The war might still have dragged on indefinitely had not Epeius (from Mount Parnassus) conceived an ingenious plan: to build a massive fir-wood horse, conceal hand-picked Greeks inside it, and cause it to be taken into Troy. Soon the horse, its belly pregnant with armed men, was standing proudly on the othwerwise empty shore. For the Greeks had sailed away, leaving only the smoking ruins of their tents. And the wooden horse.
Jubilant, the Trojans raced out of the city to read the inscription on the horse’s flank: ‘From the Greeks to Athene, a thank-offering for a safe homecoming.’ But some doubted this Greek gift: ‘There were three views: one to hack the hollow wood with merciless bronze; another to drag it to the highest point and throw it on to the rocks; and the third to let it stand there as a pious offering to the gods.’
As they debated, a Greek was brought before them He was Sinis, a spy, and his lying message was convincing: tired of the war, the Greeks were sailing home; if the Trojans took the horse inside their city, Athene would favour them, but if they left it on the beach, they would excite her wrath. While the priest Laocoon counselled caution, two serpents slid across the sea from Tenedos and coiled around him and his two sons before, abandoning their strangled corpses, they glided through the gates and on to Troy’s acropolis.
Ascribing Laocoon’s death to his opposition to the gods, the Trojans knocked down a section of their walls and pulled the horse into the city, where they feasted long and hard. Later, when the city slept, Helen walked the starlit streets. She knew the horse was a ruse, and she knew who was hidden there. Coquettishly she taunted each in turn, flawlessly imitating their wives’ voices. Inside, the unnerved Greeks kept perfect silence.
A Greek gift: one of the earliest representations of the Trojan War appears on a Cycladic relief vase, c. 675-650 BC.
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At last they opened the trap door, let down ropes and slid noiselessly to the ground. While some ran to unbar the gates, others signalled to their comrades. For the fleet had merely hidden in the lee of Tenedos, and now it had returned. Suddenly the streets were filled with armed men. Neoptolemus butchered Priam on the palace steps. Another general (the ‘Lesser’ Ajax) tried to rape Cassandra as she clung to Athene’s altar, while Odysseus and Menelaus slaughtered Deiphobus, and in a fit of anger mutilated his corpse.
Striding through the smoke and carnage, Menelaus sought out Helen. But when he saw her standing there in front of him, her breasts bare, her face so radiant and still so beautiful, he was overcome once more by love. He dropped his sword and took her in his arms. Soon they were sailing back to Greece – with Aethra, Theseus’ mother, Helen’s slave, whom she had brought from Sparta. (Her grandsons later restored her to Athens.)
When the massacre was ended, the Greeks led off Troy’s womenfolk to slavery. Only Polyxena remained: Achilles’ ghost demanded her as a sacrifice. The others’ fate was just as grim Cassandra fell to Agamemnon (though she knew that at Mycenae both would be killed by Clytemnestra). Hector’s wife, Andromache, whose father, brothers and husband had all been killed by Achilles, was given to Achilles’ son Neoptolemus, while to prevent him avenging Troy, her son Astyanax was thrown to his death from Troy’s walls.
Assigned to Odysseus, Hecabe discovered that Polymestor, a Thracian guest-friend, greedy for Troy’s gold which he had been given for safe-keeping, had murdered Polydorus, her one remaining son. With Agamemnon’s help, Hecabe lured Polymestor to her tent, killed his children in revenge and blinded him By now she had become so savage that it was little wonder that before she could sail for
Greece she turned into a dog.
Only the Trojan prince Aeneas escaped, carrying on his shoulders his father Anchises and tightly clutching the hand of his son Ascanius (known to the Romans as Iulus). With the last remnant of Trojans they sailed to Italy to found the city which in time would be called Rome. Storms and shipwrecks meant that few of Troy’s conquerors were destined to return home. Like Troy itself their time was over.