The concept of the Trojan War is perhaps the most important event for Greek mythology. The ancient bard Homer’s epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, detailed events occurring before, during and after the Trojan War. In Homer’s work, the Greek gods were made personable and relatable, with emotions, preferences and observable motivations that made the actions of the gods more palatable to the average person. The Homeric poems about the Trojan War became central to the understanding of the personalities and desires of the Greek pantheon of gods. Other cultures, such as Rome and the Nordic people of Scandinavia, tried to tap into the story of the Trojan War to link their own mythology to Homer’s widely respected epics.
The Romans, who adapted, adopted and renamed the Greek gods, understandably wanted to claim some ownership over the famous tale of the Trojan War. Rome’s self-identification with Aeneas, Romulus and Remus is believed to have been present as early as the 6th century BCE, yet the later Roman writers, such as Virgil (70-19 BCE) and Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE), wrote down the official version of the tale that linked Homeric myth to Roman folklore. While Livy’s Roman History devoted only a few early pages to Trojan figures, Virgil’s Aeneid was entirely devoted to the adventures of Aeneas after the fall of Ilium during the Trojan War. As Odysseus sailed back to Ithaca, Aeneas led a contingent of men out of the burning city of Troy on a long journey, sailing to Carthage and then to their future home in Italy.
Once they reached Italian shores, Aeneas stated, “We will never shame your kingdom, nor will your fame be treated lightly, no, our thanks for your kind work will never die. Nor will Italy once regret embracing Troy in her heart” (The Aeneid, Book VII, approx. line 270). A coalition of Italians, however, did not want the Trojans settling on their land. A war broke out between the Latins and the Trojans—a war that Aeneas and the Trojans won. After the war was over, Jupiter declared that the Trojans would assimilate into the Latin culture. He stated,
“Latium’s sons will retain their father’s words and ways. Their name till now is the name that shall endure. Mingling in stock alone, the Trojans will subside…Mixed with Ausonian blood, one race will spring from them, and you will see them outstrip all men, outstrip all gods in reverence. No nation on earth will match the honors they shower down on you” (The Aeneid, Book XII, approx. line 970).
Romulus and Remus, the mythological founders of the city of Rome, would be born from Aeneas’ line. Writers from medieval Britain similarly tried to link the origins of the Britons to another descendant of Aeneas. The 9th-century writer, Nennius, and the 12th-century author, Geoffrey of Monmouth, both claimed that a certain Trojan called Brutus was the namesake and founder of Britain. According to the tale, he was exiled from the Trojan community in Italy after accidentally killing his father. Following his exile, Brutus went on a momentous odyssey through various regions, including Greece, North Africa, Gaul and, finally, Britain. In the myth, Brutus (and his growing band of followers) found Britain empty, except for a community of giants who dwelt in caves. The Trojan settlers then killed or drove off the giants and settled the land for themselves, later naming the region and their community after their leader. Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote, “Brutus then called the island Britain from his own name, and his companions he called Britons. His intention was that his memory should be perpetuated by derivation of the name. A little later the language of the people, which had up to then been known as Trojan or Crooked Greek, was called British, for the same reason” (History of the Kings of Britain, Book I, section 16).
The documenters of Norse mythology also attempted to attach their stories to ancient Troy. While Norse mythology had an elaborate creation myth involving a primeval cow licking a block of salty ice and the creation of the world out of the corpse of a giant named Ymir, there were also accounts of the Norse gods migrating to Scandinavia from Troy. In The Prose Edda, written by Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241), the god, Odin, spoke about the Norse deities, stating, “they made a stronghold for themselves in the middle of the world, and it was called Asgard. We call it Troy. There the gods lived together with their kinsmen, and as a result many events and happenings took place both on the earth and sky” (The Prose Edda, Gylfaginning, section 9).
In other passages, Snorri Sturluson detailed Odin’s migration from Troy to the Nordic lands that would become his home. He wrote, “Odin had the gift of prophecy, as his wife also did, and through this learning he became aware that his name would become renowned in the northern part of the world and honored more than other kings. For this reason he was eager to set off from Turkey, and he took with him on his journey a large following of people, young and old, men and women” (The Prose Edda, Gylfaginning, section 4). Once settled in Scandinavia, The Prose Edda and the Ynglinga saga suggest that Odin and the Norse gods became the ancestors of many noble families that would rule the north.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Check out our YouTube video on Snorri Sturluson, HERE.
- The Aeneid by Virgil, translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.
- The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Jesse Byock. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.
- The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1966.
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.