Classical Mythology: The Final Battles: The Tenth Year of the War

The Final Battles: The Tenth Year of the War

After nine long years, the Greeks had seized, ransacked, and looted innumerable towns, but had come no closer to penetrating the impregnable walls of Ilium. The tenth and final year would prove costly to both sides—but only one side would emerge victorious.

The End of Achilles

For a time, it looked as if Troy had gained the upper hand. Just when they needed it the most, the Trojans received reinforcements from foreign lands. Penthesileia, queen of the Amazons, was the first to arrive. Years earlier, King Priam had purified her after she had accidentally killed another Amazon queen, Antiope (see Lucky in War, Unlucky in Love: Theseus). To repay this favor, she fought alongside the Trojans, inflicting great damage on the Greek troops, until Achilles killed her.

Memnon, the king of Ethiopia, next joined the Trojans, bringing with him a formidable army of thousands. Memnon and his army killed many Greeks, including Antilochus, the young and brave son of Nestor. Nestor, the king of Pylos, who had led 90 ships and offered sage counsel to the Greeks, challenged Memnon to meet him on the field of battle so that he could avenge the death of his son. When Memnon refused, citing Nestor's venerable age, Achilles offered to take the old man's place. Memnon accepted the challenge—and also died at the hands of Achilles.

Paris, who had instigated the war, had never demonstrated a great deal of skill in combat. Though his arrows occasionally hit their targets, the wounds he caused never proved fatal. But in the tenth year of the war, with Apollo guiding his bow, Paris shot an arrow that soared over the walls of Troy, pierced Achilles in the heel—the only vulnerable part of his body—and killed the great warrior.

Though still under heavy fire, Ajax of Salamis carried the body of Achilles off the battlefield, while Odysseus defended him against the Trojan attack. After burying Achilles, Odysseus and Ajax both claimed the right to wear Achilles' armor, which the god Hephaestus had forged.

When the Greek leaders judged Odysseus the most deserving recipient, Ajax went mad. He slaughtered the Greeks' herds of livestock, thinking they were the Greek generals who had insulted him. Once his sanity was restored, Ajax—deeply ashamed—killed himself by falling on the sword he had won from Hector.

A Recipe for Winning the War

After Achilles' death, Odysseus captured the Trojan seer Helenus, brother of Paris. The Greeks persuaded him to tell them the fate of the siege on the city. Helenus revealed that Troy would fall to the Greeks only if the following conditions were met:

  • Achilles' son, Neoptolemus, joined the fighting.
  • The Greeks used the bow and arrows of Heracles.
  • One of the bones of Agamemnon's grandfather, Pelops, was brought to Troy.
  • The Palladium, an ancient wooden statue of Athena, was stolen from the Trojan citadel called the Pergamum.
What a Life!

When Ilus, founder of Ilium (Troy), arrived on the site where he would build the great walled city, he prayed to Zeus for a sign. The carved, wooden statue of Athena suddenly fell down from the sky and landed in front of Ilus's tent. His prayers answered, Ilus quickly placed the Palladium in the Trojan citadel, where it had protected the city from that day forward.

Odysseus and Diomedes first went all the way back to the island of Scyrus to recruit Neoptolemus. The son quickly donned his father's armor to join the Greeks. In battle, he would prove a champion almost as bold, ruthless, and daunting as his father.

On their way back to Troy, the three stopped at Lemnos, where Philoctetes—cruelly abandoned nine years earlier—had survived by shooting and eating birds. Regarded as the greatest archer in Greece since the death of Heracles, Philoctetes still possessed the hero's bow and arrows. Philoctetes wanted to kill the Greeks, especially Odysseus, whom he had long cursed for his part in the abandonment. Despite his resistance, the archer finally succumbed to persuasion—and the appearance of the spirit of Heracles, who told him it was his duty to fight on the side of the Greeks.


The son of the quintessential warrior Achilles, Neoptolemus has a name that means “new war.”

The four returned to Troy, where they found that the people of Elis had gladly sent their fellow Greeks a shoulder blade of Pelops. That left only the Palladium. Under cover of night, Odysseus and Diomedes slipped into Troy and stole the statue, which they carried to the Greek fleet.

Their scavenger hunt immediately began to yield results. Machaon or his brother Podaleirius—grandsons of Apollo and sons of Asclepius, a mortal who had been deified as a god of healing—cured the wound of Philoctetes, who then mortally wounded Paris with one of Heracles' poisoned arrows.

Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts!

Despite losing virtually all of its greatest champions, Troy still would not fall. The city's walls, built by Apollo and Poseidon, were impenetrable.

Odysseus came up with an ingenious plan to get inside the city. With Athena's help, Epeius, an artisan, constructed an enormous wooden horse. Led by Odysseus, a small army of the boldest Greek warriors hid themselves inside. The Greek fleet then sailed away—but only as far as the far side of the offshore island Tenedos.

When the Trojans found the horse, which had an inscription dedicating it to Athena, some wanted to burn it or push it off a cliff. But others argued that if they brought it inside the city walls and used it to replace the stolen Palladium, the horse would bring them luck. The prophets Cassandra and Laocon explicitly warned the Trojans that Greek troops were hidden inside the horse—but of course no one believed them.

What a Life!

Cassandra, a priestess of Apollo, had spurned the lustful advances of the god who had taught her prophecy. Apollo punished Cassandra by having all of her prophecies disbelieved. The gift of prophecy, coupled with the curse of disbelief, tormented her all of her days.

Laocon underscored his warning by hurling his spear at the wooden horse. At that moment, two sea serpents rose out of the sea and attacked Laocon's sons. The serpents killed the boys and Laocon, who rushed to his children's defense. Though Athena sent these serpents to shut him up for good and thereby bring about the destruction of Troy, the Trojans who witnessed this horrifying tragedy assumed that the priest was being punished for desecrating the wooden horse.

With the Trojans already inclined to bring the wooden horse inside the city, the Greek Sinon—perhaps a son of the cunning Sisyphus—gave them the last push they needed. The Trojans found him outside the Trojan walls, with his arms tied and his clothes torn to shreds. Apparently enraged at his comrades, Sinon claimed that he had escaped being sacrificed to Athena, who had become angry at the Greeks for stealing the Palladium. The Greeks, Sinon added, had built the enormous horse to appease the goddess—and had designed it so that it would not fit through the city's gates because they knew that placing it in the citadel would bring the Trojans victory. Harming it, Sinon warned, would turn the wrath of Athena on the Trojans.

Persuaded by Sinon's lies, the Trojans breached their own city's walls in order to secure the wooden horse. That night, Helen—suspicious of treachery—walked around the horse and, mimicking the voices of their wives, called out the names of some of the most renowned Greek warriors. But Odysseus kept the men quiet.

After the Trojans had fallen into bed following a drunken celebration of their impending victory, Sinon freed the Greek warriors and sent a beacon to the Greek fleet, which quickly returned. Those inside opened the gates and the Greeks seized the city in a single bloody night.

The Agony of Defeat

In sacking Troy, the Greeks treated the Trojans cruelly and ruthlessly. They committed atrocities that offended both men and gods:

  • Neoptolemus slaughtered Priam after dragging him from the sacred altar of Zeus.
  • Ajax of Locris raped Cassandra at the shrine of Athena, and in doing so may have knocked down the statue of the goddess. This sacrilege offended even Odysseus, who called on the Greeks to stone Ajax in order to appease the goddess. But the Greeks did not dare, for Ajax clung to the shrine of the very goddess he had affronted.
  • Neoptolemus, obeying the ghost of his father, sacrificed Polyxena, Priam's daughter, on the grave of Achilles (who may have wanted the girl to join him in the Underworld).
  • Neoptolemus or Odysseus threw Astyanax, the infant son of Hector, to his death from the walls of the city—thus ending the line of Priam forever.

After Menelaus killed Deiphobus—who had forced Helen to marry him after the death of his brother Paris—Helen pleaded for mercy. Menelaus had been determined to kill her for her unfaithfulness—an act that after 10 years both Greeks and Trojans would have applauded. But when faced with her beauty and tears, Menelaus relented and ultimately forgave her.

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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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