The new, eight-part Netflix historical drama series, Troy: Fall of a City, debuted this week on the streaming service, after running in the United Kingdom on BBC One in February. The $24 million-budgeted show has stirred up a new wave of interest in the Trojan War, a 10-year-long battle believed to have taken place more than 3,000 years ago. Thanks to such classical works as the epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, the war forms perhaps the best known and most important story in the pantheon of Greek mythology.
But how much of what Troy: Fall of a City depicts really happened? Is the historical drama a “true story,” or just pure fiction, nothing but a grand and entertaining myth? The answer is: no one is quite sure. In fact, no one is 100 percent sure that the legendary city of Troy even existed.
Traditionally, perhaps even going back thousands of years, the city of Troy has been identified with a region that today is home to a city on the northwest coast of Turkey known as Hisarlik, on the shores of the Aegean Sea. Archaeological excavations starting in the 19th century did indeed find that there was an ancient city at the site. In fact, there were at least 10 ancient cities, each built on top of the ruins of the city before it.
The layer known to archaeologists as Troy VI is believed to bear the closest resemblance to the city described by the ancient Greek poet Homer in The Iliad. That version of the legendary city, if it is actually Troy, would have existed from about 1750 BCE to 1300 BCE. But archaeologists have found little evidence that a grueling, decade-long war took place there. Instead, scientists have discovered that the city most likely to be Homer’s Troy — the Troy depicted in the new Netflix series, was destroyed not by war, but by an earthquake.
As Troy: Fall of a City depicts, the Trojan War, according to legend, began when a prince of Troy named Paris fell in love with the married queen of Sparta, Helen, a Greek — or Achaean, as it would have been called in ancient times — city on the opposite side of the Aegean. Paris absconded with his new love hiding in a crate on his ship, humiliating the Spartan King Menelaos.
With the historical veracity of the Trojan War itself remaining in doubt, the dramatic abduction of Helen by Paris obviously cannot be verified either. The story comes from Homer’s poem, but Homer was writing some four centuries after the events shown in Troy: Fall of a City are supposed to have happened.
But Homer’s version is not the only telling of the tale known to the ancient Greeks. The Greek historian Herodotus — who was born about 800 years after the supposed time of the Trojan War — recorded a version in which Helen and Paris land not in Troy, but in Egypt, where the king orders Paris back to Troy while Egyptians take to worshipping the beautiful Helen as a goddess.
Perhaps the most controversial historical point depicted in Troy: Fall of a City, at least when the series aired in the U.K., was the casting of several black actors in key roles — including 38-year-old British actor David Gyasi as the legendary, superhuman Greek warrior, Achilles.
The show’s creators were accused in Great Britain of “Blackwashing” Greek history — an accusation that certainly has racist implications. But were the ancient Greeks really white people?
Probably not, at least not according to what is considered “white” in the modern world. Historians say that the world of the ancient Greeks was highly diverse, with constant migration both from northern areas in Europe, and from the south in Africa.
“Modern racial categories aren’t always helpful in looking at the ancient world, but there were certainly people we today might think of as both ‘black’ and ‘white’ in the ancient Mediterranean,” Rachel Mairs, an expert on ancient Greece and the surrounding regions, told the Radio Times magazine, “And many variations of color and identity in between.”
“We don’t definitely know what ancient Greeks would look like, but they sure as hell wouldn’t look like the ‘white’ actors we normally see either,” Tim Whitmarsh, professor of Greek History at the University of Cambridge, told the publication. “That’s the real issue here: anyone who says it’s inauthentic to cast Achilles as Black has to explain why it’s authentic to use an Australian actor speaking in English to represent an ancient Greek hero.”
Whitmarsh was referring to Louis Hunter, the 26-year-old Australian who portrays Paris on the new Netflix Trojan War drama. Hunter and co-star Bella Dayne, the 30-year-old German actress who plays Helen, are pictured at the top of this page.