c. 3000 BC – c. 1184 BC
3200 years ago. After decades of warfare Agamemnon, King of Mycanae, has forced the kingdoms of Greece into a loose alliance. Only Thessaly remains unconquered. Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus, King of Sparta, is weary of battle. He seeks to make peace with Troy, the most powerful rival to the emerging Greek nation. Achilles, considered the greatest warrior ever born, fights for the Greek army. But his disdain for Agamemnon’s rule threatens to break the fragile alliance apart.
Men are haunted by the vastness of eternity. And so we ask ourselves, will our actions echo across the centuries? Will strangers hear our names long after we’re gone, and wonder who we were, how bravely we fought, how fiercely we loved?
Troy. Or Ilium. The Hittite name for the city was Wilusa, to connect it to a previous country I’ve covered on here. You probably know the story of the Trojan War, at least if you’ve read Homer’s Iliad, or if you’re a more modern uncultured peasant, have watched the Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom historical epic born from the success of Gladiator. I wish there was still a huge historical epic film trend going on in Hollywood, they’re almost always enjoyable to watch and even more enjoyable to pick holes in. For not being historically accurate enough. Only for Troy, there was less of a need to do that – because for what it was, it was rather accurate. In so far as we don’t know enough about Troy and the Trojan War to dispute the obvious liberties that the filmmakers chose. Films aside, Troy was clearly a very interesting place – in the minds of writers of historical epics, it was where a huge amount of human civilisation sprung from.
(this is so blatantly just me doing the post because I love the film and its quotes presupposing the humans of Troy imagining a future that stretches on for thousands of years behind them, that bit is all a bit teleological really, but there’s a bit of history to talk about here)
Troy was located on the western shore of what is now Turkey, then Asia Minor and in real history was probably one of a number of cities that faced early Greece across from the Aegean Sea. It was probably the most important of those. As it is the only one most people remember when thinking of ancient cities in the Greek sphere that weren’t Greek.
What we know of as Ancient Troy is actually seven different cities through the time period listed in the header of this post, and we know little about the first six except that each time it was destroyed, it was rebuilt. It was probably a key centre for early trade as ships would have to pass through the narrow strait to the north and the young city could tax merchants passing through. This meant it wielded a lot of power similarly to how merchant republics in the Middle Ages could wield power, wealth talks.
The sixth layer of Trojan city was destroyed in the mid 2nd millennium, most likely by an earthquake, and this is where the story of Troy that everyone really knows begins, and why I’ve saved it for this point, just before I do Mycaenean Greece, rather than do it back in 3000 BC when all we know was there was a town, or if you’re some archaeologists, want to push a theory that the Trojan War happened 1000 years earlier. The town quickly rebuilt itself from the earthquake and reformed into what many archaeologists refer to in their special archaeologist speak as Troy VII. That’s now a layer of the site that the general consensus thinks was the Troy described in Homer’s tales.
But what sort of historical truth do those tales have? The legend of the Trojan War is filled with Greek gods and goddesses taking both sides in the war, cheering on the participants, the heroes of Greek’s Heroic Age, Achilles, Agamemnon, Odysseus, Ajax, Hector and Paris all for the heart of Helen that Paris stole from Menelaus. This was the height of the Greek mythological age, and nearly everyone in Greek mythology had a role to play or was connected to someone major in the war. Many of them died – Achilles of course with his famous heeled weakness, Hector, cut down by Achilles. Those who survived endured trials on their journey back from Troy, Odysseus and his men went on an epic Odyssey, that Homer often relates, while a Trojan, Aeneas, made his way west from the wreck of the city and founded a little town known as Rome.
Of course, none of that is historical but it is incredible how, in a literary sense, much of the western world looks back to the Trojan War for its origins – through Virgil’s Aeneid or simply Homer’s epic poems that were popular in Ancient Greece, though none knew who Homer was – the rumour is he was a blind bard who collected a number of oral traditions and committed them to writing – we currently don’t have any evidence for him historically.
However one character from Troy who might be historical is King Priam. Might is the operative word, but from about the same time period, Hittite sources record a powerful man named Piyamu-Radu who posed a threat to three Hittite kings. It could be a name the Hittites had for Priam. It’s shaky, I wouldn’t put any stock in it, particularly as the name seems to indicate this man had a religious, not monarchical background. A king of Wilusa who we are more sure about from Hittite sources is Alaksandu, or Alexander, which was the real name of Paris – earlier than the Trojan War, but given the propensity of royal figures throughout history to name sons for their grandfathers, it could be that Alexander was succeeded by Priam who oversaw the destruction of his city and the death of his heirs. Could be the operative word, but one of the key reasons for doing these aside from getting the knowledge into my head is so I can make semi-interesting conjectures for people to think about.
Yet the evidence that I have in front of me leads me to say that yes, there was a war for Troy. The participants may have been some league from the Mycenaeans or elsewhere in Greece against Troy for some slight, and it was a historical event. This is the attitude held among later Ancient Greeks, they knew Homer had exaggerated some events but believed the wars were historical. Remember for these people, the war was nearly a millennium in their past and they had nowhere near the record-keeping skills that we do today. The war went through a period of scholars denying it happened or that events in the war were drastically different, like the Trojans winning, but the archaeological discoveries of Troy, the indications that Troy VII did fall to some form of conflict, indicate that yes, the stories had a real basis, but there is likely little to be found out about them from the Iliad – even if Homer was a direct recipient of an unbroken line of oral tradition that retold the non-supernatural events of the war faithfully, which he almost certainly wasn’t.
It may have been the war for Troy existed in the minds of the Greeks as an amalgamation of many expeditions to the coast of Asia Minor and that while the place we know as Troy is Troy now, in the time of the Trojan War, it may have been a collective name rather than one single city name. Even if this is so, the name notwithstanding, the modern site of what is now Troy saw conflict from the Greek age. Maybe Troy led a league of cities of its own, which would cement its place as a ‘nation’ to be talked about here. Maybe it didn’t.
But for authors and literature enthusiasts, this is the place where so much originated that it has attained its own importance beyond the mere historical trappings of what went down here three thousand years ago.
‘If they ever tell my story let them say that I walked with giants. Men rise and fall like the winter wheat, but these names will never die. Let them say I lived in the time of Hector, tamer of horses. Let them say I lived in the time of Achilles’