Assembling a new book of ancient stories translated by great writers, Of Gods and Men, I was surprised to discover how prevalent the tale of the Trojan War has been down the ages. Authors as diverse as John Dryden, Alexander Pope and Louis MacNeice have been moved to translate various versions of the classical myth. One reason the Trojan War has struck such a chord is that, besides being an excellent story, it has long been suspected to have actually happened.
An Athenian amphora of 530BC depicts Achilles killing the Amazon queen Penthesilea (Credit: Trustees of the British Museum)
For most ancient Greeks, indeed, the Trojan War was much more than a myth. It was an epoch-defining moment in their distant past. As the historical sources – Herodotus and Eratosthenes – show, it was generally assumed to have been a real event.
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According to Homer’s Iliad, the conflict between the Greeks – led by Agamemnon, King of Mycenae – and the Trojans – whose king was Priam – took place in the Late Bronze Age, and lasted 10 years. It began when Paris, Priam’s hapless son, judged Aphrodite to be the most beautiful goddess, for which she gifted him Agamemnon’s gorgeous sister-in-law, Helen in return. Determined to get Helen back and punish the Trojans, Agamemnon and his brother marched a mighty army against Troy, and eventually succeeded in bringing its people to their knees.
Helen of Troy, portrayed here in a 1882 painting by Edward Burne-Jones, has fascinated artists through the centuries (Credit: Trustees of the British Museum)
In antiquity, even respected historians were willing to believe that this war actually happened. In the second half of the 5th Century BC, Herodotus, the so-called ‘Father of History’, placed the Trojan War almost 800 years before his own time. Eratosthenes, a mathematician, was more specific, dating the war at 1184/3 BC. Modern scholars, however, have tended to be more sceptical. Did the Trojan War happen at all?
What emerges is how eager people have been through history to find some truth in the story
The question is at the heart of Troy: Myth and Reality, a major exhibition at London’s British Museum. Greek vases, Roman frescoes, and more contemporary works of art depicting stories inspired by Troy are exhibited alongside archaeological artefacts dating from the Late Bronze Age. What emerges most palpably from the exhibition is how eager people have been through history to find some truth in the story of the Trojan War.
A Bronze-age pot from Troy is among the exhibits at the British Museum’s exhibition Troy (Credit: Claudia Plamp/ Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Vor-und Frühgeschichte)
The Romans went so far as to present themselves as the descendants of the surviving Trojans. In his poem, the Aeneid, Virgil described how the hero Aeneas escaped the burning citadel with a group of followers after the Greeks entered in their wooden horse. John Dryden, England’s first official poet laureate, translated superbly the part where the horse was made: “The Greeks grew weary of the tedious war,/ And, by Minerva’s aid, a fabric rear’d,/ Which like a steed of monstrous height appear’d”. Aeneas and his men left to found a new home in Italy.
It isn’t surprising that people have been convinced of the reality of the Trojan War. The grim realities of battle are described so unflinchingly in the Iliad that it is hard to believe they were not based on observation. A soldier dies by the water and “eels and fish make busy around him, feeding upon and devouring the fat around his kidneys”. Achilles spears Hector “at the gullet, where a man’s life is most quickly destroyed”, as Martin Hammond translated it. Troy, too, is portrayed in such vivid colour in the epic that a reader cannot help but to be transported to its magnificent walls.
A Roman silver cup from the 1st Century AD features Achilles (Credit: Roberta Fortuna and Kira Ursem/ National Museet Denmark)
It was in fact the prospect of rediscovering Homer’s Troy that led the rich Prussian businessman, Heinrich Schliemann, to travel to what is now Turkey in the late 19th Century. Told of a possible location for the city, at Hisarlik on the west coast of modern Turkey, Schliemann began to dig, and uncovered a large number of ancient treasures, many of which are now on display at the British Museum. Although he initially attributed many finds to the Late Bronze Age – the period in which Homer set the Trojan War – when they were in fact centuries older, he had excavated the correct location. Most historians now agree that ancient Troy was to be found at Hisarlik. Troy was real.
Evidence of fire, and the discovery of a small number of arrowheads in the archaeological layer of Hisarlik that corresponds in date to the period of Homer’s Trojan War, may even hint at warfare. There also survive inscriptions made by the Hittites, an ancient people based in central Turkey, describing a dispute over Troy, which they knew as ‘Wilusa’. None of this constitutes proof of a Trojan War. But for those who believe there was a conflict, these clues are welcome.
The Wounded Achilles, 1825, by Filippo Albacini (Credit: Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth/ Chatsworth Settlement Trustees)
A historic Trojan War would have been quite different from the one that dominates Homer’s epic. It is hard to imagine a war taking place on quite the scale the poet described, and lasting as long as 10 years when the citadel was fairly compact, as archaeologists have discovered. The behaviour of the soldiers in Homer’s war, though, seems all too human and real.
The Greeks found in the legacy of the Trojan War an explanation for the bloody and inferior world in which they lived
Homer’s genius was to elevate universal conflict into something more profound so as to highlight the realities of warfare. There would have been no gods influencing the course of action on a Bronze Age battlefield, but men who found themselves overwhelmed in a bloody fray could well have imagined there were, as the tide turned against them. Homer captured timeless truths in even the most fantastical moments of the poem.
On his long journey home from the Trojan War, Odysseus escapes the sirens, as portrayed on this ceramic Athenian jar, 480-470BC (Credit: Trustees of the British Museum)
The Greeks found in the legacy of the Trojan War an explanation for the bloody and inferior world in which they lived. Achilles and Odysseus had inhabited an age of heroes. Their age had now died, leaving behind it all the bloodthirstiness, but none of the heroism or martial excellence, of the Trojan War. Even the immediate aftermath of the war was full of violence. In a play inspired by Homer, and translated by Louis MacNeice, the Greek tragedian Aeschylus described, after the war, Clytemnestra murdering her husband, Agamemnon, “Who carelessly, as if it were a head of a sheep/Out of the abundance of his fleecy flocks,/Sacrificed his own daughter”, Iphigenia, to appease a goddess so he might have a fair wind for his voyage to Troy. Regardless of how connected it is to fact, The Trojan War myth had a lasting impact on the Greeks and on us. Whether it was inspired by a war waged long ago, or was simply an ingenious invention, it left its mark on the world, and remains as such of monumental historic importance.
Of Gods and Men: 100 Stories from Ancient Greece and Rome by Daisy Dunn is published now.
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