Share this post

Today we’ll travel back in time to the days of Greek mythology as we compare the 2004 movie Troy with history.

KEEP LEARNING WITH MORE RESOURCES

Learn the true story behind Troy

Our movie today opens on a map of ancient Greece. We see a date…well, sort of. The text simply says 3,200 years ago.

 

Then, the text description goes on to say that after decades of warfare, the king of Mycenae, a man named Agamemnon, has forced the kingdoms of Greece into a loose alliance. Only one remains unconquered, and that’d be Thessaly.

 

We find out through another paragraph that Agamemnon’s brother is the king of Sparta. His name is Menelaus. And, according to this text in the movie, Menelaus is tired of battle and wants to make peace with Troy who, in turn, is the most powerful rival to the fledgling Greek nation.

 

The next bit of text explains that the Greek army has one of the greatest warriors ever born—Achilles. But, to complicate matters even more, Achilles doesn’t like Agamemnon, so that is putting strain on the fragile alliance between Greek nations that Agamemnon has managed to achieve.

 

And right away, we’re given some of the main characters and locations that…well, leads us into a quick blanket discussion about this entire story. You see, the truth is simply we just don’t know 100% for sure without a shadow of a doubt how much of this happened.

 

By that, what I mean is that there are definitely tales of Agamemnon. There are stories of the great warrior Achilles who, like the movie says here, wasn’t a big fan of Agamemnon.

 

However, it’s worth pointing out up front here that just because there were real stories of these characters in history doesn’t necessarily mean the characters were real.

 

A good way to think of this entire story of the Trojan War and the characters involved is sort of like the story of King Arthur and Merlin. Or, the story of Mulan. Or, the story of any other legend that took place thousands and thousands of years ago who lives on through those stories.

 

Was there a real person at the center of those stories? Have the stories been changed from generation to generation throughout the millennia to what we know today? Maybe, and almost certainly.

 

Does that mean the historical story of Troy is completely fictional? That’s possible. But, not necessarily. For example, in the 1700s, archaeologists discovered the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Mycenae.

 

Then, in 1876, a German archaeologist named Heinrich Schliemann found a gold mask at the site that he claimed to be Agamemnon. But his find was immediately questioned, with some suggesting he had it manufactured and snuck it into the dig site to “discover” it.

 

Although, I guess in all fairness, at least we know based on the ruins that Mycenae existed while we still don’t even know if Camelot was a real place…so maybe comparing this story to that of King Arthur isn’t entirely valid. But, you get the idea.

 

My point in mentioning those stories is that while the locations were real, when it comes to the characters and most of the details, we’re going to have to be okay with a lot of unknowns.

 

For that reason, there’s plenty of people today who will dismiss the entire thing as fiction. And that’s okay.

 

Although it is worth pointing out that it was also Heinrich Schliemann who discovered the city we now believe to be Troy. Up until the 1870s, everyone believed the story of Troy was purely legend. Then it was Heinrich who discovered the ancient ruins of the city we believe to be Troy…but we’ll chat a bit more about that in a little while.

 

To complicate matters even more, there’s numerous versions of the story that have been passed down from generation to generation.

 

But, for the rest of us, in order to continue this episode we’ll have to place some faith that the ancient writers of history weren’t leading us astray. And that’s why, throughout this episode, we’ll assume the legends are true. Even if it’s just for a moment, let’s try to believe the stories recounted by Homer and other writers in history as if they were talking about real people, real events, and told the true tales of the heroes and villains of their day.

 

After all, for all we know, maybe they were doing exactly that.

 

With all of that said, then according to the legends, yes, Agamemnon was a real person. The same goes for the character the movie says was his brother, Menelaus. But, the movie doesn’t really mention why the two brothers ended up leading different countries.

 

Basically, the two brothers were born to Aërope and her husband, Atreus, who was the king of Mycenae. But then, Atreus was murdered by his nephew which left the two princes fearing for their own lives. They both fled Mycenae and sought refuge in Sparta. They lived with the king there for some time and the two brothers ended up marrying two sisters, the daughters of the king of Sparta.

 

So, Agamemnon married Clytemnestra while Menelaus married Helen.

 

Then, as you can probably guess, as the older of the two brothers, it was Agamemnon who returned to Mycenae and overthrew the ruler there to regain his father’s kingdom. On the other hand, Menelaus stayed in Sparta where he became a king there.

 

And not to get too far ahead of our story, but if you’ve seen the film then you know one of the pivotal plot points to the movie is that Menelaus’s wife, Helen, goes to Troy to be with Paris.

 

She’s played by Diane Kruger while Paris is played by Orlando Bloom.

 

Well, many historians believe that Helen’s sister, Clytemnestra, must not have liked her husband, either, because she’s believed to have killed Agamemnon. Or, maybe it’s that her lover killed him. In either way, it’d seem the two daughters of a king of Sparta didn’t seem to like their husbands.

 

Oh, and as a quick side note, I say “a king” there because many historians believe the state of Sparta had co-rulers…two kings who ruled the state during times of war and then turned it over to a Senate during times of peace.

 

Speaking of ancient states, another we see mentioned in the movie’s introduction is Thessaly. That’s a region in central Greece, and it still has that name to this day. Although, around the timeline of our story today, which historians refer to as the Mycenaean period of ancient Greece, what we know of today as Thessaly was known as Aeolia.

 

Although, to be fair, when trying to date things so long ago sometimes there’s a range…and in this case, we’re not even sure if the Trojan War took place in the 12th or 13th centuries…or if it even happened at all, as I mentioned earlier.

 

Another mention in the introductory text is of the character of Achilles. If there’s one character you’ve heard of in the story today, it’s probably Achilles. And that’s probably because you’re familiar with your Achilles heel, which is also called the Achilles tendon…which is the tendon along the back of your leg that connects your calf muscles to your heel bone.

 

The movie never mentions this at all, but according to some Greek legends, Achilles was no mere man. His mother, Thetis, was a goddess of the sea, who wished to bestow immortality on her son. She did this through favor of the gods by dipping Achilles in the River Styx, something that was believed to give whomever bathes in its waters invulnerability.

 

But, she had to hold the baby somewhere, so she held Achilles by his heel meaning that was the one place on his body that wasn’t covered by the water…thereby making it the one place he was vulnerable.

 

Or, at least, that’s how the story goes.

 

Going back to the movie, the next major plot point is one we’ve already mentioned briefly. We see it happen when Prince Hector and his brother, Paris, are guests of Agamemnon and Menelaus in Sparta.

 

They’re friendly during the visit, but Paris gets a little too friendly with Menelaus’s wife, Helen. Then, on the boat ride home, Paris shows Hector what he’s done. Helen’s going back to Troy with them.

 

Furious, Hector is put between a rock and a hard place. Helen’s already on the boat. The Greeks will be furious and use this as an act of war.

 

He decides to continue sailing to Troy, and the reason for the great battle is set.

 

Of course the details are highly fictionalized, but in general you could say that the gist of those plot points are…well, as accurate as you can expect them to be in a story like this.

 

Although, one key difference that’s worth pointing out was that Hector didn’t go to Sparta. It was Paris alone who went there. Well, not alone…he led a delegation to Sparta.

 

But, regardless, that’s where he met Helen, fell in love with her, and then convinced Helen to leave her husband and return to Troy with him. And that’s why, both in the movie and throughout history, she became known as Helen of Troy.

 

All the legends tell of her beauty as something renowned to all the known world.

 

So, when she left with Paris to go back to Troy, the Greeks reacted exactly like we see in the movie.

 

Well, maybe not exactly…again, the movie is highly dramatized, but you get the idea.

 

They were upset that Helen seemingly disappeared with the Trojans. For all they knew, she was abducted by them. And so, they launched an attack in retaliation.

 

As you can tell, the movie gets the legends pretty close in an overall sort of way.

 

However, it’s tough to separate legend from truth here because there’s so much we don’t know. Many historians would tell you, though, that while Helen was most likely a real person, she probably wasn’t the sole cause for the war between Greece and Troy.

 

The catch here is that we’re not really sure what would’ve been the cause for the war. Maybe there wasn’t a single cause for the war at all…maybe it was a mixture of things.

 

Or, maybe it was something the movie hints at: A collection of Greek city-states under the unification of Agamemnon trying to add yet another one to the mix. To expand the kingdom, as it were.

 

Regardless of what the reason was, though, we end up with a similar result: Greece on the beaches of Troy.

 

Oh, for a bit of geographical context, the location of the real city of Troy is believed to be in modern-day Turkey on the northwest shores. So, that’d be east of Greece across the Mediterranean Sea.

 

We talked about this a little bit earlier, but the archaeological site today is known as Hisarlik, and many believe it to be the city in the legend of Troy. There’s evidence the city was inhabited for some 4,000 years or so and that its demise came by way of being burned and destroyed.

 

Although, there’s 13-some different cities found at the archaeological site. Historians believe when one city was destroyed, a new one was built up on the site of the last city. So, which of them was the legendary city of Troy?

 

Good question. Ha! Maybe it was none of them at all.

 

While we’ll never know for sure which—if any—of the archaeological sites were the city of Troy from the legends, probably the most likely one would be the site called Troy VIIa.

 

That’s a roughly 200,000 square meter layer of the city of Troy that archaeologists believe was built on top of the site of the previous city after it was destroyed by an earthquake. Rough estimates for the population of the city were around 5,000 to 10,000 people, which was quite large for a city at the time.

 

Oh, and that time would’ve been between 1300 and 950 BCE, which would date the Troy VIIa site as being during the Greek Mycenaean era during the bronze age—so the timing seems to line up with the legends.

 

And it would’ve been an impressive city for that time, too.

 

Troy VIIa was said to have walls that were 30 feet tall, or about nine meters. The remains of a single tower measured 60 feet by 60 feet at its base, or about 18 by 18 meters.

 

And it’s probably worth pointing out that in some versions of the story, the outer defenses of the real Troy was said to have been deep trenches. Once you got past those, then you’d have to get past the massive walls.

 

So, if those versions of the story are correct, then it’s not like you could just walk right up to the walls like we see in the movie.

 

Going back to the movie’s timeline now, we see the great war between the Greeks and the Trojans begin.

 

It starts with Orlando Bloom’s version of Paris challenging Brendan Gleeson’s version of Menelaus to a fight. He’s trying to end the war before it even begins with a one-on-one fight.

 

But, Menelaus is a much better fighter. Paris is soon beaten, and crawls to his brother’s feet. It’s a move that everyone sees as cowardly, but nonetheless Eric Bana’s version of the great warrior Hector doesn’t want to see his brother die.

 

So, he tells Menelaus the fight is over. Menelaus doesn’t listen and tries to strike at Paris. In a swift move, Hector pulls his sword and kills Menelaus.

 

According to the legends, that’s not how it happened. Even though the one-on-one battle we see in the movie was described by Homer in the Iliad, it wasn’t Hector who came to Paris’s rescue.

 

Instead, after Menelaus had beaten Paris, it was the goddess of love, Aphrodite, who spirited Paris away to safety inside the walls of Troy.

 

So, the key point of difference there would be that even though Paris survived both versions of the story—both in the movie and in the Iliad, so, too, did Menelaus. That means he was involved in the war a lot more than he was in the movie…since he died right away in the film.

 

Speaking of which, going back to the movie’s timeline, after seeing his brother’s death, Agamemnon is furious. The Greeks attack in full force, but are no match for the defenses of the Trojans.

 

They’re driven back through heavy losses from a combination of the archers on the walls and Hector’s army on the ground. But the Trojans don’t completely route the Greeks thanks to the Greek archers who defend the beaches.

 

The next day, the Trojans decide to attack the Greeks. This time, the Greeks manage to fend off the Trojans. They seem to be at a stalemate for the time being.

 

This brings up a good point that I think it’s worth pointing out about the overall structure how the movie portrays the war. If we’re to believe the movie, the Trojan War took place over the course of a couple weeks…17 days to be a little more precise.

 

However, according to Homer’s Iliad, the war took 10 years! During most of that time, the city of Troy was under siege by the Greeks. So, that sort of a stalemate the movie shows was true, but on a much grander scale than we see in the film.

 

And, well, that sort of gives you an idea of how historically accurate the back-and-forth we see in the movie would be. Hah!

 

According to the movie, though, a major plot point shows how the stalemate ends between the two opposing forces. It’s another one-on-one battle.

 

This time it’s between the two greatest warriors, Eric Bana’s version of Hector and Brad Pitt’s version of Achilles. In a surprise to the Greeks, Hector deals a fatal blow to Achilles by slicing his neck. Bleeding out on the ground, Hector takes off his helmet to find out it’s not Achilles at all…it’s Achilles’s cousin, Patroclus.

 

Back at the Greek camp, Achilles learns of his cousin’s death. Even Achilles’s men thought the man they were following to the battle was Achilles. He wore Achilles’s armor, his helmet…he even moved like Achilles. But, he couldn’t fight like Achilles. Hector defeated him, and in the process managed to drive Achilles into a blind rage.

 

That’s sort of how it happened, but there’s a few key differences that are worth pointing out.

 

For one, Patroclus wasn’t related to Achilles. He wasn’t his younger cousin like we see in the movie. He was merely a good friend to Achilles. Oh, and he was also older than Achilles was.

 

Although the basic gist of how Achilles didn’t like Agamemnon and didn’t want to be in the fight up until Patroclus was killed was fairly accurate. At least, according to the Iliad’s version of the story.

 

Back in the movie, driven by rage, Achilles challenges Hector to a one-on-one fight. Hector accepts the challenge by walking out of the gates of Troy and going to battle.

 

Unfortunately for the Trojans, they watch on helplessly as Achilles overpowers Hector, killing their heroic warrior. After he does, Achilles ties Hector’s body to his chariot and drags it in front of the shocked Trojans watching from the walls.

 

While it is true that Hector faced Achilles, he wasn’t quite as heroic about it as the movie shows. In fact, when Hector first saw Achilles, he was so afraid that Hector ran around the city of Troy three times with Achilles chasing him until Hector finally turned to fight the Greek warrior.

 

The end result we saw in the movie was the same as Homer’s version of the tale, though. Achilles got the better of Hector and killed him. After he died, Achilles dragged Hector’s body behind his chariot. He then took his body back to the Greek camp where he continued to take out his frustrations on his fallen enemy for the next 12 days.

 

The next part we see in the movie happened, too. By that, I’m referring to when Hector’s father, Priam, visits Achilles to request his son’s body. Priam is played by Peter O’Toole. If that name sounds familiar, Peter O’Toole was a Hollywood legend who skyrocketed to fame playing the lead role in another movie we’ve covered here on the podcast, Lawrence of Arabia.

 

While the specifics of Priam’s visit with Achilles were different, the basic idea that Achilles granted Priam’s request was true. He also said he’d honor a 12-day peace between the Greeks and Trojans while they gave Hector a proper funeral.

 

Oh, as a quick side note, in the movie, Priam mentioned Achilles’s father, Peleus, as if he was already dead. In fact, Peleus was still alive.

 

Back in the movie, it’s during that peace that Agamemnon decides to strike. Sean Bean’s character, Odysseus, has the idea to build a great, wooden horse. They’ll trick the Trojans to believing they’ve left the beaches and taking the horse back inside their walls. Then, the men inside will sneak out and let the rest of the Greek army inside.

 

As a side note, if you’ve heard the term Trojan horse these days it’s probably in reference to a computer virus. That’s because a Trojan horse computer virus works in a similar way…it enters your computer through a seemingly harmless way, and then once it’s inside it becomes malicious and spreads the virus.

 

Although some historians think that perhaps there was no Trojan horse that was a literal horse made out of wood, but rather it was some sort of a siege weapon.

 

However, if we’re going by the ancient historians and authors like Homer, then the basic idea of the horse with Greek soldiers inside was pretty accurate.

 

There were varying numbers depending on the source about the number of soldiers inside the horse…some say that number was in the 20s, others say as high as 50. Most historians today would probably tell you the number was in the 40s.

 

One huge difference, though, relates with something we’ve already mentioned. If you remember, the Trojan War lasted 10 years…not just days like the movie shows. And by the time they used the Trojan horse, that was, like the movie shows, what brought an end to the war. So, it’d be after 10 years of war.

 

And not everyone survived those 10 years.

 

The most notable person we saw in the movie that wasn’t alive by the time the Trojan horse was used would be Achilles. That’s because in nearly every version of the legend, Achilles was already dead by then.

 

Let’s head back to the movie, though, because as the on-screen version of the story comes to a close, we see the fate of Achilles.

 

But not before we see the fate of Agamemnon. He finds Briseis and as he’s holding her by her throat, she sneaks a knife and stabs Agamemnon in the neck.

 

Then the movie cuts to Paris and Andromache—that’s Hector’s wife, she’s played by Saffron Burrows in the movie. The two lead other Trojans to safety through a tunnel that Hector told her about.

 

After this is when we see Paris kill Achilles by piercing an arrow through his heel as Achilles and the other Greeks are destroying Troy.

 

When it comes to the death of Agamemnon, he did die at the end of the Trojan War, but not at the hand of Briseis like we see in the movie. If you remember earlier in this episode we learned that Agamemnon was married to Clytemnestra. We also learned earlier that she was the one responsible for Agamemnon’s death.

 

Some versions of the story say that she killed him herself when he returned after the Trojan War. Others suggest her lover killed him…in either case, his demise was certain, it just wasn’t at the hand of Briseis like we see in the movie.

 

As for how Achilles died, we’ve had to do this throughout many plot points in this episode, but I’ll say it again…it’s impossible to say what’s true about this or not because there are different versions of the story.

 

Some versions of the story suggest perhaps Achilles was killed by a poisoned arrow as he was trying to scale the walls of Troy. Still other versions suggest that Achilles married a Trojan princess. Upset that Achilles would be marrying a Trojan, Paris hid in the bushes and killed him with an arrow.

 

As a little side note, another difference in the movie is when we see Briseis as the Trojan woman that Achilles fell in love with. She wasn’t even from Troy…she was actually from Lyrnessos. She wasn’t a priestess and wasn’t even related to Hector or Paris.

 

The Trojan woman Achilles fell in love with was named Polyxena.

 

However, in all of the different versions of the tale, one common denominator was that Achilles died before the Trojan horse was a thing.

 

On the other side of that, if you remember we learned that even though the movie showed Menelaus dying early in the war, that didn’t happen…in fact, he was one of the soldiers inside the Trojan horse at the end of the war and participated in the sack of Troy.

 

Oh, and we also see Andromache holding hers and Hector’s baby boy as they make their escape. In the historical version of this tale, they didn’t make it out of the city. That leads us to an overall statement that I feel is worth mentioning…the movie is pretty brutally violent, but the stories from the Iliad were so much more violent than what we see in the movie.

 

For example, in this case, the Iliad’s version of this tale tells of Andromache being captured and enslaved by the Greeks while Odysseus bashed in her baby son’s head and threw him off the walls of Troy.