In 396 BCE the Spartan king Agesilaus had planned an expedition to liberate the Greeks of Asia Minor from the tyranny of Persian satraps, and he had transported his forces to the island of Euboea, intending to launch an invasion from its southeast coast. But not far away on the Greek mainland lay Aulis, where the king badly wanted to sacrifice a deer to the goddess Artemis in order to win favoring winds for crossing the Aegean. This was a publicity stunt that every Greek would have immediately understood, for here Agamemnon had departed for the war against Troy over 850 years before. Agamemnon had famously sacrificed his own daughter Iphigeneia, even if tradition held that Artemis had snatched her from the altar in the nick of time.
Agesilaus clearly wanted to present himself as a second Agamemnon, although he declined to offer up his own son in imitation of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigeneia. But the Thebans, in whose territory Aulis was located, were not at all pleased to see their legendary site used for Spartan self-promotion. So they broke up the sacrifice ceremony and forced the Spartan king to depart without his homage to Agamemnon.
Agesilaus’ plan shows how deeply the Trojan War was embedded in the collective memory of the Greeks. Homer’s Iliad, which takes its name from Ilion, the Greek name for Troy, was, along with the Odyssey, the secular scripture of Hellenism. Although it described only part of the tenth and final year of the conflict, its power depended upon the background of a futile war that seemed never to end.
In her new book, The War That Killed Achilles, Caroline Alexander recalls not only the brutal conflicts of that last, fateful year but also the events before and after it. Poets whose works are now lost had told the stories that were presupposed in the Iliad, and all of this was well known to the Greeks who watched tragedies on stage or used the elegantly painted red-and-black-figured pottery that is now the pride of museum curators and private collectors. When Aeschylus wrote his Agamemnon, he knowingly challenged his audience by making the chorus lament that Iphigeneia really had been murdered at Aulis, whereas Euripides would subsequently create two moving plays with different stories of her deliverance. The myths were both fundamental and fluid.
Even so austere a historian as Thucydides felt obliged to mention Troy at the start of his history of the internecine war that tore Greece apart in the fifth century BCE. Although he considered the Peloponnesian War the greatest upheaval (kinesis) of recorded history, he knew that the backdrop for all Greek warfare was the ten-year siege at Troy. Xenophon, an Athenian who continued the history that Thucydides left unfinished when he died, was no less conscious of the allure and prestige of the Trojan story. He had actually fought with Agesilaus on the Spartan side and greatly …