How archaeologists found the lost city of Troy

This doomed city at the heart of the Trojan War was lost for thousands of years until a team of German archaeologists uncovered the ancient site.

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This magnificent 16th-century saddle shows the Trojans bringing the wooden horse into their city, unaware of the Greek enemies hidden inside. Ambrosiana Gallery, Milan
Photograph by DEA/Album

Heinrich Schliemann, the German archaeologist, was in Turkey in the late 19th century on an eccentric quest. He was excavating a tell—an artificial mound that covers long abandoned settlements. The site, known as Hisarlik, was familiar to only a few specialists. But as Schliemann dug, he was pinning his hopes on finding the ruins of the most famous city in classical literature: Troy.

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The trouble was that Troy might not even have existed. The acclaimed Greek poet Homer popularized the Trojans and their city in The Iliad and The Odyssey, the 8th-century B.C. epic poems. These works told the story of a 10-year war between Greece and Troy, fought by such timeless characters as the kings Priam and Agamemnon, the warriors brave Hector and mighty Achilles, and the survivors crafty Odysseus and loyal Aeneas. The poems tell of bloody battles, fantastic adventures, heroic deeds, and tragic consequences. But was Troy a real place? Schliemann set out to prove it was. (Homer's Iliad contains timeless lessons of war.)

And he did. Hisarlik is now widely accepted as the setting for Homer’s epic tales. Studies have revealed that the 100-foot-high mound contains not just one, but nine Troys, each built over the ruins of the one before. Today archaeologists consider Troy VI—the sixth counting from the bottom up—to be the likeliest candidate for Homer’s Troy. This city dates from around 1700 to 1250 B.C., and its citizens lived in dynamic times.

To their east was the waning Hittite Empire and to their west the mighty Mycenaean Greeks. Troy itself occupied a strategic location commanding the entrance to what is now the Dardanelles. Whoever held Troy would control the traffic along that busy commercial route, a fact that would not have escaped the attention of their Greek rivals.

Roots of war

However, Homer’s depiction of Troy revolves around passion not politics. It begins with the love affair between the Trojan prince, Paris, and Helen, the wife of the Spartan king Menelaus, brother to powerful Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces. They elope to Troy triggering war between the nations and the decade-long siege that the Greeks bring to a terrible end with the famous ruse of the wooden horse. In reality, the motives for such a war were probably more pragmatic. Whether or not there was a Helen, so beautiful that her face would launch a thousand ships, the commercial and strategic value of Troy made it a desirable target for any of its neighbors. (Some authors suggest there were different authors of The Iliad and The Odyssey.)

The citizens of Troy had anticipated outside threats. They had built a defensive wall and even dug trenches to stall war chariots, the assault vehicles of the ancient world. Trouble seems to have peaked around 1250 B.C. when the archaeological remains show signs of an attack and a devastating fire. But we cannot tell who the assailants were or if the destruction was caused by a single action or a series of onslaughts over time. Where the certainties of archaeology fade, we can only turn to ancient poetry for an account of the fall of Troy. And it’s here that we find the clever way the Greeks ultimately win the war and turn a proud, impregnable city into smoking ruins.

Homer’s Iliad foretells the fall of the city but stops short of recounting its actual destruction. In its sequel, The Odyssey, the end of the war is mentioned in flashback. Over the centuries other authors have added to the original tale, but only fragments of their works have survived. These include two chapters of The Iliupersis, a text possibly from the seventh century B.C., which refers to the ruin of the doomed citadel. More detailed accounts of the final days of Troy were written centuries later. These include Virgil’s Aeneid, from around the first century B.C. and the Posthomerica of Quintus Smyrnaeus, written during the third century A.D. Quintus begins his story where The Iliad leaves off: the funeral of Hector, the son of Priam and heir to the throne of Troy.

A hero falls

According to Quintus, the city seemed doomed after the death of Hector, Troy’s greatest warrior. However, some Trojans kept hopes of a victory alive as they awaited the arrival of allies to help lift the siege. The first reinforcements are the Amazon warriors of Queen Penthesilea, but even they cannot hold the furious advance of the almost indestructible Greek hero Achilles. One of the most memorable accounts in the epic Trojan cycle is the duel between Achilles and Penthesilea: The Greek hero falls in love with his adversary at the very moment he fatally plunges his spear into her side. (The Amazons were more than just a myth: They were real.)

Ethiopians follow the Amazons. The Ethiopia mentioned by Homer is a distant place on the banks of the mythical Oceanus River, perhaps identifiable with the Nile that had long supplied mercenaries to the Egyptian pharaohs. The Ethiopian army, commanded by King Memnon, now stands as the last line of defense between Achilles and the gates of Troy. The two warriors nobly agree to decide the battle by single combat. In the hot sun they dodge mighty blows from each other’s spears, then switch to swords and Achilles at last finds a gap in his rival’s armor. With one thrust he takes Memnon’s life. Victory belongs to Achilles but it is short-lived.

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From Princess to Slave After the city’s fall, the women of Troy were distributed among the Greeks to serve as slaves. This 18th-century ivory relief shows Andromache, Hector’s widow, with her new master, the notorious Greek warrior Neoptolemus.

The Trojan prince Paris has watched the duel from behind the parapets of the city wall. Just as Achilles is about to storm the city, Paris, guided by the god Apollo, shoots an arrow that strikes Achilles in his one weak spot—his heel. (As an infant, his mother held Achilles by his heel as she dipped him in the River Styx, whose waters granted protection everywhere they touched. His heel remained dry, and therefore vulnerable to attack.) To the horror of the Greeks, their hero dies.

A cunning plan

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Weapon of Destruction This seventh-century B.C. amphora has the earliest known depiction of the Trojan horse and shows the Greek warriors hidden inside. Archaeological Museum, Mykonos

Ten years of grueling warfare suddenly seem futile to the assailants: The Greek commander, King Agamemnon, orders retreat. It is at this moment of desolation and defeat that Odysseus steps in with perhaps the most famous ruse de guerre in history. Odysseus has the Greeks construct a huge and hollow wooden horse, which hides a small band of brave warriors. The Greek army fakes a retreat, sailing to a nearby island, and leaves the wooden horse on the beach as an offering. Odysseus’ plan now hinges on the Trojans taking the gift within Troy’s walls; once inside, the secreted soldiers will crawl out at night, overpower any guards, and open the gates. The Greek army, having returned under cover of darkness, will storm the city.

The plan is risky and there are no second chances. As dusk descends, the Greeks drag the horse before the city walls and abandon the camp they have occupied for years. That night the only Greeks left on the beach are those hidden in the wooden horse and a stooge named Sinon. As dawn breaks the following morning, the Trojan sentries see deserted tents, dead animals, and doused fires. They also spot something else: a magnificent wooden horse. King Priam orders the gates to be opened, and for the first time in a decade the Trojans were able to walk freely outside of their city—many flocked to admire the unusual offering.

Enter Sinon, dramatically throwing himself at the mercy of the Trojans. He spins a story of having deserted the Greek ranks because they had chosen him to be a human sacrifice. Sinon assures his new friends that the horse is a gift to the gods to ensure a safe return journey home. He adds that the horse has special powers and whoever possesses it will never suffer defeat.

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Strangled by Sea Snakes In Virgil’s Aeneid, the Trojan priest Laocoön warns against the wooden horse: “I fear the Greeks, even bearing gifts.” Soon after, he and his sons are strangled by sea snakes as depicted in this first century A.D. sculpture.

Open doors, suspicious minds

After a decade of war this news falls like rain on parched soil, and the Trojans lap it up. But Laocoön, the priest of Apollo, suspects a trick. When his impassioned pleas are ignored, he hurls his spear against the horse and snakes surge from the sea to strangle him and his sons. The Trojans interpret this as Poseidon, god of the sea, punishing Laocoön for sacrilege. Such dramatic divine intervention only reinforces the Trojan desire for the offering and soon the wooden horse is dragged within the walls.

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Menelaus and Hector clash over the body of Euphorbus, a fallen Trojan hero. Ceramic, seventh century B.C., British Museum, London

Even now, the Greek plan can go disastrously wrong, as Helen is also suspicious. She approaches the horse, imitating the voices of Greek wives in an attempt to provoke a reaction from any lovesick warriors within. Inside, Odysseus sees the ruse affecting his men but keeps them silent, even “clapping his hand over the mouth” of one. And yet still the danger of discovery has not passed. Cassandra, a Trojan princess, cries out that the horse is a ploy and that the city will be taken. But the gods seem to remain with the Greeks, for Cassandra has been doomed to never have her prophecies believed. The Trojans celebrate their victory and as the revelry fades they take to their beds. The Greeks slip silently from the wooden horse, kill the sentries, and fling open the gates to the waiting Greek army.

Amid flames and blood, Troy falls and its defenders are slaughtered: King Priam is cut down with the rest of his army. According to Virgil, only one Trojan warrior escapes: Aeneas. With a burning city behind, he is depicted carrying his elderly father and clutching the hand of his son as they flee to Italy, where he will found a new Troy, the city now known as Rome. Meanwhile, Paris is wounded by a poisoned arrow to which only the nymph Oenone has an antidote. But it was she that Paris had abandoned for Helen, and despite his pleading, she refuses and he dies. As for Helen herself, when Menelaus raises his sword to deal the killer blow to his unfaithful wife, she opens her dress and reveals her body. Captivated once again, Menelaus spares her.

A horse is a horse

The tale of Troy teems with memorable characters, but perhaps its most fascinating figure is the one that never speaks—the wooden horse. This has been frequently reimagined in literature, poetry, art, and cinema. Theories about the wooden horse abound. One proposes that it was a poetic representation of the wooden ships on which the Greeks arrived that evolved into a tangible aspect of the myth. Another suggests that a Trojan betrayed the city, sketching a horse on a secret gate as a sign to the Greeks. Others point out that horses were closely linked to the god Poseidon, sometimes known as “shaker of the earth.” Does the animal represent an earthquake that caused the walls of Troy to fall?

Recent scholars have offered more pragmatic theories, including that the wooden horse was actually a siege engine. Such a device can be seen in an Assyrian bas-relief from the palace of Assurnasirpal II (883-859 B.C.) in Nimrod. This “Assyrian horse” postdates the destruction of Troy VI by several centuries, but written material from the archives of Hattusa—the capital of the Hittite empire—suggests such siege engines were in use as early as the 18th century B.C.

The device described was a portable wooden shelter around 26 feet in length and six feet wide from which hung a 17-foot-long pointed stake. Beneath the protective shelter besieging warriors would repeatedly slam the stake against the wall of the city to pry open a gap between the stones and weaken the structure. The Hittite documents refer to the device using animal epithets, such as “Savage ass” or “one-horned beast.”

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Thus the Trojan Horse can be rationalized as a siege weapon of equine appearance. But even if this is as satisfactory an explanation as we are ever likely to get, many questions remain: Who were the men attacking Troy? And who were the Trojans who fought so desperately, and so hopelessly, to save it from the flames?