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.

My Hopes for Episode VIII

After a week of over-thinking The Force Awakens, I thought I would share some of my hopes for its sequel, Episode VIII. The Force Awakens felt very much like the opening of a new chapter in the Star Wars saga, and left many unanswered questions, hanging plot threds, and development yet to be done. Episode VIII will really secure the relationship of this new Star Wars trilogy to those which preceded it – thus far it feels as if it’s created new heroes in the vein of the original trilogy, but more inclusive; on the other hand, its stepped back from the moral complexity of the prequel trilogy (and, to some extent, Return of the Jedi and The Empire Strikes Back) in favour of a simplistic “good versus evil” narrative more in keeping with the original trilogy. While prequels may have had their faults, moral complexity is not one of them (attempted plot complexity may have been). In general, Episode VIII needs to be braver, take a few risks, and yet still ground itself in the preceding seven films. At least, that’s my take. Here is entirely subjective list of hopes for Episode VII chocked full of spoilers for all preceding Star Wars films:

  1. Poe Dameron is gay.

One of the key triumphs of The Force Awakens over the previous trilogies was its inclusive cast – more than one woman! And one was a Jedi! A Black Stormtrooper! A Latino X-Wing pilot! But there has been another debate going on alongside this celebration, which is the central romantic dynamic of the film. Now, Finn made it pretty clear that he’s interested in Rey (which she doesn’t clearly reciprocate) but there were hints that Poe saw something else in Finn, something a little more than how good he looked in that jacket. Perhaps there could be romance blossoming there?

A friend pointed out to me that the only romantic relationships in previous Star Wars films have been those which were necessary to the plot. I’m not entirely convinced by this argument – of course it applies to Anakin and Padmé, but Han and Leia? Largely, I think the romantic subplots of the previous saga have been hindered by heteronormativity and the one-in-one-out policy the galaxy applied to women. But, in any case, Poe’s sexuality might only be confirmed on-screen if it’s relevant to the plot. If the new trilogy still wants to follow the beats of the originals (but please don’t – see below) I hope the love triangle puts Rey in Luke’s place, Poe in Han’s, and Finn as Leia. Or, perhaps, just introduce Poe’s husband with whom he had to flee the Empire which forbade their marriage. I can see a number of ways this would work for the plot, and cement this new trilogy’s socially progressive stance over the previous two. Plus it would make the Resistance seem that much easier to root for than the amorphous, Manichaean “good versus evil” battle with which we were presented in Awakens.

  1. Less pastiche, more integration.

The Force Awakens employed many story beats from the original trilogy, primarily A New Hope but also The Empire Strikes Back (I am your father!) and Return of the Jedi (the three-tiered battle and Han’s suicide mission). It was nice, I suppose, but it’s the main reason why I could never say Awakens is as good as the original trilogy. I hope that Episode VIII moves away from the cyclical story beats and emphasises the fact that this story takes place in the same universe with some of the same characters: let’s revisit some old locations (not Tatooine)! What’s been going down on Naboo? Perhaps Luke could run away again, but this time end up on Dagobah? Also, remember how the rebellion and Empire had, like, fleets of ships of different designs, not just X-Wings and TIE Fighters? Maybe the Resistance and the First Order could incorporate some of that variety? So much of Awakens felt like a reboot, a pastiche, or a remake rather than a continuation of events in a shared universe. I’m perhaps unclear about how to do it, but I don’t want to just see The Empire Strikes Back with the new characters. I Empire‘s complexity mixed with the charm and excitement of the new cast.

  1. Something about Padmé.

Perhaps the greatest contribution of the prequels to the Star Wars Saga was the introduction of Luke and Leia’s Mum, who did some wonderful things when she wasn’t delivering crappy dialogue in her “romantic” scenes with Anakin or dying in childbirth because of the Star Wars universe’s (now suspended) one-in-one-out policy regarding women. As a result of her not having been invented, Padmé gets scarcely a mention in the original trilogy (only when Luke asks Leia what she remembers about her mother in Return of the Jedi). I had hoped that Luke’s disappearance would be related to their mother, and that he might have spent some of the last thirty years looking for her (although many people tried to cover up her identity after her death). It didn’t come up in The Force Awakens, but Episode VIII could really tie the trilogies together by giving Luke (and Leia) a connection to their less volotile parent, perhaps remembering how great Padmé was when she was fighting for the freedom of Naboo, rescuing Obi-Wan on Geonosis, or founding the rebellion with Bail Organa, rather than interacting with their father.

[Edited to add] Also regarding #6 below, I had a vision of Episode VIII including a sub-plot in which Luke and Rey travel together (much like Luke and Obi-Wan) with Chewie and the droids in search of their mothers, and it was beautiful. If this isn’t part of the plot of Episode VIII (or IX, if I have to wait that long) then I will be very disappointed. [/Edit]

  1. Lando!

The key figure from the original trilogy missing in Awakens was Lando Calrissian: charmer, swindler, and businessman. Lando might be considered to be a fourth Ghostbuster by some (I have literally no idea who) but part of making this universe feel like the same one as we’ve seen before could be to revisit Lando. Rey saw a city in the clouds in her vision… perhaps we’ll see him back where we met him, about the retire but drawn back into the conflict?

  1. A little darker?

Kylo Ren is an excellent villain for the twenty-first century. He’s the kind of boy who thinks darkness is cool; he’s aptly summed up by the Twitter account Emo Kylo Ren (@KyloR3n) as an arrogant, misogynistic teenager; I’ve seen him describes as the kind of guy you wouldn’t accept a drink from at a party. But despite the volatile streak he shares with his grandfather we haven’t seen him commit violence the way we see Anakin slaughter the Sand People or the Younglings. The worst he’s done is kill his father, and there is still speculation about his possible redemption in the future of the trilogy. I have mixed feelings about that. To be honest, I think I’d rather see him descend into the depths of awfulness that he represents and ultimately (although not until Episode IX) be destroyed. In Episode VIII, I’d like to see him split from the First Order to commit his own atrocities, to become a violent, volatile force in the galaxy. Part of me had been hoping that his admiration for Vader meant that he’d ultimately turn on Supreme Leader Snoke and destroy him, like his grandfather. But I’m more inclined now to think that sticking so close to the story beats of the original trilogy will ruin this trilogy. Kylo Ren has to go further off the deep end than his grandfather. I don’t need to see him killing Luke, but finding the darkness within him would be a good progression.

But alongside this darkness, I’d like to see some reflection and commentary on the darkness and Kylo’s descent. It’s not just about “good” and “evil”. I’d like to see a little more bravery in dealing with the reasons why people are bad and the consequences of that badness and the ways people have to deal with it. Something, dare I say it, a little more like the prequels?

  1. Make Rey’s past interesting, please.

I’ve seen a fair bit of speculation about Rey’s parentage. On the basis that she’s basically Jaina Solo, perhaps she’s Kylo Ren’s twin. Because she speaks in an English accent, perhaps she’s Obi-Wan’s daughter (although the same argument could apply to Emperor Palpatine). She could be Luke’s daughter, or her family might be entirely new characters. I honestly don’t care which of these it is. Even if she’s not Han and Leia’s daughter, she’s still as close to my favourite character from the old expanded universe that I’m ever going to see on the big screen. All I want is for her past to be interesting, to be revealed in an interesting way, and to be stated with as much conviction as Luke’s parentage and siblingage so that even if it makes no sense whatsoever we just go with it. Although, if she were Palpatine’s daughter, that would give her a brilliant dynamic with Kylo Ren.

  1. It’s directed by Rian Johnson so maybe Joseph Gordon-Levitt could be in it?

I’ve seen two of Rian Johnson’s films – Brick and Looper – and I loved them. Both stared Joseph Gordon-Levitt, so I assume they’re pals? So maybe Gordon-Levitt could have a cameo in this film? Perhaps as Poe’s husband? If this happens I will assume I am a badass Jedi having a vision because I touched Anakin/Luke/Rey’s lightsaber.

Some rambling thoughts on Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

I tried to write down my thoughts about The Force Awakens in order to stop myself from getting too negative about this film as I enounter so much praise in its direction. I realised that actually, most of what I disliked about the film was in the second half, although I don’t think I say as much. Really, this just descends into a discussion of the saga as a whole and The Force Awakens‘ place in it. On which: spoilers for all severn Star Wars films. Also, I haven’t watched A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back since 2007; I haven’t watched a prequel since 2005, and I can’t remember the last time I watched Return of the Jedi, as I can’t definitely recall doing so in 2007. I saw The Force Awakens on Thursday 17th December 2015, and I liked it. But not unconditionally.

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How to solve a problem like Helena?

This post will contain spoilers for Orphan Black seasons 1-3, Buffy the Vampire Slayer seasons 3-9 (yes, including the comic book continuations to a point), and Angel seasons 1-4. And, it turns out in the writing of it, Being Human series 1-3 (the UK version).

I had originally planned to write this blog after the penultimate episode of Orphan Black season 3 (“Insolvent Phantom of Tomorrow”), but I watched it too late in the week and so I waited until I’d seen the finale. The finale doesn’t change much of what I have to say, although it does provide a fun quote and some additional material. What I have to say is this: Helena is becoming a problem. Here is why.

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Some thoughts after Prof Edith Hall’s excellent Gaisford Lecture

I thought I would share my responses to Professor Edith Hall’s Gaisford Lecture, the text of which is available on The Guardian website. I couldn’t attend the lecture as I am no longer in Oxford, or the UK, primarily as a result of the UK’s atrocious spousal visa regulations, so my response is based on the text in The Guardian. Hall has also provided the text on her blog, with an introduction. Hall’s blog is worth browsing for its own sake, too.

First things first: My background. I attended a (Roman) Catholic state secondary school from 1997 to 2004, which shared a sixth form with the neighbouring Anglican school and the girl’s grammar school on the far side. While the classes for all the subjects offered in the Catholic and Anglican schools were mixed, the girl’s school offered spaces to students from the other schools on specific courses which they did not offer (Classical Civilisation), while the others did the same for students from the girl’s grammar (Theatre Studies; Physical Education). The girl’s school offered Latin and Classical Civilisation, the latter of which I took for A Level; due to a conflict in scheduling I also ended up doing History there, too – apparently good fortune on my part. The girl’s school was selective entry, but not fee-paying. When a number of students from my school were invited to visit the Oxford College Lady Margaret Hall, on the basis of encouraging applicants from under-represented schools, I attended; I applied to LMH in 2003 to study Literae Humaniores Course II:A (Latin), was accepted, and matriculated in 2004. It turns out that I am quite bad at Latin; I was offered the opportunity to change course to Classical Archaeology and Ancient History in my third year, which I (foolishly) declined. To anyone else in my position, I would wholeheartedly recommend CAAH over LitHum, unless you are particularly interested in literature and languages. The relief of not having to study Latin any more may explain why I enjoyed my Master of Studies in Classical Archaeology so much; I submitted my DPhil in Archaeology in January 2014, passed my viva in March the same year, and will almost certainly graduate at some point, when I can bring my partner back into the UK. I have taught undergraduates in both LitHum and CAAH; those students had a tendency to either get first class degrees, or for the paper I taught to be one of their best.

As I hope is clear from my background, I wholeheartedly agree with most of what Hall says in her lecture. Classical Civilisation is a brilliant course (or it was in 2002-2004), which shaped the direction of my life. ClassCiv teaches students not only about the literature of the ancient world, but the art, the architecture, and the life. I say “the ancient world”, but I suppose I mean ancient Greece. And when I say “ancient Greece”, I largely mean “ancient Athens”.

The emphasis on ancient Athens when we talk about the ancient Greeks is hardly a surprise, as it is Athenian literature which has largely been preserved throughout the millennia. It’s not entirely true, particularly of the Archaic Period, but the big names – Aristotle, Plato, Euripides – and not-so-big-names-but-truly-massive-corpuses – the perpetually sad Xenophon – are Athenian. When we think of archaeology we might think of the Parthenon before all else, although Olympia and Delphi might crop up for a few people; even if we think of Epidauros we think of Athenian plays performed there.

In April, as a response to one of the many programmes on ancient Greece the BBC have produced this year, Prof. Mary Beard quoted Moses Finley asking the question “which Greeks? when?” When Hall talks about the attempts of some scholars playing down the “specialness” of the ancient Greeks I think of this quote – were all the Greeks “special”? Or was there something distinct about their culture which allowed “special” people to speak up and be heard? My personal approach is to emphasise the position of Greece as part of a distinct Mediterranean network, in which there were “Greeks” everywhere from Egypt to Iberia, but similarly other people – and ideas – moving around and influencing them. The particular importance of the Greeks is that they had a literary culture through which such writing could survive; one thinks of the Etruscans, and the broad destruction of their literary legacy by the Roman Empire, and wonders if other cultures might not have had more to say.

Hall encourages the teaching of Greek civilisation because their ideas equip people to defend their liberty. As someone for whom archaeology comes a lot more easily than language (if not necessarily literary criticism), I value modern ideas more than those of the ancient Greeks. The value I see in the routine study of the ancient Greeks is the opportunity to approach a subject in which certain ideas have been established, and to show how taking a variety of perspectives and different evidential categories give us numerous narratives and challenge dominant paradigms. When I taught students to question the evidence for certain narrative ideas surrounding Greek colonisation, the spread and development of the alphabet, and early trade, I hope that they would be able to apply such thinking to all arguments – to question the perspective of a writer, to look for the evidence to back that up, and – particularly important in archaeology – to question the processes through which that evidence has been interpreted.

On this last point, Hall makes a number of points which I do not recall her explicitly relating to the study of Classical reception, but which really ought to be. Hall’s “Classics and Class” project challenges the idea that we should think of Classics as the preserve of posh, public school idiots like certain mayors of London, but that the subject has a long history of inspiring others to promote liberty and even rebellion. I think that reception is one of the most important aspects of the study of classics, particularly literature, as it is essential to understand how the texts through which we encounter the ancient world have largely survived not through accident, but by design. There is also a long history of value attached to specific texts – I linked earlier to http://xenophonissad.tumblr.com/, a project dedicated to showing the bias against the writings of Xenophon which persists in the study of Classics. I don’t know much about Xenophon myself, except that his Greek is by far the easiest I’ve been able to read, but I know that institutional bias needs to be addressed and corrected. If we can learn how to do so through examining the neglect of a particularly prolific Classical author, perhaps we can apply this process to the contemporary world and start to understand how long-held beliefs affect our approaches and interactions with modern life.

In archaeology, things survive for many different reasons. The easiest way for something to survive is for it to be buried intentionally, particularly if the burial itself has certain significance and protection – like a grave. The objects buried tend to be of particular importance, and those which do not tarnish, like gold, tend to have higher value (although “value” itself is a culturally contextual concept). Thus the survival of objects relates to their material worth and the likelihood of their burial – as the creation of the written word relies on the literacy of the author, its survival on the perceived importance of the author, the richness of the textual history on the broad acceptance of the author by those preserving texts. The ideas from ancient Greece belong to a particular set of privileged individuals whose works and ideas survived. Understanding that privilege and what it means should, I believe, help us to understand how certain people and ideas are privileged in the modern world

Learning about the ancient world, from Classical Civilisation to Literae Humaniores to archaeology, has taught me perspectives on the modern world, the way in which ideas proliferate, and to question the authority of assertions and arguments. It’s not the only way to learn these skills, but it is a good one, and one I tried to pass on to my students. Hall believes that we should learn about the ideas of the Greeks and the ways in which they have had impact on the continuing history of the human race; I do not disagree with this approach. My thoughts and approach here are, I believe, largely complimentary. Classics for all, indeed.

Contact (Part 1?)

Great science fiction stories should leave the readers asking questions. This statement is probably true of all stories, but I’m particularly interested in science fiction, so I’m focusing on those. In the past week or so I’ve had intense discussions about science fiction television shows and films, and I’ve thought intense things about science fiction books, but I lack others who have read those books to have quite the same kinds of discussion. I’ve posted the discussion I had with a friend on Twitter about the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Measure of a Man” (Season 2, episode 9) before (and here is it again), but even now I’m having new thoughts about that episode – about the importance of addressing ideas we hold to be true (in this case, the consciousness of Data) against those who do not agree in a way which allows us to examine our viewpoint and make it more forcefully. I wish I could do that too, sometimes. I’ve been reflecting on how stories encourage us to ask those questions, how they might lead us to certain answers, and what it is useful to ask in science fiction; in particular recently I have been thinking about the question of contact with alien life.

There are two principal sources of these thoughts: the first was reading the Hugo Award nominated The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin (translated by Ken Liu); the second was this article in February’s Clarkesworld magazine, which I only just got around to reading. (In the background, I’ve been re-watching The X Files too, in which contact comes up a lot). In the Clarkesworld article, Mark Cole discusses the limited examples of “friendly aliens” in science fiction (mostly cinema; there’s no discussion of the Federation or Ekumen or any other alliance of worlds) and suggests that stories of conquering aliens are more common because we can believe that from human nature and history. I’m not completely convinced that human history is quite so replete with conquerors and violence (perhaps European history) rather than co-operation and allegiance – perhaps it’s just that the conflict receives greater emphasis in our history books? But I also feel that this interpretation is a far too literal reading of contact stories. The Three-Body Problem discusses the impact it would have on human society if the existence of extraterrestrial life were discovered, which is a much more interesting idea. In this scenario, human beings discover that they are not alone in the galaxy and have to come to terms with that knowledge. The approach here is more interesting because it looks at how human beings behave, requiring no idea about the alien life at all – because we have no idea what alien life is like, but we know how human beings react to the unknown, or to new knowledge. Personally, I find the questions about how human beings behave much more interesting than inventing an alien conqueror.