Archeologists have uncovered strong evidence that the Trojan War described by the poet Homer in "The Iliad," one of the first and most important books in Western literature, actually occurred.
The research also shows that Troy and its successors had a unique strategic importance in the ancient world because they dominated a major trade route through the Dardanelles strait and thereby obtained unprecedented wealth and power.
The findings indicate that ancient Troy was much larger than believed, and may have been the largest city of its era, which stretched from 1700 BC to about 1250 BC.
Troy's power and strategic importance--and not the kidnaping of Helen, the wife of the king of Sparta, by Paris, the son of the king of Troy--were probably the cause of the epic war described by Homer, experts say.
The importance of the Dardanelles--which provide access to the Danube, Don and Dnieper river basins--has also been the cause of other major battles that have continued through modern times, culminating in the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915, in which 130,000 Allied and Turkish soldiers perished.
The new evidence, from the first excavations at the fabled city of Troy in nearly 50 years, is to be described this week at symposiums in Washington, New York and Troy, Ohio.
Researchers discovered remains of ancient fortifications and buildings outside the much smaller citadel, which was previously all that was known to be left of Troy. The new evidence suggests for the first time that the city was large enough to withstand the 10-year siege and to mount the types of battles described in the literary classic.
The new excavations have revealed 15 fortifications. "It (Troy) was always important and always had to be protected," said archeologist Manfred Korfmann of the University of Tubingen in Germany. "We shouldn't talk about The Trojan War, but about a whole series of Trojan wars."
The research has also revealed new insights into the links between Troy, which was in what is now western Turkey, and Rome at the time of the emperor Augustus Caesar, who reigned from 31 BC to AD 14. Historians have long known that Augustus and his successors emphasized their patriarchal ties to the warrior Aeneas--the son of the goddess Aphrodite who escaped Troy after its fall--as a way of legitimizing their descent from the gods.
But the Romans did more than celebrate Troy, said archeologist C. Brian Rose of the University of Cincinnati. The new excavations reveal that the Romans rebuilt Troy as a cultural and religious shrine, a mecca for Romans celebrating their illustrious origins and a tourist trap for the affluent.
At Troy, Rose has discovered what he has identified as a Roman council house, temple, glass factory and a theater that may well have featured performances of the play "The Trojan Women" by the Greek dramatist Aeschylus. They have also discovered a religious sanctuary that dates from the 8th Century BC and might have been visited by Homer or one of his informants.
"We have really had no idea what the city was like during the period of classical antiquity that witnesses the foundation of Western civilization," Rose said. "We're trying to find out what kind of city it was and what happened to the site after it ('The Iliad') was written. These are questions that no one has really tried to answer before."
The international team carrying out the excavation has produced some "very exciting information," said archeologist Getzel Cohen of the University of Cincinnati, who helped organize the expedition but did not participate. What they are learning about the city is "really very gratifying," he said.
Until the last century, most historians believed Troy to be entirely mythical. But in the 1870s, German merchant Heinrich Schliemann identified what he believed to be its site, a large mound on the Anatolian Peninsula about 15 miles from the modern city of Canakkale. The mound, about 600 feet long, 450 feet wide and more than 100 feet tall, is called Hisarlik (Place of Fortresses) and is accepted as the site of Troy.
Archeologists know that the mound contains nine principal layers representing successive cities dating from before 3000 BC to the 13th Century.
The level known as Troy VI, Homer's Troy, was excavated by Cincinnati archeologist Carl Blegen in the 1930s. He unearthed a splendid walled city, tiered in concentric terraces and protected by stone walls 16 feet thick, 13 feet high and topped by brick ramparts--the "beetling towers" of Homer.
But archeologists from Blegen's generation and later ones argued that the citadel was too small to be the Homeric Troy. "People believed there was a kernel of truth in the (Homeric) story, but the citadel was too small to be an important place," Korfmann said.
"But this place has grown considerably as a result of our last two years of research," he said.
The key finding by Korfmann's international team, which includes more than 80 researchers, was the discovery of what appears to be a mud-brick wall, four to six yards thick. It encompasses an area nearly nine times as large as the citadel and dates from Troy VI. "This is an enormous area," Rose said. Between the citadel and the wall is an organized network of streets and dwellings that suggests a wealthy and bustling city.
"Homer might have written down his story while viewing this ruins of this city," Korfmann said. "The ruins available in this landscape could have been the stage for an epic."
Korfmann's team has literally only scratched the surface in excavating this extended city, but they have discovered extensive samples of Mycenaean pottery, dwellings and many other artifacts. They hope to piece together a comprehensive picture of what life might have been like in the city.
"The architecture is astonishingly identifiable," said archeologist Machteld Mellink of Bryn Mawr University. "There are vast buildings with stone foundations, made of timber and mud brick. . . . This will really refine our knowledge of the nature of the citadel."
Meanwhile, Rose and his colleagues have been excavating post-Bronze Age Troy in the era of the Roman emperors. Troy was destroyed by the Roman general Fimbria in 85 BC during the Mithridatic Wars, which consumed much of the Aegean region. Rose has found much evidence of that destruction, including the charred remains of a man who was burned alive when a flaming roof collapsed on him.
After Augustus consolidated his power in the region, he began a reconstruction of the city, Rose has found. Roof tiles from the new city are stamped Ilion, the Roman name for Troy. "The people living there clearly thought they were living at the site where the battle occurred," Rose said.
There is ample evidence, he said, of Greek and Roman emperors visiting there because they thought it was the site of "The Iliad" as well as of Virgil's "Aeneid," which charted the wanderings of Aeneas before he founded the Latin people.
Among other things, Rose has excavated the stage and first four rows of seats of a Roman theater at the site. On the stage is a relief of Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome, "to remind everyone of the close connection to Rome," he said.
The ongoing excavations could provide a completely new view of Troy, Mellink said.
"It was a prosperous area with good agriculture and animal husbandry," she said. "They were very important traders, judging from the wealth they collected. This should tell us how that international (trade) network developed and how early."
According to Homer, the Trojan War began when the Trojan prince Paris kidnaped Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta. Grecian armies under the command of Menelaus' brother Agamemnon converged on Troy and laid siege for 10 years. With the war stalemated, the Greeks conceived the idea of pretending to withdraw, leaving behind a large wooden horse as a peace offering. The Trojans took the horse into their city.
The horse was filled with Greek soldiers. They emerged during the night, conquered the city, slew the men and took the women and children into slavery, thereby ending the reign of King Priam and Queen Hecuba.
Excavations at the site are scheduled to last for another 10 years. It is unlikely that they will find the horse because it was made of wood and would not have survived the centuries.
Korfmann also plans to restore the site and turn the largely undeveloped area into a major tourist attraction.