Classical Mythology: The End of Heroes

The End of Heroes

The war cost nearly all the Trojan warriors their lives and destroyed Troy itself, which never recovered from the ransacking, pillaging, and murder done by the victors. But the war also cost Greece dearly. After a decade of battle, few of its warriors returned home alive—and many of these wandered for years before finding their way home.

Welcome Home?

To avenge the crime committed at her shrine, Athena—with the assistance of Poseidon—destroyed most of the Greek fleet on their return voyage. Many of those few who survived the savage seas met their deaths on the rocky shores of Euboea. Nauplius, the aggrieved father of Palamedes, wanted revenge for the conspiracy that had resulted in his son's murder. As the Greek ships, fighting off a storm, approached Euboea, Nauplius lit a huge bonfire. This false beacon lured many of the ships to crash against the rocks. Those sailors who managed to swim to shore were swiftly dispatched by Nauplius.

Of the more than 1,000 ships that sailed from Greece 10 years earlier, less than 100 embarked on the return journey. And most of these were lost before they arrived home.

Those who survived both the war and the arduous trip home did not receive a warm welcome. Among the prominent Greeks who survived:

Read All About It

The saga of Agamemnon figured prominently in the works of the great Greek tragedians. Three surviving plays by Aeschylus—Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides—are known collectively as the Oresteia. In addition, four plays by Euripides—Iphigenia in Aulis, Orestes, Electra, and Iphigenia in Tauris—as well as Electra by Sophocles, focus on the children of Agamemnon.

  • Both Diomedes of Argos and King Idomeneus of Crete returned home to discover they had been cuckolded. (According to some storytellers, Nauplius influenced both wives to stray.) Both were eventually banished from their homelands and settled in Italy.
  • Philoctetes left Greece to find a new home in Italy.
  • Odysseus wandered for 10 years before returning home to faithful Penelope (see All's Not Fair in Love and War: The Fall of Troy).
  • Telamon, who had come to the conclusion that his surviving son, Teucer, had participated in the Greeks' ill treatment that had led Ajax (his other son) to kill himself, refused to allow Teucer to land in Salamis.
  • Nestor peacefully resumed the throne of Pylos—the only Greek to reach home without incident.
  • Neoptolemus, warned by his grandmother Thetis against the dangers that awaited those who went by sea, took a long overland route, but eventually arrived in Greece.
  • Storms drove the ship carrying Menelaus and Helen far off course. The couple spent considerable time in Crete, Libya, Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Egypt. Though stranded, Menelaus amassed even greater wealth during his time in Egypt and the coastal lands of North Africa. By the time he and Helen returned home and resumed the rule of Sparta, several years had passed.

The House of Blood: Agamemnon's Return

By the time Agamemnon returned to Mycenae, Clytemnestra—still incensed at her husband's sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia—had taken a lover. To add to the insult, Clytemnestra had chosen her husband's cousin Aegisthus, the son of Agamemnon's estranged uncle, Thyestes.

Many years earlier, Agamemnon's father, Atreus, had been betrayed by both his brother Thyestes and his wife Aerope, who had entered into an adulterous affair. In exacting his revenge, Atreus took a page from his grandfather Tantalus (see What the Hell? Adventures in the Underworld). Atreus killed his brother's children, cooked them, and served them to their father. After cruelly showing Thyestes the heads and hands of his children, Atreus banished his brother—who cursed the House of Atreus—from Mycenae.

An oracle later told Thyestes that he could avenge his children's deaths by conceiving a child with his sole surviving daughter, Pelopia. Aegisthus, the product of this union, would indeed become the instrument for his father's revenge on the House of Atreus.

In Agamemnon's absence, Aegisthus had used his influence over Clytemnestra to rule Mycenae. So he watched carefully for his rival's return. That very day, while Agamemnon was bathing after his long journey home, Clytemnestra pinned him down with his robes and hacked him to pieces with an axe. Clytemnestra also killed the seer Cassandra, whom Agamemnon had brought home as a slave.


The Erinyes, called the Furies by the Romans, were vengeful female spirits who punished mortals who had committed crimes against their own family members. In The Eumenides of Aeschylus, these violent, punishing goddesses also be came patrons of Athenian fertility and safety.

Electra, a daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, sent her younger brother Orestes to Phocis (a region of central Greece on the other side of the Gulf of Corinth) to protect him.

Eight years later, Orestes, now a young man, returned to avenge his father's death. Ordered by Apollo and egged on by Electra, Orestes killed both his mother and her lover.

Orestes was sentenced to death for this crime—though the sentence was later reduced to one year's banishment. Worse than being exiled was the relentless torture inflicted by the Erinyes, who drove Orestes mad.

Beset by the Erinyes, Orestes traveled to Delphi to seek help from the god who had told him to commit this crime. Apollo sent the tormented boy to Athens. Tried on the Areopagus for matricide, Orestes was acquitted when Athena cast the decisive vote in his favor. This verdict offered some satisfaction to the Erinyes, who eased up on their persecution of Orestes.

Cured of his madness, Orestes claimed his father's throne in Mycenae. He later conquered Arcadia and—as Tyndareus's grandson—succeeded to the throne of Sparta. This consolidation of power made him the most powerful monarch in the Peloponnesus.

Hermione, the daughter of Helen and Menelaus, had been promised to the boy Orestes before the war. But near the end of the war, Menelaus had also promised her to Neoptolemus. Orestes fumed when he found that Neoptolemus had married his intended. Eventually, Orestes killed him or had him killed. At last, he married Hermione and lived to a grand old age.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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