Missing in Action? The Role of the Gods
in Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy

Charles C. Chiasson (University of Texas, Arlington)

One feature of Wolfgang Petersen’s film Troy that has caught the censorious attention of many classicists is the omission of the Homeric gods.  For example, Stephen Scully (in Winkler, p. 120) cites the absence of divine machinery as one of the reasons (together with the film’s mundane dialogue) why Troy fails to achieve epic greatness.  By contrast, no less a Homerist than Joachim Latacz counters (Winkler, p. 42) that Petersen has not omitted the gods from his narrative, since the gods may be found inside the human characters.  I wish to stake out a third position in this debate, since the status of the gods in Troy is more complicated and interesting than the bare binary opposition of “presence” and “absence” would suggest.  In fact the gods are visibly present in the movie, embodied by Achilles’ mother Thetis on the one hand and by statues of the gods on the other; however, they are debased versions of their Homeric counterparts—paradoxically impotent deities who prove powerless both to protect the humans who revere them and to punish the humans who disrespect them.  The outcome of the film suggests a transformation of the fundamental Homeric hierarchy wherein mortal heroes aspire to the immortal status of the gods, which they can only hope to approximate by winning immortal kleos.

The scenes that I will incorporate into my discussion include:  1) the paradoxical appearance of Achilles’ mother Thetis as an undeniably aged goddess (cf. Homer’s formulaic description of the gods as “undying and unageing for all their days”);  2) the beheading by Achilles of a statue of Apollo, which goes apparently unpunished by the god;  3) the conversation between Achilles and Briseis in which the former suggests that it is the gods who envy humans their mortality (utterly recasting the Greek concept of divine phthonos of humans whose prosperity and good fortune threaten to exceed mortal limits);  4) the desecration of divine statues by the Greeks during the sack of Troy, which appears to indicate that king Priam was wrong to place his trust in the protection of the gods. 

This finale reflects another reversal of a prominent religious theme in the Iliad. For while Homer underscores Zeus’ support for the Greek cause and the ultimate righteousness of Troy’s fall, due to Paris’ violation of xenia, Petersen’s film portrays the Trojans and their king as fecklessly devoted to the gods, while the leaders of the victorious Greeks, Agamemnon and Achilles, are openly disdainful of deity in their pursuit of personal, political, and military goals.  The demonstrable impotence of the gods would have mystified and even scandalized ancient Greeks with traditional religious views, but has little impact upon a modern audience, for whom the Olympian pantheon is no longer part of a living belief system.


Latacz, J., “From Homer’s Troy to Petersen’s Troy,” in Winkler, pp. 27-42.

Scully, S., “The Fate of Troy,” in Winkler, pp. 119-30.

Winkler, M., ed., Troy:  From Homer’s Iliad to Hollywood Epic (Blackwell 2007).

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