Troy and world cultural heritage
Culturally and geographically, Troy is the bridge between Europe and Asia, belonging both to the West and to the Orient. Xerxes the Great honoured the Trojans as a Persian, while Alexander the Great did the same as a Western Macedonian. Novels, plays, poems, and films about Troy resonate equally in the East and in the West.
There is no other ancient site, in fact, which has so deeply influenced the culture and spirit of Europe, and throughout history, different European peoples have sought to identify themselves with Troy. In the present day, interest in Troy remains at an all-time high, following the excavations of the ancient city by Schliemann in the nineteenth century.
Heinrich Schliemann, working from the text of Homer’s poetry, uncovered Troy and proved to the world that Homer was not simply re-telling legends, but was recounting an actual historical event. Although many in Europe, and around the world, doubted Schliemann’s claims to have found the fabled city of Troy, many more at the time accepted the evidence as presented and recognized the immense importance of Schliemann’s work in establishing the story of Troy as history, not mythology. Long before Schliemann, however, people understood the story of Troy as history and drew cultural and personal pride from associating themselves closely with the city.
Thanks to Homer, Troy has long held an esteemed position in the great European tradition. In the tales of knights of the 12th and 13th centuries of the Middle Ages, literary works mention the 'former soldiers of Troy' and two sources are cited - Dictys of Crete (1st-3rd century A.D.) and Dares of Phrygia (2nd-5th century A.D.) – on the survival of a number of Trojans following the Achaean victory.
In the works attributed to them, both these authors claim first or second-hand knowledge of the fall of Troy; Dictys was allegedly an eye-witness and Dares drew on reputable sources. Together,
these two authors formed the basis for the medieval fascination with the so-called 'Matter of Troy'. In reality, neither author probably had any primary knowledge of the fall of Troy, but their works were accepted as history by the European intelligentsia of the Middle Ages. These people were quick to associate themselves with the survivors of Troy and trace their lineage back to the city. Like the Romans before them, the Franks, Burgundians, Normans, British, and Turks claimed descent from the survivors of the fall of Troy.
In 1203-1204 A.D., during the Fourth Crusade, the European Crusaders who sacked Constantinople (Istanbul) excused their crimes by claiming that their purpose was to take revenge for the fall of Troy. The Crusader Peter of Bracheux gave the following explanation to an enemy commander: “The Trojans were our ancestors and those who escaped and were saved came and made their homes where we come from; they were our ancestors, we came to these places to re-conquer their country.” Interestingly, this same excuse was given by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in 1453 A.D. who also identified his people with the Trojans and claimed his sack of Constantinople was motivated by revenge for the sack of Troy.
Troy, therefore, is clearly understood as exerting a powerful cultural influence on both the East and West. The fall of the great city through the deceit of the Achaeans elicited sympathy for the Trojans and, even though the Greeks were the victors, people regularly identified with the defeated most likely because it was unclear who the Trojans were and, therefore, they could be claimed by any nationality.
This is clearly seen in the Europe of the Middle Ages where the story of the Trojan War (the Matter of Troy) constituted a significant aspect of the basics of the educational curriculum. The Matter of Troy, in fact, was as popular as the Matter of Britain (the Arthurian Legends) and Europeans, respectively by country, felt bound together by this common history. The people of Europe identified strongly with the Trojans and saw themselves united to ancient world history, part of an illustrious past, rather than adrift in time after the fall of Rome and the rise of European nation-states.
Thus, the Trojan War assumed a central role in European history. The destruction of the great city, not through superior military skill but by trickery, was a tragedy which later people, in both West and East, identified with. By the time of the Middle Ages, the Quran in the East and the Bible in the West were considered the Word of God and explained the history of the world to the people and humanity’s origin overall but did not address their specific ancestry. The story of Troy filled that void by offering the possibility that anyone – from Arab to Crusader – could be a descendant of the noble and tragic Trojans. Unfortunately, this identification was seized upon by the various nationalities to differentiate and separate them from each other, establishing in their minds a superiority to others, rather than as a means of embracing each other’s superficial differences and recognizing a common ancestral bond.
To cite only one example, Hieronymus (d.419/420 A.D.), one of the great men of the church, wrote to his friend Paulo in Rome that his lineage went back to Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks in the Trojan War, while his wife’s lineage went back to Aeneas of Troy. Hieronymus was able to recognize that two people of different ancestries could live harmoniously together but could not extend that understanding to others who were non-European or not of his same social class. The European aristocrats routinely associated themselves with Troy and the same paradigm applies to the cities of the Middle Ages.
In Italy, the cities of Rome, Padua, and Venice – to name only three of the many – claimed Troy as their ancestral city and elevated the names of Aeneas, Hector, Antenor and the other Trojan heroes. In France, writers such as Fulco of Neuilly also claimed Troy as their own but, instead of allowing a common bond to unite them with the people of Italy, insisted they were superior because they had preserved the ancient Trojan traditions better than anyone else. In Britain, English writers mocked the French claim and stressed their own lineage from Troy. In all these cases, and many more left unmentioned, people strongly identified with Troy in an effort to define themselves but always at another peoples’ expense. This model of behaviour, however, need not be adhered to in the present day.
All people, everywhere, are free to claim Troy as their own because the story of the fall of Troy is not specific to one nationality or region. The struggle to maintain one’s home, one’s freedom, and keep safe those one loves is universal to the human condition no matter where one lives in the world. It is hoped that, in the 21st century, people will embrace Troy as they do each other in mutual understanding and respect for both their many similarities and their differences.
The ancient walls of Troy