Fall of Troy Marks End of Trojan War Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Mycenaean-Greek invaders defeated and almost completely destroyed Troy; their victory became a symbol of Greek dominance over Asia.

Summary of Event

Knowledge about the legendary Trojan War is based primarily on the Greek Homer’s poetic works, with supplementary information obtained from later writers. It is thought that Homer lived in the eighth century b.c.e., which means that he was writing about a war that occurred about five hundred years before his time. Homer relied entirely on legends that had been transmitted orally through the generations. Legends about the war had most likely become mixed with those of other military conflicts. As he was a poet rather than a historian, Homer’s primary objective in the Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611) and the Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614) was not to relate history “as it actually happened.” Clearly, he embellished the heroic aspects of the personalities to tell a good story and appeal to militaristic, aristocratic values. His religious interpretations attributing causation to the gods further diminished his concern about historical accuracy. Still, the majority of modern historians believe that Homeric legends had some foundation in a large-scale war that really occurred. Menelaus Helen Paris Agamemnon Achilles Odysseus Priam

No factual statements about particular incidents of the Trojan War are established beyond reasonable doubt. According to tradition, the war lasted ten years. Although the dates can only be approximations, it is generally accepted that the war took place during the later years of the Mycenaean-Greek civilization (named after the city of Mycenae), just before the onset of Greece’s Dark Ages. Because the term “Greek” was not commonly used during this early period, Homer uses the term “Achaeans” for the invaders from the Greek mainland.

According to legend, Achilles dragged the body of Hector behind his chariot during the Siege of Troy.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Until the nineteenth century, most scholars believed that Troy and the Trojan War were imaginary. Then in the 1870’s, archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann appeared to confirm that Greek tradition had been correct about the location of the legendary city. Later archaeologists discovered layers of nine or more cities located at the site of Schliemann’s excavation. Finding that the seventh of the cities was catastrophically destroyed around the traditional date of 1250 b.c.e., Carl Blegen and other scholars argued that these are most likely the remains of the legendary Troy. Others emphasize that it is impossible to determine if the catastrophe was caused by warfare, fire, or an earthquake.

According to legend, the Trojan War resulted from King Menelaus’s determination to get back his beautiful wife, the mythological goddess Helen, who had fled to Troy with Prince Paris. Most historians, however, find it unlikely that such a personal matter would have motivated a coalition of city-states to wage a large-scale war in a distant land for ten years. There is evidence that the strategically located Troy was often a prosperous center of trade. Given the history of imperialism, it is entirely possible that the Mycenaean-Greek invaders, under Agamemnon, wanted to obtain colonial hegemony over the region. Ancient writers, however, do not give any support for such a motivation. Some modern historians have concluded that the invaders had the more limited objective of destroying a military and commercial rival, while others have thought it likely that they were simply seeking the benefits of plundering a wealthy city. Possibly the invaders had more than one objective in mind.

After the siege of Troy had lasted about nine years, according to Homer’s account, Achilles, the champion fighter of the Greeks, killed Hector, the son of the Trojan king. Achilles then dragged his body around the walls in the dust of his chariot. This infuriated Paris, who shot Achilles in his vulnerable heel with a poisoned arrow. The wound became infected and Achilles died. As the stalemate continued, the Greek invaders were increasingly discouraged, and many of them insisted that they should return to their homes and families.

Before giving up, Odysseus (also known as Ulysses) devised a complex strategy that used a hollow wooden horse large enough to hold from twenty to fifty soldiers. The wooden horse carried an inscription of dedication to the goddess Athena, indicating that it was a religious offering to the goddess meant to ensure a safe return trip to Greece. Knowing that the Trojans venerated horses and had their own temple to Athena within their city, Odysseus expected them to take the structure inside the city gates. The Greeks then pretended to sail for home, but instead they hid their ships behind the nearby island of Tenedos. When the Trojans discovered the wooden horse, according to post-Homeric accounts, a priest of Apollo’s temple named Laocoon warned in vain that it was a trick of war. However, two fearful serpents killed Laocoon, and King Priam, fearing Athena’s wrath, ordered the Trojans to pull the horse into the city. Cassandra, Priam’s daughter who had a gift of prophecy, warned about the danger, but she was ridiculed.

That night, the Trojans celebrated the departure of the Greeks with gaiety and much wine. After most Trojans were asleep or in a drunken stupor, the concealed Greek soldiers descended from the horse with rope ladders, and thus they were able to open the gates for the returning Greek army. Sweeping through the city, the invaders slaughtered much of the population, burned the buildings, looted objects of value, and raped the women. Some versions claim that Odysseus ordered that the sons of Hector and other Trojan heroes be killed in order to prevent them from seeking revenge in the future. Achilles’s son Phrrhus killed King Priam, and the Greek soldiers sacrificed his daughter Polyxena at the tomb of Achilles. However, King Menelaus allowed Helen to live as his wife. After leaving Troy in ruins, the victorious Greeks celebrated their victory and boarded their ships. They offered prayers to Zeus for a safe return home.

The dramatic legend of the Trojan Horse is perhaps the most famous story of the Western world. The story does not appear in the Iliad, which deals only with a seven-week period during the last year of the war. In the Odyssey, the blind bard Demodocus (who perhaps represents Homer) mentions the role of a wooden horse in the Greeks’ victory, and Odysseus adds more details later in the poem. Homer’s reference to the horse inspired the imaginations of countless writers. Arctinus of Miletus, who lived in the seventh century b.c.e., invented the mythical story of Laocoon in The Sack of Ilium (now lost). A few centuries later, the Roman poet Vergil made the story even more dramatic in the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553), claiming that the Trojan prince Aeneas had escaped and traveled to Italy.

In the second century c.e., Latin historian Pausanias the Traveler, in Periegesis Hellados (between 143 and 161 c.e.; Description of Greece, 1794), refused to take the story of the wooden horse at face value. He suggested that it must have referred to some kind of battering ram or other war machine. There is, however, no evidence that the Greeks ever used such an instrument during either Mycenaean or Homeric times. Some modern historians suggest that the story of the wooden horse might have been based on a tactical ruse that Greek soldiers used at Troy or in another battle. Regardless of its historical validity, the story continues to be a powerful metaphor of deception and foolish gullibility.

Significance

It appears that the immediate consequences of the Trojan War were limited to the unfortunate residents of Troy. There is no evidence that the Mycenaean Greeks tried to establish military or commercial bases in the region. If the king of Mycenae had led a confederation of city-states, which many historians deny, there is no evidence that the alliance was long-lasting. The Greeks’ victory over Troy might possibly have promoted the economic dominance of the Greek mainland, but it is also possible that the costs of the campaign contributed to the decline of the Mycenaean-Greek civilization.

The war later became symbolic of the Greeks’ belief that they were destined to dominate southwestern Asia. The stories of Achilles and other heroes, moreover, encouraged values of patriotism and militarism. Alexander the Great was an enthusiastic reader of Homer during his youth. When invading Asia Minor in 335 b.c.e., Alexander apparently imagined himself to be following in the footsteps of Achilles.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allen, Susan Henck. Finding the Walls of Troy: Frank Calvat and Heinrich Schliemann at Hisarlik. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. An examination of the archaeological evidence regarding Troy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, Michael J. The Fall of Troy in Early Greek Poetry and Art. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1997. A study of how the Trojan War was portrayed in art works and literature.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Erskine, Andrew. Troy Between Greece and Rome: Local Tradition and Imperial Power. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. An analysis of the relationship among Troy, Greece, and Rome.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Luce, John Victor. Celebrating Homer’s Landscapes: Troy and Ithaca Revisited. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998. Includes excellent discussions of the excavations of Troy and the historical validity of Homeric legends.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nilsson, Martin. Homer and Mycenae. 1933. Reprint. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972. Although somewhat dated, it provides a useful analysis of Homer’s relationship to Mycenaean history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Page, Denys. History and the Homeric “Iliad.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966. Examines the archaeological evidence and argues that the Iliad was based on a core of historical reality.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shear, Ione Mylonas. Tales of Heroes: The Origins of the Homeric Texts. New York: A. D. Caratzas, 2000. The origin of the Iliad and Odyssey are analyzed. Discussion of weapons and archaeology included.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tuchman, Barbara. The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984. Includes an interesting analysis of the Trojan War, emphasizing the legend of the wooden horse.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wood, Michael. In Search of the Trojan War. 1985. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Scholarly and rather technical discussions of the archaeological aspects of the topic, with many beautiful illustrations.

Categories: History Content