How ancient Troy reveals very modern wisdom

Brothers in arms: Trojan heroes Hector and Paris (played by Tom Weston-Jones and Louis Hunter).

What can we learn from the fall of Troy? A new BBC series recounts the epic legend of war and revenge. The tale may be ancient, but some see clear parallels with our own volatile world.

It is one of the most famous tales ever told. The Greek army laying siege to Troy. The fierce battles between legendary heroes, and the ingenious wooden horse plot which brought doom upon the Trojans.

But now Homer’s epic poem The lIiad is being given an update, with the BBC’s Troy: Fall of a City beginning last Saturday. The series cost £16 million to produce, and breaks with tradition by telling the story from a Trojan perspective.

And whilst the tale has been a rich source for swashbuckling action films, some say its deeper history holds relevant messages for our increasingly volatile world.

In the poem the war starts after Helen, the queen of Sparta, runs away with a Trojan prince called Paris. The Greeks retaliate by assembling a huge army to steal her back. In reality, the war was probably less about romance, and more down to economics.

Globalisation is often seen as a modern phenomenon, but the ancient world was also deeply interconnected. During the Bronze Age great empires in Egypt, Greece, and the Middle East were all linked by international markets and trade routes. For example, copper from Europe was combined with tin from Asia to make the era’s most vital commodity: bronze.

Troy was situated on one of the world’s most valuable trade routes. Built on the north west coast of Turkey, it accumulated huge wealth by taxing the fleets of merchant ships that passed by its harbours en route to the Black Sea.

And it is this command over the region’s trade and resources that would have attracted the Greek invaders. Whilst Homer may have glossed over this more mundane reality, his poetry does not flinch from its consequences. Greek and Trojan soldiers alike are brutally dispatched by spear and sword as their rivalry descends into bloody war.

Their lives may be lost to history, but this broader pattern of resources causing conflict lives on — for example the quest for oil has been a factor in several modern wars.

So what can we learn from the ancient tale of Troy?

Ancient wisdom

The economic lessons are clear, some say. Donald Trump is gearing up for a trade war with China, and some think military conflict is an increasingly plausible scenario. The immense suffering of Trojans and Greeks are proof that big nations have more to gain through collaboration than war. We must head this warning.

The world has changed, others respond. Our digital age is a far cry from the sword and sandals world of ancient Troy. The poem speaks more directly to us through its heroes. From the bravery of Achilles to the passion of Paris, it is the poem’s intense depiction of an unchanging human nature we should treasure — particularly in a world that is changing so quickly.

You Decide

  1. How relevant is ancient history?
  2. Do modern adaptations of historical events tell us more about the present or the past?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are a Trojan soldier during the siege of Troy. Write down key words which you think would sum up your thoughts and experiences. Share these words with your classmates. Are any terms particularly common? Do you think human nature has changed much in the thousands of years since the conflict?
  2. Pick an historical conflict that you know about or particularly interests you. Do some research into the economic factors associated with that conflict. This could involve things like trade disputes or competition for resources. Once you have found some interesting facts write a response to this question: “To what extent do economic factors matter in the history of war?”

Some People Say...

“Economically considered, war and revolution are always bad business.”

Ludwig von Mises

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The archaeological site thought to be Troy comprises several layers of construction - and destruction - corresponding to different eras of human habitation. Evidence suggests that the layer known as Troy VIIa was destroyed by fire at around 1190 BC. Historically, this correlates with Homer’s description of the city’s destruction.
What do we not know?
We do not know how reliable Homer’s account of the Trojan wars is, and the Iliad is generally interpreted as a heavily mythologised rendition of broad historical events. Furthermore, little is known about Homer himself. Whilst some scholars think he is the single poetic mind behind the Iliad and the Odyssey, others believe the poems were composed by successive generations of oral poets.

Word Watch

The lIiad
One of the oldest works of Western literature. Scholars estimate it was first written down in the 8th century BC. But it was composed at an earlier date.
Action films
For example the 2004 blockbuster Troy starring Brad Pitt.
History
Whilst remains of a city thought to be Troy have been found, we do not know how true Homer’s depiction of the war is. It is thought the region saw several conflicts in ancient history, details of which may have informed Homer’s narrative.
Sparta
City state in ancient Greece known for its fierce warriors.
Globalisation
The process by which businesses extend their presence throughout the world.
Bronze Age
Historical period lasting from around 3300 to 600 BC.
Bronze
An essential material in developing metal weapons and armour — vital for security and defence in the period.
Scenario
Recently American admiral Harry Harris has warned that the USA must prepare for the possibility of war with China. See The Guardian article linked in Become An Expert for more details.