When one thinks of Ancient Greece, the first names to come to mind are Heracles (Hercules) Achilles, or Odysseus (Ulysses), or those of the gods Zeus, Athena, or Aprodhite. Precisely in Ancient Greece, more than in any other part or time in the western world, have history and mythology coexisted for so long in the collective imaginary, even enduring into our modern, skeptical era. This owes much to the Iliad and the Odyssey, two ancient poems attributed to Homer, and considered one of the oldest and most-widely read works of western literature. Both narrate fragments of the Trojan War and the fall of the fabled city of Troy by a coalition of Greeks, a story famously depicted in Troy (2004), directed by Wolfgang Petersen and first-class starred with Brad Pitt, Orlando Bloom, Diane Kruger, and Sean Bean, amongst others. But how loyal was the movie to the Homeric epic poems? Or did it fundamentally change to suit 21st century audiences? Let’s explore it together.

1# The real Troy

Neither the Iliad nor the Odyssey present a full, chronological narrative of the Trojan War, and for a full picture one must leaf through numerous poems and ancient sources, each with its own differences and changes in the narrative. But before we proceed, we should at least attempt to sieve history from literature. Is there any truth in the stories of Troy? Did it really exist? The answer is… complicated, to say the least.

Map of the Dardanelles, where the historical Troy was discovered and which fits the descriptions of the city in the poems. Author: Dbachmann at English Wikipedia. Source

The site which now historians agreed might have been the historical Troy, and is in fact referred as such, lies at the mouth of the of Dardanelles, or strait of Gallipolli, in modern Turkey. Several layers belonging to different periods and possibly even different cultures have been excavated, for the mouth of the straits that the Greeks called Hellespont, has been and always will be of strategical and commercial importance. One of these layers, possibly the ones classified as Troy VI, VIIa, or VIIb, have been proposed as the remains of the famous city. And here ends the historical certainties, and we’re left with an entangled knot of folklore, mythology, and possibly yes, real-life events that might (or might not) have occurred during the end of the Bronze Age (circa 1200 BC), around which time the fall of Troy is supposed to have taken place.

2# Achilles and Agammenon

Achilles, the greatest Greek warrior and hero, and Agammenon, King of Mycenae and commander-in-chief of the Greek coalition. Real or not, their clash of hubris is one of the main themes of the Iliad, as well as in Troy 2004. Their famous break-up is a central piece in both, and occurs when Agammenon claims Achilles’ slave, Briseis, as his own. This outrages Achilles, who decides to pull out of the war with his warriors, the Myrmidons. In the Iliad, Briseis is a princess taken prisoner by Achilles, when the latter raided her native city of Lyrnessus. Agammenon claims her as his when he’s forced to give up his own playtoy, Chryseis, to placate the ire of Apollo, who has sent a plague to his camp. The only noteworthy difference in the movie version, was Briseis’ background, who is simply a princess of the Trojan royal house of King Priam. Neither Chryseis nor Apollo’s plague make an appearance.    

3# Paris and Helen

The reason for the war boils down to Paris taking Helen, Queen of Sparta and most beautiful woman alive, to Troy, to wed her. Only if Helen hadn’t been married to Menelaus, Agammenon’s younger brother. In the movie, Paris and Helen’s unquestionable love is the catalyst and casus belli, but in the poems it’s not that clear whether Paris seduces Helen, or whether he abducts her against her will. The icing on the cake is his shameless plunder of Menelaus’ palace, who had dutifully hosted him as ambassador of Troy. Quite the selfish brat this Paris, much unlike the guileless fool in love that Orlando Bloom got to play.  

The Judgment of Paris. Paris (seated) was tasked by the god Hermes (standing left) to give a golden apple to the fairest goddess, Aphrodite (left), Hera (middle), or Athena (right). Aphrodite promised him Helen, the most beautiful mortal alive, and Paris decided for her. Painting by Alessandro Turchi. Source

4# The duel of Menelaus and Paris

Before Greeks and Trojans clash in the first major battle before the city’s walls, it’s agreed that Paris and Menelaus should duel to see who’ll claim Helen. Menelaus wins easily against a pusillanimous, weak, Paris, but while in the movie Hector rescues him and kills Menelaus, in the Iliad, he’s saved by the godess of love, Aphrodite, who spirits his protegé away, and then sends Helen to comfort him in the bed. In the Odyssey, we learn of Menelaus, who survives the war and takes Helen back as his wife. Nothing like a ten-year conflict and tens of thousand deaths to win back a woman’s heart.

5# Achilles vs Hector

In the movie, Achilles vs Hector is the duel that the audience impatiently anticipates since Odysseus cleverly teases Achilles, by commenting that the greatest of Trojans is said to be greater than the Greeks.

Initially both warriors show no particular animosity towards each other, other than they fight in opposite sides. However, it becomes personal when Hector kills Patroclus, Achilles’ friend and possible lover. This happens both in the Iliad and in Troy 2004, although in the former Hector is aided in doing so by the god Apollo. In both versions, Achilles and Hector engage in a duel which results in Hector’s death, his body tied and dragged away by Achilles’ chariot. Priam, Hector’s father and King of Troy, sneaks into the Greek camp and moves Achilles to tears, convincing him to return his son’s body for a proper burial. There are no noteworthy differences between the Iliad and Troy 2004 when it comes to this scene, a powerful touching one in both, personal loss and the human cost of war showing us how empty hubris and eternal glory are.

6# The Horse of Troy and Laocoön

The famous ploy of Odysseus, which allows the Greeks to infiltrate Troy and open the gates from within. So famous in fact, that Trojan Horse is still used as synonym of inviting the wolf to the pen, and also as a malicious computer program. Both movie and ancient poems depict it as devised and executed by Odysseus, who disguises the giant wooden horse containg a band of Greek warriors, as an offering of the Greeks to the sea god, Poseidon, for a safe return home. A less known story entirely ignored in the movie, however, is that of Laocoön. He wasn’t mentioned by Homer’s poems but his death has been narrated by posterior authors, most famously, by Virgil in the Aeneid. Laocoön was a Trojan priest who warns Priam of the danger of taking the horse inside Troy, but before anybody can heed his warning, giant serpents emerge from the sea and drag him and his sons under the waves. The theme of the Trojans ignoring the signs, or of the gods themselves acting to prevent so, was recurrent in the poems, but the movie did away with them. Perhaps, wisely seeking to dispense completely with the supernatural.  

Laocoön and his sons strangled by the sea serpents. Collection of the Vatican Museums. Photography by: Frans Vandewalle. Source

7# Achilles’ Heel and Paris’ Death

The Heel of Achilles is another widely used expression to refer to someone’s weakness. The story goes that Achilles’ mother, the nymph Thetis, dipped him into the Stynx river to grant him invulnerability. However, on holding him by the heel or the tendon, she unknowingly left him with a vulnerable spot. In recent depictions such as Troy 2004, he’s shown as being shot in the vulnerable heel or tendon with a poisoned arrow by Paris, which causes his death. However, Homer’s poems made no mention of Achilles’ near-invulnerability or heel. The only thing we know for certain, is that in the Odyssey, Odysseus talks with Achilles’ ghost in the underworld, and tells him about Neoptolemus, Achilles’ son, and his deeds in the Trojan War. If Achilles didn’t know about this in life, it means that in the Homeric version he died before the war was over, and therefore wasn’t present in the fall of Troy, as depicted in the movie.

The statue of Dying Achilles, in Corfu. Notice the arrow sticking from his tendon. Sculpture by Ernst Herter. Photography by:  Dr.K. (Wikipedia). Source

Equally contentious is Paris’ demise, with the poem of the Little Iliad depicting him as slain by an arrow shot by Philoctetes. As mentioned beforehand, in the Odyssey, it’s revealed that Menelaus and Helen have reconciled, which at the very least suggests that the brat-prince of Troy didn’t survive the city’s demise. Much unlike the movie, in which he strolls away with Helen from the smouldering ruins of his home.

8# Andromache and Hector’s son

In the movie, Hector’s wife and son also managed to escape the killing spree of the Greeks. All retellings agree on the barbarity of the Greeks as they kill, rape, enslave and plunder at ease. But while Troy 2004 spared the audience from having to witness innocent women and children being slaughtered, the ancient poems had no qualms in showing the ugly face of war. Hector’s infant son, Astyanax, is hurled over the city walls, either by Odyssey or by Neoptolemus, who then takes Andromache as his concubine. The whole baby-killing might indeed have proved too much to our modern sensitivity, and was perhaps rightly expunged from the movie. Still, even the slightest hinting of it might have sent a powerful message of how war can turn a decent person into a depraved monster.

9# Aeneas

Although he isn’t a major hero in any of the ancient Greek retellings of the Trojan War, Aeneas played a vital role in Roman mythology, which liberaly borrows (if not downright plagiarism) from Greek mythology. He’s the son of Anchises, a relative of King Priam, and Aphrodite. His story is fully detailed in the Aeneid by Virgil, who wrote it during the lifetime of the first Roman emperor, Augustus. In it, Aeneas escapes the fall of Troy together with his father and son, Ascanius. In a convoluted trip full of dangers and divine interventions which recalls the Odyssey, Aeneas and the Trojan survivors made it to Italy, where they founded Lavinium, in the same area where Rome would be later established. Later, Ascanius founded the city of Alba Longa, which would produce the twins Romulus and Remus, considered the fathers of Rome. The patrician family Julia, to which Julius Caesar belonged, claimed descent from Ascanius and Aeneas, therefore from Aphrodite and the royal house of Troy. Moreover, the Romans proudly regarded themselves as the heirs of Troy.

The movie focused on major heroes such Achilles, Odysseus, Hector, and Paris, but it left an evocative, brief, scene for Aeneas, nearly the end, in which Paris gives him the sword of Troy and entrusts him with the task of finding a new home for the Trojan survivors. This also indirectly foretells the emergence of Rome.  

That’s enough Trojan drama for today, friends. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive an alert when the next post comes up. And leave a comment too, if you enjoyed it. If you’re eager to read more about Troy and its legendary fall, why not checking this modern retelling by Stephen Fry: