The other day I found myself with plenty of commitments to meet, a great deal of urgent work to do and bills to pay. However, I received the sudden, unexpected and totally irrational desire to get to grips with the truth, if any, behind the Trojan War and the fall of the legendary city of Troy.
It is essential to follow these sudden impulses, and so put the work and bills to one side, and set off on my quest straight away. In the Olden Days this would have meant buying a white suite and a pith helmet and heading off by train and boat for Greece or the Bosporus or some such place, and catching malaria. These days it means getting the coffee on, opening the dark chocolate biscuits, and hitting youtube. Indiana Jones, eat your heart out.
The story of the Trojan War is told by the Homer (that is the Greek poet, not the bloke off the Simpsons) in “The Iliad”, the broad translation of which being “The Song, or Poem, of Ilium.” To the ancient Greeks “Troy” was Ilium, and also perhaps importantly as I shall explain below, sometimes “Wilion”. In his song or poem Homer sets out the classic story. Paris, the prince of the mighty city of Troy, falls in love with and elopes with Helen, the wife of the Greek King Menelaus, and the most beautiful woman in the world. They escape back to Troy and shack up together. The Greeks, who were then a little less financially embarrassed than today, took umbrage and set off to bring her back with an army drawn from all the Greek city states that filled a thousand ships, lead by the mighty King Agamemnon. The Greeks besieged the city for 10 years. Heroes did heroic things, such as killing each other and getting killed, before finally the Greeks gained entry into the city by the ruse of the Trojan Horse. Upon breaching the gates, they slaughter the inhabitants, burn the city and topple the mighty walls. Helen is allowed to live, because she is still so beautiful. It is thus attests to the fact that for all human history blokes have thought with their private parts, and possibly that Hellenic blonds have more fun. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
But what truth in any of this? Did “Troy” exist? And was it overthrown by a Greek alliance?
Homer’s description of Troy speaks of a great walled city with streets, houses and palaces, great and slope sided walls and watch towers which dominate the plain below, a massive gate across a roadway wide enough for two chariots to pass through, rising to a temple-crowned acropolis, at an approachable distance from the Hellespont (Straits of Dardanelles) and apparently invisible from it.
Most scholars believe Homer was writing around 900 years BC and that in turn he was describing events which took place some hundreds of years before him, say 13 – 1400 years BC. That is the time of the late Bronze Age, as writing begins to spread, and the pyramids have already begun to be established. It is seems to be a time of great warriors, a savage dawn in the history of civilization. Reading about it makes me think somehow of waking up as a young child in the summer school holidays. Was the sun brighter and colours fresher then in mankind’s savage youth? Were heroes mightier?
In any event, the search for Troy involves finding a late Bronze Age city which fits Homer’s description and location. There had always been a strong case for it being at an ancient hill in Turkey, now called Hissarlik (Turkish: “Place of Fortress”) at the south western end of the Dardanelles, the narrow straight of sea which divides Europe and Asia. The hill rises above and dominates the plain of Troad.
Enter explorer, mountebank, businessman, linguist, and possibly conman Heinrich Schliemann. Schliemann was a self made millionaire who had a passion for archeology and for Troy in particular. In 1870-1 Schliemann headed Hissarlik and behaved in a manner which would have shocked and appalled a cautious modern archeologist. He hired local labourers and simply drove a blooming great trench deep into the heart of the hill, probably destroying much valuable evidence in the process. However, he did uncover an astonishing wealth of features, including the required great stone walls and toppled towers, wide streets and a huge wide gate which was accessed by a ramp, all spookily close to the Homer’s description. Some establishment figures mocked, but then he discovered (it is thought, although some allege suspect it was a plant) truly astonishing and exquisite golden jewelry which stunned the world. Jewelry fit to be worn by Helen of Troy indeed, which many, including Schliemann, assumed is exactly to whom it had belonged. That jewelry was to be held in a Berlin Museum until the very last days of the Second World War, when it mysteriously disappeared, perhaps destroyed in bombing, perhaps stolen.
There are however a number of problems with all of this which troubled academics. First of all, Schliemann did not get his dates right. The jewelry in fact was so ancient it would have predated the beautiful Helen by an amazing 1,000 years. You see, the history of Troy/Hissarlik is very ancient indeed and very, very complex. There are at least 9 versions of the city representing various civilizations or eras, with various sub categories, going back as far as 2,500 BC. They are referred to as “Troy I”, “Troy II”, Troy III” etc. That is truly ancient. Each period of civilization was built on top of around the previous in a sort of ever rising wedding cake effect. At times there have clearly been disasters: fire, earthquake, probably war – but the position is complex, and Schliemann’s industrial bull in a china shop approach had not helped.
I took my initial view of the matter from historian Michael Wood’s series “In Search of the Trojan” war. That can now be found on youtube beginning here.
Mr. Wood is an engaging man, a good historian and a great communicator. He has spent a great deal of his life “In Search of” things, and with me as his enthralled companion. Sadly, he and I are now rapidly approaching the stage where we will be “In Search of A Bus Pass”. Anyway, in his series he ultimately seemed to reach a fairly equivocal opinion about whether Hissarlik was “Troy” and whether there had in been a war in which it was destroyed by a Greek army. I think he gave it a cautious “maybe”, edging towards the position that there was enough in the jumble that is Hissarlik to hang a hat on, with the seeming destruction of “Troy VI” being the best potential candidate, though others thought it had been damaged not by war but by earthquake.
I was surprised to find out that Mr. Wood presented his series in 1985. Really? I thought it was last year, I wonder where the time goes sometimes.
Anyway, in the intervening 25 years things have, however, moved on. A truly fascinating 2004 BBC “Horizon” programme rounded up the progress, and a link is here:
In essence this is what it explains. First of all there are two reasons why Mr. Wood and others might at first sight appear to be wrong about Hissarlik being the site of “Troy”. One is obvious, one is not so. First, there are, or were indeed great towers, walls with sloped faces, and a might gate, wide enough for two chariots to pass through. There are massive walls still standing and evidence of imposing towers, including one which perfectly fits Homer’s description of the great tower of Troy. And, as I understand it, these can all be dated to broadly “Troy VI” or “Troy VII”, straddling the years 1400 – 1200 BC, likely timings for Homer’s story. And they seem to have been pushed over. But there is still a problem with identifying Hissarlik with Troy. In simple terms, it is just too small. It could not have resisted a sustained siege for 10 years. Next the German archeologist Manfred Korfmann looked at it from another point of view, and realised there was another problem with the layout of the city. This one was less obvious and required detailed archaeological knowledge. It was that although there was a great gateway just such as would fit Homer’s description perfectly, there was apparently no gate or no place where that a gate would have been. In short, the city was wide open. An army would have just walked in.
However, it was this one particular feature of the hill fort which was to be the possible turning point in the search for Troy. Because Korfmann, with implacable German logic, realised that if that was the case there had to have been other defences somewhere else. That meant there may have been a much greater city, incorporating the plain below.
And so a new search was begun, using what those curious “Time Team” people call “Geo-Physics”. Aerial magnetic geo-imaging revealed a very significant city indeed extending out over the plain below. Most of what could be seen was laid out in Roman style, a much later period. That would have destroyed most of lay below. But it was still possible to identify a massive ditch which would have been the outermost defences, perhaps designed to prevent chariots approaching, as a sort of Bronze Age tank trap. The ditch was dated to the late Bronze Age period – and there is your big city, with its citadel atop the hill.
More excavations revealed disturbing signs of war and death in the lower city, from arrowheads to abandoned weapons and the charred body of a girl, hastily half buried.
The final elements in solving the mystery needed evidence from beyond from the actual site. Homer’s legend requires an invasion from a united front of Greek city states under the leadership of the city of Mycenae; this is so-called Mycenaean Greece. Archeological discoveries reveal and confirm a highly militaristic culture in late Bronze Age Mycenae, and lend support to the theory that it was the pre – eminent city state. It had a reason to be militarily aggressive because it had no great natural resources, and needed gold and precious metals to feed the aggressive intentions of its elite.
Troy would have probably been a very wealthy and rich prize. Recent discoveries such as the shipwreck of a Bronze Age ship stuffed with gold and enough raw materials of copper and tin to make 11 tonnes of bronze in the Dardanelles hint at the wealth and resources that the strategically situated Troy may have held. I think that in terms of the wealth of Troy one should be thinking in terms not of humble stone dwellings but of almost mythical Atlantian – style splendour. The Greeks would have coveted, and needed, that wealth. That is a good reason for war. A better reason than slighted honour, or love.
There is one final matter. Troy stood at the strategic meeting point of Europe and Asia. The point where the hammer met the anvil, so to speak. To the west were the aggressive alliances of Mycenaean Greece. To the east was another major power, the huge Asian Hittite empire. It seems that Troy was an ally of the Hittites. The Hittites were unusual in many ways, but in a very helpful one in particular. They kept copious written records in the form of little carved stone tablets. These can now be deciphered. The reveal military tensions and conflict with Mycenaean Greece over the course of perhaps 200 years in the late Bronze Age. They also reveal that the Hittites seem to have referred to the city the Greeks called Ilium or “Wilion” as “Wilusa”, not too far from “Wilion”. They clearly suggest military actions over the fate of this city. Following movements of the Hittite army suggests it was in at least the general region of Hissarlik in support of their ally. And finally, they describe an important feature of the city of Wilusa, namely it had a large water tunnel. That would be a rather dramatic and unusual feature, particularly I think in pre-Roman times. And indeed a water tunnel exists at Troy/Hissarlik. It was initially assumed to have been of much later date, a Roman period construction. However, Korfmann cleverly dated the minute amounts of uranium in lime scale in the tunnel, and it demonstrates that the tunnel had been in operation since 2,500 BC.
All in all, the case seems compelling.
And two postscripts. First the poor Trojans were mostly killed, or enslaved. But that was not quite the end of the matter. One such was Aeneas. As seen in the first books Virgil’s “Aeneid”, Aeneas was one of the few Trojans who were not killed in battle or enslaved when Troy fell. Aeneas, after being commanded by the gods to flee, gathered a group, collectively known as the Aeneads, who then traveled to Italy and became progenitors of Romans. In due course, the Romans were of course to give the Greeks a severe pasting. A lesson that in history, as in life, what goes around comes around.
And secondly, there is an alternative history of the settlement of Britain. It was this. According to early British sources of varying degrees of authority, Aeneas had a grandson. He was named Brutus. His mother died in childbirth and he accidentally killed his father in a hunting accident, so was banished for being ‘unlucky’. He collected some more defeated Trojans, then living as an underclass in Greece. They adopted him as their leader and they became collectively known as ‘Britons‘ (after Brutus). They set off in search of new lands and headed past the Pillars of Hercules (Straits of Gibraltar), had a brief contretemps with the French in Gaul (who doesn’t?) where they were advised of an island to the north, much more up their street – known as Albion, pretty deserted and a good bet for settlement and subjugation. The date is set some time between 1170-1100 BC. And there they founded the city of “Troia Nova”, or New Troy, later to “Trinovantum‘ at what is now the City of London. Early Londoners were known as ‘Trinovantes‘.
This history is usually derided by modern historians as a fantasy. However, as appears to be the case in respect of Troy, folk lore and ancient stories cannot be written off quite so easily. Which might mean that, for example, the Games of the 30th Olympiad have just been held in the mighty city of New Troy.
Gildas the Monk