Achilles rides in Victory dragging the body of Hektor / Wikimedia Commons
By John D. Beatty
The story of the Trojan War, as recounted in Homer’s Iliad, Odyssey and in The Aeneid of Virgil, have for centuries been viewed as either literal truth (which is ridiculous to historians) or as a retelling of an ancient conflict that was indeed fought, but no one knows quite how (more realistic but not quite as colorful). But with growing evidence supporting the outlines of events in the Trojan War as described by Homer and Virgil, it may be time for a fresh look at the conflict, especially the climactic Trojan Horse story, to see if the legend may have something to say.
The historical siege of Troy is sometimes considered the beginning of Greek history.(1) As the stories go, the war between the Greeks and Troy started with the kidnapping (or elopement) of Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, by Paris, a nominal shepherd but the son of King Priam of Troy. As leaders of the budding Greek culture, Achilles(2) and Agamemnon led an invasion force to Asia Minor and besieged Troy. These are the bare bones of the historical part of the story. The legendary elements involve wagers by gods over who was the most beautiful woman (Helen, a daughter of Zeus who was worshiped as a goddess and was the patroness of sailors,(3) won) and subsequent grudges held by the losers of the wager.(4)
The Love of Helen and Paris by Jacques-Louis David (oil on canvas, 1788, Louvre, Paris)
There are apparently real events in the Iliad, but an historical Helen seems unlikely. However, women as the cause of all trouble (and the inspiration for all men) is a common theme for drama. Homer makes Helen the cause of the conflict, and only because she was so beautiful did the war take place.(5)
Why a goddess? That she fell in love with Paris may be a reason, but any beautiful woman could serve a dramatic purpose here. But gods in Greek mythology never die, whereas death is always near at hand for mortals. The risk of destruction is what makes for heroes, and becomes for men of legend and of fact the ultimate test of courage. Beings who can become whatever they wish, take any form, blast men and mountains into dust and still squabble like willful children over trifles and vanity are, in human terms, incapable of fear and, thus, need no courage. By using Helen, Homer made an immortal being mortal so that she could share in the human struggle with the most fearsome of monsters on Earth: Man’s savagery to his own species as expressed in war. Here Helen is not only the cause of the conflict; she became at risk because of it. Her beauty, whether or not of her own making, had unleashed one of the longest sieges in popular history.(6)
Historical and legendary Troy held out long enough for other Asia Minor powers to enter the conflict, even if they were not effective in raising the siege.(7) Heroes fell on both sides: the Greeks lost Patroclus (Pátroklos ), and their combat leader Achilles (Akhilleus ), while Troy lost Paris (Alexandros) and Hector (Hektor), their champion. But, even worse, there seemed to have been no end to it. The Trojans penetrated the Greek palisade fortress briefly once, nearly destroying the Greek ships. The Greeks resorted to the Arrows of Herakles, legendary weapons that killed Paris, but still could not win the war.(8)
Here Homer speaks of seemingly random acts of the gods, and to the seemingly unstoppable will of men to wage war. The gods use men like toys, throw up smokescreens, change form, appear as different mortals, give false and cryptic information, and generally act like willful, bizarre humans. The difference is that these willful, bizarre actors can’t be killed, and they can turn almost anything into anything else. They act unpredictably, almost at whim, so that the slaughter goes on unabated, with neither one side or the other favored. This is the literary device used by Homer, a blind poet of whom we know practically nothing, to explain the causes of the random death and senseless violence of human warfare.
Detail from The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy by Domenico Tiepolo (1773), inspired by Virgil’s Aeneid
And it is at this impasse where the Trojan Horse tale starts, with an apparent deadlock and both sides seeming to wear out. The Greek plan is that a large wooden horse be constructed, where Odysseus and a few picked men would be secreted. As the Greeks sailed away and hid behind the island of Tenedos, the Trojans would haul the structure inside, the Greek commandos would be released, open the city gates, signal the waiting fleet, and the Greeks would sail back to take the city.(9)
The idea for a horse filled with men comes from Odysseus, who up to this time in Homer had been a skilled negotiator and bold raider. In Virgil’s version, the horse was “tall as a hill,(10)” and contained nine “captains(11)” and at least two other men “fully armed.(12)(13)”. The horse structure was so large that the walls that had stood for so long had to be partly dismantled to get it inside.(14) Various accounts have about a dozen men inside, but given what is known of Greek military requirements nine “captains” could imply as many as fifty. The risk of the total loss of these men in such an enterprise would have been great even for the increasingly desperate Greeks.
It’s not made clear in the poems why the structure used was a horse, but Troy was famous for horse breeding before the war, and Hector had been a breaker (trainer) of horses, not a warrior by trade. The god Poseidon, who figures prominently in the Homeric version, was often worshiped in the shape of a horse.(15)
Unfortunately, there are some logistical problems with this part of the tale. A horse structure large enough to hold even a dozen, let alone fifty, fully-armed Greeks (at about ten square feet per man with spear and shield(16)) would have been impossible to hide behind a palisade, so it could have come as no real surprise to the Trojans when they discovered it after the Greeks sailed away.
The plan otherwise has too many “ifs” for any historical accuracy, or for skilled military planners as the Greeks almost had to have been. What reason would Troy have to haul the object inside the walls? Would not the wheels on this huge structure be somewhat suspicious, or the thoughtfulness of a defeated foe? Land-built structures of that size (at least thirty feet tall and forty long) just didn’t move that much in Bronze Age technology. And if it could move, how would the Greeks be assured that Troy would move it inside their beloved city walls, rather than just leave it in place for all the world to see? And how long would the Greeks have to wait inside? Days? Weeks?
There are other problems as well, such as the very great risk of structural failure before, during or after movement, or the more realistic chance that the Trojans would just dismantle the large structure (which would require less manpower than dragging) to move it. But the poets don’t seem to be thinking in those terms when the mist clears and a wooden horse full of Greek commandos is discovered in their former camps.
Virgil describes the Trojans coming out, throwing wide the gates to gape at the abandoned camps, to look in wonderment at the great tribute left behind. Would Troy really think it a tribute? Apparently not immediately, since some wanted to destroy it, which would have been a more appropriate response in the circumstances. The name of Odysseus was even invoked by Laocoon (Laokoon) and his people. But then Sinon was found, an alleged deserter from the Greek forces, with a story about how Odysseus wanted to maintain the siege long after it appeared to be hopeless, and how the Greeks had tried to leave but were blocked by bad weather. And how the oracle of Apollo told them to leave an offering, which was to be none other than Sinon.(17)
Laocoön and His Sons in the Vatican Museums, Museo Pio-Clementino, Octagon, Laocoön Hall
Troy buys Sinon’s story, but then, just before Laocoon sacrifices a bull come the serpents to destroy him. This affirms to Troy that, since the snakes coiled up at the feet of Athena when they were done, the horse was sacred (Laocoon having profaned it by throwing a spear at it) and needed to be hauled inside to the Palladium of Pallas Athena. Thus resolved, Troy proceeds to do exactly what the Greeks had planned for them to do, even to the point of tearing down part of the city walls to haul the great horse inside.
Even while this was happening, Cassandra foretells the future fall of Troy, and noises are heard inside the great structure. Here again, the fickle gods wreak their havoc, cursing Troy against believing the truth when they heard it. But still, Troy was joyous that this tribute, a symbol of the end of the conflict, was now being brought in to an honored place as a proof of Troy’s great victory. Troy, after a decade of siege, appears desperate to believe that it is a tribute from a vanquished foe. Laocoon seems to be a dramatic device, and Sinon adds only a little credibility to the meaning of the horse. Given this, Laocoon’s doubt was almost certainly added to provide narrative suspense and, perhaps, a clue to the mystery of the Trojan Horse.
Sieges are hard work for both sides, and ancient sieges were particularly arduous.(18) Disease and starvation are endemic to both sides even during modern sieges. This raises possible explanations for the horse story that the ancient poets probably could have known nothing about, the first being disease and the weakening effects of long-term short rations.
Sanitation and nutrition were only dimly understood in the 11th Century BCE and the Greeks had been in roughly the same place for ten years. If Helen’s face really did launch a thousand ships, with roughly fifty men to the ship that would mean that at least 50,000 Greeks (and probably more) had been encamped beneath Troy’s walls.(19) This is a huge army to supply remotely, even today, and it needs an enormous number of latrines and gallons of fresh water, both of which would have been in short supply after ten years.
Troy would have suffered greatly in a ten-year siege. Fresh food acquisition and waste disposal has always been a problem in sieges, and in ancient sieges was often decisive.(20) Desperation and disease were more than likely in Priam’s city.
Disease may have been encoded in the horse saga, but another clue may have been left us in the death of Laocoon by apparent suffocation.(21) It is unlikely that healthy, awake adults would stand still long enough to be crushed by non-mythical constricting snakes, but there are none indigenous to Asia Minor. The snakes Virgil describes may have been neurotoxic venomous asps or cobras (except perhaps for their apparent size).(22) However, given the horse story and that horses certainly would have been left by the Greeks, at least two other explanations may exist: Pulmonary anthrax and pneumonic plague, both of which suffocate their victims in fluid or hemorrhagic blood, and are two that cross the species barrier between horses and men. These diseases can strike a weakened individual so swiftly that medical help, even if available and competent, is often helpless.
Another theory reasons that the god Poseidon is the originator of earthquakes,(23) and Homer has Athena call him “earthshaker” in the Odyssey.(24) If a disease is partly responsible for the weakening of Troy’s defenses, a tremor could have caused the partial destruction of the city’s walls and perhaps part of the city itself. This explanation is a little too convenient for historians, but it comfortably fits into the pieces of the legend.
Though Homer’s and Virgil’s stories are romantic, they provide a lot of clues that add up to a plausible interpretation for the “events” of the seemingly fantastic story of the Trojan War and the Trojan Horse.
First, a long siege weakens both Greek and Trojan to a point where neither could see a reasonable or honorable end to the conflict. An outbreak of a highly contagious disease, possibly one that infects both men and animals, causes the Greeks to take to ship to get away from the “bad humors” that the medicine of their time would attribute such sicknesses to. The Trojans, out foraging for food or on an expeditionary raid find that the Greeks have abandoned their contaminated camps. They then bring in abandoned livestock, including horses.
Starving Troy slaughters what the Greeks leave behind and quickly consumes it, infecting themselves with the same diseases that the Greeks fled from. Weakened by years of siege, the Trojans begin to sicken and die in large numbers. While mass cremations raise the stench of death and burning flesh to the offshore breezes, a small earthquake destroys part of the city wall. Troy, weakened by starvation, disease, a few collapsed buildings and fires compounded by simple exhaustion, cannot repair the walls immediately.
The Cremation of Patroclus
A Greek ship, captained by Odysseus, looks in on Troy, smells the death from the funeral pyres and sees the damaged wall, observing that no one appears to be trying to repair it. They signal the fleet and the Greeks return, opportunistically taking the city.
History, and in particular military history, has not been kind to the Trojan War. Beyond the inclusion of the fantastic and supernatural, the tale of events is also marred by dramatic effect, hearsay and misinformation.
However, the salient facts are that there was a city about where Homer described it and at about the same time, and it was destroyed roughly 1180 BCE with a lot of concurrent fire, and well-respected military historians mention the fall of Troy, one putting the year at 1184 BCE.(25) These are facts of archaeology and history, not the reading of a poem, which leads one to believe that there must be at least some historic basis for Homer’s and Virgil’s epics.
Just as Helen is an immortal being sharing the risks of war while being the apparent cause of it, Virgil’s and Homer’s tales of the Trojan War may have been what Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 was to World War Two–tales of a randomly-generated, endless tragedy of seemingly mindless death regulated by creatures immune to the killing itself. To Homer, it’s a cultural tale in which the gods were responsible. For Virgil, the story is a politically driven tale focused on the inevitable destiny of the Roman Republic (the Roman rulers of the time were fond of the legend in which Rome was founded by the survivors of Troy). For Heller, bureaucrats a thousand miles away from the battlefront dictated the fate of the hapless victims with bizarre rules about sanity, dooming men to flying endless missions to no apparent purpose in a backwater of a global war.
In describing the events of a conflict that took place millennia before their time, both Homer and Virgil may have been preserving an oral tradition that at least made history entertaining enough to retain the main story in the first place. This should not be seen as unusual, for the two writers often used common dramatic devices for different purposes (for example, Homer’s underworld is for heroes to watch the world go by or to get Odysseus to go home: Virgil’s points to Rome’s destiny).
But here the historian is faced with something of a dilemma: If the Trojan War is completely mythological, then what about all the fragmentary evidence we have supporting its occurrence? If the Trojan War did happen, then some parts of the mythical description must be true, and some part, or some other interpretation, of the Trojan Horse story has to be thought to be accurate.
1 . R. Ernest Dupuy and Trevor Nevitt Dupuy, The Encyclopedia of Military History from 3500 B.C. to the Present (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), 15.
2 . Roman and Greek spellings will be used in this paper.
3 . .., “Helen” (book on-line) (http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?eu=40946, accessed 7 June 2002.
4 . Olivia E. Coolidge, The Trojan War (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1952), 3-14.
5 . Michael Grant, The Rise of the Greeks (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1987), 144.
6 . Geoffrey Parker, “Sieges,” in The Reader’s Companion to Military History (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996), 425.
7 . Thomas Bulfinch, Bulfinch’s Mythology the Age of Fable (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968), 234-35.
8 . Ibid., 236.
9 . Coolidge, op. cit., 175; Ibid.; Sarah N. Lawall and Maynard Mack, The Norton Anthology of World Literature, edited by Maynard Mack (New York: Norton, 2001), (Henceforth Aeneid II, 18-29).
10 . Lawall and Mack, op. cit., Aeneid II,22.
11 . Ibid., Aeneid II, 340-45.
12 . Ibid., Aeneid II, 29.
13 . Ibid..
14 . Coolidge, op. cit., 180.
15 . Michael Wood, In Search of the Trojan War (New York, N.Y.: Facts on File, 1985), 251.
16 . Victor Davis. Hanson, The Western Way of War Infantry Battle in Classical Greece (New York: Knopf Distributed by Random House, 1989), 59-60.
17 . Lawall and Mack, op. cit., Aeneid II, 154-57.
18 . Parker, op. cit., 425-26.
19 . Richard Woodman, The History of the Ship the Comprehensive Story of Seafaring from the Earliest Times to the Present Day (New York: Lyons Press, 1997), 16.
20 . Parker, op. cit., 425-26.
21 . Bulfinch, op. cit., 237.
22 . Lawall and Mack, op. cit., Aeneid II, 272-300.
23 . Michael Wood, In Search of the Trojan War (New York: Facts-On-File, 1985), 251.
24 . Lawall and Mack, op. cit., Odyssey III, 58.
25 . J.F.C. Fuller, The Decisive Battles of the Western World Volume I: From Ancient Times to Lepanto (New York: Military Book Club, 2001), 11.
Bulfinch, Thomas. Bulfinch’s Mythology the Age of Fable. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968.
Coolidge, Olivia E. The Trojan War. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1952.
Dupuy, R. Ernest, and Trevor Nevitt Dupuy. The Encyclopedia of Military History from 3500 B.C. to the Present. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
Fuller, J.F.C. The Decisive Battles of the Western World Volume I: From Ancient Times to Lepanto. New York: Military Book Club, 2001.
Grant, Michael. The Rise of the Greeks. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1987.
Hanson, Victor Davis. The Western Way of War Infantry Battle in Classical Greece. New York: Knopf Distributed by Random House, 1989.
Lawall, Sarah N., and Maynard Mack. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Edited by Maynard Mack. New York: Norton, 2001.
Parker, Geoffrey. “Sieges.” In The Reader’s Companion to Military History. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996.
Wood, Michael. In Search of the Trojan War. New York, N.Y.: Facts on File, 1985.
Woodman, Richard. The History of the Ship the Comprehensive Story of Seafaring from the Earliest Times to the Present Day. New York: Lyons Press, 1997.