14 June 2016

1. Not much evidence survives about the real women of Troy – but there are tantalising clues we can piece together by combining new archaeological finds with the portrayals of women in Homer’s Iliad.

Take, for example, book 6 of the Iliad, where Hector, prince of Troy, tells his wife to ‘go home and attend to your own work, the distaff and spindle’. The excavations at the site of Troy have in fact uncovered a particularly large number of spindle whorls (part of the spindle, using for spinning wool into thread) – suggesting that the real women of Troy did spend much of their time spinning, just as Homer describes them. It’s a suggestive example of how the Homeric epic can provide insights – backed up by the archaeology – into the world of the real women of Troy.

2. Two Trojan women are at the very beginning of the Iliad – and they cause all the events that follow.

Homer’s famous epic, the Iliad, opens with a quarrel over two Trojan women: Briseis, the slave of Achilles, and Chryseis (spelled Krisayis in my debut novel For the Most Beautiful), slave of Agamemnon. The two women have just been captured by the Greeks, and it’s the conflict over them – Agamemnon’s ransom of Krisayis and his theft of Briseis from Achilles – that begins all the events of the Iliad. 

3. The real women of Troy didn’t speak Greek.

You might be familiar with Homer’s Greek-speaking Trojans, but the reality is that the inhabitants of Troy almost certainly didn’t speak Greek (or at least, not as their native language; they probably spoke an ancient Anatolian language called Luwian). They certainly didn’t have Greek names, either: one surviving tablet shows a letter from the Hittite king to Alaksandu, the ruler of Wilusa – which may be a reference to Paris (often referred to as Alexandros in Greek), prince of Troy (Wilusa, known as Ilios in Homer).

trojan women

4. Women who were captured by the Greeks during the Trojan War were taken as sex slaves.

It’s impossible to say whether or not the Trojan War ‘actually happened’. What we do know is that there is evidence at the site of Troy of a significant catastrophe and fire in the city right around 1250 BCE: which, to me, suggests that Homer’s Iliad does preserve at least a memory of a catastrophic war at the site of Troy. What we don’t see in the archaeological record are the ways in which the women were treated during the war, and it’s here that we have to turn to the Iliad for evidence.

The picture it gives us is particularly bleak: all the women we see in the Greek camp in the Iliad were in fact freeborn Trojan women, captured by the Greeks. Briseis, for example – whose story is told in For the Most Beautiful – is mentioned in a few lines in the Iliad as the former princess of Lyrnessus, a city near Troy destroyed by the Greeks. Her husband, father and three brothers were killed before her eyes by Achilles, before she was captured by their killer and forced to serve his bed.

5. Homer’s protagonist Achilles falls in love with one of them.

When Briseis is taken from him in the Iliad, Achilles describes her in startlingly emotional language: in fact, he calls her the ‘wife of his heart’, declaring that ‘any good and sensible man loves and cares for his own woman as I loved her from my heart, although she was acquired by my spear’. It’s a striking and unusual display of affection for a slave-girl – especially from Achilles, the greatest hero of the Greeks.

6. The Iliad is not just all about men: it gives us glimpses of several Trojan women’s lives, voices and experiences.

It’s often said that the Iliad is a particularly masculine epic, full of battles, blood and the glory of heroes. But the Iliad in fact provides several moving glimpses of women’s lives – and occasionally, they even speak out. When Patroclus, Achilles’ companion and lover, is killed, Briseis utters a long and passionate lament that speaks of her grief at his death. And as Hector runs around the walls of Troy, chased by Achilles, we get a glimpse of the washing wells where “the wives of the Trojans and their beautiful daughters used to wash their clothes, in earlier days, in times of peace, before the Greeks came.” It’s an evocative and moving picture of the Trojan women, set within a moment of life-or-death conflict between two men.

7. Homer presents the women of Troy as much more skilled in the art of war than you might think.  

In book 6 of the Iliad, Andromache, Hector’s wife, gives Hector battle advice – the right counsel, it turns out, though he doesn’t take it. Interestingly, her name in Greek means “man-fighter” – perhaps a hint at her knowledge of war tactics. Whether this was true or not, we don’t know – although it’s an interesting parallel that the legendary Amazons, the mythical women warriors, were said to come from just down the coast from Troy (modern Terme on the northern coast of Turkey). A parallel epic to Homer’s Iliad, now lost, even picks up from the end of the Iliad to continue with the story of the queen of the Amazons, who fought in the Trojan War on the side of the Trojans.

8. Many of them were taken back to Greece as slaves after the Trojan War ended.

We tend not to think about what happened after the Trojan War ended – but in fact there was a whole cycle of ancient Greek myths telling the stories of the Trojan women who were taken back to Greece as slaves. Cassandra, for example, the prophetic daughter of Priam, was taken by Agamemnon; Andromache by Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles who killed King Priam; Hecuba, queen of Troy, by Odysseus. Interestingly, this myth (and the legend of the migration of the Trojan Aeneas to Italy) may, in fact, be backed up by scientific data: a recent genetic study revealed the presence of a particular gene in Italians which is traceable to the populations of ancient Anatolia, and which may represent the migration of the Trojans to Italy after the Trojan War around 1200 BCE.

9. One Trojan woman manages to escape the Greeks in the Iliad.

There is one Trojan woman in the Iliad who manages to get away – Krisayis, the second main character of For the Most Beautiful. She manages to escape the Greeks, with the help of her father, a Trojan priest of Apollo, and is sent back in safety to her home, down the coast from Troy. We have no way of knowing if Krisayis was a real person or not – but the Iliad has been remarkably accurate at handing down details from the Bronze Age world which were previously thought to have been inventions of the poet (a boar-tusk helmet, for example, almost exactly the same as the Homeric description was found at the site of Mycenae in Greece, along with paintings of tower shields like that carried by Ajax in the Iliad). So who knows – perhaps Krisayis really did once walk upon the plains of Troy…

10. Two great English poets, Chaucer and Shakespeare, wrote their stories.

Not many people know it, but the story of the Trojan Krisayis was handed down in the Middle Ages, where she became known as Cressida. The legend of her fateful love-affair with a prince of Troy called Troilus, her capture by the Greeks and the death of Troilus became the subject of a poem by Chaucer, and Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. It’s a suggestive reminder of the Trojan women’s enduring appeal – and the lasting relevance throughout the ages of telling the Trojan War from their point of view.

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