History and myth clash in Troy

Brad Pitt in "Troy"

Editor’s note: The Malibu Times introduces a new Question and Answer column by history professor Cathleen Schultz, which will explore films that are based on historical events. The column will run when such films are released theatrically or re-released on DVD.

History in the Movies

By Cathy Schultz, Ph.D.

For an historian, the new film “Troy” presents a dilemma.

The oldest and most detailed source about the Trojan War is Homer’s “Iliad.” That 2,600-year-old classic interweaves realistic (and gory) descriptions of Greeks and Trojans in deadly combat, with scenes of the gods squabbling on Mount Olympus, intervening in the conflict and engaging in catfights with one another.

You see the problem.

Sticking faithfully to Homer, then, doesn’t necessarily ensure historical accuracy. And although devotees of Homer may be appalled, director Wolfgang Petersen clearly aimed more for the latter when he dumped the meddling gods from his tale. His “Troy” is a very human story, with those basic themes from which history and myth derive their power-love, hate, revenge, redemption.

And as befitting a classic tragedy, there are deaths. Lots and lots of deaths. Death by sword, death by spear, death by arrow, death by flaming fireball … you get the idea.

But how close is “Troy” to actual history? Here’s a guide to help viewers decide.

Q. Was the Trojan War a real event?

A. It was regarded as a myth for years, but in the 19th century, inspired by the new science of archeology, Heinrich Schliemann began to excavate in northwest Turkey at the ancient site of Hisarlik, long believed to be Troy.

In the 140 years since Schliemann’s first dig, four major excavations there have uncovered compelling evidence that Troy, a sophisticated and powerful city with an extensive trading network, was indeed attacked by Mycenaeans (today’s Greeks) resulting in its destruction around 1,250 B.C.

Q. So, did Helen, the “face that launched a thousand ships” really cause the war?

A. The myth (and the film) gives the famous explanation for the cause. The beautiful Helen leaves her older husband Menelaus to run off with the hot young Prince Paris of Troy. Furious, Menelaus persuades his brother, King Agamemnon, to rally other Greek kings and heroes to attack Troy, and win back the fair Helen.

But did Helen even exist? No one knows, but if she did, she might just have been a convenient excuse for the war. As the film shows, a more probable motive wasn’t Helen the golden girl, but just plain gold. Troy was rich, and the Mycenaeans wanted to plunder her wealth and control her strategic trade location at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.

Q. Speaking of Helen, how did all those blondes get to ancient Greece?

A. Incongruous blue eyes and blond hair are everywhere among these Greeks, exemplified by the lovely Helen (Diane Kruger) and the equally lovely Achilles (Brad Pitt.) Certainly the blondes in this “Troy” reflect modern Hollywood rather than historical accuracy.

But interestingly, Homer does mention blond Greeks. The “Iliad” describes Achilles as yellow-haired, and other heroes and gods are described likewise. The goddess of love herself, Aphrodite, was always depicted with abundant golden blond hair.

Aphrodite’s blond allure, in fact, encouraged some ancient Greeks to find creative ways to dye their dark locks blond. (Saffron and yellow mud were used; smelly but effective.) On the question, though, of whether Achilles was a natural or a dyed blond, Homer is silent.

Q. Did Achilles’ love interest, Briseis, exist?

A. She does in Homer. But in the “Iliad” she’s not from Troy, but was captured in an earlier raid and given to Achilles.

Whether she ever actually existed, her presence in the story illustrates the fate of women in warring societies. When a city was sacked, the men were killed but the women were enslaved. Ancient Greek records reveal countless female slaves from conquered territories, who were forced to do manual labor for their conquerors and to service them in bed.

Q. Didn’t ancient Greek soldiers fight naked?

A. Uh, no. Those were the Greek athletes in the Olympic games. But although these soldiers fight clothed, the film takes every opportunity to show off goodly amounts of masculine skin.

Q. How about the Trojan horse-is that myth or history?

A. Some scholars have speculated that the horse was actually a siege machine designed to break down the walls. But there’s an intriguing new theory as well. Archaeologists have found evidence that a powerful earthquake occurred in ancient Troy, seemingly coinciding with its attack and destruction by the Mycenaeans. Perhaps Troy was rocked by an earthquake while under siege, which damaged its famously strong walls enough to be breached. The Greeks seized the opportunity and conquered the city. Then in gratitude to Poseidon-the god of earthquakes-the Greeks left him an offering in the shape of a huge horse, the symbol most associated with that god.

But while new theories continue to emerge, there’s still so much we may never know about the Trojan War, primarily because of how long ago it occurred. Consider that when Alexander the Great in 330 B.C. made a pilgrimage to gaze upon the ruins of Troy, he was honoring an event already close to 1,000 years in the past.

Q. What’s a good source for more information?

A. Check out “The Search for the Trojan War” by Michael Wood.

Dr. Cathy Schultz is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois, and writes a syndicated column on historical films. You can reach her at cschultz@stfrancis.edu.