The Identification of Troy

When Alexander crossed the Hellespont, setting foot in Asia for the first time, he paused briefly at what he believed to be the site of the Homeric Ilion—the hill we know today as Hissarlik. A Greek and after it a Roman town named ‘Ilion’ grew up on the site, and few ancient writers doubted that here once stood the “well-towered” citadel of Priam. The Roman geographer Strabo, however, questioned the identification, and brought many arguments to show that ‘Ilion’ was in all respects unlikely to have been the site of the Homeric city.(1) Uncertainty about the identification of Troy continued into modern times, and even Schliemann’s spectacular discoveries at Hissarlik did not end it. Several years after the publication of Troy and Its Remains, Professor R. C. Jebb, one of the foremost classicists of the age, proclaimed that Schliemann had not uncovered Homer’s Troy at all and, further, that it was vain to expect that a city such as Homer sang of lay hidden beneath the soil of the Troad. Hissarlik, in any case, could not accomodate any fortress on the scale envisaged by the poet: “The spatious palaces, and wide streets of the Homeric Troy point to a city totally different, both in scale and in character, from anything of which traces exist at Hissarlik.” Although in his view “no one site in the Troad satisfies all the Homeric data for the position of Troy,” yet Bali Dagh, a nearby hill looking over the village of Bunarbashi, was, according to Jebb, a much better choice: “‘Troy ought to have been here’ is one’s feeling when, coming from Hissarlik, one mounts the hill above Bunarbashi.”(2)

Jebb’s objections would continue to weigh on the minds of those who followed Schliemann in his identification, as well as those who disagreed: the area of Hissarlik, even at its widest extent, was barely a twentieth of the size of the great citadel conjured by the poet. Even Schliemann expressed his dismay:

“I am extremely disappointed at being obliged to give so small a plan of Troy; nay, I had wished to be able to make it a thousand times larger, but I value truth above everything, and I rejoice that my three years’ excavations have laid open the Homeric Troy, even though on a diminished scale, and that I have proved the Iliad to be based upon real facts.”(3)

By the early 1890’s new discoveries at Hissarlik had shown that Troy II, where Schliemann had found the great treasure, and which he confidently identified as the fortress of Priam, was in fact much more ancient: it was as old as the Pyramids, and it met its fiery end at the same time as the Egyptian Old Kingdom collapsed into anarchy. The finding of Mycenaean pottery in Troy VI made Wilhelm Dörpfeld, Schliemann’s pupil and leader of the new campaign of excavations, claim that city as the most likely to have been the Ilion of Homer.(4) Doerpfeld found evidence that Troy VI had been destroyed by a violent earthquake; the damage was partly repaired and the city rebuilt, though on a much smaller scale. Such evidence, in the view of Carl Blegen, who conducted the most recent excavations on the site, could hardly be reconciled with the Homeric account of a city whose walls were breached by an enemy after a lengthy siege and which, on being plundered and denuded of its inhabitants, was for a long time left deserted. Blegen disagreed with Dörpfeld about the identity of the Homeric city; looking for a fortress that fell not due to an earthquake, but by siege and assault, he identified the Troy sung by Homer in Troy VIIa.(5)

Troy II was a stronghold; Troy VI was also a well-built fortress, girded by thick walls embracing an even larger area. Yet even in Troy VI “you could still saunter from side to side in less than two minutes; and a moderate sprinter could cover the ground in less than twenty-five seconds.”(6) But Troy VIIa was smaller still. Before Blegen identified it as Priam’s citadel, it had been known as a settlement of squatters. It is still described as “degraded and altogether pitiable.” Poor huts with earthen floors, “sheepish cubicles,” huddle against the walls of the little town.(7)

“The very poverty and insignificance of Troy VIIa,” wrote C. Nylander in criticism of the conclusions of Blegen’s expedition, “make it a less likely object of a large scale military enterprise from far away across the sea by a coalition of Mycenaen states, such as depicted by Homer.” In his view the pottery found in this settlement is not of as early a date as was assigned to it by excavators—the evidence indicates that Troy VIIa was destroyed in the same series of catastrophes which overtook the palaces of Mycenae, Tiryns and Pylos together with so many other cities in all parts of Greece and the ancient East as a whole. The citadel of Priam, in Nylander’s opinion, must have succumbed earlier than this, when the Mycenaean cities were yet strong. Thus, he concluded, if a Homeric city did exist it had to be Troy VI.(8)

This view, however, has not found general acceptance.(9)

Whichever level scholars may agree to identify as Homer’s Troy, the wider problem of relating the Homeric geography to the site of Hissarlik remains. Some years ago Rhys Carpenter put the matter very succinctly: “There are obvious indications,” he wrote, “that Hissarlik does not agree with the situation demanded by the Iliad, which speaks of a great walled city with streets, houses and palaces, rising to a temple-crowned acropolis, at an approachable distance from the Hellespont [Straits of Dardanelles] and apparently invisible from it, situated across the Scamander, with abundant springs of deep-soil water gushing close at hand. Actually, Hissarlik is in plain sight of the Hellespont, on the same side of the river, without any running springs, and enclosed within its walls an area of less than five acres.”(10)

From the Iliad it transpires that the Achaeans could not effectively besiege Troy because of its great size—the Trojans were able to receive aid from all the nations of Asia Minor until the very end of the war.

Whether or not Troy has really been found, the mound of Hissarlik remains one of the most carefully excavated sites of Mycenaean times: and it is to the stratigraphic sequence that we shall now turn.


  1. Strabo, Geography, Book XIII, ch. 1. Strabo draws chiefly on information supplied by Demetrios of Skepsis; cf. Schliemann’s refutation of Strabo in Troy and Its Remains (London, 18750, pp. 41-42. Cf. also W. Leaf, Strabo on the Troad (London, 1923). For a recent geological survey of the site, see John C. Kraft, Ilhan Kayal, Oguz Erol, “Geomorphic Reconstructions in the Environs of Ancient Troy,” Science 209 (15 August 1980), pp. 776-782.

  2. R. C. Jebb, “I. The Ruins of Hissarlik. II. Their Relation to the Iliad,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 3 (1882), pp. 195-217. But cf. fn. 10 below that Bunarbashi was, in fact, not inhabited that early.

  3. H. Schliemann, Troy and Its Remains, p. 344.

  4. W. Doerpfeld, Troja und Ilion: Ergebnisse der Ausgrabungen in den vorhistorischen und historischen Schichten von Ilion 1870-1894 (Athens, 1902).

  5. C. W. Blegen, “New Evidence for Dating the Settlements at Troy,” Annual of the British School at Athens 37 (1936-37), pp. 8-12; idem, Troy and the Trojans (New York, 1963).

  6. D. Page, History and the Homeric Iliad (Berkeley, 1959), p. 54.

  7. Idem, “The Historical Sack of Troy, Antiquity 23 (1959), p. 27.

  8. C. Nylander, “The Fall of Troy,” Antiquity 37 (1963), pp. 6-9. A similar view was earlier expressed by F. Schachermeyr in Poseidon 1950, pp 189ff. and in Minoica, p. 368.

  9. V. R. d’A. Desborough, The Last Mycenaeans and Their Successors (Oxford University Press, 1964), pp. 164-65; G. Mylonas (“Priam’s Troy and the Date of Its Fall,” Hesperia 33 [1964], pp. 352-380; Mycenae and the Mycenaean Age [Princeton, 1966], p. 215) also argues in favor of Blegen’s identification of Troy VIIa as the Homeric city.

  10. Folk Tale, Fiction, and Saga in the Homeric Epics (Los Angeles, 1946), p. 49. Carpenter argues that Homer construed the Iliad without knowledge of the true site of the city of which he sang, and with the assumption that Bali Dagh represented the remains of Ilion. If Homer did make such an assumption, archaeology does not bear him out—J. M. Cook (The Troad: An Archaeological and Topographical Study [Oxford, 1973] failed to find any evidence of Bali Dagh being inhabited so early.