Troy is the name of the Bronze Age city featured in the Trojan War of ancient Greek oral and literary tradition and the name given to the archaeological site in the north west of Asia Minor (now Turkey) which has revealed a large and prosperous city occupied over millennia. There has been much scholarly debate as to whether mythical Troy actually existed and if so whether the archaeological site was the same city; however, it is now almost universally accepted that the archaeological excavations have revealed the city of Homer’s Iliad. Other names for Troy include Hisarlik (Turkish), Ilios (Homer), Ilion (Greek) and Ilium (Roman).
Troy is the setting for Homer’s Iliad in which he recounts the final year of the Trojan War sometime in the 13th century BCE. The war was in fact a ten-year siege of the city by a coalition of Greek forces led by King Agamemnon of Mycenae. The purpose of the expedition was to reclaim Helen, wife of Menelaos, king of Argos and brother of Agamemnon. Helen was abducted by the Trojan prince Paris and taken as his prize for choosing Aphrodite as the most beautiful goddess in a competition with Athena and Hera. The Trojan War is also told in other sources such as the Epic Cycle poems (of which only fragments survive) and is also briefly mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey. Troy and the Trojan War later became a staple myth of Classical Greek and Roman literature.
Homer describes Troy as ‘well-founded’, ‘strong-built’ and ‘well-walled’; there are also several references to fine battlements, towers and ‘high’ and ‘steep’ walls. The walls must have been unusually strong in order to withstand a ten-year siege and in fact, Troy fell through the trickery of the Trojan horse ruse rather than any defensive failing. Indeed, in Greek mythology the walls were so impressive that they were said to have been built by Poseidon and Apollo who after an act of impiety were compelled by Zeus to serve the Trojan king Laomedon for one year. However, the fortifications did not help the king when Herakles sacked the city with an expedition of only six ships. The sacking was Herakles’ revenge for not being paid for his services to the king when he killed the sea-serpent sent by Poseidon. This episode was traditionally placed one generation before the Trojan War as the only male survivor was Laomedon’s youngest son Priam, the Trojan king in the later conflict.
THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE OF TROY
Inhabited from the Early Bronze Age (3000 BCE) through to the 12th century CE the archaeological site which is now called Troy is 5 km from the coast but was once next to the sea. The site was situated in a bay created by the mouth of the river Skamanda and occupied a strategically important position between Aegean and Eastern civilizations by controlling the principal point of access to the Black Sea, Anatolia and the Balkans from both directions by land and sea. In particular, the difficulty in finding favourable winds to enter the Dardanelles may well have resulted in ancient sailing vessels standing by near Troy. Consequently, the site became the most important Bronze Age city in the North Aegean, reaching the height of its prosperity in the middle Bronze Age, contemporary with the Mycenaean civilization on the Greek mainland and the Hittite empire to the East.
The excavations continued throughout the 20th century CE and continue to the present day and they have revealed nine different cities and no less than 46 levels of inhabitation at the site. These have been labelled Troy I to Troy IX after Schliemann’s (and his successor Dorpfeld’s) original classification. This has since been slightly adjusted to incorporate radio-carbon dating results from the early 21st century CE.Troy was first excavated by Frank Calvert in 1863 CE and visited by Heinrich Schliemann who continued excavations from 1870 CE until his death in 1890 CE; in particular, he attacked the conspicuous 20 m high artificial mound which had been left untouched since antiquity. Initial finds by Schliemann of gold and silver jewellery and vessels seemed to vindicate his belief that the site was actually the Troy of Homer. However, these have now been dated to more than a thousand years before a probable date for the Trojan War and indicated that the history of the site was much more complex than previously considered. Indeed, perhaps unwittingly, Schliemann would add 2000 years to Western history, which had previously gone back only as far as the first Olympiad of 776 BCE.