The story of Troy has inspired generations. It used to be thought that it was lost in antiquity, but not so. Troy is made up of several cities layered on top of each other, although only one may have known “the face that launched a thousand ships.”
That now famous quote comes from a poem by the 16th century English poet Christopher Marlowe, who asked: “Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?”
Homer’s Troy, on the mound at Hisarlik in north-western Turkey, was a walled city with towers reaching a height of nine meters. The foundations of one of its bastions measured 18 meters by 18 meters, possibly the great tower thrice scaled unsuccessfully by Patroclus, the beloved comrade and brother-in-arms of Achilles. When the site was excavated in the 1980s, the area of Troy was found to be 200,000 square metres or more and its population estimated at five to 10,000 inhabitants, making it by the standards of its time a large and important city.
What archaeologists recognise as Homer’s Troy appears to have been destroyed by war and there is evidence of a massive fire. Partial human remains were found in houses and in the streets, and near the north-western ramparts a human skeleton with injuries to the skull and a broken jawbone. Bronze arrowheads have been found. However, only a small part of the city has been properly excavated, and the finds are too few to confirm destruction by war as opposed to a natural disaster.
In the Iliad, the Achaeans set up their camp near the mouth of the River Scamander where they had beached their ships. The city of Troy itself stood on a hill, across the plain, on which the battles of the Trojan War took place. The site of the ancient city is five km from the coast today, questioning Homer’s descriptions. But the ancient mouth of the Scamander, some 3,000 years ago, was about that distance further inland and poured into a large natural harbour since filled with alluvial deposits. Recent geological findings have shown how the original Trojan coastline would have looked, largely confirming the accuracy of the Homeric geography of Troy.
In the book that accompanied the BBC television series “In Search of the Trojan War” (1985), historian Michael Wood writes:
“Troy is a place whose memory will far outlive the last trace of its physical existence. On an unromantic reading of the evidence it was merely a small city in the Mediterranean, one of thousands of centres of human society which lived and died between the Stone Age and modern times: one city, but one which has come to stand for all cities. In western culture, in the languages and memory of what we call the Indo-European races, it is perhaps the most famous of all cities; and all because of one story, the story of its siege and destruction, the death of its heroes, including Hector, at the hands of Agamemnon, Achilles and the Achaian Greeks – all for the sake of Helen, ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’. The tale is the bedrock of western culture.”