Was the Trojan Horse Real?

Did the Greeks really trick their way into Troy inside a gigantic wooden horse?

The Trojan Horse on the Mykonos Vase, c.675 BC. akg-images.

Ever since 1873 when the German businessman and archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, following the evidence of Homer’s Iliad, found the remnants of a grand metropolis – now Hisarlik in modern Turkey – the existence of the city of Troy has been generally accepted as fact. As far as the Trojan War is concerned, there is some evidence that walls in the ruins were damaged around the time the war would have taken place (c.1275-1260 BC). But whether this destruction was the result of warfare or a natural disaster or something different altogether remains unclear. 

This leaves us with the horse. Was it real or a symbol for something else, later embellished by storytelling? Various theories have been put forward accounting for the presence of the horse in ancient accounts of the sack of Troy: did it perhaps represent a siege tower or battering ram? Or a natural disaster such as an earthquake that devastated the ancient city? Or a ship carrying Greek soldiers? After all, Homer calls ships ‘horses of the deep’ and the Greek playwright Euripides compares the horse with ‘the dark hull of a ship’.

And yet, despite the plausibility of some of these interpretations, the ancient evidence overwhelmingly depicts the horse in realistic terms and with great attention to detail: we learn the name of the Greek man who crafted the horse (Epeius) and where the timber he used was from (Mount Ida). We hear that the horse was on wheels to make it mobile; that it was moved by the Trojans into the city with ropes made from flax, and that its tail, knees and eyes were flexible. Some ancient authors mention that the horse could be opened on the side and that the Greeks used a rope or ladder to climb out of it. 

As to the identity and number of Greek fighters concealed in the horse, several ancient authors (including Stesichorus, Apollodorus and Quintus of Smyrna), as well as extant samples of Greek painted pottery, list the names of those hidden within (Odysseus among them) – but promptly disagree on their number. Were 30 brave fighters hidden in the hollow structure? Or 50? Or 100? The 3,000 named in one ancient source is almost certainly a mistake. But even without such inflated numbers, this would have made for crowded conditions inside – hence the rattling sounds that, according to the ancient evidence, emerged from within the horse when it was moved, caused by the weapons and armour clanking. 

Yet no matter how many were hidden inside, one thing is clear: the ruse with the horse would not have been standard military practice. As a strategy it relied on (the very Greek and very Odyssean art of) cunning and the capacity to take the Trojans by surprise. The trick with the horse could only work as a one-off.

Finally, we may wonder why the shape of a horse was chosen as part of the ruse. Why was this form of deceptive packaging chosen over any other? What does the horse stand for? 

During the late Bronze Age, the time of the Trojan War, horses played a central role in many societies of the ancient Mediterranean world. They served as a means of travel, as important modes of transportation, and as valuable possessions that indicated a certain wealth and status. Pieces of painted pottery from this period show mounted warriors carrying weapons and riding on chariots; horses and horsemanship were part and parcel of the experience of war. 

The Homeric record, written some 500 years after the war, depicts Trojan and Greek fighters identifying with their horses, treating them as extensions of their own physical presence in battle. Moreover, numerous Greeks and Trojans carry horse-derived names (Hippasos, Hippodamas, Hippomachos – hippos being the ancient Greek word for horse). The Trojans in particular seem to have been associated with horses. Homer refers to them as ‘Tamers of Horses’ due to the importance of horse-breeding in Trojan society. As a literary device, it can also be taken to represent the war itself which is, literally and symbolically, brought into the city in the form of the horse. 

And yet the Trojan horse represents not merely humans fighting at Troy, but also the divine. More specifically it is associated with the involvement of the goddess Athena in the sack of the city. Her special areas of expertise – wisdom, warfare and the technical mastery of the horse – are all relevant to the horse’s presence at Troy. She is credited not only with a key role in devising the construction of the horse by appearing to Epeius in a dream; the horse is also left by the Greeks at Troy as a gift to her – ostensibly to ensure a safe passage home, but really to trick the Trojans into accepting the back-handed gift. 

Despite all realism and attention to detail in ancient accounts and representations of the horse, the question of the historicity of the story and of the creature at its core cannot be answered with absolute certainty. Too much time had passed between the first written accounts of the sack of Troy and the events to which they refer. Whether it is real or imaginary (or a combination of both), as a tale about great daring and heroism as well as cunning and deceit, the story of the Trojan horse has resonated with the values and outlook of different audiences, ancient and modern.


Julia Kindt is Professor of Ancient History at the University of Sydney and author of The Trojan Horse and Other Stories: Ten Ancient Creatures That Make Us Human (Cambridge University Press, 2024).