A History of Ancient Greece

The Glory That Was Greece

Author: Jewsbury, Lewis

Date: 1992


800 BC: Homeric writings

1186 BC: The Trojan War

Although the Trojan War was the subject of legend and myth in the writings of Homer, there is little doubt that some great conflict took place that resulted in Greek expansion into the coast of Asia Minor and the extension of trade into the Black Sea. Excavations by the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann in the late 19th century revealed that the city of Troy was a prosperous center as far back as 3000 BC. The ten-year war is believed to have taken place in the early 12th century BC.

According to legend, Paris, the son of Troy's King Priam, abducted Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta. Menelaus's brother, King Agamemnon of Mycenae, waged war to regain Helen, who was famous for her beauty. The war over Helen is the source of the saying, "the face that launched a thousand ships."

Homer's poem the 'Iliad' begins in the middle of the war. The tale centers on the battle itself, particularly on the character of the Greek hero Achilles and his personal vendetta against Hector, leader of the Trojan forces. This early tale of the triumphs and tragedies of war is considered an epic, a work that chronicles the legendary history of a nation.


Among the Greeks who fought against Troy, the one considered the bravest was Achilles. His mother was the goddess Thetis, a Nereid (sea nymph). His father was Peleus, king of Thessaly and a grandson of Zeus, the lord of heaven. It was at the wedding feast of Thetis and Peleus that the goddess Eris (Discord) hurled among the guests a golden apple that was to cause the Trojan War.

Soon after the birth of Achilles, Thetis tried to outwit the Fates, who had foretold that war would cut down her son in his prime. So that no weapon might ever wound him, she dipped her baby in the black waters of the Styx, the river that flowed around the underworld. Only the heel by which she held him was untouched by the magic waters, and this was the only part of his body that could be wounded. This is the source of the expression Achilles' heel, meaning a vulnerable point.

When the Trojan War began, Achilles' mother, fearing that the decree of the Fates would prove true, dressed him as a girl and hid him among the maidens at the court of the king of Scyros. The trick did not succeed. Odysseus, the shrewdest of the Greeks, went to the court disguised as a peddler. When he had spread his wares before the girls, a sudden trumpet blast was sounded. The girls screamed and fled, but Achilles betrayed his sex by seizing a sword and spear from the peddler's stock.

Achilles joined the battle and took command of his father's men, the Myrmidons. They set an example of bravery for the other Greeks. Then he quarreled with Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks, over a captive whom he loved. When she was taken from him, he withdrew his followers from the fight and sulked in his tent. As a result the Greek armies were driven back to their ships by the Trojans.

At last, moved by the plight of the Greeks, Achilles entrusted his men and his armor to Patroclus, his best friend. Thus, when Patroclus led the Myrmidons into battle, the Trojans mistook him for Achilles and fled in panic. Patroclus, however, was killed by Hector, the leader of the Trojans. Achilles' armor became the prize of Hector. Angered and stricken by grief, Achilles vowed to kill Hector. Meanwhile, his mother hastened to Olympus to beg a new suit of armor from Hephaestus, god of the forge. Clad in his new armor, Achilles again went into battle. He slew many Trojans, and the rest--except for Hector--fled within their city. Achilles then killed Hector.

Although the Trojans had now lost their leader, they were able to continue fighting with the help of other nations. Achilles broke the strength of these allies by killing Memnon, prince of the Ethiopians, and Penthesilea, queen of the Amazons

Achilles was now weary of war and, moreover, had fallen in love with Polyxena, sister of Hector. To win her in marriage he consented to ask the Greeks to make peace. He was in the temple arranging for the marriage when Hector's brother, Paris, shot him with a poisoned arrow in the only vulnerable part of his body--the heel.


Most of what is known of the ancient Greek hero Agamemnon is narrated in the Homeric legend of the 'Iliad' and in the dramas of Aeschylus. The son of Atreus, who was the king of Mycenae in Greece, Agamemnon was probably a historical personage, a king who ruled either at Mycenae or at nearby Argos during the Trojan War. From the mythic tales of the ancient Greeks, however, it is impossible to separate fact from legend.

The stories relate that Agamemnon was the brother of Menelaus, king of Sparta, whose wife, Helen, was carried off to Troy by Paris, a prince of that city in Asia Minor. This event led Agamemnon to muster the military might of the Greek city-states in a war of revenge. After the long war and the eventual destruction of Troy, he sailed home to his wife, Clytemnestra, and his family. Upon arriving, he was murdered either by his wife or by her lover, Aegisthus.

To avenge this treachery, Agamemnon's son, Orestes, killed both Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. The story of this revenge and its outcome is told in three plays by Aeschylus--'Agamemnon', 'Choephoroi', and 'Eumenides'. It is also the basis of the plot in the 'Electra' of Sophocles and the 'Electra' of Euripides. All three of these playwrights lived in the 5th century BC. The 20th-century American playwright Eugene O'Neill wrote an adaptation of the Agamemnon legend entitled 'Mourning Becomes Electra'.


Among the Greek warriors who besieged Troy, Ajax the Great ranked second only to Achilles in strength and courage. He was the son of Telamon and was half-brother of Teucer. Homer in the 'Iliad' describes him as being gigantic in stature.

At the death of Achilles, Ajax as the bravest of the Greeks claimed Achilles' armor. The prize, however, went to Odysseus (Ulysses) as the wisest. So enraged was Ajax that he went insane and killed himself. His story is told by the Greek playwright Sophocles in the tragedy 'Ajax'.

Another Greek hero of the same name was the "Lesser" Ajax, son of Oileus, king of Locris. He was small of stature but brave and skilled in throwing the spear. Only Achilles could run more swiftly. Like Ajax the Great, he was the enemy of Odysseus. Boastful and arrogant, he defied even the gods. As punishment for his rash behavior he was shipwrecked and drowned on a return voyage from Troy.


In Homer's epic poem the 'Iliad', Hector is the son of the Trojan King Priam and the greatest of the Trojan heroes. When the Greeks besieged Troy, Hector's wife, Andromache, begged him not to fight, but Hector embraced their child and left to join the battle. Hector killed Patroclus, a friend of the Greek hero Achilles, and in revenge Achilles killed Hector. Achilles then drove his chariot around the walls of Troy, dragging Hector's body behind him. Priam finally begged his son's body from Achilles. The Trojans, mourning, burned Hector's body, and buried his ashes. When the fighting resumed, Troy fell to the Greeks


According to Greek legend, Helen of Troy was the most beautiful woman in the world. She was the wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, promised her to Paris, son of King Priam of Troy, to reward Paris for judging Aphrodite the fairest of the goddesses.

During Menelaus' absence, Paris persuaded Helen to flee with him to Troy. Agamemnon, the brother of Menelaus, led an expedition against Troy to recover Helen. This started the Trojan War, in which Paris was killed. When the Greeks finally captured Troy, Menelaus took Helen back to Sparta. The Greek poet Homer told the story of Helen and the Trojan War in his 'Iliad'.


Greek legend tells how Paris started the Trojan War by carrying off beautiful Helen of Sparta. Paris was the son of King Priam of Troy. His mother was Hecuba. Before his birth Hecuba dreamed that her son was a flaming torch. This was taken to mean that he would grow up to destroy the city. Because of this he was taken to Mount Ida and left to die.

A shepherd rescued Paris. He grew up among the shepherds and won the love of Oenone, the daughter of a river god. Their happiness was brief. As Paris tended his sheep, the goddesses Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera appeared before him. Paris was asked to award a golden apple to the most beautiful one. He gave it to Aphrodite, who had promised him the most beautiful woman in the world.

Paris then left Oenone and went to Troy. There he was recognized as the king's son. Later he sailed to Sparta and carried off Helen, the most beautiful woman. In the war that followed, Paris treacherously slew the Greek hero Achilles but was himself wounded in battle. He begged help from Oenone, but she was angry because he had deserted her. She refused, and Paris died of his wound.

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