The ancient city of Troy was located along the northwest coast of Asia Minor, in what is now Turkey. It occupied a strategic position on the Dardanelles, a narrow water channel that connects the Aegean Sea to the Black Sea, via the Sea of Marmara. This was one of the most important trade routes in the ancient world, and Troy’s location enabled the city and its inhabitants to flourish, especially during the Bronze Age. Over the past two centuries Troy has become one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world. Yet despite its fame, both in literature and in our imaginations, it remains a place shrouded in myth and legend, unlike almost any other.
The tale of the Trojan War is perhaps the most famous story of ancient Greek mythology. For almost 3,000 years, the fabled feud between Greeks and Trojans has captivated audiences. Tradition holds that the war took place during the Mycenaean Age, toward the end of the second millennium B.C., a time of legendary heroes and warriors. Combatants on both sides, including Achilles, Odysseus, Ajax, Agamemnon, Hector, and Aeneas remain household names even today. The Trojan War and its events provide the background for two epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, which were supposedly composed by the poet Homer around the eighth century B.C. But these are just two examples out of the many works of ancient literature that chronicle the war’s events.
The mythical conflict took place outside the walls of Troy, an ancient city on the coast of Asia Minor. But the seeds of war were sown far from there, in the city of Sparta on the Greek mainland. According to legend, the Trojan prince Paris visited Sparta, which at the time was ruled by King Menelaus. Menelaus’ wife Helen was said to be the most beautiful woman in the world. When Paris departed Greece, he left with Helen by his side, enraging the Spartan leader. Not only was Menelaus a formidable king in his own right, but his brother Agamemnon was the king of Mycenae, and the most powerful ruler in Greece. Agamemnon assembled a massive army and set sail across the Aegean Sea with over 1,000 ships, determined to retrieve Helen from Troy.
For many years the Greeks camped outside the walls of Troy, but were unable to penetrate its mighty defenses. By the tenth year, many of the Greek soldiers longed to see their homeland again. Thus, the cunning Odysseus finally devised a plan to end the war once and for all. The Greeks constructed a giant wooden horse and secretly filled it with a contingent of their best fighters. They left the horse on the beach and sailed away during the night, pretending that they had finally given up and returned home. When the Trojans awoke the next morning, they were astonished to see that all that remained of the Greek encampment was the large wooden horse. Believing it to be a votive gift to the gods, offered by the Greeks to ensure their safe passage home, the Trojans wheeled the contraption inside the city walls and celebrated their hard-fought victory. That night, the Greek warriors that were concealed within the belly of the horse stealthily descended, and opened Troy’s gates to the returning armada of Greek ships. There was nothing the Trojans could do as Greeks ran through their streets and ransacked the city. The Greeks killed and enslaved almost the entire Trojan population, with a few notable exceptions. One of these was a Trojan named Aeneas, who was able to escape the city with a small band of friends and family. In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil recounts how Aeneas settled in Italy. There his descendants eventually founded Rome.
Is the tale of the Trojan War just a myth or was it a real historical fact? Was there really a city called Troy? Did Homer base his poems on true events, the details of which had been passed down to him by generations of Greeks? These are the questions that historians have pondered for thousands of years.
For the ancient Greeks, the Trojan War was a real historical event fought by their heroic ancestors. But until 150 years ago, many modern historians doubted its authenticity, considering it to be a fictional–albeit entertaining–story created by ancient writers. There was no definitive proof that the city of Troy even existed. That all began to change in the mid-nineteenth century, when an amateur archaeologist named Frank Calvert began investigating a 100-foot-high hill near the northwestern coast of Turkey called Hisarlik (“Place of Fortresses”). Much of the topography there seemed to match Homer’s descriptions, and Calvert became convinced that the legendary city of Troy was buried beneath the hill. Calvert joined forces with German businessman Heinrich Schliemann, and in the 1870s the first large-scale excavations of the site began. They would soon unearth an extraordinary lost ancient city with a 4,000 year-old history. It would become one of the most important archaeological discoveries of all time.
Over the past century and half, around 50 archaeological campaigns have been conducted at Troy. Led by some of the field of archaeology’s most renowned scholars, including William Dörpfield, Carl Blegen, Manfred Korfmann, and C. Brian Rose, they have continued to further unlock the site’s hidden history These excavations have revealed an amazingly rich, yet complex archaeological picture. The hill of Hisarlik has been built upon, erased, and built upon again in a continuous cycle that lasted millennia. Therefore we cannot accurately speak of Troy as one single city. Instead, the ruins of Troy actually comprise as many as nine different settlements stacked on top of one another, dating from 3000 B.C. to A.D. 500, a broad spectrum that ranges from the early Bronze Age to the late Roman period. These are frequently identified as Troy I-Troy IX. On the interactive map on the home page, the levels are represented by different colors. Click on the layers to glimpse various archaeological features belonging to each time period and witness how the site changed and evolved over subsequent eras.
Was there a real Trojan War? This is one of the most highly discussed topics in Bronze Age archaeology. While there is no conclusive proof that the Trojan War actually took place, there are some intriguing clues that parts of the story may have been based, at least partially, on real events. The best evidence may not be found at Troy itself, but in Hittite historical documents. During the second millennium B.C., the Hittites ruled over a powerful empire that spread across much of modern-day Turkey. Over the past century, archaeologists have uncovered hundreds of clay tablets in the Hittite capital of Hattusa which record official government and administrative business. Several tablets, dating to between 1400 and 1200 B.C., mention a place called Wilusa, located in western Anatolia. Most scholars now believe this is a direct reference to Troy. “Wilusa” is very similar to the Greek word “Ilios” or “Ilion,” which is what Homer actually calls Troy (the “w” had dropped out of Greek by Homer’s time). In fact, the Iliad takes its name from this word. One of the kings of Wilusa is also recorded as having the name Alaksandu. Homer sometimes refers to the Trojan prince Paris as Alexandros, another striking parallel. Hittite documents also mention a group of people called the Ahhiyawans that came from across the Aegean Sea and were frequently in conflict with the cities along the Anatolian coast. Many linguists believe the word “Ahhiyawans” refers to the Greek word “Achaeans,” which is what Homer calls the Greeks (“Greek” was not a term used at that time). While this evidence is far from conclusive, it does at least suggest that during the alleged time of the Trojan War, Greeks had a military presence in western Anatolia, that a city called Troy existed there, and that one of its royal rulers was named Alexandros.
Beginning almost immediately after Troy’s rediscovery, archaeologists have been searching for evidence of Homer’s city within its walls. In his eagerness to locate it, Schliemann unfortunately destroyed much of the site’s archaeology. Assuming that what he was after was at the bottom of the settlement’s many layers, Schliemann dug through through 30 to 40 feet of important historical debris in his search. When he reached the layer of Troy II, he believed that he had at last found Homer’s Troy, as evidenced by an exquisite collection of gold, silver, and bronze artifacts. He called this “Priam’s Treasure,” after the mythical king of Troy. However, Troy II and the treasure date to around 2400 B.C., more than 1,000 years before the supposed events of the Trojan War.
If there is indeed a level corresponding to the Trojan War and Homer’s fabled city, some scholars believe it should be associated with either Troy VI or Troy VIIa. During this period, the inhabitants of Troy flourished. The city was surrounded by a circuit of monumental defensive walls worthy of the Homeric descriptions as “well-walled” and “strong-built.” Recent archaeological work has also shown that the settlement was not confined to the hilltop citadel, but spread along the low-lying plains as well. Some estimates suggest the city extended over an area of around 50 acres at this time, and might have had a population of 7,000 people. There are even signs that it was suddenly and catastrophically destroyed. Could this be tangible evidence of the Trojan War? It is a matter of much debate, and we will probably never have a definitive answer. Nonetheless, while its associations with Homer, the Trojan War, and the Heroic Age are exciting to imagine, over the past two centuries the archaeology of Troy has revealed it truly to be one of the most important and intriguing sites of its time.