A wooden horse at Truva (Troy) in northwest Anatolia, in what is now Turkey
A wooden horse at Truva (Troy) in northwest Anatolia, in what is now Turkey
M Reza Faisal (Flickr)

Did the Trojan Horse exist? Classicist tests Greek 'myths'

Matt Pickles

The story of the Trojan Horse is well-known. First mentioned in the Odyssey, it describes how Greek soldiers were able to take the city of Troy after a fruitless ten-year siege by hiding in a giant horse supposedly left as an offering to the goddess Athena.

But was it just a myth? Probably, says Oxford University classicist Dr Armand D'Angour: 'Archaeological evidence shows that Troy was indeed burned down; but the wooden horse is an imaginative fable, perhaps inspired by the way ancient siege-engines were clothed with damp horse-hides to stop them being set alight.'

There is even doubt about the existence of the man said to have written the Odyssey, Homer, who is considered to be the greatest of Greek epic poets. Dr D'Angour explains: 'It's generally supposed that the great epics which go under Homer's name, the Iliad and Odyssey, were composed orally, without the aid of writing, some time in the 8th Century BC, the fruit of a tradition of oral minstrelsy stretching back for centuries.

'While the ancients had no doubt that Homer was a real bard who composed the monumental epics, nothing certain is known about him. All we do know is that, even if the poems were composed without writing and orally transmitted, at some stage they were written down in Greek, because that is how they have survived.'

Dr D'Angour explains the origins of another eight stories and myths in an article for the BBC, which has been reached millions of people as one of the most shared on the website over the last few days.

Dr D'Angour is currently undertaking a two-year project to recover the sounds of Greek music and to work out what significance these sounds have for some of the most famous poems from Ancient Greece.

'Imagine a situation in which all we had of five centuries of Western opera were the libretti, and only a few fragments of the music,' he explains. 'Such a situation is, more or less, that of students who engage with the poetry of classical Greece, which covers around five centuries from 800 to 300 BC.

'The poets who composed the Iliad and Odyssey, the love poems of archaic Lesbos, the victory odes of the early fifth century BC, and the choral passages of Greek tragedy and comedy —  all composed the words to be sung and accompanied by musical instruments.

'Yet little attention is paid even to the rhythms so carefully inscribed into the words of these songs, which have long been known and studied under the forbidding aegis of Greek metre. Even less attention is paid to melodic structures, which thanks to the surviving fragments – as well voluminous writings by ancient authors and musical theorists (admirably translated and compiled by Andrew Barker in Greek Musical Writings) – is something on which we are now in a position to exercise an informed scholarly imagination.

'By neglecting the aural dimension, readers of ancient texts are bound to be missing something of the original aesthetic impact of these songs.'