By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
For the first time, a depiction of the Trojan War was discovered in the United Kingdom. A team of archaeologists who famously unearthed the remains of Richard III several years ago found the Roman mosaic in a farmer’s field. Did Homer’s Troy really exist?
In 2012, University of Leicester archaeologists found the remains of King Richard III in a parking lot near the Leicester Cathedral. Just nine years later, they discovered a Roman mosaic depicting the Trojan War from Homer’s The Iliad—the first of its kind in the U.K. The mosaic, which was found in a farmer’s field 100 miles north of London, reportedly shows Achilles battling Hector, and measures approximately 36 feet by 23 feet.
The city of Troy has been found in more ways than one, but evidence for the conflict described by Homer is scant. Was there any historical truth to the Trojan War? In her video series The Odyssey of Homer, Dr. Elizabeth Vandiver, Professor of Classics at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, said it’s one of archaeology’s great mysteries.
Mythology Is in My Blood
“The ancient Greeks themselves believed that the Trojan War was a historical fact,” Dr. Vandiver said. “They thought that it was an actual episode in the past of their own ancestors. In fact, in the 5th century in Athens, and later, there were families who traced their descent from great heroes of the Trojan War—from Agamemnon, Achilles, and others—and believed that these men had indeed been their own ancestors.”
The Romans also took the war as historical fact, tracing their own ancestry to the opposing side of the war. Specifically, they traced their lineage back to the Trojan Prince Aeneas, who, according to the Iliad, was destined to survive the war and flee with several survivors to begin a new country. That country, they said, was Rome, and Julius Caesar’s family claimed to have traced their ancestry straight to Iulus, Aeneas’s son.
“Both Greek and Roman historians sometimes questioned what the motivations for the war had been,” Dr. Vandiver said. “Some of them questioned whether, in fact, such a devastating war would have been fought over Helen, over an adulterous affair between Paris and Helen, and some of them came up with other explanations for why the war had been fought, but neither the war itself nor the existence of Troy were ever called into question in antiquity.”
Along Came Archaeology
By the 18th century, according to Dr. Vandiver, many historians believed that the Trojan War was entirely fictional. The general location of the city of Troy was known—an area known as Troad, the northwestern area of Turkey—but from there, the details get hazy.
“About 700 B.C., Greek colonists had settled in the Troad, and had built a settlement that they called Ilion—and of course, Ilion is another name for Troy,” Dr. Vandiver said. “These Greek colonists had built a settlement that they called Ilion on a flat-topped hill in the Troad, in the Trojan plain, a hill that in modern Turkish is called Hisarlik.”
Romans later resettled the area as Novum Ilium, and Hisarlik was continuously populated until the 14th century, when it was abandoned. These names for the area and its repeated change of ownership became pertinent 500 years after its final abandonment.
The desire to find the “real” Troy, whether or not it was the site of Homer’s Iliad, came into its own in the early 19th century with the rapid development of the field of archaeology. The problem was that as early excavators uncovered the remnants of civilization at Hisarlik, those artifacts only dated back to Greco-Roman times and not the Trojan War. In Dr. Vandiver’s words, everything that was found “was simply not old enough, could not be Homer’s Troy.”
But about That War…
In 1870, a self-taught German archaeologist named Heinrich Schliemann began a much more comprehensive dig. Schliemann was a notorious embellisher and storyteller, but he nevertheless retrieved countless artifacts of a civilization that not only existed in the times about which Homer wrote, but predated them all the way to 3,000 B.C.E.—artifacts that have every factor of authenticity about them.
“So Schliemann had found evidence of flourishing civilizations—both in Turkey where Troy ought to be and on Greece at about the time period when Agamemnon’s civilization should have existed,” Dr. Vandiver said. “But had he found Homer’s Troy? Had he found a city that ever went to war with Greece? Opinion is still divided on that question.”
Archaeologists have numbered successive settlements at Hisarlik Troy One through Troy Nine, and several have been argued as Homer’s Troy, but nothing has been proven.