The codex of Trojan War myths and sub-myths are rife with subtle clues that the war was something other than a crusade to recapture Helen, King Menalaous’ beautiful wife. Perhaps the most surprising clue is in the Iliad itself. A section known as “the catalog of ships” enumerates the city states and regions in the Greek coalition and how many troops they each contributed. Hidden in the lyrical poetry are some unusual and telling numbers. Though this was ostensibly a war to recapture the Spartan queen, the Spartan contingent was not the largest contingent in the coalition. The largest contingent came from Corinth. Agamemnon was the king of Corinth, and he also funded a large contingent from Arkadia, a mountainous inland area that had no tradition of seafaring. Between his own Corinthians and the Arkadians, Agamemnon’s contingent dwarfed all others in the Greek coalition, which is inconsistent with a war to recapture the Spartan queen. In the shadow of Xeno’s eye, the true purpose of the war was to establish a Greek power base on the Dardanelles that would control access to the Black Sea from the Mediterranean. This goal would justify such a high level of support and commitment from Corinth, which was the dominant Greek naval power at the time, and closer to Troy and the Dardanelles than Sparta.
Another clue lies in the ancillary myth of Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s daughter. The Greek coalition massed its ships at Aulis, in what is now northeastern Greece, and prepared to cross the Aegean Sea to invade Troy. However, the winds kept the fleet in port, and sickness broke out among the soldiers. A soothsayer divined that Agamemnon had offended the goddess Artemis, and would have to make amends. Agamemnon sent for his daughter, Iphigenia, on the pretext that she would be married to Achilles, but when she arrived, she was forced to become a human sacrifice to appease Artemis. After she was sacrificed, the winds changed and the fleet was able to leave Aulis and sail to Troy.
Agamemnon and Corinth thus commit more resources and undergo greater suffering than any other King or city-state, just to build the coalition and get it going to Troy so the war can start. Something other than reclaiming Menalaous’ wife must have motivated these actions. A Greek base on the Dardanelles, control of the Black Sea, and a vast expansion of commercial and military shipping routes would motivate an ambitious king of a Greek military and commercial power, like Agamemnon of Corinth, to undergo such deprivations just to get the coalition’s fleet out of port and into the Aegean.
In spite of Agamemnon’s terrible sacrifices, he’s depicted as an arrogant and selfish leader in the Iliad, and he’s drawn to unstable women in the ancillary myths. I portray him as a combination of Pres. Bush (43) and Vice Pres. Dick Cheney, and he gets all the contemporary neo-con lines. His selfishness and ambition plunged Greece into a prolonged and poorly managed war, just as the so-called neo conservative ideologues plunged the United States into a prolonged, poorly managed, and ultimately disastrous war in Iraq.
Geography is the key to yet another clue about the real nature of the Trojan war, and how the myths hide and romanticize it. There’s another ancillary myth about the pre-war mobilization, concerning Odysseus’ attempt to avoid joining the coalition. Odysseus was the king of Ithaca, a small backwater island in the Ionian Sea, at the westernmost tip of Greece. It is said that, as Agamemnon was marshaling the city states into a coalition, Ithaca did not respond to the call. Agamemnon (or in some versions of this story, his emissary, Palamides) went to Ithaca to personally bring Odysseus and Ithaca into the coalition. There he found Odysseus ranting and raving like a lunatic (the original attempt at a psychiatric deferment, for those old enough to remember the draft and the Viet Nam war). In the face of Agamemnon’s (or Palamides’) skepticism, Odysseus harnessed an ox and a donkey to a plow and plowed furrows in the mud along the shoreline, zigzagging because the two animals pulled at different paces. It was only when Agamemnon (or Palamides) placed Odysseus’ baby son, Telemachus, directly in the plow’s path, and Odysseus swerved to avoid him, that Odysseus’ ruse was exposed, and he was made to join the coalition. Ithaca is the only sovereignty that was forced to join the coalition against the will of it’s leader. In “the catalog of ships” mentioned in POST #1, Homer describes the Ithacan contingent as empty or hollow ships.
This story is supposed to illustrate Odysseus’ cleverness and cunning, the reason why Agamemnon would make the special effort to bring him into the war, but geography suggests a different interpretation. If the war was fought to establish a Greek base on the Dardanelles, gaining access to the Black Sea, Ithaca would benefit little, if at all, from the result. To get from Troy to Agamemnon’s Corinth, one would sail southeast across the Aegean. Athens and Sparta are respectively further south, so would require a slightly longer southeast voyage. However, goods coming from a Greek base at Troy would have to come by more difficult routes to get to Ithaca. They would first have to be shipped across the Aegean to the east coast of Greece (perhaps through the straight of Malis to Thermopylae or Trachis) then cross mainland Greece by land, to Acarnania, from there to be shipped out to Ithaca. The alternative would be to put them on a ship that would sail down to the southernmost tip of Greece, around the Cape of Cythera, and then up the west coast of Greece to Ithaca. Either route would be cost prohibitive, so Ithaca would derive little, if any benefit from a Greek presence on the Dardanelles, and would be disinclined to join in a war to establish such a presence. In all probability, much of Odysseus’ Ithacan commerce was with the area that is modern-day Albania, to the north, perhaps further up the Adriatic coast, and the bottom of the heel of the Italian boot. His reluctance to join the coalition is easily explained by his understanding of the war’s true purpose, a Greek presence on the Dardanelles, from which he and his kingdom would gain no benefit.
The next post will explore our 21st century cognate myth: That the United States and its coalition allies were the saviors who invaded Iraq to prevent Saddam, the evil dictator, from threatening the world with his arsenal of Weapons of Mass Destruction.