The Spoils of Troy
Odysseus studied me in silence for a time. The expression on his face reminded me plainly enough that I might know all the stories by heart but I had never been at Troy myself and was speaking of matters that lay far outside my experience.
‘Even a god’s heart can be shaken by the sacking of a city,’ he said. ‘Even enemies can conspire when they find a common cause. As for myself, I believe that the gods see more deeply into time than we do, and what appears to us as mere caprice may eventually prove to be a critical moment in the dispensation of their justice.’
I saw him exchange a smile with his wife Penelope, who turned to me. ‘Consider,’ she said, ‘what Grey-eyed Athena must have thought as she saw Locrian Aias trying to ravish Cassandra even in the sanctuary of her own shrine. Consider how the goddess must have felt when Agamemnon ordered her sacred effigy to be taken from Troy and carried off to Mycenae.’
‘And those were not the only crimes and desecrations committed that night,’ Odysseus added. ‘If Divine Athena turned her face against us, it was with good cause. I can well imagine that she looked down through the smoke on the destruction of Troy and felt that she had seen enough of the ways of men to know that there could never be peace till they came to understand that the desolation they left behind them must always lie in wait for them elsewhere.’
It falls to me now to show how the truth of those words he spoke about Divine Athena was made manifest in the hard fates that awaited the Argive heroes after they celebrated their triumph at the fall of Troy.
The Fall (#ua64eaa0a-7742-5392-bdde-0a10329dd011)
Odysseus stood in the painted chamber high inside the citadel of Troy, listening to the sound of Menelaus sobbing. Spattered in blood, the King of Sparta was sitting on a bed of blood with his head supported in his blood-stained hands. Helen cowered at his back, white-faced. The mutilated body of Deiphobus lay sprawled beside him. Though the streets outside rang loud with shouts and screaming, here beneath the rich tapestry of Ares and Aphrodite it felt as though time itself might have halted to hear Menelaus weep.
Even Helen, whose delinquent passion had precipitated all these years of suffering, had ceased to whimper. Having been so appalled by the sight of warm blood leaking across the bed that she might have screamed and been unable then to cease from screaming, she was now staring at her husband with a kind of wonder. For the first time in many weeks she was thinking about someone other than herself, and feelings that she had long thought petrified began to stir with an almost illicit tenderness. Was it possible then that, for all the offence she had given him, and all the anguish she had caused, this gentle-hearted man still loved her?
Afraid that she might break the spell that had so far spared her life, she raised a bare arm and stretched out her hand to comfort his quaking shoulder.
Instantly, as though that touch had seared like flame, Menelaus pulled away. He leapt to his feet and turned, lips quivering, to stare down at the woman lying beneath him. Unable to endure the naked vulnerability of her breasts, his gaze shifted away to where Deiphobus lay with his eyes open and blood still draining from the ragged stump of the wrist. Menelaus bared his teeth and uttered a low growl. Dismayed that he had been so visibly overcome by weakness, resolved to countermand all signs of it, he picked up his sword from where it had fallen to the floor and began to hack once more at the lifeless flesh.
Watching Helen cower across the bed, Odysseus knew he had seen enough. If, in his madness, Menelaus desired to murder the woman who had betrayed him, that was his business. Odysseus would not stay to witness it. Silently he turned away and passed through the door, leaving his friend to do as he wished with the dead body of his enemy and the terrified, living body of his wife.
As he stepped out into the night air, he caught a smell of burning drifting upwards from the lower city. From somewhere in the distance, beyond the walls, he made out the din of swords beating against shields: a host of Argive warriors were still climbing the ramp and roaring as they poured through the open gate. Hundreds – perhaps thousands – more were already inside the walls, taking command of the streets and extinguishing whatever resistance the bewildered citizens were managing to muster. The nearer sounds of screaming and shouting were hideous on his ears. Yet it would all be over soon, Odysseus thought as he crossed the courtyard of Helen’s mansion; the Trojans would come to their senses and lay down their arms in surrender of their captured city. Even to the bravest and most fanatical among them, any other course of action must soon come to seem futile and insane. But he was worried by that smell of burning.
When he came out into the street he found the cobbles underfoot slippery with blood and he was forced to pick his way among the corpses. Here they were mostly top-knotted Thracian tribesmen who lay thrown over one another in lax postures, with slack jaws, like too many drunkards in the gutters. There was no sign of movement anywhere among them. From the top of the rise, beyond their silence, came the shouts of Argive soldiers and a terrible screaming.
Afterwards Odysseus would wonder how he could not have been prepared for what awaited him there. After all, he had sacked towns before. He had killed men and taken women into slavery. In the heat of battle he was as ruthless as the next man and had never lost much sleep over what he had done. It was the way of things. It had always been so and nothing would change it. Yet when he turned the corner and saw three Spartans laughing as they tugged at the legs of a white bearded-old man who was trying to climb over a wall, then thrust their spears through his nightshirt into his scrawny belly, he was not prepared. He was not prepared for the way, all along the street, doors had been broken down and the terrified, unarmed figures of men and boys were being driven from their homes at spear-point and cut down by the warriors waiting for them.
When Odysseus saw their sergeant swing his sword at the neck of a sobbing youth with such force that it almost severed the head, he grabbed the man by the shoulder, shouting, ‘In the name of all the gods, what are you doing? These people aren’t putting up any resistance.’ But the sergeant merely shrugged and said, ‘So what? They’re Trojans, aren’t they?’ and turned away to pull the next cowering figure towards the sweep of his sword. Odysseus saw the naked man’s throat splash open as he crumpled and fell. He looked up through a slaughter-house stench of blood and saw such deft butchery repeated again and again along the length of the street while women with their hands in their hair stood screaming as they watched. One of them threw herself over the body of her husband only to be dragged away while a burly axeman finished him off.
Odysseus shouted out a demand to know who was in command here, but his voice was lost in the shrieking of the women and he received no answer. He pushed his way along the street, making for the square outside the temple of Athena, and saw Acamas, son of Theseus, who had ridden inside the wooden horse with him, holding a man by the hair as he twisted his sword in his guts. Hearing Odysseus shout out his name, Acamas looked up, smiled in recognition, let the man drop, and stepped back, wiping the sweat from his brow.
‘It’s going well,’ he said as Odysseus came up to him.
‘But none of these people are armed,’ Odysseus shouted above the din. ‘There was an agreement.’ He took in the warrior’s puzzled frown. ‘We gave Antenor our word!’ he shouted. ‘We said we’d spare the lives of all those who surrendered.’
Acamas glanced away at where his men were working their way like dogged harvesters through a huddled crowd of Trojan men and boys trapped in a narrow corner of the street. ‘That’s not what I was told,’ he said. ‘We’re under orders to kill the lot and that’s what we’re doing. It’s the same all over the city.’
‘That can’t be right,’ Odysseus protested. ‘Where’s Agamemnon?’
‘Probably strutting through King Priam’s palace by now. I haven’t seen him.’ Acamas wiped a bloody hand across his mouth. ‘Come on,’ he said, ‘there’s still a lot of work to do.’ Then he turned away, lifting his sword.
In what should have been the most glorious hour of his life, Odysseus was seized by a numbing sense of dread. To fight in open combat across the windy plain of Troy had been one thing: this slaughter of defenceless men, stinking of piss and panic as they stumbled from their sleep into narrow alleys from which there could be no escape, was quite another. Yet the havoc in these streets had already run so far beyond control it was clear that any male Trojan, man or boy, would be lucky to survive the night.
In a fury of disgust, Odysseus turned to push his way through the throng, looking for Agamemnon. The smell of burning was stronger now and through a thickening gush of smoke a lurid flame-light glared out of the darkness of the lower city. If fire had broken out among the weaving halls with their bales of cloth, reels of yarn, and timber looms, then more people might be burnt to death or trampled in the scramble for safety than would fall to the sword. The dogs of the city barked and whined. Coarse laughter surrounded a frantic screaming where a man was being tormented somewhere. Women cried out as they were pulled from the sanctuary of holy altars and driven like geese along the streets. Children sobbed above the bodies of their fathers. And when Odysseus strode into the square before the temple of Athena he saw the immense moonlit form of the wooden horse, like a monstrous figment from a dream, looming in silence over the spectacle of a city in its death throes.
Sick with shame, he remembered how he had harangued the troops on the day when it looked as though they might refuse to follow Agamemnon when he called for a renewed assault on the city. That had been months ago but he remembered how he’d incited them with the thought of the women waiting to be raped inside these walls. How easily the words had sprung to his lips. How little thought he’d given to the price they would exact in human suffering. But now Odysseus stood in the shadow of the horse that had sprung from his imagination, watching men kill and die in helpless multitudes. In conceiving his clever stratagem to breach the unbreachable walls of Troy, he had released ten murderous years of rage and frustration into the streets of the city. Never had he seen so many people cut down like cattle in a hecatomb. Never before had he felt so entirely culpable. When he looked about him, there seemed no limits to the horror he had wrought.
Still shaking from having seen her husband’s head lopped off by that monstrous boy Neoptolemus, Queen Hecuba was among the first of the women to be dragged beneath the open portico in the square. Her younger daughters, Laodice and Polyxena, were supporting her feeble frame while the women of the palace followed behind, wailing and tearing at their hair. Neither Cassandra nor Hector’s widow, Andromache, were anywhere to be seen.
Not long ago, for a few brief hours, the Trojan Queen had lain beside her husband in a dream of unexpected peace. Now the world had turned into a phantasmagoria around her aged head and so intense was the feeling of nightmare, so violent the alteration in her circumstances, that she could no longer trust the evidence of her senses. It was impossible that Priam lay dead with his regal head severed from his body. It was impossible that these streets and squares, which only a few hours earlier had been filled with thankful prayers and jubilant with revelry, should now echo to the brutal shouts of foreign voices and the anguish of her frightened people. It was impossible that the bronze helmets and armour of the soldiers dragging her away were anything other than the figments of a dream. Yet she knew from their gaping eyes and mouths that her womenfolk were screaming round her and, after a time, Queen Hecuba came to understand that she too was keening out loud with all the strength of her lungs.
Lifted by the breeze from the burning buildings in the city below, smoke gusted across the square so that the staring head and arched neck of the wooden horse seemed to rise out of fog. The women were left coughing as they moaned. Spectral in the gloom, their faces blemished by the streaks of paint running from their eyes, they looked more like creatures thrown up from the underworld than the graceful ladies of royal Troy they had been only an hour earlier. Then they were screaming again as the armoured figure of the herald Talthybius strode out of the torchlit smoke. He was clutching the slender, half-naked figure of Cassandra by the arm.
The girl’s eyeballs had turned upwards and she was singing to herself, not for comfort but in a crazy kind of triumph. Hecuba recognized the words from the Hymn to Athena. As though unconscious of the terror around her, Cassandra was singing of how, when the armed goddess sprang with gleaming eyes from the head of Zeus, all the gods had been awe-struck and the earth itself had cried out and the seas had stood still.
Pushed out of the swirl of smoke into the throng of women, Cassandra too might have sprung in that eerie moment from some unnatural source. But the suave pragmatist Talthybius had his attention elsewhere. Seeing Hecuba shivering in the night air, he berated their guards for putting the health of these valuable captives at risk. He ordered one of them to raid the nearest house for throws and blankets before the women caught their death of cold. Then he turned to confront the Trojan Queen where she stood with the cloth of her gown hanging open to reveal her depleted breasts.
‘Forgive me for not observing your plight earlier, madam. The guards should have shown greater courtesy. But I beg you to calm these women.’ Talthybius raised both his staff and his voice to silence the captives. ‘The High King himself has commanded that you be brought here to safety and kept under guard. No harm will come to any of you. You have my word on that.’
‘No harm!’ Hecuba’s thin grey hair had come unbound. It was blowing about her face like rain in wind. ‘You think it no harm to see our men struck down? You think it no harm to watch our city burn?’
‘Such are the fortunes of war.’ The herald glanced away from the accusation of her eyes. ‘Your husband would have done well to think of this when he threw our terms for peace back in our teeth all those years ago.’
‘Do not dare to speak of my husband, Argive. The gods will surely avenge what has been done to him.’
‘Isn’t it already clear that the gods have set their faces against Troy?’ Talthybius sighed. ‘Be wise and endure your fate with all the fortitude you can.’
Reaching out to take Cassandra into the fold of her arm, Hecuba said, ‘The Queen of Troy has no need of Agamemnon’s lackey to teach her how to grieve.’
‘The Troy you ruled has gone for ever, madam,’ the herald answered. ‘You are Queen no longer. When this night’s work is done, you and your kinswomen will be divided by lot among the Argive captains. I pity your condition but things will go easier with you if you school yourself in humility.’
‘Do as you like with me,’ Hecuba defied him. ‘My life ended when I saw Hector fall. It was only a ghost of me that watched my husband die. What remains here is less than that. Your captains will find no joy in it.’
Talthybius shrugged. ‘It may be so. But I give Cassandra into your care. Be aware that my lord Agamemnon has already chosen her for his own.’
‘To be at the beck and call of his Spartan queen?’
‘To be the companion of his bed, madam.’
Hecuba looked up at him with flashing eyes. ‘I would strangle her with my own hands first.’
But at that moment Cassandra reached her fingers up to her mother’s face and held it close to her own. She was smiling the demented smile that Hecuba had long since learned to dread. ‘You have not yet understood,’ she whispered. ‘This is what the goddess wants of me. I have seen her. I saw her in the moments when they sought to ravish me beneath her idol. Divine Athena came there to comfort me. She told me I would be married to this Argive king. She told me that we must light the torches and bring on the marriage dance, and go joyfully to the feast. So that is what we will do. And you too must dance, mother. You must dance with me. Come, weave your steps with mine. Let us rejoice together and cry out evan! evoe! And dance to Hymen and Lord Hymenaeus at the wedding feast,’ – her voice dipped to a whisper that the herald could not hear – ‘for Athena has promised me that this marriage will destroy the House of Atreus.’
And then, as Hecuba looked on in dismay, Cassandra broke free of her grasp and began to stamp her foot and clap her hands above her bare shoulder, crying out to the bewildered Trojan women to join her in the dance and honour the husband who would shortly share her marriage bed.
‘Look to your daughter, madam,’ Talthybius warned. ‘I fear she is not in her right mind.’ Then, commanding the guards to keep a watchful eye on both women, the herald left the square to go in search of his master.
Slowly the hours of that terrible night dragged past. The women trembled and wept together. As if drugged on her own ecstasy, Cassandra slept. Exhausted and distraught, her throat hoarse from wailing, her breasts bruised where she had pummelled them in her grief, Hecuba entered a trance of desolation in which it seemed that no more dreadful thing could happen than she had endured already. And then Hector’s widow, Andromache, was brought through the gloom.
Hecuba did not see her at first because her eyes were fixed on the twelve year old warrior Neoptolemus, who strode ahead of Andromache wearing the golden armour that had once belonged to his father Achilles. The last time she had seen this ferocious youth he had been standing over Priam’s body looking down in fascination as blood spurted from the severed arteries of the neck. Still accompanied by his band of Myrmidons, Neoptolemus was carrying his drawn sword but he had taken off his helmet so that for the first time Hecuba could see how immature his features were. Only a faint bloom of blond hair softened his cheeks, and the eyes that surveyed the captive women were curiously innocent of evil. They were like the eyes of a child excited by the games.
Unable to endure the sight of him, Hecuba glanced away and saw Andromache held in the grip of two Myrmidon warriors. It was obvious from her distracted eyes and the uncharacteristic droop of her statuesque body that they were there to support rather than restrain her. The women of Hector’s house followed behind, weeping and moaning. Evidently hysterical with terror, the body-servant Clymene seemed scarcely able to catch her breath as she gripped and tore the tangles of her hair.
Neoptolemus gestured with his sword for the women in his train to be brought forward and herded with the others. But when Hecuba held out trembling hands to receive Andromache into her arms she was appalled to see her daughter-in-law stare back at her without recognition through the eyes of a woman whose memory was gone.
Though Andromache said nothing Hecuba could hear her breath drawn in little panting gasps as though she was sipping at the air. Her cheeks and throat were lined with scratches where she had dragged her fingernails across the surface of the flesh. A bruise discoloured the skin around the orbit of her right eye, and there was such utter vacancy in the eyes themselves that Hecuba knew at once that this woman had already been made to endure the unendurable.
‘Where is your son?’ she forced herself to ask. ‘Where is Astyanax?’