Historical Tales: 10—Greek - Charles Morris
The far-famed Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, was the most beautiful woman in the world. And from her beauty and faithlessness came the most celebrated of ancient wars, with death and disaster to numbers of famous heroes and the final ruin of the ancient city of Troy. The story of these striking events has been told only in poetry. We propose to tell it again in sober prose.
But warning must first be given that Helen and the heroes of the Trojan war dwelt in the mist-land of legend and tradition, that cloud-realm from which history only slowly emerged The facts with which we are here concerned are those of the poet, not those of the historian. It is far from sure that Helen ever lived. It is far from sure that there ever was a Trojan war. Many people doubt the whole story. Yet the ancient Greeks accepted it as history, and as we are telling their story, we may fairly include it among the historical tales of Greece. The heroes concerned are certainly fully alive in Homer's great poem, the "Iliad," and we can do no better than follow the story of this stirring poem, while adding details from other sources.
Mythology tells us that, once upon a time, the three goddesses, Venus, Juno, and Minerva, had a contest as to which was the most beautiful, and left the decision to Paris, then a shepherd on Mount Ida, though really the son of King Priam of Troy. The princely shepherd decided in favor of Venus, who had promised him in reward the love of the most beautiful of living women, the Spartan Helen, daughter of the great deity Zeus (or Jupiter). Accordingly the handsome and favored youth set sail for Sparta, bringing with him rich gifts for its beautiful queen. Menelaus received his Trojan guest with much hospitality, but, unluckily, was soon obliged to make a journey to Crete, leaving Helen to entertain the princely visitor. The result was as Venus had foreseen. Love arose between the handsome youth and the beautiful woman, and an elopement followed, Paris stealing away with both the wife and the money of his confiding host. He set sail, had a prosperous voyage, and arrived safely at Troy with his prize on the third day. This was a fortune very different from that of Ulysses, who on his return from Troy took ten years to accomplish a similar voyage.
As might naturally be imagined, this elopement excited indignation not only in the hearts of Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon, but among the Greek chieftains generally, who sympathized with the husband in his grief and shared his anger against Troy. War was declared against that faithless city, and most of the chiefs pledged themselves to take part in it, and to lend their aid until Helen was recovered or restored. Had they known all that was before them they might have hesitated, since it took ten long years to equip the expedition, for ten years more the war continued, and some of the leaders spent ten years in their return. But in those old days time does not seem to have counted for much, and besides, many of the chieftains had been suitors for the hand of Helen, and were doubtless moved by their old love in pledging themselves to her recovery.
Some of them, however, were anything but eager to take part. Achilles and Ulysses, the two most important in the subsequent war, endeavored to escape this necessity. Achilles was the son of the sea-nymph Thetis, who had dipped him when an infant in the river Styx, the waters of which magic stream rendered him invulnerable to any weapon except in one spot,—the heel by which his mother had held him. But her love for her son made her anxious to guard him against every danger, and when the chieftains came to seek his aid in the expedition, she concealed him, dressed as a girl, among the maidens of the court. But the crafty Ulysses, who accompanied, them, soon exposed this trick. Disguised as a pedler, he spread his goods, a shield and a spear among them, before the maidens. Then an alarm of danger being sounded, the girls fled in affright, but the disguised youth, with impulsive valor, seized the weapons and prepared to defend himself. His identity was thus revealed.
Ulysses himself, one of the wisest and shrewdest of men, had also sought to escape the dangerous expedition. To do so he feigned madness, and when the messenger chiefs came to seek him they found him attempting to plough with an ox and a horse yoked together, while he sowed the field with salt. One of them, however, took Telemachus, the young son of Ulysses, and laid him in the furrow before the plough. Ulysses turned the plough aside, and thus showed that there was more method than madness in his mind.
And thus, in time, a great force of men and a great fleet of ships were gathered, there being in all eleven hundred and eighty-six ships and more than one hundred thousand men. The kings and chieftains of Greece led their followers from all parts of the land to Aulis, in Botia, whence they were to set sail for the opposite coast of Asia Minor, on which stood the city of Troy. Agamemnon, who brought one hundred ships, was chosen leader of the army, which included all the heroes of the age, among them the distinguished warriors Ajax and Diomedes, the wise old Nestor, and many others of valor and fame.
The fleet at length set sail; but Troy was not easily reached. The leaders of the army did not even know where Troy was, and landed in the wrong locality, where they had a battle with the people. Embarking again, they were driven by a storm back to Greece. Adverse winds now kept them at Aulis until Agamemnon appeased the hostile gods by sacrificing to them his daughter Iphigenia,—one of the ways which those old heathens had of obtaining fair weather. Then the winds changed, and the fleet made its way to the island of Tenedos, in the vicinity of Troy. From here Ulysses and Menelaus were sent to that city as envoys to demand a return of Helen and the stolen property.
Meanwhile the Trojans, well aware of what was in store for them, had made abundant preparations, and gathered an army of allies from various parts of Thrace and Asia Minor. They received the two Greek envoys hospitably, paid them every attention, but sustained the villany of Paris, and refused to deliver Helen and the treasure. When this word was brought back to the fleet the chiefs decided on immediate war, and sail was made for the neighboring shores of the Trojan realm.
Of the long-drawn-out war that followed we know little more than what Homer has told us, though something may be learned from other ancient poems. The first Greek to land fell by the hand of Hector, the Trojan hero,—as the gods had foretold. But in vain the Trojans sought to prevent the landing; they were quickly put to rout, and Cycnus, one of their great warriors and son of the god Neptune, was slain by Achilles. He was invulnerable to iron, but was choked to death by the hero and changed into a swan. The Trojans were driven within their city walls, and the invulnerable Achilles, with what seems a safe valor, stormed and sacked numerous towns in the neighborhood, killed one of King Priam's sons, captured and sold as slaves several others, drove off the oxen of the celebrated warrior Ćneas, and came near to killing that hero himself. He also captured and kept as his own prize a beautiful maiden named Briseis, and was even granted, through the favor of the gods, an interview with the divine Helen herself.
This is about all we know of the doings of the first nine years of the war. What the Greeks were at during that long time neither history nor legend tells. The only other event of importance was the death of Palamedes, one of the ablest Grecian chiefs. It was he who had detected the feigned madness of Ulysses, and tradition relates that he owed his death to the revengeful anger of that cunning schemer, who had not forgiven him for being made to take part in this endless and useless war.
Thus nine years of warfare passed, and Troy remained untaken and seemingly unshaken. How the two hosts managed to live in the mean time the tellers of the story do not say. Thucydides, the historian, thinks it likely that the Greeks had to farm the neighboring lands for food. How the Trojans and their allies contrived to survive so long within their walls we are left to surmise, unless they farmed their streets. And thus we reach the opening of the tenth year and of Homer's "Iliad."
Homer's story is too long for us to tell in detail, and too full of war and bloodshed for modern taste. We can only give it in epitome.
Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks, robs Achilles of his beautiful captive Briseis, and the invulnerable hero, furious at the insult, retires in sullen rage to his ships, forbids his troops to take part in the war, and sulks in anger while battle after battle is fought. Deprived of his mighty aid, the Greeks find the Trojans quite their match, and the fortunes of the warring hosts vary day by day.
On a watch-tower in Troy sits Helen the beautiful, gazing out on the field of conflict, and naming for old Priam, who sits beside her, the Grecian leaders as they appear at the head of their hosts on the plain below. On this plain meet in fierce combat Paris the abductor and Menelaus the indignant husband. Vengeance lends double weight to the spear of the latter, and Paris is so fiercely assailed that Venus has to come to his aid to save him from death. Meanwhile a Trojan archer wounds Menelaus with an arrow, and a general battle ensues.
The conflict is a fierce one, and many warriors on both sides are slain. Diomedes, a bold Grecian chieftain, is the hero of the day. Trojans fall by scores before his mighty spear, he rages in fury from side to side of the field, and at length meets the great Ćneas, whose thigh he breaks with a huge stone. But Ćneas is the son of the goddess Venus, who flies to his aid and bears him from the field. The furious Greek daringly pursues the flying divinity, and even succeeds in wounding the goddess of love with his impious spear. At this sad outcome Venus, to whom physical pain is a new sensation, flies in dismay to Olympus, the home of the deities, and hides her weeping face in the lap of Father Jove, while her lady enemies taunt her with biting sarcasms. The whole scene is an amusing example of the childish folly of mythology.
In the next scene a new hero appears upon the field, Hector, the warlike son of Priam, and next to Achilles the greatest warrior of the war. He arms himself inside the walls, and takes an affectionate leave of his wife Andromache and his infant son, the child crying with terror at his glittering helmet and nodding plume. This mild demeanor of the warrior changes to warlike ardor when he appears upon the field. His coming turns the tide of battle. The victorious Greeks are driven back before his shining spear, many of them are slain, and the whole host is driven to its ships and almost forced to take flight by sea from the victorious onset of Hector and his triumphant followers. While the Greeks cower in their ships the Trojans spend the night in bivouac upon the field. Homer gives us a picturesque description of this night-watch, which Tennyson has thus charmingly rendered into English:
"As when in heaven the stars about the moon
Look beautiful, when all the winds are laid,
And every height comes out, and jutting peak
And valley, and the immeasurable heavens
Break open to their highest, and all the stars
Shine, and the shepherd gladdens in his heart;
So, many a fire between the ships and stream
Of Xanthus blazed before the towers of Troy,
A thousand on the plain; and close by each
Sat fifty in the blaze of burning fire;
And, champing golden grain, the horses stood
Hail by their chariots, waiting for the dawn."
Affairs had grown perilous for the Greeks, Patroclus, the bosom friend of Achilles, begged him to come to their aid. This the sulking. hero would not do, but he lent Patroclus his armor, and permitted him to lead his troops, the Myrmidons, to the field. Patroclus was himself a gallant and famous warrior, and his aid turned the next day's battle against the Trojans, who were driven back with great slaughter. But, unfortunately for this hero of the fight, a greater than he was in the field. Hector met him in the full tide of his success, engaged him in battle, killed him, and captured from his body the armor of Achilles.
The slaughter of his friend at length aroused the sullen Achilles to action. Rage against the Trojans succeeded his anger against Agamemnon. His lost armor was replaced by new armor forged for him by Vulcan, the celestial smith,—who fashioned him the most wonderful of shields and most formidable of spears. Thus armed, he mounted his chariot and drove at the head of his Myrmidons to the field, where he made such frightful slaughter of the Trojans that the river Scamander was choked with their corpses; and, indignant at being thus treated, sought to drown the hero for his offence. Finally he met Hector, engaged him in battle, and killed him with a thrust of his mighty spear. Then, fastening the corpse of the Trojan hero to his chariot, he dragged it furiously over the blood-soaked plain and around the city walls. Homer's story ends with the funeral obsequies of the slain Patroclus and the burial by the Trojans of Hector's recovered body.
Other writers tell us how the war went on. Hector was replaced by Penthesileia, the beautiful and warlike queen of the Amazons, who came to the aid of the Trojans, and drove the Greeks from the field. But, alas! she too was slain by the invincible Achilles. Removing her helmet, the victor was deeply affected to find that it was a beautiful woman he had slain.
The mighty Memnon, son of godlike parents, now made his appearance in the Trojan ranks, at the head of a band of black Ethiopians, with whom he wrought havoc among the Greeks. At length Achilles encountered this hero also, and a terrible battle ensued, whose result was long in doubt. In the end Achilles triumphed and Memnon fell. But he died to become immortal, for his goddess mother prayed for and obtained for him the gift of immortal life.
Such triumphs were easy for Achilles, whose flesh no weapon could pierce; but no one was invulnerable to the poets, and his end came at last. He had routed the Trojans and driven them within their gates, when Paris, aided by Apollo, the divine archer, shot an arrow at the hero which struck him in his one pregnable spot, the heel. The fear of Thetis was realized, her son died from the wound, and a fierce battle took place for the possession of his body. This Ajax and Ulysses succeeded in carrying off to the Grecian camp, where it was burned on a magnificent funeral pile. Achilles, like his victim Memnon, was made immortal by the favor of the gods. His armor was offered as a prize to the most distinguished Grecian hero, and was adjudged to Ulysses, whereupon Ajax, his close contestant for the prize, slew himself in despair.
We cannot follow all the incidents of the campaign. It will suffice to say that Paris was himself slain by an arrow, that Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, took his place in the field, and that the Trojans suffered so severely at his hands that they took shelter behind their walls, whence they never again emerged to meet the Greeks in the field.
But Troy was safe from capture while the Palladium, a statue which Jupiter himself had given to Dardanus, the ancestor of the Trojans, remained in the citadel of that city. Ulysses overcame this difficulty. He entered Troy in the disguise of a wounded and ragged fugitive, and managed to steal the Palladium from the citadel. Then, as the walls of Troy still defied their assailants, a further and extraordinary stratagem was employed to gain access to the city. It seems a ridiculous one to us, but was accepted as satisfactory by the writers of Greece. This stratagem was the following:
A great hollow wooden horse, large enough to contain one hundred armed men, was constructed, and in its interior the leading Grecian heroes concealed themselves. Then the army set fire to its tents, took to its ships, and sailed away to the island of Tenedos, as if it had abandoned the siege. Only the great horse was left on the long-contested battle-field.
The Trojans, filled with joy at the sight of their departing foes, came streaming out into the plain, women as well as warriors, and gazed with astonishment at the strange monster which their enemies had left. Many of them wanted to take it into the city, and dedicate it to the gods as a mark of gratitude for their deliverance. The more cautious ones doubted if it was wise to accept an enemy's gift. Laocoon, the priest of Neptune, struck the side of the horse with his spear. A hollow sound came from its interior, but this did not suffice to warn the indiscreet Trojans. And a terrible spectacle now filled them with superstitious dread. Two great serpents appeared far out at sea and came swimming inward over the waves. Reaching the shore, they glided over the land to where stood the unfortunate Laocoon, whose body they encircled with their folds. His son, who came to his rescue, was caught in the same dreadful coils, and the two perished miserably before the eyes of their dismayed countrymen.
There was no longer any talk of rejecting the fatal gift. The gods had given their decision. A breach was made in the walls of Troy, and the great horse was dragged with exultation within the stronghold that for ten long years had defied its foe.
Riotous joy and festivity followed in Troy. It extended into the night. While this went on Sinon, a seeming renegade who had been left behind by the Greeks, and who had helped to deceive the Trojans by lying tales, lighted a fire-signal for the fleet, and loosened the bolts of the wooden horse, from whose hollow depths the hundred weary warriors hastened to descend.
And now the triumph of the Trojans was changed to sudden woe and dire lamentation. Death followed close upon their festivity. The hundred warriors attacked them at their banquets, the returned fleet disgorged its thousands, who poured through the open gates, and death held fearful carnival within the captured city. Priam was slain at the altar by Neoptolemus. All his sons fell in death. The city was sacked and destroyed. Its people were slain or taken captive. Few escaped, but among these was Ćneas, the traditional ancestor of Rome. As regards Helen, the cause of the war, she was recovered by Menelaus, and gladly accompanied him back to Sparta. There she lived for years afterwards in dignity and happiness, and finally died to become happily immortal in the Elysian fields.
But our story is not yet at an end. The Greeks had still to return to their homes, from which they had been ten years removed. And though Paris had crossed the intervening seas in three days, it took Ulysses ten years to return, while some of his late companions failed to reach their homes at all. Many, indeed, were the adventures which these home-sailing heroes were destined to encounter.
Some of the Greek warriors reached home speedily and were met with welcome, but others perished by the way, while Agamemnon, their leader, returned to find that his wife had been false to him, and perished by her treacherous hand. Menelaus wandered long through Egypt, Cyprus, and elsewhere before he reached his native land. Nestor and several others went to Italy, where they founded cities. Diomedes also became a founder of cities, and various others seem to have busied themselves in this same useful occupation. Neoptolemus made his way to Epirus, where he became king of the Molossians. Ćneas, the Trojan hero, sought Carthage, whose queen Dido died for love of him. Thence he sailed to Italy, where he fought battles and won victories, and finally founded the city of Rome. His story is given by Virgil, in the poem of the "Ćneid." Much more might be told of the adventures of the returning heroes, but the chief of them all is that related of the much wandering Ulysses, as given by Homer in his epic poem the "Odyssey."
The story of the "Odyssey" might serve us for a tale in itself, but as it is in no sense historical we give it here in epitome.
We are told that during the wanderings of Ulysses his island kingdom of Ithaca had been invaded by a throng of insolent suitors of his wife Penelope, who occupied his castle and wasted his substance in riotous living. His son Telemachus, indignant at this, set sail in search of his father, whom he knew to be somewhere upon the seas. Landing at Sparta, he found Menelaus living with Helen in a magnificent castle, richly ornamented with gold, silver, and bronze, and learned from him that his father was then in the island of Ogygia, where he had been long detained by the nymph Calypso.
The wanderer had experienced numerous adventures. He had encountered the one-eyed giant Polyphemus, who feasted on the fattest of the Greeks, while the others escaped by boring out his single eye. He had passed the land of the Lotus-Eaters, to whose magic some of the Greeks succumbed. In the island of Circe some of his followers were turned into swine. But the hero overcame this enchantress, and while in her land visited the realm of the departed and had interviews with the shades of the dead. He afterwards passed in safety through the frightful gulf of Scylla and Charybdis, and visited the wind-god Ćolus, who gave him a fair wind home, and all the foul winds tied up in a bag. But the curious Greeks untied the bag, and the ship was blown far from her course. His followers afterwards killed the sacred oxen of the sun, for which they were punished by being wrecked. All were lost except Ulysses, who floated on a mast to the island of Calypso. With this charming nymph he dwelt for seven years.
Finally, at the command of the gods, Calypso set her willing captive adrift on a raft of trees. This raft was shattered in a storm, but Ulysses swam to the island of Phćacia, where he was rescued by Nausicaa, the king's daughter, and brought to the palace. Thence, in a Phćacian ship, he finally reached Ithaca.
Here new adventures awaited him. He sought his palace disguised as an old beggar, so that of all there, only his old dog knew him. The faithful animal staggered to his feet, feebly expressed his joy, and fell dead. Telemachus had now returned, and led his disguised father into the palace, where the suitors were at their revels. Penelope, instructed what to do, now brought forth the bow of Ulysses, and offered her hand to any one of the suitors who could bend it. It was tried by them all, but tried in vain. Then the seeming beggar took in his hand the stout, ashen bow, bent it with ease, and with wonderful skill sent an arrow hurtling through the rings of twelve axes set up in line. This done, he turned the terrible bow upon the suitors, sending its death-dealing arrows whizzing through their midst. Telemachus and Eunćus, his swine-keeper, aided him in this work of death, and a frightful scene of carnage ensued, from which not one of the suitors escaped with his life.
In the end the hero, freed from his ragged attire, made himself known to his faithful wife, defeated the friends of the suitors, and recovered his kingdom from his foes. And thus ends the final episode of the famous tale of Troy.