A deadly gift: Trojans pull the wooden horse inside the walls of Troy, unaware that warriors lie concealed withing. It is one of many incidents in the Trojan war that received attention from ancient artists. In this case, it is a fresco from Pompeii, dating to the 1st century AD. (Image: Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli)

Many cities have fallen to subterfuge, fire, and the sword over the millennia, so why does our fascination with Troy remain so keen? Perhaps it is because Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey have become potent examples of the power of words. These tales of derring-do and destructive depravity coloured the Greek, Roman, medieval, and modern worlds so vividly that they have created a richer archaeological legacy than many real events. Lesley Fitton and Victoria Donnellan led Matthew Symonds through the twists and turns of a tale that changed the world.

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.

Homer, as imagined in a 2nd-century Roman copy of a Hellenistic sculpture. His weather-beaten features would be appropriate for the itinerant lifestyle of a bard. (Image: M Symonds)

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.

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.

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.

A relic from the real Trojan war? This arrowhead was found at Troy, where various Mycenaean-style weapons appear in a destruction deposit dating to around 1180 BC.

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.’

Love interest

Helen is guided onto Paris’ ship, her expression betraying inner misgivings, as seen on a fresco dating to the 1st century AD from Pompeii. (Image: Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli)

‘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.’

This 3rd-century sarcophagus from Ephesus captures the moment when Patroclus’ corpse (top left) is brought before a despairing (seated, right). (Image: M Symonds)

‘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.’

When combat erupted it was often brutal, as when Achilles slayed Penthesilea, queen of the Amazons, seen on this amphora from the 6th century BC. (Image: Trustees of the British Museum)

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.

This is an extract of an article featured in issue 99 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.