The story of the Trojan War—the Bronze Age conflict between the kingdoms of Troy and Mycenaean Greece–straddles the history and mythology of ancient Greece and inspired the greatest writers of antiquity, from Homer, Herodotus and Sophocles to Virgil. Since the 19th-century rediscovery of the site of Troy in what is now western Turkey, archaeologists have uncovered increasing evidence of a kingdom that peaked and may have been destroyed around 1,180 B.C.—perhaps forming the basis for the tales recounted by Homer some 400 years later in the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey.”
The Narrative of the Trojan War
According to classical sources, the war began after the abduction (or elopement) of Queen Helen of Sparta by the Trojan prince Paris. Helen’s jilted husband Menelaus convinced his brother Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, to lead an expedition to retrieve her. Agamemnon was joined by the Greek heroes Achilles, Odysseus, Nestor and Ajax, and accompanied by a fleet of more than a thousand ships from throughout the Hellenic world. They crossed the Aegean Sea to Asia Minor to lay siege to Troy and demand Helen’s return by Priam, the Trojan king.
The siege, punctuated by battles and skirmishes including the storied deaths of the Trojan prince Hector and the nearly-invincible Achilles, lasted more than 10 years until the morning the Greek armies retreated from their camp, leaving a large wooden horse outside the gates of Troy. After much debate (and unheeded warnings by Priam’s daughter Cassandra), the Trojans pulled the mysterious gift into the city. When night fell, the horse opened up and a group of Greek warriors, led by Odysseus, climbed out and sacked the Troy from within.
After the Trojan defeat, the Greeks heroes slowly made their way home. Odysseus took 10 years to make the arduous and often-interrupted journey home to Ithaca recounted in the “Odyssey.” Helen, whose two successive Trojan husbands were killed during the war, returned to Sparta to reign with Menelaus. After his death, some sources say she was exiled to the island of Rhodes, where a vengeful war widow had her hanged.
The Trojan War Epics
Little is known about the historical Homer. Historians date the completion of the “Iliad” to about 750 B.C., and the “Odyssey” to about 725. Both began within the oral tradition, and were first transcribed decades or centuries after their composition. Many of the most familiar episodes of the war, from the abduction of Helen to the Trojan Horse and the sack of Troy, come from the so-called “Epic Cycle” of narratives assembled in the sixth century B.C. from older oral traditions.
In the first century B.C. the Roman poet Virgil composed the “Aeneid,” the third great classical epic inspired by the Trojan War. It follows a group of Trojans led by the hero Aeneas who leave their destroyed city to travel to Carthage before founding the city of Rome. Virgil’s aim was in part to give Rome’s first imperial dynasty an origin story as impressive as that of the Greeks.
Is the Trojan War a Real War?
Many portions of the Trojan War epics are difficult to read historically. Several of the main characters are direct offspring of the Greek gods (Helen was fathered by Zeus, who disguised himself as a swan and raped her mother Leda), and much of the action is guided (or interfered with) by the various competing gods. For example, Paris supposedly won Helen’s love after awarding the Goddess Aphrodite the golden apple for her beauty (“The Judgment of Paris” tells the story of how Paris was asked to select the most beautiful goddess between Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite by granting the winner a golden apple). Lengthy sieges were recorded in the era, but the strongest cities could only hold out for a few months, not 10 full years.
Major excavations at the site of Troy in 1870 under the direction of German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann revealed a small citadel mound and layers of debris 25 meters deep. Later studies have document more than 46 building phases grouped into nine bands representing the site’s inhabitation from 3,000 B.C. until its final abandonment in A.D. 1350. Recent excavations have shown an inhabited area 10 times the size of the citadel, making Troy a significant Bronze Age city. Layer VIIa of the excavations, dated to about 1180 B.C., reveals charred debris and scattered skeletons—evidence of a wartime destruction of the city that may have inspired portions of the story of the Trojan War. In Homer’s day, 400 years later, its ruins would have still been visible.