Helen of Troy, Achilles’ heel, Zeus of Olympus, Homer’s Iliad, the judgement of Paris and an implausible giant wooden horse.
Even if you’re not properly versed in the Greek myths retold in Troy: Fall of a City, the chances are that some – or perhaps even all – of those phrases ring a bell. However, do you know exactly how all these pieces fit together in the same ancient story? Good news if not: all will be explored in the upcoming eight episodes of the epic BBC drama.
However, there’s a slight problem with the tale ahead: it’s a gigantic sprawling mess.
You see, Greek mythology makes little sense – even when you know the story. It’s a tattered tapestry of tales where Gods are born from others’ heads (a fully-armoured Athena stormed out from Zeus’s split noggin), children are conceived in the weirdest and most horrible of circumstances (Helen of Troy’s mum was raped by Zeus in the form of a swan) and icky ancestry is rife (Goddess of love Aphrodite’s sole parent is the severed genitals of sky god Uranus).
And just to make things even more complicated, all of the myths referred to above supposedly took place before the story of Troy. In fact, there are so many stories that precede the events of Fall of a City that tuning in might feel like starting off Game of Thrones at season six (not a bad comparison considering the God’s incestuous tendencies – see below).
So, considering the sheer complexity of the myth of Troy, it would be strange if you didn’t have a few questions at this point. Questions like…
Was Troy a real place?
Yes. Well, it’s at least very likely that the setting of the story was real. Only today it’s now known as Hisarlik, an area located on the northwest coast of Turkey.
Go back 150 years and ask the same question, however, and you’d get a different answer. Probably something like, “of course Troy doesn’t exist – neither does Atlantis, you idiot”. And that’s because, to the average Victorian, Troy and its mythical war was just that: mythical.
However, in the late 1860s, this all changed. It was during this time that German businessman-turned-archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann uncovered the ruins of the forgotten city, even claiming to have found jewels belonging to Helen of Troy, which he gave to his wife Sophie.
Sophie Schliemann wearing ‘treasures recovered at Hisarlik’, 1900 (Getty)
Yet how can we possibly trust Schliemann? Couldn’t he have just been saying all this to make a bit of money? Luckily, we don’t have to take his word on everything. Later excavations on the same site unearthed more evidence of Troy, most notably when German universities in 1988 found bronze arrowheads and fire-damaged human remains dating back to the early 12th century BC, supposedly around the time of the Battle of Troy.
Ten years of magnetic imaging surveys and archaeological digs later, and the United Nations declared Troy a World Heritage site, putting the city in the ranks of Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal. In other words, Troy is a myth no longer.
So, the battle of Troy and the whole story is real too, right?
Woah, hold your wooden horses. Although excavations suggest a battle was fought at Troy there’s no evidence that everything else in the myths is fact – there’s nothing documenting the exploits of Zeus or the main characters of the story. And, let’s face it, if there was proof of the Gods’ divine intervention then you certainly wouldn’t only be hearing about it now.
The archaeological site of ancient Troy, Hisarlik, Turkey (Getty)
Put simply: there’s no solid evidence about most of what happened in Troy. Academics aren’t even 100% sure who fought. While the myth tells of a war between the Trojans and a long list of Greek city-states known as the Myceneaens (or Achaean League), we can’t be sure of the reality. We know it’s likely that Troy was a city and a big battle was fought there, but anything else is speculation.
But real or not, we can be sure that the ancient Greeks thought the story was a big deal. Indeed, it gave them their entire identity: the myth banded together the Myceneaens into one unified Greek unit. And sure, the Greeks themselves didn’t consider the tale to be flawless history, but they still regarded it as the most important of their culture – their own origin story.
Seems strange, basing your identity on a story you doubt is true, right? Yes, but folklore has always been an important part of any national identity – just think about how the likes of King Arthur’s Camelot, Merlin, Robin Hood or St George’s battle with the dragon helped shaped English ideals and national character. They might be make-believe, but myths are certainly not meaningless.
Okay, so where did the myth of Troy actually come from?
Good question. Most people, including Fall of a City writer David Farr, say they heard the story from The Iliad, a collection of poems written by Homer (not that one).
Not much is known about him – some scholars argue he was a blind bard and others say ‘Homer’ wasn’t one person, but several authors – but we do know his account only covers merely a few weeks in the final year of the war.
The full story? That comes from a variety of sources as there’s no single, authoritative Greek text telling the entire events of the war. This means Troy storytellers have to rely on scraps of poems, oral history or vase paintings with no known creator.
And just to make things even more complicated, these accounts often contradict each other. And the retellings don’t just differ on which Gods were involved at what time, or what hair colour the characters had: some don’t even agree who won the final battle (see Greek historian Dio Chrysostom – and prepare for spoilers if you don’t know the ending).
What about the Gods? Do they have a big role in the war?
Oh yes. Although the story centres on a battle between humans, a group of Gods known as the Olympians interfere in the fighting from time to time – often on different sides of the conflict (imagine the whole thing as the Greek version of Captain America: Civil War, if that helps).
In fact, it’s basically the Olympians that cause the fighting in the first place: the story of Troy begins with three Goddesses (Hera, Athena and Aphrodite) arguing who is the rightful owner of a golden apple addressed to “the fairest”. This simple spat spurs on the largest war known to the Greek world, one in which thousands lose their lives.
Hera, Aphrodite and Athena compete for the golden ‘apple of discord’ in Troy: Fall of a City (BBC)
So, the Gods are kind of petty then?
Petty, jealous, conniving, murderous, violent and vengeful: the Greek Gods weren’t exactly the all-loving version of the Christian deity we know today. True, the Olympians occasionally valued kindness, love, hospitality, wit and parties (see God of wine, Dionysus), but they were also capable of unspeakable cruelty.
And not just towards humans. For instance, once giving birth, Hera – Zeus’ wife (and sister – told you it was like Game of Thrones) – was so horrified at the ugly baby that greeted her that she threw it down the side of a mountain. Even Apollo – God of healing and poetry, and one of the most the beloved characters in mythology – once flayed Marsyas, a faun-like being, alive after the latter almost outplayed him in a music competition.
Marsyas and Apollo, a (downright gruesome) painting by Luca Giordano in the early 1650s (Getty)
In short: if given the chance, do not meddle with the Greek gods. Particularly if they challenge you to a lyre-off.
Troy: Fall of a City starts 9:10pm 17th February on BBC1