The Trojan War was a significant event in Greek mythology and history, basically separating the mythical age from the historical one. While the time prior to the war was full of tales about demigods fighting monsters and founding kingdoms, things became more normal afterwards, probably because that was around when there were actual historical records available. Still, the old sources weren’t entirely clear on when the war was supposed to have been fought, with estimates ranging from the thirteenth to the eleventh century BC. The most famous work regarding the war is the Iliad, credited to Homer in the Greek Dark Ages, sometime between the ninth and sixth century BC. He was almost certainly working from earlier oral sources, however.
How much truth is there in the accounts of the Trojan War? While the ancient Greeks and Romans definitely thought of it as a historical event, scholarly opinion tended to shift in the opposite direction prior to 1870. This was when archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann led an excavation in the area identified in the ancient works (which really is pretty specific, making reference to Mount Ida and the River Scamander), and found not just one Troy, but nine of them.
That’s because the city was constantly rebuilt on top of itself, which really isn’t that uncommon. Something similar happened in Seattle when parts of it were destroyed by fire and flood. As far as I know, there’s been no evidence found at the archaeological site indicating that the city was actually called Troy, but it’s likely that it’s the same place as the mythical city.
Greek mythology contains a fairly detailed account of the history of the city of Troy. When Dardanus, the son of Zeus and Electra, left Samothrace for Phrygia, he eventually became ruler of the region. The area was named Troad and the people Trojans after Dardanus’ grandson Tros. Tros’ kingdom was divided between his sons Ilus and Assaracus, with the former building the city of Troy where an allegedly oracular cow decided to lie down. By the way, Tros was also the father of Ganymede, and when Zeus abducted the boy he gave Tros a gift of some immortal horses. Ilus’ heir was Laomedon, who had a habit of not paying his dues. When he stiffed two workmen who showed up to fortify the city who were actually Poseidon and Apollo in disguise, the city was beset by plague and a sea monster. On the advice of an oracle, Laomedon gave his daughter Hesione over to the monster. Herakles came to Troy and rescued Hesione in exchange for the horses that Zeus had given Tros, but once again Laomedon refused to pay up, so Herakles sacked the city in revenge.
The hero killed Laomedon and all of his sons but one, Podarces, whom he held for ransom. Podarces changed his name to Priam, rebuilt Troy and regained its great wealth, and fathered about a hundred children. It was all to no avail in the long run, though, as Priam’s son Paris took it into his head to kidnap Helen, the wife of Menelaus. This sparked the ten-year Trojan War, leading to the city being destroyed once again when the Greeks used a wooden horse to sneak inside.
It’s interesting that the mythology does incorporate the city having been destroyed more than once, first by Herakles and then by Menelaus’ allies, which could suggest knowledge that Troy was rebuilt a few times. Evidence suggests that the city was destroyed by an earthquake around 1300 BC, then by fires in the twelfth and eleventh centuries. The history of Troy does appear to go much farther back than the myth-makers were aware, though, with the earliest permanent settlement there dating back to about 3000 BC. The myths have it ruled by only three kings in succession. Priam does seem to have ruled for an unusually long amount of time, but still hardly hundreds of years. As for why the war was really fought, if indeed it was, a possibility I’ve heard is that it was over a tax Troy was imposing on Greek ships. This article suggests that Troy might have been involved in an ongoing struggle with the Hittites, in which the Mycenaeans might have also become involved. I find it interesting that, although Troy is presented as an enemy of the Greeks, it is not presented in an entirely negative light in the myths. Sure, it had its stinkers like Laomedon and Paris, but also its share of noble citizens. It would later become fashionable for European cultures to trace their origins to the Trojans. Aeneas, the great-grandson of Assaracus, cousin of Priam, and husband of Priam’s daughter Creusa, was credited with founding Rome. And Aeneas’ grandson (or possibly great-grandson) Brutus was the legendary founder of Britain. Whatever the truth is about Troy, the mythology associated with the ancient city has certainly withstood the test of time.