We all, hopefully, know the story of the Trojan War. As a super short recap, Paris of Troy captured Helen of Sparta. King Menelaus of Sparta, quite pissed about his wife being abducted, asked his brother, King Agamemnon of Mycenae, for help raising an army to attack Troy and take her back. A Pan-Hellenic force invades Troy. After 10 years of fighting, the Greeks win through trickery using the Trojan Horse, and Achilles gets killed via his infamous heel. We’ve all suffered through Hollywood’s Troy, we know this.
We all also, hopefully, know where the story comes from, which is to say, Homer’s Iliad. But here’s the kicker, how does the Iliad end?
We know about the Trojan Horse, Paris killing Achilles by shooting him in the heel with an arrow, Paris’ Judgement and the Golden Apple. But if you re-read the Iliad you won’t find these things in them. Where’d these details come from? Where did they go?
This entry is more about our perceptions. If you haven’t read the Iliad before, you might be surprised to find out the poem ends before Achilles gets killed, before the Trojan horse. These are probably two of the most iconic and noteworthy things about the Trojan War, the two facts we all know, and yet. . .they are not in the Iliad.
Well, the basic answer is: all over the damn place. Some details come from the Odyssey, taking place 10 years after the end of the war. Others from much later works like Ovid’s Metamorphoses or the Greek tragedians. Also, pots. Lots and lots of pots.
Book 4 of the Odyssey gives us a short little blip about the Trojan Horse. Others come from what we call the “Epic Cycle”, which is a collection of works based on this Trojan War/Age of Heroes mythos.
In the case of the death of Achilles, if you wanted to read it, you would have to pick up a copy of the Aethiopis.
Can’t find it? Yeah, that’s because it’s also a lost work. In fact, most of the Epic Cycle is lost. Excluding the Iliad and Odyssey, we have the Aethiopis, the Little Iliad, the Sack of Troy, and the Returns.
Here’s something to take note of, because it gives a good idea of just how little we have: Keeping in mind these epics are probably of similar length to the Iliad and Odyssey, we have a grand total of 5 lines of the Aethiopis, 30 lines of the Little Iliad, 10 lines of the Sack of Troy, roughly 6 lines of the Returns. Fortunately, you can actually read all these little bits, because we have the internet, and the internet rocks for things like this.
Our traditional ending for the Trojan War is not what the Iliad gives us. Both of Homer’s epics work on a term you may have forgotten from high school English, ring composition. In other words, you knew the scope, and the ending, of the Iliad (and Odyssey) from the very first words:
μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος οὐλομένην
The Wrath of Achilles. That’s what the Iliad is about, not the Trojan War. The very first word in Greek is “wrath”. Similarly, the very first word of the Odyssey is “man” (and that man is of course, Odysseus).
While we’re at it, the very first words of the Aeneid, a Roman epic written in the Homeric style, are “arms and the man”.
Now, it should be noted that because Greek is not English, you might not get that sense from the English translation. Or, you will get a completely weird translation that will try to capture the dramatic sense of these opening lines but screws up the English worse than an actor with a Southern drawl trying to do Shakespeare.
Needless to say, our perception of the ending of the Iliad might be faulty because we’re so accustomed to knowing the whole story of the Trojan War, but we’re not used to reading the source material for it. Coincidentally, there aren’t any mutant Persian generals, scantily clad Spartans, or bomb-throwing sorcerers in Herodotus’ Histories. Just an FYI.