The Iliad is the story of Ilium or Troy, a rich trading city in Asia Minor near the narrow sea that leads from the Aegean to the Black Sea. It was well situated, both for commerce and agriculture. In front of the city was the sea over which sailed the ships of Troy, carrying goods and grain. At the back rose the high peak of Mount Ida, from which flowed many rivers and streams. The valleys among the hills were well-watered and fertile, with corn growing in fertile fields and cattle feeding on the rich grass of the meadows while sheep fed on the slopes of the hills.
Round their city the Trojans had built a strong wall so that no enemy should attack them from the sea. The wall was so broad that people could stand and sit and walk on it. The great gates stood open, and people could go to the seashore outside and come in as they pleased. But in time of war the gates would be closed; and then the city was like a strong fortress, quite safe from all attack, protected by the walls surrounding it, as well as by the hills behind.
Thus, Troy was a strong city, strongly protected by its walls and strongly defended by its brave soldiers. But all the kings and heroes of Greece had declared war against the Trojans, because Paris, a prince of Troy, had persuaded Helen, wife of a Greek king Menelaus, to elope with him. He had brought her to Troy. The Greeks wanted to take revenge on Troy for the wrong done to Menelaus. They sailed to Troy and laid siege to the city. The Trojans, too, fought hard and the siege continued for ten long years.
The fighting went on daily, but the siege did not end. On the one hand, the Greeks could not take the city, and on the other hand the Trojans could not force them to sail away. Every day the Trojans came out of their gates, and the Greeks came out of their tents and ships, and the fighting went on. Sometimes there were great battles between the two armies. Sometimes there were single fights between two great heroes. Sometimes the Trojans had the better of it and sometimes the Greeks. But still the fighting went on.
Great heroes on both sides were killed in the course of the war. After leading the defence of his city for nine years, the brave Hector was at last killed by Achilles, whom none could resist. But Achilles himself was killed later on by a poisoned arrow that entered his heel, the only part of his body where he could be wounded. Still later, Paris himself was killed, also by a poisoned arrow. The Trojans were tired of being shut up in their city, and the Greeks were longing to see their homes again. But still the fighting went on.
At last Troy was taken, not by force but by a trick. It was the cunning Odysseus who thought of a plan to obtain the victory.
“Let us build a great wooden horse”, he said, “big enough to hold men inside it, and let some of our best fighters hide in the horse. Then let us burn our tents and pretend to sail away in our ships. But instead of sailing away, we will return in the night. When the Trojans are asleep, we will attack the city and burn and kill.”
The Greek leaders decided to follow the advice of the wise Odysseus. So a great horse of wood was made by a skilful engineer, and the greatest heroes, Menelaus, Odysseus himself, and others entered it, the last man to go in being the architect himself who knew the secret of opening and shutting the entrance. That evening the Greeks burned their tents and sailed away in their ships, but they did not go very far. Only one man was left behind to persuade the Trojans to drag the horse into their city.
Next day the Trojans woke up, expecting to go out and fight as they had done for the past ten years. What delight and surprise they felt at the sight they saw on the seashore outside the walls ! It seemed that the long siege was over at last. The tents had been burnt. The shore was deserted. The Greek ships had all gone.
“It’s peace at last,” they cried, and opened wide their gates and came out in large numbers on the plain, glad to be free again to go where they pleased. Then they saw on the sands the huge, wooden horse. They gathered round it in astonishment, for it was indeed a wonderful piece of work.
As they were wondering how the horse had been built and why it had been left behind, they found a Greek with his hands tied together lying under it. When the Trojans dragged him out, the man pretended to be very frightened of them. When he was commanded to tell them why the Greeks had gone and why they had left this horse behind, he pretended to tremble very much and refused to speak. When at last they threatened to kill him, he spoke and told them this false tale.
“The Greeks are tired of the long war and have sailed away in their ships,” he said. “But they are afraid of the long voyage home too, and so they have made this horse and left it as an offering to the god of the sea. They wanted also to kill me and offer me as a sacrifice to the sea-god; but I escaped and hid from them.”
“But why did the Greeks make such a huge horse ?” some of the Trojans asked. And the cunning Greek made this reply : “If they had made a smaller offering, you might have taken it into your city. Then the luck would have gone to the Trojans and not to the Greeks. That is why they made it too big to go inside your gates.”
The Trojans were delighted to hear this. “The Greeks have gone,” they said, “and the walls are no longer necessary. Let us make a hole in the wall and drag the horse in.”
Their wise priest warned them not to do so. “It may be a trick that will ruin us,” he said. “You will bring disaster on the city if you break down the walls.” But they were so excited that they paid no attention to his words. They broke down part of their strong wall in order to drag the horse in.
All that day the Trojans feasted and drank and celebrated. After all their celebrations, they went to sleep and slept soundly. But that day of rejoicing was soon followed by a night of terror and death.
The Greek ships had not sailed far. As soon as they were hidden by an island, they had lowered their sails and dropped anchor and waited for the night. In the darkness the fleet sailed back, and the leading ship, which was Agamemnon’s, bore a red light high on its mast. The Greek, who was watching for the return of the fleet, crept to the wooden horse and gave the signal. The side of the horse opened, the Greeks climbed out and opened the gates. The whole Greek army entered the sleeping city. Immediately the Greeks set fire to houses and towers and palaces, and began to burn and kill.
Troy was filled with the sight of leaping flames and the sound of shouting and the noise of weapons and the cries of weeping women. The sleeping Trojans sprang out of their beds, but they were taken by surprise. Their enemies were right inside their walls, and many of the Trojans were killed before they could put on their armour and seize their weapons.
A bright light lit up the night sky as palaces and houses, temples and towers, went up in flames. The Trojans fought as well as they could, but it was all in vain. Old King Priam was killed with all his brave sons. Hector’s wife and his old mother and sister were carried off as slaves by the conquerors. Their fate was in contrast to Helen’s when King Menelaus rushed through the city, looking for her and found her in her palace. She hung her head in shame and sorrow as she faced her former husband. Her voice was choked with emotion and she could not speak. But Menelaus forgave her and she went back with him, for it was only Aphrodite who had turned her heart away from her home and her husband and her child.
When morning came, nothing was left of the proud, rich city that had resisted attack for ten years.