Global EngagementUC HomeAbout UCUC AcademicsUC AdmissionsUC AthleticsUC GlobalUC HealthUC LibrariesUC ResearchNews


A Test on Troy: What’s Real vs. What’s Reel

Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom head the cast for the May 14 release of “Troy,” Hollywood’s answer to the classical Homeric epic, the Iliad. The ancient tale tells of a queen’s kidnapping, a bloody siege of the Troy citadel and acrid rivalries amongst wartime allies – all climaxing in a long-awaited victory by means of duplicitous craft. So what’s the real story anyway?

Date: 4/22/2004 12:00:00 AM
By: Mary Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: provided by Brian Rose

UC ingot  

To dig up the real dirt on Troy, archaeologist Brian Rose of the University of Cincinnati easily serves as the national authority.  He headed UC’s Greek and Roman expeditions at Troy for 15 years, making finds of ancient gold jewelry, buried sculptures of famous emperors and many another historic treasure – landing him on the airwaves of outlets like the BBC and on the pages of The New York Times and other publications. 

Rose with a statue of the Roman Emperor Hadrian

Rose’s career-making archaeological odyssey – and that of his UC and international colleagues like Manfred Korfmann of the University of Tuebingen in Germany (director of the Troy excavation) – has helped to reveal the real nature of the wars that raged at Troy throughout antiquity.  His efforts continue UC’s long-standing connections to ancient Troy, which stretch back decades.  In the 1930s, UC archaeologist Carl Blegen led the second of three major excavations that have dug at Troy. 

That Troy legend, in brief, holds that in about 1200 B.C., a prince of Troy kidnapped the beautiful queen of a Greek kingdom.  The Greeks then laid siege to Troy, but were only able to subdue it, after ten years of warfare, via trickery.  They built a large, hollow, wooden horse as a supposed gift to Athena, goddess of war, and then hid inside the horse.  The Trojans dragged the horse into their own city so that they themselves might possess this gift to Athena and thus accrue any benefits it might bring.  Later, at night, the Greeks snuck out of the horse’s belly and sacked the citadel.

The reality of Troy is, well, a horse of a different color than what Hollywood will likely show us or even, in some cases, what Homer encapsulates in his adventure epic.  Rose and UC archaeologist colleagues Jack Davis, who is Carl Blegen professor of Greek archaeology at UC, and Holt Parker, associate professor of classics, will present a mini-symposium on the Trojan War at 7 p.m., Wednesday, May 5, in Room 308 of UC’s Blegen Library.  They will discuss:

• Homer: Man or Myth?
• War and Society in Greece in the Time of Home
• Assessing the Archaeological Evidence for the Trojan War

Or, you can catch Rose, Davis and Getzel Cohen, professor of classics, in the one-hour documentary, “Beyond the Movie: Troy,” on the National Geographic Channel.  The documentary will air at 9 p.m. on May 7 and at 1 a.m. on May 8 and May 15.    

Below is a roundup of some of the fact vs. fiction that we know about Troy:

• Magnificent myth or historic happening?
There is no archaeological evidence that specifically buttresses Homer’s 8th-century B.C. version of a ten-year, Bronze Age conflict pitting Mycennaean Greeks against the Trojans (Troy is located in what is today northwestern Turkey) and ending in the fiery destruction of Troy. 

Battle scene from a sarcophagus found about an hour's drive east of Troy and dating from about 400 B.C.

Troy was often destroyed and rebuilt, subject as it was to raids and wars, due to its important – and accessible – coastal position controlling the straits between the Aegean and the Black seas, which probably allowed it to grow very rich from trade.  So, though we speak of one Trojan War, there were actually many.  And though we speak of Troy as a single entity, there were actually several settlements, each superimposed atop another over a span of time stretching to about 4,500 years.  Troy 1 was the smaller, simpler settlement from the early Bronze Age.  A later city built on the same site, Troy 6, is the one most frequently associated with what we refer to as The Trojan War.

It’s likely that Homer did what Hollywood is now doing.  He took a fairly long and complex historical tradition of conflict, and he condensed it, made it simpler to understand and spiced it up with romance and rivalries.

• Was Homer even a real person?
It’s not certain.  Homer is believed to have been a blind Ionian poet, perhaps from Smyrna or the Island of Chios, who composed the story of the Iliad in about 730 B.C. and the Odyssey later, around 700 B.C., about six centuries after the events had supposedly occurred. 

 Did Homer really compose the 24 books of the Iliad and the later work, the Odyssey, himself?

Trojan coin depicting Trojan War hero, Hector, throwing firebrands at the Greek ships. It dates from the second century A.D.

He likely collected stories that had been recited by traveling bards for more than 500 years.  He’s actually part of an oral tradition of many poets reciting from memory; however, Homer probably repackaged, condensed and unified the stories of others..

• Was it really all over a woman?
There is no archaeological evidence for this.  Any Trojan War of the period may have been due to a rivalry between the Greeks and the Hittite empire in central Turkey for control of this strategically important location.  

 Could the Greeks really have launched more than a thousand ships in an effort to conquer Troy?
No.  The settlements of Greece during the late Bronze Age could not have mustered that kind of sea power. 

• Would any siege really have lasted 10 years?

LImestone defensive wall from the period of the Trojan War of epic fame

During the Bronze Age (about 3000 to 1000 B.C.), Troy would have been well fortified, with large towers, heavily protected gates and limestone walls.  Because of the sophisticated fortifications that would have been found there – including defensive ditches – it would have been an extraordinarily difficult site to conquer.  So it seems likely that any ancient war there – including that described in the Iliad – would have taken a long time.  Maybe Homer picked 10 years as the war’s duration because 10 years was how long a mythic war between the gods and earthly giants was believed to have lasted. 

• Did the war really end with a horse?
No.  There’s no archaeological evidence for this, and its (the hollow horse) existence was doubted even by the ancient Greeks. 

• Did the fall of Troy really lead to the founding of Rome?

An early Bronze Age wooden defensive wall once stood here in what was Troy's lower city at the time.

No.  Even though Virgil’s Aeneid states that Rome was founded by Aeneas, one of the few Trojan nobles to supposedly survive the 12th century B.C. fall of Troy, that’s impossible.  Rome was not founded until 400 years after the fall of Troy that is recounted by Homer.  The Romans believed that the Trojan hero, Aeneas, and other refugees from that war settled in central Italy.  They further believed that it was two descendents of Aeneas – Romulus and Remus – who purportedly founded the city in 753 B.C.  Thus, Aeneas was viewed as the father of the Roman people.  Still, the connection with Troy was strong enough that the Romans turned Troy into something of an ancient world “tourist trap.”  The Romans went there to find their roots, so to speak.

Troy today – or rather the Turkish residents living near the site – have been taking advantage of tourist possibilities.  It's typically received hundreds of thousands of visitors annually over the last decade and now includes a walking path through the site, a tourist information center and, of course, a 60-foot-high dark wooden horse – the Trojan Horse – at the entrance.  You can even climb a ladder into the horse’s belly. 

However, if the movie “Troy” tickles your curiosity but you’re without the means to travel to Troy, you’ve another option.  Another UC faculty member, Liz Riorden, assistant professor of architecture who worked at Troy throughout most of the 1990s, will soon begin building a Web site for school children that is devoted to visualizing the Troy that was.