One of the most famous stories about the events surrounding the Trojan War comes from the Sicilian judge Guido de Columnis. Guido based his Historia destructionis Troiae on the work of Dares. A thousand years of enthusiasm for Dares’s Troy-friendly perspective culminated in Guido’s work. It was a tremendous success, translated into many vernacular languages, and remained in print even centuries later.
CURRENT STATE OF KNOWLEDGE
Around 1271, the archbishop of Salerno, Matteo della Porta, encouraged the judge Guido de Columnis (around 1220–1290) from Messina, the capital of the Sicilian province, to write a work about the fall of Troy in Latin. The archbishop died after Guido had completed the first chapter, and without his encouragement, the work remained unfinished for fifteen years. Until finally in 1287, the author produced the remaining 34 chapters in less than three months. Guido explains that he based his work on the then generally recognized “eyewitness accounts” of Dares the Phrygian and Dictys the Cretan. However, there are such significant parallels to the Roman de Troie by Benoît de Sainte-Maure (around 1160) that it has long been assumed that this was indeed his main source.
Guido’s work, entitled Historia destructionis Troiae, claims to be a truthful account of the historical events. It was a huge success, translated into many common languages and was still being printed centuries later. The first book ever printed in the English language, and the first book printed in England, was a translation of Guido’s account: the Troy Book by John Lydgate, published in 1420. This was followed by publications in 1450 in French with the title La destruction de Troye by Jacques Miletus, in 1599 in German, entitled Historische, warhaffte und eigentliche Beschreibung von der alten Statt Troia, and finally in 1665, 400 years after the first publication, in Italian as La storia della guerra di Troia.
Sophisticated artificial watercourses
Had Heinrich Schliemann in 1868 aimed to prove the historicity of the Trojan War as described by Guido de Columnis rather than Homer, our view of Aegean prehistory today might be completely different. The adaptations of the Troy legend by Benoît de Sainte-Maure and Guido de Columnis were amongst the biggest publishing successes in medieval Europe; they remained popular for well over half a millennium. Both versions, however, contain extensive passages that are found neither in the report by Dares nor in the one by Dictys, both of which Guido claims he had consulted for his work. Interestingly enough, Guido refers to a Greek version of Dares that had existed during Guido’s lifetime and is no longer extant. Guido describes the architectural style and decorations of the houses, the craftsmen one met in Troy and games that were popular there. He paid special attention to the complex water installations:
For its [Troy’s] foundations were established in the depths of the earth, made with deep excavation and ample width. … Its avenues extended in a long and straight line, in the midst of which the brisk and invigorating air of dawn poured forth sweet and varied breezes … Through the middle of this city ran a river called Xanthus, which, by dividing the city into two equal parts, in its unfailing course offered many conveniences to the inhabitants of that city. … In addition, this river, flowing through hidden channels on account of the requisite abundant supply of water, purified the city by prearranged floods, by means of skillfully made canals and underground sluices, and by these baths the accumulated impurities were cleaned away.
Guido relates that Priam, in order to repopulate his city after it had been ruined during the first Trojan War and subsequently rebuilt under his reign, relocated people from the surrounding villages. In fact, the settlement of Hanay Tepe, a few kilometers south of Hisarlık, had been abandoned after the destruction of Troy VIh. It is conceivable that the inhabitants of Hanay Tepe were resettled within the protecting walls of Troy.
A thousand years of enthusiasm for the Troy-friendly perspective as advanced by Dares culminated in Guido’s work – and from there really took off for another 400 years. Its success suddenly faded when the Ottoman Empire expanded. A few years after the Ottomans reached the gates of Vienna for the second time, the work of Dares was declared a fake. Plato gradually moved to the center of philological interest through translations and adaptations by Thomas Taylor (1758–1835) and Friedrich August Wolf (1759–1824). Within one or two generations, Guido’s work was forgotten. To this day, no one has noticed that the descriptions of Troy provided by Guido de Columnis and the one of a powerful prehistoric enemy of the Greeks in Plato’s Critias (115c–117a) are largely identical – even including the mention of a unique artificial cut into the coastal ridge and subterraneous navigable channels.