c.1200 BCE

This steel engraving of the Trojan horse dates from 1876. Once the wooden horse had been dragged inside the walls of the city, Greek soldiers hiding inside were supposed to have descended at night to open the city gates to the waiting Greek army.

The most famous deception operation in all history is the wooden horse of Troy. After laying siege to the city for ten years, so the story goes, the Myceneans (Greeks in the modern account) finally packed up and rowed away, leaving a giant wooden horse as a tantalizing gift for the Trojan people. After much argument about its purpose, the Trojans hauled the horse into the city and spent the night carousing in victory. A handful of enemy soldiers hidden inside the horse climbed out, overwhelmed the guards at the gate and let in their comrades who had rowed back unseen to the shore a few miles away. Troy was burnt to the ground, its people butchered and its treasures stolen.

How much of this story could be true? It has come down to us as myth, allegedly written by the blind Greek poet Homer in the eighth century BCE, hundreds of years after the events occurred, if they occurred at all. There is no historical record of the famous names – King Priam of Troy, the Greek heroes Achilles and Ajax, and the beautiful Helen, wife of the Greek king of Sparta, Menelaus, whose kidnapping by the Trojan Prince Paris was the reason for the siege in the first place. The very site of Troy itself was unknown until it was excavated for the first time in 1871 by the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann. It has been excavated many times since, and a much better understanding has been gained about the city, its hinterland and the civilization in which it flourished.

Troy certainly existed as a place. It was known by the Hittites, who inhabited Anatolia (now modern Turkey) as Wilusa, called Wilion by the Greeks, and then Ilion (after which Homer’s Iliad is named). It lies on the western shore of modern Turkey, overlooking the Dardanelles Straits. It was rebuilt many times after sackings, earthquakes or fires. It lived on trade and was, by the end of the second millennium BCE, a wealthy city with solid walls and defences and a population of perhaps 7,500 people. The rulers of Troy dominated a region known as the Troad, which supplied food and horses. The peoples of the region probably acted as Troy’s allies when the city was threatened. Most archaeologists argue on the basis of the evidence that the siege of Troy took place at some point around 1200 BCE. A layer of fire damage has been unearthed to show that the city was gutted around that time, together with an arrowhead that is identifiably Greek.

If the Trojan War did take place, it is a plausible supposition. The Mycenean Greeks were a seafaring, violent and piratical people. They lived from raiding and stealing and trade, and their sturdy vessels, illustrated on archaeological finds, would have brought them easily to the shores of the Troad, while Troy’s reputation as a centre of wealth was a likely magnet. Most research suggests that the ten-year siege with its tumultuous battles outside the city probably never took place. The story of the war derived from Homer and the so-called ‘Epic Cycle’ of six other Greek poems written around the same time, used literary devices to convey the epic story – 10 years or 100,000 men were figures of poetic speech, not reality.

It is almost certain, however, that something happened at Troy. The written version 500 years later clearly derived from traditions of epic poetry passed on by word of mouth from generation to generation, like many other narratives in the civilizations of the Middle East before they were consigned to the written word. It is not unlikely that Greek raiders, perhaps on some excuse such as the pursuit of Helen, arrived at Troy to seek its treasures. Modern estimates guess at perhaps 300 ships and anything up to 15,000 men, if the Greek kingdoms had united their forces. Trojan forces and their allies numbered perhaps another 15,000. It is likely that the siege was short, and that the Greeks pillaged and raided the hinterland around the city before finding a way through its defences.

The idea of using deception to undo a city under siege was not unusual in the classical Middle East, when a city could be betrayed by a fifth columnist. The choice of a horse is also consistent with what is known from late Bronze Age archaeology of the special place horses had as offerings. A clay model of a horse from exactly this period was excavated from the ruins of Troy itself. The Greeks were skilled boat-builders and would have had no difficulty putting together a horse made of wooden planking. They would have left the horse, returned to their ships and sailed out of sight, perhaps behind one of the small islands a few miles from the coast, to await a signal that the horse had been taken into the city and that the gates would be opened by the soldiers hidden inside it. It has been calculated that the Greek ships would have taken perhaps two hours to row back to shore during the late evening and another two hours to march the 8 kilometres (5 miles) to the city. Once inside the gates, in the dead of night, with a Trojan population quite unprepared for assault, the Greek victory was assured.

This illustration from a Greek vase dating from around 500 BCE shows the Greek hero Achilles tending to the injuries of his companion Patroklos at the siege of Troy. When Patroklos was later killed by the Trojan warrior Hector, Achilles defeated him and dragged his dead body around the city walls.

This is all supposition, but it is consistent with what is now known about the Greek and Turkish world 4,000 years ago. The rest is myth, but it could clearly rest on a truth embellished over centuries of oral tradition. Much of the story rests on established patterns of behaviour in ancient warfare. The use of champions as surrogates for whole armies was not uncommon, from the Biblical Goliath to the fatal clash between Hector, son of the King of Troy, and the Greek champion Achilles. The sacrifice of prisoners to satisfy the gods – ordered by Achilles in front of the bier of his favourite, Patroklos, according to Homer – was a common practice, later recorded by Herodotus in his account of the Persian invasion of Greece. Finally there is Helen, who started it all. Modern research has not found a real Helen, but accounts of wars in nearby areas in surviving texts show that a supposedly personal motive for a war that was actually for treasure or land or power was common enough. We are left to imagine a beautiful queen seduced by the smooth-talking Paris, abducted only half against her will, pursued to Troy by her angry husband Menaleus and the Greek commander Agamemnon, where after mighty battles the city was finally taken by a famous ruse and Helen reunited with her vengeful husband, who only stopped his sword, so the story goes, when Helen showed him her breasts. The story of the Trojan Horse is the most famous story of deception, the ancestor of centuries in which tricks have been used to overturn a powerful enemy or to turn an uncertain outcome into victory.