Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of the Iliad

by Rosemary Sutcliff

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Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of the Iliad Characters

The main characters in Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of the Iliad include Achilles, Odysseus, and Ajax.

  • Achilles is the story's central character and the Greeks' best warrior. When his friend Patroclus is killed by the Trojan prince Hector, Achilles takes revenge. He develops a sense of compassion after speaking with Hector's father and is later killed by Paris.
  • Odysseus is the king of Ithaca and the cleverest of the Greeks. He devises the plan for the Trojan horse, allowing the Greeks to win the war.
  • Ajax is the king of Salamis and the Greeks' best warrior after Achilles. Fearless in battle, he eventually dies by suicide.


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Last Updated on April 7, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1131


Zeus is the king of the gods. He favors the Trojans but is not sufficiently interested in their fate to try to change it. At one point, when the fighting is fiercest around the Greek ships, he loses interest and turns his eyes and his mind elsewhere.

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Hera, wife of Zeus and queen of the gods, is very proud of her position and well aware of the deference due to her. She is one of the three goddesses who claims the golden apple at Peleus and Thetis’s wedding. She offers Paris power and glory if he awards the apple to her. When he does not do so, she becomes implacably opposed to him and to the city of Troy.


Athena is the goddess of wisdom, and promises to make Paris a wise man if he gives the golden apple to her. She turns against Troy when he declines, but she is also motivated by a strong preference for the Greeks, particularly Odysseus, whom she always takes care to protect. The Trojans worship her nonetheless and take the wooden horse to her temple because they believe it is an offering to Athena.


Aphrodite is the goddess of love and beauty, and promises Paris a beautiful wife if he gives her the golden apple, which he does. After this, she takes him under her protection, helping him to run away from Menelaus when he is losing in battle and even rebuking Helen when she scolds him for cowardice.


Poseidon, like Athena, is worshipped by the Trojans but favors the Greeks. When Zeus turns his eyes away from the battle, Poseidon comes to the Greek camp and gives the soldiers strength to withstand the Trojan onslaught. He later sends sea serpents to kill his own priest, Laocoon, who has warned the Trojans not to take the wooden horse into the city.

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Eris is the goddess of discord and is as spiteful and envious as this would suggest. She starts the conflict by putting the golden apple on the table at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, knowing that it will cause a dispute between the other goddesses.


Thetis is a nymph who marries the mortal king Peleus. She continually tries to protect her son, Achilles, and is deeply grieved by her foreknowledge of his death. She intercedes with Zeus on his behalf and asks Hephaestus to make him new armor when Hector strips Patroclus’s body of the armor he had previously worn.


Achilles is the greatest warrior of the Greeks and the central character in the story. He is quick-tempered, arrogant, and hungry for glory. Although Achilles is ruthless in battle, he shows a more compassionate side to his nature in the depth of his affection for Patroclus, whose death devastates him. His anger with Agamemnon is replaced by a much more intense rage against Hector, but even this subsides as he sympathizes with Priam’s grief. After returning Hector’s body to Priam, Achilles becomes more humane and thoughtful. When he discovers, after killing Queen Penthesilea, that his adversary was a woman, he is filled with sorrow and weeps over her body, which he then respectfully returns to Troy.


Agamemnon is the king of Mycenae and High King over all the Greeks. He is greedy and selfish, obsessed with the honor due to his position and disinclined to show respect to anyone else until he is forced to do so.

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Latest answer posted February 10, 2021, 6:47 pm (UTC)

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Menelaus is the king of Sparta and brother of Agamemnon. He is much older than his wife, Helen, who is bored with him and unhappy in their marriage. Despite his age, he is a redoubtable warrior, easily beating Paris in battle. Although angry with his wife for most of the story, he forgives her when they are reunited at the end.


Odysseus is the king of Ithaca. He is the most intelligent and cunning of the Greek warriors. While he has plenty of courage, his chief exploits are ones requiring guile and deceit rather than hand-to-hand combat. His eloquence is such that he is often selected for diplomatic missions, such as the embassy to Achilles from Agamemnon and the expedition to persuade Philoctetes to rejoin the Greek forces.


Ajax is the King of Salamis and the second-greatest of the Greek warriors after Achilles. He is portrayed as immensely strong and utterly fearless in battle but without much subtlety or intelligence. He subscribes completely to the heroic code of valuing honor, glory, and courage in battle beyond all other qualities. Near the end of the book, Ajax is troubled by bad dreams and, upon waking, kills a flock of sheep in a blind rage. While this is uncharacteristic behavior, his shame at what he has done, and his decision to commit suicide by falling on his sword immediately afterward, are very much in keeping with his character.


Patroclus is the closest friend of Achilles. However, he is also devoted to the Greek cause and chafes at the enforced idleness imposed upon him by the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon. Like the other heroes, he is fearless in battle and desperate to win glory.


Philoctetes is the greatest archer on the Greek side. However, he has been absent from their army for ten years after a dragon bit him in the foot on the island of Lemnos, where the Greeks stopped on their way to Troy. The wound was foul-smelling, and Philoctetes continually cried out in pain, so the Greeks left him on the island. This understandably makes him bitter and cynical, and he is initially unwilling to help the Greek cause after their betrayal.


Helen is the young, beautiful queen of Sparta who elopes with Paris. She soon grows tired of him, as she grew tired of Menelaus, particularly when Paris proves to be a coward in battle. She seems happy enough to return to Menelaus at the end of the book.


Priam, the king of Troy, is a tragic figure who sees his children slaughtered and his city burn. He is a dignified and sympathetic character who compels the respect even of his enemy, Achilles.


Hector, the eldest son of Priam and commander of the Trojan army, is a responsible family man, deeply attached to his wife and son. His life is defined by obligations, to his family, his father, and the city of Troy. He attaches great importance to honor but is less hungry for glory than the other heroes.


Paris, a young prince of Troy, is portrayed as feckless and selfish. He brings Helen to Troy without thinking of the consequences. He is also rather cowardly, running away from single combat with Menelaus and preferring to fight with a bow and arrow so that he can pick off his enemies at a safe distance, as he does with Achilles.

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