Generally speaking, the Iliad is the oldest piece of western literature that has survived into modern times. It is presumed to date from the eighth century BCE, i.e. 750 BCE, and to have been written by the poet, Homer. Modern translations of the Iliad are taken from the oldest complete manuscripts in existence, which date from the tenth century CE but there are papyri from the third century BCE that contain portions of the poem.
There has been a long-standing dispute as to whether Homer was the sole author of the Iliad and also as to whether the original format of the poem was written or oral. The vocabulary and poetic consistency of the poem leads most researchers to assume that Homer was, in fact, the sole author of the poem but the debate still goes on. The sheer length of the poem (approximately 15,691 lines) suggests that it was written and not oral but there is no definitive answer to that question either. The poem has been divided into twenty-four books, presumably for each letter of the Greek alphabet, but this convention was not necessarily part of the original format.
The name, Iliad, comes from one of the earliest names for Troy, Ilion. The poem describes the final year of the ten-year siege of the city of Troy by the mainland Greeks, who are referred to as Argives and Achaeans. The story ends abruptly before the final victory of the Greeks and, contrary to popular belief, does not mention the famed Trojan Horse, the murder of the Trojan men or the subjugation of the Trojan women.
The Iliad was the precursor to a series of poems appropriately called the Epic Cycle. An unknown number of poems were written to complement the Iliad and dealt with the fall of Troy from a variety of perspectives. Most of the Epic Cycle poems are lost and with the exception of the Odyssey, the surviving poems exist only in fragments.
The sequel to the Iliad, the Odyssey, is also attributed to Homer and in it we are given further details about the Trojan Horse and the fall of Troy. Whereas the Odyssey can be classified as an adventure story, the Iliad is more of a war chronicle. It tells of the assembly of the armies, the ten years of stalemate and, finally, the intervention of the gods and goddesses to bring the war to a bloody conclusion. The bloodshed and brutality are horrific but we are also given a glimpse into the noble minds and spiritual natures of the warriors who, although they are fighting as pawns of the Olympian Immortals, proudly exercise the logic and mores of their age. Pillaging and slavery were common, accepted practices in the ancient Greek world and the warriors spoke proudly of looting cities and abducting young women. These concepts are appalling to most modern people but even in this day and age, we still see harsh examples of these barbaric practices. The Greeks and Trojans were proud of their ways of life and found no contradiction in the nobility of freedom and the practicality of keeping slaves. They had no qualms about burning a neighboring city and then becoming morally outraged when their city was threatened with the same fate.
The fall of Troy can be dated to circa 1240 BCE and is the period of Greek history where the last of the half-mortal, half-divine heroes walked upon the earth. The most famous hero, Herakles, preceded the Trojan War by one generation and the demigod warriors depicted in the Iliad are the last of their kind to live and procreate on the earth. When Troy fell, the Bronze Age was coming to an end and the Iron Age was dawning. The warriors of the Ashen Spear were destined for the Underworld and mortal men and women were left to live their lives on the surface of the earth with the portions of happiness and sorrow allotted by the Olympian Gods.
The Trojan War was a ten year war between the Trojans and the Achaean Greeks who sought to retrieve Helen from her supposed kidnapper, Prince Alexandros of Troy. Prince Alexandros is also called Paris but his name appears in the text predominately as Alexandros.
The cause of the war cannot be blamed on the Trojans or the Achaean Greeks. The kidnapping of Helen from her Greek husband by Trojan Prince Alexandros was only the superficial reason for the war. Zeus decreed that there would be a long and bloody war to punish and diminish the human race. Thousands of mortal men and women would have to die to achieve that goal. Also, many of the demigod children of the Immortals would have to die before Troy could be conquered.
Helen was the most beautiful woman ever born. She was the daughter of Zeus and a mortal woman named Leda. Theseus, the future king of Athens, kidnapped Helen when she was a young girl because he could not resist her beauty when he saw her dancing at the temple of Artemis at Sparta. Helen was finally rescued by her brothers but the incident made Helen's foster father, King Tyndareus of Sparta, wary of Helen's future. When it came time to choose a husband for Helen, King Tyndareus made a very wise and fateful decision. When his palace was besieged with suitors for Helen, he immediately realized that no matter which man he chose to be Helen's husband, there would always be the possibility of her being kidnapped again. Tyndareus made all the suitors swear a solemn and sacred oath that they would come to Helen's rescue if she was ever taken from her chosen husband. All the suitors took the oath and Helen was finally married to Prince Menelaos of Mykenai.
Aphrodite, the goddess of love, arranged for Prince Alexandros to visit Menelaos and Helen at Sparta. When Menelaos was called away on business, Aphrodite enchanted Alexandros and Helen … they fell hopelessly in love, took Helen's wedding dowry and fled to Troy. Menelaos did not understand that Aphrodite was involved and assumed that Alexandros had kidnapped his wife and stolen the dowry. Menelaos called on his brother Agamemnon to help rescue Helen because King Agamemnon of Mykenai was the most powerful man in Greece. The call went out to all the rich and noble men who had once been suitors of Helen. They came willingly to fulfill the oath they had made to protect Helen. The most notable exception was Achilles. He had been too young to be a suitor of Helen but he voluntarily joined Agamemnon and Menelaos simply for the pleasure of fighting in a war.
An armada of over 1,183 ships with approximately sixty thousand men sailed for Troy. The Trojans called on their allies to help protect the city and they were waiting for the Achaeans when the first ships arrived. Protesilaos was the first Greek soldier to set foot on the beach at Troy and he was immediately killed by Trojan Prince Hektor. The war continued for nine years without either side being able to achieve a decisive victory.
Several attempts were made to find a peaceful alternative to the war. Odysseus and Menelaos went to King Priam of Troy and diplomatically asked that Helen be returned. Priam refused but since the war was divinely decreed, such negotiations were doomed before they began.
In the tenth year of the war, the Immortals entered the fighting. Apollon rained arrows on the Achaean Greeks because Agamemnon offended his priest Chryses by refusing the ransom he offered for his captive daughter, Chryseis. Agamemnon appeased Apollon by returning Chryseis but enraged Achilles by taking his captive girl Briseis as a replacement for Chryseis.
Another failed attempt to end the war was initiated by Prince Alexandros. He challenged Menelaos to a one-on-one fight for Helen and her dowry. Both sides agreed that the winner of the personal combat would decide the war … if Menelaos won, the Trojans would surrender their city … if Alexandros won, the Achaeans would leave Trojan territory and never return. Menelaos knocked Alexandros to the ground and was going to win the fight when Aphrodite snatched Alexandros from the battlefield before the death blow could be delivered. A dispute immediately arose because the Achaeans believed that Menelaos had clearly won the fight but the goddess Athene decided the question with a subtle manipulation of one of the Trojan archers. She took the guise of a mortal and persuaded a soldier named Pandaros to shoot an arrow into the Achaeans thus wounding Menelaos. The war began again.
Because of his anger towards Agamemnon, Achilles refused to fight and the Achaeans started suffering defeat after defeat until the Trojans were able to set fire to the Achaean ships. Achilles's companion Patroklos donned Achilles's armor, mounted Achilles's chariot and rode onto the fighting to make the Trojans and Achaeans think that the most dangerous man on earth had returned to the battlefield. The ruse worked until Patroklos became too bold and got too close to the walls of Troy. Apollon knocked Patroklos to the ground and Prince Hektor killed him. The fight for the possession of Achilles's armor and the body of Patroklos was one of the most intense confrontations of the war. Hektor was able to take Achilles's armor but the body of Patroklos was rescued and returned to Achilles.
Achilles put aside all his anger towards Agamemnon and was given new armor crafted by the god Hephaistos. Achilles raged into the Trojan defenses and killed every Trojan man and beast he encountered. His intention was to fight his way to Prince Hektor and exact revenge for the death of his beloved companion Patroklos. Zeus weighed the souls of Achilles and Hektor and decided that it was time for Hektor to die.
The death of Hektor was a truly sad affair. He tried to reason with Achilles but Achilles was splattered with blood and gore and would only be satisfied when he killed Hektor and disgraced his body in full view of his family. Achilles tied Hektor's body to his chariot and dragged it around the city walls so that every Trojan could see the results of his heartless victory.
The account of the Trojan War in the Iliad ends shortly after the death of Prince Hektor. We are given the rest of the story in the Odyssey and the fragmentary remains of the Epic Cycle.
The Trojans found new strength and continued to fight valiantly. The Achaeans were forced to accept the fact that they would never win the war with their ineffective siege strategy. Odysseus proposed a clever plan whereby the Trojans would open their gates and expose the city to its ultimate doom. By all accounts, Odysseus was a clever man and it should not be surprising that he could conceive such a novel idea as constructing a Wooden Horse, which could conceal a small group of warriors. Athene was clearly on the side of the Achaean Greeks and her inspiration helped a man named Epeios design and build the Wooden Horse Odysseus suggested. The idea was to leave the Wooden Horse in front of the gates of Troy to entice the Trojans to accept it as a peace offering declaring the end of the war. The Achaeans would complete the charade by sailing their ships to a nearby island out of sight of the Trojans. By all appearances, the Achaeans had given up the war and sailed for home.
Some of the Trojans thought the Wooden Horse was a symbol of peace and a tribute to the goddess Athene. Others thought the Wooden Horse was a trick and should be burned where it stood. The Trojan seer Laokoon tried to warn King Priam that the Wooden Horse was a trick and not a peace offering but Poseidon, lord of the sea, who was also on the side of the Greeks, sent one of his giant sea-serpents to kill Laokoon and one (or both) of his sons. King Priam assumed that Laokoon was killed because he was giving false prophecy and made arrangements for the Wooden Horse to be brought into the city.
Helen had been living with the Trojans for ten years and was sympathetic to their survival even though her Spartan husband, Menelaos, was in the Greek army fighting to free her from her supposed captivity. Helen knew the Greeks well and suspected a trick when she saw the Wooden Horse. After the horse was brought into the city, Helen walked around it imitating the voices of different men's wives to see if any of the men she suspected to be hiding in the horse would answer. With one exception, all the men hiding inside the horse remained silent. Odysseus forcefully restrained a man named Antiklos when he tried to answer Helen's convincing imitation of his wife.
After a day and night of celebration, the Trojans collapsed into a state of exhaustion. The soldiers inside the Wooden Horse emerged from hiding and opened the gates of the city. The entire invading army entered the city and the final stage of the carnage began. With the aid of Apollon, Prince Alexandros was allowed to kill Achilles but this feat only guaranteed Alexandros's own death at the hands of Achilles's son, Neoptolemos. The slaughter of the Trojans went beyond 'casualties of war' and became atrocities. Odysseus, who was an otherwise civilized and noble individual, threw Hektor's infant son from the walls of Troy. King Priam was killed while seeking sanctuary in the temple of Athene. Princess Polyxena, who was only a young girl, was butchered at the grave of Achilles as if she were an animal. The walls of Troy were finally toppled and every Trojan citizen was either killed or enslaved.
The death toll of the Trojan War was not yet complete. King Agamemnon was killed by his wife as soon as he returned to his palace in Mykenai. The valiant fighter Telamonian Aias was drowned by Poseidon and of the 2,400 men who went to Troy with Odysseus, all but Odysseus perished in the war or on the voyage home.
The Trojan War was one of the most glorious and savage events of Western Civilization. The will of the Immortals was accomplished with the curious side effect that some of the warriors who fought in the war are still remembered while the immortal gods and goddesses who perpetuated the war are mostly forgotten.