The first Trojan War

Before Achilles, Agamemnon and Helen herself, there was a lesser known sack of Troy. Professor Christopher Mackie reveals all

The Trojan War invokes images of wooden horses, Greeks with vengeance in their eyes, swords and armour and the city, the glorious Troy, falling. Names like Achilles, Agamemnon, Helen, Paris, Odysseus have not only peppered the epic Greek myth, but have been tossed in poems, on the big screen, artwork and in song.

“The single biggest difference between the two wars, the two campaigns is that Heracles sacked the city, took what he wanted and then left and the city stood … and Troy grew and grew until it became a right and fabulous city again, but in the second sack of Troy – we don’t see this … this is a genocide story,” Professor Christopher Mackie

“The thing about the Trojan War is that it’s the most significant single Greek myth, in that you have a whole epic tradition built around the story of the Trojan War, we have The Iliad which describes the 40 odd days of the Trojan War and we have The Odyssey which describes the journey home of the heroes,” says Professor Christopher Mackie, Head of Humanities Research Centre for Greek Studies, La Trobe University.

“The story of the Trojan War is almost like an institution in Greek mythology rather than just a single myth, so the Greek poets and artists built their whole working lives around the story of the Trojan War, so I’m just lucky enough to work in that area as it’s a fascinating area.”

Professor Mackie’s background has its roots firmly planted in Latin and Ancient Greek, having studied at the University of Newcastle. He followed on from this by doing a PhD on Greek and Roman epic poems, specifically the works of Vergil and Homer. For most of his working life, he has been focused on the Trojan War, as told by Greek and Roman sources and the way that this has had an impact on the later European tradition of war narratives. More recently, he’s been interested in the Gallipoli region of western Turkey, particularly on the Greek side of things on that front.

He is quick to point out that both sacks of Troy, both wars, are similar to the differences faced when comparing WWI to WWII. With different generations come different attitudes to war, and different ways of fighting a war.

“You’ve got a different attitude, so where WWI was fought one-to-one on the battlefield, in WWII, they were dropping bombs on the city and things like that,” the professor tells Neos Kosmos.

“The story of the first sack of Troy is very important, because it sheds some light on the way things used to be and the way things are now in this later generation with Achilles and Agamemnon, so it’s quite an important background story,” he says.

He says it has to do with a change in generations and the way heroes operate. For example, in Heracles’ world in the first sack of Troy, there are monsters and Heracles himself was an archer, then in the second sack of Troy, in the world of Achilles and Agamemnon, there is a “very different heroic ethos”.
“The way the first war was fought – in the way it’s referred to in The Iliad – is a very small scale sack of Troy; it’s almost like a personal conflict between Heracles and a small group of men around him and the king of the day, and the war itself is fought over horses,” he says. In the second sack of Troy, we know the reason the war was fought centres solely around Helen, the beauty taken from Sparta to Troy, and the vengeance of the Greeks.
“The single biggest difference between the two wars, the two campaigns, is that [in the first war] Heracles sacked the city, took what he wanted and then left, and the city stood. And Priam became the king and Troy grew and grew until it became a right and fabulous city again.

“But in the second sack of Troy – we don’t see this in The Iliad but it’s anticipated – this is a genocide story.

“The Greeks are going to fundamentally kill the men and some of the boys, enslave the women, destroy the city and that’s the end of Troy forever. So what we get is a generational shift and attitudes towards what a war is and what a war does and why you fight them and what you do when you defeat a city.”
He says even the types of weapons used plays an important role in the generational changes of both the wars.

“Weaponry is very important because Heracles in The Iliad is referred to as an archer; now in the second sack of Troy, and the way Homer describes it, they wouldn’t be seen dead near a bow and arrow, so what you have is the two great heroes of the two generations, Heracles and Achilles, and Heracles is an archer and Achilles is a spearman.

He says through reading The Iliad, you get the impression that archers are the lowest part of society, the bastard, illegitimate children from the Greek side, and there is this hero, Heracles, who is an archer.

“There you have a fundamental shift in the value system around weaponry.”

Professor Mackie says the first sack of Troy is mentioned nearly ten times in The Iliad, but fails to gain notoriety as the Trojan War that has spawned many films, songs, books and artwork. However, he says that during a talk with Australian author David Malouf on his novel Ransom, he deals with the first sack of Troy which is – off the top of his head – one of the references that’s been observed in contemporary culture and art of the first sack of Troy.

Professor Mackie will be delivering a talk entitled ‘The First Sack of Troy and the Second’ as part of the Greek History and Culture Seminars hosted by the Greek Community of Melbourne. The talk will take place on Thursday 22 May at 7.00 pm at The Ithacan Philanthropic Society, Level 2, 329 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne. For more information visit