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Homer Surely Didn't Write the Screenplay
By Cathy Schultz
For an historian, the new film "Troy" presents a dilemma.
The oldest and most detailed source about the Trojan War is Homer's
Iliad. That 2600-year-old classic interweaves realistic (and
gory) descriptions of Greeks and Trojans in deadly combat, with
scenes of the gods squabbling on Mount Olympus, intervening in the
conflict, and engaging in catfights with one other.
You see the problem.
Sticking faithfully to Homer, then, doesn't necessarily ensure historical
accuracy. And although devotees of Homer may be appalled, director
Wolfgang Petersen clearly aimed more for the latter when he dumped
the meddling gods from his tale. His "Troy" is a very
human story, with those basic themes from which history and myth
derive their power-love, hate, revenge, redemption.
And as befitting a classic tragedy, there are deaths. Lots and lots
of deaths. Death by sword, death by spear, death by arrow, death
by flaming fireball
you get the idea.
But how close is "Troy" to actual history? Here's a guide
to help viewers decide.
Q. Was the Trojan War a real event?
A. It was regarded as a myth for years, but in the 19th century,
inspired by the new science of archeology, Heinrich Schliemann began
to excavate in northwest Turkey, at the ancient site of Hisarlik,
long believed to be Troy.
In the 140 years since Schliemann's first dig, four major excavations
there have uncovered compelling evidence that Troy, a sophisticated
and powerful city with an extensive trading network, was indeed
attacked by Mycenaeans (today's Greeks) resulting in its destruction
around 1250 B.C.
Q. So, did Helen, the "face that launched a thousand ships"
really cause the war?
A. The myth (and the film) give the famous explanation for the cause.
The beautiful Helen leaves her older husband Menelaus to run off
with the hot young Prince Paris of Troy. Furious, Menelaus persuades
his brother, King Agamemnon, to rally other Greek kings and heroes
to attack Troy, and win back the fair Helen.
But did Helen even exist? No one knows, but if she did, she might
just have been a convenient excuse for the war. As the film shows,
a more probable motive wasn't Helen the golden girl, but just plain
gold. Troy was rich, and the Mycenaeans wanted to plunder her wealth
and control her strategic trade location at the crossroads of Europe
Q. Speaking of Helen, how did all those blondes get to ancient
A. Incongruous blue eyes and blond hair are everywhere among these
Greeks, exemplified by the lovely Helen (Diane Kruger) and the equally
lovely Achilles (Brad Pitt.) Certainly the blondes in this "Troy"
reflect modern Hollywood rather than historical accuracy.
But interestingly, Homer does mention blond Greeks. The Iliad describes
Achilles as yellow-haired, and other heroes and gods are described
likewise. The goddess of love herself, Aphrodite, was always depicted
with abundant golden blond hair.
Aphrodite's blond allure, in fact, encouraged some ancient Greeks
to find creative ways to dye their dark locks blond. (Saffron and
yellow mud were used; smelly but effective.) On the question, though,
of whether Achilles was a natural or a dyed blond, Homer is silent.
Q. Did Achilles' love interest, Briseis, exist?
A. She does in Homer. But in the Iliad she's not from Troy, but
was captured in an earlier raid and given to Achilles.
Whether she ever actually existed, her presence in the story illustrates
the fate of women in warring societies. When a city was sacked,
the men were killed but the women were enslaved. Ancient Greek records
reveal countless female slaves from conquered territories, who were
forced to do manual labor for their conquerors and to service them
Q. Didn't ancient Greek soldiers fight naked?
A. Uh, no. That was the Greek athletes in the Olympic games. But
although these soldiers fight clothed, the film takes every opportunity
to show off goodly amounts of masculine skin.
Q. How about the Trojan horse -is that myth or history?
A. Some scholars have speculated that the horse was actually a siege
machine designed to break down the walls. But there's an intriguing
new theory as well. Archaeologists have found evidence that a powerful
earthquake occurred in ancient Troy, seemingly coinciding with its
attack and destruction by the Mycenaeans. Perhaps Troy was rocked
by an earthquake while under siege, which damaged its famously strong
walls enough to be breached. The Greeks seized the opportunity and
conquered the city. Then in gratitude to Poseidon-the god of earthquakes-the
Greeks left him an offering in the shape of a huge horse, the symbol
most associated with that god.
But while new theories continue to emerge, there's still so much
we may never know about the Trojan War, primarily because of how
long ago it occurred. Consider that when Alexander the Great in
330 B.C. made a pilgrimage to gaze upon the ruins of Troy, he was
honoring an event already close to 1000 years in the past.
Q. What's a good source for more information?
A. Check out The Search for the Trojan War by Michael Wood.
Joliet Herald News, May 16, 2004.
Achilles chases his immortality
Hector and Paris: The calm before the gore.
A whole lot of blond going on.