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Was the Trojan Horse an Actual Wooden Horse?

The Trojan Horse
A modern replica of the Trojan Horse. Credit: Jorge Láscar, CC BY 2.0

The story of the Trojan Horse is one of the most famous stories in Greek mythology. It is part of the climax of the dramatic legend of the Trojan War. However, researchers have differing ideas about what the Trojan Horse actually was and if it even existed at all. What are these theories, and what evidence exists to support them?

What was the Trojan Horse in Greek mythology?

Firstly, let us establish what exactly the Trojan Horse supposedly was in Greek mythology. Contrary to popular belief, it does not appear in Homer’s Iliad. However, Homer does refer to it in his Odyssey. A more detailed account appears in Virgil’s Aeneid from the first century BCE. Ancient Greek artwork also depicts the horse.

According to these accounts, the Greeks constructed the Trojan Horse after deciding that it was the only way to end their long and arduous war against the city of Troy. It was a large statue of a horse, made of wood that was hollow on the inside. It was presented as a gift, but it was really a trap.

Inside the enormous statue, there were hidden Greek soldiers. After the Greek army supposedly left (really just hiding outside the immediate vicinity), the Trojans brought the Trojan Horse inside the city. At night, the Greek soldiers climbed out, opened the gates of the city, and let the Greek army enter so as to finally defeat their enemies.

Was the Trojan Horse a battering ram?

There are a variety of theories that explain the Trojan Horse as something other than what is directly described in the Odyssey and the Aeneid. One theory goes right back to ancient times.

Pausanias, writing in the second century CE, stated: “That the work of Epeius was a contrivance to make a breach in the Trojan wall is known to everybody who does not attribute utter silliness to the Phrygians.”

Here, Pausanias calls the Trojans ‘Phrygians.’ In other words, he is saying that the Trojan Horse was not literally a statue of a horse. To understand the account literally would be to understand the Trojans as naive. Rather, the Trojan Horse is a metaphor for some kind of ‘contrivance to make a breach in the Trojan wall.’

On this basis, some researchers have suggested that it was a metaphor for (or, perhaps, a distorted memory of) a battering ram. There is evidence that Assyrian battering rams were covered in dampened horse hides to protect them from flaming arrows. The use of these horse hides, perhaps in conjunction with the general shape of the siege engine, may have led to its being remembered as a wooden horse.

Problems with the theory

Although this battering ram theory is quite popular, it has some notable problems. For one thing, there is no reason to imagine that Assyrian siege engines would have been involved in the Trojan War. According to most chronologies, the Trojan Horse incident occurred centuries before the Assyrians were active anywhere remotely near Troy.

Even when considering the evidence that the Trojan War occurred as late as the eighth century BCE, this theory is still without support. The only Ancient Greek records that mention the Assyrians in connection with the Trojan War make the Assyrians direct allies of Troy. Therefore, Assyrian battering rams would not have been used against Troy. This would only have happened if the Assyrians had been on the side of the Greeks, but there is no support for that idea.

Regarding the Greeks themselves, there is no evidence that they even used battering rams until the fifth century BCE. This is long after the Trojan War. Therefore, there is no reason to believe the Trojan Horse would have been a battering ram in the first place.

Mykonos Vase
Mykonos Vase: Decorated pithos found on Mykonos in Greece depicting one of the earliest known renditions of the Trojan Horse. Credit: Travelling Runes, CC-BY-SA-2.0 / Wikimedia

Was the Trojan Horse a ship?

Another theory, which is perhaps more popular than the previous one, is that the Trojan Horse was really a ship. This theory is much closer to the actual story of the horse. According to this, the Greeks built a special ship as an offering rather than a statue of a horse. Just like in ancient accounts, the Trojans brought the ship inside, but there were Greek soldiers hiding inside the hull of the ship.

The basis for this is that the Ancient Greeks sometimes called ships ‘horses’ in a figurative way. For example, we find the expression ‘sea-horses’ in the Odyssey. Furthermore, the Phoenicians developed a type of ship called a hippos. The front of the ship was designed to look like a horse’s head. This was common after about 1000 BCE.

Some researchers argue that Homer’s description of the soldiers climbing into the Trojan Horse is very similar to how the Ancient Greeks described people climbing aboard a ship. On this basis, some argue that Homer actually intended to describe a ship, but his words later came to be misunderstood.

One major problem with this theory is the Mykonos Vase. It depicts the Trojan Horse as a literal horse statue with people inside, exactly like the traditional understanding. This dates to c. 675 BCE, which is almost certainly several decades before Homer wrote the Odyssey. Therefore, this evidence takes precedence over Homer’s wording.

A more literal understanding

One final theory is that the Trojan Horse was simply exactly what the story presented it as: a large wooden statue of a horse. This theory accommodates virtually all the evidence from antiquity, including the depiction on the Mykonos Vase. The only evidence against it is the testimony of Pausanias, but that was merely his personal opinion.

Many researchers today feel, similar to Pausanias, that the Trojan Horse cannot have been real because it would have just been too foolish on the part of the Trojans to bring such a thing into their city. However, there is no reason why we should not ‘attribute utter silliness’ to the Trojans.

The reality is that many similar strategies have been used in warfare throughout history. We encounter such examples during both ancient and modern history. One such instance is the Taking of Joppa, which was an event that occurred in the 15th century BCE.

Furthermore, the Mykonos Vase attests to the existence of the Trojan Horse at least as early as c. 675 BCE. In view of this evidence, some modern scholars believe the Trojan War may have occurred in the eighth century BCE. This would make the Mykonos Vase a near-contemporary source.

Of course, in the absence of even earlier evidence, there will continue to be speculation over the Trojan Horse.

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