Re-interpreting the Trojan Horse

Detail from the 7th-century BG Mykonos Pithos (photo: Wikicommons).

When is a horse not a horse? Nowhere in the Iliad is it mentioned that the Greeks brought the ten-year siege to a successful conclusion by tricking the Trojans into towing into their city a large wooden horse in which sufficient Greek warriors had been hidden to create havoc and set fire to the town. Nevertheless, the Trojan Horse lives on as an established fact. Visitors to the site are provided with one to climb into—with improbably large windows (excellent for photo opportunities). There is another one in Çanakkale by the harbour. It was made for the 2004 movie and is beginning to show its age.

 

Artistic representations of the famous artefact are known from the 8/7th century BC. The tale does appear in the Odyssey, as well as in a couple of later Greek tragedies and then again in Virgil at the end of the 1st millennium BC. By then, doubts were being voiced. In his Natural History (7:202), Pliny the Elder clearly speaks of a battering ram and he is echoed later on by Pausanias (23:8–10). Battering rams and other siege engines were known in the Middle East from the 2nd millennium BC, although there is no evidence that they were ever used by the Mycenaeans. The Hittites did in the 17th century BC. Excavators have identified, in the relevant level of Troy VII (the Troy of the Trojan War), a stretch of wall damaged and hastily repaired. Battering rams could have a skeleton crew hidden under a cover of skins, ready to jump into the breach and scale the wall. So was the Trojan Horse in fact a Trojan ram? In the Homeric story, though, we get much more than just a sense of brute force. It is a tale of ruse and deceit, in which the Trojans are shown as hopelessly gullible victims of an inescapable fate. This has led to theories that involve no battering rams or huge siege engines, but simply the smuggling of warriors into the besieged city by trickery. At the siege of Joppa (now Jaffa) in the 15th century BC, the Egyptians managed to smuggle soldiers in in pithoi, huge clay jars supposedly full of grain (the same trick used by Ali Baba and his 40 thieves). But this does not explain the idea of the horse. Animal-shaped vessels are certainly common in Bronze-Age Anatolia, where they were used for libations. Sometimes they are on wheels. The late Bronze Age relief at the Alaca Hüyük entrance gate (the original is in the Museum of Civilisations in Ankara) shows a horse on wheels with a spout on its back. Unfortunately, neither its size nor its purpose are clear. It remains to be seen whether the Trojan Horse was a real object or a poetic invention conflating various traditions.

 

Extract from Paola Pugsley's Blue Guide Aegean Turkey: Troy to Bodrum, to be published this spring.

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