The prophet Calchas then tells the Greeks that they must capture the Trojan prophet Helenus in order to win. They do so, and Helenus tells them that Troy can only be defeated by the bow and arrows of Hercules. Hercules gave these weapons to Philoctetes, who set out for Troy with the Greeks, who abandoned him along the way. Odysseus and a few others set out to apologize and get him back. Philoctetes returns and promptly kills Paris. The Greeks learn that the Trojans have a sacred image of Athena, the Palladium, that protects them. Odysseus and Diomedes sneak behind enemy lines and steal it. Yet Troy still has the protection of its gigantic walls, which prevent the Greeks from entering. Finally, Odysseus comes up with a plan to build a giant wooden horse and roll it up to the gates, pretending they have surrendered and gone home. One man, Sinon, stays behind, acting as if he is a traitor to the Greeks. He says that although the Greeks retreated, they left the horse as an offering to Athena. He says the Greeks assumed the Trojans would not take it inside the city because of its size, which would thus offend Athena and bring misfortune on the city. Trojans, feeling like they are getting the last laugh, triumphantly bring the horse into the city.
The horse is hollow, however, and Greek chieftains are hiding inside. At night, they creep out and open the city gates. The Greek army, hiding nearby, sweeps into the city and massacres the Trojans. Achilles’ son kills Priam. Of the major Trojans, only Aeneas escapes, his father on his shoulders and his son holding his hand. All the men are killed, the women and children separated and enslaved. In the war’s final act, the Greeks take Hector’s infant son, Astyanax, from his mother, Andromache, and throw him off the high Trojan walls. With this death, the legacy of Hector and Troy itself are finished.
The Trojan War is the most famous of all Greek conflicts, and the Iliad perhaps the most famous literary work from ancient Greece. As we might expect, this story touches on all the major themes of the myths: hospitality, love, obedience to the gods and to the moral code, and the immutability of fate. The importance of hospitality is evident in Paris’s weakness and wickedness in abusing Menelaus’s hospitality. The importance of the patriotic moral code is stressed by the catastrophic rift between Agamemnon and Achilles. Likewise, the power of love is shown in its ability to heal Achilles’ grief over Patroclus. Morality and obedience to the gods are present throughout, from Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia to Achilles’ return of Hector’s body. As in the other myths, the gods reward obedience and goodness and punish disobedience and wickedness. In the war, even the gods bow before fate, as Thetis accepts Achilles’ inevitable death and Zeus accepts the inevitable Greek victory.
Above all, the epic of the Trojan War depicts the dark complexity of Greek mythology. The strength of so many of the myths is their depth of character and complex morality. They are not simple fairy tales of good battling evil; they show conflicted characters, ambiguity, and the harshness of the world. Clear villains are conspicuously absent in the Iliad: there is no wicked king to provide a foil for a good, shining one. Achilles and Hector, the two main adversaries in the war, are both shown to be heroic. Thus, rather than having a standard protagonist-antagonist conflict, the Iliad dwells on the brutality and senseless death of war, the cruelty that abounds in the world, and the struggles the heroes have with themselves. Hector is heroic because he remorsefully refuses to stay with his family and instead chooses to face the battle he knows is his destiny.
Worse, the divine sphere provides no relief from the hopelessly bloody and cruel universe depicted in the Iliad. Though the gods do uphold a standard of morality, they are not omnipotent, beneficent, or kind. They fight among each other, trick and deceive each other, and reveal themselves as cowardly; even the normally irreproachable Artemis demands a horrific human sacrifice. Thus, the gods represent a higher standard of justice and honor, as when they refuse to allow Hector’s body to remain unburied, yet show the same bloodthirstiness and blind bias as the warriors on the battlefield.
As the pain and suffering in the world of the Iliad does not follow a clear dichotomy between good and evil, the source of conflict is complex and personal. The heroes struggle with hardships they find all around them, as well as—in Ajax’s case—the evil they find within themselves. In this regard, it is interesting that the key turning point of the story is Achilles’ return to battle. This is a moment of profound introspection for Achilles, who suffers the death of a best friend he could have saved. Achilles sees that Patroclus has died because he rushed to help his countrymen—something that Achilles, out of wounded pride, would not do. The main struggle Achilles faces, then, is not against a villainous foe but against his own shortcomings and their consequences. Unlike fairy tales that inevitably end with the death of the antagonist and the triumph of the hero, the Iliad ends with death of the Trojan hero Hector, a celebration of Hector’s courage, and a sober final statement on the tragedy and conflict at the heart of human existence.