British Museum Separates Legend From Reality In This Huge Troy Exhibition

Troy, The British Museum ★★★★☆

British Museum Separates Legend From Reality In This Huge Troy Exhibition Troy, The British Museum 4
A 19th century marble statue showing a wounded Achilles. © The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth

Did Helen of Troy's face really launch a thousand ships? Was Achilles' one weakness his heel, and most importantly, did the Trojan War really happen as told in Homer's The Iliad — Trojan Horse and all?

The British Museum separates reality from myth in this truly gargantuan exhibition, where even two hours would involve rushing through it.

The Greeks loved to spin a good yarn and the exhibition regales us with Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, told largely through decorated storage jars (amphora) — including one depicting Achilles killing the queen of the Amazons, falling in love with her as he deals the killing blow. It brings a whole new meaning to the phrase 'love hurts', but maybe that's just par for the course for the child of a sea nymph.

Achilles both killing and falling in love with the Queen of the Amazons. © Trustees of The British Museum.

There are stunning reliefs, busts and artefacts everywhere we look — many of them remarkably well preserved. This includes a set of amphora that shows Achilles beheading Troilus, a Prince of Troy, before lobbing his head at approaching Trojan warriors. Achilles asked for 12 Trojans to be sacrificed at the funeral of his fellow warrior Patroclus, and even post-death his spirit suggested sacrificing some virgins for his fellow Greeks to have a safe voyage home — the real Achilles seems a lot less heroic than Brad Pitt's portrayal of him.

It takes half of this mammoth show before we get to the archaeology of what historians believe to be the Troy from the Iliad. It's a city with a rich history, having been destroyed and rebuilt many times. While there's some evidence of conflict with Greece there's no smoking gun horse to suggest the Trojan War ever happened.

The Pre-Raphaelites were also inspired by the legend of Helen of Troy. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Despite this, the final stretch deals with the legend of the Trojan War, and how it's made its way into different cultures — including a Manga version, a William Blake painting and of course, the 2004 Hollywood film with Brad Pitt and Eric Bana as Achilles and Hector.

Even in ancient times, the legend had spread with the Trojan Horse appearing on a relief in Pakistan. Romans would often make the trip to Troy as it was believed that Romulus, the founder of Rome, was descended from Trojans.

There's no question of value for money here as there's enough material for three exhibitions, though in the spacious gallery it never feels cramped. The Trojan War may never have happened but in this show we have so many stories, chunks of history and inspiration that this is the British Museum's own epic of Homeric proportions.  

Troy: myth and reality is on at The British Museum from 21 November 2019 to 8 March 2020. Tickets are £20.

Last Updated 19 November 2019