The Timeless Roots of The Trojan War

Attic Black-Figure Neck Amphora by Swing Painter c. 540-530 BCE

With a history seemingly stretching into the earliest roots of time, the Trojan War consumes a long time in the making. Although commonly blamed on the legendary beauty of Helen, daughter of the union between Zeus and Leda, in fact it is another, even more legendary beauty whose earlier union plays a seminal role in the instigation of the Trojan War.

According to Greek mythology, prior to his rise to Olympian predominance, Zeus is a subservient actor in the primordial realm ruled by his father, Kronos. Leader and youngest of the first generation of Titans descended from the union of Uranos (Sky) and Gaia (Earth), Kronos is not the only husband of Gaia. She also gives birth to Pontus (the Sea), who in turn fathers Nereus, a shape-shifting Titan also known to Homer as “The Old Man of The Sea.”

The Old Man of the Sea

Nereus (The Old Man of the Sea), and Heracles depicted at the top of a black-figured lekythos, c 590-580 BCE... (please click image for more)

Nereus (The Old Man of the Sea), and Heracles depicted at the top of a black-figured lekythos, c 590-580 BCE (please click image for more)

Residing in the depths of the Mediterranean Sea, the beautiful Thetis is one of fifty daughters, or Nereids, born to Nereus and his wife Doris. Pursuing the hand of Thetis in marriage, both Zeus and his brother Poseidon compete for her affection until it is prophesied that the son of Thetis will be stronger than both of these formidable suitors. Thus Achilles‘ fate is predestined even before his conception. Upon hearing this prophecy, The Old Man of the Sea orders his daughter to marry a mortal human.

A comrade in arms with Heracles during the expedition against the Amazons, and with Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece, Peleus Aiakides is the mortal husband chosen for Thetis. Peleus is the brother of Telamon, future father of Telamonian Aias, also known to history as the unfortunate Ajax. Sons of Aiakos, the King of Aegina Island, Peleus and Telamon escape the island after killing their half-brother, Phocis.

Eventually settling in Thessaly, Peleus assumes control as King. Setting his sights next on Thetis, she struggles to escape the grip of Peleus, changing her shape into water, animals and even fire. But his grip does not fail and after dominating her shape-shifting ways, Peleus marries Thetis, and they plan a magnificent wedding ceremony.

Hoping to avoid trouble, Peleus and Thetis invite all the gods and goddesses to their wedding, except the goddess Eris (Strife). Untroubled by a lack of invitation, Eris invites herself and tosses among the crowd the legendary golden apple, provoking a jealous rivalry between Zeus’ wife, Hera, and two of his daughters, Athena and Aphrodite.

Paris of Troy

One of one hundred children born to King Priam of Troy, at his birth Paris is prophesied to bring fire to Troy. His mother, Hecuba, surrenders her infant to a servant upon learning that Priam has ordered the abandonment of the newborn prince on a hillside, to evade the foretold Trojan calamity.

However, shepherds find the abandoned baby, rescue him and raise him up in the countryside. As he grows to manhood, Prince Paris loves and marries the mountain nymph Oenone, a granddaughter of Kronos and Gaia through Rhea. Reportedly procuring a coveted invitation to the grand wedding party of Peleus and Thetis, Paris mingles with the guests. Thus he finds himself chosen as the ill-fated judge of “The Most Fair” between the goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite.

Attic Black-Figure Neck Amphora by Swing Painter c. 540-530 BCE please click image for more

Attic Black-Figure Neck Amphora by Swing Painter c. 540-530 BCE…
(please click image for more)

Arguing the truth of legends is absurd, but Homer tells us this judgement occurs in Paris’ sheepfold(1). However, the historically more popular legend assures us that Paris is attending the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. In either version, nevertheless, Eris sows her infamous seed of strife in the form of a golden apple inscribed, “To the Most Fair.”

In the ensuing argument between Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, Hera offers Paris a royal kingdom and wealth. Athena tries to bribe him with success as a warrior. Already well-endowed with warrior’s prowess, the son of the richest king in the region prefers the promise of the most beautiful woman and gives the apple to Aphrodite. In return, Paris wins Aphrodite’s promise that Helen of Sparta, the most beautiful mortal woman alive, would become his wife.

Shortly thereafter, Paris learns that athletic games with rich prizes for the winners are being hosted by his father, King Priam of Troy. The long-forgotten son goes down to the city, enters the competitions and wins. Recognizing him, Cassandra announces the identity of the champion is her abandoned brother, Prince Paris.

An emotional reconciliation takes place between father and son, and then, perhaps to be rid of him again, the King unwittingly awards Paris a ship and crew for his athletic prize. Triumphantly recalling Aphrodite’s promise, Paris sets sail for Sparta to claim his next prize, the beautiful Helen of Sparta, with plans of delivering her fiery beauty to Troy.

Helen of Sparta

The most beautiful woman in Greek mythology, Helen is known even today as the face which “launched a thousand ships.” Fathered by Zeus, she is the daughter of Leda and the sister of Clytemnestra, soon-to-be wife of the High King, Agamemnon. Famous for her beauty even as a child, Helen is abducted at a young age by Theseus, the Prince of Athens, still famous today for slaying the Minotaur at the center of the maze in the Minoan Palace of Knossos on the Island of Crete. Instantly coming to her rescue, Helen’s equally legendary brothers, Castor and Pollux, return their beautiful little sister home unharmed.

Attic black-figure amphora, ca. 550 BC.

Attic black-figure amphora, ca. 550 BC. by the Amasis Painter depicting the Recovery of Helen by Menelaus… (Please click image for more)

As she comes of age, Helen is pressed by multitudes of suitors to choose a husband from among them. Recognizing a dangerous jealousy and rivalry among the suitors, Helen’s foster father, Tyndareos, demands that they all swear to defend the winner before Helen will choose her man. The suitors swear loyalty to Helen and her future husband, and Helen chooses Menelaus, King of Sparta. Her sister, Clytemnestra, later marries Menelaus’ brother, Agamemnon, the High King of Mycenae. Odysseus soon returns home with Helen’s cousin Penelope as his new Queen of Ithaka.

It is not long before Greek and Trojan events and fates converge, when Menelaus discovers that Paris has abducted his Queen from Sparta, taking her back to Troy. Summoning all the suitors who had sworn their loyalty to Helen and her husband, they convene a council of war. Assembling an army under the command of Agamemnon, ten years are consumed in the logistics and planning in the lead up to war.

Finally, the Greeks launch their legendary “thousand ships,” consuming a further ten years waging war against the Trojans to restore Helen to her rightful home and husband.

Shining Prince Achilles

Upon the birth of Achilles, an additional prophecy is pinned to the son of Thetis. She is informed that her son will either die after a short life full of glory or after a long and uneventful life. Planning a long life for her newborn baby, Thetis hopes to make him immortal by dipping him by the ankles into the river Styx.

Achilles and the Nereid Kymothea depicted on an Attic red-figure kantharos, c 450-400 bce by the Eretria Painter. Currently at the Cabinet des Médailles

Detail from Achilles and the Nereid Kymothea…
(Please click image for more)

Achilles is a strapping young man, already full of warrior’s prowess and a large army of soldiers under his command when Agamemnon assembles his army for the war. Hoping this new expedition would pass him by, Thetis sends Achilles to King Lykomedes on the island of Skyros. Disguising her son as a girl and ordering him into hiding among the women at court, Achilles nevertheless reveals himself to Deidameia, one of the King’s daughters. They fall in love, and in time she gives birth to Achilles’ son, Neoptolemos.

Years pass and Achilles escapes the war draft of Agamemnon. However, the war goes poorly for both Greeks and Trojans. Each side gains and loses ground, like the ebb and flow of the ceaseless tide oozing under the aging, beached ships of the homesick Greeks.

Insisting that only Achilles can turn the tide in favor of the Greeks, Odysseus is sent home in search of the draft-dodging hero. Learning of Thetis’ ruse to hide her son at the court of King Lykomedes, the clever Odysseus devises a plan to unmask the young prince from among the princesses.

Inviting all the young ladies to pick presents of jewelry and finery from the cart he arrives on, Odysseus watches as someone’s eye lands on a full set of fine armor also in the cart. Instantly he recognizes Achilles, taking him aside and explaining why he has come. Achilles immediately abandons his hiding place, returning to his home with Odysseus. Assembling 50 ships of his own soldiers, the famed “Myrmidons” (“Ant People”), Achilles soon joins Agamemnon in his war against Troy.

Arriving with his fresh supply of soldiers, Achilles and his Myrmidons swarm the battlefield and press the Trojans back to the battlements of Troy, where they take tired refuge inside the tall walls. Many prizes from the retreating Trojans are plundered in the course of the battle, and women are the more highly valued prizes. Achilles quickly captures a female trophy to adorn his personal war tent, the lovely and loving Briseis.

A tangible asset to a tired soldier at the end of long day at the battlefront, a woman is a prized possession. In Briseis Achilles finds his food well-cooked, his clothes washed and ready to change into, someone tender to care for his wounds, a loving soul to warm his bed, and a face much nicer to look at than those of his burly companions.

Chryses attempting to ransom his daughter Chryseis from Agamemnon. Side A of an Apulian red-figure volute-crater, ca. 360-350 BCE,by the Painter of Athens 1714. Found in Taranto, now in the Louvre.

Chryses pleads with Agamemnon for his daughter…
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All goes well for Achilles until Agamemnon captures Chryseis, the daughter of a Trojan priest of Apollo, taking her as his personal war prize. Soon the Greeks are inflicted with plagues in their camp and they blame Agamemnon for offending Apollo. Achilles loudly announces that Agamemnon should return the daughter of Apollo’s priest to her father, in order to receive expiation from Apollo.

Agamemnon complies, but to punish Achilles for his insubordination, he orders Achilles to give him his girl prize, Briseis, to replace Chryseis. Achilles angrily obeys, surrendering his beloved Briseis, but in retaliation gives Agamemnon his oath that he will no longer participate in the war.

Obeying Achilles’ command, his Myrmidons sit in their camp after this, day after day, shining their armor and doing exercises to keep their bodies strong. Achilles likewise spends his days, clearly uninterested in the fate of the Greeks. But the tide of war turns once again, and soon the Greeks are hard pressed by the Trojans, beating them almost back to their ships.

Agamemnon knows he needs Achilles and his soldiers, now if not sooner. Forming an embassy of officers, the High King sends the men to Achilles. Entertaining them generously in his tent, Achilles listens politely as they speak one by one hoping to light a spark of compassion in Achilles. They list the wonderful gifts that Agamemnon offers if only Achilles will take back his oath and re-enter the battle.

But competition burns fiercely in the heart of Achilles and he finds no room for compassion. No officer knows Achilles as well as his beloved and best friend Patroklos. Achilles’ armor hangs in his tent, gleaming brightly from its daily shining. Patroklos points out what a waste is Achilles’ armor, shining brightly, but with no battle to shine in.

No argument has the power to persuade Achilles, like the power of ungained glory. Patroklos uses Achilles’ love of competition in battle to beat his rivalry with Agamemnon. The strategy works, but not completely. Achilles allows Patroklos to command the Myrmidons in his stead, and wear Achilles’ shining armor into battle. Warning his beloved best friend since childhood, Achilles advises Patroklos to return to camp upon pressing the Trojans back to their walls.

Fresh ranks of shining Greek soldiers burst forth in the early morning, powerful and hungry for Trojan blood. At the front of the ranks, the Trojans see Achilles, recognizing his armor, his horses, and his chariot. Lightning bolts of fear strike and stagger the Trojans.

Reeling from the shock of fresh soldiers and fierce battle, they retreat once again to the city gates of Troy. But Hektor, eldest son of King Priam, and the bravest hero of the Trojans, enters the battle at just this moment, encouraging the spirits of his men. Racing to engage the fearsome hero of the Greeks, Hektor believes he is facing Achilles. It is, however, Patroklos, shining in the glory of near victory, and he forsakes the final advice of Achilles. He is unable to turn back at the city gate in the face of Hektor’s arrival. Although safety lies in the other direction, Patroklos’ fate is to bravely face Hektor in battle.

Heaping unforgivable insult upon mortal injury, Hektor slays Patroklos and strips Achilles’ armor off of the brave soldier’s body. Changing his armor immediately, Hektor puts on Achilles’ armor, proudly displaying his shining new battle trophies.

Thetis consoles Achilles red figure pelike 470 BCE from Kamiros Rhodes BM E363 500x500

Thetis consoles Achilles over the death of Patroklos…
(Please click image for more)

When the news reaches Achilles that Hektor has slain Patroklos, his terrifying cries of grief and anguish are heart-wrenching to every soul. Even the sea nymphs under the ocean hear him, and screeching in reply, his mother flies to his side.

Taking Achilles’ face in her hands, Thetis holds her son and consoles him, crying uncontrollably beside him. With tears mingling, Thetis kisses her son and offers him some hope.

Promising to petition Hephaistos for new armor, she feels Achilles’ spirit revive. Thetis sets off for Olympos upon seeing the spark of fire return to her shining Prince Achilles’ eyes. Only with new armor can he re-enter the battle, revenge the death of Patroklos, and retrieve his lost hope of great glory.

(Author’s Note: This content is significantly updated and expanded in my new book, Reconstructing the Shield of Achilles, now available on!)

Continue to A Mother’s Sad Request for Her Son



1. Homer’s Iliad, Book 24, lines 17-20.