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Ch. 21: Fall of Troy, Return of Greeks, Orestes and Electra

The story of the Iliad ends with the death of Hector, and it is
from the Odyssey and later poems that we learn the fate of the
other heroes. After the death of Hector, Troy did not
immediately fall, but receiving aid from new allies still
continued its resistance. One of these allies was Memnon, the
AETHIOPIAN prince, whose story we have already told. Another was
Penthesilea, queen of the Amazons, who came with a band of female
warriors. All the authorities attest their valor and the fearful
effect of their war-cry. Penthesilea slew many of the bravest
warriors, but was at last slain by Achilles. But when the hero
bent over his fallen foe, and contemplated her beauty, youth and
valor, he bitterly regretted his victory. Thersites, an insolent
brawler and demagogue, ridiculed his grief, and was in
consequence slain by the hero.

Achilles by chance had seen Polyxena, daughter of King Priam,
perhaps on occasion of the truce which was allowed the Trojans
for the burial of Hector. He was captivated with her charms, and
to win her in marriage agreed to use his influence with the
Greeks to grant peace to Troy. While in the temple of Apollo,
negotiating the marriage, Paris discharged at him a poisoned
arrow, which guided by Apollo, wounded Achilles in the heel, the
only vulnerable part about him. For Thetis, his mother, had
dipped him when an infant in the river Styx, which made every
part of him invulnerable except the heel by which she held him.
(The story of the invulnerability of Achilles is not found in
Homer, and is inconsistent with his account. For how could
Achilles require the aid of celestial armor if he were

The body of Achilles, so treacherously slain, was rescued by Ajax
and Ulysses. Thetis directed the Greeks to bestow her son's
armor on the hero who, of all survivors, should be judged most
deserving of it. Ajax and Ulysses were the only claimants; a
select number of the other chiefs were appointed to award the
prize. It was awarded to Ulysses, thus placing wisdom before
valor; whereupon Ajax slew himself. On the spot where his blood
sank into the earth a flower sprang up, called the hyacinth,
bearing on its leaves the first two letters of the name of Ajax,
Ai, the Greek for "woe." Thus Ajax is a claimant with the boy
Hyacinthus for the honor of giving birth to this flower. There
is a species of Larkspur which represents the hyacinth of the
poets in preserving the memory of this event, the Delphinium
Ajacis Ajax's Larkspur.

It was now discovered that Troy could not be taken but by the
arrows of Hercules. They were in possession of Philoctetes, the
friend who had been with Hercules at the last, and lighted his
funeral pyre. Philoctetes had joined the Grecian expedition
against Troy, but had accidentally wounded his foot with one of
the poisoned arrows, and the smell from his wound proved so
offensive that his companions carried him to the Isle of Lemnos
and left him there. Diomedes was now sent to induce him to
rejoin the army. He succeeded. Philoctetes was cured of his
wound by Machaon, and Paris was the first victim of the fatal
arrows. In his distress Paris bethought him of one whom in his
prosperity he had forgotten. This was the nymph OEnone, whom he
had married when a youth, and had abandoned for the fatal beauty
Helen. OEnone, remembering the wrongs she had suffered, refused
to heal the wound, and Paris went back to Troy and died. OEnone
quickly repented, and hastened after him with remedies, but came
too late, and in her grief hung herself.

Tennyson has chosen OEnone as the subject of a short poem; but he
has omitted the concluding part of the story, the return of Paris
wounded, her cruelty and subsequent repentance.

"__________Hither came at noon
Mournful OENONE, wandering forlorn
Of Paris, once her playmate on the hills.
Her cheek had lost the rose, and round her neck
Floated her hair, or seemed to float in rest.
She, leaning on a fragment twined with vine,
Sang to the stillness, till the mountain-shade
Sloped downward to her seat from the upper cliff.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
"'O Mother Ida, many-fountain'd Ida,
Dear Mother Ida, hearken ere I die.
I waited underneath the dawning hills,
Aloft the mountain lawn was dewy-dark,
And dewy-dark aloft the mountain pine:
Beautiful Paris, evil-hearted Paris,
Leading a jet-black goat, white-horned, white-hooved,
Come up from reedy Simois, all alone.

"'O Mother Ida, hearken ere I die.
Far off the torrent called me from the cliff:
Far up the solitary morning smote
The streaks of virgin snow. With downdropt eyes
I sat alone: white-breasted like a star
Fronting the dawn he moved; a leopard-skin
Drooped from his shoulder, but his sunny hair
Clustered about his temples like a God's,
And his cheek brightened as the foambow brightens
When the wind blows the foam, and all my heart
Went forth to embrace him coming, ere he came.

"'Dear Mother Ida, hearken ere I die.
He smiled, and opening out his milk-white palm
Disclosed a fruit of pure Hesperian gold,
That smelt ambrosially, and while I looked
And listened, the full-flowing river of speech
Came down upon my heart.

"My own OENONE,
Beautiful-browed OENONE, my own soul,
Behold this fruit, whose gleaming rind ingraven
'For the most fair,' would seem award it thine
As lovelier than whatever Oread haunt
The knolls of Ida, loveliest in all grace
Of movement, and the charm of married brows."

"'Dear Mother Ida, hearken ere I die.
He prest the blossom of his lips to mine,
And added, "This was cast upon the board,
When all the full-faced presence of the gods
Hanged in the halls of Peleus; whereupon
Rose feud, with question unto whom 'twas due;
But light-foot Iris brought it yester-eve
Delivering, that to me, by common voice
Elected umpire, Heré comes to-day,
Pallas and Aphrodite, claiming each
This meed of fairest. Thou within the cave
Beyond yon whispering tuft of oldest pine,
May'st well behold them unbeheld, unheard
Hear all, and see thy Paris judge of gods."'"

There was in Troy a celebrated statue of Minerva called the
Palladium. It was said to have fallen from heaven, and the
belief was that the city could not be taken so long as this
statue remained within it. Ulysses and Diomedes entered the city
in disguise, and succeeded in obtaining the Palladium, which they
carried off to the Grecian camp.

But Troy still held out, and the Greeks began to despair of ever
subduing it by force, and by advice of Ulysses resolved to resort
to stratagem. They pretended to be making preparations to
abandon the siege, and a portion of the ships were withdrawn, and
lay hid behind a neighboring island. The Greeks then constructed
an immense WOODEN HORSE, which they gave out was intended as a
propitiatory offering to Minerva, but in fact was filled with
armed men. The remaining Greeks then betook themselves to their
ships and sailed away, as if for a final departure. The Trojans,
seeing the encampment broken up and the fleet gone, concluded the
enemy to have abandoned the siege. The gates were thrown open,
and the whole population issued forth rejoicing at the long-
prohibited liberty of passing freely over the scene of the late
encampment. The great horse was the chief object of curiosity.
All wondered what it could be for. Some recommended to take it
into the city as a trophy; others felt afraid of it.

While they hesitate, Laocoon, the priest of Neptune, exclaims,
"What madness, citizens, is this! Have you not learned enough of
Grecian fraud to be on your guard against it? For my part I fear
the Greeks even when they offer gifts." So saying he threw his
lance at the horse's side. It struck, and a hollow sound
reverberated like a groan. Then perhaps the people might have
taken his advice and destroyed the fatal horse and all its
contents; but just at that moment a group of people appeared
dragging forward one who seemed a prisoner and a Greek.
Stupefied with terror he was brought before the chiefs, who
reassured him, promising that his life should be spared on
condition of his returning true answers to the questions asked
him. He informed them that he was a Greek, Sinon by name, and
that in consequence of the malice of Ulysses he had been left
behind by his countrymen at their departure. With regard to the
wooden horse, he told them that it was a propitiatory offering to
Minerva, and made so huge for the express purpose of preventing
its being carried within the city; for Calchas the prophet had
told them that if the Trojans took possession of it, they would
assuredly triumph over the Greeks. This language turned the tide
of the people's feelings, and they began to think how they might
best secure the monstrous horse and the favorable auguries
connected with it, when suddenly a prodigy occurred which left no
room to doubt. There appeared advancing over the sea two immense
serpents. They came upon the land, and the crowd fled in all
directions. The serpents advanced directly to the spot where
Laocoon stood with his two sons. They first attacked the
children, winding round their bodies and breathing their
pestilential breath in their faces. The father, attempting to
rescue them, is next seized and involved in the serpents' coils.
He struggles to tear them away, but they overpower all his
efforts and strangle him and the children in their poisonous
folds. This event was regarded as a clear indication of the
displeasure of the gods at Laocoon's irreverent treatment of the
wooden horse, which they no longer hesitated to regard as a
sacred object and prepared to introduce with due solemnity into
the city. This was done with songs and triumphal acclamations,
and the day closed with festivity. In the night the armed men
who were enclosed in the body of the horse, being led out by the
traitor Sinon, opened the gates of the city to their friends who
had returned under cover of the night. The city was set on fire;
the people, overcome with feasting and sleep, put to the sword,
and Troy completely subdued.

One of the most celebrated groups of statuary in existence is
that of Laocoon and his children in the embrace of the serpents.
"There is a cast of it in the Boston Athenaeum; the original is
in the Vatican at Rome. The following lines are from the Childe
Harold of Byron:

"Now turning to the Vatican go see
Laocoon's torture dignifying pain;
A father's love and mortal's agony
With as immortal's patience blending; vain
The struggle! Vain against the coiling strain
And gripe and deepening of the dragon's grasp
The old man's clinch; the long envenomed chain
Rivets the living links; the enormous asp
Enforces pang on pang and stifles gasp on gasp."

The comic poets will also occasionally borrow a classical
allusion. The following is from Swift's description of a City

"Boxed in a chair the beau impatient sits,
While spouts run clattering o'er the roof by fits,
And over and anon with frightful din
The leather sounds; he trembles from within.
So when Troy chairmen bore the wooden steed
Pregnant with Greeks, impatient to be freed,
(Those bully Greeks, who, as the moderns do,
Instead of paying chairmen, run them through;)
Laocoon struck the outside with a spear,
And each imprisoned champion quaked with fear."

King Priam lived to see the downfall of his kingdom, and was
slain at last on the fatal night when the Greeks took the city.
He had armed himself and was about to mingle with the combatants,
but was prevailed on by Hecuba, his aged queen, to take refuge
with herself and his daughters as a suppliant at the altar of
Jupiter. While there, his youngest son Polites, pursued by
Pyrrhus (Pyrrhus's exclamation, "Not such aid nor such defenders
does the time require," has become proverbial.), the son of
Achilles, rushed in wounded, and expired at the feet of his
father; whereupon Priam, overcome with indignation, hurled his
spear with feeble hand against Pyrrhus, and was forthwith slain
by him.

Queen Hecuba and her daughter Cassandra were carried captives to
Greece. Cassandra had been loved by Apollo, and he gave her the
gift of prophecy; but afterwards offended with her, he rendered
the gift unavailing by ordaining that her predictions should
never be believed. Polyxena, another daughter, who had been
loved by Achilles, was demanded by the ghost of this warrior, and
was sacrificed by the Greeks upon his tomb.

>From Schiller's poem "Cassandra":

"And men my prophet wail deride!
The solemn sorrow dies in scorn;
And lonely in the waste, I hide
The tortured heart that would forewarn.
Amid the happy, unregarded,
Mock'd by their fearful joy, I trod;
Oh, dark to me the lot awarded,
Thou evil Pythian God!

"Thine oracle, in vain to be,
Oh, wherefore am I thus consigned,
With eyes that every truth must see,
Lone in the city of the blind?
Cursed with the anguish of a power
To view the fates I may not thrall,
The hovering tempest still must lower,
The horror must befall!

Boots it th veil to lift, and give
To sight the frowning fates beneath?
For error is the life we live,
And, oh, our knowledge is but death!
Take back the clear and awful mirror,
Shut from my eyes the blood-red glare;
Thy truth is but the gift of terror,
When mortal lips declare.

"My blindness give to me once more,
They gay dim senses that rejoice;
The past's delighted songs are o'er
For lips that speak a prophet's voice.
To me the future thou hast granted;
I miss the moment from the chain
The happy present hour enchanted!
Take back thy gift again!"
Sir Edw. L. Bulwer's translation


Our readers will be anxious to know the fate of Helen, the fair
but guilty occasion of so much slaughter. On the fall of Troy
Menelaus recovered possession of his wife, who had not ceased to
love him, though she had yielded to the might of Venus and
deserted him for another. After the death of Paris she aided the
Greeks secretly on several occasions, and in particular when
Ulysses and Diomedes entered the city in disguise to carry off
the Palladium. She saw and recognized Ulysses, but kept the
secret, and even assisted them in obtaining the image. Thus she
became reconciled to her husband, and they were among the first
to leave the shores of Troy for their native land. But having
incurred the displeasure of the gods they were driven by storms
from shore to shore of the Mediterranean, visiting Cyprus,
Phoenicia and Egypt. In Egypt they were kindly treated and
presented with rich gifts, of which Helen's share was a golden
spindle and a basket on wheels. The basket was to hold the wool
and spools for the queen's work.

Dyer, in his poem of The Fleece, thus alludes to the incident:

"_________many yet adhere
To the ancient distaff at the bosom fixed.
Casting the whirling spindle as they walk.
. . . . . . . . . .
This was of old, in no inglorious days,
The mode of spinning, when the Egyptian prince
A golden distaff gave that beauteous nymph,
Too beauteous Helen; no uncourtly gift."

Milton also alludes to a famous recipe for an invigorating
draught, called Nepenthe, which the Egyptian queen gave to Helen:

"Not that Nepenthes which the wife of Thone
In Egypt gave to Jove-born Helena,
Is of such power to stir up joy as this,
To life so friendly or so cool to thirst."

Menelaus and Helen at length arrived in safety at Sparta, resumed
their royal dignity, and lived and reigned in splendor; and when
Telemachus, the son of Ulysses, in search of his father, arrived
at Sparta, he found Menelaus and Helen celebrating the marriage
of their daughter Hermione to Neoptolemus, son of Achilles.

In "the Victory Feast," Schiller thus reviews the return of the
Greek heroes.

"The son of Atreus, king of men,
The muster of the hosts surveyed,
How dwindled from the thousands, when
Along Scamander first arrayed!
With sorrow and the cloudy thought,
The great king's stately look grew dim,
Of all the hosts to Ilion brought,
How few to Greece return with him!
Still let the song to gladness call,
For those who yet their home shall greet!
For them the blooming life is sweet;
Return is not for all!

"Nor all who reach their native land
May long the joy of welcome feel;
Beside the household gods may stand
Grim Murder, with awaiting steel
And they who 'scape the foe, may die
Beneath the foul, familiar glaive.
Thus he to whom prophetic eye
Her light the wise Minerva gave;
'Ah! Bless'd, whose hearth, to memory true
The goddess keeps unstained and pure;
For woman's guile is deep and sure,
And falsehood loves the new!'

"The Spartan eyes his Helen's charms,
By the best blood of Greece recaptured;
Round that fair form his glowing arms
(A second bridal) wreath, enraptured.
Woe waits the work of evil birth,
Revenge to deeds unblessed is given!
For watchful o'er the things of earth,
The eternal council-halls of heaven.
Yes, ill shall never ill repay;
Jove to the impious hands that stain
The altar of man's heart,
Again the doomer's doom shall weigh!"
Sir Edw. L. Bulwer's translation


Agamemnon, the general-in-chief of the Greeks, the brother of
Menelaus, who had been drawn into the quarrel to avenge another's
wrongs, was not so fortunate in the issue as his brother. During
his absence his wife Clytemnestra had been false to him, and when
his return was expected, she, with her paramour, AEgisthus, laid
a plan for his destruction, and at the banquet given to celebrate
his return, murdered him.

The conspirators intended also to slay his son Orestes, a lad not
yet old enough to be an object of apprehension, but from whom, if
he should be suffered to grow up, there might be danger.
Electra, the sister of Orestes, saved her brother's life by
sending him secretly away to his uncle Strophius, king of Phocis.
In the palace of Strophius, Orestes grew up with the king's son,
Pylades, and formed with him that ardent friendship which has
become proverbial. Electra frequently reminded her brother hy
messengers of the duty of avenging his father's death, and when
grown up he consulted the oracle of Delphi, which confirmed him
in his design. He therefore repaired in disguise to Argos,
pretending to he a messenger from Strophius, who had come to
announce the death of Orestes, and brought the ashes of the
deceased in a funeral urn. After visiting his father's tomb and
sacrificing upon it, according to the rites of the ancients, he
made himself known to his sister Electra, and soon after slew
both AEgisthus and Clytemnestra.

This revolting act, the slaughter of a mother by her son, though
alleviated by the guilt of the victim and the express command of
the gods, did not fail to awaken in the breasts of the ancients
the same abhorrence that it does in ours. The Eumenides,
avenging deities, seized upon Orestes, and drove him frantic from
land to land. Pylades accompanied him in his wanderings, and
watched over him. At length in answer to a second appeal to the
oracle, he was directed to go to Tauris in Scythia, and to bring
thence a statue of Diana which was believed to have fallen from
heaven. Accordingly Orestes and Pylades went to Tauris, where
the barbarous people were accustomed to sacrifice to the goddess
all strangers who fell into their hands. The two friends were
seized and carried bound to the temple to be made victims. But
the priestess of Diana was no other than Iphigenia, the sister of
Orestes, who, our readers will remember, was snatched away by
Diana, at the moment when she was about to be sacrificed.
Ascertaining from the prisoners who they were, Iphigenia
disclosed herself to them, and the three made their escape with
the statue of the goddess, and returned to Mycenae.

But Orestes was not yet relieved from the vengeance of the
Erinnyes. At length he took refuge with Minerva at Athens. The
goddess afforded him protection, and appointed the court of
Areopagus to decide his fate. The Erinnyes brought forward their
accusation, and Orestes made the command of the Delphic oracle
his excuse. When the court voted and the voices were equally
divided, Orestes was acquitted by the command of Minerva.

Byron, in Childe Harold, Canto IV, alludes to the story of

"O thou who never yet of human wrong
Left the unbalanced scale, great Nemesis!
Thou who didst call the Furies from the abyss,
And round Orestes bade them howl and hiss,
For that unnatural retribution, just,
Had it but been from hands less near, in this,
Thy former realm, I call thee from the dust!"

One of the most pathetic scenes in the ancient drama is that in
which Sophocles represents the meeting of Orestes and Electra, on
his return from Phocis. Orestes, mistaking Electra for one of
the domestics, and desirous of keeping his arrival a secret till
the hour of vengeance should arrive, produces the urn in which
his ashes are supposed to rest. Electra, believing him to be
really dead, takes the urn, and embracing it, pours forth her
grief in language full of tenderness and despair.

Milton, in one of his sonnets, says:

"The repeated air
Of sad Electra's poet had the power
To save the Athenian walls from ruin bare."

This alludes to the story that when, on one occasion, the city of
Athens was at the mercy of her Spartan foes, and it was proposed
to destroy it, the thought was rejected upon the accidental
quotation, by some one, of a chorus of Euripides.


After hearing so much about the city of Troy and its heroes, the
reader will perhaps be surprised to learn that the exact site of
that famous city is still a matter of dispute. There are some
vestiges of tombs on the plain which most nearly answers to the
description given by Homer and the ancient geographers, but no
other evidence of the former existence of a great city. Byron
thus describes the present appearance of the scene:

"The winds are high, and Helle's tide
Rolls darkly heaving to the main;
And night's descending shadows hide
That field with blood bedewed in vain,
The desert of old Priam's pride,
The tombs, sole relics of his reign,
All save immortal dreams that could beguile
The blind old man of Scio's rocky isle."
Bride of Abydos.

Thomas Bulfinch

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