Was There Ever a Trojan War?
Was there ever a Trojan War? That is, the almost legendary battle fought between Greeks and Trojans. This question continues to go unanswered by the academic and archaeological world. If we read from Homer and the later composed Epic Cycle, the literature would say that it did indeed occur, but what does archaeology have to say on this matter? While my hopeless romantic side wants to believe in Homer’s tale, we need to consider all of the facts and before we do that, we need to sit through a quick history lesson.
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 north-eastern part of the Peloponnese, Greece) during the late 19th century CE (Cline, 2); albeit through unorthodox and disastrous methods. He was not a trained archaeologist. Schliemann was just 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 was laid underneath the Classical Greco-Roman ruins at Hisarlik. Calvert had the location and Schliemann, the money (Cline, 74). The digging commenced and would continue for years. What would be discovered is a complex multilayered city that existed from the Early Bronze Age and would eventually be abandoned during the Iron Age. Each layer would meet its end in some form or another, be it earthquake or war, giving way to resettlement and new construction.
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 BCE (Cline, 96). Troy Level VIIa (1230 - 1190/80 BCE) 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 its captors (Cline, 96). 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 CE. With each excavation, the site would reveal more clues, although there still remained too many unanswered questions. We needed to look elsewhere.
Plan of the archaeological site of Troy/Hisarlik. Source: Wikipedia
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 written in a cuneiform script, but in what was at the time an undeciphered language, until scholars in the mid-20th Century CE uncovered the Hittite language to be that of an early Indo-European type (Macqueen, 24). 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. At first, the origin of the Ahhiyawa puzzled scholars but before long, they were to be identified as Homer’s Achaean, or the Mycenaean Greeks. From the 15th century BCE to as late as the 12th century BCE, 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 (Cline, 55). 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). Source: Wikipedia
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 timeframe and while it yields evidence for its end being the result of war, again, we cannot appropriately place the Mycenaeans as the opponent. What we do find however, is Mycenaean pottery dating up to the end of layer 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 would 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 (Nagy, 27). 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 story of war.
Featured image: ‘Triumphant Achilles’ by Franz Matsch: Achilles dragging the dead body of Hector in front of the gates of Troy. Source: Wikipedia
Cline, Eric H. The Trojan War: A Very Short Introduction . New York: Oxford UP, 2013. [Print]
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]