Classical Mythology: The Face That Launched a Thousand Ships

The Face That Launched a Thousand Ships

Learning of Helen's disappearance, Menelaus asked his brother Agamemnon for help. Agamemnon, who would serve as commander in chief of the Greek forces, rounded up the former rivals for Helen's hand. Reminding them of their oath of allegiance, Menelaus demanded they join him in recovering Helen and punishing the Trojans.

Not all of the suitors were eager to fulfill their obligation to Menelaus after so many years had passed. Some bought their way out of their duty. Odysseus, the wily prince of Ithaca, feigned madness but was tricked into giving himself away (see All's Not Fair in Love and War: The Fall of Troy). His ruse exposed, Odysseus reluctantly left his wife Penelope and his infant son Telemachus and joined the Greek forces.

Despite the few who seemed reluctant, the Greeks in time assembled quite a rescue force: more than 1,000 ships from over two dozen different Greek kingdoms. They gathered in Aulis, a Boeotian town on the strait that separated the mainland from the island of Euboea.

Which Way to Troy?

Unfavorable winds kept the fleet from setting out for Troy. Calchas, a soothsayer, blamed the ill winds on Agamemnon, whose boastful claim that he could hunt better than Artemis had offended that goddess. The soothsayer insisted that Agamemnon appease the goddess by sacrificing his daughter, Iphigenia. Odysseus and Diomedes brought her to Aulis under the pretext of her marrying Achilles (the son of Peleus and Thetis), but the beautiful young girl was instead offered to Artemis. (As told by Euripides in Iphigenia in Tauris, the goddess may have spared Iphigenia, substituting a deer and whisking the girl away to serve as her priestess in Tauris, the Crimean Peninsula on the Black Sea.)

Clytemnestra was furious at her husband. She refused to believe that a miracle had saved her daughter and despised Agamemnon from that day forward.

What a Life!

Priam was the only son of King Laomedon to survive Heracles' siege of Troy years earlier. After Heracles killed Laomedon and captured his daughter Hesione, he allowed her to buy the freedom of one prisoner. She chose her brother Podarces, who was renamed Priam.

Once the winds changed, the fleet set out. Since no one knew the way to Troy, however, the fleet landed to the south of Troy, in Mysia. Telephus—a son of Heracles and son-in-law of Priam, king of Troy—led a Mysian force that killed several of the Greeks. When Achilles—who would prove the greatest of all the Greek war heroes—wounded him, Telephus followed the Greeks back to Euboea, where he agreed to show the Greeks the way to Troy if Achilles cured him—but he refused to fight against his father-in-law's city (see Achilles: The Angry Young Hero).

After getting underway again, Philoctetes—who as a boy had inherited Heracles' bow and arrows in return for lighting his funeral pyre (see The Labors of Heracles)—was bitten by a snake on an Aegean island. As one of Helen's ex-suitors, Philoctetes had brought seven shiploads of men to the service of Menelaus. But the stench of his wound and the sound of his agony caused his shipmates—at the urging of Odysseus—to abandon the renowned bowman on the island of Lemnos.

The Long Siege of Troy Begins

Before the Greek fleet landed at Troy (also called Ilium), Menelaus and the eloquent Odysseus went ahead to appeal to King Priam personally. Diplomacy might have prevailed, for Priam saw returning Helen and the Spartan gold as a way to avoid waging war with the impressive Greek fleet. But Priam's sons—he had 50, in addition to 12 daughters and at least 42 illegitimate children—called for war in defense of their brother. They would have killed Menelaus and Odysseus on the spot, but Antenor, Priam's most respected councilor, would not allow them to risk angering the gods by so blatantly violating the laws of hospitality.

An oracle had foretold that the first invader to set foot on Trojan soil would be the first Greek to die there. Only Protesilaus, commander of 40 ships from Thessaly, dared defy this oracle. Though he killed several Trojans in this first attack, Protesilaus was indeed the first Greek to fall.


The name “Protesilaus”—derived from “protos” (first) and “hallomai” (jump)—means “first to jump ashore.” Unless his parents were seers, the meaning of the name suggests that mythmakers created the character simply in order to fit the story element.

Rather than mount a direct attack on the formidable fortress of Troy, the Greeks set out to destroy the surrounding towns and cities that supplied the city with both provisions and aid. The Greeks used their victories over these outlying regions not merely to cut off supplies to Troy, but to plunder food and provisions for their own armies.

In the course of this nine-year campaign to isolate Troy, the Greek conquerors committed many atrocities in the towns they seized. To satisfy their greed, they looted the surrounding towns of anything they could carry; to serve their lust, they raped and enslaved the women of Phrygia (the large area of Asia Minor in which Troy was situated).

Heroes of the Battlefield

Despite considerable bloodshed and the less-than-noble deeds of the victors, the war also allowed many Greeks—and many Trojans as well—to display their considerable heroism. Even the gods and goddesses got involved in the conflict. Though Zeus forbade the immortals from intervening, most nonetheless lined up on one side or the other:

  • Aphrodite, chosen by Paris as the fairest of goddesses, naturally sided with the Trojans. So did Artemis and her brother Apollo.
  • Hera and Athena, offended by the judgment of Paris, favored the Greeks, as did Poseidon, Hermes, and Hephaestus.
  • Ares, who simply thirsted for battle and bloodshed, fought on both sides.
  • Only Zeus, Hades, Demeter, and Hestia remained neutral throughout the war.

Among the mortals, heroic and tragic figures abounded. In addition to Paris, Menelaus, and Agamemnon, heroes of note were:

Read All About It

Homer's epic, The Iliad, focuses on the events of 50 days near the end of the Trojan War, and ends just after the death of Hector. A more comprehensive summary of all 10 years can be found in books 3 through 5 of Apollodorus's Epitome.

  • Achilles. The greatest of Greek warriors, the nearly invulnerable Achilles killed countless Trojans in battle. Achilles proved irreplaceable on the battlefield. When Agamemnon stole away his concubine, Achilles was so offended that he quit the battlefield. The Greeks, who started to suffer serious losses, felt Achilles' absence keenly.
    Patroclus, the squire, best friend, and lover of Achilles—horrified at the sight of Trojans attacking the beached Greek ships—asked to borrow Achilles' armor. Though he was no Achilles, Patroclus inflicted great damage on the Trojans. (For a more detailed account of the heroics of Achilles, see Achilles: The Angry Young Hero.)
  • Hector. The eldest son of King Priam, Hector proved himself the mightiest of Trojan warriors. Noble and courageous, Hector repeatedly showed his mettle on the battlefield. It was he who killed the first Greek, Protesilaus. Late in the war, Hector insisted that Paris—who after nine years offered to give back the treasure, but still refused to give up Helen—meet Menelaus in one-on-one combat to decide the issue once and for all. This might have ended the war a year earlier—and at far less cost to the Trojans—but before Menelaus could kill him, Aphrodite spirited Paris away.
    Hector also killed Patroclus, which proved his undoing. Achilles returned to the battlefield in a fury, killing dozens of Trojans, including Hector. After the Greeks returned the body, both sides called an 11-day truce in order to mourn the greatest of Trojan heroes.
  • Diomedes. A hero of Argos, Diomedes—who led 80 ships from Argos and its surrounding cities—was second only to Achilles among Greek warriors. In addition to killing many Trojans, Diomedes even wounded two gods: Aphrodite and Ares. The war god, who never really distinguished himself in battle, suffered so badly from his wound that his screams equaled that of 10,000 men.
  • Odysseus. Renowned for his cleverness, Odysseus often teamed up with the daring Diomedes—and not always purely for the greater good of the Greeks. For example, when the pair captured Dolon, a Trojan spying on the Greek camps, they forced him to reveal the layout of the Trojan camp—which no doubt helped the Greek troops—but also listened attentively when Dolon told them they would reap rich rewards if they captured Rhesus, king of Thrace—and then directed them to his camp. After killing the sniveling spy, Odysseus and Diomedes stole into the camp, killed Rhesus and 12 of his men in their sleep, and helped themselves to his valuable horses.
    Odysseus and Diomedes also joined in a more heinous conspiracy: engineering the murder of Palamedes, who before the war had tricked Odysseus into revealing his sanity and therefore joining the Greek forces.
    Odysseus nursed his hatred for Palamedes for many years. While camped outside of Troy, Odysseus buried some gold under the tent of Palamedes. He then forged a letter from Priam promising Palamedes gold if he betrayed the Greeks. When the letter and gold were “discovered,” Agamemnon ordered the Greek troops to stone the “traitor” to death. (For more of the adventures of Odysseus, see All's Not Fair in Love and War: The Fall of Troy.)
  • Ajax of Salamis. The son of Periboea and Telamon, who had captured Troy with Heracles more than a generation earlier, Ajax led 12 ships from Salamis. The tallest of all the warriors, Ajax was an imposing figure on the battlefield. At one point, he met Hector in one-on-one combat and fought to a draw. After the fight, the two combatants showed their respect for each other by exchanging gifts: Ajax gave Hector his belt, while the Trojan gave him a sword.
  • Teucer. Another son of Telamon (by Hesione), Teucer was the best of all Greek archers—at least until the Greeks summoned Philoctetes. He often fought from behind the shield of his half-brother Ajax. Teucer would dart out to the side, shoot an arrow or two, then quickly duck back behind the shield. If Zeus had not broken his bowstring, Teucer would have slain Hector long before Achilles did.
  • Ajax of Locris. The leader of 40 ships from Locris, the “lesser” Ajax was adept with a spear and second only to Achilles in swiftness. He became an inseparable ally of Ajax of Salamis, often fighting side by side with the “greater” Ajax.
  • Aeneas. A Trojan prince, related to Priam but not one of his sons, Aeneas fought with valor. When he was wounded, his mother Aphrodite quickly rescued him (though Diomedes wounded her), and Artemis and Leto healed him. One of the few fighters on the Trojan side to survive the war, Aeneas led several other survivors to a new home in Italy, where the Romans claimed him as the ancestor of their first emperors.
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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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