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Introducing Homer's Iliad
Introducing Homer's Iliad

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1.1 The catalyst for the Trojan War

Figure 1 Peter Paul Rubens, The Judgement of Paris, c.1638, oil on canvas, 199 x 381 cm. Prado Museum, Madrid. Hermes holds up the golden apple, while Paris surveys the beauty of the three goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite.

The catalyst for the Trojan War occurred when, at the wedding of the hero Peleus and the immortal nymph Thetis, Eris, the goddess of strife, rolled an apple marked ‘for the fairest’ down the aisle. In the resulting fallout – as the goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite quarrelled over who should receive this title – Zeus entrusted the decision to the judgement of a mortal, Paris, a prince of Troy. All three goddesses attempted to influence Paris: Hera offered him political dominion, Athena strategic success in war; but Paris chose Aphrodite, who offered him the most beautiful of all women, Helen. Unfortunately, Helen was already married to a Greek hero by the name of Menelaus: when she eloped with Paris to Troy, Menelaus’ brother, Agamemnon, raised a coalition of Greek forces to besiege Troy and secure Helen’s return. For ten years the two sides fought at Troy, along with their allies – the Trojans were supported at various times by Amazons (a mythical tribe of warrior women) and Ethiopians, making this something of an ancient world war. Achilles defeated all the main heroes, including the Amazon Penthesilea, the Ethiopian Memnon, and Troilus, the youngest son of the elderly king Priam, as well as the Trojan champion, Hector, whose body he dragged behind his chariot around the walls of Troy three times. Achilles too died, killed at the hands of Paris, who brought him low with an arrow through his heel. His body was rescued for burial by Ajax. Eventually, the city fell to Odysseus’ ruse of the Trojan Horse. Once inside the city, the Greeks massacred the population (except for some women and children whom they enslaved), and committed numerous atrocities, notorious among which was Neoptolemus, Achilles’ son, killing Priam at the altar of Athena. With these actions the Greeks incurred the wrath of the gods, and few returned safely to their homelands: many were lost at sea, others founded colonies in distant lands, and those that did make it back found trouble waiting for them at home (Agamemnon was murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra and her lover; Odysseus found his palace overrun with suitors for his wife).