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The Greek Origin of the Ancient City of Troy

Ruins of the ancient city of Troy
Ruins of the ancient city of Troy. Credit: /Wikimedia Commons/

The Trojan War is one of the most famous events in Greek mythology. It was a mighty, ten-year war between the Greeks and the Trojans. But what many people do not know is that Troy itself is actually Greek – at least according to what the mythology tells us.

The Greek origin of the Troad

The story of Troy’s origin begins with a man named Teucer. He would have lived around two centuries before the Trojan War. In the Aeneid, the Roman writer Virgil tells us that Teucer was originally from Crete. By this point, some two centuries before the Trojan War, Crete was a Greek island (previously Minoan civilization flourished.) The Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus presents a slightly different version, in which Teucer came from Attica in Greece. In either case, Teucer was definitely Greek, whether from Greece itself or from Crete.

According to Virgil, Teucer and numerous of his companions left Crete during a time of famine and settled in northwest Anatolia, near the Scamander River – the region that later came to be known as the Troad in honour of Troy. He thus founded a dynasty there.

After Teucer set up his kingdom, another founding figure arrived. This was Dardanus. The historian Dionysius explains that he came from Arcadia in Greece. After arriving in the area, Dardanus married the daughter of Teucer. A record from the fourth century BCE supports this, stating that Dardanus married into ‘the royal house of Crete’. Since Teucer did not have a son, Dardanus inherited his kingdom and became the new ruler of the Troad.

The Greek origin of the city of Troy

"Achilles in his chariot rides over the body of the slain Hector" by Antonio Raffaele Calliano, 1815. A scene from the Iliad
Achilles in his chariot rides over the body of the slain Hector”. A scene from the Iliad. Credit: Antonio Raffaele Calliano / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

Dardanus’s grandson was named Tros. He inherited the kingdom and named it ‘Troy’ after himself. The inhabitants of the Troad – the descendants of Teucer and his Cretan companions, as well as the descendants of Dardanus – thus came to be known as Trojans. However, the actual city of Troy had not yet been built. It seems that the chief city of the people was still the city built by Dardanus at the foot of Mount Ida.

Tros had a son named Ilus. While he was still young, he went to the nearby kingdom of Phrygia and won a wrestling competition. As part of his reward, the king of Phrygia gave him a cow and asked him to found a city wherever the cow decided to lay down.

Following this instruction, Ilus founded a city which he called Ilios in honour of himself. Because Ilios was the new chief city of the Trojans, the name ‘Troy’ was applied to it. This is why the city was known both as ‘Ilios’ and as ‘Troy’.

Homer’s account of the Trojan War in the Iliad supports the Greek origin of Troy. He presents the Trojans as speaking the same language as the Greeks, having the same culture as the Greeks, and worshipping the same gods as the Greeks. The historian Dionysius went so far as to say that ‘the Trojans were a nation as truly Greek as any’.

The Archaeology of Bronze Age Troy

The Bronze Age city of Troy was called ‘Wilusa’ in Hittite records. This is clearly a form of the name ‘Ilios’ (Greek: Ἴλιος). Troy was also called “Ilion”. The name Ilion is used by Homer, the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, interchangeably with Troy. In fact that is the reason that the epic poem is named “Iliad”. Beyond this, scholars do not know very much about Bronze Age Troy. It was obviously a powerful city, but almost no written records have survived from it. The only written records that have been found are written in Luwian.

However, it is interesting to note that one Hittite record refers to the king of Wilusa as being a man named Alaksandu. Most scholars agree that ‘Alaksandu’ is a Hittite spelling of the Greek name ‘Alexandros’. This lends some support to the idea that the ruling class of Troy had a Greek origin.

One of the primary characters in the Iliad is called Alexandros (and occasionally Paris). He was a descendant of the royal family of the city of Troy, more specific the son of the king of Troy, Priam. Alexandros, also known as Paris was the person who took Helen and triggered the Trojan war

Some scholars suggest that the Alaksandu of Hittite records might have had a Greek name only because of being the son of a Greek concubine, a slave woman captured by the king of Wilusa.

The Archaeology of Dark Age Troy

It is much more probable that the legendary accounts of Troy being founded by Greek settlers came from distorted memories of much more recent events in the history of Troy. After a destruction in c. 950 BCE, Troy experienced a period of near-total abandonment. About half a century later, in c. 900 BCE, Greeks started settling the region of Troy.

It was still very weak and poorly inhabited at this point. About one century later, in c. 800 BCE, notable construction work occurred at Troy. If the Greek settlement of the area in c. 900 BCE corresponds to the legendary arrival of Teucer and then Dardanus, then the building work in c. 800 BCE would logically correspond to the ‘founding’ of the city of Troy by Ilus, the great-grandson of Dardanus.

Greek mythology tells us that Ilus had a son named Laomedon. He was responsible for fortifying Troy with large defensive walls. Interestingly, just half a century after the building work in c. 800 BCE, archaeology reveals that there was additional construction work, including fortification work in particular.

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