Turks and Trojans. Troy, Aeneas, Rome, and Europe

(Primary version of this post with graphics available at Barry Stocker’s Weblog)

Michel Foucault suggests in Society Must be Defended, Lecture IV that a Fifteenth century Ottoman Sultan wrote to the Pope, suggesting they were brothers (as descendent of the the Trojan Kings) (Foucault, p 75). Various similar stories circulate, such as that Sultan Mehmet Fatih (The Conqueror) wrote to the Pope after the fall of Constantinople, to refer to the revenge of Hector. This kind of story extends into more recent history, as in the claim that Kemal Ataürk, when he was known as Mustafa Kemal, referred to the defeat of Britain and its allies at Gallipoli as the ‘revenge of Hector’. All these stories refer to an equation between Turks in Anatolia and the Ancient Trojans, who were conquered by the Greeks, and whose hero killed by Achilles was Hector. These stories are apocryphal. Foucault’s book was published after his death, on the basis of lecture notes so it’s possible he would have cleared this up before publication if he had lived long enough.

However, Foucault’s comment does refer to something quite real he is concerned with in Society Must be Defended: the way in which Medieval and European state sovereignty was thought of, and legitimised, as the channels in which the universal sovereignty of Ancient Rome had divided. This refers back to the story of Aeneas escaping from the ruins of Troy with his father on his back (this episode is illustrated on the Roman coin in the picture above) after the fall to the Greeks, and escaping with his father. After various adventures he settles in Italy and becomes the ancestor of the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. various versions of this story exist in ancient historical legends, the important version which is referred to here is that used by Virgil in The Aeneid. The Aeneid is a great work of literature written with a political purpose, to legitimise the state of Rome and the rule of its first emperor, Augustus. It establishes a cultural continuity between the literature of Ancient Greece, through carrying on from Homer’s Iliad.

The post-Roman states into the early modern period were legitimised with genealogies which connected ruling families with Priam and Aeneas. The Romanism of state sovereignty continued in the title Holy Roman Emperor used by a high king of the German states until 1807. Napolean who abolished the title himself claimed to be an heir of the Roman Emperors.

Though the stories mentioned above about Ottomans and Trojans are false, there is historical evidence that Anatolian Turks, well before the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople sometimes identified themselves with the Trojans. This is discussed by the famous historian of the Medieval world, Stephen Runciman in ‘Teucri and Turci’ in Medieval and Middle Eastern Studies in Honor of Aziz Suryal Atiya (edited by Sami A. Hann, Brill 1972). Runciman refers to evidence of anti-Greek Latin Christian writers referring the Turks as Trojans, and that the Turks themselves made the same identification. He makes the suggestion that idea came to the Turks from the Icelandic Eddas, transmitted through Varengians as Vikings were known in that part of Europe. In any case, it is certainly true that Anatolia is the legendary origin of the people who legitimised European ideas of proper sovereignty. There is also some evidence of a corresponding ancient move of population, in the DNA records.

Foucault’s story was apocryphal but is not false in the impression it creates of an early connection between Anatolian Turks and the legendary Trojan origins of Rome, in every sense of Rome.

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