Nine years the Greeks laid siege to Troy, and Troy held out against every device. On both sides the lives of many heroes were spent, and they were forced to acknowledge each other enemies of great valor.
Sometimes the chief warriors fought in single combat, while the armies looked on, and the old men of Troy, with the women, came out to watch far off from the city walls. King Priam and Queen Hecuba would come, and Cassandra, sad with foreknowledge of their doom, and Andromache, the lovely young wife of Hector, with her little son whom the people called The City King. Sometimes Fair Helen came to look across the plain to the fellow-countrymen whom she had forsaken; and although she was the cause of all this war, the Trojans half forgave her when she passed by, because her beauty was like a spell, and warmed hard hearts as the sunshine mellows apples. So for nine years the Greeks plundered the neighboring towns, but the city Troy stood fast, and the Grecian ships waited with folded wings.
The half of that story cannot be told here, but in the tenth year of the war many things came to pass, and the end drew near. Of this tenth year alone, there are a score of tales. For the Greeks fell to quarrelling among themselves over the spoils of war, and the great Achilles left the camp in anger and refused to fight. Nothing would induce him to return, till his friend Patroclus was slain by Prince Hector. At that news, indeed, Achilles rose in great might and returned to the Greeks; and he went forth clad in armor that had been wrought for him by Vulcan, at the prayer of Thetis. By the river Scamander, near to Troy, he met and slew Hector, and afterwards dragged the hero's body after his chariot across the plain. How the aged Priam went alone by night to the tent of Achilles to ransom his son's body, and how Achilles relented, and moreover granted a truce for the funeral honors of his enemy,—all these things have been so nobly sung that they can never be fitly spoken.
Hector, the bulwark of Troy, had fallen, and the ruin of the city was at hand. Achilles himself did not long survive his triumph, and, ruthless as he was, he ill-deserved the manner of his death. He was treacherously slain by that Paris who would never have dared to meet him in the open field. Paris, though he had brought all this disaster upon Troy, had left the danger to his countrymen. But he lay in wait for Achilles in a temple sacred to Apollo, and from his hiding-place he sped a poisoned arrow at the hero. It pierced his ankle where the water of the Styx had not charmed him against wounds, and of that venom the great Achilles died. Paris himself died soon after by another poisoned arrow, but that was no long grief to anybody!
Still Troy held out, and the Greeks, who could not take it by force, pondered how they might take it by craft. At length, with the aid of Odysseus, they devised a plan.
A portion of the Grecian host broke up camp and set sail as if they were homeward bound; but, once out of sight, they anchored their ships behind a neighboring island. The rest of the army then fell to work upon a great image of a horse. They built it of wood, fitted and carved, and with a door so cunningly concealed that none might notice it. When it was finished, the horse looked like a prodigious idol; but it was hollow, skilfully pierced here and there, and so spacious that a band of men could lie hidden within and take no harm. Into this hiding-place went Odysseus, Menelaus, and the other chiefs, fully armed, and when the door was shut upon them, the rest of the Grecian army broke camp and went away.
Meanwhile, in Troy, the people had seen the departure of the ships, and the news had spread like wildfire. The great enemy had lost heart,—after ten years of war! Part of the army had gone,—the rest were going. Already the last of the ships had set sail, and the camp was deserted. The tents that had whitened the plain were gone like a frost before the sun. The war was over!
The whole city went wild with joy. Like one who has been a prisoner for many years, it flung off all restraint, and the people rose as a single man to test the truth of new liberty. The gates were thrown wide, and the Trojans—men, women, and children—thronged over the plain and into the empty camp of the enemy. There stood the Wooden Horse.
The Trojans streamed over the plain
No one knew what it could be. Fearful at first, they gathered around it, as children gather around a live horse; they marvelled at its wondrous height and girth, and were for moving it into the city as a trophy of war.
At this, one man interposed,—Laocoön, a priest of Poseidon. "Take heed, citizens," said he. "Beware of all that comes from the Greeks. Have you fought them for ten years without learning their devices? This is some piece of treachery."
But there was another outcry in the crowd, and at that moment certain of the Trojans dragged forward a wretched man who wore the garments of a Greek. He seemed the sole remnant of the Grecian army, and as such they consented to spare his life, if he would tell them the truth.
Sinon, for this was the spy's name, said that he had been left behind by the malice of Odysseus, and he told them that the Greeks had built the Wooden Horse as an offering to Athena, and that they had made it so huge in order to keep it from being moved out of the camp, since it was destined to bring triumph to its possessors.
At this, the joy of the Trojans was redoubled, and they set their wits to find out how they might soonest drag the great horse across the plain and into the city to ensure victory. While they stood talking, two immense serpents rose out of the sea and made towards the camp. Some of the people took flight, others were transfixed with terror; but all, near and far, watched this new omen. Rearing their crests, the sea-serpents crossed the shore, swift, shining, terrible as a risen water-flood that descends upon a helpless little town. Straight through the crowd they swept, and seized the priest Laocoön where he stood, with his two sons, and wrapped them all round and round in fearful coils. There was no chance of escape. Father and sons perished together; and when the monsters had devoured the three men, into the sea they slipped again, leaving no trace of the horror.
The terrified Trojans saw an omen in this. To their minds, punishment had come upon Laocoön for his words against the Wooden Horse. Surely, it was sacred to the gods; he had spoken blasphemy, and had perished before their eyes. They flung his warning to the winds. They wreathed the horse with garlands, amid great acclaim; and then, all lending a hand, they dragged it, little by little, out of the camp and into the city of Troy. With the close of that victorious day, they gave up every memory of danger and made merry after ten years of privation.
That very night Sinon the spy opened the hidden door of the Wooden Horse, and in the darkness, Odysseus, Menelaus, and the other chiefs who had lain hidden there crept out and gave the signal to the Grecian army. For, under cover of night, those ships that had been moored behind the island had sailed back again, and the Greeks were come upon Troy.
Not a Trojan was on guard. The whole city was at feast when the enemy rose in its midst, and the warning of Laocoön was fulfilled.
Priam and his warriors fell by the sword, and their kingdom was plundered of all its fair possessions, women and children and treasure. Last of all, the city itself was burned to its very foundations.
Homeward sailed the Greeks, taking as royal captives poor Cassandra and Andromache and many another Trojan. And home at last went Fair Helen, the cause of all this sorrow, eager to be forgiven by her husband, King Menelaus. For she had awakened from the enchantment of Venus, and even before the death of Paris she had secretly longed for her home and kindred. Home to Sparta she came with the king after a long and stormy voyage, and there she lived and died the fairest of women.
But the kingdom of Troy was fallen. Nothing remained of all its glory but the glory of its dead heroes and fair women, and the ruins of its citadel by the river Scamander. There even now, beneath the foundations of later homes that were built and burned, built and burned, in the wars of a thousand years after, the ruins of ancient Troy lie hidden, like mouldered leaves deep under the new grass. And there, to this very day, men who love the story are delving after the dead city as you might search for a buried treasure.