It happened today - June 11, 2016

The Fall of Troy, by Johann Georg Trautmann (1713–1769). From the collections of the Grand Dukes of Baden, Karlsruhe. (Wikipedia)

On June 11 Troy was sacked in 1184 BC. Unless it was on some other day in a different year. Assuming it happened.

The June 11 1184 BC date comes from Erastosthenes. Who was, um, the guy who said Troy fell on June 11 1184 BC. No wait. I googled and it turns out he was the chief librarian at Alexandria in the late 3rd century BC who invented geography and made the first, and remarkably accurate, measurement of the circumference of the Earth. And he was nicknamed “Beta” because… but I’m getting off topic.

The point is, we don’t know much about Troy if you’re looking for precise historical dates. Erastosthenes couldn’t google it and the details have been lost in the mists or sands of time though modern archeology not only confirms that it existed but says Erastosthenes’ general dating is not unreasonable. As for the specific day, well, it had to be some day and June 11 is as likely or unlikely as any other. But Troy was clearly a flourishing Bronze Age city, a major trade centre, and it went under in the eruption of Iron Age people into the Mediterranean whose impacts included a temporary loss of writing in Greece itself.

Doubtless the story has grown with the telling. As Tim Severin of The Jason Voyage and others says, places never get smaller as they enter into legend. Nor, indeed, do wars get shorter or heroes less formidable. So the siege probably didn’t last 10 years, summon all the heroes of Greece to behave deplorably in an unjustified war or any of that.

Actually I shouldn’t call the war unjustified from the Greek point of view. At least not the legendary one. Supposedly it was triggered by the abduction of Helen, so beautiful her face launched a thousand ships. (Thus for those who love excessive mathematical precision, a millihelen is the unit of beauty needed to launch one ship.) And if they weren’t just looking at her face, well, why dwell on such things?

The point is, the Greeks were keeping their word to rally to a colleague, Menelaus, whose wife had been carried off. But the Trojans, to whom some of the romance of lost causes attaches and gives the war its mythological resonance, were defending a guy who was up to no good.

I do think the lasting appeal of the war somehow lies in the fact that you kind of don’t want either side to lose. But you know one has to, and that certain heroes will bite the dust every time you read it. If indeed you can get through the Iliad’s repetitive forests of bronze-tipped spears and other repetitive rhetorical devices. And the fact that gods and men alike tend to behave in ways that serve as useful cautions about various vices human and Olympian but hardly as role models throughout. Achilles, for instance, is a spear-proof brat and bully.

It has been said that the Odyssey, a story that arose from the Iliad’s aftermath, which is itself a peculiar mishmash of foolish and knavish actions that rather wanders like its hero, is the first significant celebration of monogamy, that Odysseus and Penelope’s loyalty to one another is what holds the story together and keeps our attention on it. To be sure, Odysseus’ adventures along the way include “romantic” ones but at the end of the day, or night, he always laces up his sandals and says “Gotta get back to the wife” and in the end he does. Whereas the Greek gods are a shocking bunch of petty cruel and vengeful knaves throughout both tales, except perhaps Athena in the Odyssey though of course she is part of the trio whose bickering over the golden apple leads to Paris being asked to judge, foolishly accepting, choosing Aphrodite and getting Helen bewitched into falling for him in return.

As for the Romans claiming to be founded by Aeneas wandering after the fall of Troy, well, it is second only to Brutus of Troy coming to Britain in the phooey department.

And yet for all that the Trojan Horse, Cassandra, Achilles sulking in his tent and having as well as being a heel and all that that remains with us, or did until recently, in part from a feeling that, as a writer in Chronicles magazine put it a quarter century ago, “We are as Hector on the walls of Troy with Andromache and always have been. Only the Crystal Palace and all those nineteenth-century trust funds ever assured us otherwise.”

It is not, as I think I’ve made clear, a place in which I would want to stand on all kinds of grounds from the injustice of the war to the fickle quality of the supposed gods on both sides. But there is this: Hector is willing to stake all on a lost cause in which he believes. And there is an irresistible and commendable romance in the quality of not calculating who has the big battalions and sliding over to that side at an opportune moment.

In that sense at least, the fall of Troy is sad, whenever it happened and however far it fell.