Did the Trojan War Actually Happen?

According to the third-century BCE mathematician Eratosthenes, 11th June 1184 BCE was the date on which the Achaeans stormed the walls of Troy. That makes this Saturday, 11th June 2016, the 3,199th anniversary of the most famous military ambush of all time: the Trojan Horse. Of course, most of us accept that the Trojan War didn’t really happen, or at least that, if it did, elements such as the capture of Helen, the ten year long siege, and the Trojan Horse are mythological embellishments. But some people are more open-minded. Since Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations at Hisarlik, in modern Turkey, uncovered the remains of Troy some have felt that this supported the story of the war; others too have pointed to the Hittite texts which seem to reference a series of wars in northwest Anatolia as the ultimate proof that the Trojan War actually happened.

So, did the Trojan War actually happen? I think the case is far from proven. Those who believe it has been are exercising an extreme form of the Positivist Fallacy, which is usually understood as assuming what is archaeologically visible is historically significant, but here also includes the assimilation of historical events that may have absolutely nothing to do with one another and their correlation with archaeological remains.

The date of the war

Modern scholars, if they believe in the War, tend to date it to the thirteenth century BCE. In his Very Short Introduction to the Trojan War Eric Cline more vaguely states: “If the Trojan War did take place, both ancient and modern scholars agree that it was fought towards the end of the Late Bronze Age, near the end of the second millennium BCE.” Cline gives no impression of having any doubt that the war did take place and asserts that it was actually fought between the Mycenaean Greeks and the Hittites of Anatolia. Meanwhile, the excavations at Hisarlik revealed several levels of occupation at Troy in the Late Bronze Age, including a significant destruction ca. 1300, at the end of Troy VI, originally believed to be Priam’s Troy. Subsequent excavation, however, suggested that this may have been the result of an earthquake, and Troy VIIa, destroyed ca. 1190 BCE, is now the most popular choice for ‘Priam’s Troy’.

The ancient sources are a little less certain about the date. Eratosthenes, as already mentioned, dated the sack of Troy to 1184 BCE, but the date derived from Herodotus is ca. 1250 BCE, while the Parian Chronicle provides the dates 1217-1208 BCE. Other dates derived from ancient sources vary from the fourteenth to the twelfth century. While there seems clear consensus among ancient sources that the Trojan War was historical, they generally don’t claim to know the details of this long ago war in their ancient past.

The Hittite documents that are believed to reference the war are dated to the thirteenth century. The documents are letters between several great kings, including the king of Ahhiyawa, believed to be Mycenaean Greece. In one of these discussions, the Hittite king Hattusili III mentions that he and the king of Ahhiyawa went to war over Wilusa, which is likely to be Ilium (an alternative name for Troy), and is located in northwestern Anatolia, i.e. Hisarlik. So certainly it appears that there was a war at Troy in the thirteenth century. This war, however, is too early for the destruction in Troy VIIa, which was as much as half a century later.

What is the Trojan War, anyway?

The connection made between the Hittite texts and the Trojan War reveals another question that must be answered before we can safely say we have proof of the Trojan War: what do we mean when we say the Trojan War?

Perhaps the most famous aspect of the Trojan War is the wooden horse in which the Greeks hid in order to get inside the unbreakable walls of Troy and ambush the unsuspecting Trojans. Alternatively the most famous might be Helen of Sparta, the most beautiful woman in the world, who ran away with (or was raped by) the Trojan prince Paris (or Alexander) and whose husband united the whole of Greece to fight to get her back. Finally, there are Achilles and Hector, the greatest warriors on either side, one of whom was the almost invulnerable son of a goddess, the other of whom was but a mere mortal. How much of this story needs to be true if we are to have found the Trojan War?

This question might be unfair. Rather, what we want to find is the historical basis that inspired the Trojan Epic Cycle. The question must then be: how can we do so? What evidence could be brought to bear that would show us that it was this war that inspired the story that we read in the epics? For some, it is evidence enough to show that a war probably happened at probably the right place at about the right time, with not quite the right people, but near enough that it probably makes no difference. Personally, I find this an unsatisfactory conclusion.

Does it matter?

Arguably, it doesn’t matter if some people want to believe that the war between the Hittites and the Ahhiyawa was the basis of the Trojan Cycle. It only really affects them and it makes them happy, so who cares? I have three problems with this approach. The first is that the search for Homer’s Troy did massive damage to the archaeological site when Schliemann began his excavations in the 1870s. Many of those who believe in the Trojan War and Priam’s Troy mock Schliemann for calling a treasure hoard from the third millennium ‘Priam’s Treasure’ when it dated a thousand years before the date at which they place Priam, when really it is an example of why hunting for the origin of the story was a terrible idea in the first place. Secondly, in associating the historical events recorded in the Hittite documents with the Epic Cycle that we know from several centuries later we are doing a disservice to an exciting historical discovery in its own right that can tell us interesting things about conflict and conflict resolution in the Late Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean, without relying on poems that we only know from several centuries later.

Thirdly, and related to the second point, there are just far more interesting questions to be asked about this material.

Alternative approaches

One alternative is that the Epic Cycle is much older, and if the ‘Trojan War’ actually happened then it may be that existing oral poetic forms were adapted to it, rather than new poems written about it. There are clues to this in both the poetry and the archaeological record. Susan Sherratt has pointed out that many of the features of the poem, such as the boar’s tusk helmet and Ajax’s ‘Tower Shield’, are much older than the thirteenth century, and may date as early as the sixteenth. In this case, it would be interesting to know first about the conditions represented in the Hittite documents and then to see if this affects our reading of the surviving Trojan epics – but it must be done this way around.

Another alternative is to embrace the variety in the epic tradition before it congealed into the poems that survive. Until the eighth and seventh centuries BCE there was much variety in the epic stories which intermingled and were adapted into one another, with regional differences and focus, but which were whittled down to two surviving epic traditions by the eighth and seventh centuries – the Theban Cycle and the Trojan Cycle – before the Homeric versions of the Trojan Cycle became so widespread that alternatives were almost inconceivable. However, variations survive in seventh-century art and even as late as the plays of Euripides, such as the story that Helen was in Egypt while a mirage went to Troy, or the replacement of Iphigenia with a deer before she could be sacrificed. Gregory Nagy has proposed that the epic goes through stages of change and development, before it became so well-known in the sixth century that only very minor changes could be made.

The existence of these variations makes the identification of a kernel of truth in the epic even more doubtful. Rather, they suggest an alternative way of thinking about the poems: understanding how they changed and how they reflect the periods in which they were popular and developing. It is absolutely clear that the epic cycle does not appear from nowhere in the seventh century, but how has it developed in previous centuries? Why and how does it remain relevant?

Ultimately, ‘did the Trojan War actually happen?’ sounds like an interesting question, but it obscures the much more fascinating histories of the Late Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean and the development of the Epic Cycle from the sixteenth to the seventh century and beyond.

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