"Troy is no more, and Ilium was a town!" - The Fall of Troy and its Cultural Aftermath

24 April 1184 BCE, today, 3,200 years ago, the city of Troy fell after ten years of siege, at least according to the Greek polymath of the third century BCE, Eratosthenes of Cyrene.

"What hope, O Pantheus? whither can we run? / Where make a stand? and what may yet be done?' / Scarce had I said, when Pantheus, with a groan: 'Troy is no more, and Ilium was a town! The fatal day, th' appointed hour, is come, / When wrathful Jove's irrevocable doom / Transfers the Trojan state to Grecian hands." (Virgil, "The Aeneid")

Johann Georg Trautmann (1713 - 1769): "The Burning of Troy" (1762)

To simulate conditions in a volunteer fire brigade during a major alarm, it’s usually enough to say the word “Troy” to a group of classical scholars. But for a while, everything seemed to be settled. After centuries of believing the place to be a myth, some 18th century aficionados, under the influence of reinvigorated public interest in antiquity and the first enthusiastic steps of archaeology, already speculated that there might be at least some truth in the old tales. Western Asia Minor immediately came into their focus, naturally, and already in 1721 there was a map attached to the edition of Alexander Pope’s translation of the Iliad that showed the Troad, a region in northwestern Anatolia, with appetising Homeric details. Unfortunately, there were no Bronze Age ruins on site and the somewhat smallish hill of Hisarlik was just identified with the Greco-Roman town of Illium. Until Frank Calvert came along in 1865. Parts of the hill already belonged to the local Calvert family estate where Frank dug some test holes. And he found something, obviously the remnants of ancient towns, stacked upon each other, that might well date back to Homer’s Heroic Age. Three years later he persuaded the German entrepreneur Heinrich Schliemann of his idea that Homer’s Troy might be one of the layers of settlement hidden under Hisarlik Hill. Schliemann, who dreamed of discovering Troy since he first read Ludwig Jerrer's “Illustrated History of the World” when he was a boy, took the bait, grabbed a shovel and began to dig himself. Ten years later, in 1873, he announced that he had found the site of ancient Troy. Even though his most spectacular find, dubbed “Priam’s Treasure”, a spectacular cache of golden, silver and bronze artefacts, was about a 1,000 years older than Layer VI or VII, occupied around 1200 BCE, the traditional date of the Trojan War. That the multi-layered hill in Anatolia is indeed the site of Troy, or a Troy, has never been seriously doubted in professional circles ever since. Schliemann famously went on to excavate the Mycenaean homes of the Homeric heroes in Greece and that was that. The city Schliemann had discovered in Asia Minor was Troy, Homer’s epics were a remembrance of cataclysmic events that had really happened some 3,000 years ago and he had found the artefacts and ruins to prove it. But besides foaming at the mouth over the havoc Schliemann had created with his rather amateurish digging at the Hisarlik site, archaeologists have uncovered tons of evidence since then up to hence unknown large sections of a lower part of the city that raised quite a lot of questions, while classical philologists never found any textual evidence that really proved that the settlements under Hisarlik Hill once housed Homer’s Troy, even though the Ancients themselves always assumed that it had. Which Bronze Age culture or cultures built and inhabited the place, did the events told by Homer and in the Epic Cycle really took place, which layer was the one occupied by then and what role the Bronze Age town actually played in a wider context, are the major points currently discussed. Judging from the site the city occupied, it might indeed been a prosperous trade centre, profiting from merchant shipping waiting for favourable winds to cross from the Aegean into the Black Sea and back. But it might just have been a pirate’s nest as well. Was it an independent or semi-independent city state and part of the Aegean cultural circle or was Homer’s Iλιον (Ilion), once spelled Fίλιον (Wilion) even in the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey”, identical with the Hittite city of Wilusa, part of their empire and thus rather belonging to the Ancient Orient? Not to mention the site’s settlement history of at least 3,500 years and its 10 different layers of towns, sometimes destroyed, by earthquakes, fire or war even, and sometimes just overbuild, that leave a lot of room for various speculations and theories. And did the Trojan War really take place or not.

Sofia Engastromenou-Schliemann, Heinrich’s wife, wearing the “Jewels of Helen” (to the left, photo taken in 1873) and to the right Schliemann’s original display of “Priam’s Treasure“ in 1873

was sacked after ten years of war - at least according to Eratosthenes, who has been rated as an authority on the subject. The night before, the Trojans made the fatal mistake of not looking a gift horse in the mouth and pulling the infamous equine into their city. Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes - "I fear the Greeks, even those bearing gifts". The story of Troy's fall itself, like many other legends of the Trojan War, is not told in Homer's "Iliad", though. The epic actually covers only a few weeks of the 10th year of the war during Agamemnon's and Achilles' quarrel over the "rosy Briséis" - even though the coming sack of the city is mentioned. Ulysses' ploy, Laocoön and the snakes, Aeneas and the Palladium and all the primal scenes that took place after Achilles' son Neoptolemus and his warriors jumped out of the Wooden Horse and put many-towered Ilium and her inhabitants to the sack are stories told in the Epic Circle, especially the Iliupersis, the "Sack of Illium", probably by one Arctinus who lived in the 8th century BCE while other events of the war were retold first by Ulysses himself in Homer’s “Odyssey”. However, wherever and if ever these events took place, their narrative marks the birth of Western literature and established the cultural identity of classical Greece.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema: "A Reading From Homer" (1885)

Classical scholars have debated the existence of an individual named Homer as a culture-endowing force at least since the Age of Enlightenment as well and experts’ opinions are still divided whether he actually lived around 800 BCE and was the first and greatest of the Greek epic poets or if he is a fictional character himself, made up by the very Ionian rhapsodists who mouthed the verses in the first place. Why the Greeks, who usually claimed a divine origin for every random bush and fountain in their vicinity, would come up with a mortal author of their identity-establishing narrative if they didn’t know for sure that it was a person named Homer who composed them, remains to be answered under these auspices. However, the Ancients never doubted his existence, but while Homer continued to be at the very base of literature of all synanthropes of classical Greek culture to this day, it was the Roman author Virgil who translated the material into a distinct political narrative along the lines of a national epic with his “Aeneid” between 29 and 19 BCE. Making princely Trojan refugees the ancestors of his contemporary monarchic rulers, Augustus and the Julio-Claudian dynasty, Virgil transformed Troy into a source of Roman and later medieval European claims to power along with a heroic pedigree. With the fall of the city as a pivotal event. After Western Rome had fallen 500 years after Virgil and became a political myth herself, the lords of her Germanic successor states were anxious to add at least one Trojan ancestor to their pagan divine pedigree, from the Franks to the Norse, just to keep up ideologically with their Roman precursors. And thus, Troy was never forgotten in the West, even though the town under Hisarlik Hill, whether it was the real Troy or not, was finally abandoned after an earthquake for good around the time Romulus Augustulus abdicated as last Western emperor in Rome.

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