The Ancient City of Troy, Epicenter of Homer’s Iliad

The ancient city of Troy, immortalized in Homer’s epic the Iliad.

The Trojan War

It is believed that the Trojan War took place around 1200 BCE during the period of human history we know as the Bronze Age. The earliest mentions of this war are in the lines of the Greek poet Homer in his famous epics the Iliad and the Odyssey. Homer though lived around 800 BCE, hundreds of years after the events of the Trojan War took place. What’s more is that these epics were passed down orally and not put into writing until at least the 6th century BCE. This makes it very possible that details of the original story may have been lost.

Thanks to Homer’s epic poem The Iliad, most people know of the legendary city of Troy. According the epic, the Greek King Agamemnon laid siege to the city for ten years in order to retrieve his brother Menelaus’s wife, Helen, the most beautiful woman of the ancient world. She had been abducted by Prince Paris, son of Troy’s ruler, King Priam. Long story short, the Greeks finally conquered the city by feigning to pick up and leave while hiding a party of soldiers in a seemingly abandoned wooden horse (a.k.a. the “Trojan Horse”). The Trojans, as the citizens of Troy were called, brought the horse inside the city. While they were sleeping, Greek soldiers crawled out of the horse and opened the city’s gates for their hidden comrades to enter and ravage Troy.

Contrary to popular opinion, this last event is actually mentioned in the Homer’s second epic, the Odyssey and does not actually take place in the Iliad where that story ends in a sort of truce.

There are a number of events that occur in the Illiad , probably the most famous being the emotional battle between the Greek hero Achilles the Trojan warrior Hector. Hector realizes that despite his skill as a warrior, he is not able to defeat Achilles and runs around the walls of the city three times. Eventually he must face Achilles and is killed by him. There is a heart-wrenching scene that Homer describes in which Achilles is dragging Hector’s dead body in front of the Trojans on the back of his chariot.

Here’s a scene of that duel from the 2004 movie Troy with Brad Pitt as Achilles and Eric Bana as Hector:

Computer simulation of the Trojan Horse outside Troy

Archaeological Exploration

Exploring Troy; photographer unknown
It all made for a great story that was largely believed to have been just a legend until an amateur German archaeologist named Heinrich Schliemann financed a dig at a hill in western Turkey known as Hisarlik. Under this mound, he and his team discovered the remains of several cities, the oldest of which went back at least 5,000 years. Upon closer examination of the ruins and objects unearthed, Schliemann firmly believed that he had found the remains of the Illiad’s city of Troy.

Many doubt that Schliemann’s site is the actual location of Troy. However, few deny that a city named Troy actually existed. Many writers including Herodotus mention Troy in their historical writings and place the city of the Trojans in existence somewhere around the 14th – 12th centuries BCE. Hisarlik has been believed to be the site of Troy since ancient times.

It seems that Troy’s glory days were after 2550 BCE when the city, its citadel and its defensive walls were expanded. One of Schliemann’s great discoveries on the site was in 1873. While digging, his team discovered a building he believed to be the palace of King Priam. Within it he found a great stash of items including weapons, jewelry, metal ware and other and objects made of gold, silver, lapis lazuli and bronze.

Artifacts found at Troy
Modern archaeologists seem to disagree as to whether these objects actually belonged to Priam. According to Homer’s epics and other evidence, the date of these objects is approximately a millennium before Priam is believed to have existed.

Many scholars believe that instead of an invading Greek force, Troy may have actually been destroyed around 1300 BCE by an earthquake. Due to it’s weakened state, it is possible that attacks took place afterward due to the evidence of fire.

The city seems to have been attacked again in 1190 BCE. The evidence however points to people other than Greeks as being responsible. The reason is that by this time, Greece’s Mycenaean civilization (the one described in the Homer’s epics) had already disintegrated and artifacts such as pottery and weapons whose origins are from southwestern Europe, not Greece, were been found. This might imply that it was non-Greeks who migrated into Troy and not people from Hellas.

Later History of Troy

Ruins of Troy
For reasons not exactly known, Troy seems to have been abandoned around 1000 BCE. It was reoccupied about 200 years later by Greek colonists and renamed Ilion. Despite this, its new settlers believed that their settlement was atop the site of ancient Troy. Over the years, Ilion became a popular pilgrimage spot for ancient tourists and others who passed by. The Persian King of Kings, Xerxes, is said to have stopped by and paid homage to the city on his way to punish Greece for their meddling in Ionia. Perhaps it was to draw on the support from the spirit of Priam and Hector as he marched to fight their once ancient enemy. Alexander of Macedonia in a sense did the same but opposite. He also stopped by Troy on his way to conquer Persia but to pay his respects to Achilles and the Greeks, not the Trojans. One story though is that while passing, Alexander was haunted by the ghost of Priam and so he made sure to offer the appropriate sacrifices while there. He would later on give the city special status within his empire and exempt its people from taxes. This special status continued with the Romans. They believed that Aeneas, one of Troy’s heroes, was actually the ancestor of Rome’s legendary founders, Romulus and Remus.

Troy, or Ilion’s fortunes changed during and after the middle ages when Christianity and later Islam became the dominant religions of the region. Both of these faiths had no historical affiliation with the place and by the 13th century, most of its citizens had left. All that remained were a few houses occupied by local farmers.

Troy Today

In modern times, the site of Troy has become a popular tourist spot. The Turkish government has done much to restore it and has even built a museum there. The site was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.

Resources and Further Reading

Archaeological Site of Troy

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