Like many people who enjoy Greek mythology, I have been enjoying Troy: Fall of a City, the new drama series written by David Farr on BBC1 and Netflix, which started on Saturday 17 February. It is an intelligent drama based very solidly in Classical sources, particularly to Homer’s Iliad, our principal source for the story, and in the many archaeological discoveries which are helping us learn ever more about what Troy was really like.
Troy is a real place, and the series’ re-imagining of what it looked like seems spine-tingly close to how archaeologists have long imagined it, complete with its sprawling lower city (though the upper city is, perhaps, a tad too high).
It is likely that Homer’s story recalled real events, however distorted by the 400 years or so that elapsed between the Trojan War and his composing of the Iliad. Its fall heralded a general collapse in Mediterranean civilisation whose knock-on effects led, one could argue, to the rise or Rome and the eventual Roman colonisation of Britain.
But it is in the world of mythology – and only mythology- that Troy’s story is really important to Britain’s. In book 20 of the Iliad, Poseidon prophecies that, of all the Trojans, Aeneas is destined to survive. This led to an extraordinary process of myth-making which led, via numerous twists and turns, to Rome developing the story that Aeneas sailed to Italy and laid the foundations for what would become the Roman Empire.
What has this got to do with Britain?
Between the AD 600s and 800s, after the Romans had left Britain and Christianity took hold, a story developed that Aeneas’s son Ascanius had a son Silvius, who had a son called Britto, or Brutus. ‘Britto’ was simply an eponym, a name made up from the name of Britain, and the myth was designed to link Britain, then a rather isolated place on the periphery of the civilised world (as we shall be again, perhaps, after Brexit), into the magnificent nexus of the Roman and Classical world. Brutus grew up in Italy, accidentally killed his father whilst hunting, and went into exile. In Greece, he found man descendants of the fall of Troy living in slavery. He helped them rebel and escape, and eventually he led them to Britain. In this myth, the British are the descendants of the Trojans, and Britain’s kings are the direct descendants, via Brutus, of Aeneas.
I have told Brutus of Troy’s story in my book Brutus of Troy, and the quest for the ancestry of the British. You might also be interested in The descent of the British Royal Family from the Welsh princes, who believed themselves to be direct descendants of Aeneas, via Brutus.
So, for British mythology, Troy’s story matters. It is where it all began.
Alfred Enoch as Aeneas
In Troy: Fall of a City, Aeneas is played by Alfred Enoch. Enoch is the son of the English actor William Russell and Balbina Gutierrez, who is a Brazilian of mixed race descent.
I wonder if Aeneas has ever been portrayed by a mixed race actor before. Aeneas was the son of the goddess Aphrodite by Anchises, a second cousin through the male line of Priam, king of Troy, who is played by the decidedly pale David Threlfall. There is nothing in the mythological sources to suggest that Aeneas’s skin colour would have been any different to that of his royal cousins. But, as a populous trading city, with commercial links to the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean, Troy would have had a very mixed population, and it is interesting that the mythological Trojans had African connections: amongst their allies against the Greeks in the Trojan War were the Ethiopians, led by Memnon, whose father Tithonous one of King Priam’s brothers.
Aeneas’s first appearance comes in episode two, when he leads the men of Dardania up from the south to help defend Troy against the invading Greeks. Dardania was indeed in the mountains just south of Troy, and Homer’s Iliad confirms that Aeneas led the Dardanians who came to help Priam in his war.
In a wonderfully imaginative scene at the end of episode two, the goddess Hera, whose hatred of Troy has helped to cause the conflict, walks unseen through the charging Greeks, identifying and blessing the leading heroes. Mirroring her, Aphrodite moves amongst the charging Trojan forces, blessing its leaders, including Aeneas. Aphrodite does not indicate in this scene that Aeneas is her son, and indeed this element of the story is never revealed, which is a shame.
Episode three, ‘Siege’ dawns. But none of the ancient Greek myths about the Trojan War say that the Greeks beseiged Troy, in the sense of surrounding it completely and cutting it off from the outside world. There weren’t enough of them, and their forces were too well matched with Troy’s. They launched various attacks, but they did not set up a Medieval-style siege. This heralds the plot going suddenly off piste. Troy had an underground watercourse, which must have been invaluable when the city was being attacked by the Greeks. You can still see the opening to its caverns there today. But the writers have really over-developed this idea. Aeneas seems to have become the city’s chief mining engineer, and Hector and Paris are sent off, absurdly, on horseback (the Trojans used chariots, but are not known to have ridden horses) all the way to Thebe; that means that a lot of the episode was filled up with them galloping along, being ambushed, of course, and escaping (again, of course). In Thebe, Hector and Paris ask king Eetion (who was Hector’s father-in-law) to start digging a tunnel north to meet the one Aeneas was digging south, to use as a supply tunnel to keep going during the ‘siege’. Nobody knows exactly where Thebe was (I have looked, but not found anything), but it is known to have been somewhere near modern Edremit. That means that Aeneas’s tunnel would need to be dug south east through some 24 miles of solid rock, and Eetion’s tunnel would need to bore north-west for some 24 miles too – and that the two would need to meet, miraculously, in the middle. Good luck, as they say, with that!
Aeneas pops up here and there during the subsequent episodes, during which we have the peculiar story of Paris dying and coming back to life, something that is not in the Greek myths. In episode seven, ‘Twelve Days’, there is a curious scene between Aeneas and the Amazon queen, Penthesilea. Her female lover has been killed, and Aeneas shows empathy by telling her ‘I lost my love’, and indeed his home city. ‘War?’, asks the Amazon. ‘Disease’, replies Aeneas, ‘before all this started’. ‘One forgets there are other ways to die;, reflects Penthesilea. That is all very moving, but questionable; Homer never tells us whether Aeneas was married or not, nor that his home city in Dardania (just to the south of Troy) was lost. In Virgil’s Aeneid, his wife was Creusa, a daughter of Priam, who was very much alive at the time when this scene takes place, and who died in the Fall of Troy. The scene between Aeneas and the Amazon then goes even further into the realm of imagination, when Aeneas moves forward, and Penthesilea realises his intentions. ‘Men and me. It doesn’t happen’, she explains. But, as Aeneas moves away, she adds, implausibly, ‘It’s a shame. You’re quite a picture’.
Finally, comes the eighth and final episode. It follows the myths reasonably well, except that, for dramatic purposes, Paris is still alive, so he can more fully face the consequences of his his desire for Helen. That wretched tunnel reappears in the plot; Priam orders it to be reopened, so the can use it to escape, and Aeneas seems to be in charge of this: at one point, as the Greeks are bursting into the upper city, he says rather superfluously ‘we need more time’. But when the blockage is finally dug away, they find Greeks waiting on the other side, waiting to burst into the palace. (If that was their plan all along, one wonders why they bothered with the wooden horse).
In the ensuing carnage, Aeneas is wounded in the thigh – the traditional place, in both Homer and Virgil’s stories about him, for his wounds to occur. Paris urges him ‘hide yourself… you’re wounded. You can’t help me. You have to live for all of us‘. Aeneas conceals himself amongst the corpses in the women’s quarters, and does indeed emerge, alive, after the Greeks have left. He finds a townsman and his son still alive, and also Briseis, the Trojan woman who had been first Achilles’ and then Agamemnon’s slave. They seem to form a little family group; a nucleus out of which Troy might one day be rebuilt.
This is a far cry from Virgil’s Aeneas, who carried his father Anchises and led his son Ascanius through the flames, and gathered up the survivors and led them south to safety on Mount Ida. But, still, this modern, televised version adapts the story for our own time and ultimately does not do a bad job of it. The general absence of the gods from the sack of Troy, besides a rather sheepish appearance right at the end, was a shame: but the visceral nature of the destruction of Troy and the massacre of its inhabitants was a genuinely shocking reminder of the violence which lies at the heart of the myths; in that respect, Troy: Fall of a City, excelled.