Decades before Troy was attacked by a massive Greek army under the command of King Agamemnon, the fabled city suffered under a different curse. The gods Apollo and Poseidon had built the walls of Troy and the city’s arrogant king, Laomedon, had promised them a great reward for their efforts. However, once the work had been completed, Laomedon reneged on his word.
Furious, Poseidon sent a sea-monster to lay waste to the land and to devour whichever mortal is unfortunate enough to get too close. Laomedon did what most rulers did in ancient times when faced by the unknown: he consulted an oracle. To get rid of the monster, the oracle said, Laomedon had to feed it his daughter, Hesione.
Feeding an innocent to a monster is a familiar motif: the parents of Andromeda would resort to the same solution in order to free themselves of another sea-monster. There, the young woman was saved at the last moment by none other than the hero Perseus. In the case of Hesione, her rescuer would be Perseus’ grandfather, Hercules (Greek: Herakles).
The story was an ancient one, since there are references to it already in Homer’s Iliad, dated ca. 700 BC, as well as in the Hesiodic epic poem, preserved in fragments, called Ehoiai (sixth century BC). A fuller account can be found in the fragments attributed to Hellanicus (fifth century BC), as well as in Diodorus Siculus (4.42), who lived in the first century BC, and Pseudo-Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca (2.5.9), dated to the first or second century AD.
In any event, Hesione was sent out to be eaten by the monster, but Laomedon was not heartless. He offered a reward for anyone brave enough to fight and defeat the monster: the immortal horses that had been gifted to Laomedon’s grandfather, Tros, as recompense for Zeus’ abduction of Tros’ son, Ganymede.
It so happened that Hercules was passing through Troy at the time when all of this was going down. He had either completed one of his Labours or was aboard the Argo as the ship made its way to retrieve the Golden Fleece from Kolchis. Whatever the reason for his presence, Hercules volunteered to fight the monster in exchange for the horses.
The texts don’t provide many details as regards the battle, but some vase-paintings of the sixth century BC, like the one heading this article, suggest that Hercules used either stones, blades, or indeed a bow and arrows to defeat it. With the sea-monster dispatched, Hercules tells Laomedon to keep his reward safe until his return.
Either at this point or later, Laomedon – predictably, perhaps – decided to break his word. He had no intention of giving Hercules anything. Hellanicus adds the detail that Laomedon tried to fool Hercules by substituting Zeus’ immortal horses with regular ones, but Hercules was no one’s fool and the ruse thus failed.
Whatever the exact details, there could only be one result: in Greek mythology, violence is the most common way to resolve any disputes, and so Hercules would have no choice but to sack Troy. But a city cannot be attacked by a single man. Before setting off for the Dardanelles, Hercules amassed a small army and travelled to Troy using a small fleet of ships.
Part of the battle that ensued when Hercules and his men had landed near Troy is depicted on what remains of the east pediment of the Temple of Aphaia on the island of Aegina, dated to the early fifth century BC. The sculptures currently reside in the Munich Glyptothek. Hercules is here represented as an archer; one of the fallen warriors is often interpreted as Laomedon, but in truth there is no way to be sure.
What we do know, is that the battle was fierce and bloody, as well as surprisingly short. Many Trojans were killed in combat, including the duplicitous Laomedon himself. Hesione was, according to some accounts, awarded to Telamon. Telamon was the brother of Peleus (father of Achilles) and the father of Ajax, one of the most powerful of the Greek warriors who would, decades later, again fight at Troy.
Hercules managed to breach the walls of Troy and claim his reward, the immortal horses that had once belonged to Zeus. All of Laomedon’s sons were slain apart from one, a young man named Priam. Of all of Laomedon’s sons, Priam had been the only one to counsel his father that he should have honoured the deal he had made before and give Hercules the promised horses.
Priam would live to see his city get burned to the ground, long after Hercules had gone. But that’s another story.
For a more detailed discussion of this story and the relevant sources, refer to Timothy Gantz’s monumental two-volume Early Greek Myth: A Guide to the Literary and Artistic Sources (1993), esp. pp. 400ff and 442ff.