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The Trojan War and Homer


Continuing my notes on the Coursera course of Ancient Greek and Roman Mythology from Penn University.

The Trojan War

150 years ago we were taught that the Trojan War was a legend. There wasn’t any evidence that it actually took place.

Heinrich Schliemann Credit :Wikimedia

Heinrich Schliemann (182 1890) took a team over to the North coast of Turkey Asia Minor and found that in the sites where there was supposed to be the great Citadel of Troy he found where the ruins of a marvellous very wealthy city. It looked like that city had been conquered many times over the course of history and that there had been a great cataclysmic conquest of this Citadel that took place at around the time that Greek legend said the Trojan War had taken place. It is likely, then, that there was a Trojan War at around the time about which Homer and his legends were told. Although Schliemann didn’t find anything that said ‘this shield belong to Agamemnon’ or, ‘here lieth the sword of Achilles’ or anything that verifies any of the details including characters, personages, events any of the details that are recorded in Homeric legends or later materials, we can say that there was a Trojan war and Homer’s version of it may or may not correlate to any historical event that actually took place.The Iliad


Homer’s epic looks at war as a real human experience. He talks of the experience of honour and conflict between groups who fight in wars and then tries to figure out it means for us in our humanity. The Iliad is Homer’s his account of the Trojan War. It is a poem about rage and thinking about rage. Homer talks about a specific kind of rage, the rage of Achilles who, as a Greek, was having war rage against his Trojan foes but more specifically it is Achilles rage at Agamemnon. Their argument starts  the Iliad when Agamemnon the older general, and Achilles the younger, extremely talented warrior have words they can’t quite settle them in the, in the appropriate way. Agamemnon is not a talented enough leader to handle this situation and he loses his greatest warrior because he insults Achilles in front of his peers. Achilles withdraws and sits out most of the action of the epic in his tent. He has rage so bitter and so awful that he now hates Agamemnon and so wishes that all of his compatriots should pay the price of Agamemnon’s stupidity.

Credit : Wikimedia

Although Achilles is in his tent other Greek warriors arrive to take the place of top dog among the, among the fighters.  Ajax, Diomedes on the Greek side. Odysseus doesn’t appear just yet. On the Trojan side, the princes and kings that marshalled the forces there are led by King Priam with his sons Hector and Paris as the leaders. At the end of the story, Achilles finally conquers his rage but can’t quite bring himself to make up with Agamemnon or forgive the awful things that Agamemnon had done to publicly humiliate him. The greatest of the Trojans, Priam, has a moment with Achilles where he has a chance to ransom back the body of his beloved son, Hector, whom Achilles has treated with all the vengeance of his war rage. Priam comes over to Achilles’s tent, kisses the hands that killed his own son, and begs Achilles to show some mercy. Achilles decides that his own Greeks, and particularly Agamemnon, are not worthy of it, but Priam, the Trojan king is. He relents and gives Priam Hector’s body to bury, and so ends Trojan War according to Homer’s Iliad.

The Rape of Helen Credit : Wikimedia

Homer’s Iliad focuses on a very short period, most of it covers three days of action on the battlefield not the whole Trojan War. We learn more about the story from other epic poets. There may have been versions of ‘prequels’ from before Homer, but  much of the legend, that we know, started to fill in the blanks after Homer made his statement. For example the story of how the Trojan War started came from a legend that pre-dates Homer. It started with Paris, a prince and son of Priam. He is more of a master of the arts of love than he is of the arts of war. He decides to steal Helen, the wife of Menelaus, who is the most beautiful woman in the world. Agamemnon was Menelaus’s brother and also the most powerful of the Greek kings. When Paris kidnaps Helen and takes her back to Troy the Trojan War kicked off.

Helen was the face that launched a thousand ships. That’s the number ships that are needed to contain the grandeur, the hugeness of Agamemnon’s army. Thanks to the famous catalogue of ships of the Iliad, we can estimate the number of people involved at about 100,000. Homer’s claim is that an army of 100,000 leaves the shores of Greece and goes over to Troy.

Other Legends

The Judgement of Paris Credit : Wikimedia

People interested in myth wanted a back story. They wanted to know how is was that Menelaus lost his bride Helen to Paris and why Paris thought it was okay to go over and steal the wife of the brother of the greatest of the Greeks.  The story started to percolate in to fill in the gaps and we find the story Golden Apple of Discord (Greek: μῆλον τῆς Ἔριδος). Peleus, a great mortal and Thetis a Goddess had a wedding which Paris attended and the story started there.

The Aftermath

There are many legends built up around the aftermath of the Trojan War each of them hearkens back to facts, the things that really happened. The Greeks tell this story to themselves about an awful war. The Greeks don’t come off looking so good in that war. There are Greek on Greek struggles, they don’t seem to work well as a team, they’ve got bad leadership and there are nasty motives. The Greeks don’t put a varnish over any of this past. They hold up in their mythology stories about themselves doing awful things.

Theft of the Palladium (credit : Wikimedia)

To get into the city of Troy they had to use spies in a raid in order to steal, from the Temple of Athena, a tiny figure called the Palladium, a statute that represents Athena and that is well loved by the goddess herself. This removes a magical element that had a protective aura over the city so that they could conquer it. Athena is upset about this violation it is a sacrilegious violation against her.

Ajax raping Cassandra (Credit : Wikimedia)

The Greeks talk about themselves as murderers, killing people in horrible wartime rage. This is the kind of thing that happens in war poetry. The versions of the stories that the Greeks preserve say we went too far even by our own standards. For example, they took a little baby, Prince Astyanax, and hurled him from the walls; he dies by being splattered on the ground. That’s not something the Greeks are proud of, and yet they keep telling it in their stories as an example of their own excesses. The Princess Cassandra is raped by warrior Ajax on the alter of the temple of Athena. The number of violations that happen here, the excesses that are built into this act are so extreme and so vile that the rape of Cassandra gets held up in this short list of crimes that the Greeks commit when they conquer Troy.

There are many stories about the aftermath of the Greek war against the Trojans. They follow the Greek heroes on their journey home; in Greek it’s called  Nostoi. In each story they’re working out the nastiness that happened in Troy. Some, like Nestor in the Odyssey, get home pretty quickly without too much trouble. Menelaus has a long sojourn, he’s blown off course in Egypt, and he meets the Old Man of the Sea and has adventures there. Agamemnon famously gets himself home, but when he gets home there’s awfulness that’s waiting for him. The most important of all these Nostoi, is Homer’s Odyssey, which gives us the story of the journey home of a particular Greek hero Odysseus.

Who is Homer?

Portrait of Home (credit : Wikimedia)

Homer. ( around 750 BC). There’s a portrait of him but this is only a traditional representation of Homer. We have no idea what Homer actually looked like. In fact, what we know of Homer survives from The Iliad and The Odyssey. We don’t know anything that corroborates who this poet was. In the scholarship from the previous century, there were many people that had a strong view that actually there were Homers not just a single poet behind the epic poems like Odyssey or the Iliad. These were the combined efforts of a lot of people who were singing songs in public, wandering bards who we know from Homer’s tale, went around and sang songs, for wealthy clients.  The coherence of the story has been the strongest piece of evidence, for the scholarly field to now believe that it is indeed the result of a single poetic hand. At least the Odyssey itself is, and The Iliad itself is. It could be that they were written by different poets, but it is likely that they were each written by a single poet and it may well be the case that those were the same. We don’t know that for sure and the scholarship is tinkering around the edges of that question still. It pretty much seems, at least to most of us who are studying the material these days, that there was a single editorial hand, at least or strongly poetically talented editorial hand. For the sake of argument we are going to call this person a poet and name him Homer.

The alphabet


The poems are written in a script which luckily doesn’t look anything like the one above it probably would not have survived  had the Greeks used a script that looked like that. This is an early example of Greek writing that does not use an alphabetic script, it’s pictographic. At first glance it resembles Egyptian hieroglyphics or maybe even has some resemblance to a cuneiform text, early writing systems developed in Egypt and the ancient Near East. They were made to keep records of kings and keep track of historical events, important events that were of consequence for wealthy and aristocratic classes of people. It also was used in Egypt and in the ancient Near East to record literary evidence. So we have epic poems and stories that survive from very early periods in this pictographic script in Egypt and in and in ancient Greece. The early Greek version of a pictographic script was never used to record any literary evidence. So we may well have had wandering bards going around in the early first millennium BCE or even before then. Luckily the one that does survive is Homer.

Greek Alphabet (credit : alphabetglobal.com)

Homer survives because of the technology of the alphabet which arrived in Greece at about the time that Homer wrote his epics. It was invented as far as we know by Phoenician’s on the far eastern edge of the Mediterranean. The alphabet was an incredibly useful, technology. It is written down in different characters. There are Hebrew characters, Greek characters, there’s an Arabic script later, and Roman script. But whatever script is used, there’s really only one alphabet. Some have more vowels than others, some have different ways of treating certain kinds of consonants. But it is a single technology. It was so useful it spread like wildfire, around the Mediterranean, and through the ancient near east.

The specific language that Homer spoke is a very interesting one. His diction is an epic which draws from lots of different dialects around the Greek world. It’s not written in one particular dialect but in a hotchpotch of many different ones.  The lines in Homer are very straightforward, he writes in a dactylic hexameter that is a line made of six metrical feet, and each of those feet is made up of a dactyl, a long and two shorts, a dum dit, dit.

— uu | — uu | — uu| —uu | —uu |—uu | — X

 is a long syllableu a short syllable and U either one long or two shorts and X anceps syllable)

So the basic element of Homeric epic poetry is written as a long and two shorts. String six of these together with an ‘n caps’ at the end, that’s what the x means, that can be either long or short. String six of these together and you’ve got an Homeric line. String 15,000 of them together and you’ve got the Iliad, 12,000 for the Odyssey. Pretty extraordinary feat for him to be able to write, elegant, beautiful, metric poetry over the course of many tens of thousands of lines. It’s also the case that any of these dactyls a long and two shorts can be replaced by a spondee, (two longs.)



  1. […] The Trojan War and Homer (louisecharente.wordpress.com) […]

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  3. Gerald says:

    Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

    • Louise Taylor says:

      Thank you. These are my course notes rather than original thought but I am glad you enjoyed them.

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