Did The Famous “Trojan Horse” Really Exist?

Like a cuckoo laying its eggs in the nest of an unsuspecting host, the ancient Greeks are said to have infiltrated the city of Troy by hiding inside an enormous wooden horse. From Homer to Hollywood, the tale of this military masterstroke has been told for thousands of years, yet there’s little evidence to suggest it actually happened.

According to the legend, the Achaeans – led by Agamemnon and boasting heroic soldiers such as Achilles – spent 10 years besieging Troy without managing to break through the city’s defenses. Pretending to give up, the assailants sailed to a nearby island, leaving behind a massive wooden horse filled with soldiers.

Believing that the giant statue was an offering to the god Athena, the Trojans hauled the horse through their city gates and into the defenseless heart of their town, unaware of the enemies hiding within its belly. As night fell, the Greek soldiers emerged from their horse and laid waste to Troy, bringing an end to the epic war.

However, archaeologists are yet to discover any solid evidence for the Trojan War, let alone its somewhat ridiculous finale. 

What we do know is that Troy was probably the name of a Bronze Age city at what is now Hisarlk in western Turkey. Discovered by German explorer Heinrich Schliemann in the 1870s, the site has yielded a small number of arrowheads and evidence of fire within a layer of sediment dated to around 1200 BCE, which roughly lines up with the date mentioned by Homer and could therefore hint at an ancient battle. Linking these finds to a decade-long siege, however, is a bit of a stretch.

As for the big old horse, Homer really only mentions it in passing, and the first substantial description of the event can be found in the Aeneid, composed by the Roman poet Virgil more than a millennium after the ploy was supposedly executed. Most modern archaeologists take the ancient artist’s words with a pinch of salt and suspect that the giant horse was probably metaphorical rather than literal.

For example, Dr Armand D’Angour from Oxford University has explained that “archaeological evidence shows that Troy was indeed burned down; but the wooden horse is an imaginative fable, perhaps inspired by the way ancient siege-engines were clothed with damp horse-hides to stop them being set alight.”

In other words, the mythical Trojan Horse may have been more akin to a battering ram or other war machines that enabled the Achaeans access to Troy via much less subtle means than the story suggests. Unfortunately, however, it’s highly unlikely that archaeologists will ever find the remains of such a contraption – horse-like or otherwise – since wooden artifacts from antiquity tend to decompose long before they could possibly be discovered.

Despite this, the idea of the Trojan Horse has become ingrained in modern culture and parlance, even lending its name to a type of computer malware that invades victims’ systems by disguising itself as an innocuous piece of code. Bizarre as the original idea may seem, the concept is the perfect metaphor for something that invades and destroys from within.

Perhaps that’s why the ancient poets invented the Trojan Horse to represent the way in which Agamemnon and co took down the city of Troy.

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