in 1870, some experts believe that Homer’s poems may be based on a real war that took place in 1250 BC.

    The people of ancient Greece, the Mycenaeans, lived in small independent city-states. This area of Greece was separated from Turkey by the Aegean Sea—but the people in both regions shared a way of life, language, and religious beliefs—even though each kingdom was separate from others in its government.

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    Cast of Characters

    One of the most interesting aspects of Greek mythology is the fact that mere mortals (human beings who can die) are thrown into the mix with immortals (gods, goddesses and other deities), who cannot die. In this way, the gods who watch from above can manipulate the story and they can change the odds of a battle, make things more difficult for their foes or help heroes behave like heroes. Since the gods are able to meddle into the affairs of humans, beasts and other deities on earth, anything can be created: romance, epic battles, and allegories –characters and events that represent other things and that symbolically express a deeper spiritual, moral (or even political) outcome.

    The cast of characters for the Trojan War is immense. The ones who are the glue that hold the story together are:

    Achilles: Born of Peleus, a mortal man and Thetis, a goddess of the sea. He will be a champion of the Achaean army.

    Agamemnon: He is brother to the king of Sparta, Menelaus and leader of the Achaeans; he brings the Greek armies together.

    Helen: The wife of King Menelaus. Paris kidnapped her and carried her away to Troy. The Achaeans go to war with the Trojans to get her back. You could say she is one of the inciting incidents.

    Paris: Paris is the man who takes Helen, the wife of Menelaus and (the most beautiful woman in Greece with a “face that launched a thousand ships"); Paris is the son of King Priam of Troy.

    Hector: Another son of King Priam of Troy; a champion of the Trojan army.

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    Setting

    Troy, the city, is a character almost in itself, an ancient city-state on the coast of Turkey across the sea from Sparta built to withstand a siege. Boats came and went from the harbor, bringing trade and much needed goods. Troy was also famous for its horse breeding. The grand palace stood inside the citadel, on the summit of a hill. All palaces had a shrine and this one paid homage to Aphrodite the goddess of love, Apollo the god of music and prophecy, and Ares the god of war.

    The two states, Mycenae and Troy, were in good stead, but things changed. Chiefs, not kings, ruled the Mycenaeans and their main method of gaining wealth was to plunder. Raiding parties would attack other cities rousting their people and stealing their wealth. They didn’t have temples for their gods, but instead, gave offerings or made sacrifices from their own homes. They were strongly fortified in Greece with thick stone walls. They had secreted a water supply in the event of an attack and an army was always in wait.

    Troy had a huge wall—some say 20 feet high—surrounding the city as a matter of protection. People farmed outside the gates but when war threatened, they all moved into this protective environment.

    Rumors had it that there were other causes for the Trojan War besides the kidnapping of Helen; for example, bad harvests may have caused the Mycenaean kings to take up cause in the war in an attempt to feed their people upon victory.

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    Apple of Discord

    It all began at a wedding. Two gods, Zeus and Poseidon both loved the goddess Thetis. A prophecy told the gods that Thetis would one day have a son named Achilles who would be greater than his father. Zeus and Poseidon didn’t like anyone who would be a threat to their own power, so they decided Thetis should marry a mortal named Peleus. (Of course, a great hero was born from this marriage anyway.)

    An annoying figure named Eris, the goddess of Discord, was left off the wedding list. She crashed the wedding, threw out a golden apple and said it belonged to the fairest. Three vain goddesses at the party, Hera, Athena and Aphrodite all wanted the apple. Zeus said that Paris of Troy would make the choice and Aphrodite told Paris that if she got the apple, she would make Helen of Sparta his wife. Never mind that she was already married to Menelaus, the King of Sparta. Thus begins the Trojan War.

    All the kings of Greece rallied to get her back—not to mention, but on departure, she had taken great treasures with her! Previous suitors for Helen were called upon to defend the claim of the one who was chosen her husband (there is always some promise or honor in tales). Sailing to Troy, they besieged the city for nine years. Of course, gods and goddesses on the Greek side and gods and goddesses on the Trojan side give gifts, make sacrifices, control the weather, create a plague, manipulate the characters and smite their enemies.

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    The Trojan Horse

    The war dragged on and there was some attempt at treaty but that never happened and Troy held firm. There were many skirmishes. The Greeks raided the countryside around Troy, but it seemed the two sides would never come to "battle is finished."

    One day, the Greek king Odysseus of Ithaca had an idea. He commanded his men to build a huge hollow wooden horse on wheels.

    Soon, many more soldiers pretended to abandon the effort and set sail for home, acting as if they had given up, and they closed up camp. In reality, they just packed themselves inside the horse.

    The next morning, the Trojans found the horse. They asked a Greek fellow, Sinon, whose company had left him behind, what it meant. He told them “It was an offering to Athena, the goddess of wisdom borne intact with a shield, the patron goddess of the city of Athens and war." He explained that the Greeks had offended their goddess and had given up the siege to appease her.

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    The Iconic Horse

    The people of Troy carried on much debate about what it meant. Priam’s daughter Cassandra tried to warn them to leave it alone. Another man, Laocoon, a priest of Poseidon’s saw through the trap and tried to warn the Trojans by thrusting a sword into the horse. Athena sent a sea serpent to silence him and his sons. When he was swallowed whole, the Trojans took it as a sign that he had spoken falsely and gotten his just desserts.

    The Trojans had to break down a wall to get the huge horse inside. They took it as a peace offering (they also did not want to offend Athena) and the whole situation became a victory party with much libation, dancing and wild abandon.

    When nighttime fell, the Greek soldiers inside the horse made their way out and sacked the city of Troy from within. Many Trojan men were killed, women raped and every able person taken back to Greece as slaves.

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    More to Know

    Because of this event you will hear, “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts," the warning of Laocoon. Other terms and phrases such as “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth" and even Trojan computer viruses also allude to the Trojan Horse.

    Two other famous works about individual characters of the Trojan War are Agamemnon, written by Aeschylus; and Ajax, penned by Sophocles in play form, about the hero who went mad, leading to his death.

    The most famous account of the Trojan War is found in a book called the Iliad, written by the Greek poet Homer. Homer is a bit of a mysterious author but the historian Herodotus muses he would have lived sometime around 850 BC.

    The Trojan Horse story is not actually in the Iliad but is told in Virgil’s Aeneid and other ancient stories.

References

  • Wood, Michael. In Search of the Trojan War. London, BBC Books, 2005. Book.
  • History.com: Trojan War
  • Ancient Greece for Kids
  • Edmondson, Elizabeth. The Trojan War: Great Battles and Sieges. New York: New Discovery Books, 1992.
  • Ferrell, David L. Achilles and the Trojan War. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 2014. Book.