What is the Trojan War? - Summary, Facts & Heroes

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore one of ancient Greece's most fabled events, the Trojan War. We discuss the issues surrounding the event's authenticity, the main storyline, and review several of the story's main characters.

Trojan War

Some stories seem too incredible to be true. Sometimes it is because they involve unbelievable events, whose magnitude can barely be comprehended. Other times, it is because the stories include both fact and fiction, with rhetorical embellishments added by different storytellers over the ages.

One of these events which exists somewhere on that muddled spectrum between fact and fiction is the subject of this lesson, The Trojan War. In this lesson, we will explore the Trojan War, its historical basis, and the key events and figures of the story.

Fact or Fiction?

Almost all of the details historians have about the Trojan War come from the great, classical Greek poet, Homer. The events before, during, and after the Trojan War are detailed in Homer's two great works, Iliad and Odyssey. These accounts are filled with tales of divine intervention during the war by various Greek gods. They tell us much about Greek culture, customs, and military practices during the Bronze Age.

While these stories are terrific works of ancient Greek literature, for hundreds of years they were considered entirely fictional. Then, in the 1870s, an excavation led by the German businessman Heinrich Schliemann uncovered the ruins of a city on the coast of Asia Minor that was destroyed around 1250 B.C., about the same approximate date as the fabled destruction of Troy. Since that finding, more evidence of a historical Troy has been discovered, and historians have agreed that it's likely Troy existed and some sort of invasion by the Bronze-Age Greek city-states probably occurred.

That said, it likely did not occur in exactly the same fashion as detailed by Homer - godly intervention and all. The rest of this lesson will recount that popular Homeric version of the Trojan War and its main characters, but it is important to remember this is a work largely of fiction that approximates and embellishes a real life event; nothing more.

Summary

The dispute between Troy and the Greek city-states, according to Homer, began when Paris, son of Troy's King Priam, carried Helen back to Troy as a reward from the goddess, Aphrodite. Helen's husband, Menelaus, was not very happy his wife being taken across the Mediterranean. Menelaus enlisted his brother, Agamemnon, who gathered together all the other Greek kings and proposed an invasion of Troy to right this wrong.

According to Homer, the expedition set out with 100,000 men and over 1,100 ships. Once the army arrived outside the walls of Troy, Odysseus and Menelaus demanded Helen's surrender. Paris refused to give her up, and the Greeks swear to tear down Troy's walls. Troy, having a significantly inferior number of men, refused to fight the Greeks out in the open, and largely stayed inside the walls of Troy.

After a long siege, in the tenth and final year of the war, the Trojans fought the Greeks several times, and personal battles between several of the story's heroes took place. In the Homeric version, the gods intervened multiple times, protecting some characters while punishing others. Despite these epic battles, Troy remained unconquered. The Greeks resolved to finish the job through deception. They built a gigantic wooden horse and left it at the gates of Troy. Unbeknownst to the Trojans, the horse was filled with Greek soldiers. The Trojans watched as the rest of the Greeks burned their camp and seemingly left by ship. They celebrated their victory and took the horse inside their gates, viewing it as a gift from the departing Greeks.

Later that night, the Greeks within the horse descended and lit signal fires telling the Greek fleet at sea to return. Before the night was over, Troy was captured, most of its population enslaved, and the city destroyed.

Main Characters

Though this is the main story of the Trojan War, as told by Homer, there are numerous characters that play their part throughout the war. The following is a partial list of the principle characters:

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