Ancient Troy - A Brief History

Ancient Troy - A Brief History

Most people visit Troy because of the heroes and mythology, or because they have seen the movie or studied the book (Iliad). But Troy was a prehistoric city and Greek-Roman city too. It had a long history. You will see parts of the various levels as you go round, sometimes in seemingly random order. Here is a summary of the sequence of settlements to give you a better idea what you are looking at.

First city of Troy

Recent thinking is that fishing communities living in small hilltop settlements along the coast joined together at one point – for reasons not yet known – and built a circular fort for themselves on Hisarlik ridge. This became Troy I (2920-2200 BC), an Early Bronze Age city consisting of 14 building phases within an enclosure wall of fieldstone, rebuilt several times. The wall had square towers along its length and sloping walls. Sloping walls were a feature of Troy for all successive cities up to Troy VIII. The inhabitants lived in long houses termed “megarons” – fairly basic by our standards but advanced for their time. They had enough engineering savvy or aesthetic appreciation to lay the stones at angles in some houses producing a “herring-bone” effect. They herded animals, tended fields of crops, wove cloth, probably ate a lot of fish, and made pottery by hand. Tools were of copper, bronze and bone. The date of the founding of this city coincided with the emergence of the first civilizations and walled cities in other places (e.g. Egypt) about 3000 BC.

Troy enlarged and enrichened

In the next phase, which we call Troy II (2550-2250 BC), the ruling class lived in the upper town - the citadel. This contained internally-plastered mudbrick houses with stone foundations, porches and colonnades. Two ramps led up to the gates, some of which have survived. The less well-off lived downtown in the small suburb outside, also enclosed, of which only the base of the surrounding wooden stockade survives. Troy II was more impressive, more sophisticated, and burned down more often – at least three times. These Early Bronze Age people used the potter’s wheel, were able to obtain a plentiful supply of tin – necessary for making bronze weapons and artifacts – and had the know-how to make beautiful gold jewelry. “Priam’s Treasure” dates from about this time. Troy II was a trading post. As knowledge spread out from Mesopotamia and Egypt the inhabitants built up a network of contacts. All good things come to an end, however, and the city was destroyed by a great conflagration leaving a layer of rubble and ash 2 m. thick.

Troy shrinks

The following stage, called Troy III (2250-2200 BC), is still categorized as Early Bronze Age and displays a cultural continuity with Troy II. However, the houses inside the citadel became smaller and more numerous – obviously there was a downturn in the economy. Archaeologists have characterized the first three cities as having a “maritime culture”. As so often, this settlement was destroyed by fire.

Anatolian-style Troy

The people of Troy VI and V (2200-1730 BC) carried on with their pottery-making and other pursuits and the city expanded in size. There is a notable Anatolian influence - house design improved, and domed ovens were built. Hunting is more evident in this Early-Middle Bronze Age period. Streets were narrow. This city was destroyed (yet again) by a great fire.

Golden Age of Troy

New people (we don’t know who) came along and took over the hill of Hisarlik during the Middle-Late Bronze Age (1730-1300 BC). They leveled off the remains and built a grand city with a palace, thick new walls (with offsets), tall new towers and a totally different house design. Inside the stout walls (still standing) can be seen some of the many large 2-storey luxury villas, supported by columns. A recently-discovered lower city extended 400 m south of the citadel walls with its own necropolis. This was a thriving, bustling city that traded far and wide throughout the Mediterranean (coastal trade) and beyond. These people brought the horse with them and rode around in chariots. (The horse was introduced into Mesopotamia 2200-1700 BC.) Large quantities of horse bones have been found in this level. The only thing they didn’t have was writing - it hadn’t been invented yet – so we have no written record of the time, only architectural remains.

This city, which the archaeologists call Troy VI, represented a complete cultural break from previous cities. It is the primary candidate for being the legendary “Homeric Troy” of King Priam. It represents the zenith of Trojan wealth and power. The walls were built on a cushion of earth above the bedrock as protection against earthquakes. Thus, when a mighty earthquake did occur, the grand mansions inside were ruined but the wall foundations only shifted – not fall down. However, the city was uninhabitable and the golden age of Troy was over. (Evidence that this city, with a population of about 7,000, engaged in a war with a Greek army numbering 100,000 is negligible.)

Post-earthquake Troy

The same people, those who survived the earthquake, returned and re-built what was left of their city. Troy was still strong, with stout city walls, and commerce continued. But the inhabitants took more precautions: entrances were blocked off, storage facilities increased, and the population was more densely concentrated inside the citadel. Each house contained large storage jars sunk into the floor. Trouble was brewing and the danger of enemy invasion mounted. The period of this city (1300-1180 BC) has been given so many different (and revised) numbers by the archaeologists that we will omit them here. The city was destroyed somehow circa 1180 BC (coincidentally, almost exactly when the Trojan War is reputed to have happened).

Humble Troy

A mixing of cultures then took place. Simple handmade pottery reappeared. Migrants from the NE Balkans and western Black Sea coast seem to have mingled with the locals. Small unsophisticated houses were packed into the upper city and immediate surroundings. These were obviously poor folk. This period represents a transition from Late Bronze to Early Iron Age. The population diminished until the hill of Hisarlik was apparently abandoned.

Troy reborn as Greek Ilion

Following the destruction of the great Greek cities at the end of the Bronze Age (3000-1100 BC) and the ensuing Dark Age (1100-800 BC), we find a resurgence of Greek power and influence during the Archaic Period (800-500 BC). This is when Aeolian migrants from Lesbos colonized the Anatolian coast and built a small sanctuary at Troy in 700 BC. In the following Classical (500-330 BC) and Hellenistic (330-30 BC) eras, the town that we call Troy VIII grew in status. King Xerxes, on his way to conquer Europe, visited in 480 BC. Alexander the Great made a point of stopping by at Troy in 334 BC. Offerings were made, tribute was paid. The sacrificial altars grew bigger and bigger.

Alexander’s commander Lysimachus decided to restore the city to its previous glory and had a new Temple of Athena (possibly not the first) constructed around 300 BC. (While building the new temple, they bulldozed away the previous remains.) All in all, the “Sacred City of Ilion” had one or two temples, a sanctuary, bouleuterion, theatre, and, again thanks to Lysimachus, a new wall that enclosed a much wider area. (Thus, in Greek and Roman times the city was at least 12-15 times bigger than the small citadel you see today. Unfortunately, most of this wall was destroyed by Schliemann, the arch-enemy of non-Homeric Troy, during his “excavations” and none of it is visible today.) Troy was not a fortified trading city as before, it was a religious centre: “Holy Ilios”. In 188 BC, Troy-Ilion received the ultimate accolade when it was declared by the Roman Senate to be the “Mother City of Rome”.

During this period, wars were being waged all around. The Persians, Athenians, Spartans, Galatians, Seleucids, and Romans were all at each other’s throats. Troy somehow bent with the wind and survived. Then in 86 BC, the Roman general Sulla sacked Athens. In 85 BC, a renegade Roman commander called Fimbria sacked Troy. Fimbria received his comeuppance at the hands of Sulla in 84 BC but it was too late to save Troy.

Imperial Roman Troy

When Julius Caesar visited in 48 BC he found Troy derelict, virtually a ruin. This was an affront to their ancestors since the Romans honored Troy as the city of their founders and he commenced a rebuilding project. “Ilion” became “Ilium” (Troy IX) and not long after it enjoyed all the amenities of a typical Roman city – baths, a gymnasium, odeon, piped water, and so on. The city was enlarged and beautified and spread over the plateau. There was a construction boom. New structures were built or existing ones restored – the Temple of Athena with huge columns, a new large amphitheatre – thanks to handouts from the Roman emperors, especially Augustus, who visited in 20 BC. The emperors Hadrian (in 124 AD) and Caracalla (in 214 AD) also visited and paid tribute. However, the lack of a harbor was a distinct disadvantage. While Alexandria Troas founded in 310 BC just down the coast had a fully operational harbor and prospered, Ilium did not flourish. In Roman times, wealthy go-ahead Alexandria Troas was “in”, Troy was on its way “out”. This, together with regular earthquakes and the fall of the Roman Empire, led to the stagnation of Troy.

Troy in Byzantine times

Without a harbor and Troy-Ilion-Ilium now signifying pre-Christian beliefs, the city lost its strategic value and significance. Still, the inhabitants of the small town remaining on the site managed to hang on, surviving the sacking of Troy in 267 AD by the Goths as they devastated city after city in Asia. Constantine the Great even contemplated making Troy the capital of his empire before deciding on Byzantium-Istanbul instead. A record of the visit to Troy by Julian the Apostate in 354 AD tells us that a town still existed there with a small Byzantine church. Even though Christianity was the official religion of the Byzantine Empire, Julian was surprised (and pleased) to find the ancient shrines intact and well looked-after by Pagasios, Bishop of Troas, who kept a fire burning on the altar. Offerings were still being made to Hector, Achilles, Ajax and the other heroes.

Two major events more-or-less signified the death knell for Troy. The first was a severe earthquake in 500 AD. The second disaster was the “Plague of Justinian” in 542 AD. The Byzantine Empire was ravaged by a terrible plague that wiped out entire villages and cities in Anatolia, the same plague that would kill off half the population of Europe and heralded the beginning of the Dark Ages. From this time on, Hisarlik was just a hill with some ancient ruins lying around. Inhabitants of the surrounding region used Hisarlik as a cemetery. Cities further up the Dardanelles – Abydos, Gallipoli, Canakkale - where the Straits were narrower, rose to prominence. Troy was history.