The Trojan War, the most famous conflict of the Bronze Age, pitted the Greeks (also called Achaeans, Argives, or Danaans) against the city of Troy and its allies. Accounts of the conflict center on the heroes or champions of the opposing sides. These Trojan War Heroes were larger than life figures whose exploits became legendary. Not all were equal in valor, skill, courage, or counsel. However, some clearly stood above the rest. These twelve were the greatest and most influential Greek heroes in Homer’s Iliad, and other accounts of the Trojan War.
Achilles: Greatest Trojan War Hero of the Greek Army
Greatest of all the Achaean heroes who fought at Troy, and the central character of Homer’s Iliad, Achilles was the son of the Argonaut and companion Peleus and the Nereid Thetis, a goddess of the sea. Achilles was trained by the centaur Chiron who taught him the art of war. It was prophesied that he would either live long in obscurity or die young and obtain glory. To avoid this, Thetis was said to have dipped him in the river Styx to make him invulnerable; critically she missed his heel where she held him.
Homer’s Iliad begins with Achilles withdrawing himself and his soldiers from the war after quarreling with Agamemnon, commander of the Greek army. As the situation deteriorates for the Greeks Achilles rejects all attempts to mollify him. Finally, Patroclus, his cousin and close friend, convinces Achilles to allow him to take his place at the head of Achilles’ troops. Patroclus saves the Greeks but is killed, causing Achilles to rejoin the war.
Given new armor forged by the god Hephaestus, Achilles goes on a rampage slaughtering hundreds of Trojans, fights the river god Scamander, and kills the Trojan hero Hector. He then holds elaborate funeral games in honor of Patroclus; the nature of their relationship has been debated for centuries though many believe them to have been lovers. Achilles goes on to kill Penthesilea, queen of the Amazons, and Memnon king of Ethiopia, both of whom were Trojan allies before he himself is killed by the Trojan hero Paris. Achilles is a popular Trojan War Hero in both Ancient and Modern art.
Agamemnon: Commander of the Greek army at Troy
The king of Mycenae, commander of the Achaean army, and brother of Menelaus, Agamemnon was the most powerful lord in Greece. After Helen of Troy and Paris ran off, Agamemnon gathered the various Greek contingents to invade Troy. Before the Greek fleet departed, Agamemnon insulted the goddess Artemis and was forced to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to make amend an act which his wife Clytemnestra never forgave. In the tenth year of the war, as recounted in Homer’s Iliad, Agamemnon and Achilles quarrel over Briseis, a slave girl. This occurs after Agamemnon is forced to relinquish his slave girl Chryseis to avert a plague. Achilles withdraws from the war and Agamemnon leads the Greeks against Troy with disastrous consequences.
Agamemnon, though not the equal of Achilles in bravery or Ajax in strength, is still one of the greatest Achaean warriors of all the Trojan War Heroes. In one memorable scene, he goes on a killing spree almost on the scale of Achilles. After the Fall of Troy, Agamemnon receives the Trojan princess Cassandra as a prize and delays his return voyage in an attempt to appease the goddess Athena. Agamemnon’s homecoming is not a happy one. He and Cassandra are murdered by Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. Orestes and Electra, Agamemnon’s children, eventually avenge his death. Agamemnon was regarded as the highest type of monarch and artistic representations depict him in a similar manner to the famous god Zeus.
Menelaus: Homeric Lord of the Spartans
Husband of Helen, brother of Agamemnon, and king of Sparta, Menelaus appears in both the Iliad and the Odyssey and was also a popular figure in Greek tragedy and art. According to legend, Menelaus was one of the many suitors who sought to marry the beautiful Helen. To avoid conflict her father made the suitors swear an oath to abide by the decision and support each other and defend Helen’s husband. Once Paris and Helen ran off to Troy Menelaus called on the suitors to fulfill their oath.
In the Iliad Menelaus challenges Paris to single combat and easily defeats him. However, Paris is saved by Aphrodite and Menelaus is wounded by the Trojan Pandarus who shoots him with an arrow. Menelaus helps retrieve Patroclus’ body and is credited with killing eight named Trojan warriors. He is one of the Trojan War Heroes of the Greek army hidden inside the famed Trojan Horse and participates in the Sack of Troy. Later he takes Helen back with him to Sparta after a long journey during which a storm forces them to stop in Crete and Egypt.
Odysseus: Architect of the Greek Victory
The cunning king of Ithaca, Odysseus played a key role in the Trojan War. It was he who devised the oath which bound the Achaeans to come to the aid of Helen’s husband, which he himself tried to avoid. His ploy was discovered by Palamedes, whose downfall he later orchestrated, possibly with the aid of his usual partner Diomedes. Odysseus’ main role amongst the other Trojan War Heroes is that of a counselor and advisor, especially to Agamemnon who often relies on his support. He is the main emissary sent to persuade Achilles to rejoin the war, where he shows off his diplomatic skills.
As the war progresses, Odysseus’ role expands. He and Diomedes conduct several special operations against the Trojans. They kill the Trojan ally Rhesus and steal the Palladium from the temple of Athena in Troy. After Ajax and Odysseus retrieve the body of Achilles, Odysseus is awarded them which leads to Ajax committing suicide. Ultimately it is Odysseus who engineers the Fall of Troy first by bringing Neopotelmus, the son of Achilles, and Philoctetes, the wielder of the bow of Heracles into the Greek camp, and by creating the famed Trojan Horse. His journey home after the war is described in the epic poem the Odyssey; and Odysseus himself has been frequently depicted in both Ancient and Modern art.
Patroclus: Savior of the Greek Cause at Troy
The son of Menoetius, the king of Opus and a former Argonaut, Patroclus was sent to be raised alongside Achilles after killing another child over a game. Slightly older than Achilles he served as a squire, counselor, and war time companion. Although later Greek authors expanded and reinterpreted their relationship, there is no sexual dynamic between Achilles and Patroclus in the Homeric tradition. The exact nature of the relationship between these Trojan War Heroes continues to be hotly debated to this day.
When the war turned against the Greeks and the Trojans threatened the Greek ships Patroclus convinced Achilles to lend him both his soldiers and equipment. Wearing Achilles’ armor, carrying Achilles’ weapons, and leading Achilles troops, Patroclus drives the Trojans back to the city gates and kills the Trojan hero Sarpedon. However, Patroclus goes too far and is killed by the Trojan heroes Euphorbos and Hector with the aid of Apollo. Hector takes Achilles armor but Menelaus and Ajax the Greater rescue Patroclus body. A distraught Achilles later holds an elaborate burial and funeral games for Patroclus. The Trojan War Heroes Achilles and Patroclus are often depicted together by artists.
Ajax the Greater: Defender of the Greek Ships and Army
Ajax was a towering figure, the son of Telamon. He was an Argonaut who also hunted the Calydonian boar and was king of Salamis, and half-brother of Teucer another Trojan War Hero in the Greek army. The strongest of all the Trojan War Heroes of the Greeks he was trained alongside Achilles by the centaur Chiron. Known as the “Bulwark of the Achaeans,” Ajax possessed high levels of combat intelligence and despite being in the thick of the fighting and receiving little assistance from the gods, in the course of the Iliad he is never wounded. He often fought alongside Teucer, who sheltered behind his massive shield. Ajax fought a duel against the great Trojan hero Hector, who he wounds, which lasted for an entire day. They meet again later when Hector attacks the Greek camp and ships. Ajax is crucial to the Greek defense nearly killing Hector with a rock and holding off the Trojan army almost single handedly.
Ajax is one of the emissaries sent to Achilles by Agamemnon to try to convince him to rejoin the fighting and recovers Patroclus’ body after he was killed by Hector. Ajax also recovers Achilles’ body after he is killed with the help of Odysseus, who is awarded the arms and armor of Achilles by the Greeks. Enraged by this sight, Ajax slaughters the Achaean livestock which Athena causes him to mistake for his enemies. Upon recovering his senses, Ajax is unable to live with the shame of his actions and commits suicide. The suicide of Ajax was a popular theme in Greek and Roman art, as were depictions of him playing dice with Achilles.
Diomedes: The Young Greek Rival of Achilles
Youngest of the Greek Trojan War Heroes, beloved of Athena, partner of Odysseus, and king of Argos, Diomedes had more military experience than any of the other champions. Prior to the Trojan War, Diomedes led a major expedition against Thebes, where his father had died as one of the Seven Against Thebes; the largest military conflict before the Trojan War. During the war he kills the Trojan hero Pandarus, nearly kills the hero Aeneas, faces Hector and becomes the only mortal to wound two gods, Aphrodite and Ares, in a single day.
He was also respected for his wisdom and counsel. He was selected as an emissary to Achilles and had a memorable exchange with the Trojan hero Glaucus on the battlefield. Diomedes often partnered with Odysseus to conduct special operations such as the night raid on the camp of the Trojan ally Rhesus or in stealing the Palladium from the temple of Athena in Troy. The theft of the Palladium was a popular artistic theme. After the Fall of Troy Diomedes returned safely to Argos but was exiled by his wife and the people who had turned against him. Eventually Diomedes settled in Southern Italy and founded ten cities in the region.
Nestor: Counselor and Advisor of the Greek Army
An Argonaut, who had battled centaurs, and hunted the Calydonian boar, the aged Trojan War Hero Nestor was king of Pylos. Too old to engage in combat, Nestor led his troops from his chariot and let his sons, Antilochus and Thrasymedes, do the fighting. Nestor was a skilled public speaker and counselor, who often offered his advice to the younger Trojan War Heroes of the Greek army.
There is a subtext of humor in Homer’s portrayal of Nestor, who is never able to dispense his advice without first offering long winded accounts of his own heroic actions in the past when he faced similar situations. Nestor’s military advice is also often considered anachronistic, more suited to an earlier time when he was younger. While much of Nestor’s advice is of a questionable quality, his reputation as a wise counselor rested more on his speaking abilities than on the quality of his advice or counsel. After the Fall of Troy, Nestor immediately left for home rather than trying to appease the gods, and arrived safely without any issues. He later appears briefly in the Odyssey when Telemachus travels to Pylos seeking news of his father Odysseus.
Idomeneus: Cretan Ally of the Greek Army
Leader of the Cretan forces, he was the son of Deucalion, an Argonaut who also participated in the hunt for the Calydonian Boar, and the grandson of Minos remembered for his Labyrinth and the Minotaur. Idomeneus was one of the older Trojan War Heroes of the Greek army, a trusted advisor of Agamemnon who continues to fight on the front lines. He is credited with killing twenty Trojans, three Amazons, and briefly repulsed one of Hector’s most determined attacks.
After the Fall of Troy Idomeneus returns to Crete but his ships are caught in a terrible storm. In exchange for the god’s protection Idomeneus promises Poseidon that should he survive, he will sacrifice the first living thing he encounters to the god. Upon his return, Idomeneus is greeted by his son who he dutifully sacrifices. Angered by this, the gods send a plague to Crete and the Cretan people exile Idomeneus, who travels first to Calabria in Italy and then to Colophon in Anatolia.
Machaon: The Greek Physician at Troy
Alongside his brother Podalirius, Machaon led the Thessalian contingent of the Achaean army though he is remembered more as a healer than a fighter. Machaon was the son of Asclepius, the god of healing and medical arts. During the Trojan War Machaon tended to the various Greek Trojan War Heroes when they were wounded.
His most important contribution to the war effort was the healing of Telephus, the king of Mysia. After arriving off the coast of Anatolia the Greeks attacked Mysia, mistaking it for the city of Troy. The Greek attack was beaten off but Achilles dealt Telephus a wound with his spear which refused to heal. Seeking a cure for his wound Telephus journeyed to Argos where the Greek fleet was regrouping. Machaon revealed that the only way to cure the wound was with rust from Achilles spear, and after his wound was healed the grateful Telephus offered to guide the Greeks to Troy. The healing of Telephus was a popular theme in Greek and Roman art. Machaon was killed in the tenth year of the war by Eurypylus, the son of Telephus.
Ajax the Lesser: Brutal Greek Hero of the Locrians
Leader of the Locrian contingent of the Achaean army, this Trojan War Hero was known as the “Lesser” or “Little” to distinguish him from Ajax the son of Telamon. He was skilled at throwing a spear and was an exceptionally fast runner; only Achilles was faster. During the funeral games held to honor Patroclus he competed in a foot race but was tripped by Athena, who favored Odysseus, so that he finished second.
Later he participated in the Sack of Troy he dragged the Trojan princess Cassandra from the Temple of Athena, and in some accounts raped her in the temple. This particular episode was frequently represented in Greek art. After his crime was revealed he hid from the rest of Greeks until they departed. As Ajax then made his own way home, Athena caused his ship sink after it was struck by lightning. Ajax and some of his men survived with the aid of Poseidon and were left clinging to a rock, where he screamed his defiance at the gods. Offended by this defiance, Poseidon split the rock so that Ajax was swallowed by the sea.
Teucer: the Greatest Archer of the Greek Army
This great archer and Trojan War Hero from the island of Salamis was related to heroes on both sides of the Trojan War. Teucer was the half-brother of Ajax the Greater, nephew of king Priam of Troy, and cousin to the Trojan princes Hector and Paris. He was credited by Homer with killing some thirty Trojan warriors and even wounded the Trojan hero Glaucus.
During Hector’s drive towards the Greek camp and ships, Teucer teamed up with Ajax firing his bow from the cover of Ajax’s shield. His attempts to kill Hector were thwarted by Apollo, who redirected his arrows. Hector briefly put Teucer out of commission by flinging a rock at him but Teucer returned and continued to fight until Zeus caused his bow to break. Teucer later confronted Hector again with a spear and narrowly escaped. After Ajax committed suicide, Teucer guarded his body to ensure it received a proper burial but failed to recover his arms and armor. When he returned home after the war he was banished for not returning with Ajax’s body, arms, or armor and went on to found the city of Salamis in Cyprus.