The Reading Room

Homer’s Iliad and the Causes of the Trojan War, Part. I

Many first-time readers of Homer’s Iliad are aghast at the fact that the “most famous” parts of the story do not even happen in the narrative of the Iliad. Achilleus never has his epic duel with Memnon, son of the Dawn. Achilleus is not struck down by Paris, the least worthy of the Trojans. The Trojan Horse is never devised nor seen. The sacking of Troy is left for a later and now lost epic. Also the first nine years of the war and even its initial causes were left as subjects to other, later, and minor epics. So, what is the background to Homer’s Iliad?
Pseudo-Hyginus in his Fabulae, Lucian, and Apollodorus in his Library tell of a certain story concerning the apple of Eris. In this tale, the mortal hero Peleus and Thetis, his immortal sea-goddess fiancée, were to have a grand wedding, and all the gods and goddesses would be invited. Eris, the goddess of discord and chaos, however, was notably excluded. Since she was divine and easily offended by nature, Eris concocted a plan to throw one of the golden apples of the Hesperides into the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. This was no ordinary golden apple, though. This golden apple was inscribed with the Greek superlative adjective, Kallisti, on it, which means, "to the fairest." All the goddesses contended for this beautiful apple, but in the end, three were chosen as finalists: Aphrodite, Athene, and Hera.
The three goddesses chose the king of the gods as the judge of the contest, but Zeus recused himself on the grounds that he was married to Hera and father to Aphrodite and Athene. A shepherd boy named Paris or Alexander was chosen in his place. It just so happened that this shepherd was the exiled son of the Trojan emperor, Priam. Paris had been exiled to the pastures of Ida due to a prophecy that he would one day bring ruin to Troy. The fragments of the epic cycle poem Cypria, however, suggest that Zeus chose Paris knowing that Paris’ choice would lead to war, because he wished to cull the population of man and the heroes of the generation of Achilleus. In any case, the young shepherd son of Priam, Paris, was chosen to choose the fairest goddess and to bear the cost of his and Zeus’ decision.
At first, Paris attempted to split the apple into three equal parts for the goddesses. The goddesses did not accept this democratic solution, and each attempted, knowing the nature of the others, to bribe the young man. Athene offered Paris victory in battle--a fine gift from the war-goddess always accompanied by Nike, goddess of victory. Hera offered the young man the power to rule. It was Aphrodite's offer of "the most beautiful woman in the world," however, which tantalized Paris most. He, not being as sharp as he was passionate, wrongly assumed that he would be receiving Aphrodite as bride. Aphrodite however reminded him of the wording of the offer. She had offered the most beautiful woman to Paris. Now Aphrodite was a goddess, and no mere mortal woman, so the married mortal woman, Helen of Sparta, the wife of Menelaos, would have to do.* From there, it is all mythological-history: Paris visits Sparta and Menelaos' court; Menelaos leaves to attend the funeral of Catreus, his maternal grandfather in Crete, and Paris absconds with Helen.
In the second part of “Causes of the Trojan War,” we will consider the sordid sacrifice of Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon, and how that establishes the enmity between Agamemnon and the prophet Kalchas, seen on full display in Book I of Homer’s Iliad. We will also discuss the suitors of Helen, Tyndareus, and how the odd stipulations of being a suitor of Helen led to the summoning of the largest fleet ever to cross the Aegean Sea.
*Herodotus suggests in his Histories that Paris perhaps wished to steal Helen to make up for some injury done to Troy by the Achaians in a past generation.