The Trojan Horse is one of the most recognizable literary motifs in the western world. The legend is familiar: Odysseus came up with the plot to open the gates of Troy by a trick. Epeios the carpenter built a wooden horse in the camp, and Odysseus and a handful of picked men hid inside. The Greek fleet sailed away, the Trojans took the horse inside the city, where the Greeks emerged and opened the gates for the returning Greek army. And thus the term “Trojan Horse” entered the western world’s vernacular to describe any method of gaining access through deception.
(In fact, while writing this post my computer was infected with the modern version of the Trojan Horse, an event partly responsible for the delayed posting of the past two weeks).
Ironically, the most recognizable symbol of the Homeric age is barely mentioned in Homer. The horse does not appear at all in the Iliad and only appears briefly in the Odyssey, where Menelaus is recounting Odysseus’ deeds during the siege of Troy:
What a piece of work the hero dared and carried off
in the wooden horse where all our best men encamped,
our champions armed with bloody death to Troy…
The most detailed account of the horse appears in Book II of Virgil’s Aeneid. The Greeks build the horse, hide their chosen men inside of it, and sail away. The Trojans take the horse inside their city, thinking it is a votive offering. The Greeks wait until nightfall, break out and open the gates. The same story is told by the 4th century AD Greek poet Quintus Smyrnaeus in his The Fall of Troy.
Even though detailed accounts of the Trojan Horse legend appear only in later works, art from around the time of Homer indicates that the legend was widely known in early Greece. A fibula brooch from around 680 BC shows a fragment of a horse with wheels. A detailed relief on the outside of a storage jar from Mykonos which dates to between 675 and 650 BC contains a much more detailed depiction of a horse hiding armed men inside.
Therefore, while the Trojan Horse is barely mentioned in Homer, the story was obviously part of the collection of folklore surrounding the Trojan War which swirled around the popular consciousness of early Greece. Some of these stories found their way into Homer’s authoritative collation, and some did not.
As has been discussed before on this site, the ancient Greeks knew that Homer was writing fiction and that the stories and folklore were not works of history. A few ancient writers mentioned possible explanations for the Trojan Horse legend. The Greek 2nd century AD travel writer Pausanias wrote of the legend that “Anyone who does not suppose that Phrygians are utterly stupid will have realized that what Epeios built was an engineer’s device for breaking down the wall.” In a chapter on the origins of various inventions, the Roman Pliny the Elder wrote that “The battering-horse, for the destruction of walls, which is at the present day styled the “ram,” was invented by Epeus, at Troy.” Generally, ancient writers seemed to have believed that the Trojan Horse had been some sort of siege weapon, probably a battering ram.
The first modern ancient historians often took a harshly critical view of Homer. By the beginning of the modern era, western scholars generally held that the Iliad and Odyssey were myth, that the Trojan war was not an actual event and that the characters of Homer’s poems were not real people. Blaise Pascal wrote in Pensées that Homer “did not think of making a history, but solely a book to amuse; he is the only writer of his time; the beauty of the work has made it last.” He went on to write that “Every history which is not contemporaneous…[is] false, and found to be false in the course of time. It is not so with contemporaneous writers,” which, if taken literally, would mean that this website is in fact a web of falsehood and the practice of studying history should cease. In his massive 11-volume History of Greece (published between 1846 and 1856), George Grote wrote that the only real Trojan War occurred in the minds of the poets, summarized it in a few pages, and then excused himself to move on to “the real history of the Greeks.”
All of this changed in 1871, when German amateur archaeologist and ardent proponent of Homeric historicity Heinrich Schliemann began excavations of the mound of Hissarlik. In a few years of whirlwind excavations, Schliemann destroyed most of the parts of Troy that were actually from the time of the Trojan War, lost his dig license, founded the field of Anatolian archaeology, and despite it all definitively proved that there had been a Bronze Age city at the region that ancient geographers identified as the location of Troy.
Fortunately, further excavations by actually competent people have rescued our knowledge of the Hissarlik site. We now know that ancient Troy had 9 principal levels corresponding to different historical periods. Most importantly, Troy VIIa was violently destroyed by fire at around 1190 BC, at about the time the Greeks report that the Trojan war happened. Whereas earlier writers had only ancient texts to work with, we now had hard evidence to back up the texts. As a result, views of the Iliad swung back towards the side of historicity.
This changed again in 1954 with the publication of M.I. Finley’s book The World of Odysseus. Drawing upon the previous 75 years of excavations of Greek Bronze Age sites, Finley showed that the societies described in Homer’s poems looked nothing like the highly bureaucratic city-states of the Bronze Age. Rather, they looked like the societies of Homer’s own time in the 8th century BC, where towns were ruled by local strongmen. As a result, opinions shifted again. There may have been a Troy, and it may have been destroyed, possibly even by Greeks, but Homer knew hardly anything about it.
However, in this great debate it is sometimes overlooked that the ancient Greeks themselves knew that Homer was writing fiction. The historians of ancient Greece did not accept Homer as a historical source for Trojan War. Instead, they tried to write their own, more accurate and historically based accounts.