Telling the Story of the Trojan War in Ancient Greece and Rome
Exploring how manuscripts reveal the evolution of the tale of Troy in ancient Greek and Latin traditions.
By Dr. Peter Toth
Curator of Ancient and Medieval Manuscripts
By Dr. Eleanor Jackson
Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts
For over 3000 years, people have told legends of a long and bloody war between the Greeks and the Trojans, sparked by the abduction of the beautiful Queen Helen of Sparta by Paris, the Trojan prince. In response, a mighty force of Greek heroes laid siege to the city of Troy for ten years. The siege only ended when the Greeks built a giant wooden horse and left it outside the city gates as an offering. The Trojans, not realising that it was a trick, brought the horse into the city. A band of Greek soldiers were hiding inside the horse, and when night fell they crept out. They opened the gates to the rest of the Greek army, who massacred the population and destroyed the city.
This relatively unexceptional conflict was elevated to the stuff of legend through Homer’s masterful Greek epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Today we are following the tale of Troy through Roman and medieval culture, where we will discover that despite losing the war against the Greeks, the Trojans won the more enduring victory as fundamental heroes of western literature.
The British Library has loaned seven ancient and medieval manuscripts to the British Museum’s current exhibition, Troy: myth and reality (21 November – 8 March 2020). We’re going to be exploring how these manuscripts reveal the evolution of the tale of Troy over the centuries, starting with the Greek tradition today and following with a second blog post about the Latin tradition.
However cruel and bloody it may sound today, the siege of Troy was only a rather average-sized case amongst the many brutal battles of classical antiquity. There were several more devastating carnages recorded, for example during the long wars between Rome and the North African Carthage, or between Rome and King Pyrrhus’ forces from the Greek city of Epirus.
What then distinguishes Troy and the Trojan war from other even more horrific and disastrous wars of antiquity? The question was answered by none other than Alexander the Great, another conqueror of the 4th century BC. Upon reaching the tomb of Achilles, one of the greatest heroes of the Trojan War, Alexander cried out how lucky Achilles was to have his deeds and memory preserved by the great poet Homer.
The key to the long-standing fame of siege of Troy is the fact that it became the subject of two of the most important and masterful Greek epic poems of Classical Antiquity: the Iliad and the Odyssey. The two poems, presumably pieced together from earlier oral traditions in the 8th century BC and attributed to the blind, prophet-like poet Homer, are iconic pieces of ancient Greek literature.
Read and admired by generations of scholars, poets and artists, the two epic poems were part of the Greek school curriculum all over the Mediterranean. Children and young adults, together with their teachers and instructors, spent hours reading, understanding and memorising Homer’s verses. No wonder that the poems come down to us in hundreds of various formats – from cheap copies for schools to deluxe papyri designed for scholarly use or showing off.
A splendid example of the showy format of deluxe papyri is Papyrus 732. This 1st-century AD copy from Book 13 of the Iliad is written with elegant Greek uncials for wealthy patron, probably a scholar who had even put one annotation to the column on the left.
Papyrus 271 is even more lavishly written, containing portions of the Odyssey from the 1st century AD. It shows the end of Book 3 of the poem with a nice endpiece (colophon) on the right. The annotations in the margins are even more interesting. These little notes explaining the grammar or the content of the ancient text are extracts from ancient commentators of the Homeric epics. They preserve fragments from scholarly works that do not survive anymore and represent centuries of scholarship on Homer.
These scattered notes were later assembled into one almost continuous commentary on Homer’s texts that often accompanied both the Iliad and the Odyssey in later manuscripts. An excellent example of this textual tradition, usually called the school-commentaries (scholia) on Homer, is the Townley Homer.
This manuscript, known after its previous owner, Charles Townley (1737-1805), was probably written in 1059 and contains the text of the Iliad with an extensive array of marginal scholia. An elaborate system of red signs connect the main text of the poem to the lengthier notes on the margins. Between the widely spaced lines of Homer’s text there are several interlinear notes (glosses) explaining difficult words or archaic grammatical features of the text for the reader. All this was designed for a fuller and deeper understanding of the poems. This remarkable manuscript preserves centuries of Homeric scholarship in the form of a handy manual that ensured the transmission of not only Homer and the memory of Troy but also a whole range of other texts, grammars, scientific works, fables, literary and metrical works for the following centuries.
Homer’s Greek epics also inspired Latin writers who reimagined the story of Troy for new audiences and new purposes.
In the first century BC, the tale of Troy was reimagined in one of the greatest works of Latin literature—the Aeneid by the Roman poet Virgil. This epic poem forms a sequel to the Iliad that transforms the Trojan legend into an origin myth for the Roman Empire. It tells the story of Aeneas, one of the few Trojan heroes to survive the fall of Troy, who managed to escape the burning city carrying his aged father Anchises on his back and leading his young son Ascanius by the hand (depicted above). Aeneas led a large following of Trojan refugees as they wandered around the Mediterranean, beset by constant hardships, searching for a new home. Eventually the Trojans reached Italy, where they were prophesied to flourish. There they fought a brutal war with the native tribe the Rutuli, culminating in Aeneas killing the Rutulan leader, Turnus.
The Aeneid was tremendously admired in the Roman period and the Middle Ages. It was read in schools as the epitome of great poetry, and widely imitated in Latin literature of all kinds. It also had an important legacy in shaping perceptions of European political heritage. Throughout the poem it is foretold that the Trojan kingdom in Italy will one day form the mighty Roman Empire, and the gods prophesy the birth of Julius Caesar from Aeneas’ line. In this way, the Aeneid provided an influential model for adapting the Trojan legend to serve contemporary political ends.
Just as Virgil created a sequel to the Iliad that claimed the Trojans as founders of the Roman Empire, so Geoffrey of Monmouth created a sequel to the Aeneid that re-cast the Trojans as founders of Britain. In his enormously popular work, History of the Kings of Britain (c.1136-38), Geoffrey set out to fill the gap in people’s knowledge about Britain’s pre-Christian past. The tale he recounted is more mythical than it is historically accurate.
Geoffrey explains that after the Trojans settled in Italy, Aeneas’ great-grandson Brutus was exiled for accidentally killing his father. Like Aeneas before him, Brutus led a following of displaced Trojans in search of a new land in which to settle. Following the advice of the goddess Diana, they discovered an island named Albion which was inhabited only by giants. They settled, killed the giants, and re-named the island Britain after Brutus. They also built a city called ‘New Troy’, which was later renamed London. One of the earliest known representations of the city of London appears beneath Geoffrey’s description of ‘New Troy’ in this 14th-century copy of the History of the Kings of Britain.
New works on the legend of Troy were composed throughout the Middle Ages, not only in Latin but also in vernacular languages. These texts brought the tale to wider audiences and shaped it for new purposes. John Lydgate composed the extensive Middle English poem Troy Book in 1412-1420 at the request of Prince Henry, later King Henry V. In his prologue, Lydgate praises Henry’s excellent qualities, which he links to his supposed descent from the Trojans through Brutus, calling Henry the worthy prince, ‘To whom schal longe by successioun / for to governe Brutys Albyoun’. This luxurious manuscript of the Troy Book was probably made as a presentation gift to Henry V’s son, Henry VI.
The legend of Troy also appeared in French versions such as the monumental Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César. This universal chronicle, first composed c. 1208-13, blends biblical, ancient and legendary history from the Creation of the world to Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. In the 1330s, a second version of the text was compiled that cut out the sections on Genesis and Alexander the Great and greatly expanded the account of the Troy legend. This firm shift in focus towards the Trojan War as the defining event of ancient history may have been intended to create a clearer link between the Trojans and the Angevin rulers of Naples for whom the second redaction of the Histoire ancienne was created.
Manuscripts of the Histoire ancienne were often beautifully illuminated. This copy of the second redaction features a two-page miniature of the Greeks attacking Troy from the sea, looking strikingly like a scene of medieval warfare.
From ancient Greece, to ancient Rome, to medieval culture, the epic of Troy has been told countless times.
Originally published by the British Library, 12.12/15.2019, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.