Review – Troy: myth and reality

5 mins read

The legend of the Trojan War is one of the most famous, and most enduring, Classical narratives, inspiring both artistic endeavours and archaeological investigations. Lucia Marchini visited the British Museum to explore Troy’s long-lived legacy.

Amphora showing Achilles killing Penthesilea
The Greek hero Achilles, son of the nymph Thetis, kills the Amazon queen Penthesilea on this dramatic amphora of c.530 BC, painted by the Athenian Exekias. [Image: © Trustees of the British Museum]

With gods, bloody battles, a devious scheme involving a wooden horse, and a famously beautiful woman, the story of the fall of Troy has much to cement it in the popular imagination. With help from Homer’s Greek epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the ten-year war for the ill-fated ancient city and its associated heroes have become well known, and continue to be shared with new audiences in a variety of forms: oil paintings, opera, cinema, and novels.

This enduring level of fame made locating the ruined city of Troy (Ilium), and establishing whether it was a real place or a poetic invention, an attractive aim. In 1801, traveller Edward Clarke identified the mound known as Hisarlik in Turkey’s Troad region (which engineer Franz Kauffer had previously recognised as an ancient site on his 1793 map) as Greek Ilion/ Roman Ilium, based on inscriptions and coins that carried the Greek name of the city. Clarke, however, did not claim this site was Ilium Vetus, the ‘Old Troy’ described by Homer; rather, it was Charles Maclaren who in 1822 suggested that Homer’s Troy lay beneath Greek Ilion.

Further clues came in 1863, when Frank Calvert (who owned part of the mound), began excavating at Ilium Novum (New Troy), uncovering Greek and Roman material. Calvert had offered the British Museum the opportunity to dig at the site, but this was turned down. With his family facing financial problems after his brother was removed from the consular service for involvement in insurance fraud, Calvert encouraged one Heinrich Schliemann to excavate instead. Although Schliemann was not the first to do so, he completed the first large-scale excavations at Hisarlik, and has become widely known as the discoverer of the much sought-after Troy.

Schliemann brought his finds to London in the 1870s, where the British Museum declined the opportunity to house the exhibition (apparently citing lack of space). Instead, Schliemann took the artefacts to South Kensington, where they were displayed in what is today the Victoria and Albert Museum. Now, for the first time in almost 150 years, objects from Schliemann’s excavations (on loan from the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin) are back on display in the UK, in the British Museum’s exhibition Troy: myth and reality. The archaeological material from Troy is cleverly displayed, with artefacts found at different levels placed at different heights.

On one side, they are positioned according to Schliemann’s interpretation of the phases of the city, and, on the other, according to more recent research, which has found evidence of nine major settlements (Troy I to Troy IX) spanning 3,600 years from about 3000 BC. The level that Schliemann described as the Burnt City of King Priam, the Troy we know from Homer, in fact dates from the Early Bronze Age (c.3000-2000 BC) and is considered too early to provide a historical background for the Trojan War. During Troy VI-VIIa (1750-1180 BC), however, the city was very wealthy and had vast fortifications, making this the only phase that is a contender for a feasible context for the conflict.

A Bronze Age face pot
One of the characteristic Bronze Age face pots from Schliemann’s excavations at Troy. [Image: Claudia Plamp © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte,

Much of the material from Troy is pottery: there is an impressively proportioned storage jar (c.2550-2300 BC); a range of face pots (c.2550-1750 BC) that Schliemann believed represented ‘owl-faced’ Athena (as Homer described the goddess); and endearing animal-shaped vessels (c.2550-2300 BC) that were often made by hand and carefully burnished. Some loans from Berlin are blackened from burning, a sign not of the fiery destruction of Troy, but of bombing during the Second World War. The displays also include several silver vessels from what Schliemann described as ‘Priam’s Treasure’, found in the Burnt City in 1873, while Priam is linked to another silver object, this time a Roman cup, shown elsewhere in the exhibition. Found far from Troy, and indeed from Rome, an exquisite silver cup from Hoby in Denmark shows the Trojan king Priam kneeling to the Greek Achilles, kissing his hand as he begs for the return for burial of his son Hector (killed by Achilles). It is a touching scene, and one that is described in the Iliad.

A Roman silver cup showing Priam and Achilles
This Roman silver cup, showing Priam begging Achilles for the return of Hector’s body, was made and signed by Cheirisophos around 30 BC-AD 40. It was found in a chieftain’s grave in Hoby, Denmark, and was, along with a similar cup from the same grave, probably a diplomatic gift. [Image: Roberta Fortuna and Kira Ursem © National Museet Denmark]

This silver cup is one of many artefacts that have been brought together to offer an excellent introduction to the Trojan War in Graeco-Roman culture. Popular characters and episodes are depicted on a wide range of objects. Achilles, for example, is seen vanquishing the Amazon queen Penthesilea in Greek vase painting; the Trojan horse, used by the Greeks to stealthily enter the strongly walled city, is depicted on a Roman sarcophagus lid dating from the late 2nd century AD, as well as on a 2nd-century Gandharan relief panel probably from a votive stupa at a Buddhist site near Hund in present-day Pakistan; and the beautiful Helen – married to the Spartan Menelaus but offered as a prize to the Trojan prince Paris, earning the animosity of the Greeks – appears in a painted Etruscan tomb from Cerveteri, central Italy.

Later in the exhibition, more recent artworks explore some of these episodes too. The Judgement of Paris is a particularly popular part of the narrative, both in ancient and modern art. This is when the Trojan prince chooses which goddess – Aphrodite, Athena, or Hera – should receive a golden apple inscribed ‘For the most beautiful’, essentially kicking off the conflict. His diplomatic dilemma was conjured up by the divine troublemaker Eris, goddess of strife, who is herself depicted on a delightful kylix (wine cup). By contrast, a 1569 painting by Hans Eworth subjects the three goddesses not to the male gaze, but to that of Elizabeth I, who holds a golden orb rather than an apple – a prize she chooses to keep, having no need for the gifts of the goddesses.

This is shown side-by-side with Eleanor Antin’s 2007 work Judgement of Paris (after Rubens), which presents a rather fed-up Helen waiting on one side while Paris examines the goddesses. It is unusual to show Helen present at the Judgement of Paris (she is meant to be in Sparta at the time), but, interestingly, the c.560-550 BC Etruscan wall-painting from Cerveteri also depicts Paris and the goddesses at the same time as Helen, who is shown accompanied by women carrying bottles of perfume and a box of ornaments. Separated by more than 2,000 years, these two Helens invite viewers to consider the portrayal of women in various arts, but also to reflect on the remarkable permanence of the legend of the Trojan War and Homer’s celebrated narratives.

Relief showing scenes from Trojan War
A relief from a Roman marble sarcophagus lid (c.AD 175-200) with scenes from the Trojan War, including, on the far left, the wooden horse. A similarly rendered horse appears on a Gandharan relief dating to the same century. [Image: © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford]

Further information
Troy: myth and reality runs at the British Museum until 8 March 2020. Tickets cost £20 (concessions are available). Visit for details.

This review appeared in CA 359. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

1 Comment

  1. Very disappointed with the way the exhibits were labelled at the Troy exhibition at the British Museum. Text was far too small and poorly placed causing significant bottlenecks as people stopped to read the details. Larger text placed in easier sight line would have helped people move through the exhibition more smoothly and with less frustration.

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