Aeneas and Turnus by Luca Giordano 17th century

History Versus Legend: In Search of Aeneas, the Trojan Refugee

Roman mythology designates Aeneas as the founder of the great nation of Rome and ancestor to its peoples. In fact, his story begins long before Rome came into existence. While the Romans lay claim to what should be considered a purely mythological patriarch, is there any historical basis to the man and the epic in his name?

The Aeneid: Wanderings of Aeneas

Born on October 15th, 70 BC, Publius Virgilius Maro or Virgil, would be regarded as one of Rome’s greatest poets. Commissioned under Augustus, his incomplete and finest work, the Aeneid, would be published and well received, posthumously. On his deathbed, Virgil gave clear instructions to destroy all copies of the epic. Obviously, this did not happen. Virgil died on September 21, 19 BC.

Virgil reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia.

Virgil reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia. (Public Domain)

What made the Aeneid so special? The Aeneid records the wanderings of Aeneas, alongside his fellow Trojan refugees, from Troy to eventually colonizing Italy and uniting all of Latium. Aeneas would become the legendary forefather of Romulus and Remus and in turn, the Romans. His tale would be heralded as a national epic.

The Iliad alludes to Aeneas and his survival of the Trojan War, when the Trojan warrior was pitted in face to face combat with the vengeful Achilles following the loss of his dear and close friend, Patroclus, to Hector. Book 20.300-308 of the Iliad reads:

“But come, let us lead him out from death, lest the son of Cronos be angry in some way if Achilles slays him; for it is fated for him to escape so that the race of Dardanus may not perish without seed and be seen no more - Dardanus whom the son of Cronos loved above all the children born to him from mortal women. For now has the son of Cronos come to hate the race of Priam; and now surely will the mighty Aeneas be king among the Trojans, and his sons’ sons who will be born in the days to come.”

Traditions of Aeneas and his migration from the Dardanelles spread throughout the Roman world. The first connection between Aeneas, his travels, and the founding of the Roman civilization can be dated to as early as the writings of third century Latin poet, Naevius. It is generally believed that the works of Naevius greatly inspired Virgil.

Aeneas' Flight from Troy.

Aeneas' Flight from Troy. (Public Domain)

We also have the Tabula Iliaca, a Roman monument dating to the Augustan era and originally erected at Bovillae, 12 miles Southeast of Rome, illustrating scenes from the fall of Troy.

Tabula Iliaca: relief with illustrations drawn from the Homeric poems and the Epic Cycle, first century BC

Tabula Iliaca: relief with illustrations drawn from the Homeric poems and the Epic Cycle, first century BC. (Public Domain)

Under the scene depicting Aeneas and his father Anchises, who is carrying the “sacred objects”, and departing for Hesperia, an inscription reads “Sack of Troy according to Stesichorus.” Now, modern scholars remain skeptical with this citation. Part of the Trojan Cycle, the Iliupersis (or Sack of Ilium) is a lost ancient Greek epic and survives only in fragments. Was it originally composed by the sixth century BC poet Stesichorus? Its original author remains a mystery and whether or not there is poetic text alluding to Aeneas remains to be validated.

Traditions such as these among the others circulating at the time would have produced assorted legends in which Virgil wove together into a single and comprehensive narrative; of course, with artistic liberties.

Dido and Aeneas

Dido and Aeneas (Public Domain)

It goes without saying that the Aeneid was also greatly inspired by Homer and his Iliad and Odyssey. For instance, Aeneas' love affair with Dido shows many parallels to that of Odysseus and Calypso in the Odyssey. The funeral games of Patroclus in Book 23 of the Iliad mirror the competitions held by Aeneas on the anniversary of his father’s death. Aeneas’ descent into the Underworld shows many similarities to that of Odysseus and his voyage to the realm of Hades.

Historically, the literary evidence does not stretch as far back in time as we would like. This leaves us with the archaeology of the Mediterranean during what has been considered a very volatile period in our human history.

The Mysterious Collapse of the Bronze Age

At around 1200 BC, the world of the Eastern Mediterranean would bring about a change like no other. The great civilizations of the Bronze Age collapsed and in some cases disappeared completely from the historical record. The Iron Age marked a new beginning. The Hittite empire immediately dissolved to give rise to the Neo-Hittite city-states. The Canaanite cities faced inner turmoil as its inhabitants resettled into the highlands and more isolated communities. The Phoenicians, Israelites, Moabites, among others rose from the ashes of old. Egypt barely survived but never retained its former glory.

In Greece, however, a different story is told. The Mycenaean Greek empire and its sphere of influence came to an abrupt end around 1100 BC, and by 1050 BC almost all traces of the Mycenaean culture had completely vanished. Writing in the Linear B script ceased. The palatial centers, towns, and villages were abandoned. Vital trade links with the outside world vanished. This dark age continued to the end of ninth century BC. Our primary sources for this period are from excavated graves, the Homeric epics, and Hesiod’s Works and Days. The cause of this decline is still greatly unknown, although scholars have attributed it to earthquakes, famines, economic and political instability, piracy, invasions of foreign ethnic groups, etc.

Now only ruins - The Bronze Age Lion Gate at Mycenae.

Now only ruins - The Bronze Age Lion Gate at Mycenae. (Andreas Trepte/CC BY-SA 2.5)

Classical writer, Thucydides, paints a picture in which cities became small and were weak and poverty stricken. There was a lack of communication or trade. Piracy and insecurity were prevalent which required the need to carry arms. There was constant migration and disturbance among the peoples. How much of this reflected reality?

Was there Ever a Trojan War?

Was there ever a Trojan War? That is, an almost legendary battle fought between Greeks and Trojans. If we read from Homer and the later composed Trojan Cycle, the literature would say that it did indeed occur, but what does the archaeology have to say on this matter?

Heinrich Schliemann, a wealthy entrepreneur by profession, spent his early retirement years discovering and excavating the sites of Troy (at modern day Hisarlik, Turkey) and Mycenae (in the northeastern part of the Peloponnese, Greece) during the late 19th century AD; albeit through unorthodox and disastrous methods. He was not a trained archaeologist. Schliemann was only a simple man with a passion for Homer. In 1868, he befriended the American vice-consul of Turkey, Frank Calvert, who himself believed that the legendary city of Troy lay underneath the Classical Greco-Roman ruins at Hisarlik. Calvert had the location and Schliemann, the money. The digging commenced and would continue for years. What was discovered was a complex, multilayered city that existed from the Early Bronze Age and which was eventually abandoned during the Iron Age. Each layer met its end in some form or another, be it from earthquake or war, giving way to resettlement and new construction.

Walls of Troy, Hisarlik, Turkey.

Walls of Troy, Hisarlik, Turkey. (CherryX /CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Mask of Agamemnon is an artifact discovered at Mycenae in 1876 by Heinrich Schliemann. It has been referred to as the ‘Mona Lisa of prehistory’.

The Mask of Agamemnon is an artifact discovered at Mycenae in 1876 by Heinrich Schliemann. It has been referred to as the ‘Mona Lisa of prehistory’. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

During Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations and the excavations by others that followed, identifying Homer’s Troy became problematic. For instance, Troy Level VI matched Homer’s descriptions of a large and wealthy city with slanting large walls circling the citadel, but Level VIh was destroyed by an earthquake ca. 1300 BC. Troy Level VIIa (1230 - 1190/80 BC) didn’t seem as grand as the one described by Homer but did however fall to war. It also showcased evidence for a possible siege in which many had to live in uncomfortable and cramped conditions for some time before eventually succumbing to captors. It is unclear as to whether the opponents to Troy VIIa were Mycenaean Greeks or another group of Aegean peoples (based on the discovery of Aegean style arrowheads). Excavations at the site continued on to the early 21st century AD. With each excavation, the site revealed more clues, although there still remained too many unanswered questions. We needed to look elsewhere.

Plan of the archeological site of Troy/Hisarlik.

Plan of the archeological site of Troy/Hisarlik. (Public Domain)

To the East of Troy ruled the Hittite empire over most of Anatolia, centered at Hattusa, near modern day Boğazkale (formerly, Boğazköy), Turkey. Discovered within the ruins of the mighty Hittite citadel were piles of baked tablets. Each was written in a cuneiform script, but in what was at the time an undeciphered language, until scholars in the mid-20th century AD uncovered the Hittite language to be that of an early Indo-European type. With its code cracked, these tablets would rewrite the history of the Late Bronze Age. Written within the translated texts were activities and negotiations between two world powers, the Hittites and the Ahhiyawa.

Mycenaean tablet inscribed in linear B coming from the House of the Oil Merchant, Mycenae. The tablet registers an amount of wool which is to be dyed. Male figure is portrayed on the reverse.

Mycenaean tablet inscribed in linear B coming from the House of the Oil Merchant, Mycenae. The tablet registers an amount of wool which is to be dyed. Male figure is portrayed on the reverse. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

At first the origin of these Ahhiyawa puzzled scholars but before long, they were to be identified as Homer’s Achaean, or the Mycenaean Greeks. From the 15th century BC to as late as the 12th century BC, the Mycenaean were involved in assorted activities all along the Western Anatolian coast, both for and in opposition to the Hittite empire. Another key piece of evidence is the reading of a small vassal kingdom to the northwest of Anatolia routinely referred to as Wilusa. Wilusa was immediately identified with Homer’s Ilios, which was another name for Troy. These tablets would continue to provide a cast of characters which would later be reflected in the Homeric epic, such as Atreus, Alexandros (another name for Paris), and even a possible rendering of Priam.

The Hittite Empire, approximate extent of the maximum area of the Hittite rule (light green) and the Hittite rule ca. 1350-1300 BC (green line)

The Hittite Empire, approximate extent of the maximum area of the Hittite rule (light green) and the Hittite rule ca. 1350-1300 BC (green line) (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Here we have evidence of Greeks on Anatolian soil but can we find Homer’s Trojan War? Sadly, no. At least not yet. The destruction of Troy layer VIIa fits well into Homer’s time frame and while it yields evidence for its end being the result of war, again, we cannot appropriately place the Mycenaean as the opponent. What we do find however, is Mycenaean pottery dating up to the end of VIIa. As for the Hittite tablets, most of these texts date generations earlier which also coincides with Troy layer VI. Reiterating the note from earlier that this layer ended from an act of mother nature, that is, an earthquake.

When modern scholars attempt to piece this puzzle together what they do find is a series of separate events which could have inspired later storytellers. Some scholars have even concluded that the war did not occur between the Mycenaeans and Trojans but instead the Mycenaeans with the Hittites over the land where Troy resided. Troy stood at an economic center, joining the Eastern and Western worlds. It also stood as a gateway between the Mediterranean and Black seas. Having control over this land would have brought great economic wealth to its rulers.

This collection of activities involving the Mycenaeans would eventually form a single and fluid narrative to be sung by traveling bards such as Homer. The role of the bard was to entertain. Guided by the Muses and taking artistic liberties where necessary, the bard would weave mythology into his or her story. It was the mythology that organized historical facts, be it from separate historical eras. Will we ever truly identify a Trojan War? Maybe not, but we do have the pieces to collectively create a series of events that would inspire such a war. 

The Sea Peoples and Migrations to the Tyrrhenian Sea

With their cities and nations collapsing, the people took to both the land and seas in search of a new life and opportunities. This mysterious group was commonly referred to as the Sea Peoples, a title given to them by the ancient Egyptians, and they were a confederation of migrants that played an influential role during the Late Bronze Age period of the Eastern Mediterranean.

The Shardana (sometimes referred to as the Sherden) were a warlike group of Sea Peoples that occupied the Levant from around the 14th century BC and later. They are fairly well documented across multiple sources. While their exact origins are unknown, they are believed to have come from the general Aegean region. We see evidence of their occupation in the general Near East as early as the Amarna Letters (EA 81, EA 122, and EA 123) dating to the 14th century BC. Here they served as part of an Egyptian garrison in Byblos.

Scholars have been able to isolate similarities between the Egyptian depictions of the Shardana and the 11th - 6th century BC bronze statuettes excavated from the island of Sardinia, located to the West of the Italian mainland. Furthermore, a 9th/8th century BC stele from the ancient Sardinian city of Nora bears the words Srdn in Phoenician symbols. Did Shardana migrants leave the Eastern Mediterranean to resettle on the island of Sardinia, and eventually lend their name to the island itself?

Another and more obscure group of Sea Peoples were the Shekelesh. They are only mentioned in passing in the ancient texts of both the Egyptians and Ugarits, first making their appearance in the Nile Delta at approximately 1220 BC. They are likely to originate from the Western parts of the Anatolian mainland, more specifically, Sagalassos (notice the similarities between the names). It has also been speculated that they migrated Westward and resettled on the island of Sicily, described in later texts as the Sikels. Much like the Shardana, it is believed that they too lended their name to the island.

Origins of Aeneas

Can we validate, to some extent, the travels of an Anatolian group of migrants Westward, departing from the Eastern Mediterranean and eventually settling somewhere in the Tyrrhenian Sea? Did the migrations of the Sea Peoples inspire later stories of Aeneas? We do have some of the pieces of this archaeological puzzle which may allude to such an event or series of events. However, there is still much left to discover and the strong potential for new clues waiting to be dug out from the dirt.

By Petros Koutoupis

Top image: Aeneas and Turnus by Luca Giordano 17th century (Public Domain)


Campbell, David A. Greek Lyric III: Stesichorus, Ibycus, Simonides, and Others. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1991. 107. [Print]

Cline, Eric H. The Trojan War: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford UP, 2013. [Print]

D’amato Raffaele and Andrea Salimbeti. Sea Peoples of the Bronze Age Mediterranean. New York: Osprey P, 2015. [Print]

Homer. The Iliad.

Macqueen, J.G. The Hittites: And their Contemporaries in Asia Minor. 2nd ed. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003. [Print]

Nagy, Gregory. "Is Homer Historical? An Archaeology Odyssey Interview." Interview by Jack Meinhardt. Archaeology Odyssey May/Jun. 2004: 26+. [Print]

Virgil. The Aeneid.

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