Classical Mythology

All's Not Fair in Love and War: The Fall of Troy

The most significant and renowned event in all of classical mythology, the Trojan War, destroyed thousands of valiant and not-so-valiant combatants and nearly a thousand ships. So many legendary figures died in the 10 long years of fighting (traditionally placed around 1200 B.C.E.) that the war and its aftermath brought the age of heroes to an end.

Though it comes to a tragic conclusion—a city destroyed forever, the best and the brightest lying bloody on the battlefield, hundreds more lost at sea—the story of the Trojan War is a rich one. Within its basic framework—an alliance of Greek cities attempting to win back Helen by defeating the impenetrable city of Troy—the story features countless acts of valor, deception, betrayal, treachery, loyalty, and compassion by the heroes on both sides. Through several centuries, countless Greek storytellers focused on one aspect or another of this grand tale as the fabric for their own mythmaking.

One Bad Apple Does Spoil the Bunch

The events that led to the Trojan War began long before the war itself did. The ingredients included a treacherous beauty contest, a prized apple, an oath to protect a marriage, a bribe of love, an unfaithful wife, and an impenetrable wall. Together, they added up to a war that would last for a decade.

Who's the Fairest of Them All?

The wedding of Peleus and Thetis (see Achilles: The Angry Young Hero) was a marriage made in heaven. Almost all the gods and goddesses attended Mount Pelion (in northeast Greece) for the wedding—for it was the rarest of occasions when a goddess married a mortal man. But Eris, the disagreeable goddess of discord, had not been invited. Angered at this slight, she tossed a Golden Apple, inscribed “For the Fairest,” among the goddesses. Immediately Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite started to fight over the apple. Zeus ordered them to take their quarrel elsewhere, and instructed Hermes to lead the goddesses to Troy, a great walled city on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor.

To decide the matter, Zeus appointed Paris, a Trojan prince and reputedly the handsomest of mortal men. Paris thus found himself in the unenviable position of becoming the favorite of one goddess while incurring the wrath of the other two.

Rather than trust the prince's good judgment, all three goddesses attempted to bribe Paris. Hera promised him dominion over the whole world. Athena offered certain victory in every battle. Aphrodite merely offered the most beautiful woman in the world: Helen, a daughter of Zeus and a sister of the Dioscuri. Paris did not hesitate, quickly accepting the beauty and awarding the Golden Apple to the goddess of love.

But She's Already Married!

Unfortunately for Paris, Helen was married to the Greek king of Sparta, Menelaus. Helen was so beautiful that nearly every Greek prince—more than two dozen—had wooed her. Her foster father Tyndareus, fearing that those not chosen might react with violence, had made all her suitors stand on a slain horse and take a solemn oath. Each had sworn not only to abide by Helen's choice, but to punish anyone who might steal the bride away.

Mythed by a Mile

The playwright Euripides contended that Helen never made it to Troy. Hera, still angry at Paris for choosing Aphrodite as “the Fairest,” spirited Helen away to Egypt and substituted a phantom fashioned from a cloud. Thus, the Greeks and Trojans waged war for 10 years over nothing more than a cloud.

Helen had chosen Menelaus, brother of the wealthy Agamemnon, king of Mycenae (and husband of Helen's sister Clytemnestra). The couple had a daughter, Hermione, and perhaps a son or two as well. Before Paris set out some years later to claim his “prize,” his brother and sister, the seers Helenus and Cassandra, warned him not to go after Helen.

Ignoring these naysayers, Paris left for Sparta. Helen's husband, King Menelaus, and her brothers, Castor and Polydeuces, warmly welcomed the Trojan prince and entertained him for nine days. Unaware of his guest's motives, Menelaus then left home to attend his grandfather's funeral. In his absence, Paris carried off Helen and a good deal of treasure from the palace as well. (Helen may or may not have gone willingly. Some storytellers insisted that she eagerly deserted her husband to join her handsome young lover. Others argued that Paris forcibly raped and abducted her.)

book cover

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.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

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