Did Troy collapse because of a quarantine, not a siege? Coronavirus food for thought.

The March 26 headline on Newsweek stated that the US military would not reveal data about how many COVID-19 cases have occurred among the troops. This brought to mind a few plagues that shaped history in the past, simply as a point of reference.

The Trojan War

Thanks to nineteenth-century archaeological discoveries in Turkey we now know that some details of the Trojan War came from real history. Most historical evidence shows that Troy was a manufacturing center that was sacked either in the late 1200s BC or the early 1100s BC. Some research points to the likelihood that the city had looms that mass-produced fabrics, based on what archaeologists discovered in the layers corresponding to that era. Most of the inhabitants were possibly slave women who worked looms. At least one point of reference in Homer’s Iliad might be relevant there: in Book Three, Helen is weaving in a “women’s hall.”

The text in the Robert Fitzgerald translation reads: “Iris made her way to inform the Lady Helen; appearing as her sister-in-law, Laódiké, loveliest of Priam’s daughters and the wife of Helikáon, a son of Lord Antenor. She found her weaving in the women’s hall of a double violet stuff, whereon interwoven were many passages of arms by Trojan horsemen and Akhaians mailed in bronze-trials braved for her sake at the wargod’s hands.” (pg. 71)

While many classical myths refer to women weaving, this does seem to present an image of a large loom in a chamber designed for large-scale production. The description of the tapestries sound as though they are of considerable size.

If the archaeologists who have suggested that Troy was a manufacturing site populated largely by women are right, then we have an interesting question based on how much other parts of the Iliad might be mythologized from real events. What brought about the end of Troy? Was it mostly because of a military sacking, as presented by Homer? Or might there have been some kind of military skirmish combined with a larger event that could have explained the demise of the city?

I would like to point out the intriguing possibilities to be found at the very beginning of the Iliad: namely, an epidemic of some strange disease that broke out among the Achaean (Greek) troops. The whole epic begins with reference to a plague. Here is Robert Fitzgerald’s translation from Book I, Line I forward: “Anger be now your son, immoral one, Achilles’s anger, doomed and ruinous, that caused the Achaians loss on bitter loss and crowded brave souls to the undergloom, leaving so many dead men–carrion for dogs and birds, and the will of Zeus was done. Begin it when the two men first contending broke with one another-the Lord Marshal Agamémnon, Atreus’s son, and Prince Akhilleus (Achilles). Among the gods, who brought this quarrel on? The son of Zeus by Lêto. Agamémnon angered him, so he made a burning wind of plague rise in the arm: rank and file sickened and died for the ill their chief had done in despising a man of prayer.” (pgs. 11-12)

Was it actually an epidemic that leveled the real-life city of Troy? Like Homer’s reference to Helen’s loom, details seem to reflect kernels of memory about Troy the reached Homer about four to five centuries after Troy truly fell. Storytellers of the Aegean world had passed on stories about Troy being a place where women wove beautiful fabrics, and this became incorporated into the more exciting tale of a Spartan princess captured and held captive as the prince’s wife.

So, too, we must give a great deal of attention to the fact that Homer begins the Iliad with a plague. As I stated in my earlier post about Oedipus, we see that plagues are usually the beginning of a cascade of tragic events, and rarely the grand finale of historical narratives. Homer calls to the gods to inspire him with the ability to compose the tale. Perhaps he begins with the plague precisely because that was a historical event of enormous proportions and what most people in the ancient world already knew about.

Homer explains the plague by saying that this occurred because of Agamemnon’s lust and stubbornness, followed by Achilles’s “anger.” The word “anger” in Greek is cholos, the word from which we have derived cholera. The link between anger and the digestive disease actually comes from Greek thought. The Greeks often referred the stomach region as the seat of thoughts and emotions. The word cholos denotes a disturbance in a person that corresponds to our sense of rage but also implies a certain boiling in the lower abdomen.

Here’s how Homer explains the plague. A priest to Apollo, Khryses, had a daughter, Khryseis whom Agamemnon took captive as spoils of war. Agamemon was keeping Khryseis as a concubine and refused to give her back to her father, saying he would instead bring her back to Greek as his perpetual slave.

Khryses feels so much distress over his daughter being Agamemnon’s captive that he appeals to Apollo. Apollo rules not only as the god of light but also as the god of medicine, so one thing he can do with his arrows is cause pestilence. Apollo does precisely this. By line 60 of Book I, Homer tells us that Apollo sends a wave of pestilence that lasts ten days. First he strikes down the pack animals, then the dogs, and then soldiers.

I’ve always found the reference to ten days of plague interesting because of the fact that the Trojan War is supposed to have lasted ten years.

On the tenth day, Achilles calls together all ranks for an assembly. The plague Homer describes must have been tremendously widespread, because Achilles declares that this should be the end of the war altogether. “The siege is broken,” Achilles tells Agamemnon, “we are going to sail, and even so many not leave death behind. If war spares anyone, disease may take him.” (pg. 13)

Achilles calls a diviner to reveal why Apollo is plaguing the men with disease, asking whether there was some deficiency in the sacrifices to the gods. When the diviner states that Apollos has plagued them as penalty for Agamemnon holding hostage a daughter of Apollo’s priest, Agamemnon feels defensive. He projects his anger onto Achilles, calling his rage “a burning of the belly.” Achilles hectors Agamemnon further, telling Agamemnon to quit being so stubborn and simply give Khryseis back to her father.

Agamemnon makes a point to strike back at Apollo by saying he will give Khryseis back to her father but then replace Khryseis with Briseis. Who is Briseis? She is Achilles’s concubine plundered from the lands around Troy. Achilles delivers one of his may speeches telling Agamemnon, via a train of amusing insults, that he sees no point in fighting the Trojan War and that the Greeks have already desolated all the land around Troy so he might as well go back to his home in Phthia.

It is this standoff between Agamemnon and Achilles that Homer uses to frame the bulk of the epic. The Greeks are besieging Troy, but in this moment, toward the end of the ninth year, Achilles goes on strike and refuses to fight. He will stay out of the battle, leaving his fellow Greeks in a much weaker military position. Only the death of his friend Patroclus in Book XVI will prompt Achilles to reenter the war.

Taken as a whole the Iliad does not make much of this plague to which the first lines of the epic refer. But I would bet that in real life, it was probably the plague that played the biggest role in the fall of historical Troy. Whatever memories of that plague trickled down over the centuries, by the time the tale reached Homer, it was obviously still invoked as a fearsome event, killing large numbers of animals and men. The alarm with which Achilles speaks about going home calls up an image of a seriously afflicted community struggling to cope with something that seems ready to wipe them all out.

Naturally there isn’t much of an epic to be made if we set out to compose 24 books of poetry about people dying from a disease. Homer filled the tale with wondrous stories of heroism and tragic characters because that’s the nature of art and entertainment. But let’s see if we can trace the threads of history that might have interwoven with the threads of myth. If it was a plague that destroyed the real Troy, then some details about the Iliad might make sense as dramatizations.

The Iliad obviously brings to life the sufferings of a city under siege. The Aeneid, to which many people like to compare the Iliad, does not focus on the siege of Troy though it does offer some details of siege-like fighting conditions when the Italian tribes surround the Trojan camp in the second half. The lyrical value of a siege comes through in full Homeric style. In much of the Iliad, the Trojans come across as rather sympathetic people. There are wonderfully compelling female characters in the Iliad because many chapters detail life inside the walls of Troy as they try to survive the ten-year siege.

There is stress and worry as well as feverish strategizing in Troy as they stay locked inside the walls. Yet throughout the myth we feel the slow steady progression toward a doom we all know is coming: the city will become desolate. The book ends, after all, with the funeral of Hector and the eulogies delivered by Hecuba, Andromache, and Helen. Hector’s funeral feels like the harbinger of what is to come for the whole town: it will be burned and depopulated.

Why did Homer choose to base this timeless epic on a siege? Maybe in real life there was a siege of Troy for ten years by a host of noisy armies from across the Aegean Sea. But maybe not. Maybe there was some kind of brigandage and disorganized strife in the areas around the city that would correspond to Homer’s description of the Greeks’ looting and pillaging; but nothing like an organize siege of a city.

Maybe what happened in real life was actually a quarantine because of the plague. Wouldn’t this make more sense? With mass death sweeping around Asia Minor, people resort to looting and bedlam as they walk through the wreckage. If there was a city full of weavers and loom operators, perhaps they expelled the sick and closed the doors to keep out anyone who was ill. Perhaps the disease took its course and the frightened dread inside the city felt like ten years of war. Certainly a quarantine has much in common with a siege, in terms of the effects on the people quarantined.

Or it could have been the reverse: perhaps people quarantined the sick inside the city of Troy and tried to keep them from coming out and infecting people in the neighboring towns. This would make sense if Troy was, really, nothing more than a collection of warehouses and makeshift workshops rather than the glamorous and powerful town Homer describes with his mythical fancy.

Either way, the tales of being trapped in a city for a long time and fearing the encroachment of death could have easily sprung from the memories of people who’d been put through a long quarantine. If the disease was something like cholera, then it would also help to explain the repeated references to Achilles’ anger being like a “burning in the belly.” The morbid description of corpses being dragged around walls and funerals might also have come from memories of people who associated Troy first and foremost with mass death, violent breakdown of order, and anxious grief.

Let us suppose the Iliad came from true events that really amounted to a quarantine during an epidemic. Whether the sick were kept inside Troy or locked out of Troy, one thing seems certain: a wide-ranging epidemic would have undoubtedly been impossible to stop from engulfing the entire region. The virus would have gotten in or out of Troy regardless of whatever walls they might have tried to secure themselves with. And perhaps the story of the Trojan Horse and the breaching of the walls were passed down metaphorically from the Bronze Age to Homer’s time.

The breach in the walls might represent, allegorically, the tragic encounter with inevitable death by disease. Somehow the virus sneaks in. Walls can’t stop it (though they help).

And maybe–perhaps I go too far–Troy was not crushed after a siege of ten years. Maybe it was desolated after a quarantine of ten days that failed, leading ultimately to a city full of corpses and ruins.