I was recently asked by a correspondent to explain why so many sports teams, not to mention a famous brand of condoms, use the name “Trojans” when the original Trojans were, not to put too fine a point on it, losers. I happened upon a Crooked Timber post by Belle Waring on this very subject, with comments both humorous and enlightening. These, I think, provide the answer:

Actually, I think ophelia has pointed us to the real answer, which is that history is written by the winners, and in the Classical world, the Romans were, ultimately, the winners. And so their ancestor-worship of the Trojans led to a lot of pro-Troy literature (and the sickening disparagement of the character of that wiliest — not sneakiest — of the Achaeans).
The second key is that Roman lit was a bigger early influence on the Christian tradition than Greek — remember, the works of Homer were unknown in the west until, what, 15something? Post-Roman Western culture developed its view of the Trojans under the prejudices of the Romans.
So in a sense, the guesses above about Troy being the ultimate victor were right, but not because people take the long view. A future civilization would take very different views of Native Americans depending on which era’s literature on the topic survived….
Posted by JRoth · May 10, 2004 06:07 PM
The Hellenistic and Roman periods produced almost exclusively “Trojans were good, Achaeans were bad” versions of the Trojan War even before the Roman “New Troy” meme became dominant, with this carrying over into the mediaeval and Renaissance periods (consider even Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, where nobody’s particularly attractive but Hector and the Trojans are still better than the Greeks).
In Britain, where the same tradition derived the first Britons from Brutus — vide Layamon’s Brut and Geoffrey of Monmouth — the trend was even more strongly in favour of the positive view of Trojans.
Hector was considered one of the Nine Worthies of the world.
If I had been a reasonably wellinformed person choosing a name back near the turn of the century, the positive connotations of “Trojan” would have made it a reasonable choice.
I don’t know about the condoms … that seems almost as irrational as naming a car after Cressida.
Posted by james · May 10, 2004 06:40 PM

And another comment mentioned Andrew Erskine’s Troy between Greece and Rome, which I now want to read.


  1. I’ve always kinda assumed that the condoms were in part so named because you use them to hide your soldiers.

  2. aldiboronti says:

    Not forgetting that there was an early English tradition that Britain had been founded by a Trojan, one Brutus, who founded the capital Troynovaunt, later called London.
    Milton toyed with the idea of writing an epic poem on the subject (some verses still survive), until turning to a more elevated topic.

  3. aldiboronti says:

    Ah, here we are, the full story of Brutus, as told in Bullfinch.

  4. When I lived in California I would see bumperstickers that read “Another Trojan Parent”. Unaware that “Trojan” was the name of the San Jose State sports teams, I assumed that this was a reference to the condoms and that the bumperstickers were joking about failed condoms.

  5. I’m afraid I think this is all wrong. The Trojans are chosen precisely because they *did* lose, and are thus known to (literary) history only as noble warriors. For exactly the same reason, there are tons of American sports teams named after various Indian tribes (or named just plain “Indians”). The tendency to lionize the people you’ve defeated turns up remarkably often (when the defeat has been total, that is, and you can safely afford it.) They’re sentimentalized, then, they’re part of the good old days when *we* were noble warriors too.

  6. While we’re on the topic of condoms, there are certain jokes and funny situations common to ESL teachers and their English language learning students. This is one. Whenever I’ve had a student who has studied some British English, it never fails that they will ask to borrow a “rubber.” I quickly inform them that in the United States, we call it an eraser.

  7. Well, if it helps set up a talking point to introduce the topics of who were the Trojans, Troy, Helen, Agamemnon, Odysseus, the Argives, and all the rest, then all the better to have a football or basketball team called the Trojans. Then again, how about a team called the Poets? –Those who, after the warriors have fought out the war, are spinning out the epic poetry and passing on the stories to the next generations.
    Thanks, Language Hat, and y’all for a refreshing look at something long taken for granted here in the U.S.

  8. The name Troynovant appears to come from misunderstanding of Trinobantes, a tribe of Essex and Suffolk.

Speak Your Mind