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Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.

[Christopher Marlowe]                   

The Troy of Myth

Legend has it that about 3200 years ago there was a city called Troy, or Ilium, somewhere near the Dardanelles. The gods Apollo and Poseidon, during a time when they were being punished by having to work among men, reluctantly built the city of Troy for Priam's father, Laomedon. Disgruntled, they invited the mortal man Aeacus  to help them, since destiny had decreed that Troy would one day be captured in a place built by human hands. When newly constructed, Troy was attacked and captured by Heracles, Telamon, father of the Greek strongman Ajax, and Peleus, Achilles' father. Achilles and Ajax would later play prominent roles in the Trojan War. This was an act of revenge, for Laomedon had not given Heracles a promised reward for rescuing Laomedon's daughter Hesione. Telamon killed Laomedon and took Hesione as a concubine. 

Laomedon's son Priam became king, married Hecuba and fathered many children. Under his rule, the Trojans engaged in farming, fishing, hunting and breading animals. This "horse tamer" people also traded with their neighbors. Through trade as well as agriculture, the Trojans became rich and had a very high standard of living. The Immortals were probably jealous of their happiness and decided to make plans for the destruction of this city. Already Poseidon and Apollo were set against the Trojans.

One day Queen Hecuba had a nightmare. In her dream, fire was coming out of her stomach and the smoke from this fire was covering the city walls. Hecuba told her dream to Priam and later to a soothsayer. The prophecy of the soothsayer was terrible. He said that Hecuba was pregnant and the baby would one day cause the destruction of Troy. The baby had to be killed as soon as he was born. Believing this, after the baby was born, King Priam gave the task to one of his men. But this man could not bring himself to slay an inew-born baby; instead he left him in a forest on Mount Ida. A shepherd found the baby and brought him home. This baby grew up on Mount Ida as a shepherd, and became a very handsome young man. They called him Paris. Paris lived on Mount Ida with a lovely nymph named Oenone, without knowing that he was a Trojan prince.

One day an interesting dispute took place on Mount Olympus. The evil goddess of discord, Eris, was not invited to a banquet at an important marriage, that of Peleus and the sea nymph Thetis. Resenting this deeply, Eris determined to make trouble. She threw into the banqueting hall a golden apple marked "For the Fairest". Of course, all the goddesses wanted it. After long discussions, only the three great goddesses, Hera, Athena and Aphrodite remained. They went to Zeus and asked him to judge between them. But very wisely he said he would have nothing to do with the matter. So they decided to find an impartial judge, preferably a young male mortal with an eye for feminine beauty.

That turned out to be Paris. So they descended to the slopes of Mount Ida and put the question to him. The three great goddesses offered him bribes. Hera promised him power. Athena offered wisdom. And Aphrodite enticed him with the fairest woman in the world. Paris chose Aphrodite, thus incurring the emnity of the other two formidable goddesses.

Now, some time earlier a princess named Leda caught the amorous eye of Zeus, king of the gods. He came to her in the form of a swan. When she gave birth, it was not to living babies, but to two eggs. Out of one hatched the boy twins Castor and Polydeuces; from the other sprang the girl twins Clytemnestra and Helen. As daughters of Zeus, the girls became sought after by all the Grecian princes, eager for an alliance with the mightiest of the immortals. In addition, Helen  grew up to be the most beautiful woman in the world. A war would have broken out among her suitors if it were not for Odysseus. He suggested that all the suitors vow to leave the matter up to Helen and to swear allegiance to whomever she picked. They agreed. 

Helen picked Menelaus, king of Sparta. Her sister Clytemnestra married Menelaus' brother, Agamemnon, king of Argos, the richest and most most powerful of the Greek states. There was a curse on the family of Agamemnon and Menelaus going back several generations that the fates were going to work out through the marriage of Helen and the judgment of Paris.

So it happened that Paris arrived in Sparta seeking hospitality from Helen and Menelaus. Menelaus, who no one ever accused of being very bright, left Paris in his home and went off to Crete. But when he came back home he found that Helen had run off with Paris to Troy. Menelaus invoked the oath of the Greek princes, who set off with him to lay siege to Troy and bring Helen back to Sparta.


statuette from the era of the Trojan War

But Troy was not helpless. Priam's eldest son Hector was a great general. He and his army kept the Greeks at bay for 10 whole years. Only after the Greek champion Achilles slew hector and was in turn killed by Paris, did the Greeks agree to the stratagem of Odysseus that ended hostilities. One morning the Trojans awoke with astonishment. Everywhere was quiet. The noisy Greek camp was empty and the ships were gone. In front of the western gate stood a huge figure of a horse, such as no one had ever seen. According to the only man remaining in the Greek camp, the Greeks had given up. They had accepted defeat and sailed for Greece, leaving the wooden horse as a votive offering to Athena. The reason for its huge size was to discourage the Trojans from taking it into the city. If the Tnojans destroyed the horse, they would draw down Athena's anger upon them. If they brought it into the city, she would direct her favors towards the Trojans and away from the Greeks.

The Trojans tore down the narrow western gate and through the enlarged gap dragged the horse into the city. They then refilled the gap with unworked stones. That night they held a huge celebration where wine flowed freely. At last, when the city was quiet, Odysseus and his companions let themselves out of the horse and opened the gates for the rest of the Greek army, which had sailed back to Troy under cover of darkness. The Greeks sacked the city and burned it to the ground.

The Greeks may have been victorious, but at a tremendous cost. The gods regarded the sacking of Troy and especially the treatment of the temples as a sacrilege, and they punished many of the Greek leaders. The fleet was almost destroyed by a storm on the journey back. Menelaus's ships sailed all over the sea for seven years--to Egypt. Agamemnon returned to Argos, where he was murdered by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus. Odysseus himself was delayed another 10 years on the sea. 

The many adventures of the war were kept alive for generations by aoidai, or "singers of tales." Such a one was said to be a blind aoidos named Homer. Scholars talk about the Trojan Cycle of epic poems about the war itself and the Nostoi,  the group concerning the ill-fated returns of the Greek heroes after the war's end. Homer's Iliad is the only complete survivor of the former and his Odyssey the only complete survivor of the latter. It is generally held that the Trojan War took place in the 12th century B.C.E.

Troy Today

For thousands of years no one knew whether the Trojan War actually took place. Then an eccentric German industrialist named Heinrich Schliemann dug up the ruins, not only of Troy (in 1871), but of Agamemnon's city of Mycenae in Argos. Troy is located in western Turkey near the entrance of the Dardanelles strait that connects the Aegean Sea to the Black Sea by way of the Sea of Marmara. Troy is one of the world’s most important archaeological sites because of its place in literature and what it tells us about a critical early period in the development of European civilization. Archaeologists have been excavating here since the 1870s and have found evidence of nine different settlements built on top of each other at different periods since the Bronze Age.

Today many researchers accept that the Troy of Priam was the first phase of the seventh settlement, Troy VIIa. Troy VI was brought to its end by a violent earthquake. The survivors immediately repaired the fortification walls, reconstructed the old houses and built many new ones. Numerous small, roughly built houses everywhere in the acropolis and innumerable storage jars indicate that a large number of people took shelter within the fortification from an invasion. Traces of fire and fighting, such as arrow heads and spear heads and an abundance of human skeletons -- including a human jaw cut by a sword -- give evidence that Troy VIIa was the Troy which was besieged, sacked and torched by the Greeks.

from articles by Mustafa Askin, Ian Johnston and others

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