Troy: The Historical Troy and The Iliad

Greek mythology tells the story of a golden apple that Eris, the goddess of discord tossed into the middle of an Olympian wedding party to which she had not been invited. The apple came into the hands of Paris who was told to give it to the fairest of the goddesses. Hera, Zeus’s own wife, promised him power if he chose her; Athena promised him wealth. But Aphrodite promised him the most beautiful woman in the world – and she was the one to whom he gave the apple. She rewarded him with Helen.

While Troy is inspired by The Iliad, it also includes other elements not found in Homer’s work. The Trojan Horse is not a part of The Iliad, and only Virgil wrote quite extensively about the sacking of Troy in The Aeneid. “Our film is a collection of motifs and story elements, drawing mainly from The Iliad,” says Petersen. “One respect in which we diverged from Homer’s telling is that our story does not include the presence of the gods. The gods in The Iliad are directly involved in the story ‘ they fight, they help out, they manipulate. Not in our story. The religion is there, the belief is there, but the gods are only mentioned ‘ they are not made a part of it. It wouldn’t have been in line with the level of realism that we wanted to achieve in the film.”

The actual existence of Paris and Helen or any of the other characters that populate Homer’s poems may never be known. Some archaeological evidence for the supposed palaces of Kings Agamemnon and Nestor exists and there are other kings, including Odysseus and Priam, whom some scholars accept as historical. Ancient vases and carvings tell the story of the war, but whether they are retelling myth or history remains unknown.

The Trojan War was thought for a time to be completely a creation of the ancient poet Homer. With no supporting written evidence of the civilization he described, archaeology ‘ a relatively recent science with origins in Egyptology ‘ became the key to unlocking the truth of this ancient past.

The ruins of what is now widely believed to be the real city of Troy were not unearthed until 1871. Those who had pursued it over the centuries had generally agreed the great walled city overlooked the Aegean Sea from a part of modern-day Turkey still called the Troad, preserving the ancient name of Troy. But no surface evidence of its specific location seemed to exist.

Credit for the discovery of Troy went to German entrepreneur and novice archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann. Largely uncredited was British archaeologist Frank Calvert, who suggested that Schliemann should dig at a place called Hisarlik ‘ the site now recognized as ancient Troy.

The remains of seven cities were found on the site, each on top of the other, showing that Troy had been rebuilt many times. The city that Schliemann initially proclaimed to be Homer’s Troy was on the second level. Later research proved this could not be the case, and now most scholars believe that the sixth city provides the most likely background for the story of the Trojan War. Traditional dates for the fall of Troy range from about 1250 to 1183 BC, fitting well with the dates of destructions of these cities. Excavations were resumed as recently as 1988, with the belief there was much yet to be discovered.

There is still a debate over whether a single war caused Troy’s collapse: some evidence indicates an earthquake, rather than armed assault, as a force of destruction. Many historians believe there could have been a series of wars between Greeks and Trojans, with perhaps one grand finale. In any scenario, the resulting disappearance of one of the Aegean’s great city-states is beyond dispute.

Though Schliemann may have solved one of the great puzzles of history, he couldn’t validate the accuracy of Homer’s account of the events. In fact, his findings diminished the hopes of those who believed that proving the existence of Troy would give greater credence to Homer’s reportage of its downfall.

The epic poems attributed to Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey, were apparently composed some 400 years after the fall of Troy. They were part of an oral tradition, in which stories were recited and listened to, as opposed to written down and read. Like other bards, Homer used mythical tales handed down over generations and told them anew, re-shaping them for a contemporary audience, adding new details and leaving others out. We know very little about Homer, and there have even been arguments about whether a single poet created the poems. Yet while the work of other bards has been lost, the poems of Homer were recognized as vastly superior to the work of his imitators and were preserved. They are the earliest master-works of Greek literature, and many scholars believe they are the work of one man.

The most likely cause for the war, or series of wars, was control over the Dardanelles, a narrow waterway leading to the Black Sea. But the theft of one king’s wife might have been as good an excuse as any to start the bloody conflict that Homeric legend claims lasted for 10 years. The Iliad only describes events that took place over a period of 50 days. However, if literature is to be believed and longevity is the measure, they were the most memorable 50 days in mankind’s history.