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Ancient Troy: The City & the Legend

The name Troy refers both to a place in legend and a real-life archaeological site. In legend, Troy is a city that was besieged for 10 years and eventually conquered by a Greek army led by King Agamemnon. The reason for this "Trojan War" was, according to Homer's "Iliad," the abduction of Helen, a queen from Sparta. This abduction was done by Paris, the son of Troy's King Priam. Throughout the "Iliad" the gods constantly intervene in support of characters on both sides of the conflict.

Troy also refers to a real ancient city located on the northwest coast of Turkey which, since antiquity, has been identified by many as being the Troy discussed in the legend. Whether the Trojan War actually took place, and whether the site in northwest Turkey is the same Troy, is a matter of debate. The modern-day Turkish name for the site is Hisarlik. 

The idea that the city was Troy goes back at least 2,700 years, when the ancient Greeks were colonizing the west coast of Turkey. In the 19th century, the idea again came to popular attention when a German businessman and early archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, conducted a series of excavations at Hisarlik and discovered treasures he claimed to be from King Priam.

Troy the legend

The Trojan War is thought to have taken place near the end of the Bronze Age. That is around or before 1200 B.C. It took place around the time that a civilization that we call Mycenaean flourished in Greece. They built great palaces and developed a system of writing. 

The earliest accounts of this war come from Homer, who lived around the eighth century B.C., several centuries after the events took place. They do not appear to have been written down until even later, likely during the sixth century B.C., when a tyrant named Peisistratus ruled Athens.

Homer's "Iliad" is set in the 10th year of the siege against Troy and tells of a series of events that appear to have taken place over a few weeks. The story makes clear that the siege had taken its toll on the Greek force sent to recover Helen. The "timbers of our ships have rotted away and the cables are broken and far away are our wives and our young children," the poem reads (translation by Richmond Lattimore). 

The war had essentially become a stalemate with the Greeks unable to take the city and the Trojans unable to drive them back into the sea. We "sons of the Achaians [Greeks] outnumber the Trojans — those who live in the city; but there are companions from other cities in their numbers, wielders of the spear to help them," the "Iliad" reads. 

A number of key events happen in the poem, including a duel between Menelaos or Menelaus), the king of Sparta and husband of Helen, against Paris. The winner is supposed to receive Helen as a prize, ending the war. However, the gods intervene to break up the duel before it is finished and the war continues. 

Another important duel occurs nears the end of the poem between Achilleus (or Achilles) and a great Trojan warrior named Hektor (or Hector). The Trojan knows that he's no match for the Greek warrior and initially runs three laps around Troy, with Achilleus chasing him. Finally, the gods force him to face the Greek warrior and he is in turn killed. 

Contrary to popular belief, the "Iliad" does not end with the destruction of Troy but with a temporary truce after which the fighting presumably continues. Another Homeric work called the "Odyssey" is set after the destruction of the city and features the Greek hero Odysseus trying to get home. That poem briefly references how the Greeks took Troy using the famous "Trojan Horse," a gift concealing warriors within. 

"What a thing was this, too, which that mighty man wrought and endured in the carven horse, wherein all we chiefs of the Argives were sitting, bearing to the Trojans death and fate!" reads part of the poem (Translation by A.T. Murray through Perseus Digital Library). 

The city's origin

The site of Hisarlik, in northwest Turkey, has been identified as being Troy since ancient times. Archaeological research shows that it was inhabited for almost 4,000 years starting around 3000 B.C. After one city was destroyed, a new city would be built on top of it, creating a human-made mound called a "tell."

"There is no one single Troy; there are at least 10, lying in layers on top of each other," writes University of Amsterdam researcher Gert Jan van Wijngaarden in a chapter of the book "Troy: City, Homer and Turkey" (University of Amsterdam, 2013). 

Van Wijngaarden notes that archaeologists have to dig deep to find remains of the first settlement and from what they can tell it was a "small city surrounded by a defensive wall of unworked stone." Outside the largest gate was a stone with an image of a face, perhaps a deity welcoming visitors to the new city. 

Troy took off in the period after 2550 B.C. The city "was considerably enlarged and furnished with a massive defensive wall made of cut blocks of stone and rectangular clay bricks," van Wijngaarden writes. He notes that on the settlement's citadel were houses of the "megaron" type, which contained "an elongated room with a hearth and open forecourt."

When Heinrich Schliemann excavated this level of Troy in 1873, he discovered a cache of treasure, which he believed belonged to King Priam. "The collection of weapons, gold, silver, electrum, copper and bronze vessels, gold jewellery, including thousands of gold rings, and a range of other objects made of precious materials apparently came to light close to the outer side of the city wall near the building which Schliemann designated as the royal palace," writes University of Queensland researcher Trevor Bryce in his book "The Trojans and their Neighbours" (Routledge, 2006). 

Some researchers have speculated that these treasures were not found all in one hoard but were rather precious objects, from across the site, which Schliemann gathered over a number of weeks. While Schliemann believed he had found Priam's treasures, it became clear in the following decades that these were a millennium too early for Priam.

A stone block with Greek writing sits at the ruins of Troy, Turkey. (Image credit: Alex Khripunov Shutterstock )

Homer's Troy? 

The city that may have been the Troy mentioned by Homer belongs to two other phases that date between roughly 1700 B.C. and 1190 B.C. Bryce notes that its defenses were formidable. 

"The walls, surmounted by mud-brick breastworks, once reached a height of nine meters (30 feet). Several watchtowers were built into these walls, the most imposing of which is the northeastern bastion, which served to reinforce the citadel's defences as well as offer a commanding view over the Trojan plain," he writes. 

The exact size of the city is in dispute. Archaeologist Manfred Korfmann, who has led excavations at the site, writes in a paper in the book "Troy: From Homer's Iliad to Hollywood Epic" (Blackwell Publishing, 2007) that work at the site shows that there was a "lower city" beyond the citadel, bringing its total size to about 30 hectares (74 acres).

"This Troy had a large residential area below a strongly fortified citadel. As far as we know today, the citadel was unparalleled in its region and in all of southeastern Europe," he writes in the book chapter. The extent of the residential area is a topic of debate among scholars with some arguing that Korfmann is overestimating its extent. 

A key problem with identifying this city as Homer's Troy is the way it ended. Cracks in its walls suggest that it was hit by an earthquake around 1300 B.C., possibly followed by an uprising or attack. "There are also some indications of fire, and slingstones in the destruction layer (suggesting) the possibility that there might have been some fighting," writes van Wijngaarden. "Nevertheless an earthquake appears to have caused the most damage." Additionally, he notes, the city was rebuilt after its destruction by the same population groups as before, rather than by a foreign Greek force. 

While the city was attacked in 1190 B.C., there are, again, problems with the idea that it was carried out by a Greek force. By this time, Greece's Mycenaean civilization had collapsed, its great palaces reduced to ruins. Additionally, at Troy archaeologists have found ceramics and bronze axes from southeast Europe, suggesting that that people may have moved into the city from there. 

Later Troy 

The city was abandoned around 1000 B.C. and was reoccupied in eighth century B.C., around the time Homer lived. The Greeks called the reoccupied city "Ilion." 

The "new settlers had no doubt that the place they were preparing to occupy was the fabled setting of the Trojan War," Bryce writes, and in later times its inhabitants took advantage of this to draw in political support and ancient tourists. 

For its first few centuries, Ilion was a modest settlement. While many scholars believe that the people who resettled Troy after 1000 B.C. were Greek colonists this idea has recently been challenged. In 2014, research published by a team of scholars in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology revealed that the amphora at Troy that was thought to have been imported from Greece was actually locally made and that much of the other pottery found at Troy after 1,000 B.C. was also made locally and was not imported from Greece. This led the team to suggest that many of the people who reoccupied Troy may not have been Greek colonists but rather people who already lived in the area.  

Venerated site

Xerxes, the Persian king on his way to conquer Greece, stopped to pay homage to Troy and, most notably, Alexander the Great would do the same in the fourth century B.C., granting it special status within his empire.  

"It is said that the city of the present Ilians was for a time a mere village, having its temple of Athena, a small and cheap temple," wrote Strabo, who lived around 2,000 years ago. When "Alexander went up there after his victory at the Granicus River he adorned the temple with votive offerings, gave the village the title of city, and ordered those in charge to improve it with buildings, and that he adjudged it free and exempt from tribute; and that later, after the overthrow of the Persians, he sent down a kindly letter to the place, promising to make a great city of it..." (Translation by H.L. Jones, through Perseus Digital Library)

Troy's special status would continue into the period of Roman rule. The Romans believed that Aeneas, one of Troy's heroes, was an ancestor of Romulus and Remus, Rome's legendary founders. The city's inhabitants took advantage of this mythology, with it becoming a "popular destination for pilgrims and tourists," Bryce writes. He notes that in this phase of Troy's existence, when it became a popular tourism location, the city became larger than at any time before, including when the Trojan War was said to have taken place. 

However, as the Middle Ages took hold, Troy fell into decline. By the 13th century, the city had been reduced to that of a modest farming community. Recent DNA research revealed the story of a woman who died 800 years ago of an infection that occurred while she was pregnant. Today, Troy is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a popular site for tourists to visit in Turkey. 

A new museum is being constructed at Troy and the Turkish government has put forward repatriation requests for artifacts that were illegally removed from Troy in the 20th century to be returned to Turkey. A collection of gold jewelry in the Penn Museum that research reveals was taken from Troy in the 20th century has been returned to Turkey after lengthy negotiations, said C. Brian Rose, a professor of archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania, in an article published in 2017 in the Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies.

Was there a Trojan War? 

The big question researchers face is, was there ever a Trojan War? If there was, then is this really Troy? 

Unfortunately, the only written remains found at Troy, that date before the eighth-century B.C. Greek occupation, is a seal written in a language called Luwian, the seal being perhaps brought to Troy from elsewhere in Turkey. 

Scholars have noted that the topography of Troy as told in the legend does seem to generally match that of the real-life city and, as noted earlier, people as far back as Homer's time also believed this to be Troy. 

Yet the archaeological remains still pose problems. Troy at the time of the Trojan War was apparently destroyed by earthquakes and later on may have received people from southeastern Europe rather than Greece. 

These issues leave researchers with a mystery. "At one end of the spectrum of opinion is the conviction that there was indeed a war and that it was pretty much as the poet described it," send Bryce. "From that we pass through varying degrees of scepticism and agnosticism to the other end of the spectrum where the tradition is consigned wholly to the realm of fantasy."

Korfmann, the modern-day excavator of Hisarlik, believes the story of the Trojan War contains some truth. "According to the current state of our knowledge, the story told in the "Iliad" most likely contains a kernel of historical truth or, to put it differently a historical substrate," he writes. "Any future discussions about the historicity of the Trojan War only make sense if they ask what exactly we understand this kernel or substrate to be."

Owen Jarus
Owen Jarus writes about archaeology and all things about humans' past for Live Science. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University. He enjoys reading about new research and is always looking for a new historical tale.