Troy: Myth or History?

Classics Ambassador Liv Sample shares her exploration of the fascinating history of Troy, after Michael Wood’s compelling lecture for the Association on 20th February. 

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The origins of the Trojan War, and those of the bard Homer, composer of the epic poems the Iliad and Odyssey, have been a source of fascination and debate for millenia. From Chaucer and Shakespeare to the modern day, the Iliad has inspired writers, academic researchers, linguists and archaeologists and had an enormous impact on art, literature, films and theatre. The uniformly positive reviews for the ongoing exhibition at the British Museum, “Troy: Myth and Reality” reflect a fascination with these tales of gods and men and this shows no sign of waning. Characters such as Achilles, Hector, Andromache and Briseis, were created so vividly that many of us who have knowledge of the poem feel that they surely must have been based on some form of reality. In fact, only recently the boxer Tyson Fury, after winning the world heavyweight title against all predictions, proudly told an interviewer that he had “trained like a Trojan”.


Yet how likely is it for a Late Bronze Age empire, Mycenenean Greece, to enter a gruelling ten year siege against a city across the Aegean, just because of an adulterous affair? Was Homer, while weaving together tales developed by the oral tradition in the eighth century BCE, actually describing a true historical event as he spoke of the Trojan War and the wrath of Achilles?

Making a triumphant return to the Fylde coast, almost three years to the day since his previous lecture on Alexander the Great, Professor Michael Wood, the acclaimed historian, broadcaster and author, offered us a learned answer to that very question: “The Trojan War: Myth or History?” As someone who has always gained a personal understanding of historical sites by exploring them by foot, he was able to cover a lot of ground in his compelling lecture.


The story began on a hilltop called Hisarlik in modern north-west Turkey. Overlooking the Dardenelles, in an area once known as Western Anatolia, Hisarlik has existed since 3000 BCE. Due to its geographical position between the Aegean Sea and mainland Turkey, in the Late Bronze Age it became a Near Eastern meeting point for trade, ideas and peoples between mainland Greece and the Hittite Empire.


This hilly site, even after its possible destruction by the Greeks in the Trojan War, was firmly believed by those of the time of Homer to be Troy. According to some reports, Hisarlik was visited by no other than the self-proclaimed descendant of Achilles, Alexander the Great, and during the reign of Augustus, the city, now known as Ilium, continued as a popular tourist destination for Romans wishing to experience the city of their founding father, Aeneas. However, by medieval times, the site had declined in stature, although it still attracted the occasional famous admirer of the classical world; it is said that Lord Byron swam in the waters of the Hellespont as part of his Grand Tour experience.

Yet it was not until the latter part of the nineteenth century when an archaeology enthusiast, Frank Calvert, who had lived in the area close to Hisarlik all his life, took the decision to prove whether this small area of western Turkey and Troy were indeed one and the same. Having been refused a grant for his excavations from the British Museum, he turned for financial support to a fascinating character central to our story: self-made business tycoon, amateur archaeologist and Homer fan, Heinrich Schliemann.


Heinrich Schliemann

With enormous ambition but little in the way of professional archaeological techniques, Schliemann smashed his way through the mound of Hisarlik, and in doing so, probably destroyed valuable evidence and artefacts along the way. At the base of one trench that he created, he did, however, manage to discover exquisite gold jewellery, which he immediately named ‘The Treasure of Priam’. Never a shrinking violet, and with a gift for self promotion, he photographed his wife Sophia bedecked in the most stunning of these discoveries, a gold headdress – the image predictably went viral. His hunt for treasure then continued in Mycenae, the fortified capital city of Agamemmnon, where on discovering a collection of gold masks within a number of graves, Schliemann pronounced that he had “gazed at the face of Agamemmon.”

His archaeological findings in both Hisarlik and Mycenae were subsequently discredited by experts, and there became a real need for a more scientific approach to prove the existence of Troy. Over the following hundred years, with far more careful excavations than Schliemann’s, a fortified hilltop site emerged, with high slanted walls, as Achilles is said to have scaled, with watchtowers and platforms too, thrillingly similar to what Homer had described.

In the 1980s, the mysteries of Hisarlik caught the attention of a young broadcaster, a certain Michael Wood. The result was “In Search of the Trojan War”, a six part series first broadcast in 1985 on the BBC.

Having watched Michael’s programmes, German archaeologist Manfred Korfmann was inspired to both explore Troy and also the nearby Beshik Bay (where Homer tells us the Achaean fleet was positioned prior to their attack on the Trojans). Ever since that time, the growing evidence that Hisarlik is indeed the site of Troy has captured the worldwide imagination, with the citadel and surrounding area becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, and excavations continuing there to this day. Therefore it seems that Hisarlik, both in its geography and appearance, could fit with Homer’s description of Troy. But were there any clues from the time of its existence to suggest it had been destroyed by the Greeks in war? The astonishing answer is yes. As Professor Wood explained, this time it was not the archaeologists, but dedicated linguists who made the breakthrough.

In the early twentieth century, the language of the Hittites, written in cuneiform script on clay tablets, had finally been deciphered. Close study of such tablets revealed the Hittite word “Wilusa”, a hilltop city in Western Anatolia, complete with citadel. Astute scholars of Ancient Greek soon spotted that removal of the digamma (W) meant that the name Wilusa could be considered synonymous with the Greek word (W)Ilios, Ilios, that is Troy.


In other cuneiform tablets showing correspondence between Alaksandu, a king of Wilusa (interestingly Homer’s Paris was sometimes referred to as Alexandros) and the Hittite king Muwatalli II, there was mention of a previous encounter, the so called “Wilusa episode”. The “Wilusa episode” seems to have been referring to either one military clash or several, but these tensions can now be dated to the thirteenth and fourteenth century BCE – the suggested time of the Trojan War.

From Linear B tablets found in Greece, there appears to have been frequent communication between Western Anatolia and the Mycenaeans, mainly through the trading of slaves. However, much recent archaeological evidence has also suggested that cities such as Troy had even closer links with the Hittites. Troy could therefore quite easily have become a flash point between two warring empires, if only due to its geographical position.


As Professor Wood came to the end of his talk, he drew a balanced conclusion – the Trojan War as historical reality cannot be definitively proven, but the idea that it could have occurred in the area of Hisarlik cannot be rejected either. It might take a chance translation of a clay tablet, or an artefact dug up from the ground to provide us with further insights into this most fascinating of times. Until we discover the next chapter in the story of Troy, we can at least be sure of one thing – it will continue to have a considerable cultural impact for many more millennia to come.