The Truth of Troy
“It may be a surprise to learn of an earlier sack of Troy, but Greek legend is insistent on it… In the sack Laomedon and his sons were killed; only the youngest, Podarces, survived, for he alone had maintained that Herakles should be given his rightful reward. Podarces was released and took a new name, Priam, meaning ‘redeemed’: a fateful name indeed. Herakles left Priam as a young king, and Troy was restored within the same walls.
“Over a very long and successful reign, spanning three generations, Priam restored Troy to the height of its former power. He himself had fifty sons and twelve daughters; his eldest son was the great warrior Hector, the next Paris, whose other name was Alexandros – and Paris was to be the instrument of destiny in the events that followed.”
Being aware of this from many sources, I wondered if Priam’s rise and fall might not have been the original story – a grand tragedy. From this, I wrote a short story which imagined a Greek bard who knew it and was complaining about how his pupil, ‘Young Homer’, was now changing everything.
Thinking about what archaeology was found at the traditional site of Troy, I decided that if there was an original ‘Tragedy of Priam’, it too would not have been real history. Already knowing quite a lot about the wider evolution of cities, I came to write the present work, ranging well beyond Troy.
Homer wrote within a well-established tradition:
“”The Iliad and the Odyssey are by common consent the beginnings of European literature… We can safely assume that there had been earlier and cruder Greek epic poetry before Homer, but we know nothing of it.”
“Homer lived perhaps in the eighth century BC, by which time the tale of Troy was evidently widely told in Aegean courts, for we find potentates naming themselves after its heroes.”
“The tower-shaped body shield usually associated with Ajax … was already obsolete by the thirteenth century BC… Homer is preserving descriptions from long before his time.”
The epic may have been continuously shaped and re-shaped to fit later politics:
“During the expansion of sixth-century Athens, a tyrant with political ambitions wished to turn the local festival to the goddess Athena into one with a more ‘national’ appeal… At this time, as he sought the leadership of Greece for Athens, he conceived of securing for Athens what were unanimously viewed as the most magnificent of the traditional Greek epics, especially the Iliad, which told of the first undertaking by a united Hellas. He therefore paid for the best of the Homeridae to come to Athens to dictate Homer as ‘truly’ and fully and beautifully as possible to an Athenian scribe.”
Greek identity was complex:
“The earliest Greek literature, which is attributed to Homer and is dated to the 8th or 7th centuries BC, is written in ‘Old Ionic’ rather than Attic. Athens and its dialect remained relatively obscure until the establishment of its democracy following the reforms of Solon in the 6th century BC: so began the classical period, one of great Athenian influence both in Greece and throughout the Mediterranean.
“The first extensive works of literature in Attic are the plays of the dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes dating from the 5th century BC.”
Athens may have shaped the official version: written down from an ancient oral tradition which might otherwise have vanished without trace. What we have comes to us through many copies of copies. In the version we have, leadership goes to extinct Mycenae. Menelaus of Sparta is a fool dependent on his powerful brother. The other main heroes are Achilles, Odysseus, and Great Ajax, all from small places. Menestheus, an Athenian king, brings 50 ships and is described as a brilliant leader, but does nothing notable.
Writers of historic fiction mostly choose a de-mythologised version of the story. Snip out the gods and goddesses and impossible heroic feat. Make a story that might have happened, from a modern viewpoint. Colleen McCullough in The Song of Troy even includes some little-known and improbable incidents from after the death of Hector, spoiling in my view what was quite a good novel. (Her Masters of Rome series is much better.)
That’s one option – throw out things you don’t believe possible, but treat the naturalistic incidents as broadly true. Other writers looked at the whole and decided it was assembled from things that happened at many different times and places, or were invented for a popular character:
“[Homer] was drawing on a vast cycle of stories which dealt with the Trojan War. The Iliad in fact deals with only one episode covering a few weeks in the tenth year of the war. In classical times a great series of epics, now lost or in fragments, told those parts of the stories ignored by the earlier Homeric poems, and some of these like, like the epics known as Kypria and Sack of Ilios, were evidently of great scope and power… They, like Homer, were drawing heavily on a long oral tradition.”
“Other accounts say with some probability that originally Troy and Ilios were two separate places (and indeed Homer’s insistence on using the two names for Troy has never otherwise been satisfactorily explained).”
In our own time we see similar combinations and changes. The original Dracula was the historic Vlad the Impaler, viewed as a hero by some Romanians. Others saw him as a tyrant, but it was Bram Stoker who reinvented him as a vampire, drawing on separate legends of such beings. He is nowadays out of copyright and included in all sorts of stories. His victim Mina Harker, whom Stoker had cured of her curse, becomes a heroic vampire lady in the comic book series and film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. She appears along with characters from a number of other works of fiction: Allan Quatermain, Captain Nemo, Tom Sawyer, Dorian Gray, Professor James Moriarty, Dr. Henry Jekyll / Edward Hyde and a successor to Wells’s Invisible Man. It also changes the original fictions: it is set in 1899, so the youthful Tom Sawyer should be at least 50. Verne originally imagined Captain Nemo as a Pole feuding with Tsarist Russia, but then revised him as a Hindu for a later and deservedly obscure return.
In Homer’s day, the audience expected stories about real people, though they were also believers in magic and gods. But a character might be invented as a friend or foe of an existing character and then become popular in their own right. Moriarty was barely more than a plot device to let Conan Doyle kill off Sherlock Holmes when he tired of writing the stories. He has become much the most popular figure from the series, with independent adventures made for him.
So what was the reality behind the legends of Troy?
It was not the vast city that most people imagine:
“The first thing to remember is that Troy (if indeed it ever bore that name before the legend named it) itself was only ever a royal citadel, home of a few dozen families and their retainers; it was a royal citadel on a little hill, sheltering a few hundred people with perhaps 1000 or so living around it. In its heyday, this tiny hill was still only the equivalent of a walled palace.”
I also doubt the notion that it was rich and powerful because it controlled entrance to the Black Sea. First, it is not that close. Second, that was never a major trade route: much smaller than those to the south.
If it were not for the legends, we would treat it as just one city among many, though one with a long history:
“The layers of ruins in the citadel at Hisarlik are numbered Troy I – Troy IX, with various subdivisions:
Troy I 3000–2600 BC …
Troy II 2600–2250 BC …
Troy III 2250–2100 BC …
Troy IV 2100–1950 BC …
Troy V: 20th–18th centuries BC …
Troy VI: 17th–15th centuries BC
Troy VIh: late Bronze Age, 14th century BC
Troy VIIa: c. 1300–1190 BC, …
Troy VIIb1: 12th century BC
Troy VIIb2: 11th century BC
Troy VIIb3: until c. 950 BC
Troy VIII: c. 700–85 BC
Troy IX: 85 BC–c. AD 500”
The Wiki called Troy VIIa the ‘most likely setting for Homer’s story’, but that’s disputed. ‘Troy VIh’ – let’s call it Troy Six – was prosperous, but was destroyed by an earthquake. Troy VIIa – call it Troy Seven – was sacked, but had been a settlement of impoverished ruin-dwellers. It would not have needed a major war to take it.
“The inhabitants of this city [Troy VIIA] simply took the remnants of Troy VIh, which was probably destroyed by an earthquake perhaps as early as 1300 BC … and rebuilt the city. Thus, the large houses originally build during Troy VI now had partitioning walls installed and several families living where there had been only one before.”
“Both excavators found bodies in the streets of Troy VIIA and arrowheads embedded in the walls, and both were convinced it was destroyed in warfare… ‘There are skeletons; we found, for example, a girl, I think sixteen, seventeen years old, half buried, the feet were burned by fire.’
“However, the date of this destruction might make it difficult to argue that the Mycenaeans were responsible, as in Homer’s story of the Trojan War in the Iliad, unless the Mycenaean palaces back on the Greek mainland were being attacked and destroyed precisely because all their warriors were away fighting at Troy. In fact, Mountjoy suggests that the Sea Peoples, rather than the Mycenaeans, destroyed Troy VIIA. This would fit well with the mention of the former by Ramses III just three years later, but she presents no substantial evidence to support her hypothesis, which remains speculative.
“If the Mycenaeans were not involved in the destruction of Troy VIIA, it may have been because they were also under attack at approximately the same time. It is universally accepted by scholars that Mycenae Tirens, Midea, Pylos, Thebes, and many other Mycenaean sites on the Greek mainland suffered destruction at this same approximate time.
The successive fates of Troy Six and Troy Seven make an interesting fit to the standard Greek account of Priam – he restored the city after it was sacked by Hercules. Made it rich again, only to see it wrecked in his old age.
Let’s suppose that Podarces / Priam really existed. He restored the city after the earthquake that destroyed Troy Six; but was a minor ruler. The war that destroyed him would have been a small raid, not needing the High King of Mycenae with a host of allies. Perhaps a small incident in a major siege of a neighbouring city called Ilium.
One could construct a plausible scenario:
- Event One. Troy Six is destroyed by an earthquake. It never properly recovers.
- The same earthquake in a region prone to them damages an unknown city called Ilios. It gets sacked, but recovers.
- Event Two. A major war by Greeks is directed mostly against a restored Ilios. But it includes the sack of the weakly restored Troy Seven.
- Greeks later take over the ruined Troy. Ilios is abandoned.
- The inhabitants of Greek Troy rewrite history to glorify their city. Call this the Tragedy of Priam:
- Event One becomes the sack of Troy by Hercules.
- Event Two becomes the sack of Troy by Agamemnon.
- The Tragedy of Priam becomes popular. Unrelated legends are absorbed into it, with other Greek heroes who lived earlier or later.
- Homer writes the Iliad, an outstanding work within this tradition.
- Homer or someone using his name writes the Odyssey, glorifying the trickster Odysseus (Ulysses), who is popular with the audience.
- This version passes into later Greek and Roman tradition. It inspires fresh works, some drawing on traditions older than Homer. Others reinventing the story, just as modern film-makers do nowadays.
Anyone who likes could make an historic novel from this: I don’t plan to, having other story ideas I like better.
A curious feature of the Iliad is that the Greek victors also fall into ruin. This may be an echo of the Late Bronze Age collapse. Greek culture bounced back in the later Dark Age, but many Mycenaean values were lost: Troy became a small Greek city that preserved legends of the earlier Greek defeat of Trojans:
“What we call Troy VIIb 1 was still the home of descendants of the founders of Troy VI… Evidently the fortification wall still stood high enough to offer protection … After half a century or so newcomers came to live on the hill of Kisarlik: their arrival left no marks of violence, so perhaps the impoverished inhabitant of VIIb 1 offered no resistance”
Good stories also travel well. Bits and pieces of the Trojan legend perhaps got exchanged Hindu culture and became part of the Mahabharata. The main themes are different, and it centres on a battle rather than a siege. But both have a king with an improbably large number of sons, most of whom do little and may be late additions. Krishna the Trickster perhaps gets promoted, just as Odysseus was. But it goes much further to make him a projection of God Almighty.
In real history, Troy’s disasters came when many cities were destroyed in the Late Bronze Age collapse. In Greece, both Mycenae and Nestor’s city of Pylos were abandoned. There would be nothing odd about the real Ilium / Ilios becoming a ruin. A place whose story got absorbed by Troy, which lived on as a minor Greek-speaking city.
In Homer’s Iliad, Prince Paris is also known as Alexandros. A name more familiar from Alexandros III of Macedon, Alexander the Great.
Hittite records speak of a King Alexandros of Troy. Royal names get re-used, so perhaps there was a real Prince Paris / Alexandros. More probably, two separate legends were merged.
Alexandros could be translated as ‘helper of men, but more sensibly as Defender. It had been in use for a long time:
“The earliest attested form of the name is the Mycenaean Greek feminine anthroponym, a-re-ka-sa-da-ra (transcribed as Alexandra), written in the Linear B syllabic script.
“The name was one of the titles (‘epithets’) given to the Greek goddess Hera and as such is usually taken to mean ‘one who comes to save warriors’.”
Both ‘hero’ and Hercules / Heracles are also linked to the goddess Hera – but she is the enemy of the main Hercules of legend. At least one other is known, Herakles the Dactyl, credited with originating the Olympic Games. The Dactyl were an archaic mythical race of male beings associated with the Great Mother. I’m sceptical of the whole fancy notion of a Great Mother as invented in modern times by Robert Graves and Laura Riding: but there is solid evidence of a gradual lowering of the status of women and of goddesses. Titles originally used for defenders of women may have been taken over by their oppressors. But going beyond such generalities is foolish.
The Iliad has Paris lay the basis for the war by antagonising Hera and Athena by choosing Aphrodite as ‘the fairest’. There is an apparent antagonism between Aphrodite and Helen asserting a woman’s right to choose against Hera upholding the binding nature of marriage. Also the Trojans seem to be upholding older and more decent values, which however perish. That makes it a powerful myth.
As for why a Trojan king had a Greek name, there might have been a complex intermingling of cultures:
“Greek-speaking peoples are thought to have entered what is now Greece soon after 1900 BC, though some scholars think they may have been present since Neolithic times… At this time the great age of the Cretan palaces was beginning, a civilisation modelled of the Egyptian-Syrian…
“Ancient tradition said that Mycenae was founded by the Perseid dynasty and that the Atreids (Pelops, Atreus, Agamemnon) were outsiders… said to have been Anatolian, Lydian, where we know that there was a Greek presence from the fifteenth century BC.”
Lydia includes Troy. Homer has the Greek and Trojan heroes speaking the same language, and some are related. The real Troy may have had a mixed culture:
“Of the names in the Linear B tablets which are found in Homer, twenty of them (one-third) applied to Trojans: in other words, Greek names have been invented for Trojan heroes, Hector among them. But two names may not fit with this, and they are significant ones: Priam’s name looks like the Anatolian name Pariamu, found in Hittite texts, and Alexandros of Wilios does seen to have a connection with the Alaksandus of Wilusa named in the Hittite tablets of the early thirteenth century and his alternative name Paris is very likely the Anatolian Pariya.”
Names easily get transferred from one culture to another. ‘English’ names like Tom, David, Sammy, Mary and Elizabeth are Hebrew via Greek and Latin versions of the Bible, while Helen, Alexander etc. are Greek.
Homer is certainly not dealing with real history:
“Homer has no idea of the complex bureaucratic world of the palaces with their accounting and rationings, their penny-pinching control over every sheep: evidently this world passed right out of the tradition.”
Or else later audiences didn’t wish to see their heroic ancestors presented with alien values. Time had certainly dimmed many memories:
“An interesting sidelight on this is Homer’s idea of the use of chariots. In the Bronze Age they were actually used for fighting – at least they were among the Hittites and Egyptians, and both Linear B and Hittite tablets suggest that the Greeks used them this way too. In the Iliad, however, chariots are only used for transport, apart from odd phrases which suggest a dim memory of the real state of affairs.”
“The places mentioned by Homer as having been the chief centre of his story were indeed the chief places of Mycenaean Greece.”
“In the Second Book of the Iliad there is a remarkable list of 164 places said to have sent troops to Troy, the so-called catalogue of ships…
“The catalogue was originally constructed independently of the Iliad; indeed it is generally accepted that it is earlier than the Iliad… differences and discrepancies between it and the Iliad proper.”
“Estimates for the populations of Mycenaean kingdoms are only approximate, but that of Pylos can hardly have been less than 50,000… 180,000 for Mycenae… A Greek marauder in Lycia in around 1420 BC presented a threat to a Hittite army with a force of 100 chariots and perhaps 1000 troops; a rich city like Ugarit could man 150 ships … 7000 fighting men. This last figure is of the order we would expect for a Mycenaean campaign against Troy, if it took place… This is the scale of Bronze-Age warfare – comparable, say, to the warfare of the Viking Age in Europe where, for instance, the garrisons of thirty fortified centres in Wessex totalled 26,671 men, with the mobile royal army probably numbering a few thousand at most… The citadel on Hisarlik – if it was Troy – can hardly have raised more than a few hundred warriors on its own.”
“Six vessels sack Laomedon’s Troy in the Herakles legend.”
“Let us remember the Homeric tradition: the epic says there were two sacks of Troy in the Heroic Age, the first the sack of the city of Laomedon by Herakles, the second the expedition of Agamemnon against Priam. Carl Blegen’s dig in the 1930s established two destructions of Hisarlik in the Late Bronze Age: the beautiful walled city of Troy VI we now know fell in around 1300 BC, apparently to an earthquake; its successor, Troy VIIa, the city of shanties … around 1200 BC.
“We must remember that Hisarlik is still the only site in north-west Anatolia which has been thoroughly excavated … but the quantities of Mycenaean pottery were sufficiently large and of such quality as to suggest to Blegen direct relations between Troy and Mycenae… surviving sherds from c.1400-1250 added up to about 700-800 pots, nearly three quarters of all Mycenaean pottery imports to Troy… Mycenaean wares account for only 1 or 2 per cent of the entire pottery of Troy VI: it is tiny proportion when set against the local wares, and presumably represents the import of luxury produce (perfumed oil?) or simply exotic pottery desired for its intrinsic snob value…
“What did the Trojans give in return? The presence of many spindle whorls … suggests that they may have specialised in wool, spun yarn and textiles…
“Homer singles out Troy for its fine horses, and its citizens as horse breeders. The archaeologists found that Troy VI was distinguished by the presence of quantities of horse bones, and we can also point to horse breeding in the Troad in classical times (in fact there was an Ottoman Turkish stud farm near Troy as late as the First World War).”
“Though the site of Hisarlik was inhabited from around 3600 BC, it is generally agreed that Troy VI was built by newcomers who brought with them, among other things, the horse… Blegen and others were tempted, because of the pottery, to think that originally the Greeks and Trojans were of the same stock…
“The language and identity of the Trojans remains a mystery.”
 Wood, Michael. In Search of the Trojan War, BBC Books 2005. First published 1985. Page 24.
 In Search of the Trojan War, page 135
 In Search of the Trojan War, page 142
 In Search of the Trojan War, page 145
 In Search of the Trojan War, page 142
 In Search of the Trojan War, page 23
 In Search of the Trojan War, page 24
 In Search of the Trojan War, page 19
 Cline, Eric H. 1177 B.C. – The Year Civilisation Collapsed. Princeton University Press 2014. Pages 127-8
 In Search of the Trojan War, page 285
 In Search of the Trojan War, pages 177-8
 In Search of the Trojan War, page 281
 In Search of the Trojan War, page 146
 In Search of the Trojan War, page 146
 In Search of the Trojan War, page 147
 In Search of the Trojan War, pages 147-8
 In Search of the Trojan War, page 181
 In Search of the Trojan War, page 183
 In Search of the Trojan War, page 189
 In Search of the Trojan War, pages 188-190
 In Search of the Trojan War, page 191