It is hard to say where the story started. Before Homer, that’s for sure. The shadowy figure credited with composing the Iliad and Odyssey is generally believed to have lived in the 8th century BC, when writing literature was still a new fad in the Greek world. We do not know whether Homer created written versions of these epics, but we can be certain that tales of the Trojan war were not created to capitalise on this new way of reaching audiences. Instead, the stories were much older, and had been finessed by generations of bards, who would recite the poems from memory, and doubtless tinkered with them as they went along. Even then, the themes of love and war ran deeper still. Depictions of a city under siege or a naval taskforce appear on a Mycenaean silver vessel and a Bronze Age fresco from Thera, while echoes of source material from Anatolia and the Near East reverberate through the Homeric literature. If all of these strands needed a suitable setting to weave them together, they found one in the Late Bronze Age Troy of c.1700-1200 BC. This sprawling city commanded the mouth of the Dardanelles, where the Mediterranean merges with the Black Sea, and East meets West. It proved the perfect time and place for a story of gods and mortals, fate and choice, love and hate, and the utter ruination of war.
The Iliad and Odyssey were merely two elements of a much longer epic cycle about the Trojan war, but they are the only segments that survive complete today. This is in large part due to the fanatical following that Homer inspired in the Classical world. His contribution came – assuming he existed at all – during what could be thought of as a Greek renaissance, when the Hellenic world rose phoenix-like from the ashes of the Mycenaean states, which had collapsed four centuries or so earlier. As well as providing a heroic past for various city states, the alliance of Achaeans – Greeks – who fought at Troy provided a handy reference for the growing sense of ‘Greekness’ in Homer’s day. If tales of Troy helped to forge a new Greek world, though, its influence on the Roman one was even starker. The Romans traced their lineage to Aeneas, a Trojan refugee who had a bit part in the original myth, before receiving his own spin-off from the poet Virgil. The resulting Aeneid swiftly established itself as Rome’s national epic. And where Rome went, medieval Europe followed. In the scramble to be seen as the empire’s heirs, by the 12th century most European powers purportedly – and falsely – claimed Trojan ancestry.
Centuries later, Troy was there once again at the dawn of modern archaeology, when Heinrich Schliemann – himself no stranger to mythmaking – set out on a quest to prove that Homer’s words were grounded in genuine events. So it was that the story became the driving force behind the rediscovery of the real-world location at the heart of the Trojan war cycle. Meanwhile the influence of the Iliad and Odyssey continues in a more or less recognisable guise in art, literature, and film right down to today. And just like the ancient bards, modern storytellers still refashion the material to suit audiences’ expectations, so that almost 3,000 years of changing expectations about love, war, sacrifice, and heroism can be traced like ripples through retellings of the Troy story. It could not be more fitting, then, that a major exhibition at the British Museum has assembled a beguiling blend of ancient and modern materials to tease out the myth and reality of Troy (see ‘Further information’ box on p.22).
The fable that launched a thousand stories
Homer explicitly set his story in the past, and objects that would have already seemed archaic to 8th-century Greeks litter his narrative. Modern attempts to pin down how many of the objects really existed – such as the bronze weapons or helmet made from boars’ tusks he mentions – were once called ‘Homeric archaeology’. In the ancient world, too, the popularity of the stories prompted a desire to visit the site where they played out. Most ancient commentators accepted that the city of Ilion, which remained occupied until the 7th century AD, was Homer’s Troy. This identification was aided by Homer seemingly referring to the city in question as both Troy and Ilios. The reason for these two names remains unclear, but some have suggested that Troy formed the overall kingdom, while Ilios was the specific city. If so, it would help explain why the wider region is still known as the Troad today. As for the city’s Bronze Age inhabitants – the Trojans – they probably belonged to Anatolia and the milieu of the Hittite Empire. It is one of the paradoxes of the Trojan war that what became the greatest Greek myth was not set in Greece, but a far and distant land.
For some, the only important question concerning the Trojan war is whether it happened in any form. ‘This is not an original observation,’ says Lesley Fitton, exhibition curator and Honorary Research Fellow in the British Museum’s Department of Greece and Rome, ‘as Thucydides made it in the 5th century BC, but Homer was a poet, not a historian. To compare the Iliad and the Odyssey to real events is to compare apples and pears. If you’re trying to link a poem to history as we now understand it, you’ve already got a big problem. You’re trying to take a tradition that fits in the hinterland between history and myth, and match it against hard evidence. What would we need today to make it “historical”? The answer is solid archaeological evidence in the form of material culture, and supporting documentary evidence. So, with that as a caveat, we do not have hard evidence for the story of the Trojan war as told by Homer. There is no independent written record of, for example, King Agamemnon.’
‘But if we wanted to look at the issue more positively, we could ask “Well, what do we have?”. And we now know far more about the Late Bronze Age, which provides a feasible background for the Trojan war, than Heinrich Schliemann did. We also have a much better understanding of the superpowers in the eastern Mediterranean and the ways that they were armed and fought among themselves. This was a generally warlike and combative society, and people were constantly undertaking major or minor expeditions against each other. We also know quite a lot about diplomatic relations, but not as much as we would like. These documents tend to come from Anatolia and the Middle East, but not Greece, where we only have documents in the Linear B script, which are inventories of goods from the so-called “palaces”. But the documents are enough to show that these major centres of power had a military dimension, so they could have mounted big expeditions.’
‘Where it gets much more interesting is with the Hittite written evidence, which has come into clearer focus over the last 20 to 25 years. It gives us some really tantalising clues, and that rarest of things in archaeology: agreement. Most scholars now accept that Late Bronze Age Troy was known as Wilusa. That is intriguing in itself, because very ancient Greek had a “w” sound that dropped out in later Greek. So Wilusa equals Ilios. We also know from the Hittite texts that there was a ruler of Wilusa called Alaksandu, which is close to Alexandros or Alexander: an alternative name for Paris used in the Iliad. So, this gets more and more exciting, but in a way more and more frustrating. What the tablets tell us is that in the 13th century BC, the Hittite empire was focused on Hattusa, which is a long way east. So Troy was a bit peripheral. And it was disputed territory. The Hittites were constantly having difficulties with rebellions in the region, but by the end of the Late Bronze Age they seem to have got Troy back under control as a vassal state.’
‘One tablet even refers to a period when Wilusa was fought over by the Hittites and an enemy called the Ahhiyawa, which instantly brings to mind Homer’s Achaeans. Where do these scraps of evidence get us? The conclusion, I’m afraid, is not a very firm one. In the modern world, as throughout the whole history of this conversation, there are believers and unbelievers. Some people take the story more literally than others. But it’s worth adding that one of the destruction layers excavated at Troy dates to 1180 BC, and it is rather interesting. Manfred Korfmann, who excavated Troy from 1988 to 2012, started from the position of “Let’s put Homer to one side: I’m excavating Troy as an interesting Anatolian site in its own right.” But, by the end of his career, he felt the destruction deposit was such a good candidate for the Trojan war that the onus was now on the people who said it didn’t happen to prove it. He thought there was enough archaeological evidence for the city being sacked by enemies bearing Mycenaean-style weapons to make it far more likely that it did happen. But his view is not universally accepted, not least because the Mycenaean states are thought to have fallen apart 20 years earlier in 1200 BC, so could they really have mounted an expedition in 1180? The jury is still out.’
‘In a way,’ says Victoria Donnellan, project curator in the British Museum’s Department of Greece and Rome, ‘it doesn’t matter whether it happened or not. There are elements of reality to the story, but its power is that it speaks to human truths and the experiences of real people, even if its heroes and heroines are fictional. That is why it has been so successful. We all know that it covers warriors and fighting, but it is also a love story, or more accurately love stories. At the heart of it, of course, is Helen and Paris. Helen was married to Menelaus, before Aphrodite delivered her to Paris, so was she an unwilling pawn of the gods, or flirting with someone that she shouldn’t have been? What she could or couldn’t do about her elopement is still a fascinating question. In the ancient story, she’s pretty much the only woman who has what could pass for a happy ending, as she goes back to Sparta with Menelaus. It does seem rather unconvincing to a modern audience that they could continue living happily together after all that had happened as a result of Helen’s relationship with Paris.’
‘Someone else with a love story is the great warrior Achilles. There was a clear idea in the ancient world that he and fellow soldier Patroclus were not just comrades in arms, but also lovers. It is after Patroclus was killed by the Trojan warrior Hector that Achilles was driven into a murderous rage. In the medieval versions, there’s a great interest in love as a motivating force, but this particular relationship was no longer highlighted, and a Trojan princess became Achilles’ love interest. It’s similar in the 2004 film version, where Patroclus was firmly presented as Achilles’ cousin.’
Such scenes – among many others in the Trojan war – provided plenty of scope for ancient artists. One Greek drinking cup dating to around 500 BC shows Achilles tenderly bandaging Patroclus’ wounds, while around 750 years later a Roman-era sarcophagus from Ephesus captures the warrior’s despair at the sight of Patroclus’ limp body. Meanwhile, Helen is shown reacting to her departure with Paris in various ways. Often the gods goad her on, but one 2nd-century BC Etruscan funerary urn shows her being loaded onto Paris’ ship like so much loot. Perhaps the most striking study of Helen’s feelings is provided by a fresco from Pompeii, which captures an expression riven with inner turmoil as she is guided to the ship’s gangplank. Such a scene is perhaps particularly surprising in a Roman house, because in Virgil’s telling of the story it is the Trojans – and therefore Paris – who are the good guys. It was this switch that helps explain why so many 12th-century European kingdoms were desperate to prove their descent from survivors fleeing what is now Turkey.
‘Today, it does seem both extraordinary and meaningful that Europe was once looking to a band of refugees from an eastern city for its sense of self-identity,’ says Victoria. ‘The Romans play a big role in all of this, because they trace the foundation of Rome back to the descendants of Aeneas. According to the myth, he was the son of Aphrodite, and she instructed him to leave the city and thus preserve the lineage of the Trojan royal family. So he wasn’t a coward, he didn’t run away. Aeneas flees the city with his father and son, and has a long and difficult journey, just like Odysseus. Virgil uses this to establish a lineage for Rome’s emperors, and the story becomes incredibly important in Roman art and literature. These go on to be influential in medieval Europe, which is very Latin-literate. Under their influence, Aeneas becomes a model of piety, devotion to family, and even Christian values. So, for example, the immensely famous fresco in the Vatican, The Fire in the Borgo, features the motif based on Aeneas carrying his father from Troy. A very conscious link was being drawn, that the Popes too had saved and preserved Rome and the Church of Rome.’
Another reason why medieval sympathy switched from the Greeks to the Trojans is because for centuries no one in Europe could read Classical Greek. As a result, the Europeans were dependent on the Latin – Roman – versions, which unsurprisingly painted their supposed ancestors as the wronged party. ‘People disapproved of the Greeks,’ says Victoria. ‘Achilles was seen as a degenerate. It really turned around what we might think of as the natural reading of the story. Today, we’re influenced by the Renaissance tradition, which grew from the rediscovery of the Greek texts. Because people became so fascinated by the Homeric version, the Greeks have taken centre stage again, but the popularity of both sides has waxed and waned over time. In part, that’s because neither side is painted as “good” or “bad”: both Greeks and Trojans were capable of heroism and horrors.’
The Romans were not just interested in putting a new spin on the story, they also lavished gifts on the city their forebears supposedly hailed from. Because Ilion was still a living settlement in the Roman era, it provided what was effectively a tourist destination. Julius Caesar, Augustus, and Hadrian were among the VIPs the city hosted. It is not clear whether any of the ancient Bronze Age fabric remained visible for them to behold, but towering burial mounds were visible on the surrounding plain. These became a locus for activity, with the tumulus associated with Achilles proving a particular draw. Under the emperors, Ilion received public buildings and tax breaks, meaning that the popularity of a story brought greater amenities and prosperity to its real-world setting. This created such jealousy among neighbouring towns that a geographer from nearby Scepsis argued that ancient and modern Ilion were two different places. This idea was picked up and repeated by the influential Roman geographer Strabo. The citizens of Scepsis would doubtless have had a good chuckle if they had known how much confusion Strabo’s red herring caused later scholars.
‘It is the myth that leads to the archaeology,’ says Lesley. ‘It is totally because of the story. In the 18th century, big disputes break out, mainly between travellers and armchair scholars, about whether the events were real, or just an invention. Among the believers, a general belief developed that the city of Troy lay at a place called Bounarbashi. In 1801, a relatively unprepossessing mound at Hisarlik was correctly identified as Ilion, but because Strabo insisted ancient Troy lay elsewhere this breakthrough didn’t cause much excitement. So, according to Schliemann – who never knowingly understated his own mythology – it was left to him to discovery ancient Troy at Hisarlik, after he turned up in the Troad with Homer in one hand and a spade in other. We now know that, in common with pretty much everyone else, Schliemann originally thought Troy lay at Bounarbashi. It was Frank Calvert, who had conducted small excavations at Hisarlik but lacked the resources to pursue them further, that convinced Schliemann the answer lay at Hisarlik.’
‘It has become such a cliché to say that Schliemann dug Troy like digging potatoes, but he was of his time, and in some respects even ahead of his time. He did make some terrible mistakes, but he learnt as he went on. Schliemann excavated at Troy for 20 years, on and off, and by the end of his campaigns he had a much better sense of stratigraphy. He always had quite a good sense of detailed recording, but frustratingly this did not always include the information that modern archaeologists would love to have. But if you look at his publications, he draws huge numbers of finds, and he was a pioneer in the use of photography in archaeology. Unfortunately, when he arrived at Hisarlik, he was obsessed with the notion that Priam’s Troy would be at the lowest level. This belief that he had to get to the bottom was terribly damaging. He opened a huge trench, and had teams of up to 200 workmen using trucks pushed along rail tracks to take spoil away. And, of course, he went straight through Late Bronze Age Troy – which is Troy VI to VIIa in the site phasing – and claimed Troy II as Priam’s. But it was not very impressive, and we now know it’s far too early, dating back to about 2550-2300 BC.’
‘We know this worried Schliemann. In public he said he’d found Homeric Troy, and would brook no denial. But, in private, he wrote to Charles Newton, at the British Museum, and regretted the small size of the city. He asked how a site smaller than Trafalgar Square could withstand a ten-year siege. Although he did find treasure, he pointed to the generally low level of material culture: it’s not the accoutrements of heroes. So he realised that something was wrong. Part of the reason Schliemann kept going back to Troy was because he knew that he had not got to the truth of this matter. The other thing he knew was that he needed a way to link Troy with the Greek Bronze Age world, somewhere like – say – Mycenae. Finally, at the beginning of 1890, he discovered Mycenaean pottery at Troy.
But he found it associated with Troy VI. There’s a clear indication that this started a dawning realisation in Schliemann. But then, later on in 1890, he died. It’s as though he’d been given the key, but didn’t have time to turn it. So poignant! Love him or hate him, and he was difficult in many ways, Troy was his life’s work. He knew his interpretation wasn’t quite right. Then he was given the answer, but didn’t get a chance to act on it. I do feel sorry for that.’
The BP exhibition Troy: myth and reality runs at the British Museum until 8 March 2020. For more information, see www.britishmuseum.org/exhibitions/troy-myth-and-reality.
A fascinating book has been published by Thames & Hudson to accompany the exhibition: Troy: myth and reality by A Villing, J L Fitton, V Donnellan, and A Shapland.
CWA is grateful to Lesley Fitton, Victoria Donnellan, and Nicola Elvin.