Many modern people are under the impression that the same thing happened to the historical city of Troy: that Troy ceased to exist at the end of the Bronze Age; that it was destroyed by the Greeks at the end of the Bronze Age, so that even the location of the city was lost; and that the ruins of the real Troy lay undiscovered until Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations in the 1870s-80s.
Everything in the above paragraph is unequivocally false.
We won’t focus on Schliemann today — his activities at Hisarlık (the modern name for the hill of Troy’s citadel) offer more than enough material for a lengthy debunking all by themselves. Today we’ll focus on the ‘loss’ of Troy. When was Troy ‘lost’?
Early Greek epic certainly gives us ample reason to think of Troy as a city that has been destroyed utterly. At one point in the Iliad, a defeated Trojan begs the Greek Menelaos for mercy. Menelaos is considering taking him captive instead of killing him, but his brother Agamemnon pops out of nowhere and says (Il. 6.55-60):
‘Menelaos, my dear, why do you care so much(Ilios/Ilion is an alternate name for Troy.) And here’s a fragment from the Little Iliad, a poem from the lost Epic Cycle, which uses one family as an emblem for the massacre of the children and enslavement of the women (fragment 21 ed. Bernabé = fr. 29 ed. West):
about these men? Have you and your house been treated so finely
by the Trojans? Let none of them escape sheer destruction
at our hands, not even any boy that a mother carries
in her womb: let none escape, but let all the people
of Ilios be utterly destroyed, unmourned, wiped to oblivion!’
But Achilleus’ great-hearted shining son
led Hektor’s wife in captivity back to the hollow ships,
and he took her son from the embrace of his lovely-haired nurse,
grabbed him by the foot and threw him from a tower. As he fell,
a bloody death and hard fate snatched him up.
|Sack of Troy: Neoptolemus kills king Priam,|
bludgeoning him with the corpse of his grandson.
(Attic, ca. 520-10 BCE; Louvre)
That’s the legend. What about the reality?
Archaeological evidence is the most reliable way of corroborating or disproving the stories. And one piece of archaeological evidence is popularly linked to the legend. There are traces of a large fire on the citadel of Troy dating to the end of the level called ‘Troy VIIa’, that is, ca. 1190 BCE. The archaeological layers are numbered Troy I, II, III, etc. starting from the lowest and earliest level: the higher the number, the shallower and more recent the archaeological remains are. The fire of Troy VIIa is popularly equated with the legendary war especially thanks to Michael Wood's BBC TV documentary series and book In Search of the Trojan War (1985). For what was known at the time, it’s an extremely competent piece of work. The entire series can be watched on YouTube here.
It is perhaps worth pointing out that, among ancient historians who believe the Trojan War actually happened, they gravitate more towards Troy VIh as the best candidate for a historical war. That would put the ‘fall of Troy’ about a century earlier. Very few ancient historians nowadays would opt for Troy VIIa. But that’s neither here nor there. As another incidental by-the-way, some archaeologists involved in excavation at Troy would now refer to that layer as ‘Troy VIi’, not VIIa (for reasons that don’t matter just now).
The important thing, and it really is worth emphasising, is that Troy was not destroyed at that time. On the contrary: after the fire of Troy VIIa, the citadel was promptly rebuilt. It continued to be occupied without any pause for another 250 years or so. The population dwindled — not an exceptional thing: that also happened at many other sites in Greece and Anatolia in the early 12th century BCE — and the site was finally abandoned ca. 950 BCE.
Did I say abandoned? Well, yes... but the story doesn’t end there. Troy was not ‘lost’ in 950 BCE either. In fact, Greek colonists settled the site once again starting in the early 8th century BCE. It became a Greek city, and a part of the Greek world.
There were probably other ethnic groups already living in the region, who would account for references in Homer to Lelegians and other peoples living with and allied to the legendary Trojans. These peoples are not part of the history of Bronze Age Troy: there is no evidence to put these groups there in the 12th century, in spite of large quantities of Hittite textual evidence about the regional and ethnic divisions of Anatolia. In the Greek city of Troy, the main state cult was to Ilian Athena. And again, this Greek cult, dating to the time of Greek colonisation, accounts for the references to a cult of Athena in the legendary Troy: in Homer, the only cult inside the city walls that is mentioned is the shrine to Athena on the citadel (at Iliad 6.269-70 and 6.297-311), even though Athena is vehemently opposed to the legendary city.
Greek Troy continued to be inhabited for another two thousand years.
It went on to have a colourful history. Xerxes visited Troy on his way to invade Greece in 480 BCE, and made offerings to Ilian Athena as a propaganda gesture: it made it look as if he had come to avenge king Priam. When Alexander captured Troy from the Persians in 334 BCE, he too made offerings to Ilian Athena, gave Troy special legal privileges, and ordered the construction of a new temple to Athena. From 306 BCE Troy enjoyed still more status as the capital of a league of cities in the Troad.
|Coin of Antiochus III, 197 BCE|
In the Roman era, Troy came to be more important still, as a emblem for Roman-Greek relations. There was already a long-standing legend that Romans had Trojans in their ancestry, so Troy took on great symbolic importance. There may have been one bad hiccup in 85 BCE: there’s a story (not corroborated) that a mutinying Roman commander, Fimbria, sacked the city and boasted that he had done in ten days what Agamemnon had taken ten years to do.
But afterwards Julius Caesar, as dictator of Rome, continued the tradition of honouring the city with tax breaks and other privileges. Caesar’s family claimed descent from the goddess Venus via the Trojan Aeneas, so Caesar tried to shift the emphasis of Trojan religious life away from Athena (Minerva) towards Aphrodite (Venus), and he issued coins showing Venus on one side and Aeneas’ flight from Troy on the other. To some extent this stuck: Aphrodite continued to appear on some later Trojan coins. Suetonius, a gossip-mongering biographer, claims that there was even a rumour floating around just before Caesar’s assassination that he had been planning to abscond with the city’s armies and treasury and set himself up as king of an eastern empire, with his capital in either Troy or Alexandria. That rumour is certainly untrue. But it may just be true that the rumour did exist.
Under the Principate, another new temple to Ilian Athena was built in the reign of Augustus. Many other public works followed, and Troy reached the pinnacle of its historical size and importance. In the 4th century CE, when the emperor Constantine was planning to establish a second capital city for the eastern half of the empire, he was seriously considering Troy as an alternative to Byzantium. It would never have made sense to actually choose Troy ahead of Byzantium — a tourist trap ahead of a major economic power with major strategic significance — but it shows that Troy still had huge symbolic importance.
Its importance only began to fade after around 500 CE, when it was badly damaged by a major earthquake. Increasing urbanisation around Constantinople must also have leeched people and money away from Troy. Even so, in the 10th century it became the seat of a minor Byzantine bishop. But it must have been badly hit by the Byzantine-Turkish wars in the 11th century; by the time the Ottomans finished conquering the region in 1308, it had probably been abandoned for some time.
At that point, and only at that point, does it begin to make any kind of sense to speak of Troy as ‘lost’. And even then, it was only ‘lost’ in the sense that people in the Latin west no longer had any direct knowledge of it because they didn’t travel in the region very much.
|Edward Daniel Clarke, 1769-1822|
Schliemann was neither the discoverer of Troy nor the first person to identify the site as Troy (in fact he doubted Calvert's word on the matter at first). He was just the first excavator to get down to Bronze Age material, and he liked to pretend that there was an entrenched orthodoxy against him for rhetorical reasons. In reality, Troy didn’t need to be ‘discovered’: it was never lost in any meaningful sense.
Further reading. Trevor Bryce, The Trojans and their neighbours (Routledge, 2006), chapter 7 is an excellent brief summary of the history of Greco-Roman Troy (VIII, IX, and X). On the city’s cultural and political signifiance in the same age, see Andrew Erskine, Troy between Greece and Rome (Oxford, 2001).