The Attack on Troy: A well-told look at the potential reality of the Trojan War

The Attack on Troy by Rodney CastledenThe Attack on Troy by Rodney Castleden

The Attack on Troy (2006), by Rodney Castleden, is a concise and informative “history” of the Trojan War, one that shows (with reasonable doubt careful noted) how the war that gave rise to The Iliad and The Odyssey might have actually occurred.

Castleden opens with the archaeological evidence of Troy’s existence in western Turkey and its destruction by outside forces, quickly moving through Schliemann’s notoriously destructive excavations in the late 1800s and then into the discovery in 1893, after Schliemann’s death, of the Troy VI citadel dating to 1700-1250 B.C. (like most cities, Troy was built and rebuilt atop successive layers, with layer VI being the mostly-consensus literary Troy). What is probably less well known by casual readers are more recent discoveries of a Mycenean settlement and cemetery that give further credence to some sort of conflict between the Myceneans and Troy. We’re offered a physical tour of the city, nearby town, and surrounding geography, and then Castleden takes us on a broad tour of the Mycenean and Trojan cultures.

The book briefly covers Mycenean expansion, colonization of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), their political and religious structures, and then does the same for Troy, which some scholars see as the capital city of the kingdom of Wilusa, on the fringe of the vast Hittite Empire. As he discusses their societies, Castleden also offers up various explanations for why the Myceneans might have attacked Troy/Wilusa.

Then there’s a short but effective summary of the war as described (minus the fantastical elements) in The Iliad and lesser known/mostly lost poems on the topic that make up the Epic Cycle and fill in the gaps before, during, and after Homer’s account. New to me were the admittedly vague but still intriguing references to conflicts in the region from the Hittite records, one of which is a letter from the Hittite King to the Achaeans referring to “the town of Wilusa over which we made war.”

Following the background, The Attack on Troy takes a deeper dive into the military aspects, discussing troop numbers, weapons, armor, ships and transport, and strategies of the time period, such as the use of chariots. It is in this section that Castleden notes that the story of the Trojan Horse is most likely an exaggerated version of a plain old siege engine.

Castleden then gives us two possible versions of the conflict. One, a minimalist one, involving small numbers of ships and warriors and several small-scale raids of various coastal towns, with “the attack on Troy [being] quite simply the last in a sequence … [and] became the most famous in song and legend simply because it was the last.” The other is a maximalist version involving far larger number of soldiers thanks to alliances on both sides and a conflict that lasted some time. The accounts are thorough and detailed, and the maximalist one especially so, done in narrative form using Homer’s names and events and making use of the newest archaeological finds such as the aforementioned cemetery. I’ll admit this section was a bit too detailed/long for me, especially as it is wholly speculative (or nearly so), but I can’t fault Castleden’s decision to be so thorough.

Afterward there’s a short look at the aftermath (spoiler alert — both societies went downhill fast) and then an overview. The latter felt a bit repetitive, but if you read the book over multiple sittings rather than in one as I did, it probably will be a useful recap. Finally, the book closes with a notes section and then an extensive Works Cited list (I like big bibliographies and I cannot lie) for those interested in further reading. There are also a number of helpful and evocative images throughout.

The Attack on Troy is clear, smooth, well-organized, accessible to the general reader, up to date, and is careful about noting when information is speculative. An informative, well-told look at the truth that may lie behind one of literature’s greatest works. Happily recommended.

Published in 2006. New paperback edition: April 2020. 3300 years ago Agamemnon, king of Mycenae in Greece, attacked the city of Troy in western Anatolia. The bloody siege that followed gave rise to one of the most famous legends of the ancient world, and the search for the truth behind the legend has intrigued scholars ever since. In this fascinating new investigation Rodney Castleden reconsiders all the evidence in order to establish the facts and give a historical basis to the most potent myth of ancient warfare.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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