The Real Hackstory of the Trojan War

Alex Johnson - Content Writer

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Thanks to school, movies, and condom branding, most of us are pretty familiar with the Trojans and their eponymous war with the Greeks. The long and the short of it from Homer’s Iliad is that the Trojan prince, Paris, eloped with the Spartan king Menelaus’ wife, Helen. Menelaus rallied all the Greeks, who besieged Troy for a while before they snuck through the gates inside a big wooden horse and sacked the city. Sean Bean played Odysseus in the 2004 movie. Now you’re all caught up.

But if you think about the Iliad critically for a couple of seconds, it doesn’t make any real-life sense. And that’s fine—Homer wrote us a very nice epic poem, but he wasn’t Ken Burns. The Iliad isn’t a documentary, and it’s definitely not a memoir, since the actual events that inspired Homer’s story happened hundreds of years before Homer was born.

Still, based on archaeological research, it appears that Homer wasn’t just making sh*t up entirely. He took the raw grapes of history and distilled them into a narrative ouzo flavored with, uh, the anise of hyperbole, I guess? My point is that there are likely seeds of truth planted throughout Homer’s version of the story, but we need to play a little game of myth vs. history to figure out which parts are supported with things like archaeology and empirical history, and which parts Homer dramatized so he could sell a screenplay almost 3,000 years later.

Troy—Myth or History?

In extremely old stories like the Iliad, you can’t take any of the information presented for granted as fact. These ancient narratives blend the line between legend and history, so our first question has to be: was Troy even a real city?

How many Greek soldiers can you fit inside a metaphor?

The short answer? Kind of. Troy might have been upward of 10 actual cities, combined into one, using a little epic poetic license.

There’s a hill in Hisarlik—in what is today northwestern Turkey—that’s home to the ruins of a number of ancient cities, built one on top of the other over the course of thousands of years. The oldest of these stacked cities dates back to the Early Bronze Age, around 3000 BCE. The youngest of the ruins are the remains of a Byzantine settlement that was abandoned in 1350 CE.

So, we have a likely site, but we’ve got over 4,000 years’ worth of ruined cities to pick through to find Homer’s Troy.

The city that Homer called Troy was probably destroyed around 1200 BCE, following a battle. Afterward, it was inhabited by Greeks and Romans, who renamed the city Ilios, or Ilium, respectively. Ilium, in turn, faded into obscurity by about 500 BCE, until it was discovered by archaeologists in the 1870s.

Since then, scientists have determined that about 10 different cities were once built on the hill in Hisarlik. Of those, the sixth and seventh cities built there could be the Troy ruled by King Priam, written about by Homer, and distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures for international release in 2004. These ruins have been named Troy VI and Troy VIIa.

How confident are we about these potential Troy ruins? About as confident as I am talking to women at bars (not very). Remember when I said archaeologists started digging up these ruins back in the 1870s? The lead archaeologist was German archaeologist (and former businessman) Heinrich Schliemann. He’s famous for discovering the site, then using an amateurish approach to 19th-century archaeological method to dig through the layers.

That is to say, he recklessly dug deeper and deeper—right through the ruins that were most likely the Troy he was looking for, until he found a city that predated the Trojan war by at least 1,000 years. There’s even a big gap in the excavation map where King Priam’s palace was found. Schliemann removed it and threw it away. So we can all thank Schliemann for everything we do and don’t know about these ruins. He discovered the site, then demolished a lot of the important bits with his hamfisted approach.

Bits of Troy VIIa, which is the historical version of Troy that best matches the “destroyed by a battle” scenario. It’s commonly believed now that this was the site of the real-world version of the “Trojan War.”

So, it’s a good thing a much better German archaeologist named Manfred Korfmann arrived at the dig site in the 1990s and helped unf**k his predecessor’s work. Korfmann’s team was able to go deeper, past the earlier excavations, and found a lower city. This city was much larger—the previous excavations had unearthed a rather insignificant town—covering 75 acres. That’s 15 times larger than anyone had expected.

This newfound city better matched our visions of Troy—a big, important city, with a citadel bigger than anything else discovered across the region from the same time period. This was Troy VI. This Troy, however, appears to have been destroyed by an earthquake, rather than a battle.

Troy VIIa, meanwhile, was almost definitely destroyed by a big battle, but this city doesn’t quite match the grandeur of the Troy described by Homer.

Nobody knows which of these two cities represents the Troy from the Iliad. Troy VIIa, with it’s battle, fits Homer’s epic a bit more literally from the war perspective. But Troy VI looks more like the Troy in terms of scale.1 2 3 4

The Main Character—Myth or History?

The Iliad’s got a lot of characters: Hector, Paris, Helen, King Priam, Menelaus, and Odysseus, to name a few. They’re all important characters, and Odysseus is definitely the focal point for Homer’s sequel, the Odyssey.

So who’s the main character for the Iliad, then? I’m giving it to Achilles. Homer’s main purpose in writing the Iliad was to portray Achilles’ wrath. The other characters I named, they’re all human, even if they’re exaggerated. Were they real people? I doubt it, but they could have been.

Achilles, having that nightmare again.

But Achilles? He was the son of an immortal sea nymph. I don’t mean to sound cynical, but immortal sea nymphs aren’t real. Even if they were, I’m not sure a human could get one pregnant.

What’s my point here? Well, if arguably the most important character from Homer’s version of the Trojan War was a mythological character, then perhaps the whole damn war was a myth, too—a metaphor that stood in for something else.5

The Trojan War—Myth or History?

If you had been around to read the Iliad when it first came out, you would’ve been familiar with a great, lost city, perhaps called Troy, and the story of a great war that had destroyed it. The ruins of this great city were visible and still very impressive in Homer’s day. These ruins would have been inspiring—inspiring enough to encourage, say, a bard to write a very long poem creating a mythos around said ruins.

The resulting Iliad is likely the result of that inspiration. Homer’s purpose in writing the Iliad, to my mind, was to take a real piece of history—the destruction of a great city—and fill in the gaps to create a compelling story about how you shouldn’t f**k with the gods, or indeed the sons of immortal sea nymphs, lest they kill you and raze your city.

So, perhaps Troy really was destroyed by a great battle. Or many battles over the course of many years. We know now that many cities had been built and destroyed at Hisarlik, but maybe Homer saw a collection of ruins and imagined one, great city—envisioning Troy as an amalgam of all the civilizations that had been lost at this site.6

Roman copy of a Greek bust of Homer.

But the part about the Trojan Horse? That’s got to be myth. History is loaded with legends about military commanders who were not just brave, but cunning, using clever tricks to defeat the odds and claim victory. The Trojan Horse is one of many examples of this type of allegory.

Just because the horse probably wasn’t real doesn’t mean it can’t give us clues about the historical Troy. The Trojan horse was likely a metaphor for Poseidon, god of the sea and earthquakes. What do horses have to do with the ocean and earthquakes? I’ve got no clue, but the comparison would’ve made sense to ancient Greeks—the horse was Poseidon’s animal. Also, Poseidon’s pro-wrestling stage name was “Earth shaker.”

Remember when I said earlier that Troy VI looks a lot like the Troy, but it appears to have been destroyed by an earthquake rather than a war? Consider the possibility that the Trojan War was really a metaphor for conflict between human civilization and the gods. The Trojan Horse, therefore, would have represented an earthquake, sent by Poseidon, to destroy the city of Troy once and for all.

It’s a Poem

OK, so maybe the Trojan “War” was more like a Trojan earthquake. Or maybe it was a war, or a series of wars. Maybe “Troy” was also Ilios, and Ilium, and, like, seven other cities.

Here’s the thing: it could be all of the above. Homer might have looked at the beautiful ruins of a city he knew as Ilium, dating back hundreds of years, spanning various iterations, layouts, and civilizations. It was a city that, to Homer, might have appeared older than time, and which was now lost but not entirely forgotten.

Seeing this, Homer may have been awe-struck, his imagination fueled by the mystery of this once-great city, inspiring him to write the Iliad, as the mystery of these ruins demanded a story to explain them. Homer may have heard tales of a terrific earthquake or great battle. And both may have been true, albeit for different iterations of the lost city.

Homer wasn’t an archaeologist or an anthropologist. He was a poet. Poems are intentionally fantastical, obtuse, and layered. They are inherently subjective and allude to more than one thing. Given that, it’s possible that Homer’s Iliad, and his Trojan War, are creative stand-ins for all of the above: earthquakes, wars, and maybe even a number of cities built upon the same plot. That’s poetry, man.

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Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. Larsson, Naomi. (2016, August 9). Lost cities #2: the search for the real Troy – ‘not just one city but at least 10’. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/aug/09/lost-cities-2-search-real-troy-hisarlik-turkey-mythology-homer-iliad
  2. Korfmann, Manfred. (Accessed July 6, 2018). Was There a Trojan War? Retrieved from https://archive.archaeology.org/0405/etc/troy.html
  3. Larsson, Naomi. (2016, August 9). Lost cities #2: the search for the real Troy – ‘not just one city but at least 10’. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/aug/09/lost-cities-2-search-real-troy-hisarlik-turkey-mythology-homer-iliad
  4. Lovgren, Stefan. (2004, May 14). Is Troy True? The Evidence Behind Movie Myth. Retrieved from https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/05/did-troy-exist-evidence-behind-movie-myth/
  5. Korfmann, Manfred. (Accessed July 6, 2018). Was There a Trojan War? Retrieved from https://archive.archaeology.org/0405/etc/troy.html
  6. Korfmann, Manfred. (Accessed July 6, 2018). Was There a Trojan War? Retrieved from https://archive.archaeology.org/0405/etc/troy.html

Scholarly Shout-outs 🌟

  • Korfmann, Manfred. (Accessed July 6, 2018). Was There a Trojan War? Retrieved from https://archive.archaeology.org/0405/etc/troy.html
  • Larsson, Naomi. (2016, August 9). Lost cities #2: the search for the real Troy - ‘not just one city but at least 10’. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/aug/09/lost-cities-2-search-real-troy-hisarlik-turkey-mythology-homer-iliad
  • Lovgren, Stefan. (2004, May 14). Is Troy True? The Evidence Behind Movie Myth. Retrieved from https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/05/did-troy-exist-evidence-behind-movie-myth/

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