Hilary Green explores the evidence of the real historical figures behind the Trojan Wars.
Everyone knows the story of the Trojan War – don’t they? Achilles the great warrior, cunning Odysseus, the Trojan horse? That last, at least, has become common parlance. In recent years fewer and fewer people seemed to have heard it, but now things are changing. I have no doubt that some of us have been watching Troy: the Fall of a City, on BBC One. More, I suspect, were watching the first episode of Civilisations. Imagine my delight when the focus moved to the excavations of Pylos, city of King Nestor. Why? Because this is the setting for my novel The Last Hero and the discoveries of archaeologists like Sharon Stone, who appeared in that episode, underpin my narrative.
Within two or three generations after the victory over Troy, cities like Mycenae and Pylos had been so completely destroyed that for hundreds of years everyone believed that they had never been anything more than a myth. It was not until Schliemann uncovered the remains of Troy, and then of Mycenae at the end of the nineteenth century, that people understood that these stories were founded in fact. How was that possible? That was the question I set out to answer.
When I began to research the story that became The Last Hero I found a wealth of information to work on. Some of it came from ancient legends which had been passed down over the centuries, like the story of the Trojan War, immortalised by Homer, or the murder of Agamemnon by his wife and her lover Aegisthus and the revenge of his son Orestes, as retold in the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles. To the Greeks of the classical era, these stories were history, not myth, and subsequent excavations by archaeologists have proved that they do have a basis in fact.
Pursuing the archaeological evidence, I found that it reveals a fascinating story. There is no doubt that the city of Mycenae existed. Once only the Lion Gate (pictured above) was visible but now the ruins are there for all to see. Grave goods have shown that it was indeed a rich and cultivated society, where the royal dead were buried with masks of beaten gold covering their faces. What interested me particularly was the evidence that over a period of years, after the victory over Troy, the city suffered partial destruction and re-building. Some time around 1200 BC a house belonging to an oil merchant outside the walls was burnt down and about the same time parts of the city and the palace were destroyed and rebuilt, with some of the walls being strengthened and a secret passageway constructed to a spring which fed a cistern. Was this evidence that the city had been attacked and expected the attackers to return?
Even more evidence came from excavations by Professor Carl Blegen of the University of Cincinnati at the site of Pylos, on the west coast of the Peloponnese. Here, legend had it, was the palace of King Nestor, who plays a large role in the Iliad; and excavations proved that it was so. A magnificent palace once stood on the hilltop of Epano Englianos, 17km north of the modern town of Pylos. It had columned courtyards and a throne room whose walls were decorated with beautiful frescoes. There were storerooms full of fine pottery and olive oil jars labelled to show their different flavours.
Most interesting of all were the many clay tablets inscribed with writing in two different scripts, which had only been found before in the ruins of Knossos, the city of the Minoans on the island of Crete. Neither script had been translated and they were given the names Linear A and Linear B. Eventually, in 1952, Michael Ventris and John Chadwick succeeded in deciphering Linear B and discovered that it represented an early form of Greek. This sparked a great controversy. Did this mean that the Minoans, hitherto believed to have been a different race altogether, were also Greek? Or had the Mycenaeans conquered and colonised Knossos?
Arguments raged among scholars, but what interested me was the information the tablets revealed. Most were simply records kept by the palace administration of taxes received and supplies dispensed but in the highest, and therefore most recent deposits, the tone changes. These tablets record orders that suggest Pylos was preparing for an attack. The number of available chariots is to be recorded, and chariots repaired where necessary. Ships are to assemble and watchers are to be sent to various points along the coast. We even have the names of the men in charge: ‘To the headquarters of Klymenos near Metapa, the Count Alectryon with 100 men’ etc etc. Most significantly, bronze vessels are to be requisitioned from the temples to be melted down for weapons.
These tablets were found in a layer of ash, left from the fire that razed the palace to the ground. The preparations were unavailing.
Who were the attackers? Tradition suggests a tribe called the Dorians, who believed themselves to be the descendants of Heracles. This, I decided, would be the basis for my novel.
The characters who people the story are not myths. They are not descended from gods or nymphs, though they believe their ancestors were divine. They are human beings with the strengths and faults of all humans. They loved and suffered and hoped and feared as we all do. Their existence is attested by the records. We even know their names. Alkmaion was the son of King Sillos and the grandson of Thrasymedes, who fought at Troy. His cousin and rival, Antilochos, would have been the heir instead of him, if his grandfather had not died in that war. The royal family of Mycenae are all recorded as the descendants of Orestes. Even Alkmaion’s lover, Alectryon, was a real person, as I have shown above, though their relationship is a product of my own imagination.
In short, The Last Hero has as much historical validity as novels about Roman Emperors or Queen Boudica or Viking invaders. We may not have as much documentary evidence for it as we do for the Wars of the Roses, but the Myceneans were as real as Edward lV or Richard lll and they loved and fought with the same intensity as the men and women who lived through both World Wars. Conditions change, but human nature does not.
The Last Hero, is available in ebook from Amazon. Hilary Green writes as Holly Green for her new series, the first of which, Workhouse Orphans, is out now. The second in the series, Workhouse Angel, will be released on 14 June 2018.
- Black-figure pottery, Krater depicting fight for the body of Patroclus, From Farsala, Greece. National Archaeological Museum, Athens
- The Lion Gate, Mycenae © Andreas Trepte, www.photo-natur.net.
- 1952 Excavation Team, Pylos © www.picturesque-peloponnese.com
- Linear B tablet © www.picturesque-peloponnese.com