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Trojan War scene. Achilles dragging the dead body of Hector in front of the gates of Troy

Was There Ever a Trojan War?

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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 AD (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.

Ruins in the ancient city of Troy in Turkey. ( GVictoria /Adobe Stock)

What the Excavations Revealed

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 BC (Cline, 96). 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 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 AD. With each excavation, the site would reveal more clues, although there still remained too many unanswered questions. We needed to look elsewhere.

Sanctuary walls and wells of Troy VI at archeological site near Hisarlik Turkey. ( Reimar /Adobe Stock)

Clues Left by the Hittites

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 AD 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 BC to as late as the 12th century BC, the Mycenaeans were involved in assorted activities all along the Western Anatolian coast, both for and in opposition to the Hittite empire.

The Lion Gate at Hattusa. ( robnaw /Adobe Stock)

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.

What About Proof of Homer’s Trojan War?

Here we have evidence of Greeks on Anatolian soil, but can we find concrete proof for 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.

‘The Burning of Troy’ (1759/62), by Johann Georg Trautmann. ( Public Domain )

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.

Top Image: Achilles’ most notable act in the Trojan War was slaying the Trojan prince Hector outside the gates of Troy. Source: quasarphotos /Adobe Stock

By Petros Koutoupis

Updated on November 25, 2020.

References

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]

Comments

Hi All,

I used to believe The Trojan World was a Myth even with The archeological evidence that's because after reading Homers The Illiad He mentioned the Olympians, Greece and a few minor places that worshipped them I ignored the story.

Circumstances I won't get into right now has caused me to
re-think The Illiad so now I do believe The War happened.

As for whether are not Homer was blind does it really matter?
When I watched 30 Seconds from Disaster it dealt with the Indonesian Earthquake/Tsunami in 2004, anyway there was a mother of three featured.

Her oldest daughter was born blind but, she could embroider beautiful patterns her sewing was so beautiful and she still sew today. It doesn't seem such a problem that Homer could tell stories perhaps he touched tapestries that had the stories woven through the fabric that he could feel with his hands.

Well that's all I wanted to share so until next time Everyone, Goodbye!

I forgot to mention in my above post for November 28th, something I have always found interesting which I used to mention to students in my ‘Ancient History’ course, which I taught for over thirty-years on the academic level.

As is well-known, aristocratic women for centuries, have been involved in the production or creation of ‘tapestries’ which most often tell stories of events within their own time or in the past, etc. For example, Matilda of Flanders (1031-1083), wife of the famous ‘William the Conqueror,’ has often been given the credit for the origin of the ‘Bayeau Tapestry,’ detailing predominately those events relative to the ‘Battle of Hastings’ on Senlac Hill in AD 1066.

Also, Penelope, Odysseus (or Ulysses) loyal wife on Ithaca, continued to ‘unravel a tapestry’ she was making, in order to stall the suitors wishing to marry her, hoping her husband would arrive & save her from remarrying one of the would-be husbands.

The written language of the Greeks, borrowed from the Phoenecians, is generally considered to have appeared among the Greeks, ca. 800 BC, or close to the time of ‘Homer’ the so-called ‘Blind Bard.’ If Homer was truly ‘blind,’ then why does Aristarchus, the Alexandrian scholar emphatically declare in the 2nd century B.C., that “from this cloth {tapestry} divine, Homer TOOK MOST OF THE STORY OF THE TROJAN WAR.” (see, E. J. W. Barber, ‘Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic & Bronze Ages, With Special Reference to the Aegean,’ Princeton Univ. Press., 1992: 373)..

The account of how & when the Phoenecian alphabet arrived in Greece is a subject in and of itself. Of course, Homer, being a bard, could have heard an ‘oral tradition’ (which can often be highly supported by archaeology & historical records), and/or if literate,could have combined the ‘two’ sources, plus, if in reality he was NOT totally blind, could have also observed on the ‘divine cloth or tapestry,’ parts of the famous story which he then ‘wove’ into his famed narratives, the ILIAD & ODYSSEY. 

Daniel N. Rolph, Phd

Could the tapestry have still be in existence in Alexandria, or at least accounts of such a work? As is well known, the ‘Library of Alexandria’ contained over 700,000 scrolls, many of which of course have not survived in written form, but that does not mean such a work of material culture or account by an unknown Greek historian (of which we know there were literally hundreds, many whose names are the only things known about their existence!).

Warwick Lewis's picture

I have always thought that the profile of a trebuchet resembles a horse.
This makes me wonder was the "horse" actually a siege weapon of some kind.
It makes more sense to have built a catapult rather than a votive offering.
Also this would explain why it was so readily taken inside the walls.

WarwickLewis

I always found it interesting that archaeological excavations validate some of the events described in Homer’s ‘Iliad’ & Vergil’s ‘Aeneid,’ in reference to the ‘Trojan Horse’ of tradition. As is well known, numerous skeletal remains of horses have been found at the site in Turkey, verifying Homer’s account of the ‘horse-taming Trojans’ (see for example, “The Real Trojan Horse,” SECRETS OF THE DEAD, October 13, 2015) episode.

The above helps to explain why a ‘Horse’ was built by the Mycenaean Greeks for Troy as a gift, supposedly from the Gods. Troy particularly worshipped ‘Poseidon,’ who was not only the ‘God of the Sea’ but of ‘horses’ as well!  What better ruse by the Myceneans, than to have the equine-loving Trojans think their God was complimenting them on their victory, by giving them a giant ‘wooden horse.’

In regards to the event of the ‘Trojan War’ itself, Homer was a wise ‘bard,’ in that he KNEW (as Herodotus, ‘The Father of History’ stated in detail, within ‘Book Two’ of his ‘Histories’), how there were OTHER variants or versions of the ‘Trojan War’ tale in circulation among the Greeks, one being that Helen & Paris never even made it to Troy or Ilios, but were shipwrecked and captured by the Egyptian ruler ‘Proteus,’ who sent Helen back to her husband Menelaus, or who picked her up himself in Egypt!

Herodotus however does state that he learned from the Egyptian priests, that “the Greeks sent a strong force to the Troad...and demanded the restoration of Helen...The Trojans...gave them the answer which they always stuck to afterwards—sometimes even swearing to the truth of it: namely, that neither Helen nor the treasure {purportedly stolen by Paris} was in their possession, but both were in Egypt...The Greeks, supposing this to be a merely frivolous answer, laid seige to the town, and persisted until it fell; but no Helen was found...” (see, Aubrey de Selincourt’s translation: ‘Herodotus: The Histories,’ Penguin Books, Ltd., 1972 edition, pp’s. 170-174),

Daniel N. Rolph, PhD

Once again as Herodotus states: “I think Homer was familiar with the story; for though he REJECTED it as LESS SUITABLE for EPIC POETRY than the one he actually used, he left indications that it was not unknown to him.”

 

David Rohl's "The Lords of Avaris" discusses the Trojan War and aligns it with the archaeloy and the history. However, you have to accept his New Chronology concept that he promotes (don't k who specifically developed it), which I do as it helps align many things that don't make sense with the current chronology and is not as farfetched as the Balkans or Englandance theories.

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