Jun 112015


On this date in 1184 BCE, according to the calculations of the Greek mathematician and polymath Eratosthenes, Troy was sacked and burned, thus ending the Trojan War. I wouldn’t say that we can be confident of this dating given that most likely the Trojan War, as described by Homer, never happened (or did not happen as recorded in Iliad and Odyssey), and given that Eratosthenes was using highly dubious historical sources. But the date was the starting point of Eratosthenes’ historical chronology which does have considerable value when we get to events nearer his time. So, why not celebrate it?

According to ancient Greek narratives, the Trojan War was waged against the city of Troy by the Achaeans (Greeks) after Paris of Troy took Helen from her husband Menelaus king of Sparta. The war is one of the most important events in Greek legend and has been narrated through many works of Greek literature, most notably through Homer’s Iliad. The Iliad relates a part of the last year of the siege of Troy; the Odyssey describes the journey home of Odysseus, one of the war’s heroes. Other parts of the war are described in a cycle of epic poems, which have survived through fragments. Episodes from the war provided material for Greek tragedy and other works of Greek literature, and for Roman poets including Virgil and Ovid. There is also a wealth of art from ancient Greece to modern times depicting scenes of the war.


The war originated from a quarrel between the goddesses Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite, after Eris, the goddess of strife and discord, gave them a golden apple, sometimes known as the Apple of Discord, marked “for the fairest”. Zeus sent the goddesses to Paris, who judged that Aphrodite, as the “fairest”, should receive the apple. In exchange, Aphrodite made Helen (the most beautiful of all women and wife of Menelaus), fall in love with Paris, who took her to Troy. Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and the brother of Helen’s husband Menelaus, led an expedition of Achaean troops to Troy and besieged the city for ten years because of Paris’ insult. After the deaths of many heroes, including the Achaeans Achilles and Ajax, and the Trojans Hector and Paris, the city fell to the ruse of the Trojan Horse. The Achaeans slaughtered the Trojans (except for some of the women and children whom they kept or sold as slaves) and desecrated the temples, thus earning the gods’ wrath. Few of the Achaeans returned safely to their homes and many founded colonies in distant shores. The Romans later traced their origin to Aeneas, one of the Trojans, who was said to have led the surviving Trojans to modern-day Italy.

The end of the war and the sack of Troy came with one final famous plan. Odysseus devised a giant hollow wooden horse, an animal that was sacred to the Trojans. It was built by Epeius and guided by Athena, made from the wood of a cornel tree grove sacred to Apollo, with the inscription:

The Greeks dedicate this thank-offering to Athena for their return home.

A line in the Aeneid became proverbial: “Beware of Greeks, especially when bearing gifts” or simply “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.”


The hollow horse was filled with soldiers led by Odysseus. The rest of the army burned the camp and sailed for Tenedos. When the Trojans discovered that the Greeks were gone, believing the war was over, they “joyfully dragged the horse inside the city”, while they debated what to do with it. Some thought they ought to hurl it down from the rocks, others thought they should burn it, while others said they ought to dedicate it to Athena.


Both Cassandra and Laocoön warned against keeping the horse. While Cassandra had been given the gift of prophecy by Apollo, she was also cursed by Apollo never to be believed. Serpents then came out of the sea and devoured Laocoön and his sons, a portent which so alarmed the followers of Aeneas that they withdrew to Ida. The Trojans decided to keep the horse and turned to a night of mad revelry and celebration. Sinon, an Achaean spy, signaled the fleet stationed at Tenedos when “it was midnight and the clear moon was rising” and the soldiers from inside the horse emerged and killed the guards.

The Achaeans entered the city and killed the sleeping population. A great massacre followed which continued into the day.

   Blood ran in torrents, drenched was all the earth,
   As Trojans and their alien helpers died.
   Here were men lying quelled by bitter death
   All up and down the city in their blood.

The Trojans, fueled with desperation, fought back fiercely, despite being disorganized and leaderless. With the fighting at its height, some put on fallen enemies’ armor and launched surprise counterattacks in the chaotic street fighting. Other defenders hurled down roof tiles and anything else heavy on the rampaging attackers. The outlook was grim though, and eventually the remaining defenders were destroyed along with the whole city.


Antenor, who had given hospitality to Menelaus and Odysseus when they asked for the return of Helen, and who had advocated so, was spared, along with his family. Aeneas took his father on his back and fled, and, according to Apollodorus, was allowed to go because of his piety. This was the incident that begins Virgil’s Latin epic, the Aeneid, concerning the founding of Rome (thus linking ancient Rome with ancient Greece). The Greeks then burned the city and divided the spoils.

The ancient Greeks treated the Trojan War as an historical event which had taken place in the 13th or 12th century BCE, and believed that Troy was located in modern-day Turkey near the Dardanelles. As of the mid-19th century, both the war and the city were widely believed to be non-historical. In 1868, however, the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann met Frank Calvert, who convinced Schliemann that Troy was at Hissarlik and Schliemann took over Calvert’s excavations on property belonging to Calvert; this claim is now accepted by most scholars. Schliemann is credited with being a pioneer in modern archeology although his methods were extremely crude – he used dynamite when he was frustrated at not being able to get to the lowest levels (VII and below) which he believed contained classic Troy. He, like 19th century archeologists, was interested only in valuable artifacts and so destroyed an untold wealth of information.  Here’s Schliemann’s wife wearing jewelry recovered from Troy:


Whether there is any historical reality behind the Homeric Trojan War is an open question. Many scholars believe that there is a historical core to the tale, though this may simply mean that the Homeric stories are a fusion of various tales of sieges and expeditions by Mycenaean Greeks during the Bronze Age. Those who believe that the stories of the Trojan War are derived from a specific historical conflict usually date it to the 12th or 11th centuries BCE, often preferring the dates given by Eratosthenes, 1194–1184 BC, which roughly correspond with archaeological evidence of a catastrophic burning of Troy VII. After Troy VII was burned it was not occupied for 500 years.

There are no hard data on specific dishes eaten in this region in the 12th century. Archeology gives us the usual assemblage: pork, beef, lamb, fish, cereals, legumes, olive oil, and wine. Coriander is a common spice. So here is a recreated dish of baked fish in wine and coriander. The Mediterranean was teeming with fish in this era and was an important source of protein. You can use any firm white fish. The ancient Greeks were known to have enjoyed using vinegar and other sour agents in their cooking.


Baked Fish with Coriander


4 thick cod steaks
2 tbsp coriander seeds
white wine vinegar
olive oil


Preheat the oven to 350°F

Spread the coriander seeds in one layer in a heavy skillet over medium high heat and toast them for 10 minutes, stirring continuously. Cool and then grind them in a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle (more traditional). Mix with salt to taste.

Douse the cod steaks with extra virgin olive oil on both sides then rub the coriander in, also on both sides.

Oil a covered baking dish and arrange the cod steaks in it, being careful not to place them too close together. Cover and bake for 20-25 minutes, testing to make sure they are cooked towards the end. Do not overcook.

Serve sprinkled with vinegar, with white beans.

Serves 4

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