Trojan Heroes

The Trojan War was of major consequence in the antiquity, not only for the heroes that fought, but also for the city-states that took part.
The Rage of Achilles, by Tiepolo
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Trojan Heroes

3,320 years ago was a golden age in the eastern Mediterranean and the lands south and east of it. To the south was Egypt, a rich country keen to communicate and trade, even though it would be the better part of 1000 years before Alexander the Great’s general Ptolemy began the line of Macedonian rulers which would end with the death of Cleopatra VII 275 years later. To the east, the Hittites had built a great empire which occupied almost the whole of Anatolia (modern Turkey) and stretched even further east and south, clashing occasionally along its southern borders with the New Kingdom of Egypt, most notably at the battle of Kadesh 1274BCE. To the west of the Hittite empire in Anatolia lay a thin coastal strip of occasionally disputed territory stretching down from what is now the Black Sea to modern Kas and the cape south of it. The most important city on this coastal strip was Troy which the Hittites called Wilusa – eventually reduced to Ilium in Greek. Troy was a powerful port and trade centre commanding the sea-routes through what is now the Dardanelles.

West of Troy was the Aegean. The Aegean was dotted (then as now) with islands, but things were not quite the same as in modern times. Although the islands were in a loose federation with the mainland of modern Greece and theoretically fell under the aegis of the High King in Mycenae, the larger ones, such as Rhodes were powerful and independent. Many of the islands lying further to the east paid lip service to the High King but organised their societies and worshipped their gods in the Oriental fashion rather than in the Western one; something also true of the outpost cities that dotted that disputed fingernail of territory lying to the south of Troy, and, it seems, of Troy itself, which was in truth more Oriental Wilusa/Ilium than Western Troy in many important regards.

Hector admonishes Paris, by Tischbein

West of the island-speckled Aegean lay what is now modern Greece. Then it was Mycenae, a loose confederation of kingdoms which were little more than city-states like modern Monaco, Singapore and Vatican. The peoples living there did not call themselves Greek – the concept of Greece had yet to be born; indeed, Greeks refer to themselves still as Hellenes and their country as Hellas – Greece was a Roman appellation from a much later date. The Mycenaeans knew themselves as Achaeans or Argives. Their city-states were isolated from each other by the mountainous terrain of the interior. They tended to be centred around citadels, perched as often as not on the top of hills that were easy to defend, both against acquisitive neighbours and belligerent invaders. As often as not overlooking a useful harbour like Pylos, Tyrins and Corinth. But to be fair, the Mycenaeans were by no means a peaceful people constantly on the defensive, cowering behind their huge cyclopean walls. They were warlike and expansionist. To a certain extent, this was inevitable because their social system was a successful one, not unlike the equally successful feudal system of medieval Europe. The citadel and the royal family with their closest advisors, their families, servants and slaves within it, provided not only protection but a ready market for the farmers herding their sheep and goats, growing their olives and lemons, harvesting their corn or fishing the nearby lakes, streams or seas. Such a successful agrarian barter economy soon was forced to send its overplus of citizens seeking (literally) pastures new.

But then, 3220 years ago in 1200BCE, it all collapsed for reasons that are still not fully understood. The Hittites effectively vanished. The Egyptians just managed to hang on, recording catastrophic invasions by alien intruders they called ‘The Sea Peoples’. These peoples, whoever they were, wherever they came from, also seem to have overwhelmed the Mycenaean civilisation. Like the Hittites, they simply ceased to exist. The Mycenaean Dark Age had arrived. Everything went shadowy and silent for more than 400 years.

The Wrath of Achilles, by Benouville.

In 762BCE the society we now recognise as Ancient Greece was becoming established and a central part of what they considered to be their history concerned the events that they believed to have happened in a period contemporaneous with the collapse of the Mycenaean Age nearly half a millennium earlier. In an epic cycle of poems and plays arising from them, they told of a protracted conflict between the Mycenaean kings and their enemies on the thin strip of Anatolia hard up against the Hittite Empire. These historical records – as they believed them to be – had been passed down in an oral tradition stretching back into the mists of time, which achieved a new level of acceptance now because of the (re-)invention of writing. They were, for the first time, written down. The Epic Cycle consists of eight poems, six of which are largely or totally lost, existing only as digests and commentaries or references in later surviving works. These poems cover the entire story of a protracted campaign led by the Achaean High King Agamemnon of Mycenae on behalf of his cuckolded brother King Menelaus of Sparta to recover the Spartan Queen Helen from the clutches of her abductor Prince Paris of Troy.


The only two poems to survive in their entirety were ascribed by later commentators to a semi-mythical poet called Homer. The first, The Iliad, told of the siege of Ilium or Troy; the second, The Odyssey, told of the journey home from Ilium to Ithaka of one of the greatest heroes – Odysseus. In fact, The Iliad only tells of 52 days during the ten-year siege of the city, with references forward and back to other relevant events. It centres on the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon which arises when the High King is compelled to give up his hostage Chryseis and forcibly takes Achilles’ hostage Briseis in recompense, causing Achilles to withdraw from the campaign and hold back his army of Myrmidons with near-fatal consequences for the Achaeans. It is not until his companion Patroclus, disguised in Achilles’ armour, leads the Myrmidons back into battle and is killed by the Trojan hero Hector that Achilles re-joins the conflict, motivated by anger and revenge. The poem ends with Achilles’ killing of Hector, how he drags his body around Patroclus’ tomb, how King Priam leaves Troy through a secret passage, begs the return of Hector’s body, which Achilles allows. Hector’s funeral pyre is lit. His bones are collected when it cools and are buried. The Iliad closes with its famous concluding lines, ‘Thus they busied themselves with the burial of Hector, tamer of horses.’ Later poems tell of Achilles’ death, the arrival of his son Neoptolemus to take command of the Myrmidons, the construction of the Wooden Horse and the sacking of the city. There is a lost poem called The Returns that leads into The Odyssey which is in turn succeeded finally by The Telegony which tells of the death of Odysseus himself. Ironically, the only hero who survives into a contented old age is Menelaus, tended by his loving Helen to the end of their days.

The Mask of Agamemnon

The Ancient Greeks and the Romans believed these poems to be entirely factual. They believed the characters named in them were real historical figures. Alexander the Great famously visited Achilles’ tomb before setting out to conquer the world; as did the Persian King Xerxes much earlier, coming conquering the other way. Roman poets like Vergil told how Rome itself had been founded by Trojan Prince Aeneas and his followers after they escaped from the burning city. Emperors like Caracalla and Julian also made the pilgrimage. But as Christianity overtook the Eastern Empire as the Western Empire declined and fell, so did the belief that The Epic Cycle was an accurate record of actual historical events. The site of Troy was lost. The tumulus famous as Achilles’ tomb was designated just another pile of earth with no particular significance. The Iliad and The Odyssey were still read but they were eventually seen as little more than fairy tales full of gods, goddesses, witches and monsters.

The Archaeology

But then, right at the dawn of modern archaeology, a man named Heinrich Schliemann arrived. The list of his shortcomings, character flaws, mistakes and failings is a long one, but the simple truth is that he believed Troy was a real place, that the High King of Mycenae was an actual historical figure, and that there was a great deal that was factual in Homer’s poems. He put his money where his mouth was and in 1870, 52 years before Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb, he proved his beliefs to be correct. He found the ruins of Troy beneath a hill called Hisarlik on Turkey’s Anatolian coast. He found what he convinced his contemporaries was the death-mask of Agamemnon in the High King’s citadel at Mycenae and in many ways he turned the archaeological world upside down in doing so. Because the poems had retained their place at the birth of Western literature, the work of Schliemann and his successors easily caught the public imagination and that of generations of serious archaeologists of all sorts. In 1985, Professor Michael Wood broadcast a famous six-part series In Search of the Trojan War, which examined all the evidence up to that point. At much the same time Tim Severin was famously recreating the voyages of Jason and Odysseus (The Ulysses Voyage) discovering that much of what the legends reported was reflected in real situations and conditions. Their work has been extended by such authorities as Professor Eric H Cline of George Washington University, a leading authority on the Bronze Age collapse and the political situation immediately before it, which of course includes his research on Mycenaean Greece. Most recently, historian and broadcaster Bettany Hughes also retraced Odysseus’ voyage home, and like Tim Severin, found telling similarities between The Odyssey and actual conditions still to be encountered along the route.

The Triumph of Achilles, by Matsch


So, it seems that the Bronze Age Mediterranean, as Homer describes it, existed. The citadel-centred system of government Homer describes is accurate. Many of the historical figures may well have lived – their citadels certainly still stand. As Michael Wood pointed out, the Hittites may have vanished but their records still remain and they mention the troublesome city of Wilusa and the kings who ruled it. Incidents described in The Epic Cycle in the build-up to the Trojan War and certainly many physical and nautical features described in the voyages home seem pretty accurate but the questions, tantalisingly, remain. Did Prince Paris really kidnap Queen Helen? Did Menelaus’ brother Agamemnon declare war on Troy as a consequence? Did Odysseus feign madness to avoid joining the war effort? Did Queen Thetis of Phthia cause her son Achilles to be disguised and hidden away in order to keep him out of the campaign? Was Agamemnon really forced to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to ensure favourable winds to guide his 1000-ship navy out of the port of Aulis? (Was this the main reason his wife Clytemnestra murdered him when he eventually returned home victorious?) Did the fleet get lost on their first attempt to cross the Aegean and return to Aulis once again? Did the High King send his armies out to destroy other cities such as Lyrnessus to stop them helping Troy – and when Lyrnessus fell, did Achilles really take Briseis as his personal plunder – with such fatal consequences?

The answer to all this as far as I can see is a ‘Yes’ for historical novelists. The historical setting is real; the places, social mores, weaponry and battle tactics are well established. The legends are also there, bustling with full-blooded, already famous men and women trapped in situations they cannot really control, locked in relationships that seem as true today as they were in Homer’s time, leading inexorably to victory and defeat, love and death and – most of all – to really gripping stories.

Peter Tonkin is the author of the Trojan Murders. The Anger of Achilles is the latest.