Until the 19th century it was generally believed that the Trojan war and city of Troy were imaginary. But, in 1871, Heinrich Schliemann, a German archaeologist began excavating an ancient site on the west coast of Turkey. Schliemann had identified Troy's location through clues he found in Homers Iliad. Through his work and that of subsequent excavators, the ruins of nine cities have now been uncovered at the site, lying one on top of the other; evidence that Troy was destroyed and rebuilt many times. The seventh city was destroyed around 1250 BC and it is thought that this is the Troy of legend.
Stories about the Fall of Troy were told orally for several hundred years before Homer composed his epic, the Iliad, about the Greek heroes who conquered Troy and the Trojan heroes who attempted to defend it. These tales were woven around a combination of people who almost certainly did exist, for example King Agamemnon of Mycennae, and mythical heroes such as Achilles on the Greek side and Hector on the Trojan.
Without Homer's poems, the story of Troy might have remained a Greek story; instead it endured and evolved over many centuries into a central story of the origins of western civilization.
In ancient Greece, Homers version of events were viewed as being based on historical fact and in the fifth century BC, playwrights in Athens frequently used stories of Troy as the basis for their dramas. There were many variant legends about each of the Trojan heroes, so the plays tell different stories based on the same events, such as: - Euripides' two plays about the sacrifice (or survival) of Iphigenia and Aeschylus Agamemnon.
As the power base of the ancient world shifted from Greece to Rome, many influences were carried from the latter to the former. So, in the same way that Greek Gods were adopted and modified by the Romans, Greek mythology formed the basis for many of their stories and dramas.
In the first century B.C., Virgil, drawing heavily on Homer, wrote the Aeneid, his epic of the founding of Rome. Virgil told how refugees from fallen Troy had migrated to Italy, where they became the ancestors of the Roman people.
The Aeneid transformed Homers Trojan losers into winners, presenting them as noble and long-suffering and the Greeks as devious and dangerous.
In the fourth century A.D. the Roman Emperor Constantine moved the capital from Rome to Constantinople (now Istanbul). Not long after this move, the empire itself split into east and west. The eastern Roman Empire was Greek in language and culture; the western was Latin.
While Homer's Iliad and Odyssey continued to be read, taught and loved in the Greek-speaking eastern Roman Empire, they were increasingly ignored in the west. As knowledge of the Greek language declined in Europe, and Latin became more widespread, the Latin Aeneid became the dominant Troy story in Europe.
Consequently, the Greeks remained heroes in the East, while the Trojans became the heroes in the West.
There were also other, lesser, sources for the Troy story in late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, including The Fall of Troy by Quintus Smyrnaeus, a short Latin Iliad, and two supposed "eye witness" accounts of the Trojan War by Dictys and Dares.
Troy and Medieval Romance
Two of the three earliest medieval romances were Troy stories: the Roman de Troie by Benoit de Ste. Maure and the anonymous Eneas, a retelling of the Latin Aeneid with an added happy ending.
History was an important factor in the renewed popularity of Troy, which medieval Europeans considered a real place, from which real people had fled to found the Roman Empire and their descendents and had then gone on to found the ruling classes in other countries.
It is also possible that the crusades also contributed to interest in Troy, since crusaders were travelling into the Near East and visiting cities such as Constantinople, only a few miles from the ancient site of Troy.
The retelling of the Eneas made one radical departure from the ancient Troy tradition of lawless passion leading to war. The author of the Eneas added a final section onto the Aeneid, in which love, leading to marriage, finally became a positive force for good. The literary celebration of love became a hallmark of medieval literature.
It was these retellings which formed the basis for Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde and, in turn, Henryson's Testament of Cresseid and later, Shakespeares Troilus and Cressida.